It’s 34 degrees Celsius and 60% humidity. I’m in Lumpini Park, Bangkok, bypassing the languid monitor lizards and shady groves in search of a concentration of Pokéstops set with lures. I’m seeking out gamers attending the city’s first ever Pokémon Go meetup. 3,000 RSVP’d yes on Facebook, the buzz on the discussion page running from Bulbasaur locations to calls for a ‘girlfriend to play Pokémon Go with me’.
There are those who dabble (I tell people this is me), those who devour (actually me), those who despise. But there are virtually none who don’t know Pokémon Go, which broke records by becoming the most downloaded app in a first week in the Apple Store.
Thailand is the largest gaming market in Southeast Asia, so it’s no surprise the Pokémon Go launch was met with frenzied activity – players congregated in the capital until 2am. The day after it launched a man drove into a khlong (canal, generally filthy) on the tail of a critter. My friend saw someone riding a motorbike with four people on the back. He was holding four mobile phones and catching Pokémon with all of them. Thai authorities have since unleashed a team of 50 Pokémon police on overzealous players.
But, just a few weeks after Pokémon Go exploded into the world, I’ve read news of its decline. I’m out on the streets of Thailand’s capital to see whether its impact here is indeed fading.
I get the sense from the event at Lumpini that there is a burgeoning community surrounding the game. I approach a group of young men with my friend and Thai translator Binny. Not something us two married thirty-somethings would normally do in a park on a Saturday. But today we have no qualms. It feels okay to be doing this. And this is the beauty of it according to Oh, 25:
“You get to meet new people and make new friends. We don’t know each other (gesturing to his companions). Before this game was launched people making eye contact might get into a fight. But since Pokémon, your eyes meet with a stranger’s and you ask ‘Do you play?’ and they say yes and you start a conversation and become friends.”
My English friend Simon agrees. He’s lived in Thailand for six years but tells me it’s only since he embarked on his dedicated Pokémission that he feels confident to strike up conversation with random Thais. And he says many have approached him too when he’s on the hunt.
It’s not only the social scene undergoing a transformation since Pokélaunch. Thai businesses and tech entrepreneurs are solidly convinced the app’s influence is here to stay. This week Hipflat, Thailand’s leading real estate website, became the first to add a Pokéstop (where users can top up on balls to catch Pokémon) filter to its property searches.
Hipflat CEO and founder, Denis Nemtsev, told me that just three days from going live with it, 4.8% of searchers in Bangkok were using the filter. When using the map function on the site to search for local amenities, Pokéstops currently rank fourth after transportation, schools and shopping. This could suggest Thai property seekers are making some big decisions with Pokémon in mind. And with more generations of Pokémon to come (151 are available on the app currently, compared with more than 700 in the TV show), Denis and his team have faith in its longevity.
They’re not the only ones. Thai-based company Asia Insurance has launched Pokésurance to cover people for Pokémon-related mishaps. And I’m seeing small businesses all over the city cashing in – cafés are offering discounts for Pokémon trainers, shops are setting off lures to attract them, and I’ve heard of a workspace where you can pay the staff to take your phone out and walk the block collecting Pokémon for you while you work.
The more I delve into Pokémon Go in this city, the more I’m struck by its ubiquity. Men and women, young and old, seem to be immersed in it. I head to Queen Sirikit Park in the suburbs where I’ve heard rumours there is a Charmander spawning ground attracting large numbers of trainers (and yes I do read that back to myself and wonder what my life has become).
It’s a beautiful park – there’s a large lake with swan boats, lush greenery abounds. But 75% of the people I see, maybe more, are solely interested in their smartphone screen. Mounted on bikes hired from a local outfit which has seen business skyrocket since the game’s launch, they circle the paths searching for imaginary monsters.
Pia, 33 tells me she used to hate being stuck in Bangkok’s notorious traffic jams, but now she deliberately takes the bus home so she has more time to catch Pokémon on the way back.
Never before has online gaming influenced the behaviour of so many on such an unprecedented scale.
Here in Thailand, it certainly doesn’t feel like Pokémon is going anywhere. It feels like the beginning.
Pikachu, for one, seems happy.
This article originally featured in Huffington Post