On an ordinary Saturday night, the Soi Cowboy red-light district in Bangkok is ablaze with neon lights as skimpily clad women in go-go boots chat up tourists and twirl seductively around poles.
But the decadent flesh parade came to an abrupt halt last Thursday when soldiers marched in and shut the dance bars down. It was a gesture of respect for the country’s long-ruling monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died that day after a long illness and 70 years on the throne.
Soon, word came down from the country’s prime minister and head of its military: Thailand would be in mourning for a year, flags would be at half-mast and “joyful events” should be avoided for 30 days.
Although the government made clear that visitors should continue their travel plans as normal – as long as they tried to dress and act respectfully – bars, nightclubs and restaurants have since been closed, loud music avoided and alcohol sometimes difficult to come by. All of this has put a damper on one of the world’s most popular party spots.
Thailand received about 30 million visitors last year, a number that is expected to reach a record high this year because of an influx from China. Tourism contributed US$81 billion (HK$628.3 billion) to the country’s gross domestic product in 2015, nearly 21 per cent, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
Nightclub workers are worried about their lost wages and tour companies and airlines about declining business, although most experts think that the impact on tourism will be modest in the long term.
The V8 Diner in the Sukhumvit area of Bangkok was closed for two days and reopened on Sunday, for example, losing about US$2,800 of business in the process.
“We didn’t feel like working anyway in this kind of mood,” says Bam, the manager. “Everybody was crying.” Like most of those interviewed for this article, she declined to give her full name because of concern over Thailand’s strict laws against defaming the king.
Nobody is really sure when the nightclubs will reopen. Maya, the manager of Bangkok Bunnies A Go Go, who also did not feel comfortable giving her last name, says hopefully in a week. Many of her dancers have left the city to return to their home villages to wait out the break, she said.
One Australian bar owner in the bustling Khaosan Road area, which is popular with backpackers, gave his customers paper cups to discreetly sip their beer in case police were watching.
On Saturday night, on the Soi Cowboy strip, the lane of about 40 nightclubs was eerily silent and dark except for the occasional bright light of a street vendor passing through with a rattling cart.
As far as anybody could remember, the area had been open nightly since a retired US airman named T.G. “Cowboy” Edwards opened the first bar there in 1977.
“This is incredible,” says Fabrice, an Air France flight attendant who came on Saturday night. “But we know how the king is in the heart of the Thai people. We understand that and appreciate that. It’s something we’ve lost in Europe.”
Although the go-go bars were closed, the world’s oldest profession continued apace on Bangkok’s streets. Many of the sex workers wore black clothes in honour of the late monarch, as their countrymen had been asked to do.
One, Chanhom Srikaew, 40, said many foreigner travellers had left Bangkok after the clubs were shut and headed to the beach or other Southeast Asian countries.
“They’re waiting for the good times to come back,” Chanhom said.
Hugo, a semi-retired carpet joiner from Sydney, said that on Saturday he had become a bit morose sitting in a deserted pub among other middle-aged men with only their mobile phones for company. He had to stay in the city because of a medical appointment, he said, but wished he could have left.
“If I wasn’t already committed Friday night I would have picked up and gone to Laos or Cambodia. If I had known it was going to be like this,” he said, waving his arm at the empty street.
On Saturday, the Tourism Authority of Thailand reiterated that the country was in a period of national mourning and advised travellers that thousands of mourners are continuing to gather around the Grand Palace in Bangkok for the royal religious rites and to pay respects to the king.
Planned Asia tours by a number of international DJs have been disrupted, while several major festivals and events have been cancelled or postponed, including the debauched “full moon” parties that attract hundreds of tourists to Thailand’s beaches.
Daniel Fraser, managing director of the Bangkok-based tour company Smiling Albino, said that his group had not received any cancellations yet for upcoming trips, but he expected that things would be quieter than normal for the next few weeks before picking up again during the holiday season.
“Thailand and Thais are incredibly resilient,” Fraser said. “Having lived here for over 16 years, I have seen a number of dramatic events, including royal deaths, natural disasters and epidemics. In each case, Thai pragmatism, and sense of duty, prevails, and the nation normalises very quickly.”
David Scowsill, president and chief operating officer of the World Travel and Tourism Council, said that once the succession of the king’s heir, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, has happened, it will bring a “calm transition” to the country. The prince is not likely to be crowned until after his father’s cremation ceremony, a year away.