Front row to history

Local man had front row seat for historic unrest

“It was definitely crazy,” 2001 Granville graduate Jeremy Rathbun said by phone from his San Diego, Calif., home.

Rathbun witnessed the political unrest that shut down the airports of Bangkok, Thailand from Nov. 25 to Dec. 3, stranding hundreds of thousands of travelers – including Rathbun himself – in the country firsthand after selecting the country for a foreign vacation.

“I went over to backpack Thailand for a month with a buddy. We heard it was cheap and fun, we had been talking about it for a while and we just decided to go,” Rathbun said.

With six weeks off from his job in marketing, Rathbun said he and friend Devin just decided to ‘wing it’ and see what happens. So with no plan they got tickets and hopped on a plane.

Rathbun said the pair hit the ground in Bangkok Oct. 27 and would eventually begin working their way to the south following recommendations of the people they met for formulating an idea of what they would do with their time. 

“We just went south,” he said.

Moving down the map from Bangkok, the pair would spend time working their way south to islands as well as venturing into Vietnam and Cambodia. 

“We were in the islands and then kept going south. It was when we went back up and around northern part that’s when all the protests happened,” Rathbun said.

Rathbun said they were aware of unrest in the country, but that it had been going on for some time and did not seem to be heading for any kind of significant confrontation.

The rebels, or protestors, had been converging on the capital building but the protests had not taken place in other areas.

They simply planned to avoid the capital building.

“We heard about it, but it was at the capital building,” he said.

“The rebels that support the King were trying to overthrow the Prime Minister,” he said. Rathbun said trying to subdue the 20,000 anti-government supporters of the king were about 300 police officers.

Unlike police in many countries, Rathbun said, these were allowed to use deadly force in the form of grenades against the protesters.

“The protesters were peaceful, the protests were peaceful. It was the cops who were making it ‘unpeaceful’,” he said. 

“They would just launch them into the crowd,” he said of the grenades.

 When asked if the grenades were tear gas or the type that produced actual explosions, “Yes, actual explosions,” he said. An account of one such attack, from Dec. 2 was posted on the website of the British newspaper the Guardian. It said one was killed and 22 wounded in that attack.

The King then sent the National Guard in to beat up the police forces of the Prime Minister.

“There was no sense of actual power, of who was in charge,” he said. 

It was when the pair returned to Bangkok intending to fly back to the United States that protesters were urged by their leadership to occupy the nation’s two major commercial airports.

“You could feel the tension, something big was going to happen,” Rathbun said.

The rebels, an anti-government group known as the People’s Alliance for Democracy, headed by a media mogul by the name of Sondhi Limthongkul were calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat following a court order to dissolve his governing party. Limthongkul used his influence to urge protesters to take over the country’s two major commercial airports.

Although there was a language barrier and he had to communicate with local people in broken English, one thing was abundantly clear.

“When you spoke to people, everyone just hated the Prime Minister,” he said. 

“On Friday, we were leaving that Tuesday, when they went to the airports,” he said.

With the airports shut down, Rathbun said the pair ended up being in the country for about 10 extra days waiting for a way out.

“It was just weird, we didn’t know how and when we would get out,” Rathbun said. 

Eventually they found out how they were going to be able to leave the country.

“We had to go to a military base where they were allowing commercial planes to leave. It was like a refugee camp, when we got there we had to sit around for like 14 hours and sleep in the dirt,” Rathbun said.

The improvised airfield meant the pair had to carry their own bags out onto the runway space and even load it onto the plane with an absolutely ancient baggage conveyor.

After checking their baggage and taking it to the plane they were able to get on board and leave.

Rathbun said the pair ended up in Seoul, South Korea and after a 30-hour layover they were able to fly into Los Angeles to get home.

“It was pretty crazy, a good time, but I’m glad to be back,” Rathbun said. “I’ll definitely have stories, it was a lifetime experience that I’ll remember forever.”

Because things worked out and he was home safe, Rathbun said vacationing in a country on the verge of revolution was exciting, but not something he planned to try to repeat.

“I wouldn’t recommend it, but it was a cool thing to experience,” Rathbun said.

When asked if the experience had in any way put him off international travel, Rathbun was quick to answer,

“Not at all, I’m already planning my next trip,” he said. 

“It’s all about the stories. I made it back with stories that can last for the rest of my life,” Rathbun said.

So, he would do it again?

“For sure, I even want to travel around even more,” he said.

“Argentina, Brazil, right now we’re throwing it around, maybe Australia some time, I’m definitely already planning for my next trip,” Rathbun said. 

Rathbun said the people the duo met and the different cultures they had a chance to experience was the highlight of what was a thrilling vacation, aside from the near revolution.

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