Central World is on fire. That's what I keep getting stuck on. It's a shopping mall in Bangkok, one of the several dozen major buildings set ablaze in the past day or so. A shopping mall on fire does not even compare to the tragedy of a body on a stretcher or a blood stain on concrete. I know that. But yet, this image above is what I keep going back to. I've looked at pictures of this over and over again today, from different news sources and photographers. I've looked at a variation of this image from a photo posted on the Facebook wall of a friend who lives in Bangkok. I can't not look at it. I can't not study it, can't not inspect it. Because if I look at it long enough, then I've got to be able to find the obvious alteration, the computer generated trickery that must be, that has to be the explanation for all of this. That would be logical. That would make sense. This, this image, and all of the other images coming out Thailand right now, are just impossible.
As I've written about before, Bangkok was a second home to me during my time in Thailand. But more specifically the area containing the above shopping mall was a second home to me during my entire stay in Thailand. If I went into Bangkok for the whole weekend I always stayed at a guest house within walking distance of CentralWorld. But even if I just came in for the afternoon, as I did whenever no other foreign teacher friends were going to be in the city, I came here. For the first couple of months I would take two buses and the skytrain to get to this part of Bangkok from my apartment in Prapradaeng. But when I realized a taxi took fifteen minutes and cost less than five bucks, I quickly ditched the bus commute. The first few weekends, when everything in Thailand was so new and scary and different, this part of Bangkok, with its high end, shiny malls was just such a blast of Westernism. It couldn't have been more of an antidote for culture shock or frankly, homesickness. I could get Subway or McDonalds, buy Goldfish and cheese, see an American movie, buy American gossip magazines, shop at American clothing stores, all within this tiny part of Bangok. Yet even as the weeks went on, and things weren't so scary or new or different, even when I acclimated to Thailand, I continued to go to these malls whenever I wasn't traveling on the weekends. Even when it was just me, even if I vowed to do something cultural, I would always end up finishing my day off at Siam Paragon or MBK or Central World.
Maybe I should be ashamed of this. Maybe this makes me shallow or ignorant or silly. But I don't really think so. Five days of the week, I was living in a Thai community, teaching in a Thai school, completely immersed in Thai life. I lived alone in an apartment with no hot water, no cable, no internet, none of those things we've grown so depedent on back home. For the first three months, I was pretty much sick constantly, culminating in a bout with swine flu which was the sickest I've been in my entire life. I loved my Thai kids and my school, but teaching was without question, the hardest thing I've ever done. It could be brutal. It could be beyond brutal. Not too mention the fact that I couldn't stop injuring myself or getting all of my valuables stolen, sometimes both simultaneously. My point is, even though I loved every second of it, a lot of my time in Thailand was just plain hard. But no matter how rough my week was or how sick I was or how klutzy I was, there was one thing that I could count on to be easy, my Bangkok malls. I knew that I would walk from the heat of a Thai afternoon into the crisp, cool, AC'd entrance way of one of these shopping behemoths, and everything that had happened, all of the anti-biotics and feathers and glue and deranged British men holding my passport hostage, well they all disappeared. For the hours I was in these malls, I was safe.
I was safe in these malls, safe from my mishaps and my crazy students and my homesickness. I was in a little commercial cocoon, where I could go eat popcorn and watch silly American action movies or browse an English language bookstore for hours at a time. And even when things got easier, when I no longer really needed a cocoon, I continued to spend time in these places, to walk the gleaming hallways and window shop at all of the stores I could never in a million years afford. I did it because when I was there I felt like home wasn't so far away. Plus I didn't stick out like an escaped zoo animal like I did in my town. I was safe.
And now, the places I felt safest in Thailand are ironically in the center of a street battle. Central World is on fire. And like I said before, trust me, I realize that a fancy mall set on fire is so insanely far down the list in terms of things about this situation that are horrible and tragic. People are dying. A nation is verging on splitting in two. People are scared and hurt and angry. Those are the real tragedies. I understand that.
But in the smallest, most inconsequential, admittedly self-centered way, seeing Central World burn shatters something inside of me, because for six of the scariest, hardest, most amazing months of my life, for this brief little moment in time, I felt safe there.
And because I can't bear to end this on a depressing note, because Lord knows there is just too much depressing information out there right now for anyone to really handle, I offer this. These things, they are happening in Thailand. They are happening to Thai people.
But they do not define Thailand. They do not define Thai people. One tragedy that could come out of this heap of tragedies is that the rest of the world begins to identify Thailand with violence and anger and unrest. I know that these images don't do much to dispel that, but you have to understand that as someone who lived in this country for six months, not in hotels or on vacation but alongside Thai people, working with them and teaching them and befriending them, this, all of this, it isn't Thailand.
Thailand was kindness and generosity. It was the first time I tried to take a bus to visit my friends one town over and had absolutely no idea what the frick I was doing. This was obvious, so obvious that one Thai man not only told me when to get off the bus to change onto a new bus, he also got off with me and pretty much held my hand until I was safely deposited on the new bus.
Thailand was the owner of my apartment building, who spoke very little English and who I rarely did more than wave and smile to, but who after I came home from Ko Samet on crutches, opened the building's door for me and helped me up the stairs to my apartment. I thought it would end there. This man came back fifteen minutes later with a card with his cell number on it and instructions to call him if I needed anything. I thought it would end there. This same man came back the next morning with a bag of food from 7-11, several Toasties (like delicious heated pop-tarts), some yogurt, some canned milk, and gyoza. It was the most bizarre collection of breakfast food you could imagine, but it almost made me cry. I thought it would end there. This same man saw me try to leave the apartment the following weekend to go into Bangkok, no longer on crutches but limping nonetheless. And he insisted that I not take a taxi or bus but that he drive me, through heavy Bangkok traffic, on an afternoon where he had better things to do, to my destination.
Thailand was the fire-dancers on Ko Samet who took two silly, careless, sopping wet American girls who had just had all of their valuables stolen, and who at 3am not only let us use their internet and call our banks but who cleaned and bandaged the huge cut on my knee as gently as if I had been their five year old daughter.
Thailand was the doctor on Ko Samet who gave me his clinic's only pair of crutches, free of charge, so that I wouldn't have to crawl to the ferry. (if you've only recently started reading this blog, Ko Samet sort of equaled disaster for me in Thailand, and yet I adored it)
Thailand was the hundreds, possibly thousands of other moments of ordinary decency and kindness and generosity I came across constantly from the people who live there. Thailand was the respect shown to elders and to monks and to fellow human beings, a respect that is learned from birth, a respect marked a million times a day, in every single greeting.
Thailand was all of these things. Thailand was and is a big, crazy, hectic, complex, beautiful nation, one that I was proud to call home for half of a year, that I will always be proud to have called home.
I hope with all of my heart that this violence will end soon, and that Thailand will return to the peace it so deserves. Because what is happening right now in Bangkok simply isn't Thailand. I hope you can believe that, because no matter what happens, I always will.