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Hundreds of young tourists in Bangkok – some of them British – are ignoring the travel advice of the Foreign Office to “avoid all protests” in the city following the general election last Sunday.
At several major intersections in the city centre, including Siam Square, Asok and Silom, opposition supporters have set up informal “tent cities” as part of their attempts to shut down the capital.
During the day, giant screens broadcast speeches from politicians who are sometimes encouraged to perform impromptu karaoke. In the evening, bands sing covers of western rock songs and Thai ballads. Everywhere, street food sellers are doing a roaring trade. This week, at all three of these protest points I saw young tourists, for the most part under 30 years old.
At Siam Square alone, the location of several shopping centres with hugely popular food courts, I spotted dozens of western tourists in the space of an hour taking pictures and walking around the tents.
But, among all the photo opportunities were notes of caution, ambulances parked discreetly at the fringe of the demonstrations and opposition ‘security’ staff monitoring entry and exit points in the perimeter fences – some wearing khaki military-style shirts.
“I wouldn’t want to miss it,” said Jack Watson, a graduate from Birmingham at the gathering in Siam Square. On a gap year trip with two friends, he claimed he was “not overly concerned” about the Foreign Office’s warning. “It’s really interesting to see what political disagreement looks like in a culture that’s so different from ours.
“It’s more like a carnival here than anything else. I don’t get the feeling that things are particularly tense. In any case, there is a SkyTrain station nearby so I’m sure we could get away quickly if we needed to.”
Kate Robinson, a tourist from London also at Siam Square, said that she was intrigued about what was going on and wanted to film the demonstration for a video diary of her trip around south-east Asia: “I don’t know a lot about the background to this, but it does feel like history in the making,” she said. That’s why it’s worth coming to see.”
The United States, Australia and other countries have also warned their nationals to avoid political gatherings in the Thai capital.
Most shops and cinemas in the vicinity of the demonstrations are open for business, albeit with reduced hours.
However, on the eve of the poll last weekend six people were shot – one of the victims is still in hospital in a critical condition – in a clash between groups of government and opposition supporters at Lak Si in the north of Bangkok. The police reported the types of cartridges and ammunition found at the scene match those used for AK-47 assault rifles. Meanwhile, on January 17 an explosive device detonated at a protest march near the National Stadium in central Bangkok, which resulted in at least 39 injuries and one death.
Not all tourists are intrigued by the spectacle however. “Normally visitors pass through Bangkok and spend a few days here before going on to one of the islands or to the north of the country for trekking,” said Sivaphat Meeklai, a local travel agent. “But what we are finding now is that some tourists are worried and prefer to avoid Bangkok altogether.” Mr Meeklai estimated his business was down “at least 20 per cent” compared to the same period last year.
But in the backpackers’ quarter around Khao San Road – popularised in the novel The Beach, and its subsequent film adaptation – it was very much business as usual, with young visitors haggling over the price of trinkets, getting foot massages and debating whether or not to get a tattoo.
Just how much lasting damage the current crisis might cause to high-end tourism in Thailand is difficult to guess. Certainly, some of the vitriol displayed at the gatherings appears very un-Thai. For instance, outside the Siam Paragon shopping centre demonstrators with large photos of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother, ousted premier Thaksin, offered felt tip pens to passers-by so they could cover the photos with graffiti.
Not what you might expect from the “Land of Smiles”.