White sand and blue water – the image the tourism industry promotes of Thailand. But many tourists stayed away following a spate of terrorist bombings. The recent death of Thailand’s king also affected tourism.
Now, radio stations are again playing music. Parties are being held and street markets have reopened. This does not mean that normality has returned to Thailand. As I make my way from Suvarnabhumi airport to the city center of Bangkok, I am struck by the changed mood. I have a six-hour stop-over here in the capital on my way to the holiday island of Koh Samui. The first month of the year-long mourning period for King Bhumibol has just ended. Nevertheless many people can still be seen wearing black. Anyone who knows the bustling city of Bangkok will quickly notice the subdued atmosphere. For many in Thailand life goes on as a mix of mourning and uncertainty.
The king was a symbol of unity and stability
The maid at my hotel gives me her take on why the mood has changed so dramatically. The king, whom she refers to as "her" king, was not just a highly respected monarch and father of the nation. He was responsible for many initiatives throughout the country to improve the lives of poor farmers and to make education accessible to all of his nearly 70 million subjects. The king, who was born in the United States and raised in Switzerland, was a symbol of stability, an anchor in a divided and torn nation. His reign spanned two dozen governments and nearly as many military coups. King Bhumibol stood over it all, revered and respected by his people, a guarantor of unity and a moral authority.
That anchor is now gone. The deeply divided society - split into the "red shirt" wearing supporters of exiled former president Thaksin Shinawatra and the "yellow-shirts," a loose grouping of royalists, nationalists and the urban middle class, who supported the king and recent military coups.
Livelihoods are at stake
Uncertainty over the country's future is on the rise. Many Thais fear for their livelihoods. Thailand relies heavily on revenue from tourism. Some 30 million visitors come here every year for the white sandy beaches with crystal blue waters or to go backpacking through the 76 provinces of the country. They all spend money, ensuring incomes for the waiters in the five-star hotels on Koh Samui, the drivers of Bangkok motorbike taxis, and for the women selling bananas and mangos at the side of the road.
Business this season has been disastrous, says Mattias, as he stands at a highly polished wooden table in his up-market restaurant on Koh Samui. Althogh his name might make you think otherwise, Matthias was actually born in Thailand. When he was a small child he was adopted and, like the king, grew up in Switzerland. He returned to Thailand as an accomplished chef. Mattias speaks out where many of his fellow Thais remain silent, about issues officially swept under the carpet: the marked decline in Russian and Chinese visitors. Europeans have also been opting for Vietnam or Malaysia. You can spot empty shops everywhere you look and property prices have been plummeting. Investors and hotel chains have put construction projects in Thailand on hold, while they wait and see what happens next.
Crises are nothing new here
It all began back in 2014, Mattias says, with weeks-long street battles between red and yellow shirted protesters. A military coup to put an end to the fighting on the streets.
What was an already tense situation, took a marked turn for the worse a few months ago when, in mid-August, a series of deadly bombings occurred on the holiday island of Phuket, the sea resort of Hua Hin and several other provinces, all locations frequented by tourists. Since then, says Mattias, security has been tightened, his car trunk often searched when he goes shopping. Whether the attacks were the work of separatists from the Muslim south of Thailand (where a conflict has been ongoing for many decades) remains in dispute. Mattias says though that this isn't really what matters. The only thing that counts is that many tourists felt unsafe and turned their backs on Thailand.
I hear similar statements on the beach at Koh Phangan. The owner of a small wooden boat tells me he and his colleagues used to ferry tourists between the islands until late into the night. Today he's happy if he can fill his boat two or three times a day. He agrees that Thailand’s "Full Moon Parties" are still well attended but adds that there were just a lot more party goers in the past.
The easy playfulness is gone
Talking of Full Moon Parties - I decide to head to one. At the port on Koh Phangan, I couldn’t help noticing that a lot has changed since my last visit eight years ago. On the way to the beach I have to, like everyone heading to the party, go through a metal detector - like at an airport. "No problem sir," this policeman smiles at me from behind the metal frame. Despite his friendliness, it is apparent the carefree and easy atmosphere that I knew from past visits has vanished for good.
There are metal detectors in Bangkok too - at the entrance to subway stations for example, and at train stations. On the way from the airport to my hotel I repeatedly had to open my suitcase for inspection. No problem really - and yet a completely new experience for me in what is known as the "Land of Smiles."
A security guards apologizes to me in broken English for the inconvenience and asks where I'm from. He tells me he used to work at the airport, but that now the police and the military have taken charge of security there. I ask him if the bomb attacks worry him. He hesitates before answering, then cautiously nods. He displays a coin and shows me the depiction of the omnipresent king. Then he tells me that the worst thing is the uncertainty, not knowing how Thailand is to go on without the king. Just then his colleague joins us, and the security guard turns away silently.