a tale of two cities
School was dismissed early twice that week. Students were hurried into the arms of parents and scurried away on the back of motorbikes to return home. Some families headed home to watch from the television, others raced to join Chonburi’s own front lines.
November brought cooler weather and protests to Thailand. The country of a Thousand Smiles was now riddled with bewildered citizens and raised flags. Three years of calm abruptly ended when an amnesty bill was proposed that would pardon the exiled former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. Although the Senate turned down this bill, a wave of backlash surged over Thailand and was aimed right for Thaskin’s sister and current Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra. Anti-government supporters rallied together with a determined mindset of dissolving the corrupt regime of the Shinawatra siblings. Even in the Land of Smiles, corruption and politics are never far apart.
Anti-government demonstrations were building up throughout the weeks in November. The air was swollen with angry words from citizens who have lost faith in the government. Concentrated in the capital where the opposition dominates, the protests strengthened in size, frequency, and force. The rallies were peaceful at first for the most part with simple gatherings and marches to unite the disgruntled. However, the saturated and heavy air over Bangkok opened up on November 30th and released a deadly rain on the City of Angels.
Coincidentally that same evening three of my fellow teachers and I were overlooking Bangkok from a rooftop bar and enjoying a happy hour special – unaware of the fatal turn of events.
Brittany, Laura, Emily and I had planned to visit Bangkok for the weekend to see the floating markets and buy our travel tickets for Koh Tao. That week we had received numerous travel warnings from the US Embassy about the wavering status of Bangkok. The protests were ruling the news and internet; however, we cannot let fear of what might happen stop us from living our life. We are four educated young adults. We must be aware of what is around us and honor the growing pains of a country hosting us. Obviously we would not be joining the front lines, hoisting a Thai flag, and demanding the government to dissolve.
We arrived in Bangkok Friday evening after a speedy and bumpy van ride. These BTS Vans stop on the side of the road, slide open their doors, and with good faith you hop in. The crazy driver speeds through traffic, weaving around motortaxis and double decker buses. Everything about these vans screams ‘creepy man in a white van offering you candy… stay away!” However, it is our only mode of transport to Bangkok so we will take what we can get.
Exhausted from a busy week at school and with plans to wake very early the following morning, we opted for a relaxed evening. The Saxophone Pub was highly recommended for a laid back atmosphere with good music so we decided to check it out. Luckily enough a blues band was on set so we made a home at the bar and drifted into a bluesy lullaby. The lead vocalist had an incredible singing voice. His words were oozing with heartache, burned bridges, and longing memories. For being thousands of miles away from blues’ birthplace, this Thai band did not disgrace any soulful blues artist.
We woke with the sun and headed up north to the Damnoen Saduak floating markets in Ratchaburi. I have become a professional at bargaining. The street vendors in Italy and landlords of guest houses in Croatia primed me for Thailand. In this part of the world, when they see a foreigner they see dollar signs. Although, I am most likely better off financially than they are, I am still a traveler on a budget and there is no justification at being cheated on a sale. I use their language, put on a tough face, and walk away if I do not get my way – but somehow I always win. After bargaining down a longboat ride through the market, even the man in charge said I was a ‘strong woman’.
We piled in the shallow wooden long boat and merged into the traffic of the floating market. Damnoen Saduak is the Venice of Thailand. Canals serve as the primary mode of transportation; where their version of the gondola carries people, fruits, and handmade crafts. It was a chaotic and amusing experience. There are no traffic laws on these canals and declaring your space on them is dependent on how aggressive you are with your oar. The vendors line the perimeters of the canals, some of their shops resting on their own boat while others are built on makeshift rafts. They sell everything - crafts, food, clothing, and home décor. If you show any interest in something they whip out a stick with a hook on the end and reel you in like a big fish. This is when your bargaining skills must be on point. Women with coconuts or delicious mango and sticky rice float past you offering a snack while you shop. Playful energy bounces off these murky waters adding to the experience and showing us just another example of how Thailand has perfected organized chaos.
We took the public bus to and from our hostel to reach the main bus station. The route passed government buildings and showcased the progress of the demonstrations and protester’s might. Large cement barricades and barbed wire blocked off roads that led to government buildings. At this point we saw the military’s presence and only heard the rallying calls of protesters over the loudspeakers in the distance.
After a power nap in the hostel we planned to treat ourselves to happy hour on a rooftop that evening. We traveled up to the 55th floor of Centara Hotel and entered the Red Sky Bar. The host directed us to a lounge bed to watch the setting sun. Rooftop bars and skyscrapers go hand in hand with New York and although Bangkok cannot rival the Big Apple’s skyline, they do rooftop happy hour right. As the sun dipped into South East Asia’s omnipresent smog, we sipped on cold cocktails and swapped stories of our travels and future plans. It was the perfect end to the day and start of the night. The City of Angels slowly lit up below us. The traffic glared red and towers glowed yellow, making you forget you are in the Far East.
After spending six weeks in a city where the only white people are your fellow coworkers, arriving in a metropolis and seeing other expats comes as a shock. As we rode the above ground subway and overhead English conversations, I was teleported to the mixing pot of New York City. Bangkok is home to an eclectic collection of expats – backpackers, teachers, and professionals. As we rode the extremely clean Sky Train, I couldn’t help but wonder each of their stories – why are they there and what is the life they have created?
The night brought us to Soi 11 - a street off of Sukhumvit that is the hub of nightlife for locals and expats. Swanky cocktail bars mingle with dive bars and pubs. Street meat vendors feed the intoxicated and van bars provide dance music to get everyone in the party mood. We bar hopped, still in awe at all the white people and western restaurants, and ended up a Cheap Charlies. This small bar is nestled on a corner and hidden behind a mix of wooden crafts and hanging ornaments. It looked like something out of Peter Pan’s Island of Lost Boys.
Our plan for Sunday was to go sight-seeing in the morning. We assumed the government buildings would be off limits due to the protests; however we hoped we would still be able to visit the temples and statues. As we were about to head out the door, the receptionist at our hostel informed us of the unfortunate turn of events from the protests. As we toasted to new adventures among hundreds of partying expats the night before, a protester was shot dead while calling for a new government. All tourist sites were closed off and there were orders to steer clear of any government areas.
A few hours later a massive protest march took over the Victory Monument and passed our hostel. The events of the previous night added new fire to the Anti-Government demonstrators' plight. That morning the two worlds of Bangkok – one filled with tourists and expats living in their bubble, the other of natives trying to strip their ruling government of its corruption stained uniform – collided and shattered. Bangkok tried to balance two cities in one and finally the politics of politics pushed the tourist industry off the scale.
Looking back, I wonder what America was like for tourists when Occupy Wall Street conquered cities or when the Government shut down for 16 days this past October. The tourist industry is a fragile monster that owns economies for some countries. It can be brought to its knees in an instant from a government coup or hurricane. Tourism is a necessary evil. It allows people to travel, broaden their horizons, educate themselves, and experience the world we live in. Yet at the same time, it exploits honest people and animals, defiles pure land, and feeds the beast of capitalism. Society has a created a world that idolizes money and acquiring goods, rather than what we naturally have before us. So as a traveler, you must be conscientious of what you are contributing you. Embrace local customs and traditions, support local vendors rather than western chains, and educate yourself on the country you have invited yourself to stay in. Take pictures and keep memories but leave only your thanks and gratitude behind.