May 19, 2010.
My hands move to chuck a pile of old newspapers into the recycle bin when a headline catches my eye: Bangkok Burning. I draw my hands back and grip that one particular paper, allowing the others to fall into the bin. I cradle it and take it back to my desk by the window. Soon, the sun will rise over the Bangkok skyline. It’s quiet at five a.m., even last week when the city was in chaos.
Curfew. Arson. The business district engulfed in a siege. The past nine weeks plunged Bangkok into a living hell where people died. On Twitter, the stories streamed in fast. Journalists shot. Schools and offices evacuated. Train services halted. My friends trapped in their houses, one unable to leave because her street was the setting for crossfire. Get out, girl, I tweeted to @legalnomads. See the map? My apt is RIGHT THERE and I can’t get out, she tweeted back, referring to @RichardBarrow’s Bangkok Dangerous Google Map.
I glance once more at the Thai roadmap on my desk. Quickly, I scan through a mental map of Bangkok, not the Dangerous one, just the one that I’ve had in my head these 18 years, to decide the route I will take to Ayuddhya. Motorway Number 9, the ring road, then highway 32, would take me around the city and drop me off on Rojana Road, Muang Ayuddhya, where small, inconsequential streets lead to rice fields, or riverside villages, or temples.
All Thai Buddhist temples look alike, with intricate spires and brightly colored tiles. If you’ve seen one, you can imagine the temple where Mark McKinnon tweeted from last week, Wat Pathum, the temple to which more than 1500 people flocked after the Thai army, egged on by redshirt arsonists, began an offensive assault on the red’s main rally camp. McKinnon tweeted, “A woman asked me if I could get out, take her with me.” Later on, he posted that people in the temple were asking if the UN was coming to rescue them. McKinnon’s tweetstream talked about a wounded journalist, the elderly huddled on the temple ground, the bodies of medics who were killed. No one could come in or out of the temple; the roads were impassable.
The ring road takes me to the Ayuddhya interchange, and in a few minutes after exiting Highway 32, I am on Rojana Road. I pass Chedi Wat Samplum and turn left onto a smaller avenue without streetlights. The street narrows and curves until it spills into the Dutch Settlement, where there is a field of old boathouses. Parking across the settlement, I walk on a dirt road toward the river. A dog with a bad eye glances at me, his forehead wrinkled, then lopes off to a broken building a few yards away. I pass him and stop at the boathouses. The wooden boats are empty, propped up on cement stilts, some on wooden platforms, worn from rain and heat.
A man comes out of a building flanking the field of boats. “Good morning,” I call out to him. He smiles at me through the smoke of his morning cigarette. I am a crazy tourist in a t-shirt, shorts and Crocs with a camera around my neck. But he tests my Thai anyway. “Ma tham alai krap,” he asks. What have you come to do.
“Ma thai roop kha,” I answer, smiling. I’m here to take photos. When he nods and turns away, a thought comes loose in my head. The photos are just an excuse. Really, I am running away. I am hiding behind the lens, pointing my camera at things that might reveal beauty, because the city I have loved for so many seasons is becoming something I cannot face.
I walk away, turn into another, smaller street and follow the dirt path to a different field. A large chedi sharply juts out into the sky; its bricks are crumbling, but it looks strong. My Crocs are muddy now; I try not to slip on the ground soaked from last night’s rains. An elephant appears into the frame; his mahout riding bareback guides the elephant to breakfast: a pile of hay. The elephant grabs a bunch and waves it over his head, before his trunk slides the dry grass into his mouth. I watch him eat for a long while, until I can feel the heat of the day burning my neck.
I leave the elephant and get back in the car. I drive on, through more small streets that never seem to change.