Thailand martial law: tips for Australian tourists

Thai soldiers take up a position on a main road in Bangkok after the army declared martial law on Tuesday.
Thai soldiers take up a position on a main road in Bangkok after the army declared martial law on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters

The father of an Australian traveller in Thailand once reported receiving a photo of his son proudly leaning on a tank attached to an email remarking on the impressive nature of Thailand's military parades.

However, the tank was not involved in any pomp and ceremony; it was a participant in a fully-fledged coup. There are bound to be many Australians today similarly ignorant of the events unfolding in Thailand.

And this genuine anecdote illustrates how blissfully – and perhaps dangerously – unaware we can be while on holidays, especially in a destination so beloved by Australians as Thailand.

A selfie is taken at a military checkpoint in central Bangkok.
A selfie is taken at a military checkpoint in central Bangkok. Photo: AP

But coups – or as it's more politely referred to as martial law – by its sudden and draconian nature, are not meant to be fun. True, Thailand has had more declarations of martial law than the average troupe of go-go dancers at a Patpong bar. 

And, also true, the coups have tended to be bloodless. But Thailand’s recent political history has been a more violent one. In 2010, tourists were trapped in hotels during fully-fledged street fire-fights, in which dozens of people were killed.

So if you’re travelling in unstable countries, such as Thailand which has undoubtedly been for some time, it always pays to not completely switch off from the news and to have a loose plan of action in the back of your mind should events unravel.

Although the Federal Government’s official travel advisory site, Smart Traveller, has been disparaged at times for its alarmist travel warnings, it can be your best friend in uncertain security situations, such as today’s declaration of military law in Thailand.

It currently advises Australians to “exercise a high degree of caution”. This means: monitor Smart Traveller closely; keep a close eye on the media, such as the leading 24/7 news channels and news websites for regular updates; be aware of the possible imposition of censorship in local media; and keep your electronic devices fully-charged at all times.

Although it can appear "business as usual" on the streets, it's wise to keep a low profile and be aware of potential hot-spots, which Smart Traveller has identified.

It can be a natural instinct to head straight to the nearest international airport. But, in doing so, you may find access to roads blocked by the military and/or protesters and terminals packed with tourists, like you, all wanting to urgently leave. Should events escalate or the airport is blockaded, flights may be cancelled by airlines that don't want to risk being unable to get their precious aircraft out.

I was in Bangkok some years ago and bombs were exploding around the city; I found it reassuring to be able to monitor BBC World in order to plan a course of action. Fortunately, my partner and I were heading up-river on a cruise the next day which provided us with the perfect escape from Bangkok.

However, it may prove that there are fewer Australians in Bangkok today as the hotels there have reported a sharp decline in visitor numbers due the nation’s ongoing political instability. But the declaration of martial law is nation-wide and needs to be taken seriously by any Australian holidaying in any part of the country.

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