Is Thailand safe for tourists?
There’s a new trend in Bangkok at the moment. It’s probably not fair to call it a hobby – although there are plenty of people who seem to be spending their time doing it. It’s more of a fad or a novelty that’s currently sweeping across the Thai capital.
It’s the photo with the military. Whether it’s a selfie (which seems to be the most popular) or a more composed shot, cameras across Bangkok are getting a workout right now. You only need to look at social media to see a fairly steady stream of these pictures appearing in the feeds.
It’s an odd time to be in Thailand and posing with soldiers on the street is just a small slice of what’s happening here. I had commitments in Bangkok that were organised well before the coup that has led to martial law here. I decided to honour those commitments and it’s given me a good chance to see the reality of the situation here on the ground for myself. It’s also a good opportunity to share with you my thoughts on whether you should still travel to Thailand.
I knew things were going to be different as soon as I checked in for my flight from London to Bangkok with Thai Airways. I was told the plane was only 20 per cent full. When I asked for a row to myself, the man smiled and said he could also leave the rows behind and in front of me free. The 747 is already quite a spacious plane but this made the overnight flight even more comfortable and I wondered at one point if I had a hostess all to myself whenever the food and drinks arrived.
Within hours of landing, I realised it wasn’t just the plane which was deserted. Streets in the centre of Bangkok, usually known as popular spots for tourists, have hardly a Western face in sight. I’ve been to Bangkok many times over the years but I have never seen it so quiet.
Empty tuk tuks are lined up outside hotels and many of them are likely to spend all day there. The spruikers in front of tailor shops seem even more despondent than usual. And the workers outside the massage parlours shout out to me – “Mah-saaaaa-ge” – but their hearts are not in it.
Tourism in the country is hurting but for the average Thai person in Bangkok, it’s pretty much business as usual. After the initial flurry of worry and uncertainty, life has got back to normal quickly. The public transport is as busy as you would expect during rush hour, the street food stalls on every corner have their usual customers for each meal, and all the shops and offices are open for business.
Well, except for a shopping centre called Terminal 21 near my hotel, the Marriott Bangkok Sukhumvit. On Sunday, as I walked past on my way to find some lunch, I noticed a large amount of police and military outside the shopping centre. It turns out there was a protest there and the authorities had come to break it up. They then closed the centre for the rest of the day.
It’s here, as the protesters are being dispersed, that I see the first of the new selfie fad. None of the local people outside the shopping centre seem too concerned by what is happening. In fact, the sense I get is of curiousity. People are walking up to the scene and taking photos of themselves with the events unfolding behind. They smile and pose – some soldiers and police officers even jump in the shot with them and give a thumbs up!
An hour later I read on a respected news site an article with the phrase, “Thai military floods Bangkok with troops”. By this stage I know that I want to tell prospective tourists about the situation on the ground so I go looking for these troops. I walk past the Terminal 21 shopping centre in Sukhumvit again but nobody is here. The doors are closed but all the police have gone. So I continue to walk.
As it turns out, I walk for more than two hours and still see no signs of the military “flooding” into Bangkok. There are a few police cars near the shopping centres in the middle of the city but nothing that seems too threatening. The reporting of the situation in the media is not fitting with my experience on the streets of the capital – as far as all the local activities are concerned, Bangkok is the usual fun and bustling metropolis it has always been.
So I then decide to head to a place called Victory Monument, an enormous roundabout that has been the focus for protests in the past and had been mentioned as a potential hotspot for trouble this week. To be clear, though, it is far from most places tourists would go but I am curious and make an effort to find it.
When I get there, I finally see the military. Lots of them. The entire area is surrounded by police and soldiers who seem to just be waiting for something… anything. It is a large display of force and clearly meant to send a message to anyone considering trouble.
But I am not considering trouble and the authorities know that. When I take a photo of a group of policemen, a few of them laugh and gave me a big smile and wave. When I snap another shot of a woman having a photo taken with soldiers, they spot me and beckon me towards them for one myself, “You too! It’s OK!” I decide not to but it puts me at ease.
And, again, all around this, the average Thai citizens are just going about their business. Locals wait next to soldiers for their bus to come, they stroll along the footpaths past the smoking policemen, and they take their photos. So many people taking their photos!
I feel like I have seen a large amount of the city – places I have been to many times – and can competently compare. So what would I say to someone if they asked if they should still travel to Thailand?
The best time to travel to Thailand
Well, assuming the situation doesn’t change, I would say it’s definitely worth coming. In fact, there are some reasons why it’s better than ever than usual.
- A lot of tourists are staying away so nothing is too crowded. Anything you want to do will be easier and more pleasant.
- Things are cheaper. Just have a look on any hotel booking site and you’ll see 4 star hotels in Bangkok for about $35 a night.
- Many of the local people I’ve met this week who work in tourism are grateful for the travellers who are still coming to Thailand and will go out of their way to help you and prove their country is safe.
From all the reports of other travellers I’ve spoken to, other Thai destinations outside Bangkok have not been affected by the political situation at all but are also cutting prices and offering special deals. The islands, the beaches and the jungle – they’re all still there and they want the tourists to come. Now is the time to make the most of a quiet industry and enjoy a holiday without the expense or the crowds.
I should just add a few final comments before I finish up. I have been very careful not to express an opinion about the political situation itself. While there appear to be some worrying aspects like the stifling of freedom of the press and association, the situation is complicated and I am not in a position to give an educated view. The aim of this story is to talk about tourism and my thoughts on travelling here based on what I’ve seen and researched. It is also based on the current situation here in Thailand, which could change at some point in the future.
For now, though, I am loving being here again and am very glad I decided to come regardless.
UPDATE: Due to a few questions and comments from readers, I have written a response to this post which addresses some concerns people had. You can read my response here.