As an AFS student in Bangkok, I spent a lot of time in the centre of the city with my AFS friends. We’d skip school and head to the AFS office on Rajadamri Road, ready to meet up and explore the city with any other AFSers who were in town and doing the same. I lived on the outskirts of Bangkok, about one and a half hours (depending on traffic) by bus, and would spend the time on the bus practising my Thai by reading the shop signs. The entire trip cost me 2 ½ baht (if memory serves) which was about 12-15 cents, but I was on a budget, so I couldn’t complain about the hot, crowded buses. Besides, I was lucky – I got on at the first stop, right outside the private housing estate where I lived, so I was guaranteed a seat on the way there. I had to change buses at the chaotic Victory Monument, then it was just a short half hour or less down to Rajadamri Road. When we passed the Indra Regent Hotel, and went over one of the black, polluted klongs (canals), I knew I was almost there.
As we crossed the intersection of Rajadamri and Ploenchit Roads, the heads of all the passengers – and often the bus drivers too – would turn towards the hotel on the corner, lift their hands together to their chests and bow their heads in a respectful “wai” to the Brahmin shrine. I always loved this about the Thais. They might be Buddhist, but Buddha isn’t possessive, and the Thais don’t put all their eggs in one basket, so the shrine is very popular, and hundreds of Thais daily pay their respects to Brahma, with garlands of flowers or other offerings, or simply by wai-ing as they pass.
Sometimes, I would get off the bus at the corner, or – at the end of the day – I’d catch the bus at the corner. There was an attraction there besides the shrine, you see. The Erawan Hotel was one of Bangkok’s grand old hotels, though even in 1980, it was showing its age. One of the other AFSers – I can’t remember who was the culprit – introduced me to the hotel bakery, where their choux pastry puffs were light as air and comfortingly filled with cream, reminding me of home.
Ten years later, I lived and worked in Bangkok as a junior diplomat. By now, the old wooden Erawan Hotel had been knocked down, and a new, concrete monstrosity opened in its place. Still, it was a nice hotel (once you were inside), with some decent restaurants, and was a good place for us to conduct official meetings (though I do recall falling down the slippery stairs there, and as I hosted some Thai officials to discuss New Zealand’s aid programme over lunch, I could feel the blood running down my leg).
The demolition of the old hotel, and the construction of the new one, didn’t impinge on the Erawan Shrine. The architecture of the new hotel made way for the Shrine at the corner. It remained an important site for locals, and there were always tourists there too. Tourism and economic development saw luxury shopping centres constructed all around the area – next door and across the road, and diagonally across the intersection. Other major hotels sprung up just down the road, and the fast food chains to attract youth and the tourists moved in.
The intersection was always busy, the ubiquitous motor-cycles crowding the front of a traffic queue waiting for the lights to change, Bangkok’s taxis and tuk-tuks lining up behind them, the buses plying the route. The only change between 1980 and the early 1992 was that the motor-cyclists were required to wear helmets, though by 2008, the number of tuk-tuks had dramatically declined.
The last time I visited the shrine was in 2008, visiting good friends who were living and working in Bangkok, also with the NZ Embassy. We had lunch at the hotel, then walked along to the shrine. It was much busier than in those days in 1980, crowded by the now well-established Grand Hyatt Erawan hotel, and overlooked by the new Skytrain and station, commuters and worshippers and tourists bustling around.
I weep to think that someone chose very deliberately to defile this spot, to take the lives of Thais and foreigners, worshippers and vendors and commuters and motor-cyclists and tourists going peacefully about their business. I read just now that the shrine has been reopened to the public today, and I am encouraged to know that it will continue to bring colour to the vibrant, varied city that is Bangkok.