I’ve been in Thailand this week as part of a group of travel bloggers brought over by the Tourism Authority of Thailand to experience various parts of the country. We initially were to visit in April, but the trip was postponed due to political protests that turned violent in April and May. (Most readers should know about the events already, but if not, check out this series of posts on GlobalVoicesOnline.org.)
Our rescheduled trip is still to experience Thai culture and activities, but it now also is to help spread the word that Bangkok is back to normal, and it’s safe to visit the country once again.
I can say without hesitation—and without outside influence—that the city does indeed seem back to normal and feels as safe as ever. I speak from experience: Bangkok was my base during my extended travels in Southeast Asia a decade ago, and I’ve returned to Thailand many times since. (Technically this is my ninth visit.)
Seeing the unrest unfold this spring was shocking. My experiences with the Thai people have always been consistent—they are incredibly hospitable, generous and hard working. They are polite, almost to a fault, and rarely will say no to a request, even when they should (such as not knowing directions to a place but attempting to get you there nonetheless). They also do not like conflict—not surprising, given that a majority of the country is Buddhist. In fact, showing anger is strongly frowned upon and considered “losing face.”
Prime example: Bangkok is notorious for its traffic jams. The other day it took us nearly two hours to travel fewer than five miles. Actually, it might have been fewer than three. Not once did we hear a car horn. Everyone just dealt with the situation calmly and patiently. That is what is typical of Thailand and its people. Not the rioting.
So I knew things would be back to “normal” almost immediately, that the Thais would clean up the streets, return to their businesses and move forward toward reconciliation.
Now, I’m not naïve enough to think that there still aren’t tensions between the opposing sides. In fact, I’ve talked with individuals who support the Red Shirts as well as those behind the current government (called Yellow Shirts) and each is equally passionate about who is right, who is wrong, and what needs to be done politically. Kind of like in the United States between Republicans and Democrats. Or in any other country where people are allowed to voice opinions (or not).
But if you didn’t know Bangkok had seen blood on its streets and was still under a state of emergency, you wouldn’t. I’ve been staying in the area that had been taken over by protesters, and the only visible sign of the recent violence is the repair work going on at the mall that had been set on fire.
I’ve been out walking around on my own, ridden the Sky Train, visited markets and shopping malls, eaten at a variety of restaurants—from street stalls to upscale venues—and have been perfectly fine. The protesters are gone, and police are not out on the streets in force. The city feels no different than on any of my previous visits.
The only other indication that something may be amiss is the lack of tourists. Since April, tourism numbers to the country have dropped a staggering 80 percent, according to individuals in the industry. In some other provinces, the decline is even steeper.
Tourism is one of the country’s top industries, which had already been weakened due to the global financial crisis/recession the past two years. The last thing Thailand needed now was another economic hit.
I’ve been surprised by just how empty some places are. The last time I visited the main historic sites in Bangkok, there were crowds of tour groups and individuals throughout, making it somewhat difficult to really see much without getting bumped and jostled. This week, Wat Pho seemed nearly deserted, and there was just a handful of groups at the Grand Palace to see the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
The upside, of course, is that it’s easier to enjoy the sites without the crowds. Prices are incredibly budget-friendly too. Thailand has always been a country of great value, but costs have barely changed in the 11 eleven years since my first visit.
Most items are priced the same, or just a few baht more. And at 32 baht to the dollar, that sure isn’t much, even when taking into account that the exchange rates on prior visits put the value at between 35 and 38 baht per dollar. Guesthouses remain about 200 to 600 baht ($6 to $20) per night. Hotels start at about $35. Street food dishes, which are my favorite, can still be had for between 20 and 100 baht ($.75 to $3.25). A fifth of local whiskey costs 150 to 200 baht ($5 to $7.50). Large bottles of beer, even though I can’t drink them, are still just 40 baht ($1.25).
So to me, that makes Thailand an even more appealing place to visit than ever.
It’s time for dinner now here, so I’m going to head out, find myself a nearby street market to “splurge” on some amazing Thai food, and finish the evening with a bit of shopping and a scotch, or two. In other words, I’m going to do what I normally do when I’m in Bangkok.
(Last year I visited Xinjiang province in China two months after protests turned violent there too. Look for an upcoming post on tips for traveling to a country after civil unrest.)