*** All photos in this report were taken today ***
It has been 12 days since my last Bangkok protest update. There are a number of reasons for the lack of updates.
First and foremost, the whole situation has become downright depressing. I see friends' businesses struggling, the country going further down a dark road and honestly, covering the protests gets boring. Once you've wandered the protest areas a few times it is all much the same. I don't have the patience to hang around all day and night on the chance something might happen and I might get a scoop or some nice shots. On top of that you have to submit to the guards to carry out their silly (often as ineffective as the MRT security) checks and are forced to listen to hate speeches (assuming you understand Thai).
In my last update, I wrote that protester numbers were dwindling and I felt that the intensity had gone out of the protests. That was true at the time but it all changed the day after I published that report. Celebrities who opposed the government performed a free concert at the Asoke intersection protest spot, attracting the masses. Whether that was the impetus reinvigorated interest in the movement, I don't know, but what I do know is that since then there seems to be renewed interest and things have heated up. And then there have been the incidents covered in the mainstream press, some of which have been quite appalling.
Wat Pathum Wanaram, the temple on Rama 1 Road opposite National Police HQ.
A few days ago in Trat province a drive-by shooting at a registration point for those wishing to support the protesters saw innocent people injured and killed, children among them.
And then at the Rachaprasong intersection (Central World) in downtown Bangkok this past Sunday a grenade attack injured many and killed two young children. Unlike many of the other attacks, this happened during daylight hours.
Guard checkpoint / roadblock at the top of Sukhumvit soi 18. Traffic can pass from morning until 3 PM, at which time it is blocked.
Downtown Bangkok is very quiet at this time. On Sunday afternoon (before the Bangkok explosion), MBK shopping centre was as quiet as I have ever seen it, especially unusual given that it was a Sunday, the busiest day of the week for shopping centres. And I bet it was even quieter on Sunday evening after news broke of the explosion near Central World, about a kilometre away. That kids were injured and killed is terrible, but surely what is worse is the videos posted to YouTube of a large red shirt / pro-government group cheering when news broke of the explosions and reported deaths. Truly sickening.
There have been long-running battles at night. At the Silom / Lumpini Park protest site more than 20 grenades were thrown the night before last. These were heard by some at Patpong and at one point in the night protest guards closed Soi Thaniya (the soi full of bars for Japanese men very close to Patpong) and conducted a grid search of the area, preventing media and even police from entering.
Restaurateurs with outlets near protest sites have told me that since the attacks at the weekend trade has dropped ever further and many are down by more than 50% on where they were for the same time last year. Some days some are down more than 60%. But it's not just businesses near the protest sites hurting. With Thai people staying home, many kilometres away many the protest sites business owners report trade is down.
The Sports Science Bureau, as seen from the National Stadium skytrain station.
Many Bangkokians are nervous and are staying at home, only going out when necessary. It is no exaggeration to say that many Bangkokians are genuinely worried that they could get caught up in a life-threatening situation and have changed their routines accordingly.
Today I checked out the Patumwan (MBK), Asoke and Rachaprasong protest sites. As it was day time, the protest areas were very quiet. Many of the protesters were part of a rally outside the National Police HQ, which as it happens is located between the Patumwan and Rachaprasong protest sites, so just a short walk for them to assemble there.
Very quiet at the Rachaprasong intersection.
The street carnival atmosphere of a week or so ago has gone, replaced by a feeling of tension. The smiles have disappeared and protesters and guards aren't engaging with foreigners as they did, or at least not to the same extent.
The number of stalls and vendors has dropped. There are fewer vendors and many have closed up. Simply, fewer people are going out because they fear for their safety.
The number of guards at protest sites has been increased with late-night attacks on the protest sites becoming a nightly occurrence.
Tent village set up next to National Stadium skytrain station.
No photo signs have been erected n and many guar guard checkpoints and in various places at protest sites. Some guards become animated when a camera is pointed at them.
Guard check point on Sukhumvit at the start of soi 23.
Don't take the increase in the number of guards to mean that the protest sites are safe. They most certainly aren't, as has been shown in recent days with innocent bystanders in the area injured and in some cases killed.
The guards perform but rudimentary checks on people passing through; they are neither trained nor professional. What's more, foreigners are often given leeway to pass unhindered, which could easily be exploited.
The protest sites are porous and the Asoke intersection site has many holes where one could get from outside the protected area inside without pasting guards without much effort at all. This is a big concern – while the number of guards has increased, the protest sites are so big that they cannot possibly guarantee your safety!
Soldiers at the mouth of Sukhumvit soi 23.
Soldiers have been posted to various spots around downtown. When this happened in 2010 it was not long before the protesters were repelled. There is no reason to think it will be the same this time around.
Another group of soldiers is posted just outside the outer boundary of the Asoke protest site, beside the police traffic control booth on Sukhumvit Road, directly opposite soi 22, and near soi 29.
