More than two weeks after the death of Thailand’s king Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok’s nightspots are back in business.
The military government’s call to cease all “joyful events” for a month in the wake of the king’s death on October 13 came just a few weeks before the start of the high season for tourists. The timing couldn’t have been worse for an economy that’s propped up by overseas fun seekers. However, pragmatism has since prevailed.
In Soi Cowboy, a strip of go-go bars in the downtown Sukhumvit area of Bangkok, the bright neon signs that normally cast a warm glow over the street remain switched off, but otherwise it’s just another Saturday night when we visit. Disco music pulses from behind heavy velvet curtains, and young women – in sombre black bikini tops and shorts – entice tourists and expats into dimly lit bars to watch pole dancing and maybe find company.
Jonathan, a long-time Soi Cowboy bar owner, is adamant the international media is distorting the situation in Thailand. Like others, he preferred not to give his real name due to sensitivity over the subject of the long-ruling king’s death. Bangkok’s famed nightlife has not ground to a halt, he insists, although last orders on alcohol sales are now called at midnight, rather than 2am or later.
“It’s a total fabrication,” he says. “It was a couple of days, and then over the weekend we had a Buddhist holiday [when alcohol sales are traditionally banned]. I had people forwarding me all these strange things, saying stuff like Soi Cowboy has been closed indefinitely. If anything’s going to affect what’s happening, it’s disinformation like this.”
The neon signs have been dimmed out of respect for Bhumibol, he says. “The reason people come here is not about the neon lights; it’s not about the music. It’s about the people. So you respect their feelings.”
If anything, more visitors have flooded into Soi Cowboy in the past fortnight than he saw in the same period last year, Jonathan says. “If there’s any message, it’s that things are fine. There’s nothing draconian; there’s no harassment of anybody, and I think everyone is so appreciative of people who are coming here that those people are having a great time.”
The high season for tourism begins in November, when the rainy season ends, and peaks around December and January.
Sitting outdoors on a bar stool at the end of the street, English teacher Adrian says the junta’s announcement probably deterred some holidaymakers from visiting the kingdom, but the government understands it needs to keep tourists coming for the economy’s sake.
“After pressure from the nightlife industry, the junta ‘clarified’ its statement by saying only outdoor entertainment was banned and that indoor entertainment could go ahead, with subdued music and lighting,” says Adrian, who has worked in Thailand for 12 years. “Since then things have been slowly returning to normal,” he adds, straining to be heard above the din of raucous laughter and lively chatter on the street.
Across town in Patpong, a tourist night market thronged with bars, business is quieter, especially after a thunderstorm erupts.
Although live bands and DJs no longer perform in its open-fronted bars, it’s business as usual in the go-go bars, and hustlers still prowl the street touting ping-pong shows.
“Business is down; very bad,” says Wanida, a bar manager who has worked in Patpong for 25 years. She then concedes that it’s much the same as any other year at the end of October.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that large numbers of tourists from China have begun to visit in the past year. Two months ago, the go-go bar next to her place hung a red banner on the outside wall with Chinese characters proclaiming “We love Chinese”. It’s surrounded by other banners echoing the sentiment in Japanese and Korean.
Wanida is not too impressed with the Chinese visitors, though. “They talk very loudly, not like the Japanese,” she says, crudely imitating the tones of Putonghua. “They just come to look at the girls,” she adds, inferring that they don’t take them out. “They buy one drink and then they go shopping.”
In Khaosan Road, the backpacker hang-out close to Bangkok’s historic heart, Canadians Stacey McLean and Dallas Larocque, both 22 and from Vancouver, are chatting cheerfully around a table in Lucky Beer. They had arrived in Thailand only a few hours earlier.
“We were a little bit nervous,” McLean says of the moment she learned of the king’s death, after booking her flight. “We were told it didn’t make too much difference, and it’s already been almost a month.”
They will stay in Thailand for four weeks, first visiting a friend on Koh Tao, a small island popular among divers. “Hopefully we’ll also go to a full moon party on Koh Phangan on November 14, if it’s still going on,” McLean adds.
Larocque says their friend on Koh Tao advised them nighttime fun has been toned down, but “not drastically”.
“I heard a lot of places were closing earlier, but I hadn’t really thought about it so I didn’t know what to expect.”
Irishman Shane, 25, is sitting outside Mulligan’s bar farther down the road with his partner. They’ve been in the capital for two days and don’t see how the mourning period could spoil their holiday.
“I know some temples are closed, but we went to the Temple of the Reclining Buddha [Wat Pho] and we enjoyed it. That was still open.”
Shane says they plan to spend the next 3½ weeks island hopping. “As far as I’m aware, it should be OK on the islands for parties. We had a long-term plan to come to Thailand. It was all pre-booked and paid for, so we had no choice,” he says, when asked if they’d considered cancelling their trip.
Suranand Vejjajiva, a political commentator and owner of Brainwake Café in the Sukhumvit area, says tourists understand that Thais are mourning the loss of a king most regarded as a father figure, after 70 years on the throne.
“At the same time, we also appreciate very much the tourists and expats here. They seem to have a great understanding of what we are going through,” says Suranand, formerly secretary general for the office of Yingluck Shinawatra, the democratically elected prime minister ousted by the military junta in 2014.
“I think there’s only a few tourists who, when they came, didn’t know [about the mourning period], but then immediately changed into darker clothes and tried their best to sacrifice some of the enjoyment they expected when they came to Thailand. Some tourists who visit my café, who I talk to, don’t feel they have lost anything,” he says.
When we visit it’s the first day the public are allowed to pay their respects to Bhumibol in the Dusit Maha Prasart Throne Hall at the Grand Palace complex, where the late king’s body lies in state. Thousands of people from across the kingdom, dressed in black, queue quietly to enter the palace, and a number of tourists join the Thais in a show of support.
Motorcyclists are offering free rides to the palace, some with signs advertising their services in both Thai and English. Stalls have popped up where free food and water are dished out to mourners who have come from all corners of the nation. A small boy dashes over and sticks a pork bun in my hand. It’s a gesture typical of the hospitality shown by ordinary Thais that has fed a groundswell of goodwill among tourists and keeps them returning.
Among the Thai mourners are Italians Paolo Sala and Sara Colombo, who are carrying portraits of Bhumibol. Asked why they have joined the procession, their tour guide chimes in and says simply: “Respect.”
Thailand has a habit of bouncing back from crises. In the past decade alone, the country has weathered two military coups, colour-coded protests that have, by turn, shut down the country’s main airport and seen main roads in Bangkok barricaded, and last year’s bombing at the Erawan shrine in Bangkok that killed 20 people, including six Chinese tourists.
Official statistics show the number of arrivals in Thailand almost tripled between 2001 and last year, from a little over 10 million to almost 30 million, with the most recent dips in 2009, after a bloody crackdown on supporters of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and in 2014, following the last coup.
Just over nine million arrivals were recorded in the first three months of this year, an increase of 15.45 per cent over the same period in 2015.
“In the ’80s, we restructured our economy with a very strong tourism programme in place, and I think that helped a lot. We are quite resilient,” says Suranand. “Every country faces crises, up and down, political or not. But in a short period we recover very quickly.
“People still have to make a living, and it’s just this period when we would like to pay our respects to his majesty. The Thai authorities also understand that we observe our mourning, but we don’t enforce this on everyone who visits from abroad.”