Bombings in Hua Hin: our long weekend

It’s 10pm and I am safe, back in Lopburi.
Thankfully we were able to leave this morning with the holiday destination of Hua Hin – where we’d been trapped for the past 24 hours – seemingly void of any more bombs.

It honestly feels as if we’ve been away for days… when in actual fact we arrived in the early hours of Friday morning and left at 10am today (Saturday).

Friday was the longest day I’ve experienced in quite a while…

It’s taken a lot for me to recount everything that happened yesterday because I’m mentally exhausted, and it all still feels very surreal, but if I don’t do it now I’ll forget the facts and details and it’s important to me that I document it all.

So it begins…

Thursday night

Myself and my fellow teachers were all in high spirits as it was the start of the long weekend in Thailand, and consequently our last holiday before the end of the school semester. Schools here don’t have half terms so you work for 4 and a half months with pretty much no break – except the odd long weekend – so naturally we were all looking forward to it and had been planning it for quite a while.

We’d arranged for a minibus to take us to Hua Hin – a popular destination for tourists and locals. I was particularly looking forward to seeing the horizon and going to the beach having not stepped foot on one for over 3 months (something I’m not accustomed to being from Cornwall), due to us living and working in central Thailand.

Little did we know we wouldn’t end up venturing more than 25m outside of our hotel the entire time we were there.

It’s incredible how much fear a single word can provoke.

The journey from Lopburi to Hua Hin via car is a fair one – about 4.5 hours. However due to the fact we made so many pit-stops to run into 7-elevens to get food and beer, it was sufficiently longer. Had we left on time or not stopped so many times, we may have heard or witnessed the first bombs going off.

Perhaps the only time in our lives that we can attribute alcohol to our wellbeing.

We were just coming into Hua Hin when one of the other teachers who had already arrived messaged one of the girls to say they’d read online that two bombs had gone off in the town.

It’s incredible how much fear a single word can provoke. The effect the word ‘bomb’ has on a person is instantaneous.

Straight away we questioned whether we should turn around and go back to Lopburi – but we had already arrived in the town and there didn’t seem to be any immediate danger. That may sound like an odd thing to say but there was nothing to indicate that anything had happened as we were driving in, and had we not been informed of the bombs we would have been none the wiser.

The roads were unusually quiet but it was past midnight by this time, and except for one silent ambulance going in the opposite direction we saw no signs of a blast. There were no police in the area we were driving through (right past the clock tower in the centre) and no military. If such a thing had happened in the UK the area would have been on lock down straight away but it would apparently take several more bombs for that to happen…

We were all groggy, confused and on a sugar come down from the alcohol so decided it was best to find the accommodation and stay for the night and get a better picture of things in the morning.

We knew straight away what it was…

There were six of us in the apartment, and another four people in two rooms upstairs. Around 8am I woke up along with a couple of the others and we quietly chatted while the others slept. One of the girls had a peak out of the curtain to see what our surroundings looked like for the next 3 days, and noted how beautiful it was.

It can’t have been more than half hour after this that we heard the first explosion.

Had we been ignorant as to what had occurred the night before, we would no doubt have been surprised by the sound and got out of bed to have a look, but probably not felt panicked by it. However knowing what had happened only 10 hours earlier, we knew straight away what it was – and what was more alarming than anything was how loud and how close it sounded.

Maybe five or so minutes later we heard the second bang, just as loud. Twin bombings.

By this point several of us had gone to the balcony window to see what was happening and as we witnessed confused looking locals stepping out into the street, our worst fears seemed to be confirmed.

All of us remained pretty calm, incredibly calm actually – which can perhaps be attributed to shock more than anything. Despite this though our immediate reaction was still: ‘we need to get the hell out of here.’

No sooner had we decided on this though, we realised that it would be impossible. We didn’t know exactly where the bombs had gone off at that moment – we’d literally only arrived 8 hours ago in the dark – but we knew they were incredibly close due to the sheer volume of the bangs, and that going anywhere would be too dangerous.

Luckily we were staying on a side street off of the main road and felt safe, despite not being able to see anything.

