I’ve written elsewhere about the background to Thailand’s current political strife and I’ll be writing about it again during the week so I won’t cover old ground here. Instead, this is intended to help those of you who have trips to Bangkok or elsewhere in Thailand in the near future.
Update: December 2 (23.00 Thai time)
In a speech earlier tonight the leader of the anti-government protests, Suthep Thaugsuban, has said tomorrow will be the final push to bring down the Thai government. Suthep has issued numerous deadlines and promises in the past week so nobody knows what will or won’t happen tomorrow. It also isn’t clear how many of the more moderate protesters will have the heart to go on with a fight which Suthep had previously promised would be over last week before changing that to say it would be finished by last Sunday. Suthep’s speech follows attempts by a hard-core element of his supporters to break through barriers and police lines outside Government House today. Police used tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets to force the crowd back. All of today’s violence was confined to a small area in the vicinity of Government House and the nearby Metropolitan Police Bureau. Other protest sites remained peaceful.
During his speech, Suthep lambasted what he described as the “pro-Thaskin police” and called on his supporters to seize Bangkok’s Metropolitan Police Bureau tomorrow. He announced actions would begin in the morning and be completed by late afternoon. The announcement to target the Metropolitan Police Bureau could be an attempt to provoke a crackdown which in turn could bring the army into the picture and prompt a coup. So far, the army have remained firmly on the sidelines. Tourists in Bangkok tomorrow should continue to avoid the areas where Government House and the Metropolitan Police Bureau are located (see map below).
There has been a peaceful protest today outside the National Police HQ in the central area of Bangkok close to Siam skytrain station. Although the National Police HQ hasn’t been mentioned as a target by Suthep, his angry tirade against the Bangkok police during his speech could prompt some of his supporters to take action here too.
From a tourist perspective, these latest developments are still something to be aware of rather than panic about and all of the other advice and comments further below remain unchanged. The situation remains fluid, but for most tourists the biggest inconvenience is likely to be traffic congestion due to road closures.
Is Bangkok safe to visit?
I am currently in Chiang Mai, but I’m in contact with friends and readers of this site who are in Bangkok at the moment. I’m also keeping in touch with local and international news feeds, Thai television coverage and various sources on Twitter which includes journalists and photographers on the scene so I can get a balanced mix of opinions and reports. My personal view is that I don’t feel that at this stage there is any need for tourists to change travel plans or cancel trips to Bangkok. The situation is fluid and things could change as could my advice, but as it stands at the moment if I had family or loved ones visiting Bangkok tomorrow or in the next few days I would still tell them to come and enjoy their trip. I appreciate that my attitude may be different to yours and ultimately you have to make your own choice. Life is going on as normal for the overwhelming majority of people in Bangkok and elsewhere in the country. If the situation ever got to a stage where I would be advising my own family to change travel plans, I would say so here and on my Facebook and Twitter pages. This is very much an internal political affair and tourists are not being targeted and there is no reason to feel unsafe, but you should use your own judgement and keep away from the protest sites.
. . . as it stands at the moment if I had family or loved ones visiting Bangkok tomorrow or in the next few days I would still tell them to come and enjoy their trip.
Where are the protest locations?
Because of the tactics adopted by the protest leaders, there were a number of sporadic demonstrations at various locations in Bangkok during the course of last week. There have been gatherings today at a number of government buildings as well as the offices of television channels and media outlets. I’m not going to list every building or office here because most will have little impact on tourists and whilst it’s impossible to predict what will happen in the next few days, the locations below could be significant:
Ramkhamhaeng University and Rajamangkala Stadium
The political tension in Bangkok rose significantly last night (November 30) with fighting between anti- and pro-government supporters resulting in three confirmed deaths and dozens injured. The scene of the violence was in the eastern outskirts of the Thai capital in the streets outside Rajamangkala Stadium and Ramkhamhaeng University. Organizers of the pro-government red-shirt rally which had been taking place at Rajamangkala Stadium called off the event this morning (December 1) and advised participants to return home. This seemed to take a lot of the heat out of the situation, but the streets close to Ramkhamhaeng University remain potentially volatile with students blaming red shirts for sparking the trouble whilst a number of local residents point the figure at the students and anti-government supporters who were shown on television attacking a bus and a taxi, seemingly because there were people inside wearing red shirts. This particular part of Bangkok is a long way off the tourist trail and should have no impact for 99% of tourists visiting the Thai capital. I’ve marked the area on the map below to give you some indication of how far away it is from down-town areas and major attractions.
Government House and Dusit District
Today had been billed by protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban as ‘Victory Day’ when people power would topple the Thai government. The plan was for protesters to march in vast numbers to various government offices and state buildings. The key target today was Government House in the Dusit district of Bangkok. There has been a very heavy police presence in the area with roads blocked and concrete barriers erected to deter protesters. During the day, some of the demonstrators tried to pull down the barriers and police used tear-gas and water cannons to keep them back. Some injuries have been reported, but whilst there has been a lot of smoke and running around there have been no major clashes. At the time of writing (22.00 local time) it doesn’t look like the protesters will be able to break through with some reports suggesting the crowds aren’t as large as they were earlier. However, the situation remains fluid and the tactics of the protest organizers could change tonight.
