PHUKET: Last week I walked through the streets of Bangkok with Jesus. As we all know, the original J-Man could walk on water, but Thailand’s man of the moment, Suthep Tuangsuban was able to deftly part his way through the horde of followers along the city’s posh Sukhumvit commercial district with what appeared to be divine skill.How did I come face to face with the man leading the political movement to shut down Bangkok? Actually, it all began with a dawn start and that ominous first flight out of Phuket. After arrival and a quick trip on the Airport Rail Link and BTS I was fading fast and needed caffeine. Spotting a nearby Starbucks right on Ploenchit, it was time for a latte with an extra shot of expresso.
My mind slowly pulled out of the fog as crowds started to line the streets outside, first the megaphones squelched out and then those whistles started blowing. I calmly decided on a second cup just to dust out any remaining cobwebs.
Once my mission was completed, all hell was breaking loose nearby so I opted to head out front and have a look. There, just in front of me, with two majestic giant red, white and blue Thai flags waving in the cool breeze was Suthep.
The crowd was roaring, smartphones were everywhere with cameras aimed in all directions and out there on the street giving high five’s, raising his fist in defiance and taking selfies with his fans was clearly a man on a mission. I took some time and wandered down the street for a while with the demonstrators just taking it all in before realizing I was half an hour late for an appointment.
For those who have not been to Bangkok during the current crisis and have only captured the moment from social media and the news media, it’s hard to relate to the scene on the sois as it were. I can recall walking through the same areas in 2010 during the red shirt movement and a number of things have changed.
First is the merchandising. There is every manner of stall with branded slogans, national colors and everything imaginable including Angry Bird’s wearing red, club striped headbands donning t-shirts and Hello Kitty Bangkok Shut Down whistles.
Most of the key areas such as the Ratchaprasong intersection by CentralWorld and Asoke are fairly vacant during the daytime but as night comes, the street scene comes to life – food stalls, foot massage chairs, live music blasting from random stages and camping tents for protesters. Though the latter are being clustered and either have larger tents or netting over them as concern over errant grenades or bombs landing on them is the subject of much discussion.
In a way it’s a bit like Chatuchak Market on steroids.
I was able to talk to a few hotel general managers in the directly affected areas and occupancy has plunged down to 20-30 per cent and some cases lower. That given, hotels in the peripheral districts and budget and mid-scale properties are trading at reasonably higher levels.
For those travelling to Bangkok, the good news, if there is any, is that public transport is functioning well. Taking the Airport Rail Link train to either Phayathai or Makkasan stations and then shifting onto the BTS Skytrain or MRT is seamless. The secret is to take the City Line which runs more often and travelling light helps on the Suvarnabhumi marathon trek.
During the past few days, Bangkokian’s are starting to return to their cars and traffic is slowly getting worse, though again you can get to a number of areas quite easily depending on the time of day. Though I had visions of empty shopping malls on my mind, quick stops at Emporium and Siam Paragon found crowded houses, and there are plenty of foreigners around. Though one exception is the Erawan Shrine near the Grand Hyatt, which stood in near silence when I walked by.
The mood in Bangkok has been tempered by a type of winter vortex cooling trend and at night temperatures are down to 18 degrees. Perhaps this is a good thing and chilling out the locals. What is clear is that the support of many Bangkok people I spoke to remains startlingly clear – they want change and are prepared to wait it out.
Though as we all know, Thailand is not only Bangkok, and the views in the North, East, West and South are not necessarily on display in this microcosm, what is glaringly evident is that there is no end in sight to the present crisis. The great fog remains firmly settled over the city in what may come to be known as the “Selfie Crisis of 2014”. Stay tuned and keep your smartphone nearby.
Bill Barnett is the Managing Director of C9Hotelworks and can be contacted through C9hotelworks.com
— Bill Barnett
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