'Same same but different'

'Same same but different'

BANGKOK - For the last week, I've been dispensing daily travel advice to people who are coming to Bangkok for a holiday.

Is it dangerous? No, it's not. Can I still go? Yes, you can.

Even my parents who were here felt safe, I told them.

Their concerns are understandable, given photos of protesters and riot police splashed across the media.

Headlines are just as misleading. For example, some leading news outlets wrote: "Protesters storm army headquarters" - conjuring up scary images of protesters clashing with the authorities.

It can't be further from the truth. The protesters did force their way in through the gates. But there was minimal resistance from the guards.

And the protesters stayed on the lawn for about two hours to enlist the army's support for their cause. They left and returned to their main protest site at the Democracy Monument, which is about 5km from Siam Paragon Shopping Centre.

Bangkok is more than twice the size of Singapore. It's big and it's easy to avoid the rally sites, which are off the beaten tourist track. But the protesters sometimes fan out during the day to some shopping spots frequented by tourists.

Yesterday, they amassed in front of Terminal 21 shopping centre in the afternoon, before marching to the US embassy and returning to their base.

For those new to anti-government demonstrations in Thailand, the words "protest" and "mob" may seem rather alarming.

But protests in Bangkok do have an almost festive air most of the time. The main rally site on Ratchadamnoen Road has lots of free food. Singers and musicians take the stage to entertain the crowd. It has become the "in place" for middle-class Bangkok urbanites to catch up with friends while doing their public duty by blowing whistles and waving hand clappers.

Besides, how often does one get to "squat" in places where access is usually denied, such as the Democracy Monument, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Department of Special Investigations?

Some 100,000 people assembled at the monument on Sunday at the peak of the protest. But the numbers have since declined.

These protests, the biggest since 2010, were triggered earlier this month when the government tried to push through an amnesty bill that could have opened the door to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's return to the country. Even though the Thai Senate rejected the bill on Nov 11, the demonstrators have called for his sister and current prime minister Yingluck's government to be replaced.

The government has pledged not to use violence to disperse the protesters, while the protest leader is not willing to negotiate at all while pushing to escalate matters day by day.

Meanwhile, life continues as usual for most people in Bangkok.

There are small inconveniences here and there, such as my parents missing out on the famous pad thai shop because it's just a stone's throw from the rally site or when the snarling traffic grinds to a halt as protesters amble around the city. For now, the protest remains - to borrow a common Thai phrase - "same same but different".

And yes, the shopping centres are still open.

Jane Lee works in a PR agency and has been living in Bangkok for close to a decade, during which she has gone through more protests than can be counted on two hands.


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