Mixed moods: Tourists party on Khao San Rd near shrines for Bangkok protest dead
Here on Khao San Road, Thailand's backpacker mecca of cheap guest houses and beer bars, young international tourists are engaged in running water fights. They're shooting water pistols at one another and dousing each other with hoses and buckets.
Midway down the road, Thai handlers on top of elephants instruct the beasts to spray water at revelers using their trunks.
There is laughter, cheering, and thumping pop music. Thais and tourists alike wave plastic water pistols. It's all part of the yearly Songkran festival to celebrate the Thai new year.
But just two nights ago, real guns were fired just 100 meters from this spot along Khao San Road. At least 21 people, including four soldiers and 17 anti-government red shirt protesters and civilians were killed. One was a Japanese cameraman for the Thomson Reuters news agency. Several hundred were wounded.
The revelry might seem somewhat misplaced. But the mood here, at least for now, has lightened. While the clashes were intense, say many tourists, they're ready to focus on Songkran despite authorities cancelling many official new year festivities.
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No joking matter
The water fights are "badass," says Sayed Jiwa, a 20 year old from Calgary, Canada, when asked about the festivities. He added that the protests were no joking matter, however.
His friend Ignacio Madrid, a 27 year old from Winnipeg, Canada agrees. "We were running from the bullets" a few nights ago, but "we were standing with the red shirts." It was scary, says Jiwa, but "the vibe is all good" now.
Olivia Jennings, 20, from Boston, was also taking part in the festivities. She lives and studies in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Khao San Road "seems fine now," she says.
"The protesters haven't bothered us," said Graham Silver, one of a trio of 21 year olds visiting from Winnipeg, Canada. They were soaked to the bone, and there were smiles all around. They wielded large water guns and doused passersby.
"The people at our hotel were worried and were looking after us," said Derek Martin when asked about the night of the unrest. Keith Sigurdson added that they were not concerned about the recent trouble. "It's just a big water fight now," he says.
"We see the protesters every day," says Elizabeth Einberg, 71, from Stockholm. "They're nice." She and a friend are staying at a hotel near Rajadamnoen, not on Khao San Road, but today they were strolling the street and shopping. They declined to participate in the water fights, however.
"We don't care" about the protests, she says, noting that her plans to travel elsewhere in Thailand hadn't been affected. "They're being so nice to us."
Visitor numbers 'down'
As festive as the mood is here, however, some local people say there were fewer visitors than previous years. A Thai man who gave his name only as Somkid sat in his idle tuk-tuk taking in the action. He smiled when asked about the Songkran festivities, but noted that business was sure to be down.
"There are fewer farang here," he said, using the local word for Westerners. "Many tourists have canceled" because of the violence, he says. "In Bangkok also, there are fewer bookings." He says he is unsure how long the red shirts will continue protesting.
Kunanya Jiwaramonaikul 17, was selling water guns outside of a guest house. "Last year there were more people here," she says. "But now the tourists are scared. Most of the customers have checked out and gone to Chiang Mai."
At the end of Khao San Road, just 100 meters from the water fights, the mood is somber. This is where the fighting took place.
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Red shirt protesters gather to take photos of bullet holes in the walls of a shuttered Burger King. Others gather round a sign showing gruesome photos of what appear to be protesters' corpses.
In one photo, a dead man lies on the street, the top of his head shattered. Another photo shows what appears to be a chunk of brain matter in a pool of blood.
There is also a shrine where, one red shirt protester says, the Japanese cameraman was killed. Someone has left a small Japanese flag next to some incense sticks. The ground is still littered with broken glass, water bottles, food wrappers and even shoes.
While many backpackers danced and doused themselves with water in the distance, others tourists near this end of the street remained philosophical.
"Well, this is definitely civil unrest," said 24 year old Loren Crosby, of San Francisco. "I feel for the red shirts. They're fighting for what they believe in."
She and Ben Riley, 24 and also from San Francisco, had saved their money and will be traveling in Southeast Asia for three months. They arrived in Thailand yesterday from South Korea.
"We were scared but we already had our plans," she says. They do not feel in danger, Riley said, and the clashes won't deter them from returning to Thailand in the future.
Still, they've decided to leave Bangkok and are heading for Chiang Mai. "It's a beautiful country, and it's sad to see this happen to such peaceful people," Riley said.