National Police HQ
Hundreds of protesters blocked off the road this afternoon outside the National Police HQ on Rama I Road close to Siam Skytrain station. Unlike the protest in the locations above, this one has mainly been good-natured with singing and impromptu dancing as well as plenty of whistles being blown. It isn’t clear whether the protesters intend to remain here overnight or return to to the main protest site at Democracy Monument. As with all of the other protest sites, the mood can change quickly and the situation remains fluid.
The Democracy Monument remains as the main base for the anti-government protesters with a stage set up and speeches being given here. There have been plenty of fiery speeches, but the area has seen no trouble.
Government Complex Chaeng Wattana
During the course of last week, protesters were able to occupy areas of the large government compound at Chaeng Wattana in the northern suburbs of Bangkok. This should have no impact for most tourists, but will impact on Bangkok expats and longer term residents who need to extend visas. Thai police announced today they will move to clear protesters from the site, but in the meantime the Immigration Department have made alternative arrangements for visa extensions and those affected are advised to contact the Thai Immigration Department directly.
Will Bangkok airports remain open?
Bangkok’s international airport at Suvarnabhumi is covered by the Internal Security Act and there is no reason to suggest that protesters will try to occupy the airport as happened in 2008. The government and security forces should also be able to prevent any such move. The same is true for Don Muang airport although the domestic airport used by low-cost carriers including Nok Air and Air Asia is close to the Government Complex at Chaeng Wattana. Whilst nothing can be ruled out when it comes to Thai political protests, the current situation makes moves against either airport unlikely. If you are travelling to or from either airport allow plenty of extra time for your journey. With movements of protesters unpredictable and rolling road closures, there were huge snarl-ups last week on Bangkok’s already congested highways.
What about public transport in Bangkok?
The knock-on effect of road closures in Bangkok means traffic delays can occur anywhere in the city so allow extra time for journeys by road. There has also been increased demand on the Skytrain and Metro services, but they continue to operate normally. Depending on where you are staying in Bangkok, boat services along the Chao Phraya River can be a good way to get to locations such as the Grand Palace. There have been some reports of long waits to get a taxi at Suvarnabhumi airport with cabs caught up in traffic as they make their way back after dropping off passengers.
Are all major tourist attractions open?
Yes. Sights including the Grand Palace and Wat Pho are open, but there are others in the Dusit area that may remain open but can be troublesome to get to with road closures in the vicinity. Because the situation is subject to change on a daily, and sometimes hourly basis, you will have to play things by ear to some extent. If I was with my family in Bangkok this week the only attractions I would probably avoid would be in the Dusit area, especially the Marble Temple because of its proximity to Government House. I would also advise double-checking on the day with local sources like your hotel about somewhere like Vimanmek Teakwood Mansion just in case of road closures.
Is Bangkok under emergency law?
Specific districts of Bangkok are currently covered by the Internal Security Act (ISA) which is not the same as emergency law and even this ISA has not been used to its full extent as the Thai government adopts a wait-and-see approach. In a statement issued this evening, the Thai government suggested that people should stay inside tonight between 22.00 and 05.00 if they can. It was made clear this is not a curfew and just a suggestion. My friends in Bangkok tell me that most tourists are unaware of the statement and restaurants and main entertainment venues are likely to be open as normal.
What about areas outside of Bangkok?
There have been some anti-government protests last week and this weekend at a number of provincial government offices outside of Bangkok. These have mainly been in areas of southern Thailand, including Phuket, where the opposition Democrat Party has strong support. The protests outside of Bangkok have been peaceful and have not affected tourists.
When will the protests end?
Nobody knows. Lots of analysts have been making guesses, but nobody knows for certain. Protest leader Suthep has not yet managed to achieve his stated aim of bringing down the government and it’s difficult to see how he can do so unless he garners support from the Thai army and can instigate a coup. That scenario doesn’t look likely at the moment. With December 5 being the birthday of His Majesty the King it provides a way out of the impasse. Protesters could back down at any stage between now and December 5 and say they are doing so out of respect for the Thai monarch. However, Suthep has also previously made statements suggesting that whilst the push to overthrow the government could be suspended before December 5 they will resume afterwards. How long the protesters can keep up the pressure and momentum is one part of the equation and how long the government and security forces can keep their cool is another part.
Use your common sense
Those that have been to Thailand know that most Thai people are friendly and welcoming and there is no need to feel that you will be treated any differently because of the latest bout of political problems. But it’s common sense not to get into political discussions or talk about the Thai monarchy. The underlying issues of the protests are complex and very sensitive to say the least. The majority of Thai people I’ve spoken to just want to see a peaceful Thailand and I’ve seen one lady today crying when she spoke about how sad she was when she saw Thai people fighting with one another in Bangkok.
Avoid the protest sites and just use discretion and be sensible. Keep up with the news, but try to keep it all in perspective. Bangkok is a huge city and Thailand is a big country. I will post any major changes to the situation here and also on Twitter and Facebook.