We left Bangkok in late April, a few days after Songkran, Thai New Year, had ended. The Red Shirts had been protesting for at least a month when we left, and the situation was just starting to become strained. In one of our last days, we walked too close to the protestors and felt tear gas in our eyes. That was the night of the first deadly interaction between the troops and Red Shirts when a Japanese journalist was killed. The public transportation had been cut in certain sections of the city and the main shopping malls were closed.
Songkran was the perfect respite from the rising tensions. For three days, the protesters and military stopped everything and celebrated the new year and the traditional festivities including water fights and smudging strangers’ faces with wet clay. The holiday is encouraged by the city government who ensures that families receive enough water to use in the festivities. Years ago, water was used to give the elderly a blessing in the new year. The transition has transformed into dumping buckets of water over everyone as a gesture of goodwill and mischief.
Photo Credit: Wyndham
Our landlords drove us in their pickup truck around the Silom and Sathorn districts where we threw buckets of water at people on the street. In return, the eager participants threw water at us and shot us with water pistols. Thais would run up to the truck and smash our cheeks and foreheads with wet clay and laugh. I don’t remember the last time I laughed that hard. The most painful were the revelers who had prepared ice water to throw at drive-by participants. I will never forget the feeling of an unexpected bullet of ice water down my back. The event was so fun–it evoked the summer days running through the sprinkler as a child. And so many people–young and old–were involved. It was impossible to walk around the streets and not be a participant, especially as a farang–foreigner.
Photo Credit: Ratchaprasong
A portion of Silom road was shut down and people walked up and down, back to chest, shooting each other with water guns and baptizing each other’s faces with clay. Some firefighters had set up a fire truck that was gushing water over everyone’s heads and onto people on the street. We heard a rumor that there was an elephant spurting water over revelers on Khao San road.
This was just before the tensions escalated between the Red Shirts and the military. In fact, before Songkran, the military members were good naturedly cajoling the protesters. It seemed that the soldiers were trying hard not to apply pressure against the protesters.
It was time for us to leave Bangkok and the tensions with the protest only solidified our decision. It is difficult to read the reports of the violence in what is essentially our old back yard, only five blocks from our rented apartment. The life in this district is usually not like the warfare you imagine with the Red Shirts setting tires on fire and creating bamboo stick barracades.
Thomas Fuller is the New York Times journalist who has been covering the protests and was interviewing the Red Shirt official the moment the Red Shirt was shot in the head by a sniper. This quote from Fuller’s May 14 article resonated with me:
Bangkok today has many more high-rise condominiums and much more luxury than the city I knew 15 years ago, but is plagued by its dysfunctional politics. Is there any other city in the world today that has so many cloth-napkin restaurants, spas — and periodic grenade attacks? How many other world capitals have streets filled with fleets of luxury cars and armies of protesters apparently willing to die for their convictions? On Friday alone, 16 civilians were killed in clashes with the military that took place a few hundred yards from my apartment.
The Thais are known as some of kindest and friendliest people in the world. It is painful to see them live in fear and violence like the recent events.