Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist

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Dear Thailand

UPDATE 19-9-11:

* Now the Thai police are thoroughly investigating our incident (we reported it to them the night it happened). I will update further only when given the go-ahead by them.

* An article about our incident appeared the following day in the Bangkok Post. I was not interviewed for this article, and I never contacted them (in fact, I've not even read the article). One of their journalists contacted me online but we never spoke. I posted two tweets and this blog post, and that was their source material. 

Every country offers an intimate relationship with those who travel and live in them. It can be infuriating and exhilarating – often both at once. At times this keeps the traveler on guard, at others, even the most jaded hearts are conquered. Sometimes, they'll eat you up – or spit you out.


Printing on Studio Rooftop, Bangkok

Printing test Cyanotypes on my studio rooftop, Bangkok 2011


Dear Thailand,

We have quite a history, you and I. 

married a handsome Englishman with you, I have enjoyed your food and your art and your company when I visit, for eight years now. You're in a new book about handmade paper that I've – almost – finished.

We never had an exclusive thing, but you were always there for me when I needed a place to recover from your next-door neighbor (my real Southeast Asian love), Cambodia.  Your beaches and hill towns and tourist infrastructure are second-to-none, and the garlands that are sold from your street corners and hang from your taxi mirrors and shrines never fail to lighten a humid afternoon.

I never much cared for your famous smiles though. They always felt more polite than genuine, more about 'face' than contact. So ours was a relationship more of convenience than of passion, a mutual consumption rather than exchange – much like many of those I see on Sukhumvit road.


Cyanotype Printing Orchids, Bangkok

Printing orchid Cyanotypes for wrapping paper designs, Bangkok 2010


Speaking of Sukhumvit, I was enjoying a walk there with my husband last night. It was our weekly grocery run. We marvelled at how open the area appears, now the construction barriers around Terminal 21 have been removed. It was nearly 9:30. I struggled to keep up with him in a pair of cheap shoes on cracked asphalt and concrete. 

As we passed the Asoke Skytrain exit near Robinson, we were showered with clear liquid. It was too heavy to be from a bat or a bird, too brief to be rain. Where had it come from? The trees above my head? The stairs next to us, or the walkway beyond to Nana? 

I thought someone had spilled soda or a mop bucket down on us from the stairwell as a practical joke, and scanned the steps, but they were empty. Then my husband R called out: "My eyes – they're burning – they're  f****d – get some water." As if in response, my scalp began to burn. Could a Skytrain cleaner have dumped extra chemicals onto us? I looked up – no cleaning buckets or employees in sight. Just the usual assortment of Skytrain passengers: middle-class Thais and foreigners. My eyes darted from R – crouched over, his hand over his eyes – to look for someone, anyone, who might have done this. The left side of my face and neck had been splashed by whatever-it-was, and the pain inflamed my panic.

This was no accident.

"Stay here," I shouted, and ran to street stalls, looking for water to flush his eyes. No luck. I dashed into McDonald's and rushed out again with a bottle. He flushed his eyes as I hailed a taxi. 

Do you know how it feels to watch a loved one's eyes melt? Not metaphorically. But to watch them disintegrate. As our taxi driver kept up a bilingual patter about the fastest route to the hospital, R's eyes began to shed their outer membrane like jelly. It hung there like frozen tears.

"Don't rub your eyes!" I warned, but of course (he's the scientist), he knew exactly what was happening.

As I waited outside Bumrungrad Hospital's emergency room, I thought of a friend who'd lost her partner in Cambodia last week. Of how short all our lives are. Of how we deny death and forget to cherish our good health while we have it.

"It's acid or industrial cleaning fluid that caused the burns," the doctor said. "He's lost some of the conjunctiva in both eyes, but he's retained his vision. Come back tomorrow morning and see the opthamologist." He told R this is the third attack of this kind recently. Did the other two involve foreigners? We didn't ask. We don't really want to know.

Since we had no food at home,  we wore sunglasses to a late dinner down the soi in Little Dubai, surrounded by Uzbek ladies who tossed incredibly thick, waist-length hair. They compared their Cleopatra-like eyes and polyester outfits, guarded by their pimp at the door – the girls have been trafficked for the Middle Eastern clientele who stay nearby.