We soon found out the bombs had gone off near the clock tower we had driven past only several hours ago – around 100m away from where we were staying. Knowing we couldn’t leave we did the only thing we could do. Have breakfast.

As we were sitting drinking coffee and eating scrambled eggs, the next two bombs went off. Not as loud as the previous two but still perfectly audible; realisation started to sink in a little bit then. By this time it was only around 10:30am and so far we’d heard four bombs.

The couple who owned the apartment were incredibly calm and helpful; German expats who moved here three years ago with their two children. The chap was on the phone constantly and kept us informed of developments. A Thai member of staff working there, who spoke good English, also kept us up to date with information, playing the Thai news on his phone and translating for us.

He’d apparently witnessed a man with his arm blown off and someone else dead on the ground whilst coming into work.. that he just carried on with his job and started making coffee and toast for everyone boggles the mind.

He told us that the military were now on the search for more bombs – which were being disguised as sand bags and buried in plant pots – and had allegedly found one in a bag in the train station (again a 5 minute walk from us) and another one at a local market only 500m metres away. Both of which they’d managed to deactivate.

By the time this information became privy to us the bombings in Hua Hin and also Phuket, Surat Thani and Trang had made the top story on the BBC news website.

All of this happened within the space of about 2 and a half hours.

The owner informed us that people were being redirected away from the town and that police were preventing people from leaving. We were told to stay inside and not to leave the street we were on, and given the circumstances we weren’t about to go against that advice.

Nothing like this has happened before.

One of the girls did let curiosity get the better of her and went to the end of the road to see if she could see anything. She told us there was a big crowd of people but didn’t stay because she felt too uncomfortable. She was the only ‘farang’ (Westener) there and the moment she arrived everyone stopped and stared at her.. Hua Hin is a tourist destination and therefore locals would be used to seeing white faces, however no matter where you are in this country, you are constantly aware that you are seen as an outsider, even in the multicultural city of Bangkok. And in light of the fact that this is the first time bombings like this have ever occurred in the tourist location of Hua Hin, I suppose her presence there had more significance.

After what sounded like a fifth bomb, the sound of sirens and the news that the hash tag #prayforthailand was apparently trending the situation eventually got the better of us and it all got a bit emotional for a moment.

I should stress though, we felt very safe in the confines of our accommodation and the street we were in. For the most part none of it felt real because we couldn’t see anything, we could only hear what was happening.

Had we seen injured people ourselves or been outside during the bombings we obviously would have been much more destressed. We didn’t dare wander away from the apartment and out into the town, but where we were seemed to be safe – despite being in the centre of it all.

The owner told us that nothing like this had ever happened before and seemed pretty shocked by it and voiced how incredibly sad he was.

Though the bombers intentions are still unclear it was obviously a planned attack which was timed accordingly. A referendum was held in Thailand a week ago which resulted in the military having more power over the government, something the Southern regions apparently voted against (and perhaps why they were targeted). That Hua Hin was targeted though came as a huge surprise to everyone, however it’s no coincidence that one of the King and Queen’s royal palaces is situated there and that the second day of the bombings was Mother’s Day and also the Queen’s 84th birthday. It is also a year’s anniversary since the bombing of a shrine in Bangkok that killed 20 people.

The nature of the bombings in Hua Hin were of a much smaller magnitude, not to in any way discredit their seriousness – but this wasn’t a massacre. The fact that they’d set the first bombs off early in the morning – before most people would have been up and wandering around – spoke volumes and also the bombs themselves were small. Had they been larger it would have changed everything.. these attacks weren’t intended to cause multiple fatalities – though sadly two people have been confirmed dead as a result – they were made to make a statement.

Considering these facts we felt that as long as we didn’t leave the cul-de-sac type area we were in we would be OK, though honestly we fully expected there to be more bombs later on in the day. We still don’t know for sure how many more bombs were discovered, but we believe the military must have done their job.

The BBC and the moment it all became a bit overwhelming.

We’d been checking the news constantly that morning on our phones and had noticed that the BBC website wasn’t up to date on information. I noticed an email address at the bottom of their page offering for you to send them info and sent a quick, brief email informing them that more bombs had gone off than they had reported.
I honestly never expected to hear anything back and never anticipated what would happen five or so hours later.

