Due to the recent turn of events, for a foreigner, things in Thailand appear to be very ominous. A coup was declared on the 22nd of May, under the guise of “maintaining peace and order” amidst the increasing political tensions tearing the country apart. However, an important question has been crossing the minds of many foreigners during this crisis. We ask not “Will they get democracy back?” or “What about the economic losses during the curfew?” but more along the lines of “Should I still be here?” and “Can I still visit Thailand?”
For people reading this who are not yet in Thailand, with scheduled flights looming, I will attempt to clear some things up and help you understand what is actually going on and how little (or how much) you may be affected by it during your visits.
They key points to this coup (the 19th successful coup since Thailand abolished absolute monarchy in 1932) are, on a superficial level, simple. The Thai Army, under the control of Army Chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, have enacted a coup, following a failed compromise between the two opposing sides of the Thai political playground. Citing a 100-year-old law, the coup has been endorsed by His Royal Highness King Bhumibol Adulyadej, giving it the authority it needs to secure official control over the country. A curfew has been enforced between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. every day and is yet to be lifted (with no end date in sight).
But what does this mean for me? Can I still visit?
The simple fact is this: Thailand goes on, and on, and on. Since coups are not exactly uncommon here, many regard this one as little more than old news. People still wake up, pour another iced tea and carry on. To others, however, this time around is a bit different. The coup was declared with no violent outburst beforehand (which usually makes it more legitimate) and the amount of censorship with detention of academics and politicians is downright scary. There was even a rumour that the internet would be shut off, catapulting Thailand back to the dark ages. A dramatic start to a coup that, on the ground, is like every other.
Bottom line: of course foreigners can still visit. One of Thailand’s main industries is tourism and too much money rests in the fact that we visit. But we must visit with caution. That is not to say we should be wearing Kevlar wherever we go, but adhering to the rules and keeping out of trouble is key to a safe and happy holiday.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) of Britain has warned travellers that travel within the country could be dangerous. The FCO know best, but they must also be over cautious. It’s what foreign offices do. The truth is that things could change at a drop of a pin so as a traveller you must keep up to date and aware of developing situations nationwide. However, for any typical visitor, if you keep away from the political protests (which are now illegal) and don’t overtly express any distain for the junta, you should be fine.
Quite simply, the new laws set out by the National Peace and Order Maintaining Council (NCPO) require everyone, including foreigners, to adhere to the nationwide curfew and to not criticise the current junta or encourage any form of political debate. Their goal is to keep the country in a state of peace and order.
So don’t be taking selfies with the army and try to keep clear of the military checkpoints. If things do escalate, they will be the first target for bombings or snipers. Basically, don’t get involved.
The French embassy has taken a much more relaxed approach compared to the US or UK who say it is just too dangerous to visit. “For your safety, it is strongly recommended to avoid gatherings and protest marches in Bangkok and other provinces,” they said in an official statement.
But what about travel arrangements that are after curfew?
Not surprisingly, the junta know that they cannot blockade the whole of the country the whole of the time. Travel is still permitted in specific circumstances. Within the country, transport services have changed to adapt to the curfew. In Bangkok currently, buses, BTS Skytrain and the MRT subway all stop service at 9pm but travel to and from airports is still permitted, for those providing the right documents such as tickets and passports (and finding an airport authorised taxi – they have special stickers in their windshields).
All overnight travel is still permitted, such as trains, busses and boats to all key destinations in Thailand such as Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket and the other islands.
However, the curfew could be lifted any time, and with the situation remaining peaceful so far, it should not be too long before it does. When it is lifted, all businesses and travel services will no doubt change to their regular timetable, so be aware of that as well.
What about getting my party on?
For those of you who are expecting to party hard, don’t. Until the curfew is lifted, all establishments, from bars to restaurants to clubs, are required to close by 10pm. Cinemas and shopping malls are also included and there are no exceptions. Even 7-Eleven, the 24-hour store of everything wonderful, is closed. Recently a few bars in Chiang Mai ignored the rules only to be greeted with very strong warnings and promises of severe ramifications.
After the first few days of curfew, many people didn’t see it to be too serious, but with recent reiterations from junta leader General Prayuth himself, it is now clear that even for foreigners, there are no exceptions (apart from those in transit in or out of Thailand, as mentioned).
When the curfew is lifted, nightlife will be back to normal, but expect the first night to be jam packed wherever you go. One more night in could be a good idea for some. The truth is, things are changing fast and this report will probably be obsolete in a matter of days.
So is all of Thailand safe enough?
The parts you’ll likely travel to, yes. Polarised political conflict leaves us in a state of no guarantee, but it should be mentioned that if things do escalate, you will know about it. Keep one eye on whatever news you can, and be smart.
That said, there is one area of Thailand that is decidedly not safe, for reasons completely unrelated to the current coup. The southernmost provinces (Pattani, Narathiwat, Yala and Songkhla) near the Malaysian border are quite dangerous due to violent religious conflict between Muslims and Buddhists, and I do not recommend travel to those areas at any time. Bombings and shootings are frequent, and there is no end in sight, with recent reports pointing to an escalation in violence. Threats of attacks on foreigners are not to be taken lightly and in recent events these have become a lot more serious. It wasn’t wise to visit before and now it certainly isn’t. Nobody really holidays there anyway, however, if you do have plans to travel thought the southern provinces of Thailand on the train to Malaysia or similar, perhaps that would be worth a re-plan.
Unless you are a super keen political activist (and if you are, for your own sake please keep your mouth shut), you will be absolutely fine here. Keep an eye on the news and if things get a bit hairy, you can book a cheap flight to a neighbouring country through a regional airline like AirAsia, Nok or Bangkok Air.
So for all of you reading this, with flights booked, family visits or a terribly boring business trip scheduled, go ahead and keep your plans. At least you can guarantee there will be far less tourists here than usual!