Scenes from a Coup

Lingerie-clad dancers and Starbucks: After the Thai coup: A surreal day

September 20, 2006


BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) _ Word of a military coup and tanks on the streets spread quickly inside the heaving bars of one of Bangkok's most infamous red-light districts.

But instead of closing up and running home, the lingerie-clad dancers kept dancing and the drinkers kept drinking as long as they could.

Anywhere else, the overthrow of a prime minister and the imposition of martial law might have sent shivers through a fearful population. But in Thailand's glittering capital, the news of Thailand's first coup in 15 years was greeted with a little bit of caution, a lot of calm smiles and some surreal scenes.

"Just relax, listen to the music and buy me a drink." That's what Num, a 29-year-old woman who works at a bar -- and would only give her first name -- had to say when asked what she thought about the coup early Wednesday.

"Nobody is worried," Num said as a group of beer-swigging Ukrainian pilots watched a dozen high-heeled women gyrating on a table under blue and red lights. "At least, not yet."

Throughout Wednesday, that seemed to be the dominant sentiment across much of Bangkok, where many residents woke up to learn the military had ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a 57-year-old billionaire whose popularity has dwindled amid allegations of corruption and abuse of power.

With the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej still in power and the army keeping a tight lid on security, few seemed to mind the sudden change.

"A coup wasn't the right thing to do, but it was the best thing to do," said Sisoi Snidvongs, a 27-year-old advertising worker who was surfing the Web for news on her laptop at Starbucks. "They should have done it a long time ago."

Many Thais were reassured when the coup leaders pledged loyalty to the country's popular monarch and apologized for "any inconvenience" they had caused, Snidvongs said.

"It's a funny coup," she said. Pointing out the window at families strolling by, she added: "It doesn't feel much like martial law."


Most of Bangkok was so normal that a first-time visitor to the city would have had a tough time figuring out a coup had just taken place.

Though government offices and schools were closed, most stores, even the city's major shopping malls, stayed open. Shoppers browsed for clothes and artwork at curbside kiosks and vendors hawked grilled squid and chicken, as always. Traffic flowed normally, too -- the usual sea of rickshaw drivers, public buses and purple and orange taxis.

The main giveaway that something was amiss were the tanks, Humvees and armored troop carriers deployed around key government installations. They first appeared late Tuesday, and they became instant tourist attractions to Thais and foreigners alike, who posed beside them for photos.

Children climbed on top of tanks and made the "V" for victory sign with their fingers as they sat beside silent, smiling soldiers. Others, curious about tank treads and turrets, ran their hands across them. Some Thais handed out purple and yellow flowers, which troops promptly stuck in their pockets or on top of their vehicles.

"It's a bit surreal," said 35-year-old Keith Graham, a tourist from Northern Ireland, who was snapping pictures beside one tank near parliament. "It's not every day you get to see a coup."


Indeed, a coup was the last thing most vacationers would have expected to happen in Thailand, a tranquil tourist destination that boasts pristine turquoise-water beaches, exotic wildlife and foot massages that last an hour. Thais are also known for their warm hospitality and ubiquitous smiles.

"You see the soldiers are smiling. People are giving them flowers," said Nuttachai, a 45-year-old businessman who brought his wife and 9-year-old son out to see tanks that blocked off roads to the Royal Palace, the army headquarters and Thaksin's office.

"People outside Thailand will look at this coup and think badly of us," Nuttachai said. "They will be afraid, but there is no reason to be."
Todd Pitman, the AP's bureau chief in Dakar, Senegal, was vacationing in Asia at the time of the coup in Thailand.

Copyright 2006 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.