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To go or not to go – pondering the Bangkok Shutdown

One of the things I was most stoked about for 2014 was starting off the year with a trip to nearby Bangkok over the weekend. Nothing fussy or fancy, just a weekend getaway to shop, eat and get a massage while hanging out with friends.

Bangkok Shutdown Portrait

Bangkok Shutdown – Portrait of a protestor via Flickr CC by Victor Dumesny

If you’ve been reading the news, you’ll know that the city’s going through some upheaval, with planned protests ahead of the elections on 2 Feb. There is major unhappiness with the current leader, with huge crowds gathering in the streets and blocking up roads, which in the past has escalated to a fair amount of violence which involved shootings and airport closures. Some countries have put our warnings to their citizens to rethink visiting Bangkok until the situation has calmed down, but so far what I’ve gather from the news and social media, the whole affair has been fairly civil… but all that could change in a pinch – who knows what could happen in such a charged atmosphere? Even generally peaceful Singapore erupted into a riot one evening out of nowhere.

Bangkok Shutdown

Look at the crowds gathered on the streets at Bangkok Shutdown! No way any cars are getting through that… via Flickr CC by Prachatai

Now I’m faced with a dilemma about my trip this weekend: Apparently my hotel and the places that I want to visit are right in the midst of protest areas. Roads are blocked and filled with people, so that means taking a cab around is not going to be possible though the trains are still running, and when it comes to shops, these might be closing earlier than usual as well. I’m concerned about whether the situation will escalate, which means putting myself in harm’s way, and possibly inconveniencing myself if it results in airport closures and I get stuck there.  Should I go ahead with it?

The thing about being an occasional traveller is that because of your limited free time, your schedules are just not as flexible – you would have carved out leave dates and scheduled your work around your trip, so to make sudden adjustments can be tough as you take into account not only your time, but that of your work and your other colleagues.

So, not to be cavalier about serious situations, but unexpected calamities like natural disasters and man-made chaos, are honest-to-god, just plain troublesome when you have a much-anticipated holiday all lined up. Also, having a trip cancelled due to reasons beyond your control is plain depressing.

Back to my problem – I still need to make a decision: would I be better off not jumping into the middle of a seemingly risky situation at this point and cancelling the trip or postponing it to a later date when the political situation is more stable, or should I still plough ahead given that everything seems relatively peaceful right now?

Bangkok Shutdown Protesters

Bangkok Shutdown Protesters via Flickr CC by Kitty Chirapongse

But is it really riskier? A large part of how we perceive the ‘safety’ of a country for visiting is through the news, and while they abide by certain journalistic standards, one needs to remember that it is more often the highlighting of a small, sensational fraction of a population rather than the reflection of the general popular consensus at large. Right now, while headlines and stories generally show the calm nature of the protests, some predict a turnaround, while others take a much more neutral stand.

Social media is both a boon and a bane, as it provides a much wider scope of viewpoints from the ground, but also has a metric ton more rubbish that needs to be tediously filtered through to reach the truth. You have live updates of people actually in the protests, showing you pictures of the place so you can judge how crowded , but sometimes you get all sort of rumours going around with no way to verify its authenticity.

All that info is what you use to make that final decision. Sometimes the decision is pretty simple, but in more ambiguous, simmering situations like this, it’s actually a tougher call to make. It’s about weighing the pros and cons of making that trip and deciding in your heart whether it’s worth it, any effort or risk. Ultimately, travel is still a luxury and not a core need, and personally I don’t want my travels to be too ‘hard’ – travel is supposed to be a break for me, so I hate putting undue stress on myself when I’m on holiday, or putting myself in a risky situation for no good reason.

So what’s my decision? There was a lot of back and forth on this as my travel mates weighed in on their own concerns. The good news is that Jetstar was pretty amenable and understand, issuing a letter in support of anyone wanting to change their itinerary. Our hotel was also agreeable to moving the dates too. Each of us also made contact with friends who happened to be in there, receiving a mixed bag of reviews, and we hang on to every bit of news we can get about Bangkok and compared notes.

But ultimately, we’ve decided to make the trip*. We’re banking on the fact that things are relatively peaceful, and that neither the government nor the protesters want to affect their economy by chasing the tourists away. The protests are only in certain key areas of the city, so we’ll try to stay out of those areas when we can and plan our routes better so we don’t get delayed. Here’s a guide by the Bangkok Post on surviving the Shutdown.

Added later: I wrote the post above a day before, but in light of the news of the bomb blast that hurt over 30 people, worried family members and friends, as well as our own concerns over possible escalation over the weekend, my friends and I decided to postpone this Bangkok trip to a more stable time. It was a really last minute decision, helped by the fact that both the accommodation and flights could be postponed or refunded without too much issue. On one hand I’m really kinda bummed that I’m not getting to travel when I was really looking forward to it, on the other hand I think it’s a slight relief that I won’t have to be hyper-vigilant on my next trip. SIGH. C’est la vie~

Tips to get you through scary travel situations

Some final tips that might make these situations less scary or painful should you encounter them yourself:

  • Pay a little more: it’s great you got that super deal, but it also comes with a lot more restrictions when it comes to making last-minute changes. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to pay more so you have more flexibility.
  • Know your emergency options: Whether it’s checking in with your local consulate, or researching alternative ways to get out of the country, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared and know where to find all this information, just in case.
  • Buy travel insurance: Make sure you buy this early so that you’re covered when sudden situations arise. I always forget and leave this to the last minute, so one other way is to consider an annual plan if you travel often. Here’s more about why I think you should always get travel insurance
  • Go with your gut: Listen to your instincts, if it feels wrong, don’t feel bad about pulling out. Your body is often smarter than you are :)

Have you been caught in a similar dilemma before? Share your experience here!

AC |

Monday 27th of January 2014

I have similar plans as well. Flying to BKK in early Feb.

I decided eventually to go to the outskirts for that weekend - Ayuthaya and Lopburi.

Hope it will be fine!

Jaclynn Seah

Monday 27th of January 2014

It should be since you're avoiding the protest areas, stay safe!


Thursday 16th of January 2014

Hi Jac, I just would like to confirm that The situation here is still in control. But the protestors are in the main areas. So I suggest u to use skytrain or subway. Try not to take a cab cos some roads close. Big shopping malls around Ratchaprasong areas close earlier, but the others are open as normal. Sorry for the hectic situation. Have a great time here!

Jaclynn Seah

Friday 17th of January 2014

Thank you for the update Wannee! I will be going down and I'm glad to hear what it's really like from someone who's there :)