Bangkok battleground deserted but city life goes on

BANGKOK (Reuters) - The Singha Global Carnival Ferris wheel stands idle, the amusement park deserted. The big sign above the gate says “Fun every day”, but not today -- Bangkok’s central commercial district looks like a charred war zone.

Ploenchit Road, where troops and anti-government protesters staged a bloody battle on Wednesday, is blackened from burning tire barricades. Traffic lights hang like melted street decorations. Stinking rubbish is strewn down a road overlooked by empty, high-rise luxury apartments.

Makeshift tents stand abandoned. For weeks they had been home to thousands of protesters who created a carnival-like atmosphere, dancing and singing at rallies. Military checkpoints have turned one of the capital’s ritziest shopping precincts into a no-man’s land as some 300 heavily armed troops and police begin a final sweep of the district for “red shirt” protesters and weapons.

Businessman Don Bryant and his wife Joy, unable to return to their apartment, take photographs of the destruction from a military checkpoint. Their children Amber Rose and Dylan play among the few bags of clothes and food they have salvaged.

“I am leaving Thailand after 10 years,” said Don. “I am taking my family out of here. We don’t want to leave Thailand, but this is a disaster.”

“It’s a vibrant, metropolitan, cosmopolitan place -- it’s an exciting place. Today in my heart, when I looked at Central World, I was devastated.”

The destruction by fire overnight of Central World, Southeast Asia’s second-largest department store, shocked many Thais.

The malls at Rachaprasong intersection -- the heart of the “red shirt” camp from April 3 -- had combined revenue of around 5.2 billion baht ($161 million) in a normal month.

London fashion designer Frank Johnston arrived in Bangkok a week ago for a shopping holiday. On Thursday he sat at a fast-food restaurant for a last meal before flying home.

“It’s just been dire. There’s been no shopping, no nightlife,” said Johnston. “But it’s been more of a shock to the locals. Tourists can dodge the bullets and have a story to tell.”

Traffic clogs the roads a short motorbike ride away in old Bangkok. Street hawkers peddle their wares and Western men with young Thai girls walk the street.

Life away from the unrest has gone on more or less as normal, albeit sometimes frustratingly with banks, public transport, schools and power shut down temporarily.

The Westin Hotel, like other top hotels, has boarded up its glass frontage. A red arrow and sign point to an emergency entrance around the corner. Inside, it’s business as usual.


While not directly affected by the protesters’ camp, many other Bangkok businesses had to shut their doors as business dried up along with the tourists.

The state Tourism Authority of Thailand has cut its target for tourists in 2010 to 13 million from 15.5 million and slashed its annual revenue target by a fifth to 480 billion baht ($14.8 billion).

Street hawker Buppha “Jeab” Yatacoth’s T-shirt business has slumped. Before the unrest she’d sell up to 30 a day, making some 3,000 baht. Today she’s lucky to sell five and pocket 300 baht. A night curfew forces her to close during her most lucrative hours.

“No tourists come now. Thailand now no good, boom, boom, boom,” she said, imitating the sound of the explosions.

Some of her competitors have abandoned their stalls.

Goy, a street noodle vendor in a luxury residential area near the protest site, erected umbrellas to shade a handful of customers on Thursday.

“The only way for this violence to end is to have a new election,” Goy said. A young girl rode her bike past troops to get a bottle of coke and chips from a small shop nearby.

Even Bangkok’s notorious red light district is empty.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen next after the pictures of Bangkok on fire were seen all over the world,” said “Oy”, a worker at a go-go bar. “Business is going from bad to worse.”

Editing by Paul Tait