It was at about 7am on Tuesday, Koh Samui time, when I started to receive texts from friends in London. “Are you safe?” they said. “Can you get out of Thailand?” “I hear there’s madness kicking off in Bangkok.” The Thai government had just declared a state of emergency, and it must have been mentioned on the evening news back in the UK.
The first I had heard about the anti-government protests in Bangkok was before I left home a fortnight ago, when the foreign editor read out his news list in this newspaper’s morning conference. “Operation ‘Shut Down Bangkok’ to ramp up its activities on Monday 13 January,” he announced. “These may be the biggest protests since 2010, when more than 80 people were killed and the airports shut down.”
I was due to land in Thailand at 6am on Monday 13 January.
I went to the Foreign Office website to check its travel advice for Thailand. While it does advise against travel to some areas, Bangkok, praise be, was still “green”. “Political demonstrations continue in and around Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand …” it revealed. “Significant disruption to roads in affected areas, with knock-on effects across the city ….”
Happily, my holiday began on Koh Samui, around the time of the local full-moon parties, and everyone there seemed blissfully unaware that Bangkok even existed, let alone was experiencing problems. Local English-language newspapers explained: some people think that the acting regime are puppets of the last ousted government and want them to resign; everyone wants talks, but nobody trusts anyone else to organise them. Meanwhile, protesters were blocking several major intersections in Bangkok.
Some hoteliers on Koh Samui reported a downturn in bookings as a result of the protests. Strolling along the lantern-lit Chaweng Beach and ordering a bucket of Sang Som whisky and Coke, it was hard to see why.
I was none the wiser when I finally reached Bangkok, where the road to the hotel was practically traffic free. Some locals told me that Bangkok’s famously congested streets were calmer now that everyone was avoiding the protests. One, a protest supporter, was thrilled by the disruption. “I went to the protest near Siam Square and bought a T-shirt for 180 baht!” she said. “Normally 300 baht! I have to stop going to support the protesters or I will spend all my money on shopping.”
Another local, a straight-talking Englishwoman who has lived in Bangkok for 20 years, said that the best way to describe the protest sites is as mini-Glastonbury festivals. They’ve got musicians, food markets and mobile massage parlours. “Typical Thais,” she said.
The Foreign Office’s current advice to visitors is to “avoid all protests, political gatherings, demonstrations and marches”. However, there were no protest sites in the main tourist areas near the river.
In London, protests have a tendency to descend into chaos, violence and dustbins through windows. In Bangkok, while the Thais are obviously serious about their political intentions and the potential for violence is very real, they appear to be almost as likely to transform a protest into an outdoor party.