Stickman Bangkok Protests Special: Is it safe to visit Bangkok?
29 November, 2013
Over the past few days the number of emails arriving at Stickman HQ has increased from readers who want to know what the current situation is in Bangkok Ė and specifically, is it safe to visit Bangkok at this time?
During the period of the red shirt protests in April and May of 2010 when protestors took over swathes of downtown Bangkok I was out amongst it, taking photos and reporting on what was going on. At this stage I donít have any plans to repeat that, but I did make it out and about to check out what is happening in areas where foreigners visit.
If you have watched TV or read reports online you would be justifiably concerned about what is happening in Bangkok at present. The reports have shown large groups occupying parts of the city with their leaders delivering some strong rhetoric. Some of these reports have shown areas known to and popular with foreign visitors such as Siam Square and Khao San Road.
The purpose of this report is simply to tell you what I saw when I went out and about today, and to give you my thoughts on whether or not itís safe to visit Bangkok at this time.
I started at Siam Square. Just a little west of the Siam Square skytrain station is the National Police Headquarters. There were reports yesterday that power to Police Headquarters had been cut off. Photos and news reports showed hordes of protesters in the area. Naturally, these reports caused a lot of worry amongst Westerners - if the Police HQ can be targeted and infrastructure messed with, what chance do regular citizens have?!
Today there was no sign, nor any evidence of protesters in the Siam Square area. The main entrance to Police HQ had reinforcements in place including razor wire to prevent access and there was a small number of riot police with shields on patrol. That aside, you wouldnít know that there had been any protests there. At Siam Square it was business as usual.
Next stop was Democracy Monument, where the demonstrators first set up and a part of the city with a history of Thai people rising up against those in power and making their views known.
The Saen Saeb canal boat takes you right to Saphan Panfa. It's the last stop and once you get off the boat and leave the pier when you find yourself on the road with the main protest area visible. Looking towards Democracy Monument, its 4 distinctive pillars are partially blocked by large marquee tents which have been set up to provide cover from the elements.
Looking right towards parliament, it was the same scene with large marquee tents set up all the way along the road as far as the eye could see.
Walking past Wat Saket (the Golden Mount) there is a security checkpoint although with even less scrutiny given than when you go down to an underground station. No-one is stopped, although I suspect if any opposing groups were to appear they would be.
There were very few foreigners around. So few that in the few hours I walked around the protest area, I probably counted less than a dozen. This is really quite amazing as Khao San Road is only a few hundred metres away. Why hadn't they gone for a look? At any one time there are thousands and thousands of backpackers in the Khao San area and many are going through that phase where they feel they can change the world. That there were almost none in the area kind of surprised me. Are they a bunch of pussies?!
There was a mix of people with seemingly every province in Thailand represented. While Isaan is considered the major region for the red shirts, there were groups from many provinces in the Isaan region.
Generally it was older folk with the average age probably around 50 or so.
I would not like to estimate the numbers but there were a lot of people there. At the weekend the numbers swell as those who work during the week join.
I covered the Bangkok red shirt protests in detail in 2010 and spent a lot of time in the area taking many thousands of photos, talking with the protesters and I got a really good feel for what was going on.
This time around it felt very different, and it really felt like the protesters really mean business. Maybe this is somehow indicative of a different type of person protesting, but with the red shirts they were quite chatty with foreigners and would pose for photos and what not and went out of their way to make outsiders feel very welcome. With these protesters they are quite happy to allow outsiders to wander through, observe, take photos and whatever, but there is little of the banter.
Listening to the rhetoric coming from the stage at Democracy Monument where protester after protester got up to say a few words, I got the feeling that this lot are very, very determined. They talked often of their love for the country and of a deep determination to see this through. Itís hard to think back to exactly what I saw and what I felt 3.5 years ago but this feels different. This felt like there was a very real resilience.
There were also a lot of messages posted about Thaksin, the current prime minister and the government - and none of it was complimentary!
I passed through the Democracy Monument area and wandered made my way to Khao San Road.
In the backpacker haven there was no evidence of the protests whatsoever and it was very much business as usual with the usual clowns, cheap Charlies and general characters. The odd Thai walked through with a flag or apparel with the colours of the national flag but I doubt most of the backpackers even knew there was a major political protest taking place just a few hundred metres away.
I walked back through the main protest area, past the vendors flogging flags, clappers, t-shirts, wristbands, headbands, whistles and other paraphernalia. Wherever there was shade there were mats laid out so protesters could get some zzz.
