“I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 22, everything’s going to be alright if you keep me next to you.” —”22” by Taylor Swift
In hindsight, it sounds like unlikely foreshadowing, but this was precisely how I woke up on my 22nd birthday, with my older sister Kate jumping up and down on my hotel bed. My mom had left us in Siem Reap after a month of touring Southeast Asia together, and it was our first day alone.
We had an excellent night planned out. After a bus trip from Cambodia into Bangkok, we’d chill at a hotel I snagged near Siam Paragon and Siam Square—a set of excellent malls—before heading to check out a nearby shrine and grab drinks.
I’ve made this exact trip before earlier this summer, in between writing articles on Happy Special Pizza and Thai Fortune Telling. I knew what to expect, or at least, so I thought. Traveling always throws unexpected curveballs, and this trip was no exception. At the border, Kate and I breezed through, but our bus was held up by another passenger’s detainment. After two excruciating hours, the bus rumbled away without the missing man.
We arrived in Bangkok, and I switched my SIM for a Thai one. As we booked an Uber car from the bus station to the hotel, I received a BBC news alert that a “massive” explosion had rocked the center of the city. The app had no more information. Slightly concerned, I messaged my dad to see if he could find out more info.
Sirens began to blare, and emergency vehicles tunneled through gridlocked traffic. Ambulances and police cars were coming seemingly from everywhere. The BBC’s live updates included bombastic language—body parts were “strewn everywhere.” It was graphic and frightening. My birthday became an afterthought.
My dad messaged that the explosion had been less than a block from our hotel, and occurred at Erawan Shrine. That had been our evening’s destination. Kate prayed, thanking God for our delay and safety, and for peace for all those affected.
Obviously, we decided to cut the evening short. After checking into our hotel, we searched a side street for some food to eat. We entered a noodle restaurant, in which everyone seemed strangely calm. At the table next to us were a couple of Dutch guys, the only other foreigners in the restaurant.
After striking up a conversation, they explained how they had been on the observation deck of a nearby skyscraper, filming time-lapse footage when they felt a large rumble. They attributed it to a thunder storm that was rolling in, but Kate was quick to explain the situation. They reviewed their footage and soon found the blast, sandwiched by benign footage of the skyline as dusk approached. It was the first time any of us had seen it, and it was much larger than even the BBC’s language had suggested.
Just then, a waiter popped out of the back. He showed us the first images from the ground. Suddenly, it made sense.
The story hadn’t even broken out yet to those not checking the news. The restaurant was calm because no one knew what was happening just next door.
As the masses began to learn what was occurring, we made our way back to our hotel through a confused and frightened crowd. It was barely 11 p.m. but we both collapsed, exhausted.
The next day felt like a parallel universe, but events of the previous night were not a phantasm. While the count of dead and injured was still ticking upwards, the events of the previous night were coagulating into the collective consciousness of the Thai people as an indelible modern fable, albeit one with a moral story that is not yet clear.
When the second bomb attempt at a nearby pier failed, a friend reached out to me and offered her home, away from tourist attractions and the city center.
Several publications have suggested the selection of Erawan shrine to be a deliberate move on the part of terrorists to curtail the tourism industry. It’s a popular destination in a high trafficked spot, which is exactly what placed it at the top of our itinerary. The unknown assailants have succeeded in this.
Today, we fly out of Bangkok. I’m worried for the Land of Smiles, where the question “Why?” has still not been answered. A suspect has been located on CCTV footage, but grainy security camera doesn’t give peace. The police chief claimed the work to be a part of a network involving Thai nationals. There is not a promise that this will not happen again. I’m thankful for my own safety, along with that of my sister’s, but filled with sorrow for those who were less lucky.
It’s easy to wander the world, skimming cultures and using the locales as little more than the background for profile pictures. Here, on my 22nd birthday I was jarringly reminded—even when it should be all about me—it isn’t. Ultimately, this isn’t my story. Even when seemingly huge personal events are taking place, the world continues to spin. It continues to be beautiful in the same way that it can be menacing.
Likewise, the aftermath should not impact Thailand as a nation. It should impact Southeast Asia, and the rest of the world. The globe is not a backdrop, and news stories are not 2D images that flicker on a TV or a newsfeed before being extinguished from reality. These are real people, our literal neighbors. It is at times like these we are reminded that we are all citizens of the globe with lives entwined.
A bomb does not discriminate, but then, neither does love. In policy and in practice, we as nations and individuals are responsible. We must choose love.
Photo courtesy of Bangkok.com and Asia Web Direct