Should you Still Travel to Thailand?

October 19, 2016

As anyone who follows the news is no doubt aware, King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand died last week at the age of 88. He had been the reigning monarch for 70 years, through 15 coups and more historical events that many of us will see in a lifetime. Thailand is still officially in mourning for the next year, leaving travelers to ask the shallow, but necessary question: should we still travel to Thailand?

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Yes, yes you should. This isn’t like cruise ships that docked at 5-star resorts in Haiti in the aftermath of hurricane damage. Thailand has suffered a terrible loss and it’s definitely noticeable in the day-to-day life of its people, but the economy relies heavily on tourism; heading to another country in Southeast Asia until things return to the happy-go-lucky, mai pen rai attitude tourists have come to expect on their Thai vacations will only do more harm than good.

That having been said, there are certain facts of which you should be aware if you choose to travel to Thailand.

Alcohol. The main gripe we’re seeing spread over the Internet includes the lack of beer and spirits in Thailand at the moment. While it’s true the authorities did officially require shops, bars, and clubs to stop serving alcohol on October 16th, and many will still be closed to honor their request for a 30-day period without festivals or celebrations, this is not a dry country: 7-11 is back to business as usual. Even on the 16th, convenience stories and pubs in popular farang (foreigner) areas were discreetly serving beer. However, for the next month it is up to the individual owners to decide if they will sell alcohol… and some will not out of respect. I, for one, appreciate the fact tourists may have to find something to do sober.

Lèse majesté laws. One aspect of visiting or living in Thailand that largely goes unreported is its enforcement of laws prohibiting speaking out against the King. While tourists may have legitimate concerns over flying into the country during this somber period, they cannot take out their frustrations in front of any image of the King or royal family; punishment for breaking this law can be several years’ imprisonment. One Thai woman got off relatively easily in Bangkok. This includes venting on social media. Just be mindful not to even casually or unintentionally let an insult loose as you’re sitting in a restaurant or lying in front of your computer lamenting the cancellation of the Full Moon Party.

Safety. This isn’t like 2008 when protests crippled the airport, or 2014 when tourists and Thais had to fear bombings around Bangkok. Since that time, Thailand has been under military rule, and the death of the King doesn’t change that. It’s true he was a large stabilizing force and exerted a great deal of influence, but power hasn’t changed hands. There isn’t political unrest in the streets, or attempts to overthrow the government. The only noticeable difference is more people being quiet, less loud music playing, more black and dark colors being worn.

Nightlife. Officially, the mourning period for the King will end in October 2017, with a call to cancel and restrict all celebrations for the next 30 days. The famous Full Moon Party on Kou Phangan, coincidentally on October 16th, was cancelled, but the next one on November 14th should be a go. Tour operators and club owners must be torn on this issue; their livelihoods depend upon presenting Thailand as this ethereal Neverland, but their respect for such a beloved figure is telling them to wait. Like bars, major red light districts were shut down on October 16th, with many continuing to stay closed for at least 30 days. This includes some infamous sex shows, but night markets and some festivals are slowly coming back.

What about the next King? Immediately following his father’s death, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn declined to ascend the throne, stating it was a time for mourning. Reports are coming in now that he may complete the coronation as early as Friday, but this is pure speculation. As I am in Thailand, in accordance with the lèse-majesté laws I cannot report any of the controversy surrounding the prince at this time.

The bottom line is this should be a wake up call for tourists to Thailand. All too often many of us treat countries that aren’t are own as places where etiquette and decorum don’t exist. It’s a pity it takes a tragedy like this to shine a light on that behavior, to keep it in check.

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Come to Thailand. The alcohol is flowing, but that doesn’t mean you need to drink on the street or in front of people wearing black. You can still get trained to dive on Kou Tao. You can still visit the night markets, eat the delicious street food, and wai in respect to Thai people. The trains and buses are running, the hotels are still cheap, and the massages are relaxing. Please share in the more somber events as a respectful observer without treating them as an inconvenience.

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