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Bangkok Protests: Notes from the Ground

200904-a-songkranjpgTuesday was the start of Songkran, the Thai new year, usually an occasion for mass water fights throughout Bangkok. This year's celebrations, of course, have been subdued, after violence last weekend left 23 people dead and more than 800 injured. Still, in the Bangkok neighborhood where I live, a handful of children and teens armed with water guns, hoses, and buckets have gathered every day since Tuesday, merrily drenching passers-by and each other. Some Bangkokians, it seems, are trying to find their way back to normalcy.

How long the calm will last, I'm not sure. As an American who's called Bangkok home for nearly eight years, I found the violence shocking but not unexpected. Thailand is stuck in an incredibly complex conflict that resists easy explanation, and there is little political will—or bravery—to find a way out of it peacefully. Thailand has witnessed similar eruptions in the past, during the 1970's and in 1992,when the military killed dozens of pro-democracy protesters. Yes, Thais are generally peaceful, but there are few release valves for settling differences. When conflicts arise, they can escalate quickly. (For an insightful take on the current crisis, read this Wall Street Journal op-ed.) 

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I don't want to downplay the situation because it is serious. However, in terms of the day-to-day, life goes on in here. We still walk down the street to our grocery store; we still take the Skytrain; we still go out and see friends in other parts of the city. Bangkok hasn't become Beirut or Karachi overnight; the violence that took place last Saturday happened in specific neighborhoods. There are no marauding bands of men in red shirts armed with AK-47's.

Indeed, before Saturday, the protests have been remarkably peaceful and good-natured. Even though the protesters are now camped outside of Bangkok's most luxurious malls, there have been no reports of looting and certainly no attacks on foreigners. (This is a Thai versus Thai conflict; foreigners aren't the targets.) Visit the main protest camp, and motorcycle taxi drivers will offer you rides while vendors will beckon you over for a cold lime juice or grilled chicken. And everywhere, you will find someone who's eager to tell you their side, to share with you their photos, their stories, their hopes and fears for their country.

201004-b-bangkokjpgMoreover, the rest of Thailand hasn't been affected. I'm writing this from Ko Kood, an hour east by plane from Bangkok and light years from the city. Outside of my window is a quiet bay framed by rain forest. Popular tourist spots, too, haven't been affected: Phuket, Samui, Chiang Mai—none of them have seen any violence. There's no reason to cancel trips to those destinations. Thailand is still a beautiful, welcoming country. Tourism is a vital industry here, and one of the best ways to help is by continuing to visit.

So if you are still planning a holiday in Thailand (and not to sound mercenary, but expect some good deals in the coming months), here are some tips about how to stay safe:

- Book a direct transfer from Bangkok to your destination, so you can avoid staying in the city all together.

- Don't visit the protest sites. They're not tourist attractions, and as Saturday demonstrated, violence can flare up quickly. Should you go, keep your wits about you and leave before nightfall, when things are more likely to turn nasty.

- Register with the U.S. Embassy so you can be contacted if the situation worsens.

- In Bangkok, stay in a neighborhood that hasn't been affected such as Sukhumvit Road, and Thonburi, the suburb across the Chao Praya river. Better yet, stay somewhere near the Skytrain or MRT so your mobility won't be too affected by demonstrations.

- Monitor the situation by reading news outlets that have been covering the situation closely, like The New York Times or The Economist. An expat blogger, Bangkok Pundit, has excellent coverage of the situation. If you're on Twitter, follow veteran journalists Andrew Marshall at @journotopia and Nirmal Gosh at @karmanomad for live updates.

Jenn Chen is Travel + Leisure's Asia correspondent.

Photo credits: Cedric Angeles


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