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Published in The Globe and Mail

November 6, 2009
One Year in Bangkok

Bangkok once seemed the ultimate Teflon tourism destination.

Not the SARS crisis in 2003, the tsunami in 2004, or the Avian flu and army coup in 2006 could deter foreigners from flocking to Thailand.

In 2008, 14 million visitors stopped by for the beaches to the south and mountains to the north. Above all else, they came for its capital, the former “village of the wild olive groves” near the mouth of the Chao Praya river and the Gulf of Siam. Bangkok’s appeal was runaway.

Until last November. Late in the month, anti-government protesters shut down the airport and left thousands of travellers stranded. A million others, undone by images of tourists sleeping on departure lounge floors, cancelled their plans. All that while the bottom was falling out of the global economy. December arrivals plummeted by about two-thirds and hundreds of millions of tourism dollars were lost.

“Right now, business is so slow,” a Bangkok transvestite go-go dancer named Jodi told the International Herald-Tribune at the time, “some nights, only one customer.”

Jodi’s fortunes, and those of an industry said to represent 6 per cent of the Thai gross domestic product, weren’t improved by a follow-up publicity nightmare in April: World leaders were shown fleeing – perhaps fearful the airport would be shut down again – after protesters stormed the East Asia summit in the resort town of Pattaya. Riots in Bangkok obliged the Prime Minister to declare a state of emergency. As of the end of June, visitors for the year were still down by almost half. Thailand’s annus horribilis was in full catastrophic swing.

Now, on the eve of a new high tourism season, everyone from the Prime Minister to the go-go dancer must be wondering what winter will bring.

Over two decades of visiting Bangkok, I’ve distinguished three different towns contained within its sprawling municipal borders. How each has been affected reveals much about the city’s character, and centrality to Thai life. Pre-catastrophe, tourists tended to flock to one, travellers to the other. The third, and most essential, has been rarely visited at all.

TOURIST BANGKOK

Tourist Bangkok is where the opinion of Jodi the Go-Go Dancer is presumed important enough to cite in a major newspaper. Lurid, naughty “sin city” lies well inland from the Chao Praya. Until the 1960s, and the use of Bangkok as furlough for American soldiers in Vietnam, there was little reason to venture so far from the river.

But with globalization, recent decades have seen the sprouting of office towers and international hotel chains. They helped to elevate areas like Silom Road and Sukhumvit Road to primary destinations for visitors with commerce, clubbing or sex on their minds, or all three. An elevated train system – the BTS, or Bangkok Mass Transit System – has assisted the expansion.

Regardless, a supposedly cool neighbourhood such as Sukhumvit Road is in reality a sterile stretch of wide, gridlocked streets and anonymous concrete. Some Thais live here, but most commute from elsewhere to service the various clienteles. A visit to Bangkok that skips the “Bangkok Dangerous” of lurid film lore misses out on little more than the chance to purchase pirated DVDs and witness much woeful behaviour.

How is this Bangkok faring in 2009? I ride the train to Sukhumvit and walk a long dark alley to inquire of the good people at the Atlanta hotel. “No Sex Tourists of Any Kind,” a notice on the front door makes plain. Inside, the 1950s establishment conducts business as though from another, perhaps pre-Vietnam era. The absence of lobby air conditioning in humid March contributes to the effect.

An older British expatriate who does bookings agrees to talk. He prefers not to give his name. The modest Atlanta, he assures me, is doing just fine: steady occupancy rate, with many new customers being business types no longer staying at the Hilton on expense account. Those fancier hotels, he reports, are gasping for trade. “Huge, empty palaces,” he calls them. He attended a tourism luncheon where hotel managers were “crying in their soup.”

The industry is much bigger than officially reported, the man speculates. Maybe 20 per cent of the Thai economy counts on tourism – much of which has gone missing.

TRAVELLERS’ BANGKOK

Travellers in Bangkok, in contrast, can mostly be found back near the Chao Praya. Banglamphu isn’t only the headquarters for the Western backpackers and long-term Asia trippers whose attitudes, and spending habits, set them apart. The neighbourhood is also the heart of Old Bangkok.

Here, amid real palaces for real kings, national museums and majestic temples, sits Khaosan Road, its own kind of bacchanal. The street, clogged with mostly no-star hotels and outdoor bars, is where young Westerners exchange travellers’ tales and plot escapes to the latest incarnation of “The Island” myth, of the popular novel and movie alike.

I wander Khaosan Road in daylight and dark. The sheer quantity of Westerners looks unchanged from earlier visits in better times. The local industry built to serve their particular needs – cheap bad accommodation, cheap good food and cold beer, some drugs – has, if anything, expanded, elongating the neighbourhood by several blocks.

But Ms. Muy at Orm Travel Agency isn’t so sure. I have been booking plane and train tickets with Ms. Muy, whose agency-cafĂ©-flophouse holds pride of place near the middle of the long unbroken block of Khaosan, for 20 years. She is the same genial lady at the same battered wood desk. Around her appear the same fresh-fruit vendors and meat-skewer stands, the same stalls retailing knock-off editions of popular books and CDs or, of late, iPod downloads.

Ms. Muy, however, sees diminishment along Khaosan: fewer travellers with less cash to spend. “Economy is no good,” she says in her simple English. Later that night, dining outdoors with 10,000 others, it is hard to declare this tourist Bangkok in decline. But it does take a lot of $3 meals and $20 rooms to recapture a percentage point in a national GDP.

ESSENTIAL BANGKOK

Neither Khaosan Road nor Sukhumvit shows much about how the vast majority of Bangkok’s 12 million residents are faring. That city is easy to gain access to and, thanks to the agreeable Thai character, a visit is rarely taken as an intrusion.

Ride a water taxi up the river or along one of the canals and glimpse the interiors of wooden houses and the perpetual bustle of local markets. Spend an hour in a temple and feel how integrated, and natural, Buddhism is to that national character. Midday heat slows the pace, and occasionally alters perceptions.

Or venture across the Chao Praya into the neighbouring district of Thonburi. Once inland, the tangle of streets, closer to a Thai village than any metropolis, sees few Westerners.

Children in school uniforms negotiate narrow laneways with saffron-robed monks. Stray dogs flop in the middle of thoroughfares until approaching vehicles encourage them to move. Life, in other words, carries on, heedless of the ebb and flow of sex tourists or backpackers alike.

Can highlighting this calmer, more stable Bangkok be of any help in salvaging the horrible tourism year of 2009? Probably not. But it does offer a balanced vision of an enduring travel destination temporarily laid low.


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