In Bangkok, Scratching Beneath the Headlines of a Neighborhood Bombing

Erawan Shrine Bangkok

A bomb went off in Bangkok this week, by which I mean to say, in a less passive manner, that a man wearing a yellow t-shirt and, possibly, a shaggy wig, planted a bomb that exploded.

The man strolled into Erawan Shrine, casual and unassuming, just another person drawn into the magnetic Hindu shrine on the corner of Phloen Chit and Ratchadamri roads. The man sat down on a bench, surrounded by humans praying and taking pictures and marveling at the sparkling statue of Lord Brahma, placed his backpack on the ground, and walked out of the shrine. He hailed a motorbike taxi, one of those guys wearing orange vests that scuttle people to and fro, and allegedly directed the guy in the orange vest to drop him at a “central Bangkok park,” which I assume was Lumpini Park, the pretty green space just up the road where dogs and cats and monitor lizards and crows live happily. It’s one of my happy places in Bangkok, too.

At or near one of my happy places in Bangkok, the man who placed his backpack on the ground in Erawan Shrine may have gotten off the motorbike, and from there we do not yet know where he went. We do know that inside his backpack was a bomb, and that the bomb exploded, and that many of the humans whom had surrounded the man were killed or maimed, by which I mean to say, in a more active manner, that the man maimed and killed more than 100 people at Erawan Shrine.

The man slaughtered more than 100 people, people with whom he had no axe to grind, at Erawan Shrine, which sits at the intersection of Ratchadamri and Phloen Chit roads. It’s a busy intersection made busier by Erawan, a square-shaped area enclosed by wrought-iron railings. Outside the shrine, morning until night, women string floral garlands in a number of shoulder-to-shoulder stalls lining Phloen Chit, one garland after another after another, every day–every day, fortunately, except Mondays–the same women, chatting, snacking, stringing, snacking some more, these women are there all the time stringing garlands that wind up in Erawan Shrine, offerings to Lord Brahma. Motorbike taxi drivers, dressed in orange vests, hang out on the corner every day, all day. Vendors selling bottled water and fresh coconuts and other things camp out on the corner every day, too, some of them underneath large standing umbrellas.

Erawan Shrine Bangkok

A man detonated a bomb in Erawan Shrine this week, a shrine which one can look down upon from the Skywalk, a covered, elevated walkway stretching between the Chit Lom and Siam BTS Skytrain stations. One can look down at the mobs of Erawan Shrine visitors from the Skywalk, though be careful not to slip on the smooth, slip-slip-slippery slope that’s near the Skywalk area from which you can see the shrine. It’s not much of a slope, but it’s more slippery than it looks, especially if you’re wearing flip-flops, particularly after it rains. If you get a small running start, in flip-flops you could probably slide down that slope a little.

From the Skywalk one gets the best view of Erawan Shrine, where a man blew up more than 100 people this week. Here one can see the golden likeness of Lord Brahma, sitting upon a glittering, covered platform, boxed in by octagonal wrought-iron fencing draped with garlands of yellow flowers, shrouded by fizzling smoke from incense sticks planted in sand boxes like leafless saplings in garden soil.

From here, one can watch the Thai dancers, young women dressed in traditional, ornately decorated costumes, dance in a covered pavilion elegant dances to the trance-like music of live drummers and xylophone players. According to a 2010 report written by Richard S. Ehrlich, these women work six-hour shifts every other day and are paid by the dance, which is to say that, as of 2010, these women make 19 baht per dance (about US$0.53). Ehrlich interviewed one dancer who claimed to make about 1,000 baht per day, which is about 53 dances per day, which is about 167 baht per hour, which is about US$4.68 per hour, which actually, for many Bangkokians, isn’t a bad wage. The man detonated his bomb near these Thai musicians and dancers, the dancers who work six-hour shifts, every other day, to the sound of traditional Thai music, and to the sound of roaring traffic at Phloen Chit and Ratchadamri intersection.

Erawan Shrine Bangkok

At this intersection, the sidewalks along both sides of Erawan Shrine are pocked with a number of loose tiles, tiles transformed into “magic tiles” during and after rainfall. They become magical in that fountains of filthy black water, trapped underneath the tiles, magically erupt like geysers onto one’s feet and legs once stepped upon if one is not careful. I’ve passed Erawan Shrine countless times over the years, so during those times when I’m living just down the street in Pratunam—when I live in Bangkok, I always live in Pratunam—on my usual long run from Pratunam, up Ratchadamri, into and around Lumpini Park a few times, and back again, I’m careful to bypass those loose sidewalk tiles around Erawan. Usually I do so by slipping into the road and looping back onto the sidewalk at the corner, where the orange-vested motorbike taxi drivers hang out, where a gutless fuck in a yellow t-shirt stood after planting a bomb that destroyed scores of people and their families.

Related: In Bangkok, Face the Thing That Should Not Be

In reports that followed the bombing of Erawan Shrine, writers often referenced “the many five-star hotels” near this “popular tourist attraction.” The closest five-star hotel is Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok, a colossal structure where guards stop all arriving vehicles at the uphill driveway to scan for car bombs with long, tactical security mirrors before allowing them to pass. It was here at the Grand Hyatt that my wife and I once celebrated our then-recent marriage with two middle-aged Thai sisters, whom in 2008 became our landlords, and whom shortly thereafter became good friends. On that happy afternoon in 2011, our friends treated us to a fancy buffet lunch at the Grand Hyatt, one of the many five-star hotels near Erawan Shrine.

At around 7pm on Monday, August 17, 2015, a man set off a bomb in a corner of my Bangkok neighborhood. I was in Singapore, one of my other homes, at the time of the blast, but I may as well have been just down the street.

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