We’ve tried to keep informed about the protests that are taking place around Bangkok this week. Staying safe is all about staying aware, we reckon. Although before any one gets too alarmed we haven’t felt any threat to our safety at all. But some reports in the media are disquieting. Especially to a couple of Kiwis from small town New Zealand! “Nine thousand police deployed to protest sites” read one headline. Do we even have nine thousand police in New Zealand, we wondered. A quick google search confirmed our suspicions: not quite.
The advice to travellers anywhere is to avoid potential trouble spots. Perfectly reasonable, perfectly sensible, we’ve always thought from our armchairs. But even in a city the size of Bangkok this has proved difficult to achieve. Democracy Monument, the central gathering point for the protesters, is only a hop skip and a jump from Kao San Road, and close to some of the major tourists sites: the Crown Palace and Wat Pho. Still, we’ve visited those sites before and have no real plans to go to the Kao San Road area, other than to pick up curry paste from the best curry shop in town. Not essential but highly, very highly, desirable. We’re still intending to get there.
On Thursday, after a couple of nights away, we returned to the city by mini van. And where did that van take us? You guessed it! Right around Democracy Monument. It was easy to see that feelings are running high. There were barriers across part of the road, lots of flags, and many banners denouncing the government. There were protestors, men in black with security emblazoned across the back of their shirts, families, food vendors, drink stalls and merchandisers selling the whistles that are used so very effectively to draw attention to the movement. It was difficult for traffic to pass through what is a major intersection. Imagine partial road blocks in Piccadilly Circus, or on Lambton Quay.
And then there’s the small matter of the Bangkok Marathon. The very reason for our visit to town! Registering for the race involved a trip on the BTS to Asok, finding Sri Ayuthaya Road, flagging down a taxi, and conveying our destination across the language barrier. None of which is that unusual when it comes to navigating your way around a large city. We prepared for the challenge by purchasing a paper map, circling The Royal Thai Army Social Club, and handing that to the driver. A fine strategy but the friendly and helpful fellow, he’d already agreed to use the meter, couldn’t read the map. And he didn’t understand much of what we were saying, either. Google maps saved the day. We told him to just drive until we said stop. Fortunately there were no turnings to make! Our limited Thai, hello and thank-you plus a few numbers, would not have stretched that far. (Now that we’re here the phrases we learned during those long hours on the cross trainer at the gym seem to have eluded us.)
As we drove along the street, the traffic grew more and more congested. We were often at a standstill. An accident, our driver said. He purchased a string of marigolds from a vendor wandering between the cars. To protect us, he said. When he saw the barricades he stopped talking altogether!
We, ourselves, could only gasp and point, and say, eyes wide, like the small town people we are, “Did you see that?!” I’ve only seen police with riot shields once in New Zealand, back in 1981! But here in Bangkok these police were simply standing there. We didn’t spot a protestor anywhere nearby.
Nevertheless, we were a fare our driver was pleased to farewell. And we were equally pleased to find the Army Social Club which, by the way, had no English signs announcing marathon registration. But a glimpse of the New Balance merchandise tent through the gate told us all we needed to know!
Once inside, it was as if those barricades were of no consequence, as if they were an everyday occurrence. “Barricades, what barricades,” I imagine might have been the response of anyone there, if we’d had enough Thai to converse. That, or “Oh, them” and a dismissive shrug. At registration there was only one thing on everyone’s mind and that’s running the race. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is the preoccupation of sports mad athletes. It’s like this everywhere in the city. As soon as we move only a block away away from the protest areas it’s back to the Bangkok we have come to know; all hustle and bustle, but always time for a smile of encouragement whenever we try with our numbers, or attempt a new phrase.
As an aside, our driver knew two things about New Zealand: it’s very cold, and beer is number one! So there you have it, people. Forget Lorde and Eleanor and Dan Carter and Dean Barker; on the streets of Bangkok it’s the weather and the beer that matter!