I absolutely adore Bangkok. I think it’s an incredible city, and one of my favourites in the world. I visited Bangkok for the second time in January this year with my husband (his first time there), and as luck would have it, we arrived bang in the middle of the Shutdown Bangkok protests; it was a very different Bangkok to the one I saw a few years ago on my first visit.
The night before we were due to fly over from Koh Samui, we watched in shock from the safety of our hotel room as reports of an unarmed, civilian protestor being shot and killed flashed across the TV screen. Our panic was only momentary; we remembered our 2013 trip to Egypt and how ridiculously over-sensationalised the violence of those protest were by the media – even the locals laughed at how much it was blown out of proportion. We packed our bags as planned to continue on, however we did do some research online to find out exactly what we were heading head first into – after all, knowledge is power.
The SHUTDOWN BANGKOK 2014 movement essentially involved shutting down the city centre with the bigger goal of shutting down the entire Thai capital and the ultimate goal of effecting political change. The sea of protestors that inhabited the streets of Bangkok wanted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra out, accused of being an easily manipulated puppet at the mercy of her brother and former prime minister – he had been ousted in 2006 in a military coup. Long story short, by the time we got there in mid January 2014, an election had been called, however the Thai people wanted a major reform of the political system first.
The movement was dubbed the “people’s revolution” and once we were in the thick of it, it wasn’t difficult to see why. It didn’t require an advanced knowledge of politics to see that the people of Thailand were presenting a very strongly unified front. They have an unwavering belief that they needed better from their prime minister, and they were not backing down. Hailing from Australia, where we whinge about having to vote every four years and take the piss out of our politicians for everything from their hair colour to their choice of swimwear (seriously), this experience was foreign in absolutely every sense of the word.
From the first few minutes after arrival, the far-reaching implications of the shutdown were blazingly evident. Every main road and square in the city had been completely shutdown and immobilised. There was no longer the bumper to bumper traffic, the blaring car horns, the people running across the road, dodging the speeding motorbikes and tuk tuks. They had really, truly shutdown the city, transforming the formerly packed streets into sort of street market-cum-temporary housing projects. People were so serious about this reform that they had relocated not only their businesses, but their families and homes as well to protest sites across the city; they really weren’t going anywhere until they got what they wanted.
After hearing about the shooting and subsequent death prior to our arrival, we were initially a little hesitant about going out at night. Our first night there was an early one, back in our hotel by around 7pm, but we didn’t sleep because the protestors were partying like nobody’s business all around the city. The noise literally did not stop until around 4am, then started up again at around 7am. After that first night, we kinda just threw caution to the wind a little a decided to head out. We took the precautions of taking the quieter streets and avoiding the main streets and squares. The next night, we just threw ourselves right into the middle of it all, and had the best time
These were no ordinary nasty, angry, violent protestors. They were parents with young children. Teenagers who should have been studying. Elderly residents getting around with walking sticks. They were regular people who were fighting for a fair go. Given that our hotel was right out the front of the start of the main protest zone, we decided one morning to just join the locals and walk straight through the main street, amongst the relocated street food vendors and the rest of the mayhem. We were waved through by a security guard, one of the many posted at the entrances to the gated protest zones, and greeted by smiles and waves by the citizens of Bangkok. We were welcomed with open arms, even approached by two older women who invited us back to the square for a “party” that night. I asked them how they felt the movement was going, if they felt any progress was being made, and what they were fighting for. “Fairness! That’s all we want! Basic right!” They went on the explain that they appreciated the gesture of the election being announced, but without a reform of the current policies, it’d essentially be the same problems with a new prime minister. That hit us hard and really got us thinking; how many people back home in Australia would be willing to give up their day-to-day lives for the foreseeable future, to relocate their businesses and kids, to potentially lose a lot of income, to forget about dinner with their friends and their favourite TV show for potentially weeks, just to fight for their political rights? We have freedom, fairness, equality, and we take it utterly for granted. How cruel the world can be.
We made sure we spent time each of the five days we were in Bangkok in the protest sites. It was a real experience. It was grass roots, it was organic, it was real. The impact on the economy was phenomenal – kids were out of school, people were either not working at all or taking time off their jobs to set up temporary stalls to sell paraphernalia. The rest of the city was a veritable ghost town at times – for example, when we visited Soi 38 for our street food fix one night, it was half the size it usually us, because so many of the street food vendors had relocated to the protest sites.
Photos below show the same area by day and by night; as you can see, there was no quiet period.
Funnily enough, I’d started writing this post before the latest flare up started a few days ago, so it seems a lot more appropriate now. My heart goes out to the Thai people and their situation; they are genuinely some of the kindest, most generous, real people I’ve ever come across, and I hope things can get better for them. I won’t pretend to have an extensive knowledge on the political situation that is now plaguing the country, but that’s not what this post is about. It’s about my observations from my last visit. And those observations are that the city is still incredible. It is beautiful, it is traditional and modern all at the same time, it is authentic, it is accepting of everyone, and it has real soul. I’d never advocate visiting a city under such political duress, but when the current political situation does settle down, I’d really encourage everyone who has wanderlust in their heart (and even those of you who don’t) to visit this city.
Don’t just go to catch a cab from MBK to Siam Discovery to the next air-conditioned shopping centre, stay in your hotel, lounging by the pool and only eat Maccas. Get out, walk the streets (they really aren’t so scary, not even at night), learn to say hello and thank you (I can’t even tell you how far those two words have gotten me over there!), eat the street food at the places the locals are eating it, and for God’s sake, TALK TO THEM!!!! Bangkok and it’s people are so real and everyone should experience a place like that once in their travels.