Planning around Thailand's civil unrest

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First published 26th November, 2008

This story refers to an earlier period of civil mayhem in Bangkok. For more information on the current (May 2010) debacle you want to check this story and this forum thread. Thanks!

Long-running protests in Bangkok have escalated this week with protesters overrunning Thailand's main international airport, Suvarnabhumi International Airport, resulting in flight cancellations across the board. All flights in and out of the capital have ceased -- the capital's second airport, Don Muang has also been closed. Some carriers have been using alternative gateways -- primarily Chiang Mai in the north of the country and Phuket in the south, but for the bulk of travellers wanting to move in or out via the country's top gateway, Thailand is closed for business. So what to do? Here are some suggestions on ways to mitigate disruption to your holiday.

In a nutshell, the yellow-shirted protesters want either the government to resign or the military to intervene by staging a coup. It's a long-running, complicated and seemingly neverending saga, but from a foreign traveller's perspective, the following points are important:

a) This is an internal, political drama -- foreigners are not, and have not been, targetted in any way whatsoever.
b) The yellow team, or the protesters in the yellow shirts, are the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD). They claim to be royalists, want the sitting government dissolved, want ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra extradited to Thailand for trial, and want Thailand's electoral system altered from one-vote one-person to a bizarre quasi-appointed government. Their primary support stems from the Bangkok elite and some segments of the middle class.
c) The red team, or the protesters in the red shirts, are the United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD). They also say they are devoted to the King and are pro-monarchy, but they want the sitting government to remain sitting, want Thaksin to return to Thailand and lead the country, and want Thailand's electoral system to stay how it is. Their primary support stems from working class Thais and in particular rural Thais.
d) The yellow team are the ones who have shut down the airports and in the past the train system and feeder roads into Bangkok. They've also occupied Government House. Generally speaking the yellow team are far more high profile than the red team.
e) When the red and yellow team have clashed, violence has occured, including the occasional death.

Well, as long as you're not flying into or out of one of Bangkok's airports, the biggest affect is likely to be traffic jams in the capital. The country remains safe. There have been no attacks whatsoever aimed at foreign travellers.

Because foreign governments are very conservative and are very prone to make sure they cover their own backsides.

That said, the situation as it stands is fluid and could change very quickly. If the military step in, or if force is used to clear the protesters out of the international airports, there could well be a lot of casualties. That the PAD name their protests "Hiroshima" and "Nagasaki" says a lot about where they think this is heading.

As things stand, we'd say yes, but we'd suggest planning the vast majority of your trip outside Bangkok, as nearly all of the country is totally unaffected by these dramas. However, if matters were to deteriorate in Bangkok -- and we believe that if they do deteriorate, they will do so very quickly and severely -- then we'd suggest altering your plans immediately.

The first thing you need to do is talk to your travel agent or contact your airline and read the small print on your travel insurance carefully -- you've got travel insurance right?

Next step is to change your hub. Assuming you're able to change your ticket we'd suggest flying into either Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, or Singapore. Neither country requires a visa for most nationalities and both are budget airline hubs -- Kuala Lumpur for AirAsia and Singapore for Jetstar and Tiger Airways. From either of these cities you can then catch a low cost flight into Cambodia (Phnom Penh, Siem Reap), Laos (Vientiane) southern Thailand (Phuket, Krabi, Hat Yai) and Vietnam (Saigon, Hanoi).

If you want to visit areas of Thailand outside Bangkok, look at flying into Siem Reap or Vientiane and crossing overland into northeast and eastern Thailand. Note you will have difficulty getting from southern Thailand to northern Thailand without passing through Bangkok -- the majority of domestic flights pass through the capital. If you're travelling overland you can go from Ratchaburi to Kanchanaburi to Suphanburi and then continue north, without passing through Bangkok.

These protests are localised and foreigners have not been targetted. We'd suggest it would be prudent to keep your distance from the protests as there have been random shootings and bombings and people have been injured and killed.

If you've got the time and ability to be flexible, we'd suggest just rearranging your itinerary to dodge Bangkok. If that's not possible, we'd suggest switching to a neighbouring country -- Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are all terrific locations this time of year.

Watch the news and check travel websites for on-the-ground reports. Matters could flare up very quickly or die down just as fast. Our reading list includes:

Bangkok Pundit
The Bangkok Post
Google News Thailand
Discussion on Travelfish
TravelHappy on flight information for Bangkok

About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.

Read 11 comment(s)

  • Going to Phuket in May

    Friend of mine is worried about the current situation in Thailand.

    As far as I'm concerned it's only in Bangkok and we never touch down in Bangkok, fly directly from KL to Phuket.

    Does anybody have any tips on the safety situation in Phuket at present?

    Personally Im not worried at all, but I dont want any hick ups on our holiday.

    Can anybody put our minds at ease?

    Posted by Christian on 15th March, 2010


    Posted by MICHAEL WRAY on 29th April, 2010

  • My friend and I are traveelling to thailand for 7 weeks on the 19th of june. We are flying into bankgkok airport(BKK). The orginal plan was to stay in bangkok for a few days but now plan B is stay in the ariport and to fly straight to phuket. We are already thinking of not going, the flights were 800 and the insurance doesn't cover anything. Are the islands safe?

    Any information or advise would be appreciated


    Posted by Amy Samsun on 6th May, 2010

  • Amy,
    There are 6 of us in the same situation as you and your friend.we leave on the 23rd june. We spoke to the travel insurance, they said we have to pay our own way from bangkok to phuket and they will reimburse us the money. We are leaving our plan b option till early june. Hoping it will settle down, not looking like it though.

    Posted by russell. on 15th May, 2010

  • Chill people this political drama does not concern you as long as you stay away from certain zones you're fine. If you wanna stay home that's up to you but the islands are fine ESPECIALLY Phukhet, Pattaya or whatever. Thailand is the friendliest place I've ever seen in this world this shit that's happening between the two colours seems scary to some weeners sitting on their couches but both sides are actually friendly and wont hurt people that aren't connected to this. Just stop nosing around and focus on what you gotta do

    Posted by Dude from Bangkok on 17th May, 2010

  • This article is from the 2007 protest, so though it still carries some weight it is not accurate with regards to the current situation we have now.

    Posted by Jeff on 17th May, 2010

  • As you can see all comments that have been posted are in fact very recent so the people asking for advice are concerned with the situation NOW. So please, =) =) =)

    Posted by Dude from Bangkok on 18th May, 2010

  • We have an updated story on the current (May 2010) dramas in Bangkok here:

    In the story we're basically advising against all travel to Bangkok until things settle down. As has been mentioned above, the rest of the country remains largely unaffected and is safe to travel in.

    Posted by somtam2000 on 18th May, 2010

  • hey dude from Bangkok, You say it's safe, we're told it's not. who do we listen do we fix this problem....EASY..bypass the bullshit and head for a friendlier place. There's plenty more destinations in the world that want our money. And you don't get shot trying to have fun. So long, farong :)

    Posted by russell on 18th May, 2010

  • I guess your bias stems from what you hear on CNN and BBC. Sure go anywhere you like though the magic that is in Thailand cannot be found anywhere else. You misspelled last part

    Posted by Dude from Bangkok on 18th May, 2010

  • sounds scarry , i do not wnat to get hurt

    Posted by john on 15th March, 2011

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