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Thailand Cracking?

Dana asked for my whereabouts, and I responded:

“Yes, in the North (Thailand).  All looks peaceful but I have never seen them bring up politics so much, and the emotions are HIGH.  But back to Afghanistan soon.  If Thailand really melts down, that would be very sad, but also it could have huge implications for this region.  You might want to keep your eye on this place.

I wrote those words on 19 October 2008 and headed back to Afghanistan.  Today, about six months later, I’m getting a sinking feeling about the growing unrest in Thailand.  I flew out of Chiang Mai,Thailand on Saturday and am in Malaysia.  A message just came in from Chiang Mai that tensions have increased in Chiang Mai even since Saturday.  Many Thai people are staying at home even though it’s time for the national water fight they call Songkran.

Many tourists might not notice increasing tensions unless they have a baseline of experience, or are dialed into the local community.  Tourists could walk around oblivious because the Thai people will not heap their problems on tourists.  Thais do not take western hostages.  Other than normal crime or accidents, westerners will almost certainly be safe provided they avoid clashes between protesters and the government.  And don’t rent motorbikes.  I have warned a hundred people not to rent motorbikes but seemingly to no avail.  If you want to get killed in Thailand, renting a motorbike is your best bet.  You are safer in Afghanistan than on a motorbike on Koh Samui.  (I’ll bet that claim would actually withstand rigorous actuarial scrutiny.)

Thailand is very friendly to the United States and our relationship is strong.  The country seems to improve year by year.  The reservoir of highly educated men and women continues to grow.  Women have achieved equality in education, which is creating a growing flood of women with advanced university degrees who remain single.  Thai women normally will not marry someone with less education.  In fact, they greatly prefer a man with superior education to themselves, which leaves many Thai women standing when the music stops.  Many are deciding to lead their entire lives single.

Despite the obvious progress, make no mistake that the current political crisis is serious.  Every democracy is different, and the fuse is burning faster and hotter on this one.

I do not wish to add problems to our Thai friends, yet this is a moment when the good, the bad and the ugly are important to report.  My suggestion, for folks heading to Thailand at this time, is to make other plans.  Though it’s extremely unlikely that Thai people would lash out at tourists, travelers could get stuck stuck in Thailand if the airport is closed again.  If you do get stuck and cannot fly from Bangkok, there are myriad ways to get out — such as flying from Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Koh Samui, or going overland to Laos, Cambodia, or Malaysia. Or hop on a cruise ship and step off in some another country such as Singapore, from which you can fly to anywhere in the world.  Singapore is probably about the safest country in the world so long as you remember two things: 1) Don’t smuggle drugs (execution); 2) Look both ways before crossing a road.

Even if there is severe unrest, getting stuck in Thailand should not be an issue.  There are probably hundreds of legal ways (and thousands of illegal ways) to get in and out of Thailand in the event that Suvarnabhumi Airport is closed again.

For the slightly adventure-minded, this could be an opportunity for a bargain holiday.  There’s unlikely to be any increased danger for tourists who avoid fighting, so just sit back and enjoy the plummeting hotel prices and learn to scuba dive.

Nothing may come of all this, but my gut feeling is not good.  This situation could be very bad for Thailand.

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Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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