Field Report: Shock and Confusion Over Bangkok Bombing

Police clear the intersection where the bomb detonated. The Erawan shrine is a popular destination for both tourists and local Thais. (Photo courtesy of Maher Sattar)

Police clear the intersection where the bomb detonated. The Erawan shrine is a popular destination for both tourists and local Thais. (Photo courtesy of Maher Sattar)

At around 7 p.m. Monday local time, a pipe bomb detonated at the Erawan shrine in Bangkok, Thailand. The blast left 20 dead and more than 120 injured

 General Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thailand’s prime minister, has called the blast one of the “worst attacks” on Bangkok. The Erawan shrine is a popular area for tourists and locals alike – a bomb going off there would have been similar to a bomb going off in Times Square. Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn, a Thai national studying in New York, sends in a report on the scene and reactions from Thais at home and abroad.

 The blast sounded different, depending on where you were.

For Sanam Rahman, who was in a taxi just a few blocks away, the explosion shook the entire car.

“I thought something had fallen onto the roof,” said Rahman, 26. “There was smoke everywhere, and all I could see were sparks and people standing in the street. I told the taxi to get out of there as soon as possible.”

For Sejin Kim, who was on her way toward the CentralWorld mall, not far from where the bomb detonated, the sound of hundreds of sirens cut through the air.

“The first time I heard the ambulance going by, I thought it was a car accident. But so many ambulances filled the street that I realized something else was going on,” said Kim, 30. “Everyone stopped to check their phones. I could sense that something wasn’t right.”

And for one motorcycle taxi driver who was near the intersection, the blast sounded a lot like a clap of thunder.

“I thought it was going to rain,” he said.

I was in Bangkok during a break from graduate school in New York, and though I wasn’t near the Erawan shrine at the time of the blast, I heard about it soon after. Like many people in the city, I heard the news through Line, a popular chat app among Thais.

“A bomb went off next to my meeting room,” my father wrote in Thai at 7:26 p.m. “I’m glad we moved at the last minute. I’m on the way home now.”

By 7:30, a friend had sent me images of the chaos: motorcycles and debris scattered across the streets, some enveloped in flames. One photo showed a woman lying on the ground, the people around her a blur of movement.

My immediate inclination was disbelief – there seemed no way that a bomb could explode in the heart of the city. But as reports came in, I realized that what happened was much worse – and the scene far more gruesome. Photos online showed burnt bodies and pieces of human flesh on the ground. Initial reports said that hundreds had been injured, and that several people, many of them tourists, had been killed soon after detonation. I texted and called as many people as I could to make sure they were okay.

By the time I arrived at the Ratchaprasong intersection, the area was eerily empty. Police had cordoned off the streets, while a team checked for more bombs near the blast site. Only first responders, journalists and some bystanders remained outside the barriers. Most of the injured had been moved to hospitals nearby.

I could still see two mangled motorcycles lying in the center of the intersection, but police and military personnel were eager to shoo us away. When I tried speaking to a foreigner on the street, three officers approached and asked me what I was doing. One man, a volunteer ambulance driver, said that he didn’t want the foreigner to know that a bomb had gone off.

“I don’t want people to get the wrong idea of Thailand,” he told me.

By midnight, police had expanded the barricades around the site and many people had left. News trickled in that schools would be closed tomorrow. I would hear later of how, just a few kilometers away, hospitals were in desperate need of blood donations, as well as people who could act as translators for the many Chinese-speaking tourists who were injured. Dozens of Thais would rush to their aid.

But at the blast site, the streets were mostly empty. By 1 a.m. I was back home.

*****

Reaction to the blasts have been a mix of shock and anger.

“This just isn’t something you expect to happen in Bangkok,” said Rahman, who was in the taxi near the blast. Rahman, who is from Bangladesh, has spent the past two-and-a-half years in the city. “I’ve always felt safe here.”

Art Suriyawongkul, a Bangkok resident, posted on Facebook saying that he was safe, but was also frustrated by what was being shared on social media. “I’m sad that people passed away,” said Suriyawongkul. “But I have been avoiding social media because there are so many hoaxes.”

For Thais abroad, news of the blasts came early in the morning, right before work. Most say they found out through personal messages on Line or on Facebook and immediately checked in with family.

“There was a lot of frightening things being shared on Line, including photos of corpses,” said Wannita Makaroon, who lives in New York. “There was so much news, from both the media and the government, that came in without verification. It was really confusing.”

Gonggit Chanthawijaikul, 30, encountered something similar. “I know that everyone wants to share the news, but I want people to be patient and share news in a way that’s more reasonable.”

“We should try and live as normally as we can so that things can go back to normal,” said Chanthawijaikul.

Lisa Trongprakob, 35, says that she immediately felt anger at the blasts. The Erawan shrine was something she passed every day while growing up in Bangkok.

“I’m someone who feels a lot of respect for the Erawan shrine,” said Trongprakob, who has spent the past 10 years in New York. “When I heard about the blasts, I thought: Why didn’t they place a bomb somewhere else? Why did they have to bomb it at a place that holds such a special place in my heart?”

“I’m mad now, and I want to know the truth,” said Trongprakob. “I want to know who did it and why.”

The Thai government is now on high alert for a suspect who was shown on CCTV footage leaving a backpack near the shrine moments before the blast. They suspect that he is not working alone, and that the blasts are targeted at tourists.

A second grenade exploded in the water near Sathorn pier – also regularly frequented by tourists – Tuesday afternoon, but no one was injured.

In the meantime, Thais have continued to reach out to others with messages of support.

“We should try and support each other,” said Chirawat Withanwattana, 30. “Like they say in New York – if you see something, say something.”

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