When I travel to Asia from California, I cross the International Date Line and chase the sun around the globe awhile. For example, I flew at 1 AM from San Francisco International Airport to Taipei, Taiwan and arrived at 7 AM 12 hours later – from dark California night to bright China morning.
Later, upon arriving in Bangkok, after the inevitable collapse and acclimation to local time I get used to it. And if I am lucky, I wake up wide awake and ready to discover the place.
By the time I leave Bangkok, I have become quite adjusted to my surroundings. I can run around the city like a seasoned (albeit foreign) pro – SkyTrain here, taxi there, tuk tuk or walk – I pretty much know the best way to get from any known Point A to Point B. On Nut, Ploen Chit, Chit Loam, Siam, and Rajamurti are all familiar stops to me now.
My Thai language skills have improved a little, too, so I can communicate with 50 % of the people I encounter – even if only in small words and gestures. There are of course the universal smiles, laughs and courtesies which require no words.
My favorite foods are Thai and Vietnamese, so I indulge in both freely then walk a great deal in the 95-98 degree heat with equal equatorial humidity. It has the same effects as using a treadmill and sauna simultaneously might- with a bit of Stairmaster maybe – for those steep steps to SkyTrain. So it’s perfect really – I get my fill and my work out and sample Thai life along the way.
This time, though, I began to notice something different. The people did not seem so cheerful or as happy as I remembered. Gone was much of the playfulness and the ubiquitous gentle smiles. Many of those I encountered seemed tired and unhappy.
At first I thought it might be the state of the nations- with all the world in seeming turmoil, miliary interventions everywhere, I guessed it might be that they had grown world weary. Or perhaps they had finally tired of all their non-Thai visitors, regardless of whether we tourists are their number one industry. I could see this happening eventually. I myself grew tired of hearing American accents loudly complaining and demanding.
But within the first few days it became obvious that I was indeed witnessing a profound change but not only for the reasons I thought. It turned out to be the first anniversary of last May’s demonstrations and brutal Thai military reprisals. Ninety Red Shirt Thais died because of the military (Red Shirts follow Thaksin Shiniwatra, the deposed self-exiled Prime Minister). I will spare you any further proof of my lack of understanding the situations and nuances, but two things I learned:
- One paper said that although there have been nine coup d’etats since the 70s, never before had Thais killed so many of their own, on such an horrific scale.
- A newsclip I saw haunts me – it was a Redshirt Thai woman running from the soldiers who were spraying bullets in her direction. She was screaming: “This cannot be Thailand! This is not Thailand!”
As we lunched one day a sea of Red Shirts amassed before us, as, not 100 feet away to our left, behind a 12 foot wall of green bushes, hidden from the demonstrators, large numbers of troops convened. We’d stumbled on the anniversary demonstration of the tragedy and I am not so sure anyone knew what to expect. Luckily it went off without incident this time. This time.
I came to Thailand expecting the usual happy Thais but found and will leave behind a sadder people. And leaving I will begin the reverse of the flight here, towards the Sun. As departure approaches it now feels as though I begin to drift back towards the moon. Indeed departure time will be at about 5 PM and we’ll arrive the same time and same day 8,000 miles away. Ahhh the magic of flying towards the moon!
I’ll leave behind our beloved Thais who were only recently a cheery sunny people, as they now drift towards an uncertain election in July – with what now appears to be the same old pols, their proteges and same old promises – all with the inevitablity of one winner and an extremely unhappy loser. Though the outcome is uncertain, the potential of violence erupting again is great – and all rides on an undercurrent of anger, sadness, disillusionment, and bewilderment.
My sincere hope is that all this will wash clean, that the Thai Buddhist qualities of foregiveness, compassion, and peace will emerge and surface once again. From the taxi, as one of the thousands of Buddhas which are everywhere passes by, I note this one in the famous emphatic stance, one hand held skyward, says: “Stop the fighting!”