Young Thais are drawn by the big city lifestyle
No other recent news event could have been more incongruous than the violent street fighting that occurred in Bangkok's fashionable shopping district this May between anti-government protesters, known as Red Shirts, and the Thai military. Rarely do Louis Vuitton and other upscale brands serve as the backdrop for political outrage, and few would have predicted that Southeast Asia's kingdom of stability would be labelled with government-issued travel restrictions. Those are problems that plague other places.
And just as quickly as it was hijacked into turmoil, Bangkok has rebounded to win Travel + Leisure's readers award for World's Best City in 2010. Thailand's northern city of Chiang Mai came in at number two beating out all those others cities that minded their manners all year. With the world's sympathies backing Thailand, the vote signals that everyone's favourite party pal is back in action.
So is it safe to go now?
For now, the answer seems to be yes. Foreign governments have eased travel restrictions, the airlines are increasing short-haul routes and the tourism industry is working hard to lure back visitors with promotions.
Since those dramatic days of May 2010, Bangkok has industriously swept away the evidence of unrest. The streets have resumed their normal commercial buzz and deafening scream of traffic. The curfew that followed the protest crackdown has been lifted and the city is ready for a very stiff drink.
On the political front, the ongoing power struggle has receded behind closed doors. Most Thais, regardless of their political allegiance, are just as caught up in the daily grind as the rest of us. There is work to be done, bills to be paid, kids to raise and fun to be had. In general, the country is greatly fatigued by discord and the mantra of national unity has migrated from the political sphere to the pop charts with various reconciliation songs.
This calm just after the political storm is a good time to visit Thailand because it bypasses in-the-moment hassles of an unfolding historical crisis but still provides a sense of what happened where. However, here are a few tips: avoid any political demonstrations, do not wear red or yellow shirts (inadvertently identifying with the opposing parties) and be discreet about political discussions in public. Some Thais have to whisper their views so as to avoid angering passionate listeners.
The possibility of future crises, be it Thailand's signature smooth-as-silk coups or civilian sieges, cannot be ruled out as there will continue to be political uncertainty until the new era's allegiances are cemented.
But a savvy travelling plan is possible. During the May protests in Bangkok, many visitors re-routed their trips to southern Thailand, landing in Phuket airport, which has international connections to ASEAN nations and Australia. Southern Thailand has remained relatively exempt from political rallying. From Phuket, there are connections to other islands in the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand. There are also domestic air connections to Bangkok and Ko Samui.
In the event that Bangkok becomes another protest stage, remember that it is a behemoth of 9 million people and neither side has enough supporters to totally cripple the city. Travellers staying in the popular backpacker district of Khao San Road in May reported no interactions with protestors or violence. Hotel and guesthouse staff were conscientious about warning guests about no-go zones and relaying breaking news. During that period, the airport and bus stations were functioning though travel through the centre of the city was impaired.
If planning a trip to Thailand, watch the news for an announcement of the next national elections, a possible trigger of renewed conflict. The current government must call for elections by the end of 2011. That means you have got plenty of time to get there and get back.