My daughter was in the shower last week when I heard the sounds of whistles and beeping on a nearby road, just down from our very basic budget hotel in Phuket Town, Thailand. From the third floor I peered through a door out onto the cluttered rooftop, and could make out the stream of traffic, mostly scooters and trucks, decorated with flapping Thai flags.
I ran back to our room and pushed open the bathroom door. “You always wanted to see what a revolution looks like. Hurry up. Come see.”
We couldn’t make it to the road in time, but we got a peek from the rooftop. This was proof, finally, that the protest–mostly limited to the big city of Bangkok, a day’s drive north–had in fact come even to this gritty part of town in a highly touristy part of the country. The Phuket Provincial Hall has been closed for about a week now, and things are still relatively quiet, in contrast with the north, where 4 or 5 deaths have been recorded, and gas and hoses used on the protesters, whose aim is to unseat the current Prime Minister (sister of a previous PM now in self-exile) and put in her place a council of “good people,” without the aid of the democratic process, some news sources suggest.
Yesterday, the King’s birthday (Thailand has the longest reigning monarch in the world, and much reverence is paid him), and the day leading up to it, all was quiet, the tension eased as police took down barriers and handed protesters roses. But now that the birthday is over, who knows what will happen? The Thai family running our hotel sit attentively around the television news. The westerners we’ve gotten to know here don’t talk about what’s happening, and in fact pretended, up until last weekend, that nothing was happening at all.
This post is not about Thai politics, which are complex — so complex I wouldn’t even dare explain the various “sides” in this latest national contest or pretend I understand how this all fits in with Thai politics of the recent past. This is about what it feels like to be smack dab in the middle of something and have little idea of what’s going on, with or without the help of online sources–not just because we are American, but because the center of political conflicts, like the center of weather events or natural disasters, are a strange mix of chaos and normalcy. The first few days especially, before the international reporting caught up with what was going on — even BBC reports were maddeningly vague– reminded me of a half-dozen of my favorite books and another half-dozen movies set in Asia and Africa. What’s best about the most honest of those narratives is when they underscore not the drama but the mundanity that always co-exists with drama.
This whole trip so far (three weeks to date) I’ve felt less like someone following the trail of my own next fiction project than someone living in classic books by Graham Greene (The Quiet American), Somerset Maugham (The Painted Veil), George Orwell (Burmese Days, awarded a major international prize by the government of Myanmar [former Burma] in November) and movies including The Year of Living Dangerously and Beyond Rangoon, many of which tend to use as their act III a protest that turns into a sudden flurry of chaos, with the Western protagonist concerned mostly about getting out or at least staying clear of the sudden eruption of trouble. (Our own version of staying out of trouble: we’re trying to avoid Bangkok for the time being, and noting the irony of traveling next to a place like Myanmar, formerly notorious, in order to stay clear of trouble in Thailand, formerly stable and benign.)
Lest this post make it sound like everything is in upheaval or feeling dangerous — that’s not at all the case. (Consider this: there are more daily traffic accidents in little Phuket than there were protest-related deaths last week, nationally.) In fact, it’s the normalcy between the sudden streams of protesters’ whistles that is most noticeable, as tourists continue scootering off to beaches and lunchtime workers eat from the street stalls and nurses line up to buy their iced drinks from our favorite Thai coffee stand, in front of the hospital. And as backdrop to all that: the sounds of tropical birds, afternoon clouds and sudden monsoon-like spatters of rain, the racket of insects after a storm passes, the smell of frangipani and the sight of the stray street dogs that live alongside the endless street traffic. No matter what happens in Bangkok or even down the street at our own nearby Provincial Hall, people still eat late-night banana crepes, drop off their laundry (where it hangs drying along the street for all to see), and queue up at the local mall to see The Hunger Games–as if local political conflict, even death, can’t compete with the thrill of Hollywood-produced dystopian drama. For another week, we’ll do the same.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is a co-founder of 49 Writers and a teacher in the low-residency MFA Creative Writing program at UAA. She is the author of The Spanish Bow and The Detour, and she also offers book coaching services. Contact her at email@example.com.