Political Unrest in Bangkok
A lot of you have probably already heard about the political unrest in Bangkok. Protesters known as the Red Shirts have been occupying major streets for a month now crippling the city by disrupting traffic and calling for the current government to step down. We were in Bangkok for a week at the end of March while all of this was going on. It didn’t affect our lifestyle much. The main Red Shirt camp is right by the backpacker neighborhood of Bangkok but we were couchsurfing and had planned to avoid the notorious Khao San Road anyway. During that week things were very peaceful and the protesters would drive around the city en masse blocking traffic and making noise, but conflict was minimal. To the right is a picture of the Red Shirts cruising down Phayathai, one of Bangkok’s main arteries.
Later during our week in Bangkok we moved to our second couchsurfing host’s house. Our host, Jesse, is from New York and has been living in a really neat old Chinese shop house in the working class neighborhood of Bangkok. The house is about three times as tall as it is wide and Jesse was gracious enough to offer us an entire floor to ourselves. Of course that entire floor of the house was only about 8 feet by 10 feet, but it was luxury nonetheless. Jesse’s house also happened to be about 50 yards away from the road block that led to the main Red Shirt camp.
I was a bit intimidated at first but Jesse assured us that the atmosphere in the camp was more like a music festival than a political battle. The protesters and the officials had remained non-violent and the scene was actually quite interesting (not to mention that the road blocks gave us the ability to walk a long way with almost no traffic). One of the nights we stayed at Jesse’s all three of us walked through the camp to the other side to get some dinner at a great rooftop restaurant. The Red Shirts seemed genuinely happy to see us. Many of the protesters are women and children. Seeing them gave us some confidence. They obviously don’t want to put their family in harm’s way. There are young radicals there as well but they didn’t seem to mind that we were passing through. The camp was centered around the Democracy Monument, a central landmark in Bangkok. In the picture below you can see it in the background. Notice how the central part of the statue is draped in red cloth. This is what it normally looks like.
We left Bangkok on April first to visit Cambodia for a few weeks and left our climbing gear with Jesse, planning to see him on our return before we went up to Chaing Mai for more climbing. Unfortunately the protests escalated. I won’t get into the details here, partially because I don’t fully understand what is going on and I don’t want to accidentally editorialize on something that is not my fight. Long story short there was a big clash on Saturday and 21 people were killed and 900 were injured. This happened right in the center of the city (though not right next to Jesse’s house luckily). We were following the news from Phnom Penh and wondering how in the hell we were going to make it to Chaing Mai and then back through Bangkok two weeks later for our flight to Bali. A few years ago another group of protesters managed to shut down the Bangkok airport for nine days stranding thousands of people. After the clash on Saturday Kyle and I talked about it and we decided it just wasn’t a good idea to stick around Bangkok and especially not to plan on flying out of the airport two weeks later.
Sadly we decided to cut out the Chaing Mai leg of our trip. I was mostly disappointed because we were going to spend the time climbing, but sometimes the risks aren’t worth it. From what we can tell there is little protester presence in Chaing Mai. Even considering this we would still have to make our way back to Bangkok to catch another flight and there is no telling what the city will be like in two weeks. It’s a tough decision to make especially since we already had transportation paid for, but in the end it is important to remain flexible when traveling and know when to cut your losses and move on. So we decided to head to Indonesia a few weeks ahead of schedule. I was happy to find out that we wouldn’t lose too much money changing our tickets to Bali. We are flying Singapore’s budget airline, JetStar, and I was actually able to move our flights up on their website and only paid the fare difference. The new tickets that we got leave on Wednesday so we have been in travel limbo for the last few days, biding our time in an airport hotel, on the outskirts of the city until we can get out of dodge.
This new plan left one small problem. Our climbing gear was with Jesse and still about a block away from Red Shirt central. When we flew back from Cambodia we landed at 6pm and by the time we made it to the hotel and got dinner it was about 9pm. We had planned on a taxi-driven mission the next day assuming things were quiet around the town, but then we realized it was easiest and probably safest to just go that night and avoid the traffic.
We already knew it was going to be tough to get a taxi to take us there. Even before the escalation asking a driver to take us to Lan Luang (Jesse’s neighborhood) would only be met with astonished looks and refusal. So we decided to enroll some local help and explained the situation to our hotel folks and asked them to do the talking for us. They finally found a driver who was willing to do it but it cost us a pretty penny. We hopped in the cab, and got on the expressway for the 25 minute drive. If you’re thinking this seems like a bad idea keep in mind that our friend Jesse is still staying at his place and so are all of his neighbors. We had been talking to him on the phone and he again assured us that nothing much was going on at the moment. When we arrived at Jesse’s we got out of the cab, chatted with him for a bit and then made it back to the hotel without incident.
The scene on the streets in Jesse’s neighborhood definitely seemed to be just about the same as when we left. The night market was in full swing and people were on the streets in the same number as before. The only scary thing was that we came across several homemade road blocks built by the protesters out of logs and barbed wire blocking entire intersections outside of their camp. Jesse said the traffic during the day had been horrible. There were many cars just parked in his street from people who were inside the blockades.
In reality I am pretty sure we would have been fine heading to Chang Mai and passing back through Bangkok in a couple weeks but we wanted to be more than pretty sure, especially when it comes to personal safety. It is never a good idea to get involved in political issues abroad. As a foreigner it is important to remember that you stick out and in many cases provoke resentment from the locals. Keeping a low profile and knowing when to call it quits is important, even if it does rob you of two weeks of awesome climbing that you had been looking forward to for the last month.
So know that Kyle and I are safe and sound enjoying air-conditioned limbo and snacks from our mini fridge. By the time you read this we will be in Bali hopefully getting geared up for some bike touring and starting a WWOOF arrangement on May 1st.