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?

* * * * *

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.

7 Responses to “Quick decisions as Bangkok burns”

  1. 1 It is all the doings of that darn Thai PM call "AHbisHit".... 20 May 2010 at 21:15

    As the red-shirt were demonstrating peacefully and seeking decent audience and dialogue. Only when they were called “Terrorists” and cornered that they warned they will burnt building in retaliation against GUNS they themselves DO NOT HAVE! GUNS BY govt against unharmed civilians? Go listen to always through and in-depth BBC News!

    The PM is the cause of violence erupting by being a “One-Up Showmanship”!

    • 2 Supersasha 23 May 2010 at 00:19

      I have to agree with you.
      This Abhasit was never elected properly in government. His whole cabinet is a farce.
      I do not find the demands of the Red Shirt to be unreasonable.

      Abhasit should hold fresh elections pronto.
      If he is well loved, he will have no trouble garnering support for his proper election.
      His hands, which are now covered in blood, should loosen its hold on the political landscape and allow the people to decide.

      That is true democracy.

  2. 3 Mat Alamak 20 May 2010 at 21:23

    In 1998, the last Tiger year and around this time too, it was rioting in Jakarta, Indonesia. And followed by the Asian economic crisis.

    In 2010 Tiger year, it is Thailand’s turn. Will there be an economic crisis later this year?

  3. 4 quick decision 21 May 2010 at 12:24

    Regarding the very last sentence of the Pattaya report: what is the quick decision made? 😉

  4. 5 Anonymous 22 May 2010 at 19:57

    Maybe another reason for closing the banks will be the fear of a run at all the banks as consumer decided that it is safer to keep their money with themselves rather than banks.
    BTW, your “tomorrow” is spelled wrongly. 🙂

  5. 6 Supersasha 23 May 2010 at 00:16

    I read your story with great interest since I travel to Bangkok quite often. This time, I avoided Bangkok but I will soon have to fly over there for my monthly business trip.

    This is a city which I would love to plant my roots.
    The political situation is most disappointment and an inconvenience but that’s from my own selfish touristy point of view.
    The common folks are in even more peril.
    Surely to see your own beloved country burning in flames, having to dodge bullets is way more dangerous. They have no place else to go.

    I have gone to Central Mall so many times, and had my hair cut and coloured at the hair salon located in Zen multiple times. The staff has always given me impeccable service. I wonder how they are now. The TV image of the burning Zen logo filled my heart with sadness.

    I miss the people of Thailand terribly.
    I am sending positive thoughts to these wonderfully warm people even as I am typing this.
    I hope to see all of them well and alive when I go back to Bangkok to relax.

    Glad you got back home safe and well.

  6. 7 William B. Kelley 23 May 2010 at 18:08

    My other half and I arrived in Bangkok in the wee hours of Wednesday and thus were actually there when the bulk of the burning took place. At the last minute, though, we switched our booking from Rama IV Road to a hotel on the river, so we were far from any turmoil.

    Everything was normal for us, except for the roiling smoke over distant skyscrapers visible from 2 p.m. through our window and from the riverboat and Wat Arun. That night, the curfew kept us from a Chinatown dinner, and hotel staff slept in the hotel. The next day, we left as scheduled for a wedding in peaceful Phuket–never got to the airport faster, as no traffic.

    Enjoyed your insightful comparisons of Thai and Singaporean ways.

    Sorry for the Thais, of whatever shirt color, but definitely don’t blame Abhisit for the crisis. However, if his government doesn’t respond appropriately to legitimate grievances, he will have some blame to shoulder.

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