Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Back in Bangkok Again

The morning air is still cool at 8:30 and the bird sounds are soft. The pale gold beyond the rooftops of my neighborhood is slowly brightening into the blaze that will soon have me closing both my window and my curtains. My room this time around faces east so my mornings quickly become warm.

I'm right behind a school and children's voices are beginning to sing, which is the way they begin the day. One of them is the granddaughter of the women who have my favorite noodle shop. She's a full-fledged student now, in her second year of academia. She's four.

I love my mornings on Chokchai Ruammit.

It's a long street that runs between two major arterials, one of them blocked by protesters. They have sent a stream of traffic our way which has made going for breakfast a lengthy enterprise. Private cars, taxis, even a bus or two have come through the spider maze of lanes that connect residential areas to find a way to the unblocked road of Ratchadapisek. Except for the crowds of parents who bring their children to school by car in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon, this neighborhood isn't used to traffic jams. It's a source of amusement now but will soon become boring, which is the word in Thai for annoying.

Almost within walking distance are tents, vendors, a small crowd of people, and barricades of tires and sandbags. Seven major intersections are blocked in Bangkok and my friend Mrs. Nupa says the one near us is the "most dangerous" because of its proximity to government buildings. Four mornings ago, on Sunday, a motorcycle taxi driver took me past the barricades to get to the sky train. "A party," he said, nodding toward the stalls selling brightly colored tee shirts and accessories in the red-white-and-blue colors of the Thai flag.

But it's a party that can turn lethal without warning. At various intersections, grenades have been thrown and people have been shot, Two days ago a man was shot in the abdomen by a plainclothes policeman. Demonstrators chased him, caught him, and smashed him in the head with a brick. In the same area a body was found yesterday, wearing the armband that is found on most of the demonstrators and a black tee shirt with a slogan "People's Revolution." The police say he may not have been a demonstrator because the tee shirt could have been put on his corpse after he was killed.

The demonstration sites near the main shopping area of Siam Square and Central World are filled with food stalls and vendors selling everything from toys to intricately cut paper designs that pop up when the cards are opened. Clothing is for sale that has no political overtones, pretty clothes for tiny women. The major shopping malls that sell Louis Vuitton and Cartier close at 8 pm "for safety reasons" and then the area outside their walls becomes a market. It's difficult to tell if the influx of people that come after dark are drawn by politics or the joys of shopping or perhaps the chance to buy snacks that normally can only be eaten in the south of Thailand, made by southerners who have come to Bangkok to demonstrate against a government that they abhor.

They are breaking the law by coming to the protest, regardless of why they are there. The Prime Minister has declared a State of Emergency, which bans gatherings of more than five people in a public place. The demonstrators, who say the government is an invalid one, ignore the law. The police ignore the acts of violence that take place at the protest sites. Fortunately volunteer medical personnel are on hand to get the wounded to hospitals when necessary.

There are scoffers who laugh at the scanty numbers of people at the demonstrations. Usually such affairs are peopled by the hundreds of thousands, not the hundreds that are protesting now. But the point is that these hundreds of people have slowed traffic, both on the streets, in the shopping centers, and on the roads, to a trickle of what is usually there. Bangkok may not be shut down but it certainly is very, very subdued..

For people who go out into the world, it's a fine time to shop. Vendors outside of the immediate protest area are more than willing to bargain. The Indian Emporium at Pahurat was almost empty at high noon yesterday and when I bought a scarf in the Nana district, which is usually packed with shoppers, the vendor told me I was "lucky," her first customer of the day. It was two in the afternoon.

I've never seen Bangkok so empty before and it's unnerving. Tomorrow begins Chinese New Year and I'll be on Yaowarat, which is usually crammed to the point of madness. If it is quiet, I'll know the second coming is at hand.

At the end of next week, I'll be on a train out of town. By then the controversial election will have taken place and either this will be over or it will be much, much worse. Either way, the loser will be Bangkok.


Dr. Will said...

From the too-big crowds of HK to the overly subdued Bangkok. An interesting contrast, eh?

Janet Brown said...

Very! We can talk politics now, Will. In many ways, I agree with you at this point.

Amy Williams Dapice said...

Beautify written Janet. Chiang Mai feels so removed from the conflict I appreciate the report very much. Where are you headed next?

Anonymous said...

Good one.

Katia said...

And now i want to know how the Chinese New Year celebrations went. Be safe.