BACK TO BANGKOK
Strife rocked the city hard, but it regrouped and went shopping, writes Mick Shippen
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.’’
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.