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Should you travel to Thailand now?

Since I’m in Bangkok right now, I thought it would be appropriate to report on the situation in Bangkok.  I’m not going to support a side, but I am going to tell you why it is still safe to travel to Bangkok.  I visited a “red shirt” protest site today to see what was really going on.  Should international travelers still be going to Thailand now?  In short, yes.

It seems as if Thailand tourism can’t catch a break.  There are major protests annually that flare up and cause many travelers to cancel their travel arrangements to Thailand.   Thailand, probably one of my favorite countries to promote to all luxury international travelers, only suffers from this regular outbreak of protests, with no permanent solution in sight.

You should skip this paragraph if you already understand the overview and history of the issues.  Here is an overview of the situation.  The former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a bloodless coup back in late 2006.  This was amid accusations of corruption in the tens of millions of dollars in which he wrongfully used his political influence.  But here’s where it gets interesting.  During his time in office, Thaksin greatly improved the lives of the people in the rural parts of Thailand.   The majority of the Thai population lives in the rural areas.  Thaksin gave the rural masses clean water, roads, food, power, farming subsidies, etc.  These are the “red shirts”, the rural masses.  The urban elite who ousted Thaksin are known as the “yellow shirts”.  So here is where the main problem lies.  The red shirts want Thaksin back since he is a hero of the rural majority  The minority urbanite yellow shirts don’t want Thaksin or any of his allies in power because of the air of corruption.  However when it comes to free elections, the red shirts always win since they greatly outnumber the yellow shirts.  But then the yellow shirts have been used creative legal interpretation to get Thaksin supporters in power ousted.  This is why it will never end.  If there are elections, the red shirts always win.  But then the yellow shirts find a way to depose the red shirt elected official due to corruption charges or through military temporary placement.  In essence the cycle never ends.  And Thailand’s  tourism industry suffers the brunt of it.  This is a domestic political issue and has nothing to do with foreigners.  You as an international tourist have nothing to do with the protests.

Today I went to a major red shirt rallying area where hundreds of protesters basically camped out in the Siam Square neighborhood in Bangkok.  This was shocking for me to experience because if you know Bangkok, this is where nearly all of the large shopping malls in Bangkok are concentrated.  The other major shopping area around the Central World Mall is also occupied by red shirts.  These are very luxury product oriented malls for the most part too.  Siam Paragon is one of the largest malls in Asia, and all the malls in this area were just closed down.  There has to be millions of dollars in retail sales being lost every day.  And the protestors are camped out in this area for as long as they are able.  The mood of the rally area is like a street festival.  There is music, free food, water, a makeshift aid station, and hundreds of people just sitting around, camped out on sidewalks.  There is also a red shirt paraphernalia industry.  You can buy red bandanas, red shirts, red hats and my favorite, red flip flop sandals with images of M-16 rifles and with the faces of yellow shirt supported politicians in office.  This is so you can step on their faces as you walk.  It feels like a giant street festival more than anything.  Except this street festival doesn’t have a permit and has shut down one of the busiest shopping districts in Bangkok.  The violence happens when the authorities try to break up these encampments and move the red shirts out of the area.  It was very hot today so there were not as many people as you might see on the news footage.

So what is this like for the traveler?  It frankly is nothing more than an inconvenience.  Driving through Bangkok is like driving through Manhattan when the UN is in session.  There are a number of major roads blocked off by the red shirts, so you need to keep driving until you find an open avenue.  Your private driver and guide should have no problem doing this.  All of the major sights such as the palaces and temples are relatively unaffected.  Right now it’s just a few major shopping areas, and Jim Thompson’s House which is in the same district that I visited today.  If you are traveling to the north, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, or the south like Phuket, protesting doesn’t affect you at all.  And I was recently staying at the Mandarin Oriental on the Chao Praya River, and there was no sign of anything happening at all if you just remained in the area of the hotel.   You really need to go to the areas where the protests are happening.  Actually its Thai New Year, Songkran, the festival known for all the water being thrown everywhere.  There were many more people in Bangkok throwing water with water guns, buckets and hoses, dancing and celebrating throughout the whole city, than at the protestor camps.

So yes, it is perfectly safe to visit Thailand.  Would I go myself?  I’m here now, and would return next month if I could.  As long as you don’t intend on protesting and being there when the authorities try to forcefully move the camped out protestors, you’ll still enjoy Thailand for everything it has to offer.  Well maybe you won’t get to go shopping at the malls.  The sad part about the protests is that it scares away travelers.  This is one of the greatest luxury travel destinations in the world, and tourism suffers greatly from these protests.  In my opinion, you should still be traveling to Thailand, even right now.

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