By Amy Sawitta Lefevre
BANGKOK, Jan 14 (Reuters) - Protesters may have closed major intersections of Bangkok in a bid to topple Thailand's government, but it's been more or less business as usual for the capital's shops and department stores.
The city's normally congested streets were largely devoid of traffic on Tuesday and 36 commercial bank branches were closed, but most shops and private offices near the seven neighbourhoods occupied by thousands of protesters were open for business.
At the Terminal 21 mall, shop assistant Supaporn Numsunksays said the protests were driving foreign tourists inside the complex for respite from noisy protest speeches and shrill whistles by demonstrators.
"Business has been normal because tourists have no choice but to walk inside," said Supaporn, who works at 'Sarah's Wand', a store selling soaps and body washes. "They can't really hang around outside with the protesters."
Bangkok's demonstrations, which have been gathering pace for weeks, could cost the economy as much as 1 billion baht ($30 million) a day, according to a survey by the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce.
The aim was not to cripple businesses in Bangkok but to tighten blockades around ministries to prevent civil servants from going to work, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban said.
"I apologise to Bangkok residents for the inconvenience ... our aim is not to target business or tourism," Suthep said on Tuesday.
The Thai baht hit a near-three-week high as investors covered short positions built amid the mounting unrest as most emerging Asian currencies slid on stock market weakness. It rose as much as 0.9 percent to 32.70 per dollar, its strongest since Dec. 25, on stop-loss dollar selling.
There were no reports of violence from the protest areas by Tuesday and people who make a living there were struck by the festive atmosphere.
"It isn't scary at all," said Oranuch Sittikhet, 45, who owns a food stall near the upmarket Siam Paragon mall but has temporarily switched to selling protest merchandise, including banners, baseball caps and T-shirts carrying the slogan "Bangkok Shutdown".
"NOT IN THE MOOD TO SPEND"
Protest leaders say demonstrators will camp out on the streets of the capital until an unelected "people's council" replaces Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's administration.
They had planned to "shut down" the city of 12 million, but - with train and river ferry services operating as normal - most commuters headed to work as usual on Tuesday, although some state schools and universities remain closed until Wednesday.
The rallies have caused some disruptions to supply chains, however, and 21 gas and petrol filling stations were closed. Blocked roads prevented operators from bringing in supplies, said Somnuek Bamrungsalee, director-general of the government's Energy Business Department.
At least five major retail centres near protest sites said they would shut their doors earlier than usual.
"Because of road closures we are closing an hour earlier so our employees can make their way home," Prasert Sriuranpong, President of Terminal 21, told Reuters.
Restaurants have enjoyed brisk business, with protesters dropping by for food and shelter from the heat, said Prasert, but fashion retailers are seeing some slowdown.
"People are not in the mood to spend, especially not on high fashion," he added.
The rally is reminiscent of a lengthy protest in 2010 that closed off many of the same areas of Bangkok and ended with a military crackdown that killed dozens of people.
This time, security forces are keeping a low profile and ministers are hoping the protest will run out of steam before it comes to bloodshed. ($1=32.9750 Thai baht) (Addtional reporting by Khettiya Jittapong; Editing by John Chalmers and Clarence Fernandez)