Chiang Mai is one of those cities that feels like it could be anywhere in the world. My pastel-colored condo reminds me of my last apartment in Toronto, my neighborhood is packed with international restaurants, and English is widely spoken. You don’t have to look hard to find Thai culture here, but it’s just as easy to swaddle yourself in a blanket of Western comforts and eat Mexican food for three days straight whenever you feel homesick.
Then I woke up to the news that martial law had been declared in Thailand, and retreating into that protective Western bubble didn’t feel like an option anymore. This wouldn’t have happened in Toronto or London – Chiang Mai felt different now.
Despite being the headline of the day all around the world, life in Thailand seemed completely unchanged at first. I wouldn’t have even known anything was happening if I didn’t follow news reports and Twitter feeds. There were no tanks rolling up to my doorstep, nor armed soldiers patrolling the streets. People still seemed as carefree as ever -shopping, eating, drinking, working, and doing everything else they would do throughout a normal week. I felt edgy, because it’s not every day I find myself in a country governed by the military, but Chiang Mai’s collectively blasé reaction slowly eased my concerns.
The only time I felt scared was when the military coup officially took place a few days later. It sounds overly dramatic is retrospect because no real violence ended up happening in Chiang Mai, but at the time, Brent was downtown near the Thapae Gate, a place that was likely to be the center of any reactive rioting, with no idea that the coup announcement had been made. All I knew was that there was a large military force downtown, a potentially volatile reaction from the locals, and Brent wasn’t answering his cell. He was fine, of course. Chiang Mai was, and has continued to be peaceful, aside from a few protests and a noticeable military presence.
The strangest part of seeing the coup from a Western perspective is that it’s not as clear-cut as I initially thought it would be. Keeping in mind that I write this as a tourist, and not someone with any knowledge of Thai politics, it appears that for every person protesting the coup, there is someone else supporting it. Many Thai people feel the coup is the only solution to ongoing political conflicts that showed little hope of resolving. I feel like I’m supposed to automatically oppose the military junta because they’re suppressing democracy, but then I see how many Thai people are grateful for the coup, and hear that the military have started making long-owed payments to Thai rice farmers, which were being withheld by the previous government. I’m not saying it’s enough to make me condone what’s happening in Thailand, but it does make the line between right and wrong start to seem a little blurred.
I even kind of understand why so many tourists and locals have been taking selfies with Thai soldiers. I get it. They’re showing the world that Thailand is still a safe place for tourists, and the soldiers are just normal people with no malevolent intentions. But it still makes me uncomfortable. It still seems like an overly cheerful reaction to an unstable situation. I find it hard to completely overlook the automatic weapons resting heavily in those soldiers’ hands as everyone smiles for the photos. They have those guns for a reason.
I still go for runs in the morning like I always have, but now I pass a cluster of soldiers and military vehicles on my way to Chiang Mai University campus. They never give me a second look, and when I cross onto the campus, it’s filled with people happily running, walking, and doing tai chi like any other morning. My everyday routine hasn’t really changed, aside from the fact that I had to be home by 10pm to comply with the military-imposed curfew, although even that has recently been relaxed to midnight.
I feel safe enough to write this post, but not so safe that I would write anything that could be perceived as directly critical. I feel safe enough to stay in Thailand, but not so safe that I’ve stopped keeping a careful eye on the latest news. Many people are posting photos of tranquil Thai beaches on various social media networks – another effort to show everyone that things haven’t changed in Thailand. To a large extent, it’s true. Is it safe to travel to Thailand? Overall, I think it is. But, to me at least, things definitely feel different than they did two weeks ago before the military controlled the country.