The Man and I called Thai tourist police on our way home to report the incident, and they advised us to visit Lumpini police station to file a report. Our experience became a statistic (instead of a rumor), if nothing else. 


Cyanotype test print from Desires and Desperation, 2010-2011


Thailand, I have spent lots of time with you because you have been an ideal part-time base, if not a home. You have always been reliable – a charming artist, and a great cook. You smile and greet me with polite phrases in English (with some not-so-polite talk in Thai that you think I don't understand) because I haven't asked too much of you, nor you of me. I hand over my money every time I arrive, we have a good time, and I don't ask too many questions. But like anyone who spends time here, I know there's a lot more to your story. You have many worlds, and I only exist in one or two of them.

But last night, a couple of them collided. Police said the person who tossed that liquid at us aimed straight at R's eyes: that is where most of the chemicals landed. The chemicals could have been a prelude to a quick mugging, in which case we were nothing more than a walking wallet. (A sentiment familiar to many male tourists here.) Thailand is a complex country with many tensions. It is a feudal society, its class system more rigid and ruthless than that of England.


The bottom line? We were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It happens. And for most western travelers, it happens less often here than it does in the capital cities of our home countries like London and Washington DC. Which brings me to a few things I've been grateful for since the incident:


* I'm grateful that whomever-it-was didn't use the kind of corrosive acid used in other attacks around the world that leaves its victims horribly deformed

* I'm grateful for Bangkok's top-notch Skytrain and Underground systems, which has eased pressure on the city's traffic, and enabled us to get to our second-choice hospital with relative ease

* I'm happy we're currently working on preparations for our next step (Beijing) from home, not working in a Bangkok office

* I'm glad our neighborhood is like an urban village, where everyone in the surrounding sois knows who we are when we're in town — and that we're people, not foreign objects.

* I'm relieved we stay a low-rise part of Bangkok, because the idea of being anywhere with a skybridge above me right now is terrifying


In a few weeks or a few months I'll be leaving you, Thailand. (Not because of this incident, but because China's contemporary art and its minority cultures interest me more than anywhere else's right now.)  When I do leave you, while my man may have some damage to his eyes, we will have no scars or regrets – because I never loved you anyway.

We had a good time together, but we both knew it wouldn't last forever.



UPDATE 17-9-2011: Thanks to everyone for your messages. I am physically fine now – my skin was irritated but I didn't get any in my eyes. After doing research and speaking with the opthamologist, doctors suspect it was an alkaline not an acid chemical – alkalai burns are actually more damaging than acid. R's (temporarily) lost part of the conjunctiva due to his ocular burn, and the skin surrounding his eyes was burned, and remains quite inflamed – it will grow back.  The main concern now is to ensure his eyes don't become infected because he's (temporarily!) lost the natural protection we have surrounding our eyes. This was a random event, and we appreciate Thailand – and particularly its wonderful medical facilities – as much as ever.

NB: I will not be posting pictures of my husband's burns, as has been suggested by strangers who have emailed me. He is not a sideshow act. I have nothing to gain from posting our experience. But we were concerned when the doctor indicated there had been '2 similar incidents recently'.


Update 19-9-11: Discussions about our incident (and perhaps others) and the article are topics on message boards, including – unfortunately – those of anti-Muslim websites. 

* There is much more going on in this country than Muslim vs Buddhist conflicts. Asoke is a neighborhood filled with many nationalities and motivations. I'm not interested in speculating about who did this, or why. It happened, a random incident. It could have been much worse. Violence happens in cities everywhere.


Update 20-9-11: 

* After further insult-laden emails begging for even more unsavory details, I will say this: the mucous membrane (called the conjunctiva) on top of his eyes was burned and, like a blister – LITERALLY – the top layer or 2 fell off. It hung, wet, like jelly from his eyelashes. It was clear and thick, as mucous membranes are. Yes, it looked like his eyes were melting. No, they were not punctured or blasted open. The doctor removed the excess that had burned off and was hanging down from his eyes. A portion of the top layers remained, as well as the bottom layer. No blood, no suppurating wounds. Our eyes are remarkably resilient.

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