I received an email back from a BBC employee asking if he could call me for more information. I gave him my number and had a ten minute conversation with him about what had happened. At the end of the call he asked if he could pass my contact details onto a couple of other BBC associates.

I said yes without thinking and before I knew what was happening I was being bombarded with phone calls and had somehow found myself doing a phone interview with BBC Radio Cornwall. It happened so quickly and was all incredibly surreal.

What made all of it even stranger is that I know people who used to work for Radio Cornwall and I myself once applied for freelance work there, as I have a Masters in Broadcast Journalism from Falmouth University. That I now found myself in this situation was utterly bizarre.

It was when I got a call asking if I would do a camera interview with a BBC crew that it all became a bit too overwhelming.

I’d spent the past hour and a half speaking to strangers on the phone asking me how scared I was, how safe I felt and if I was put off living in Thailand, and that alien feeling of unnerving calm that I’d been feigning all day shattered at the prospect of being put in front of a camera and asked how I felt.

Watching my interview you would never have guessed the state I was in just 30 minutes before… I rang my family for advice on what to do whilst my hands were physically shaking at the thought.

I can only say that my self confidence, or ability to fake it, has truly come on leaps and bounds the last few years.

It took me an hour to eventually decide to do it. Meanwhile I was getting calls from BBC Spotlight (Cornwall and Devon’s regional programme) asking to have a Skype interview. It all became a bit too much then. I realised I needed to take some time out and so I did what any reasonable British person would do in my situation. I made a cup of tea.

I managed to calm down and decided to trust in the lady I’d spoken to who wanted the interview because, again this is so British thing, she had come across so well over the phone and sounded so friendly. I also agreed to do it because a few of the other girls had said they’d do it with me. Little did I know they’d end up only wanting to speak to one person – that person being me.

Whilst all of this was happening we still weren’t sure whether any more bombs were going to go off. It was about 9pm and we still hadn’t left the hotel at this point; had the BBC not said they’d come to us for the interview we wouldn’t have agreed to do it.

They turned out to be lovely though and made me feel really at ease, and the chap who interviewed me and spoke to all of us bought us all a beer afterwards and even offered us a lift back to Bangkok the next day.

In the end I was glad I did it – though it’s taken me all day to feel brave enough to watch the video clip. I also ended up on Spotlight though I won’t be able to watch that here from Thailand.

It’s been a crazy 48 hours and right now I’m looking forward to sleeping more than anything else.

Of all the questions I got asked by the journalists one of them was whether I’d feel safe in Thailand after this and would I continue teaching. At the time I reacted as most people would – let’s be honest, is anyone really safe anywhere these days?

Now I’ve had time to reflect on it however, I do have to admit that Thailand is the least safest country I have ever been to. Bombs aside you’re at risk to any number of things out here. Eat some some salad washed in unfiltered water and you could get food poisoning. Sit on a toilet seat and you could get herpes. Get bitten by a mosquito and you could get dengue. Rent a scooter and you could die or be seriously injured in a road accident.

None of the things I’ve listed are exaggerations. They’ve all happened to people I’ve met out here.

You really have to have your wits about you .. it’s no place for the faint hearted and I never imagined that I would end up experiencing half the things I have out here, not least a bomb scare.

I’m safe though, and I won’t be leaving just yet.

and finally there’s a blog..

I’ve been a bad girl. No presents from Santa for me this Christmas..

In case you think you’ve stumbled upon some poor, sordid piece of online fiction – you haven’t. I am in fact referring to the inordinate length of time it’s been since I last wrote a blog; over a year in fact. This alone is shameful enough, but it’s made worse by the fact that I’ve had more than my fair share of things to write about.

For, dear readers (yes, all three of you), I’ve been living and working in Thailand for the past 17 weeks. It’s my first time doing a ‘real job’ abroad, my first time in Thailand and my first time teaching, and if any country in the world warrants having a blog, it’s here.

