BACK TO BANGKOK

Strife rocked the city hard, but it re­grouped and went shop­ping, writes Mick Ship­pen

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

THE re­cent po­lit­i­cal turmoil in Thai­land gave rise to the worst vi­o­lence the coun­try has seen in al­most 20 years.

Cen­tred in Bangkok’s fash­ion­able Ratchapra­song area, demon­stra­tions last­ing two months forced the clo­sure of shop­ping malls and lux­ury ho­tels.

Al­though Thai­land’s brand im­age as the Land of Smiles may be a harder sell these days, vis­i­tors are re­turn­ing to Bangkok and find­ing the peo­ple as wel­com­ing as ever.

Thai­land’s dis­en­fran­chised ru­ral poor couldn’t have cho­sen a more ap­pro­pri­ate lo­ca­tion to high­light the di­vi­sions within its hi­er­ar­chi­cal so­ci­ety than at Ratchapra­song, Bangkok’s high­brow shop­ping district.

The cross­roads at the heart of the city is renowned for pala­tial malls in­clud­ing: Siam Paragon, where you can buy any­thing from a Fendi hand­bag to a Fer­rari; Gaysorn Plaza, the haunt of wealthy and la­bel­con­scious Thais; and of course Cen­tral World Plaza, which was par­tially de­stroyed by fire on the fi­nal day of the protest and now stands shielded from view by an enor­mous hoard­ing.

Bangkok’s tourism was hit hard and vis­i­tor num­bers plum­meted. Sev­eral ho­tels near the protest site – in­clud­ing the In­ter­Con­ti­nen­tal, Hol­i­day Inn, Grand Hy­att Erawan and the Four Sea­sons – were forced to close for up to six weeks.

Al­though Aus­tralia still has travel warn­ings in place ad­vis­ing vis­i­tors to ‘‘ ex­er­cise a high de­gree of cau­tion in Thai­land due to the high threat of ter­ror­ist at­tack and the pos­si­bil­ity of fur­ther vi­o­lent civil un­rest’’, Bangkok is once again as vi­brant, al­lur­ing and chaotic as it ever was.

In­deed, with grand sales and out­stand­ing ho­tel deals avail­able, now is a great time to see this ex­hil­a­rat­ing city.

Busi­ness as usual

Im­me­di­ately af­ter the dis­rup­tion, the Bangkok Metropoli­tan Ad­min­is­tra­tion spruced up Ratchapra­song, launched the

‘‘ To­gether We Can’’ and ‘‘ We Love Ratchapra­song’’ poster cam­paigns, and de­cided the best cure for the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal strife was to en­cour­age peo­ple to go shop­ping.

It was a mes­sage res­i­dents of Bangkok em­braced with pas­sion.

For sev­eral con­sec­u­tive week­ends, thou­sands of peo­ple have flocked to so-called ‘‘ walk­ing streets’’ that turned ma­jor city thor­ough­fares such as down­town Silom Rd into pedes­trian ar­eas crammed with mar­ket stalls manned by traders who were badly af­fected by the protests.

An at­trac­tion for in­ter­na­tional trav­ellers is the on­go­ing ‘‘ Amaz­ing Thai­land Grand Sale 2010’’, which runs un­til Au­gust 15. Al­though the sale is tak­ing place in all the coun­try’s ma­jor tourist desti­na­tions, the fo­cus is on Ratchapra­song.

With all malls and depart­ment stores of­fer­ing dis­counts of up to 80 per cent, it has quickly brought back the bus­tle.

De­spite the con­sid­er­able knocks taken by city ho­tels dur­ing the two months of turmoil, they are up­beat and cur­rently ben­e­fit­ing from a sharp rise in guest num­bers.

Joshua Lee, an Aus­tralian cit­i­zen and long-term ex­pat, took up his new po­si­tion as di­rec­tor of sales and mar­ket­ing at the Sher­a­ton Grande Sukhumvit in the mid­dle of the cri­sis.

The 5-star ho­tel is lo­cated a short dis­tance from Ratchapra­song but re­mained open and se­cure through­out the protests.

