A Night To Remember
The night was hot and humid as is normal in Bangkok around April close to Songkran.
It just so happened that this year Easter almost coincided with Thai New Year and there were a lot of Western tourists out and about in lower Sukhumvit.
I’m not a tourist, I’m a resident expat. Does that make me different from the holiday makers? Not to the locals, I’m still a farang in their eyes.
However, unbeknown to them, my eyes and my intuition is altogether different from my compatriots temporarily enjoying their holidays in the Kingdom.
I’m a people watcher by nature as well as by training. You could say I’ve got eyes in the back of my head and you would not be too wrong. This is due to a large degree having been a war correspondent in another life.
Now retired but still dabble in writing from time to time as I come across interesting or amusing events on my loiterings in Thailand.
The story I’m about to relate wasn’t amusing though. Ok, so where do I start?
It was on Thursday night and I was feeling peckish but nor for Western or Thai food. I happen to live within walking distance of Soi 5, Sukhumvit, well known for Middle Eastern eateries and a bazaar like atmosphere. Foodland over there is my local supermarket and I thought I can pick up a few essential items after indulging in a nice halal buffet.
I’ve never found the area around there intimidating although I’m aware that a lot of farangs wouldn’t be seen dead over there.
So anyway, I’m sitting in this Pakistani restaurant in the open air having ordered some Jasmine tea while I’m perusing my surroundings and for some reason, call it instinct or whatever, I look across to the next table as I sensed vibes which reminded me of a moment a long time ago in Haifa. Do you know what Déjà vu is? Have you ever had them? Well, I was having a Déjà vu right then but was still trying to recall the details of the event.
While my brain was trying to process what my eyes were seeing the waiter showed up with the menu.
I’m looking at what to pick but at the same time I’m peering over the menu at three guys sitting a table away from me.
Two of the guys were unremarkable as you’d expect obviously Muslim gentlemen with their beards and pyjama like get ups talking in an animated manner using their hands and jabbering away at what I figured were Arabic or Urdu or something akin which I didn’t understand in any case.
However what piqued my interest was the third guy who dressed as a westerner wearing a checked shirt with a plain blue jacket zipped up to his chin. Jeans and a pair of loafers completed his attire. His hair was black and styled with a part on the side, no sideburns but his complexion was similar to the other two.
There are certain signs which one might call “tell tale” as you look at a person and I’m quite good at noticing when something is askew.
The third guy was beardless but if you looked hard enough you could tell that he must have recently shaved his beard off as his skin was somewhat paler than the rest of his complexion. The sun didn’t have time to match his cheeks to the rest of his skin. This was definitely alarming with what I understand about Muslims and their habits. The fact that he was sitting in an outdoor restaurant on a hot evening with a jacket zipped right up to his chin was another odd thing .
Then I looked at his eyes and his demeanour. The guy had a steady gaze, rather a stare into space, as if he was drugged or under a spell. He was sweating profusely which would have been understandable given the jacket but this perspiration was coupled with a slight tremor; I’d call it a cold sweat. The temperature was decidedly hot but he was uncomfortable and almost shivering.
But not only that; while he wasn’t partaking in the conversation of the other two, his lips were moving; well quivering to be precise as if he was trying to repeat a mantra.
As my eyes were moving away from his face and focused on the rest of him, I noticed that his right hand wasn’t visible. Then I saw it ; it was a shopping bag with a well known logo on its side and was seemingly full as it was bulging somewhat. That’s where his right hand was, inside the bag as if he was holding something in there and he wasn’t going to let it go.
At that time my Déjà vu was complete and I was fully aware of what I was looking at and it was the same on that wretched day so many years ago in Haifa. That day in the past the Israeli security forces had a forewarning of a suicide bomber and managed to neutralise him before tragedy struck.
And here I was again as if I was destined to perish when once I cheated death.
As I contemplated what course of action if any I may be able to take and whether I should become a hero or a trigger to set a bomb off, things changed somewhat drastically. Momentarily I heard words uttered like "Allah Akbar” and “Inshalla”, phrases which are well known even to non speakers of Arabic and the two bearded gentlemen rose with the third one following in a trance like manner, similar to a zombie.
Before I had a chance to gather my resources and try to intercept them they were out of the place and took off in a hurried manner. I jumped up, threw a 500 baht on the table and hurried after them to catch sight of them rounding Soi 5 with a right hander to Sukhumvit Road. The last thing I saw was the bomber being propped up by the other two and marched down the road where they disappeared among the throngs of tourists, traders and other bystanders. I was desperate to find a policeman but there were none around.
The time was around nine o’clock at night with Sukhumvit teaming with tourists, some families with small children, various nationalities and races. In my mind’s eyes I saw carnage and blood and guts with barely recognisable body parts thrown around the road. I was dreading the explosion which I thought was imminent but nothing happened.
The scene remained as always in Sukhumvit at night. People dodging one another, sometimes pausing to look at merchandise set out on tables to be bargained for and spruikers enticing buyers to part with their money. Just another regular night with traffic jams and neon lights and people everywhere.
An ideal place for a suicide bomber to wreak havoc for a cause which encourages martyrdom.
10 minutes passed, then 15 and nothing out of the ordinary. I forgot to go to the supermarket but I was so shaken I didn’t feel like confronting more of the same.
To tell you the truth I was relieved that I was still in one piece and I even started to wonder if I was hallucinating all of it. Surely if the scene was real it would have happened by now right there among the Sukhumvit crowds.
I decided that it was time to go home to my safe apartment in Soi 10 and relax with a drop of scotch.
I turned and waited for a break in the traffic then ran across to the other side of the road and was nearing Soi 10 when the explosion came.. The sound was unmistakably a bomb, probably Semtex and it was not in my immediate vicinity. Nonetheless it was loud enough and reverberated plenty so the impact was palpable. I was stunned and rooted to the ground momentarily and shocked to my core. Within a minute or two I saw hordes of people running in my direction screaming and yelling, with tears running down the faces of some.
I got caught up in the panic and started running alongside them. Soon enough I reached Soi 10 and I rounded the corner running like a scared rabbit. My apartment is a high rise halfway up the soi and I’m on the 10th floor with a balcony looking back towards Nana sky train station. Having finally arrived home the security guards were already at high alert but they recognised me as resident so I managed to get up in the lift quickly and collapsed from exhaustion on the sofa. It took me a couple of minutes to catch my breath and during this time I heard all sort of commotions out there where I just came from with sirens going off and soon after a helicopter flying around. I went out to the balcony and the first thing that struck me was a column of smoke rising from where I figured Nana Entertainment Centre was.
The problem with so much expat fiction is that it could be anywhere. Sometimes I wonder if Christopher Moore is the only expat writer whose books wouldn't work elsewhere.
Nice effort, but this could just as easily have been 5th Avenue or Oxford Street or the Champs Elysses.