Protesters outside Police National Headquarters on Rama 1 Road.
I note an article in today's Australian press along with a video which strongly warns against visiting those parts of Bangkok where the protest sites are located. The writer warns against visiting Bangkok at this time, period and to be frank, it's hard to argue against what he says. Unless you're a hardcore fan of Bangkok, have family here or a reason that you really need to be here, this just isn't a good time to be in the Thai capital – at least not in the downtown area.
There have been random attacks well away from protest areas with bullets fired and houses and buildings and grenades thrown. This is the real worry. You might just happen to find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time, perhaps near a protest leader's home or a business of his / hers which just happens to be attacked when you're nearby. You really don't want to be anywhere near when that happens…
With all of this said, most of the city is just fine. Down by the river and the old part of the city is fine. Khao San Road and that part of town is fine.
Many tourists visit Siam Square and Rachaprasong and walk between the two major shopping districts in downtown Bangkok. Today that simply was not possible with a mass protest held outside National police Headquarters with protesters demanding that the police step up their investigation in to the murder of two children at Rachaprasong by a grenade attack on Sunday afternoon. Many were in black as a mark of respect. The protesters were louder and more aggressive than usual and the atmosphere was very tense. I felt decidedly uncomfortable and once I had a few shots I got out quick smart.
The checkpoint beside the start of Sukhumvit soi 23.
I am not prepared to speculate on where this is all going, but attacks on protest sites have escalated and the overall atmosphere in downtown Bangkok has severely deteriorated. Thais are genuinely scared. Yes, they will pass through the protest sites to get to and from work, but many aren't thrilled that they happen to work in the area.
I offer the following thoughts on visiting Bangkok at this time:
1. The atmosphere in downtown Bangkok can be tense at protest sites, especially after dark. It is prudent to avoid the protest sites completely, but certainly stay well clear of all of them after dark.
2. To avoid the protest sites, you need to choose a hotel outside of the protest zones. That means selecting a hotel that is not located near the Asoke intersection, the Rachaprasong intersection (Central World), Patumwan intersection (MBK) or the Silom Road / Lumpini Park protest site. Unfortunately that rules out a lot of popular hotels. Many big name hotels within the protest areas cannot even be reached by taxi. It should be noted that some protest sites are noisy until late at night, and if there is a concert performed, entertainment put on, a march / rally held or protest leader Suthep comes to speak then the protest area can be over-run with people. Trying to pass through the area or even walk around to get from one place to another can become very difficult.
3. The best way to travel around the city is by underground and skytrain. It is safe and there is no problem with the protest sites. Note however that some of the overheard walkways near protest sites are closed due to safety concerns.
4. For naughty boys, it should be noted that Soi Cowboy and Patpong are nearby or right on the fringe of protest sites. With the skirmishes at the Lumpini Park protest site the last 2 nights with grenades thrown and guards injured, as well as Soi Cowboy's location right next to the Asoke protest site, the safest bar area is unquestionably Nana Plaza. There have been no problems with protests or protesters or on near Soi Nana. You can get to and from Nana Plaza either by taxi (it may have to go the long way) or by taking the skytrain to the Nana station. Soi Nana is totally safe and the nearest protest site at Asoke is a full kilometre away.
Everyone seems to agree that things are as dangerous as they have been tight now. As someone who was out on the streets following the red shirt protests in April and May of 2010, it feels MUCH more dangerous now.
The sounds of gunfire and grenades at night are not the sounds we associate with a holiday destination. There is a decent argument that now just isn't a great time to visit Bangkok. Ultimately, however, it depends on what you plan to do and what degree of inconvenience and risk you're comfortable with.
If you want a naughty boy's holiday, you stay in Soi Nana, party in Nana Plaza and don't venture too far, you should be fine.
If you are a budget traveller, stay at Khao San Road and check out the old city, the river and the highlights of the city, you should be fine.
If you want to enjoy the lap of luxury at one of the city's top hotels down by the river, spend days by the pool, get spa treatments in-house and enjoy the fine dining at night, you should be fine.
If, however, you like to roam freely, perhaps enjoy street life in downtown Bangkok, enjoy shopping in the most popular shopping areas then you will find that many of the places you wish to go are located near or within protest site zones and your enjoyment may be compromised.
Let's not forget that the rest of Thailand is generally safe. This report is about Bangkok. Pattaya, Phuket, Samui, Chiang Mai and all the other tourist hot spots should be ok.
What you choose to do is entirely up to you and whether you choose to visit Bangkok at this time is a call only you can make. We all have different tolerance levels and a different level of aversion to risk. Being frank, if any family or friends from home asked me whether they should visit Bangkok at this time I would tell them that they need to think very carefully. I would suggest that waiting until things are sorted out might be wise…