‘‘ It was cer­tainly an ex­tremely chal­leng­ing time to ar­rive in Bangkok,’’ Lee says. ‘‘ Al­though from a mar­ket­ing per­spec­tive there is lit­tle that can be done to at­tract guests when po­lit­i­cal up­heaval is tak­ing place, we are now in a very pos­i­tive po­si­tion. There is a gen­uine sense of op­ti­mism in the air through­out Bangkok.’’

Ex­plor­ing Ratchapra­song

For Thais, the spir­i­tual heart of Ratchapra­song is the Erawan Shrine.

Lo­cated at the cross­roads, just steps from the Chid­lom skytrain sta­tion, the colour­ful shrine was built in 1956 to ap­pease the evil spir­its that were said to be dog­ging con­struc­tion of the orig­i­nal Erawan Ho­tel ( now re­placed by the Grand Hy­att Erawan).

Once the shrine opened, ac­ci­dents that plagued the build­ing site were said to have ceased.

Ded­i­cated to Brahma, each day the four-faced golden im­age at the shrine at­tracts thou­sands of devo­tees who light in­cense and make of­fer­ings of flo­ral gar­lands.

The shrine is an ex­cel­lent place to ob­serve Thais in mo­ments of quiet con­tem­pla­tion and also wit­ness the grace and beauty of tra­di­tional Thai dance per­formed through­out the day for those who make a do­na­tion.

Al­though closed to wor­ship­pers dur­ing the protests, the revered Erawan Shrine is once again ac­ces­si­ble 24 hours a day.

With­out doubt the main at­trac­tion of Ratchapra­song is the shop­ping. Fol­low­ing the clo­sure of Cen­tral World Plaza, lovers of la­bels and lux­ury goods head to Bangkok’s own shrine to com­mer­cial­ism, Siam Paragon.

Ac­cessed di­rectly from the main road or from the Siam BTS skytrain sta­tion, the mall is home to out­lets of all the top brand names, a food hall with dozens of restau­rants, a cin­ema and an ex­hi­bi­tion hall.

In the base­ment level, fam­i­lies can en­joy an un­der­wa­ter ex­pe­ri­ence at Siam Ocean World, the largest aquar­ium in South­east Asia.

There are more than 30,000 ma­rine

crea­tures in the enor­mous aquar­ium from around the world. Visit www. si­amoceanworld. com.

Op­po­site Siam Paragon is Siam Square. For more than three decades it has re­mained a shop­ping hotspot for teenagers, stu­dents and those in search of a bar­gain.

The block is com­prised of a dozen par­al­lel streets with smaller lanes con­nect­ing them.

Here, small bou­tiques and stalls sell ev­ery­thing from books and CDs to the lat­est cheap and cheer­ful fashion.

Fur­ther down the road and ac­ces­si­ble di­rectly from the Na­tional Sta­dium skytrain sta­tion is MBK, an­other huge mall fea­tur­ing pop­u­lar cloth­ing, cam­era equip­ment, mo­bile phones and soft­ware.

Ad­ja­cent to MBK, the long-awaited Bangkok Art and Cul­ture Cen­tre is a wel­come an­ti­dote to shop­ping.

The ex­hi­bi­tion space was de­signed to strengthen Bangkok’s cul­tural life and fea­tures more than 300 works of art by Thai and in­ter­na­tional artists.

Also nearby is Jim Thomp­son House, the stun­ning home of the late Amer­i­can silk trader who is cred­ited with re­vi­tal­is­ing the Thai silk in­dus­try be­fore mys­te­ri­ously dis­ap­pear­ing in 1967.

Now a pri­vate mu­seum, it con­sists of sev­eral tra­di­tional teak houses brought to­gether to make one splen­did home and dis­plays the an­tiques col­lected dur­ing his life­time.

Visit www. jimthomp­son. com

Look­ing to the fu­ture

Few would ar­gue Thai­land’s po­lit­i­cal prob­lems are over. For vis­i­tors to Bangkok, how­ever, an en­rich­ing travel ex­pe­ri­ence awaits. In a bid to en­cour­age tourism, Thai im­mi­gra­tion is now of­fer­ing free 60-day sin­gleen­try visas un­til March 31 next year.. Mick Ship­pen is a free­lance writer and pho­tog­ra­pher in Bangkok.

A CITY SUR­VIVES: Bangkok is re­gain­ing its en­ergy af­ter vi­o­lent protests ( above) in the CBD.

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