Yawning Bread. 20 May 2010

Quick decisions as Bangkok burns




The thing about transitting via Bangkok on your way somewhere, is that you usually have to transit Bangkok on your way back. In ordinary times, this is not an inconvenience but a delight. But when your flight is coming in as armoured personnel carriers are grinding their way towards flame-throwing Red Shirts, you know these aren't ordinary times.

It would not have been a problem if I were merely changing planes. But you don't change planes in Bangkok. You take time off to partake of tom yam soup and other quintessentially Thai delicacies. And so I had planned to stay a few nights before resuming my journey back home.

In ordinary times, such a plan would be the envy of your friends. In these times, however, your friends are sending you text messages asking "Are you alright?"


Watching the situation from afar and seeing it steadily worsen over the last few days, I had made the decision Tuesday to divert myself away from the capital city as soon as I arrived. I felt like a refugee. I would still stay in Thailand rather than scramble around trying to change flights, but scoot off to Pattaya from the airport instead of checking into a Bangkok hotel. There's a good highway from Suvarnabhumi Airport to the seaside town 2 hours away, and there's not been any report of trouble there.

Once landed in Bangkok Wednesday afternoon, I rushed to the basement to get a seat on an express coach to Pattaya. The bus company did not take online bookings; one has to show up and purchase a seat in person. This refugee was lucky, I got the second last of 36 seats. About ten others after me had to wait two hours for the next bus.

As the coach left the airport, which is about 25 km (as the crow flies) from the Ratchaprasong epicentre, I took this picture. Despite the distance, you can see a dark haze blanketting the entire city.

Never mind the risk of getting shot or burnt, even if you stayed safe hiding somewhere in Bangkok, you'd still have to breathe that air!

* * * * *

On reaching Pattaya, the hotel manager was terribly apologetic. His hotel was overbooked; many guests who were scheduled to check out did not. Understandably so.

However, he made a quick decision, organising a room for me at another similar-class hotel a short distance away. He had tried to reach me on my mobile phone to let me know, but it had been switched off for the flight, he said. But now that I had showed up at his hotel, he personally drove me over to the other place.

He had paid the first night in advance for me, and I didn't need to pay him back, he assured me. It was his way of making things right for me under the circumstances.

Singaporeans can learn a thing or two about service quality.

After settling in, and watching the news for an hour, it was time for dinner. On reaching the front lobby and looking out at the street, it seemed darker than I expected.

Just then, the manager of this hotel came up to me. "Do you know that a curfew has been imposed?"

"No, I didn't. When was it announced?"

"Just now," he said.

Apparently, the authorities announced an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew only at 8 p.m., giving people no time to get home. It was also announced only on Thai television, that's why I missed it even though my set was on.

It's a bad sign when the authorities are clamping curfews here and there without giving notice. There's an air of poor planning and panic.

Naturally, enforcement was patchy. This is Thailand, after all. Due to the lack of advance planning, there were no police deployed on the streets. I don't think they have enough manpower anyway. Instead, the officers were driving around in their cars telling one business after another to close and send their staff home. So instead of deserted streets as one would expect in a curfew situation, there seemed even more traffic on the roads. But this is just for a while, I'm sure.

"There's nowhere to go tonight," the manager said. "Everything's been told to close. Don't bother trying to get to any bar."

"Hang on," I thought about my stomach. "Where am I going to get dinner?"

I was pointed to a restaurant just around the corner. Stay within the small lanes, I was advised; don't go out onto the main road.

So I did, and as I walked there I thought, a curfew would be impossible to police. This is a culture where people live a great part of their lives on the street. They eat at street stalls, for instance. Even restaurants, because airconditioning is expensive, are open to the street.

Particularly in a tourist town like Pattaya, with few families rooted here, and populated mostly by migrants from elsewhere, many live in dormitories or rented rooms. On warm humid nights like tonight, people don't want to stay in their cramped cubbyholes. The street is their living room and socialising space.

What does "stay indoors" mean when there is no clear division between indoors and outdoors?

* * * * *






As I sit here writing this (Wednesday 19 May 2010 evening) Bangkok is literally burning.

The government launched their much-awaited crackdown Wednesday dawn. Armoured personnel carriers were the vanguard moving forward to crush, under their tracks, the barricades that the Red Shirts had set up to protect their encampment. Fire trucks spraying water followed closely to put out any fires that the Red Shirts might set.

By noon, the army had more or less succeeded. Four leaders of the Red Shirts made their final speeches on the rally stage at Ratchaprasong intersection, saying they didn't want to see any more loss of lives, and appealing to their followers to go home. They themselves would surrender to the authorities, which they did shortly after - this was shown live on Thai television.

But instead of going home, the thousands of Red Shirts went on a rampage, setting fire to anything and everything they could get at.

Tonight, some 27 places are burning, including a television station, the stock exchange library and the huge shopping mall called Central World (some Singaporeans may know it by its former name World Trade Centre). Several branches of Bangkok Bank were also destroyed. Fire engines cannot get to many of them due to security concerns.

Several towns in the provinces are also seeing unrest. City Halls were set alight in Khon Kaen, Mukdahan and Udon Thani. Some sort of confrontation took place in the centre of Chiang Mai - I can't yet get details - that necessitated the closure of a major bridge over the Ping River. During the confrontation in this northern city, the authorities opened fire on protesters, which in my view will only inflame passions; things can only get worse.


Despite my fears, the restaurant I was pointed to was open and still serving. Like so many other restaurants, it was cooler sitting out on the sidewalk than inside, so curfew or no curfew, I chose a table outside.

When I'm in Thailand, I'm in this Thai groove. You're skeptical about authority; you make your own decision whether to obey or not to obey. You rely on your own common sense what's safe and what's not.

I wonder how Singaporeans, ever respectful, fearful even, of authority, would behave should a curfew be called in our own city.

This restaurant was not the only one still open. Along the same lane, a convenience store, a laundromat and some other shops were also open. The bars however were closing, and I wondered if the police were also using common sense, insisting on closure for those places serving alcohol, and closing one eye to those more essential businesses that didn't.

Even so, I noticed a few bars discretly staying open, with only their exterior signboards switched off. It's the Thai groove. Make do. Mai pen rai. An approximation of a curfew will do. Strict obedience is more a Singapore thing.

When the waiter brought my lime juice, I asked him: "Do you know there is a curfew?"

"Yes, I know," he said.

When he brought me my green curry and stir-fried vegetables, he asked me: "Is your hotel far from here? How are you going to get back?"

"Not far. It's just around the corner," I replied, pointing in its general direction. "What about you? How are you going to get home after work tonight if the police set up roadblocks?"

"I don't know. Maybe I have to sleep here," he said. "Maybe I can sleep with you?"

Oh bless me, another quick decision is called for.

Yawning Bread 



A bigger problem will be money. Apparently, all banks and automated teller machines will be closed for two days - tommorrow and the day after. How long more after that? Don't know. I think the authorities fear looting. Perhaps that is going on at this every moment in Bangkok.