The front page of The Strait Times newspaper reminded me that it has been a year since the King of Thailand died. The article ended with, “As a final tribute to King Bhumibol, and to mark the end of the year-long mourning period, more than 2,000 artists were scheduled to perform the traditional khon – or masked drama – as well as puppets shows and musical repertoires featuring his compositions.”
Unlike Anna Leonowens, I never got to dance with the King of Thailand. In fact, I never even met him. But when I read that King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, one of the longest-reigning monarchs in history, died at age 88, I was saddened.
Martial law was declared in Thailand on Tuesday, the 20th of May 2014. “Big deal”, you say. I found out about it in the departure lounge at Changi Airport where I was waiting to board Tiger Air flight TR2104 bound for Bangkok. It is true that I don’t actually shy away from places with conflict – I did go to Oaxaca and Chiapas when the government of Mexico was fire bombing the Zapatista rebels – but I also don’t go someplace intentionally because of the conflict. I am not a war correspondent.
Upon arrival at Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK), I noticed the total absence of anything unusual. This was my fifth trip to Bangkok and nothing at the largest airport in Thailand suggested that anything was different from the other four trips. At the duty-free shop, I asked if the trains were running and the clerk smiled and answered, “yes”. She was amused by my question. I had missed the express train so I took the local. It was full of young, white, backpacker types. They were going into the city, not trying to get out of Thailand. At each subsequent stop more people, mostly Thai, got on, going into the city. If the declaration of martial law was cause for concern, I had clearly missed the mass exodus and was left with the millions of people who thought it was no big deal.
I checked into the Chaydon Sathorn Hotel where I stayed the last time I was in Bangkok. It is a small hotel, a short walk from where we conduct training. It is, in my opinion, very good value. This time, they upgraded me to a better room. That evening, I turned on the TV, it was a local channel and the news was on. They were showing tanks and trucks and soldiers in camouflage. I thought, “Where is this?” At the airport, on the train, and walking past five-star hotels and foreign embassies, I had not seen as much as one soldier.
The training went well, as I expected it would. I am very fond of the Thai people. They are hardworking and have a great sense of humour. On the second day of training, Thursday, the 22nd of May 2014, one of my students asked me what time my flight back to Singapore was to depart. I told her 8 p.m. I thought she was making polite conversation over lunch.
It wasn’t until the next day, after I had returned to Singapore, that I found out that the Thai military had taken over the government and had imposed a curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. Tiger Air has cancelled their latest flight from Singapore to Bangkok because it arrives at 8:55 p.m. which would make things a bit tight for anyone staying anywhere other than the airport.
I joked that if I was a reporter, I would be fired. I was there when Thailand experienced a coup d’ etat and I have absolutely nothing to report!