BANGKOK — On a late afternoon last month, all is empty and quiet inside the Isetan at the CentralWorld shopping center here, one of the largest in Asia. The ground floor is mainly dedicated to beauty brands, and on a normal day, the department is one of the busiest in Isetan. But on this afternoon it is eerily empty.
Most of the customers are too scared or unwilling to brave the throngs of protesters blocking iconic Sukhumvit — an avenue dotted with most of the Thai capital’s luxury department stores and malls.
Suddenly, at around 5:20 p.m. outside of Isetan, there is a loud explosion. Glass panels are shaking, and those few people inside the mall are beginning to run toward the exit, or deeper into the department store.
Chayawan Sanwan, who is in charge of the boutique that is selling Chloé, Paul Smith, Bulgari and Marc Jacobs, is still shaken an hour after the blast:
“When the bomb exploded, I was here, just working as usual. The explosion felt so close, and everything was shaking. You could feel the blast. People began running, and some were screaming. Thai people obviously knew what was going on, but foreigners had no idea, and they were in panic…”
This shopping center has a bad history: It was totally ransacked, destroyed and burnt to ashes in 2010, during a different wave of protests, which some in Bangkok prefer to call “riots.” Four years ago, so-called red-shirts were fighting for the return of the exiled prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, and for social reforms, particularly in the poor northeast of Thailand.
Since then, the CentralWorld mall has been fully rebuilt. But now the city has been hit by a new wave of protests, this time commanded mainly by the upper-class and upper-middle-class residents of Bangkok against the government of Shinawatra’s younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, and her Pheu Thai party.
Several main roads and intersections are blocked; cars and taxicabs cannot pass to many commercial and business areas. The air is filled with the constant fear of violence.
Since November, more than 20 people have been killed and well over 700 have been injured in the capital and all over the country.
The impact on the Thai economy has been devastating, and retail, including luxury retail, has seen significant declines.
“Normally I sell at least eight bottles of perfume a day,” explained Sanwan. “On an average day it is between eight and 15.…But now, with the demonstrations literally outside this shopping center, sales dropped dramatically. And today, with this explosion…I only sold one bottle. And it is already almost 6 p.m.”
It is no wonder that retail is collapsing. Outside the CentralWorld mall, near the Ratchaprasong intersection and right in front of the Big C supermarket, several ambulances are flashing their lights. Army officers and medics, as well as police officers, have sealed the area.
A young army medic explained: “There was a grenade explosion, and at least 10 people were taken to the hospital, including children.”
A few hours later, it is confirmed that two people died as a result of the explosion. The following day the death toll climbed to four, including two children.
Asked how long the protests might last, opposition leader Sakoltee Phattiyakul declined to be specific: “I don’t know.…Until the prime minister resigns, until she goes home…” he said.
He added that the protests are peaceful and that there is no danger to foreigners. One of the top leaders of the opposition, Akanat Promphan, the spokesman of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), tried to be more specific: “We will be here for as long as it takes. We will be here until we succeed in forcing this government to resign.…Our movement tries to control, to defuse the organic anger of the people.…We are organizing peaceful demonstrations: no force; we are only using nonviolent means.”
Many Thais would disagree, but, politics aside, the threat of violence is constantly present. There are bomb and grenade explosions, and the protesters are feeling free to control access to entire commercial areas of Bangkok.
The fear of violence is becoming so common that it is driving out both businesses and visitors from the country, which has been for decades a top tourist destination.
Just a few minutes walk from the makeshift stages that have been set up by the protesters, arguably the most lavish mall in all of Bangkok, Gaysorn, appears to be completely empty. A clearly frustrated concierge laments: “Normally we close at 8 p.m., but lately most of the stores do by 7 p.m. Today, because of the bomb, almost no one was shopping here even at 6 p.m. Lately, the number of shoppers has dropped dramatically. People who used to come here are rich.…We only host the most exclusive brands, like Salvatore Ferragamo, Max Mara, Fratelli Rossetti and Louis Vuitton. Our customers were used to driving here, or to be more precise, they were accustomed to be driven.…Now, the only way to reach our shopping center is by taking the public transportation. It is a very nice system, but not ‘nice enough’ to the majority of our clients.”
Amid constant rumors of another military coup or even of a civil war, the number of foreign visitors to Thailand has dropped dramatically, including those who come from China.
At the latest addition to the Bangkok luxury hotel scene, W Bangkok, the room rates are sharply down, and hotel’s trendy and fluorescent lobby bar is now half-empty, even on Friday and Saturday nights.
A few miles away, on the beautiful Chao Phraya River, tables at cafés and bars of the legendary Mandarin Oriental Hotel are still hard to get without prior reservation, but almost all luxury retail outlets in one of the leading shopping arcades in the Asia-Pacific region, located in the historic and original wing of the hotel, are now empty.
At the designer outlets like Singaporean Kwawpen Handmade, handbags can be for sale at around $6,000, but customers are few and far between. “Yes, sales have gone down, significantly,” explained a salesperson.
At the shopping arcade adjacent to the Mandarin Oriental, O.P. Plaza, the owner of a traditional and luxury Thai tailor outlet — Cotton House — laments her losses: “I am talking about business being down by 80 percent, the business that is coming from the foreigners and from the nearby luxury hotels. What is saving us is what still comes from our local clients, by referral.”
Natenapit Chaisalee, guest relations manager at the Mandarin Oriental, puts things in perspective: “Our hotel looks full, but even we are not counting on the 100 percent occupancy. We are located right on the river, and that helps us, together with other luxury river hotels like the Royal Orchid Sheraton, Hilton and Shangri-La, to maintain at least a 60 to 70 percent occupancy rate. But hotels that are located around the places like Silom are now only 10 percent full, as well as those hotels that are located near Asok. What is now happening in Bangkok is all very serious, and we are dealing with the situation in the most professional and very serious manner. We have signboards here, and we are constantly updating our guests about the situation. For instance, one can easily miss the flight, as it could easily take two hours or more to reach the airport.”
Thailand’s large retailers are not giving up, however. Supaluck Umpujh, vice chairwoman of The Mall Group Co. Ltd., explained that “The Mall Group is set to make retail history in Thailand by investing over 20 billion baht [or $617.7 million at current exchange] in three world-class shopping centers — The Emporium, The EmQuartier and The Emsphere. This combined shopping complex, hosting more than 1,000 leading local and international brands, is expected to become a thriving and dynamic business and entertainment hub in the heart of Sukhumvit, redefining urban lifestyle and setting the benchmark for a ‘new Bangkok.’”
At the beginning of March, most of the protesters left the Sukhumvit area and regrouped at and around Lumpini Park, still at the center of the city. Some streets were slowly being cleaned up, but the danger of violence remained.