Into The War Zone–On The Ground In Chiang Mai
“Vicki and I arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand, a few hours ago, Friday morning local time,” writes Intrepid Correspondent Paul Terhorst. “Protesters left their Bangkok camp on Wednesday, but some refused to go home. Instead, they tried to burn down much of Bangkok. The army prevailed overall, but not completely. Random violence quickly spread to other parts of Thailand, including Chiang Mai.
“The U.S. Department of State talks of ‘unrest in Bangkok and Chiang Mai’ and says ‘U.S. citizens should ‘defer all travel to Bangkok and defer all non-essential travel to the rest of Thailand.’
“The Thai government has set a nightly curfew, from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., until Sunday. Go out on the streets after 9 p.m., and you risk being shot. In nearly every news dispatch on the clashes, someone or other refers to the possible start of ‘civil war.’
“In spite of all this, our Air Asia flight from Kuala Lumpur to Chiang Mai was nearly full. I counted maybe 10 Westerners, 20 Thais. The rest looked to be tourists from Malaysia, Singapore, China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. The Chiang Mai airport functioned normally. Friends picked us up at the airport and took us straight to their house; we wanted to stay off the streets in central Chiang Mai as much as possible our first day.
“So why did we come to what amounts to a war zone? First, we’re 700 kilometers from Bangkok, the main protest site. We expected provincial Chiang Mai to settle down quickly, and it did. More importantly, we’ve been coming to Chiang Mai for years. We know our way around. We’re comfortable here, we have friends here. Tourists and first-time visitors might want to delay coming over. But we know what spots to avoid, who we can count on, and where to stay. We decided we could handle it.
“Today we took a drive around town to inspect burned buildings but found only one site. The city seems back to normal, maybe a bit prettier than usual due to fine weather.
“If the violence returns, we should have plenty of time to get out. I could buy new running shoes, to help me outrun tanks. I could buy an airplane and keep it standing by, the motor running, the pilot on call. Seriously, if it gets bad, I think we’ll be able to take a bus across the border to Laos.
“Vicki and I have experience with hot spots. We lived in Buenos Aires during the 1982 war between Argentina and Britain over the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands. We traveled in Chile during anti-Pinochet riots, at a time when Chileans declared a state of emergency and imposed curfews. We traveled in Turkey just after Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait. We lived in the United States when terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center towers in 2001. We lived in Mexico when the peso collapsed, ATM machines stopped giving money, and fortunes were wiped out overnight. During our first year living in Argentina, we experienced five military coups, some violent, and saw the peso go from 2,000 to 50,000 against the dollar.
“Pretty scary, right?
“Well, no. During the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas war, we were in Buenos Aires. The war zone was a long ways off, out in the South Atlantic Ocean. We were in peaceful Vina del Mar, Chile, during the anti-Pinochet violence, not in riot-torn Santiago. We were in Las Vegas rather than New York on Sept. 11, 2001. In Mexico, we profited enormously from that peso collapse.
“In Argentina, too, we profited from the local peso’s collapse as our cost of living became very, very cheap. Sure, there were coups in Buenos Aires. But those coups involved military factions and perhaps a few others. People on the street carried on normally. At least Vicki and I carried on normally, if you consider paying 50 cents for a bottle of excellent Argentine champagne normal.
“Along the way, we’ve learned a few things about living in hot spots.
“First, especially in the Third World but also in Europe and the States, riots, unrest, coups, currency collapses, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters come with the territory. In my lifetime, U.S. troops battled on the streets of Panama, searching for General Noriega. Terrorists blew up the Madrid subway, the London subway, the twin towers in New York, hotels in Jakarta and Pakistan, a nightclub in Bali, and on and on. Algerians blew up Paris, Tamil Tigers blew up Sri Lanka, the IRA blew up England, the U.S. army blew up Laos, and drug lords blow up Mexican border towns all the time. Every day you read about natural disasters, oil spills, crashes, strikes, and so on. Death and destruction can happen anywhere.
“Conclusion: We need to realize that we already live with risk. We must learn to manage the risk we face. When living in a hot spot, we need a game plan so we’ll be able to judge when it’s time to leave.
“Before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, many people, including all our friends there, left the area or made other arrangements. Safe and dry, they watched the drama unfold on TV, rather than on the roofs of their homes. Similarly, people who got out ahead of the Los Angeles County forest fires last year survived. Some of those who stayed perished. In Darfur, those who fled the civil war and genocide got a second chance.
“During Argentina’s war with Britain in 1982, Vicki and I were living and working in Buenos Aires. My partners in New York and elsewhere strongly encouraged us to leave the country. By that time, the United States, neutral at the beginning of the conflict, had declared for Britain. The English were the enemy, the Americans were traitors. Vicki and I should leave.
“We refused (that’s another story). But most American and British expats working for the big companies did leave. They headed for Uruguay and the Victoria Plaza Hotel in Montevideo. They shared their lives with one another, meeting for drinks, taking the kids on outings, comparing telexes from head offices, and, most of all, worrying about what might happen. The way I heard it, rumors flew, fear took hold, and desperation set in. Families wondered if they’d ever see their homes in Buenos Aires again. These people were miserable, stuck in Lodi—or, in this case, Montevideo—for who knew how long.
“Meanwhile, Vicki and I and others who stayed in Buenos Aires led a fairly normal, albeit tense life. We came up with a game plan and prepared to leave on a moment’s notice if necessary. Only once did it look like we might have to jump. Eventually the crisis passed.
“Meanwhile we enjoyed thick steaks for a buck or two and other small luxuries at great prices. When economies collapse during wartime…when there’s blood in the streets…those who stay behind often do well.
“We wonder why we ever considered leaving Buenos Aires during those war years. And we wonder, today, why earlier this week we considered canceling our plans to come to Chiang Mai. In the end, we believe we did the right thing, for the right reasons.
“A little luck helped, too.