It’s heartbreaking to read about the deteriorating political situation in Bangkok. It almost brings me to tears, seeing the photos, hearing stories about mounting deaths, about the potential for further danger to residents of that city. And today, a state of emergency was put into effect, temporarily closing the Canadian embassy, which is located in the midst of the live-fire zone.
With the initial outbreak of violence many weeks ago, I wrote to my friends and acquaintances in Bangkok, asking about their well-being and safety. J & A had just returned from abroad at the time and, though concerned, were not (yet) overly alarmed. M & V, with jobs and children that normally see them spreading out to all parts of the city, were understandably upset and worried. R sounded guardedly optimistic; D and A, both of whom I’d met during my stay at Bangkok Hospital, were less so. C, eager to resettle, but not in this state of danger, still today bides his time in Goa.
I couldn’t imagine how they must be feeling, knowing that their city was being pounded by such rampant and gratuitous violence. A city that I’d spent so much time exploring, on foot, by tuk-tuk, taxi, bus and skytrain. I’d come to love Lumpini Park, an oasis in the middle of the city that could make you feel as if you’d been whisked away and re-planted into the middle of New York’s Central Park. I spent hours wandering through that mass of greenery, and even attended a classical concert, under the stars, shortly after I returned from Burma (Myanmar) – a few days before heading to Cambodia.
I’d walked through neighborhoods around Jim Thompson’s House and the Myanmar consulate, I’d spent chunks of time at various temples, Kao San Road, Chatuchak Market, in the Sukhumvit Road area. One afternoon, I slipped into the Siam Center just to escape the midday heat, and ended up watching an independent European film called Once. I sought out a camera and other techie-gear at MBK Center or Panthip Plaza on Petchburi Rd; I headed to Chinatown to track down cheap silk, then found a seamstress on a sidewalk who offered to transform it, in just a few hours, into a sleeping liner.
And then, much later, while I was beginning to convalesce at the hospital, I would have visitors arrive, bearing goodies and news from the city. Even though I could see the thickening smog out my window, I knew that the pulse of Bangkok rivaled that of any cosmopolitan city. It was a city to which I knew I’d undoubtedly return one day, not only to thank the staff at the hospital, but to visit friends, to sit by the water in Lumpini Park and to marvel at the sheer complexities and contradictions that characterize the country.
I was stunned to hear that the Dusit Thani Hotel, a short drive from the U.S. consulate, and a mere stone’s throw from the building that houses the Canadian embassy, was targeted in this conflict. Hospitals too. Chulalongkorn Hospital, situated at the critical intersection of Rama IV, earlier caught up in the crossfire, is apparently scheduled to close its doors – a veritable sign of these times. I remember that once, while was standing at the bus-stop in front of Chulalongkorn for what seemed like an interminable amount of time, I suddenly noticed a heap of clothing at the edge of the sidewalk. Upon closer inspection, I realized that the heap was really a human being. He was either drunk or dead. I was awestruck at the apathy of the Thai standing around me, so I motioned to a woman who’d been looking at me to come over. Instead, a man standing nearby, bent down and shook the man, causing him to awaken and stagger off in a stupor.
Among the provinces hardest hit by the protests is Isan, the northeast region of the country. Isan, an area rarely visited by travelers, was, by far, the part of Thailand that left the deepest impression on me: the landscape was full of new sights, buffaloes, houses on stilts, rickety buses, motorbikes and dogs everywhere (some, frighteningly ferocious and possibly rabid).
The food was flavorful and spicy; the rhythm of life much slower than in Bangkok; and the people were warm and hospitable, taking me by the hand, directing me without fail, to a bus or hotel when I faltered in my feebly translated questions. It’s distressing to imagine how that remote and slower-paced part of the country could foment such political unrest.
Bangkok was where I first arrived as I embarked on my Southeast Asia adventure; and it was to that sprawling metropolis that I returned to begin my convalescence. In fact, I will for many years feel connected to that city for another reason: my new passport was issued and delivered to my bedside at Bangkok Hospital by a consular official, just days before I left the country.
May peace soon return to the streets of Thailand and into the hearts and lives of its people. The Land of Smiles…