When my wife Ann Marie and I left Leelanau nearly three weeks ago, I was suffering from an extreme case of sensory underload, bouncing off the walls of our spacious Omena home as if it were a six-by-nine-foot prison cell. We were heading for Bangkok, Thailand, where eight months ago our youngest son Drew landed a job as an English teacher in one of the country’s best universities. I was praying for an adventure vacation, one that would stimulate and recharge my imagination before settling into a winter of writing. As the old saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for.”
On the morning of December 2nd, the lead story in the Bangkok Post read: “Parts of inner Bangkok were yesterday plunged into chaos as anti-government protesters tried to seize key state offices but faced strong resistance from police. Protesters tried to seize the offices since the morning but by evening had still not pushed through the barriers erected by police, who fired tear gas and water cannon. ”
For three years, while writing my most recent book, Grand Traverse The Civil War Era, I studied the escalating violence that led to catastrophic war in mid-19th century America, and I followed this work with my regular Civil War column in the Leelanau Enterprise; however, it is one thing to document a civil war in the distant past, quite another to face civil unrest live and halfway around the world from home.
The scenario here in Thailand seems altogether surreal. We are thoroughly enjoying the beautiful and historic country of Thailand and the proud and friendly people who have embraced my son and given him meaningful work. The pace and crush of humanity in Bangkok makes New York City seem tranquil, but I have yet to see a single scrap of paper or spray of graffiti anywhere on the metro system. Dare I mention that the night/day temperatures ranges from 70 to 85 degrees, the ancient temples and palaces are inspiring, the food is outstanding, and the daily, hour-long massages Ann Marie and I are enjoying cost only $6 to $9? But the potential gravity of the situation struck home when Drew, who had been downplaying the downward spiral of events, accepted an envelope I handed him containing Thai baht and US dollars, just in case.
Ongoing Thai newspaper editorials addressing the country’s comparatively new experiment in democracy often refer to our 237-year-old nation as the world’s best example of government by the people, where unpopular leaders lose elections but are not overthrown. Though we are certainly suffering through a terribly divisive time back in the States, almost all of us accept the concept of change through the ballot box rather than the mob. I hoped that sentiment would prevail here in Thailand, too.
On December 3, Ann Marie and I both flew out of Bangkok, she on her scheduled day-long fight back home, I to the northern city of Chiang Mai to pursue leads on a story I am writing and to attend a noted Thai cooking school. Before she left, Ann Marie transferred enough money to Drew’s credit card should he need to book a flight to join me in Chiang Mai -- again, just in case.
I spent most of the day preparing for an interview with 86-year-old Thai art collector James E. Bogle, an American who stayed on in Bangkok after his service in the Korean War and built a distinguished career as a Southeast Asia city planner. Bogle is one of the last surviving friends of another American expatriate named Jim Thompson, a hero in Thailand, who is credited with rebuilding the country’s silk industry after World War II. Thompson’s mysterious disappearance in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia in 1967 is still unsolved, and my three-hour conversation with Bogle shed light on that event, which I’ll cover in my upcoming book of nonfiction short stories.
I didn’t catch the news until late that evening, by which time the tide of events in Thailand had turned for the better. The police had torn down their own barriers and welcomed the demonstrators into various government compounds, instantly diffusing the escalating violence. There were pictures of demonstrators and police laughing, embracing, and sharing tea together. As the lead story in the December 4th Bangkok Post explained:
The upcoming celebrations for His Majesty the King’s birthday are behind the Metropolitan Police Bureau’s decision to allow anti-government into their headquarters and Government House. The military asked the government to allow protesters inside as a symbolic gesture to end the violence.
The military was keen to avoid clashes during the King’s birthday tomorrow. Police Lt. General Kamronwit said he had been summoned for an audience with a royal family member at the palace. He was told Thais must not fight each other.
The long-serving King is revered in Thailand, wielding influence of the kind George Washington would have if he were to reappear in the present and ask Americans to behave in a certain way. Drew told us a story of a friend visiting from the States who dropped a coin on a busy sidewalk, and as it began to roll away on its edge, stomped on it with his foot in order to stop it. Thais who witnessed the scene gasped in horror and disbelief, for one side of the coin featured a bust of the King.
Fathers Day in Thailand is a moveable feast pegged to the King’s birthday, which is today, December 5th. My Fathers Day present this year is the truce and at least a day of peace on the streets and the knowledge my son won’t be compelled by events to join me today in Chiang Mai.
As I advance in age, I sometimes have fleeting doubts as to whether the fortune I have spent on travel over a lifetime would have been better put aside for retirement, but just as quickly I answer myself, “No way.” If my last words turn out to be “paper or plastic,” so be it, for every time I experience other countries and their distinct cultures I am awed by the beauty and diversity of our world. Never has that been truer than on this rollercoaster ride of a month-long- trip to Thailand. As a bonus, the more I see of the world, the more I am convinced there is no better place on the planet to live than Leelanau County, Michigan, USA.
- John Mitchell, 12/5/2013
[John Mitchell's most recent book is a best-selling northern Michigan work of history, Grand Traverse: The Civil War Era.]