Sudburians escape Thailand as anti-government protesters shut down city

By: Community Submission

 | Jan 16, 2014 - 11:55 AM |
Writer Colin Hayward (filming a crowd of protesters in the middle of the image) and his wife Linda are safe in Australia, after slipping out of Bangkok, Thailand last week, escaping the deteriorating political situation in the Southeast Asian country. Supplied photo.

Writer Colin Hayward (filming a crowd of protesters in the middle of the image) and his wife Linda are safe in Australia, after slipping out of Bangkok, Thailand last week, escaping the deteriorating political situation in the Southeast Asian country. Supplied photo.

TASMANIA — Even before we left the Sudbury chill Dec. 8, 2013, my wife Linda and I knew of the protests breaking out around Bangkok. Thailand.

Normally known as “the Land of Smiles,” the Southeast Asian nation was undergoing one of its periodic upheavals and clashes had already resulted in four dead and 57 wounded.

On this trip, we would be spending our first 10 days in Australia with Nigel Leith, a friend who has a business in Cha-am, a beach resort on the Gulf of Siam.

In Bangkok, we would be staying at the Grand China Hotel, miles from the government offices that had been the centre of the protests against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's government.

After that, we would be leaving for the safety of Cha-am, a resort community two hours south of Bangkok.

On Dec. 18, 2013, the three of us flew into Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport from Sydney and spent our first full day visiting old haunts, but seeing no signs of protesters.

The next morning, the protesters found us.

A couple of distant explosions, followed by a column of smoke, brought us out on to the balcony of our hotel room. Twenty-one floors below us, crowds stretched down the road as far as the eye could see.

There were no signs of violence and a large police presence persuaded us to go down to get a closer look.

The crowd, waving Thai flags, seemed relaxed and friendly, so I started shooting some video. Suddenly, the sound of whistles shrieking pierced the air and the police blocking the march route were no longer smiling.

A sound truck approached, adding to the din with speeches by Suthep Thaugsuban broadcast at ear-splitting volume. Thaugsuban leads the the People's Democratic Reform Committee or PDRC, which opposes the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The situation looked as if might get out of hand so we ducked down a quiet side street towards the Chao Phra River to catch a river bus.

The next day, the hotel driver, Danny, drove us south to Cha-am, a beach resort that caters to Thai tourists. Festivities there climaxed on New Years' Eve with live music for families picnicking on the beach. The night skies over the Gulf of Siam filled with fireworks.

Thai families sent aloft clouds of paper lanterns to honour their ancestors. In stately procession, the lanterns floated across the night sky in a breathtaking display.

After New Year's Day, ominous news came from Bangkok. The army was moving tanks into the city on the odd pretext they would be there for Children's Day, but not to worry, there would not be another coup.

Protesters vowed to shut down Bangkok beginning Jan. 13. PDRC astrologers singled out Jan. 14 as an auspicious day for a military putsch.

Several airlines started to cancel flights into Bangkok as many governments, including Canada's, issued extreme travel cautions. Ex-pats in Cha-am were talking about buying up staples like toilet paper and soap because such things had disappeared during the upheaval in 2010.

That year, mobs attacked the airport, roaming through the concourses with iron bars smashing doors and windows. Air traffic was disrupted for weeks.

On Jan. 9, the Bangkok Post published a map of the barricade sites, including roads into the airport, and Thaugsuban claimed that the barracades would not go up until Jan. 14.

The anti-government leader also declared Jan. 10 a day of rest for the protesters, which we were relieved to hear as we were booked on a late afternoon flight out of the country that day.

Danny picked us up in Cha-am, but we we were a little late departing for the airport.

Our anxiety ramped up as we neared Bangkok. An enormous volume of trucks slowed traffic to a crawl. We had to make this flight — if we didn't, it would be a couple of weeks before we could leave Bangkok and its tense political situation. All flights out of the city were full.

Gradually, the wall of trucks surrounding us began to melt away.

"All trucks have to clear the highway by three o'clock," Danny explained.

The news brought smiles all round. Thanks to him, we made the flight with time to spare.

"What are you going to do about the protests?" I asked.

He smiled and said, "When they shut the city down, I will stay home and clean my house."

We knew how lucky we were to be getting out before the shutdown. Danny, like most of the proud people of Bangkok, would be hoping to stay clear of the troubles as best he could.

Colin Hayward is a retired college professor from Sudbury. 

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