Red layover, part 2

Thursday, 13 May 2010: When Seh Daeng fell to the ground, bleeding from his head, volleys of shots rang out. More people were injured.

Quickly, the soldiers and police long stationed along Silom Road swung into action, dragging orange-colour plastic barriers across the road to block traffic. Barbed concertina wire, kept on sidewalks at the ready for days, were uncoiled and strung out.

Many shops had already closed, heeding the government’s advice, but street vendors apparently had not gotten the news. Most of them had showed up at 5 or 6 in the evening to set up their stalls. At first, the authorities let them, but as soon as shooting started, they were all ordered out.

* * * * *

As I half-expected, the metro sped past Lumphini and Silom stations without stopping, so I could only get off at Sam Yan. I emerged from the underground station to a curiously deserted place. The usually bright Chamchuri mall was a dim hulk. Other buildings were completely dark. Rama 4 Road, typically choked with traffic at this hour, was empty, save for an occasional motorcyclist, as perplexed as I was, and driving nervously as a result. There were no pedestrians. However, the few soldiers manning street corners seemed quite relaxed and made no effort to stop me from walking through.

Perversely, I decided not to take the short cut through Si Phraya and Sap Roads, which would have saved me about 500 metres of walking. Sensing that something must have happened while I was enjoying my massage, I wanted to get closer to the Saladaeng area to take a look. As I had mentioned in Part 1, the roads around Silom and Saladaeng stations were one of the key points where the Reds and the military faced off against each other. The Reds held Ratchadamri Road and the eastern side of Rama 4 Road (the Lumphini Park side) while the military held the western side (with Dusit Thani Hotel as the landmark) and Silom Road.

On normal days, the streets would get brighter and brighter as one approached Surawong and Silom Roads from Sam Yan, but not tonight. The shops were all shut. Even advertising signs had mostly been switched off.

Thaniya Road, usually congested with Japanese businessmen halted by the propositioning of sex workers and their pimps, was nearly empty. A few bars stayed open and several girls remained on the street, trying to entice whoever might come past, including moi. With no success, naturally. Here are some of their sisters, sitting in a row, leaning against a police black maria, uncharacteristically subdued. There were no customers.

The next picture is of Patpong Road, where on a typical evening, a street market would be in place, with lots of light bulbs, the better to illuminate the fake Gucci bags and Rolex watches. The photo was taken at 20:54h, the vendors having been told to go home, leaving their locked trunks on the road.

I never got onto Silom Road. It was blocked off by soldiers, a complete change from just half a day earlier when traffic filled it. Then, buses belched fumes without a care, motorcyclists weaved merrily and cars backed up in a slow crawl, like always. Office-workers had come out for lunch, braving the sun. Shops were announcing discount promotions and sales clerks were touting new product lines.

Now, it was just eerie. The only lights were the flashing cones from police vehicles, the only humans were wearing bullet-proof vests and touting rifles.

Neither was I allowed to get near enough to see what was happening at the frontlines. Instead, I had to take a long detour back to my hotel, passing along the way more detachments of soldiers and police (probably acting as reserve) and medical contingents setting up their forward bases.

This is serious, I said to myself, wondering whether I should accept my fate — scrounging up some food from the 7-11 near my hotel (if it was still open). I didn’t think I would find any restaurant still serving, even though it was barely nine o’clock.

Then I saw one. Italian and Thai food, its sign said. What a welcome sight. And airconditioning too.

* * * * *

My order had barely arrived, my perspiration barely evaporated, when we heard pop pop in the distance. No, it couldn’t have been that distant, not when the characteristic sound of shooting could come through the walls and glass frontage of an enclosed restaurant.

I was reminded of the last time I ate dinner amid guns going off, twelve years ago in Cambodia. The staff tonight behaved in exactly the same way as the Cambodian servers did then: they dropped what they were doing and ran into the kitchen, leaving the diners (there were only two of us) to fend for themselves.

But we were honourable people. After finishing our meals (hurriedly), we called them out to settle our bills. They came out giggling, a little embarrassed about their timidity. They had no need to feel that way, the other diner said to them. When bullets fly, timidity saves lives. He was right.

Stepping out of the restaurant, I looked carefully to the left and right before deciding it was safe enough to walk back to my hotel. But I had to be brisk despite the oppressive heat, for anything can happen now. It was necessary to put some real distance between me and whatever unseen that was going on, in double-quick time.

Thankfully, the hotel was a fair distance from the frontlines and there was no reason to feel unsafe when I reached it. The walk however left me perspiring all over again. And quite exhausted. I was in need of another massage!

It was a fitful night, my sleep interrupted a few times by the sirens of police cars and ambulances. Clearly, something’s not going well for some people. I should try to find out whom tomorrow morning, I promised myself.

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