It’s 7:30 p.m. and the gunshots continue beneath our building in Bangkok. We are in a very nice neighborhood in a loaner condo of a good friend. Call it the kindest of favors or a supreme wedding gift, but we are gleefully enjoying the comforts of a pretty nice place, far above the standard, both in comfort and altitude. Sathorn Road is home to a lot of embassies, some first-rate hotels, and towering condos, and just one major street over from the commercial bank and tourist zone of Silom Road and its infamous Patpong girly bar side street/sideshow. We are living a charmed life, but even the simple, cheap rental room I was in on the east side life was in some respect charmed compared to many. I could walk one block and pass a collection of flopping wood shacks with corrugated tin roofs huddled along the edge of a concrete walkway. Just a few feet below is a narrow festering canal that alternates from black soup to smelly mud with the tides. A few residents serve food to their neighbors and when I, the farang pass by in my American rush to visit my wife’s family’s rather nice house beyond, they smile at me, say hello. I am a spectacle. No farangs come here, though it is just a stone’s throw from the busy main street, Sukhumvit Road. One old woman leaves out a dish of food scraps for the walkway’s soi dogs who look away when you stare at them and nibble methodically at fleas and ticks. I always sort of imagine what I would do if one of them snapped at me and I had to jump off the walkway into the muck. I walk faster.
In Bangkok, we are fortunate just about wherever we bed down for the night, but the new digs with a bit of cool Bangkok skyline at eye level are a whole different sort of lucky.
Just over two months ago, the Red Shirt protestors came to Bangkok — primarily from the northeast of Thailand, a poor, rural area – to protest against an unelected government. The story gets far more complicated than that and involves Yellow Shirts, a group of far more fortunate origins, which had also staged protests a year and a half ago when they shut down both of Bangkok’s airports. I won’t go into the long story, but for more than a month, Red Shirt protestors have occupied a major plaza and intersection at the heart of the city and expanded their territory outward. Roads are blocked. Check points are in place. And every day for hours on end and long into the night, music or raging political speeches wash out over the captivated crowd sprawled about fanning themselves in the relentless heat or catching a nap in the shade of the SkyTrain line. Then came the barricades of sharpened bamboo sticks and piles of tires and razor wire. Many businesses in the zone have been closed for weeks now. Some people are not able to go to work. It’s a strange situation, difficult to imagine. What if Time Square was shut down by a two-month political rally? Government security forces and protestors have clashed and deaths and injuries were numerous. A shadowy “black shirt” group lurks around stirring up trouble with military-style weapons (and it seems training), and Yellow Shirts have their hands dirty too.
Take blasted hot heat, anger, fiery political speeches 24/7, indignation, and dueling propaganda campaigns of contrary interests, and squeeze them all into the throat of a city of over 10 million. The kettle spilled a bit here and there, but this week it is simply boiling over.
We have been 500 meters from the grenade attack on the Sala Daeng SkyTrain platform (I boarded a train 20 minutes before it) and lately about 600 meters down the road from the corner of Lumpini Park where Red Shirt protestors have generally had full run of the place. On Twitter (@KevinRevolinski) I have followed some amazing – and in some cases perhaps foolishly daring – reporting. BBC and CNN have sometimes (often?) been laughably messed up, and Thai media is often more of the same but sanitized for anti-Red Shirt consumption. But even so, my wife and I have been living in the surreal world of the privileged where a rooftop tennis court shows a heated match beneath us and the pool has a few nannies about watching a non-present parent’s kids get swimming lessons. Here’s some disconnect: how can a couple people keep working on their backhands when gunfire is clearly audible down the street?
Today things crossed the line and “surreal” just became clear and present. (Read about that earlier incident here)
As we stepped into the morning’s fight or flight situation (um, that would most definitely be flight) it was like the stuff you see on the news. People scrambling about. Weapons being fired. Smoke or tear gas. No place to go. Just the way things are over there in… where’s that? I can’t read the subtitle and I’m sure I never heard of the place. And we sit at home and shake our heads and think, can’t they just sort this out? We never have that going on. (Though anyone with even a brief glimpse in their recent history should know that wasn’t always true.)
So here we were, entering into a different room of the City of Angels. The trucks racing past us on Sathorn Road this morning appeared on the news to be firing for real backwards as they passed us. We had watched the vehicles carefully and kept a concrete traffic cop shelter between us and the activity as it passed. We crouched down to the sidewalk and I remember the first sense other than the involuntary twitches at each gunshot was the strong smell of urine in the close space. How the mind operates.
Do we stay here? Is it safe to stand up? Why would soldiers be going away from the conflict and shooting like crazy? Were they being chased? Were they pursuing someone right past us or in our midst? Was there another sniper on a roof somewhere? No, those are at night. Like the one who put a bullet in the brain of renegade general and Red Shirt leader Seh Daeng on the other side of this long city block last night during a newspaper interview in the street. Is Thailand safe? Is Bangkok dangerous?
Yes, someone is lounging on a beach a couple hours south of here or admiring the Reclining Buddha in another part of town or going on about how cheap and delicious their pad thai is on a nameless street. Only now, it wasn’t us. I’m happy for them and I still contend people don’t need to cancel their trips here (but should consider skipping Bangkok at this very moment.)
But when shots, roaring cheers, loud bangs and distant, deeper booms rose up to us for the better part of an hour tonight, we sat here in the dark and decided it was time. Tomorrow we intend to move out to the blind alley in the anonymous labyrinth that is my mother-in-law’s east-side neighborhood. But not now. Not tonight. At night is when you hear about the extremist element of the Red Shirts and their M79 grenades. And now worse. A couple of minor-league car bombs were found and defused today. While fireworks and firecrackers are also frequent, rockets and grenades are coming down the Twitter pipe. Troops are shooting at protestors as protestors show more and more sophisticated weaponry and are seemingly doing their best to force a confrontation. From my window I see tires burning in the street in front of the Australian embassy. I certainly can’t ask someone to risk the danger of picking us up, and there will be no taxis tonight anyway. So tomorrow it is.
I want to refrain from exaggerating the drama of this too much. The grenade landing on my train platform 20 minutes after my departure is the same as the drunk who swerved on the Wisconsin highway 200 feet after I passed him safely in the oncoming lane. Life’s like that. Random and without any sense of justice or lack of irony. But at the same time I can’t allow myself the swagger to play it down like it’s no big deal and I am the worldly traveler, hear me roar. The shock of it all has passed. We no longer marvel at the novelty of this hole in our bubble of security and think “Gee, did that really happen? What a great story!” We feel the sting of the hit now and are compelled to action. Lead, follow or get out of the way? The best answer is often c.
Follow me on Twitter @KevinRevolinski, though I am not exactly on this situation 24/7. In light of that fact, I put together a growing list (@KevinRevolinski/Bangkok-Troubles) of some of the people donning helmets and cameras to descend into the maelstrom, as well as some exceptional commentators intimately familiar with politics, the Thai world, or both. Some are biased, some as neutral as Swiss cheese. But as in a mosaic they each add a piece to an impressive picture of what’s going on here in Bangkok.