Bea Cupin
Thailand is a dream for any traveller, but it's again mired in political unrest

In a world of check-ins and geo-tags, Thailand stands out: in 2013, Bangkok’s Siam Paragon Shopping Mall and the Suvarnabhumi Airport were Instagram’s 1st and 9th most geo-tapped locations in 2013 – the only two locations outside of the United States of America to make it to the list. When it comes to geo-tagging, the gargantuan mall out-tagged even the iconic New York Times Square.

Thanks to Thailand’s Instagram-happy tourists, the country is first in the region in terms of tourism receipts, according the 2015 United Nations World Tourism Organization. According to the Global Destination Cities Index, Bangkok was the world’s most visited city in 2016, beating London.

With its majestic temples, sandy beaches, and floating markets, Thailand is a sight to behold. Home to 5 UNESCO World Heritage sites, it’s no wonder it’s the top destination in Southeast Asia.

Selfies and hashtags aside, Thailand is a dream for any traveller – from the history geek, to the beach bum, and to the thrill-seeker.

Mystique of Siam

Old and new converge in one of Thailand’s 5 UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Ayutthaya, the ruins of what used to be the center of Siam.

Its palaces and monasteries are long gone – razed and attacked by the Burmese in 1767. Its locals never rebuilt it, and instead chose to move downstream, establishing what is now the country capital Bangkok.

But all 289 hectares of the City of Ayutthaya is a reminder of Thailand’s rich history, where modern-day city planners could learn a thing or two. According to UNESCO, Ayutthaya was “laid out according to a systematic and rigid city planning grid, consisting of roads, canals, and moats around all the principal structures.”

The ancient capital was the center of commerce and trade both for Southeast Asia and the world. Records show its locals traded with China, Japan, and even France. It was a melting pot of culture – “foreigners served in the employ of the government and also lived in the city as private individuals,” according to UNESCO.

Proof of the ancient city’s diversity can be seen in its ruins.

Despite opening its arms to foreigners Thailand is also something of an outlier in its own region, being the only country to have never been occupied by a European power.

‘Amazing Thailand’

Thailand’s tourism industry contributed 20.8% of the country’s gross domestic product in 2015. More than 29 million people visited Thailand in 2015 and who can blame them? The country’s attractions are its beaches, food, shops and and its charming people.

But another sort of tourist attraction has made Thailand famous (or infamous) among travelers: sex tourism.

A 2008 Human Rights report by the US State Department notes: “Prostitution is illegal, although it is practiced openly throughout the country.” A thousand and more journalists, photographers, and storytellers have all trooped to Thailand to take photos and tell the stories of the country’s sex workers.

The World Health Organization says there are somewhere between 150,000 to 200,000 prostitutes in the country in a “secret” industry that is estimated to be worth US$ 4.2 billion yearly.

Although illegal, the sex industry in Thailand is heavily monitored by its government – primarily to put a stop to the rise of HIV/AIDS cases in the country. A WHO study says: “Thailand provides a good example of the way in which the sex idustry has become institutionalized, more sophisticated, diversified and how, in recent years it has altered under the impact of new legislation and changing social patterns.”

In the ’90s, Thailand launched what many still consider to be the most effective anti-HIV campaign not just in the region, but in Asia. “Something is working in Thailand… [we] woke up late to AIDS, but I don’t think too late,” Mechai Viravaidya, also known as “Mr. Condom,” told the New York Times in 1992.

Still, Thailand has the highest HIV prevalence rate in Southeast Asia. Recent cuts to the country’s budget to curb the spread AIDS has became a cause of concern for many health workers (only 2% of the country’s AIDS budget goes to condoms).

From 2010 to 2011, the government increased its spending on treatment and care of HIV/AIDS infected people, resulting in the growth of the country’s anti-retroviral treatment program. But in 2012, UNAIDS raised concern that HIV incidents in Thailand could rise again, despite great strides in the past.

The rice and fall

As one of the world’s biggest agricultural countries, endless fields of farm land is common sight in Thailand’s countryside. The International Rice Research Institute estimates nearly 55% of the country’s arable land.

Much like its regional neighbors, rice is “the staple food of the population across income brackets.” In 2012, Thailand exported 6.9 million tons of rice, according to an Agence France-Presse report. The number wasn’t quite good enough, as the country saw itself losing the distinction of being the world’s top rice exporter.

Prior to 2012, Thailand was the undisputed king of rice – taking the top spot since 1980, according to one rice exporters association.

Thai rice exporters are pinning the blame on dismissed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s policy of buying rice from farmers at higher rates. The move was popular to rural folk, but it’s supposedly affecting Thailand’s standing in the international rice market.

In 2015, Thailand exported 9.8 million tons of rice, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, as government officials aspire to reclaim the country’s status as the top rice exporter.

Political unrest and ASEAN

The countryside is where Shinawatra’s and even her brother, exiled prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, got most of their votes. Popular, and with a strong hold on politics in the past, the Shinawatras saw an ungraceful exit from politics. 

In May 2014, the younger Shinawatra was dismissed from office on charges for abuse of power.

Less than 2 weeks after Yingluck Shinawatra was removed from office, the Thailand army placed the country under a martial law, in an attempt to quell months of civil and political unrest. 

At first, Thai generals insisted it was not a military coup. Two days later, however, the army said during a televised broadcast that they were “seizing power” in order to normalize order in the Thailand. 

A few months later, General Prayuth Chan-ocha was named prime minister by the military-appointed parliament.

Thailand’s political scenery may very well undo its accomplishments in attracting the world’s tourists. Since December 2013, Thailand has been practically operating without a functioning government.

A general election in February 2014 failed after demonstrators disrupted voting, and anti-government groups are steadfast in opposing “fresh selections without reforms first,” according to a report from Agence France-Presse.

Even with its political troubles, Thailand’s economy has contributed a sizable share in the ASEAN region’s GDP, ranking second behind Indonesia.

How will Thailand resolve its political problems? The rest of Southeast Asia will have to wait, see, and hope for the best. The sole ASEAN member to never have been under a European power will have to work out its own problems, says one ASEAN leader. –

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.