I had no idea it was a protest, initially.
Well, okay. I suspected. But it looked peaceful, so I thought I’d check it out.
I wandered past the guards who waved me through. There are men on stage, shouting things in Thai. Thousands of people sit on straw mats before them, shielded by hundreds of colourful umbrellas. They shout, applaud and blow whistles during points of the speech. Others wander through with placards proclaiming political slogans in Thai. Street vendors sell headbands, whistles and clappers in the red, white and blue of the Thailand flag. People wore Guy Fawkes masks. The vibe was incredible. I watched the speeches and applauded along. Sure, I had no idea what was being said, but vocal triggers- talking quickly, shouting, a pressure of speech- give you a pretty good idea of when to clap.
I look around to discover that, not only am I standing head and shoulders above everyone else, but I am the only tourist. The only one. And I looked. I searched for any other person on the planet ridiculous and stupid enough to join an anti-government protest in Bangkok. Eventually, I came across one other guy. That’s it. And I did two big laps of the Bangkok Democracy Monument. Where are the tourists? Do they not surface before 2pm here?
A small part of me loves protesting, and I wish we did it more in Australia. We don’t, we just bitch and grumble and write angry letters, but we don’t put our feet out there. We don’t make ourselves heard.
Remember V for Vendetta, kids. “People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. The government should be afraid of their people.”
The same types of people protest in Australia. And they protest everything so I suspect it’s more the desire to protest rather than wanting to bring on change.
That statement may get me some angry retorts.
Perhaps I can incite a protest.
I went to an anti Iraq war rally back in 2003 when I was living in Newcastle. It sucked. After being shooed away from the local Liberal MP’s office, we marched to a park where we sang Give Peace a Chance in the rain.
Lennon would have been proud. It was a total waste of time. It didn’t feel like we were saying, “Hey, let’s get something done”. It felt more like, “War is wrong, but it’s going to happen, whether we like it or not. However, we will half heartedly drag our heels in the mud before we bend over and let John Howard and The Liberal Party ram a lubed glove up our ass like we have done so many times before.”
Angry retort? Protest? …Anything?
Anyway, I didn’t go to another one until my best friend dragged me to the Sydney University Teachers Strike, for delightfully spurious reasons.
I saw a massive protest in Berlin. If the pictures hadn’t disappeared when my iPhone was stolen, they were going on Facebook in an album titled: “Another rally in Berlin, hopefully for a better cause than the ones in the 1930’s.”
But, back in Thailand. I meandered through, grinning like a fool, soaking it up. I loved the fist-in-the-air, fuck-the-power, stand-up-and-fight energy that surged around me. It gave me the same feeling that listening to Rage Against the Machine does: Argh! Yeah, man! Let’s do it, you and me, let’s fix the fucking world. Let’s eradicate world hunger, tonight. No, fuck tonight. Now. Now! Let’s do it now, man! We are renegades in this atomic age!
Later that evening, I was on the back of a motorbike, squished between a bronzed Australian and a Thai fellow, heading back to my hostel. The bike slowly weaves through the crowds of people still milling about.
“Tomorrow is big protest,” the driver calls over his shoulder at me.
“Oh, really? Bigger than today?”
“Yes, biggest protest tomorrow.”
My brain starts whirring. “Is it okay if tourists check it out?”
“Oh, yes,” he sounds pleased. “Please come down.”
Bronzed Aussie taps my shoulder. “I think that might be dangerous.”
“It’s not dangerous, is it?” I ask the driver.
“No! Very peaceful. Come down.”
Ha, so there: if you think I’m an idiot; well, I was invited.
“What’s the deal with it?” I asked as we negotiated the bike between people. “You want the current government out, is that right?”
Oh, you nerd, CC. You have just picked up a guy and you want to engage the local man on the finer points of the Thai political climate. What the fuck is wrong with you?
I did check it out again today. Again, I am the only tourist. I bought a whistle- figuring that if I was going to wander along and stick a camera in peoples faces, I could at least show solidarity to the cause. Again, the protests were remarkably peaceful- albeit loud. Imagine thousands of whistles ringing through the air mixed with chanting cries of “Yingluck, *something something*”. I was waiting to cross a street, whistle hanging from my neck, when I felt someone grab my hand and squeeze. I look over. A lady, dressed in full protest regalia, carrying a Thai flag is smiling at me. She squeezes my hand again, nods at the whistle and disappears.
Eventually, I wound up on Khao San rd. I needed to buy some modest, light coloured clothes to wear during the Buddhist Meditation Retreat I have signed up for over Christmas.
I found all the tourists.
I bought my white pants and sat at a cafe, sipping a beer, watching the same men in Chang beer singlets and above the knee shorts walk up and down the street, aggressively bartering for counterfeit Ray Bans as they went, leaving bewildered stall owners counting Baht in their wake.
To risk sounding elitist- which I fear is happening quite a bit when I blog about travel- a piece of history is unfolding not two hundred metres away:
Why would you not want to witness that?
Knock-off Havianas can wait.
Why would you tread the well worn paths of the tourist spots like a hamster on a wheel, instead of seeing something that you may never see again? The spirit of people- people who have travelled from all over Thailand to stand together and make a point- is better than dubstep, drunk men and cheap beer. The feeling of revolution, of fighting for what you believe in, is purer than any other high. It’s incredible to witness, and I’m so glad I went.
Tourists could have shunned the protests for fear of their safety. Well, I saw more violence on Khao San Road than I did at the rallies; one example of many: three young guys chased from a stall with a tyre iron after they tried to steal something.
Of course being at the protest carried a degree of risk, and I’d be foolish to deny it. However, what about the risks of getting blisteringly drunk in a foreign country? Of picking up an anonymous stranger for a one night stand? Of taking Ecstacy at the Full Moon Party? Of hiring a motorcycle to see the city? Those activities carry their own level of danger and tourists don’t think twice about engaging in them. Risks are a part of life.
I can go shopping for thongs in Sydney, what I can’t do in Sydney is watch thousands of locals wave placards, metaphorical fists in the air, fighting for democracy.