A Tear-Gassed Goodbye
- Blog Post by:
- July 14, 2010 - 9:59 AM
The next, and what would prove to be my last night in Bangkok was a memorable one. The drone of the loudspeaker voice had taken a more aggressive tone as the day wore on. Around dusk, I was reading in my room when I noticed that the voice was now screaming. I decided to have a look. About two blocks away from Khao San was the national monument, around which was the secondary massing point of red-shirts (the first being the downtown branch encircling the Central Mall). I had noticed that morning an added police presence around the city. When I reached the monument, I saw that they had formed a battle-line complete with body-armor, riot-shields and tanks. The backside of the McDonalds was their rallying point and it overlooked the square where the center-mass of loudspeakers, posters, flags and everything red was based. Rarely have I ever seen so many people clumped together and never outside the confines of a stadium or an organized line of some sort. Immediately you can feel the power and the potential danger of such an uncontrolled body. There were a few other westerners (and some international photographers, one of which I guess was the Japanese guy who was later shot and killed) amongst the red-shirts, some snapping pictures, other wandering around wide-eyed like myself. The surrealness of the scene was punctuated by the roar of military helicopters that would buzz by low over the crowd. Protestors would shoot firecrackers at the choppers, which was unnerving because they sounded an awful lot like gunfire (And gunfire is usually described as sounding like fireworks). Overall, the protestors regarded me with a strange bemusement. I was given water and fruit (many of the protestors are farmers and thus had brought their crops to share). They asked me a lot of questions about where I was from and what I knew about the situation, but overall I was allowed to move about as I pleased. In the distance, I had noticed smoke, but it had seemed very far away. I had figured that it was from a small bonfire. As it turned out, it was teargas.
What surprised me most about teargas is that it was invisible (perhaps only because it had spread so far). I saw people behind me shouting and running but I did not understand why... until it hit me. You feel it land on you, almost like a jelly and it burns like rubbing alcohol on scraped skin. I got it on my back and cheeks, but thankfully not in my eyes. Luckily, I had purchased a red handkerchief which doubled now as my breathing mask and followed a herd of red-shirts down an alley behind the McDonalds. After a few hundred yards, the gas dissipated, but ahead of us we saw people running back toward us, which meant we were trapped by gas on one side and whatever was chasing them. A backpacker ahead of me grabbed a shuttered storefront and lifted it to reveal, what must have been his hostel. I ducked inside with him just as a cloud of gas passed (so clearly, teargas is visible). I waited about an hour, huddled in the lobby of this strange hostel with a few other discombobulated tourists, all speaking different languages, all stranded from where they were supposed to be. Finally, after it looked like the gas had disappeared, I made a dash for it. I was only a block away from my hotel, but I decided to take the long way around since it would avoid using alleys.
I walked back through the lines of red-shirts which had reformed. Now they were pissed, attacking pavement and street signs with pickaxes and hammers, tearing up chunks of gravel and concrete. Ambulances whirled by, but other than that, I saw no government presence on the boulevard (and the photographers had vanished). I made it to my street only to find a phalanx of police in front of my hostel. Facing off were an amalgamation of curious and semi-drunk packers, tourism workers and a few red-shirts. As I approached the police line to see if, perhaps, I could get around them to my room, I heard someone shout "whoa, Whoa, WHOA" from behind me. I turned in time to see a teenage Thai boy hurl a flaming bottle of something at the riot police. I didn't wait for it to land. We ran and they chased us for about 4 blocks. Then we stopped, regrouped, and faced-off again until someone threw a chair at the police and the cycle repeated itself. This back and forth between the police and the protesters/tourists continued for about two hours up and down Khao San Road. Eventually, it moved and I was able to get back to my room. It was only 9pm at this time and I sure wasn't going to go sleep. After a cold shower, stupid curiosity overcame me and I slipped back to the street to find it cleaned and bustling with inebriated tourists again, like nothing had happened at all.
The next day I left for Cambodia.
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