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Bangkok takes back the night, as a city known for its evening activities emerges from curfew

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BANGKOK - The generals who seized power in Thailand disrupted one of the country's most lucrative industries — the go-go bars that were forced to close early because of a curfew.

Now the junta has lifted the curfew, giving a green light for Bangkok's red-light districts and other evening activities to roar back to life. For the first time in a month, Saturday night freedom returned to the Thai capital.

"This is a party city, that's why we're here," said Dan Moore, a 40-year-old visitor from England who had arrived Saturday morning and planned to stay up all night to celebrate a friend's bachelor party. He had flown in, just like the 1980s pop song says, for "One Night in Bangkok."

Moore's group started the night on one of the capital's most infamous red-light streets, Soi Cowboy, where they toasted the curfew being lifted.

"As for what happens the rest of the night? Who knows. This is Bangkok," said the groom-to-be, another Englishman, who asked to be identified just by his first name, Darren, to save his future marriage.

Bars featuring pole dancers are by no stretch the only nightlife in Bangkok, but they are the most notorious. The lifting of the curfew on Friday was part of a more general campaign by the junta to "return happiness to the people" of this politically polarized country.

When the army staged the May 22 coup, saying it acted to end increasingly violent political turmoil, the generals' first order of business was to impose the curfew. Initially set at 10 p.m., it gradually was eased to midnight, and already had been lifted in several of Thailand's popular resort areas after complaints from the tourism industry.

Then the generals apparently realized that for many Thais and tourists in Bangkok, happiness means watching the World Cup.

On Thursday, the junta engineered a last-minute deal with the World Cup's exclusive broadcaster in Thailand to cancel its exclusivity on digital television and allow the country to watch the tournament's 64 matches for free. The grand gesture, however, was incompatible with a curfew that prevented people from leaving home to watch the matches, which due to the time difference take place overnight in Thailand.

So on Friday night, the junta announced it was fully lifting the curfew, saying there was no longer a threat of violence and that tourism needed to be revived.

Bangkok's backpacker haven, Khao San Road, was packed Saturday night with many soccer fans saying they planned to celebrate the end of the curfew by pulling an all-nighter.

One of them was English tourist Marc Ward, 31, who was pacing himself for the England vs. Italy match at 5 a.m.

"We are so lucky the curfew's been lifted," said Ward, nursing a 3-litre beer tower as he watched the passing parade on Khao San Road, a street lined with music-blaring bars, tattoo parlours and cheap guesthouses.

Asked how he planned to spend the night, Ward said, "I'm going to try that in a bit," pointing to a woman selling $3 doses of balloons filled with nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, to tourists.

Critics point out that the return of Bangkok's nightlife — and the generals' feel-good happiness project — is being carried out alongside an entirely different campaign. The junta has banned political protests and any criticism of the coup in an effort to stifle all opposition to the army's putsch.

Among the many rules it has imposed: Flashing a three-finger salute — a sign of opposition to the coup borrowed from "The Hunger Games — is illegal.

The coup deposed a government that was elected by an overwhelming majority of Thai voters three years ago, though it also was accused of widespread corruption by its critics and faced seven months of increasingly violent protests. The junta has no plans to hold elections any time soon, saying new polls will not take place for at least 15 months.

It struck some tourists as incongruous that all-night partying was now allowed in a country still technically under martial law.

"You would never know this place is under military control," said German backpacker Dustin Ratz, 23, who arrived Saturday morning and was mesmerized by the evening scene on Khao San Road. "I love Bangkok. This place is amazing. Let's see if I still say that tomorrow morning. But tonight, it's amazing."

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