Thailand is nothing short of crazy. If I had to sum the place up in one word that’s the adjective I’d choose. They party like crazy, drive like crazy, dance like crazy, celebrate like crazy and (often) act like crazy. Teaching in this country is like no other job I have ever had, or will ever have in my life. It’s a chaotic cacophony of colour, celebration, convolution, confusion, catastrophic misinformation and often frustration (thought I’d break up the alliteration there).

To sum it up in a few paragraphs would be impossible. Mai di, as you would say in Thai ‘I cannot’. So much has happened in the short time I have been here – not just in regards my job and personal and professional relationships with co-teachers, the school and the children – but from the very second I stepped foot in this country. From arriving during Song Kran (Thailand’s New Year Celebration) and experiencing a city-wide water fight in Bangkok, to seeing a Ping Pong show on my third night (please Google at your peril), to travelling overnight on a 17 hour coach journey to Phuket, to an intense and often emotional 3 week period of TEFL training, to my first ever experience of food poisoning, to making life-long friends, to travelling to the town of Lopburi 2 hours North of Bangkok and moving into a total ‘dive’, to riding and falling in love with my first ever scooter, to starting teaching and having up to 40 kids to control/teach, to teachers at our school quitting, getting sacked, to accepting that your new name is ‘Teacher’ in school and ‘farang’ outside of it, to degree legalisation, tourist visa extensions, B visa applications, multiple trips to Bangkok, blood tests, work permit applications, expenditure and more expenditure, constant stomach problems, an unexpected tooth infection and wisdom tooth removal, all mixed in nicely with the odd crazy person, the perputal manifestation of school celebrations that you’re never pre-warned about including magic shows that feature the school Director (Headmaster) as the main entertainer, trips to Monkey temples, dressing up for a special occasions pretty much every fortnight (of which you’re also never informed of), some highs, some moments of awe and some pretty low periods and moments of self-realisation and reflection.

Looking back, it’s been intense !

There is truly never a dull day here. As I write this sat in the computer suite, there are children to the right of me practising Thai dancing and singing for a competition (this school is all about the competitions) whilst music plays over the speakers from Youtube. Only 40 minutes ago you would have found me sat in my homeroom class playing Uno with my P6 kids. I came third FYI. Pretty good seeing as I’ve never played it before.

Tomorrow it is Mother’s Day (I think.. could be today – you never know what’s going on here) and all the teachers and assistants are dressed in blue like the Virgin Mary. As is Thai custom their dresses are frilly and/or laced, adorned with sequins and ornate stitching and, to take the diplomatic approach, incredibly eye-catching.

Thai clothing is bright, colourful and back home would be viewed as eccentric. Turning up to school here in black and grey (typical office wear in the UK) is viewed the same way by Thai people, because over here that’s not the norm. You look dull, depressing and melancholic in comparison to your surroundings. It’s an accurate depiction and conveyance of the culture. In Britain we show our feelings. We like to moan and whinge, especially about the dark, wet, gloomy, cold weather; and our clothing reflects this. In Thailand, ‘The Land of Smiles’, they hide their feelings and do their upmost to avoid confrontation. The bright colours and jewels they adorn themselves in reflect their customs and compliment the bright, sunny and perpetually warm weather.

And it’s not just their clothes, it is congruent with everything here; their decor, decorations, displays – everything from the curtains to the tablecloths. If you walked into a school assembly back home before a holiday you may find some bunting. Here the assembly room is filled with coloured drapes, flowers, golden vases.. think the equivalent of Christmas but for every single ocassion.

It’s a completely different ball game. One which I look forward to sharing with you during my remaining time here.

It’s sad that I haven’t documented and shared my experiences up until this point. It will all be forever ingrained in my memory however, and it’s likely a lot of backtracking will occur during future posts!

Today’s Mother Day assembly:

(The lady pictured in the centre is the Queen of Thailand and fellow mother. Both the King and Queen have their own songs respectively. You must stand during the songs and bow at the end. Thailand has the upmost respect for its royalty and framed pictures and billboards of them can be found everywhere; on roundabouts, in caf├ęs, schools, offices. Everywhere!)

Yesterday’s ASEAN day assembly: