Feb 10 2014
This is hilarious, I thought, while strolling from one anti-government protest site in Bangkok’s shopping district to the other, this past Saturday afternoon. Bursting with street food and clothing stalls, this normally traffic-choked stretch of Rama I Road is now among the city’s most vibrant street markets. With far more casual shoppers around than protesters, it was difficult to see what all of the “Bangkok shutdown” fuss was about.
Though the anti-government movement has in the past brought more than 100,000 supporters onto the streets of Bangkok, the protests have dwindled to the point that it’s almost hard to take them seriously.
Former protest sites at Victory Monument and Lat Phrao have been abandoned. The five remaining sites — Chaeng Watthana, Ratchaprasong, Pathumwan, Asok and Lumpini Park (see map) — have been virtually devoid of protesters during daylight hours. Early evening speeches continue to attract some, but it’s a far cry from the large crowds that came out when the “shutdown” began in mid January.
And yet, Bangkok and the entire Thai kingdom remains in a precarious balance. The military and police refuse to get involved, several government offices are still unable to function, and the caretaker government has extremely limited powers and no parliament. Bangkok remains under an official state of emergency — even if it’s not reflected in the day-to-day reality.
International media reports have at times left the impression that Bangkok is on the verge of an all-out collapse. In truth, the instances of violence have been few and isolated. The shootout that took place on the eve of elections at Laksi intersection was nasty, but as far as travellers are concerned, it occurred in an area where they rarely go, and it was one among only a handful of serious confrontations between the pro- and anti-government sides to have occurred over the past four months. We’ve read no reports of travellers being hurt, or even feeling threatened, at any point during the protests.
In Lumpini Park, which has become the so-called centre of the protests, we’ve felt perfectly safe while continuing our nightly jogs. Though much of the normally lush Bermuda grass has turned brown thanks to protest campsites, the park’s swan boats pedal on. Even the usual aerobics groups continue to strut their stuff each evening.
Unless you happen to get stuck near one of the protest leader’s regular money-raising marches, catching a taxi to anywhere in Bangkok is now only slightly more difficult than normal. All inter-city and long distance public transport operates as normal, as it has all along. Immigration continues to operate out of two temporary offices on the city’s outskirts, and rumour has it that the Chaeng Watthana government complex will reopen soon.
While there’s a definite sense that the protests are losing steam, they’re certainly not over yet. Things can change quickly. The possibility of violence always exists where protesters congregate, especially after dark. But we feel that Bangkok’s usual traffic remains a greater threat to traveller safety than protest-related violence.
Despite this seemingly minimal threat, the protests are scaring travellers away. The Nation reported that hotels in the capital are experiencing less than 50% occupancy rates during these high season months, when this number should be over 80%. Our friends who operate Bangkok-based tour companies have endured many cancellations and only a trickle of new bookings. Outside the capital, it’s business as usual.
Some might go so far as to say that now is a great time to visit Bangkok. The weather is good, many hotels are offering deals, and crowds are sparse at the major attractions.
Looking ahead, many feel that the current government will eventually be forced out due to alleged corruption stemming from a disastrous rice pledging scheme. Upwards of a million rural Thai farmers have not received their promised payments, and many have joined their own protest that has at times forced the closure of major highways. A group of farmers recently began to demonstrate at the Commerce Ministry in Nonthaburi, just north of Bangkok, and it’s possible that they will soon march on the capital.
On the other hand, as anti-government protest numbers dwindle and even Bangkokians sympathetic to their cause become increasingly fed up with the inconveniences and negative economic impacts, it’s possible that the Yingluck government will yet survive. Some feel that the protests will linger indefinitely, becoming a semi-permanent part of Bangkok’s quirky landscape, but eventually losing any real significance.
The threat of a true shutdown seems to have passed, and the most tense phase of a tumultuous election is over. Bangkok is a massive city, and life goes on as normal in the vast majority of it. While it’s wise to stay abreast of the latest developments, as things stand right now, we don’t see any reason for travellers to leave the Big Mango unpeeled.
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