When I walked out into Sukhumvit Road yesterday there were no more smiles, no light-hearted jokes, and a sense of foreboding permeated every space.
When I walked into my local 7/11 I asked why they had covered the windows with newspaper to make the inside of the shop invisible to the outside world.
I asked why the alcohol had been removed from the shelves.
As I walked down the road towards the army's siege cordon the police and soldiers faces were grim. I got a total of one smile from dozens of soldiers and police -- a stark contrast to when the red shirts arrived two months ago.
Here, in pictures and words, is a look at how the protest has changed.
Arrival of the red shirts: a Bangkok Festival
When the Red Shirt protesters arrived in Bangkok, the feeling was that this was just a show of popular support for the country to return to democracy (the current government wasn't elected).
The parades of tens of thousands of Thaksin supporters from out of town created an amazing party type atmosphere that was infectiously jovial.
Hundreds of trucks, cars, and motorcycles ferried the parade up and down Bangkok's main streets and the famous Thai smile was on just about ever red-shirt's face. Even I, a stodgy independent foreigner, was grinning ear to ear within half an hour.
A week into the arrival of the Red Shirts and they were still parading around the city and had the support of most of Bangkok's residents (though not the powerful half).
Then they stopped.
Near Victory Monument -- where they had a standoff with the army a year ago -- the Red Shirts set up camp and the parade that was supposed to last just a week and leave town now looked like it was going to take a mite longer. This clearly took government commentators by surprise, because they played down the protests at the beginning saying, "They don't have any coherent strategy, so they'll fail."
In a skirmish with police several protesters died and a hand grenade landed at the feet of a Japanese videographer, taking his life.
It may have been a festive atmosphere, but the message was clear
This was the first warning that these protests were going to get messy.
Standoff: digging in
When I went to Khao San Road where the Japanese videographer died (a temporary shrine marked the site) the Red Shirts were still in high spirits but the organization was impressive. Dozens of tents pitched in military precision lined the sides of the road to cater for temporary kitchens, shelter, conferences and storage. This didn't look to me like a ragtaggle horde of country bumpkins. A lot of logistical planning had clearly gone into this protest long, long ago.
Not satisfied with the location -- or perhaps the difficulty in defending it -- the Red Shirts decamped from there and moved into the central business district where they are now. With main approaches on roads straddled by tall buildings, the area is more defensible.
Three weeks ago when I went to a regular Tuesday meeting on Wireless Road opposite the US Embassy, the main road suddenly stopped. Instead of the continuous black bitumen, a wall of sharpened bamboo stakes, old tyres, and razor wire rose around 40 feet into the air.
At that stage it looked to me like these protesters are here to stay.
The general and his troops -- the military arm of the Red Shirts
Last week army snipers picked off the renegade general who had been helping the Red Shirts organize their defence. The government has denied ordering the hit, and with so many power brokers behind the scenes it's impossible to say which unit took the shot and who ordered it. But the government's denial didn't do anything to placate the red shirts, who lost their "Seh Daeng" (Commander Red) as Maj Gen Khattiya Sawasdipol was known amongst his supporters. Widespread violence following his death claimed the lives of between 36 and 50 more civilians, depending on which report you read.
The government has now set up a security cordon around the 4 square kilometre red zone and has initiated a siege to starve out the protesters. Water and power have been cut off to the area and nearby mobile phone receptors have been shut down.
Looking across no-man's land from the government siege cordon towards one of the barricades. The US embassy is just around the corner to the left.
Yesterday, the government planned to implement a curfew at 3pm, at the same time as offering amnesty to women and children who surrendered from the area. I didn't see anyone crossing over apart from journalists and a US embassy vehicle. And by the sound of it, very few decided to exit the area. Interviews with women in the zone suggest that they actually feel safer in the red zone amongst friends than stepping outside into the hands of the government.
Checkpoint at midnight; one of the few vehicles allowed through.
This is of course a huge problem. Both sides say they want to avoid more bloodshed -- and neither side has anything to gain with further deaths -- but there is such a lack of trust that only action is going to resolve this crisis. They may believe actions. They won't believe promises. Meanwhile, rumours are rife both by word of mouth and on the local news, where the next rumoured targets are broadcast. The latest: Century Park Hotel, which so far has been outside of the Red Shirt area. Given that the Dusit Hotel was attacked by grenades (said to be M79s), each rumoured threat is taken pretty seriously.
So that was yesterday. As I was floating in my swimming pool listening to the odd explosion and scattered small arms fire, I found it rather surreal -- it reminded me of people sitting in five star hotels in war torn African countries. But this is peaceful Thailand! There was just one large explosion during the night. Other than that it was relatively uneventful -- at my place. Elsewhere in Thailand things aren't quite so rosy.
A groundswell of support is building up around the country. Two bank ATMs were reported to have been bombed last night in Chang Mai, while other reports filter in about Red Shirts protesting locally in the provinces and disrupting domestic transportation to bring reinforcements (both military and red shirt) into the capital.
A soldier waits patiently on Sukhumvit Road behind rolls of razor wire
It's no surprise that people in the provinces are getting restive. Most of the Red Shirts are from the north and east. With their friends and families under siege in Bangkok, and movement into the capital restricted to prevent Red Shirt reinforcements arriving, frustration is mounting. On the weekend the Prime Minister extended the State of Emergency to five more provinces. To date, Bangkok and 22 provinces are now in a State of Emergency, while down south where the ongoing Muslim insurgency simmers, the locals are enjoying being on the safer side of the country for once. Looking forward from here, there seem to be...
Having come this far and lost this many lives, the Red Shirts cannot back down from here. Similarly, the Prime Minister is between a rock and a hard place: stepping down means losing face and he'd probably be replaced by someone equally as unacceptable to the Red Shirts anyway. Calling an election would solve the immediate problem but may have unintended consequences as supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin would probably win the election and precipitate another military coup.
That leaves the use of force. In China or in Korea, this would be relatively straightforward. The protesters here remind me a bit of the huge protests in Seoul, with the Molotov cocktails and primitive weapons. But the riot police here are rather different in one rather important respect -- there aren't many of them.
Without a trained corps of riot police (Korea, for example, has tens of thousands), the government needs to rely on the army and live rounds to remove the protesters -- not an attractive proposition to either side. But it seems to be the direction the city is moving in.
Guards at the siege cordon are well stocked with food and drink; a spotter sits invisible overlooking the guardpost reporting on his cell phone (I couldn't see him with the naked eye and didn't know he was there except it was such a perfect place for a spotter or sniper -- it took a 300mm lens and enhanced contrast to bring him out)
As I walked through a largely deserted Sukhumvit (Thailand's Highway #1) I noticed that the police have traded their truncheons for firearms and that the military have a larger percentage of high velocity assault rifles (M16s and Israeli TAR21s I think) rather than the large calibre smooth bore 12 gauge weapons they are usually armed with (which can be used with rubber bullets).
Three more explosions just went off in quick succession in the distance as I write and a local thunderstorm makes it difficult to differentiate between isolated explosions and lightning strikes. But here, more than 2km away from the siege cordon, construction continues across the road, people continue with their daily chores, and tourists continue to be tourists.
"Did you see a girl about this tall run past with my wallet in one hand and my shoes and trousers in the other?"
I'm off to the supermarket to buy a couple of weeks' supply of food, drink and cigarettes.