Between Mourning And CeleBrAtion
ALL CITIES change. But few change as quickly as Bangkok does. When I first started coming here regularly in the 1990s, I stayed at the magnificent Siam Intercontinental, then Bangkok’s top hotel with acres and acres of gardens (and a tiny zoo with exotic birds and animals) in the centre of town.
Now the Intercontinental is gone and forgotten; its place taken by a huge shopping mall (Siam Paragon), an apartment block and another large hotel (The Siam Kempinski). The Dusit Thani, where I stayed this time, is of roughly the same vintage as the Siam Intercontinental and though it still flourishes, its neighbourhood (Silom) is virtually unrecognisable with gleaming skyscrapers taking the place of the shop houses of old.
But as much as Bangkok changes, there used to be one factor
Thailand mourns its King but Bangkok booms and flourishes
tions of Thais he was the one stable unifying factor through times of change. His reign saw 30 prime ministers and innumerable regimes. But whether it was a military coup (of which there were many) or a turbulent democratic movement (a significant feature of the last decade), the King’s solid and reassuring presence preserved a sense of continuity.
King Bhumibol died on October 13, this year. Though his death was not entirely unexpected – he was 88 and had been ailing for some years – it had the effect of plunging the whole of Thailand into unprecedented mourning. When I checked into the Dusit, there was a note from the general manager, explaining that “our staff will be honouring the memory of his Majesty by wearing black and white attire, but we would like to assure you that we will remain fully operational….”
And indeed Bangkok was fully operational. I arrived just as the new King (the former Crown Prince) accepted the crown (though the formal coronation will take place later) and the country was poised halfway between mourning and celebration.
But, no matter what the public mood is, it hardly makes a difference to the millions of foreign tourists who flock to Thailand every year. Bangkok airport was more crowded than I have ever known it to be and my Thai Airways flight from Delhi was jam-packed. Hotels in the city were full even though it was the long weekend and there were no business travellers.
I have written about Bangkok’s invincible status as a destination before. Nothing ever seems to affect the flow of tourist arrivals, not floods, not civil unrest and not even military coups. Part of the reason, I imagine, is that the Thais are the most hospitable people in the world, gracious to a fault, always smiling and naturally service-oriented.
But there are other factors. Bangkok has great shopping. Each year the malls get bigger and better, while prices remain the cheapest in Asia. Newer, fancier hotels open every month and are always competitively priced. Not only are they far, far cheaper than their counterparts in Hong Kong or Singapore but they are also much cheaper than Indian hotels. (And that’s de-