For tourists, Thailand feels almost exactly the same as it did before the coup d'état. The main difference? The tanks and soldiers stationed in and around Bangkok have become tourist attractions for both foreigners and Thais. People have been posing for pictures with the tanks, and the soldiers have been more than happy to comply. The Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy (the adopted name of the coup leaders) has encouraged the soldiers to be friendly and reassuring -- not exactly the stereotypical image of the muscle behind a military junta.
So why has this coup gone so smoothly, and why have so many Thais embraced it?
The country was in trouble before the coup. There was a real chance of violence breaking out between opponents of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his supporters during street protests planned for the end of September. Thaksin and his populist policies enjoyed great support in rural areas -- but his alleged corruption, inability to quell the violence in the South, and what critics saw as his continued attacks on Thailand's democratic institutions for political gain caused great discontent among Bangkok's middle class. This disunity and resultant political chaos prompted the king to enter the fray by asking the Constitutional Court to "fix the mess."
Although he has little official power, the king's influence is immense; on the few occasions that he has involved himself, both sides have listened. His Majesty the King Bhumibol Adulyadej is revered by all Thais, and they see him as their moral leader and protector. This was a big reason why most Thais and ex-pats living in Thailand, myself included, did not believe that the coup would turn violent. It was assumed that a coup would not go forward without at least the tacit approval of the king, and he did indeed give his official approval the next day. It was this approval that guaranteed no resistance would be mounted.
After living in Thailand for a while, you begin to understand the great affection that the Thais have for the king (or "our King" as many call him), and start to believe that everything will be okay as long as he is looking out for us. In fact, I think that Thailand might end up being safer for tourists after the coup. The chance of violent street protests seems much less likely now that Thaksin is out of the picture. The coup's leader, General Sondhi Boonyaratklin, is a Muslim and will hopefully be more effective in dealing with the Muslim separatists in the south. As it stands, canceling travel plans to Thailand is not warranted at this time. With no fewer than 17 under their collective belt, the Thais have -- for better or worse -- become masters of the coup. It's a blight on this emergent democracy, but the transition shows no signs of becoming violent. Besides, how many family pictures have you taken in front of a tank?
Additionally, we recommend reading the travel notices published by government agencies:
- The US State Department hasn't issued an official travel warning (http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/tw/tw_1764.html), and there's no info on the coup on Thailand's Consular Information Sheet.
- The UK has a different take on its Foreign & Commonwealth Office's site.
- Canada is more cautious: www.voyage.gc.ca/dest/report-en.asp?country=290000
- Australia suggests extreme caution: www.smartraveller.gov.au/zw-cgi/view/Advice/Thailand.