Several times on this trip, my parents and close friends have received an email from me letting them know that there might just be a problem in my current travel destination. The email usually goes something like this:
Hi Guys! I just wanted to let you know that there might be a [insert one: fire / earthquake / typhoon /protest /armed insurrection /coup attempt / giant squid that tries to eat me] but DON'T WORRY, I will stay far away and email you often to let you know that I am OK. Remember the media often sensationalizes the situation, so please just write me with any questions and I will reassure you that it's never as crazy as it seems.
Except sometimes? It really, truly is.
This was no normal week in Bangkok. Having been in Thailand in 2008 when the yellow shirts shut down both of Bangkok's airports, stranding passengers for weeks, I wanted to experience the other side of the political protest spectrum, and returned here from Chiang Mai in anticipation of the March 12 mass protests. As manifestations go, this one started out peaceful and even celebratory. For me, it was surreal to be smack in the middle of a political movement, yet feel as though I was at an intense, raucous festival.
On the first day, a sea of red thronged Democracy Monument and clotted Ratchadamnoen Avenue from tip to toe. The protesters were divided by province, each with a separate tent to sit in, marked by the name of the province. Free food and drink were on offer, and I was floored by how organized the process was: red guards directed protesters to the appropriate tent, moved people along the streets and cleaned up the garbage from the thousands who had descended upon the city. Later that day, a flotilla of boats crammed with red shirt supporters arrived at Rama VIII bridge, disembarking and streaming through the streets until they merged with the others at the main stage. Soon, a sliver of saffron shimmered in the afternoon sun as a thousand monks joined the protest, flanked on both sides by red shirts. As the monks moved toward the main stage, the reds dropped to their knees to be blessed by the monks as they passed. Yes, there was riot police aplenty, and as with any large gathering it only takes one small gesture of ugliness to snowball into complete disaster. However, the Bangkok police were cheerful and even shaking hands with the red shirt protesters, and the riot police deferentially took off their helmets and wai'ed to to receive the monks' blessings. Insofar as protests can be serene and even beautiful, this day fit the bill.
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