Before piles of tires burned in the streets and winds spread wide swaths of black smoke above Bangkok streets, before bombs exploded and scattered crowds, and before people died in the urban battle, the pulse of Silom Road beat steady. Pedestrians wedged through narrow walking lanes on the sidewalk between the glass storefronts and curbside vendors. White shirt professionals quick-stepped by tourists who drifted along at vacation pace, stopping, browsing, and bargaining with merchants offering clothing, jewelry, and croaking wooden frogs. Locals, uniformed students, and parents with children in hand flowed east and west past food carts and trinket vendors.
Silom Road draws thousands of people to work and eat and shop. It is an urban stretch of pavement where street merchants come at daybreak to set up food carts in front of designer coffee shops, massage parlors, banks, and department stores. The street entrepreneurs sell white rice and fried pork, soups, and seafood. They stay late into the night until customers disappear. By the curb, vendors spread blankets and erect temporary stalls to display skirts and necklaces, shirts and handicrafts. Tourists pause to look for XX t-shirts and XXX DVD’s. Men, women, young adults, children, locals and tourists maneuver through the open spaces on the sidewalk and move up and down the street, in and out of offices and restaurants, and shops. It is a place where you can attend a Catholic mass in Italian and Spanish, hear a Thai band cover the Beatles’ songbook, buy cigarettes at Seven Eleven, order a local Singha beer in an Irish pub, and hire tiny fish to nibble away the dead skin on your feet and shins. It was a typical day on Silom Road except for the soldiers.
Temperatures climbed to ninety degrees in mid April, 2011. Thai troops stood in full riot gear, fitted with helmets, face masks, shoulder pads, and weapons. The soldiers stood shouder to shoulder across the street from their Red Shirt rivals, the protesters of the current government who set up camp in the tranquil acres of Lumphini Park.
Early in the stand-off, the mood in Thailand’s business district resembled a party atmosphere before a championship fight. Crowds of people mingled with combatants. Spectators posed for photos with the contest’s principals; supporters handed out flags to shake in support of each cause; vendors offered T-shirts; speakers preached their message from on top of make-shift podiums.
Within the crowd, a man hurried two young girls along the Silom path. His eyes glanced down toward the walk. The older girl advanced with her face turned away from the soldiers. She looked down too. The little girl stared straight ahead of her. No one talked. No one smiled. Behind them, two soldiers stood in place on the Silom Road sidewalk in front of the restaurants. A soldier focused on the three civilians as they advanced.
Two weeks later bombs exploded. Businesses closed. Tourists stayed away. Only soldiers and Red Shirts visited Silom. The party atmosphere vanished. Everyone saw the danger and the loss and understood the tragedy. The incongruity of the civil unrest and the Silom energy became apparent to all. Two weeks earlier, two young girls already knew.