The road to parliament has been taken over and that, along with a small stretch of Rachadamnoen Road just east of Democracy Monument could mean that getting a taxi to or from Khao San Road could be a hassle Ė and will likely mean a longer journey than usual.
Walking up towards parliament under marquee tent after marquee tent, one could see how organised the protesters are. A huge kitchen area was staffed by many with food being prepared. There were enough bottles of water to stock seemingly every 7 Eleven store in Bangkok and everything appeared to be well organised. There was even a nurseís station and some amongst the protesters' number had a nurseís ID card and roamed around, making themselves available to anyone who needing their assistance.
The National Army HQ's front lawn was breached this afternoon and when I arrived it was full of protesters, maybe a couple of thousand or so. A temporary stage was driven in on the back of a truck and words were being said to those gathered.
Soldiers had erected a basic, makeshift barrier which served as a line which the protesters shouldn't pass. There seemed to be a mutual understanding that while the protesters were not prevented from entering the grounds and the front lawn, that when it comes to the Army HQ there are good reasons why they should not enter the building. Soldiers stood by keeping an eye, unarmed.
A bit further up the road near the UN Building is a huge barrier where access to parliament is blocked behind huge walls and razor wire.
On the other side of the wall are battalions of riot police on standby, watching and monitoring what those close to the wall are doing. The area is full of graffiti about the protests.
Iíd been out in the sun for a good few hours, had got a good feel for what is going on and decided I'd seen enough and it was time to head home.
There are a few areas which are popular with foreigners visiting Bangkok Ė Sukhumvit Road, Silom Road, the Siam Square area, the river around the old temples and Khao San Road.
At this stage the only place popular with foreigners where the protesters are anywhere near is Khao San Road Ė and at Khao San Road it is business as usual. For the backpackers there is no reason to be alarmed. The only disruption might be getting to and from the area but that aside, there is nothing to be worried about.
Khao San Road is in the old part of the city so anyone travelling from Sukhumvit or Silom to visit the temples might find reluctance on the part of taxis to go out there and / or longer journey times than usual.
Protests are taking place at various spots around the city, mostly government buildings - not places typically visited by foreign visitors.
Or course things could change at any time and the protesters could move and occupy other areas. Should that happen, I will do my best to post updates.
I should point out that I donít see anything akin to what happened 3 years ago happening again, when parts of downtown Bangkok were occupied and the main shopping district was closed and some hotels forced to close also. Thatís not likely because the businesses that would be hit would comprise some of the protesters' own support base.
So, to answer the question, is it safe to visit Bangkok at this time? It is, so long as you avoid areas where protests may be taking place.
At this point in time the protests are taking place well away from most areas popular with foreigners. Siam Square, Sukhumvit Road and Silom Road are all free of protesters. There has been the odd assembly around the Asoke skytrain station at lunch time but lasts no more than an hour.
The exception is the protesters' main occupation site at and around Democracy Monument which is close to Khao San Road. It remains business as usual at Khao San with everywhere open and operating as per normal. I imagine, however, that it might not be that easy to get a taxi from other parts of town to Khao San Road. Taxi drivers may be reluctant to venture to the area with some roads in the area closed as they are occupied by protesters, and a few roadblocks / checkpoints in place. If you're on a budget, it mightn't be a bad idea to consider staying in one of the other areas popular with budget travellers such as Soi Kasemsan 1, next to the National Stadium skytrain station where there are a handful of guesthouses.
For all visitors to Bangkok, it would be wise to avoid any protest groups or areas, should you happen to come across them. Foreigners will largely be invisible to protesters but are best advised to avoid protest groups and protest sites.
Important update, late Saturday night, Bangkok time:
When I first published this report on Friday evening, Bangkok was, I firmly believed, as safe as usual for tourists. However, on Saturday night there were clashes between students who are anti-government and red shirts who are pro-government. Initial reports in Thailand are often later shown to be inaccurate, but the first reports are that at least one person has been killed and others injured. There are reports of gun shots fired and grenades thrown. There were also reports earlier in the evening of some pro government supporters attacked on a bus. These clashes took place in the Ramkhamhaeng area - which isn't anywhere near where tourists typically venture - but given the way protesters are moving around the city, the situation needs to be reassessed. The summary was written before any of this took place and as such these events need to be factored in. At this stage the areas popular with foreigners remain free of protesters and most international visitors will be blissfully unaware of what is going on in other parts of the city.
Check out my photo essays and ongoing coverage the Bangkok Protests.
Stick can be contacted at: [email protected]