IT’S all so covert it’s like I’m a character in a spy novel. I am instructed to have my bags packed ready to go for Monday morning. There’s no itinerary and my plane tickets arrive in the cab on the way to the airport. I am whisked through customs and immigration and before I know it I am on an empty Thai Airways flight to Bangkok. I have no idea what I’m doing or who I’m meeting apart from this sliver of information: “You are on a fact-finding mission for the Thai government”. My imagination gallops like a wild bush brumby. Am I being summoned to Bangkok to learn something from the Thai government or do they wish to learn something from me? I scan my mind for what I could teach them. I have become somewhat of on expert in Brisbane’s disastrous dating scene and am convinced they wish me to confirm the unbelievable tales about which I have been writing for some time. Yes, Your Honour, he really did say his three favourite things were his gun, sex and bible. No, he can’t spell. Not even his own name.
Nine hours later the plot thickens. There’s a sign at the airport with my name, and a woman checks my passport just in case I am someone else masquerading as me. A private car with a female driver, whose name I later learn is Fa, ferries me through a series of dark back alleys like we are being tailed, before we arrive promptly at the Rembrandt Hotel and I am hurriedly shuffled to the Executive Lounge and checked in.
The next morning a familiar face sidles up to me at breakfast. I realise it’s the Rembrandt’s General Manager Erik Hallin with whom I had dinner at the hotel’s signature Indian restaurant on my last trip to Bangkok just six months ago. We talk politics, the reason I suspect I am really in Thailand. Since last November, protestors disgruntled at what they say is a corrupt government run by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra have been taking to the streets of the Thai capital in what have been largely traffic-disrupting, but peaceful protests. Erik informs me that occupancy of his hotel is running at 70 per cent, which isn’t bad but “people are scared off by the protests”.
“You learn to walk everywhere in this city,” he says wryly.
From what I can piece together, the Thai government has called me, and three other colleagues – one from Sydney, one from Melbourne, and the other from Auckland, to write a piece proclaiming it’s “business as usual in Bangkok”. Except there’s a few hiccups with this scenario. Problems which becoming increasingly more apparent as the week wears on. The day I arrive, disgruntled rice farmers from rural Thailand have also joined the democratic protestors, claiming they have not been paid under a rice subsidy scheme instigated by the Thai government. And, less-widely reported, so have rubber plantation farmers. And they are trying to block Yingluck’s physical return to Government House with barricades established in key parts of the capital.
At first it does seem like another day in Bangkok. If anything, it’s a bit more quiet than usual, like the capital is nursing a New Year’s Day hangover. I wander down to the protest site and take some photos. But after lunch things change swiftly. A restaurant owner asks me what I’m planning to do next. “I’m just going back to my room to do some work,” I reply. “Good he says. The traffic is very bad, the fighting has broken out again. But don’t worry, you will be safe.” Given the protests have been peaceful, I take his words “fighting” to mean little more than a war of words and return to my hotel room to work. At 6pm I turn on the BBC and am shocked. At this stage, three people have been killed and dozens others have been injured when a grenade was tossed and riot police moved in on the protestors. I meet my Sydney colleague Rod Eime http://www.traveloscopy.com
and we head down to one of the protest sites and there are crowds of people, but no violence in this particular area.
By the end of this one night in Bangkok, four people are confirmed dead, 64 are injured and there’s speculation by witnesses that the police, not the protestors, tossed the grenade. Our planned visit to the “peaceful protest” site is rapidy cancelled by the Thai government, along with a press conference that evening, with “bad traffic” cited as the reason. Wading into another country’s politics, as a foreign journalist visiting for just a few days, is a risky business. You snatch a glimpse, often polished by the PR machine, and are then diverted. And the truth remains the casualty.
A local journalist, who didn’t want to be named for fear of deportment, tells me over breakfast that it is essentially “business as usual” in Bangkok, but warns me to stay away from the protest sites as things can escalate rapidly.
“I’m not concerned at all. The Thais will sort it out in their way. The best thing for this country is for the Generals to take over. Forget what other countries say. It is Thai culture, it has been happening for hundreds of years. Let them sort out what they’ve got to do,” he says.
“Today is going to be a an interesting day here. (Exiled former Prime Minister) Taksin’s ex wife saw a fortune teller in Burma who said if Yingluck didn’t get back into government today she never will.
“The Thais are very superstitious. I don’t know whether there will be more violence. But no one is particularly perturbed.”
It is a surprisingly peaceful day but despite the obvious casualties, there is another victim in this scenario: tourism. Thailand relies heavily on the tourist dollar, particularly from Australians who have long held a love affair with the Land of Smiles. Mark Armsden, a mate and former colleague from our Gold Coast Bulletin news reporting days some 20 years ago, now lives in Bangkok and handles the PR for Tune Hotels. He’s passionate about how the situation is impacting on Thailand’s key income earner: “If you think the protests are having little effect on tourism, speak to hoteliers, tailors, restaurants and bars and other local businesses between Sukhumvit 33 and MBK. Then speak to the thousands of young working Thais who rely on the service charge they earn to supplement their income – this nonsense has been devastating on the “spine” of Bangkok tourism….and that’s before you get down to the river and all the businesses that rely on tourism there as well. You should also check on how devastating it has been on the flag carrier (Thai Airways) as well.”
Mark’s opinion is one echoed all over Thailand. Perhaps it’s our isolation as a nation, but Australians adopt an interesting approach when it comes to violence overseas. We hear there has been conflict in a city and we avoid a country altogether. We’re strangely conservative like that. But the reality is somewhat different. Even in Bangkok, while the protests were exploding in some parts of the city, it is business as usual in others. We dine at the exquisite Naj restaurant on high-end Thai food while the protestors are outside. Attend a Muay Thai boxing class. And there’s plenty of parts of Thailand that remain unaffected. Along the ravishingly beautiful River Kwai, a tour guide tells me the situation is having a massive impact on tourism, far away from Bangkok.
“It’s high season here and we should be full but we’re not. This is how we make our money, from tourism,” he says.
On Saturday afternoon and back in Bangkok in a beauty salon, I ask the girls whether there has been any more strife since I’ve been down in the remote River Kwai. They laugh and talk to each other rapidly in Thai, the only word I can understand is “farang” which means foreigner and I ask them what they are saying. “Farang knows more about Thai politics than Thai people,” they giggle. I fly out midnight Saturday night and on Sunday afternoon the situation has changed again, when a woman and child are killed, and 22 more people injured, in a grenade attack near a popular shopping area. In recent months, a total of 19 people have died and hundreds more have been injured. As far as I know, none of these have been foreign tourists.
But as we know, perception is everything. After the 2012 Bali bombings in which 88 Australians were killed, we all boycotted Bali. But we were also the first nationality to return. We may be a conservative nation but we are also resilient. So spare a thought for Thailand and those who are dying in the name of democracy, whose livelihoods rely on the tourist dollar and do what Aussies do best. Bounce back. Your neighbours need you. I’ll certainly be back, apart from the fact I love this city, I’ve got a Brisbane dating report to deliver to the Thai government.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Thai Airways, Rembrandt Hotel, Bangkok and the River Kwai Jungle Rafts. For more information go to http://www.tourismthailand.org