September 3, 2008 / 9:00 AM / 11 years ago

Backpackers in Bangkok ask: What crisis?

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand has been going through one of its periodic political convulsions for weeks now, but shops, street stalls and backpacker hangouts in the capital Bangkok seem remarkably unaffected.

An anti-government demonstrator rests near a stage inside the Government House compound in Bangkok September 3, 2008. REUTERS/Kerek Wongsa

Despite the tropical heat, Khao San Road, a destination for generations of low-budget tourists, was crowded on Wednesday with Westerners out for a meal, visiting Internet cafes or getting a massage in tiny streetside parlours.

“It doesn’t bother me at all,” said British tourist Wayne Shakey, speaking a day after Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej imposed emergency rule in Bangkok following clashes between pro and anti-government protesters that killed one man.

He echoed the view of many in Bangkok that the latest unrest was simply a Thai affair.

“I have a Thai girlfriend and she’s upset,” Shakey said, smoking a cigarette at an open-air bar. “She said stay away and leave it to the Thai people.”

A short taxi ride from the bars and street stalls in Bangkok’s backpacker haven, thousands of opposition protesters have been camped out in Samak’s office compound for nine days, demanding he resign.

They have barricaded themselves behind rubber tyres and barbed wire and say they will leave only when Samak goes, something he has vowed never to do.

One person was killed and 45 injured in clashes early on Tuesday between the protesters and government supporters, but there has been no other violence and a strike by public sector workers largely fizzled out on Wednesday.

On Khao San Road, stalls selling meatballs and fried fish were doing brisk business as traffic moved at a snail’s pace.

“There’s no reason for tourists to be afraid at all,” said a man in a cafe who said he was from Aberdeen in Scotland, but refused to give his name.

“No one targets tourists. It’s between Thais.”

TRAVEL WARNINGS

Thailand is expecting 15.5 million tourists this year and the industry brings in the equivalent of 6 percent of gross domestic product, making it a significant driver of growth.

Tens of thousands of Westerners stay for years, attracted by its beaches, low costs and easygoing lifestyle.

The Southeast Asian nation has seen 24 coups and attempted coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, and scores of other political crises, but foreigners are rarely affected.

Still, several foreign countries issued warnings this week against travel to Bangkok, and tourism officials fear a drop-off in arrivals because of the political tensions.

“My parents and friends keep asking what’s going on in Bangkok,” said Thomas Egi, a 31-year-old from Stuttgart in Germany. “I keep telling them it’s safe and I am OK.”

Indeed, the protests have really affected only two small areas in the city of 10 million people — the Government House compound and the headquarters of ASTV, a channel owned by opposition leader Sondhi Limthongkul.

Slideshow (3 Images)

At Government House on Wednesday, about 200 riot police watched as opposition leaders addressed a crowd of a few thousand. There was no sign of any tension.

On Tuesday, anti-government activists barricaded a road leading to the ASTV office, fearing a government move to close down the mouthpiece of the opposition. They were dismantling the barriers on Wednesday as tensions eased.

“The daytime situation is returning to normal. The evenings and the nights are of most concern,” said Chadaporn Lin, the managing editor of one of ASTV’s channels. “But last night was uneventful, so tensions are lower.”

Reporting by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Darren Schuettler

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