My vacation to Hat Yai in southern Thailand in September 2006 started off with a bomb when about an hour after I checked in the Novotel Hotel a car bomb exploded in a crowded shopping area at the end of the block from the hotel.
I had arrived in Hat Yai a little past 7:00 and had gone directly to the Novotel Hotel located in the downtown area near a busy market. Although I had often read about some terrorist attacks in the region as well as some other violence, I figured the downtown area would be safe.
After checking in, I decided to walk around for a while and find some place to have dinner. The streets outside the hotel were crowded, most likely typical for a Saturday night in this section of town with a lot of department stores and restaurants. I heard about this popular restaurant that was a favorite among foreigners and tourists; however, I was more in the mood for some Thai food, so I decided to go back to the hotel.
Later I would find out that the car bombs that exploded were in the same area I had just walked in 30 minutes earlier.
I couldn’t find a decent Thai restaurant to eat in, so I decided to have dinner at Fuji (a very popular Japanese restaurant chain in Thailand) located right across the street from the Novotel (in the basement of a small shopping complex).
I had no sooner sat down and ordered food when all of a sudden some shops outside started to close for no apparent reason. Then I heard some people shouting outside and saw other people running. Most of the staff at Fuji run outside and then run back inside the restaurant talking excitedly on their mobile phones.
When I asked one of the waiters what all the commotion was about, he told me that there was a bomb in a department store at the end of the block. At this point, no one had told me to leave, but we were not about to stick around waiting for someone to tell us. Then, no sooner had I decided to leave when another waiter comes to my table and tells me that a bomb had just exploded near the restaurant.
I was unable to leave the shopping complex from the main entrance and instead had to walk out a side exit. As soon as I reached the ground floor, I could smell smoke and hear sirens wailing. Outside, the street had already been closed off as a number of emergency vehicles raced to the scene of the bombing. Hundreds of curious onlookers lined the streets. Police officers, firefighters, as well as some military personnel already on the scene were shouting wildly on cell phones trying to coordinate this emergency response.
One tourist who was also staying at the Novotel (and who had arrived from Bangkok on the same flight that I had taken) told me that he was going to check out of the hotel that night.
In the Bangkok Post the next morning, it was reported that there had been a series of bomb blasts all occurring around the Novotel Hotel that killed four people (including one foreigner) and injured over 70. The first of the six bombs went off around 9:00 just about the time I was sitting down to dinner at Fuji restaurant and the other five exploded about five minutes apart.
After I had breakfast that morning, I decided to take a walk over to area where some of the car bombs had gone off the night before. Most of the debris had already been cleared away, but the streets were still closed to traffic as hundreds of curious onlookers walked past the Odeon Shopping Center where one of the bombs was exploded.
How close had I gotten to becoming a statistic? Close enough according to one eyewitness.
While looking at the damage, this guy walked up to me who I recognized from the previous night (he had been sitting outside a café that I had passed when I was looking for some place to eat).
“Man, you are so lucky,” he said. “You just missed the bombing.”
He wasn’t so lucky. The café he was sitting at was right across the street from where one of the bombs exploded. Some shrapnel from the bomb had hit him in his fingers and shoulder. Two of his fingers were bandaged and he was still wearing a hospital shirt stained with blood. It looked as though he hadn’t slept at all and judging from his pale demeanor and sunken eyes, still seemed to be in shock.
“Yeah, I saw you walk by and I was checking out your tattoos,” he continued, “and then about 15 minutes later the bomb exploded. I saw this guy stop in his car in front of the café and the next thing you know, I saw his head blown off by the bomb blast.”
A few people who understood English gathered around him.
“Yeah, that’s right. I saw his head blown off. Glass and debris were flying everywhere. I was lucky that I got down when I did. If I hadn’t I probably wouldn’t be talking to you now.
That was more information than I probably wanted to hear.
Later that afternoon, the Prince of Thailand visited the area to inspect the damage and to assuage people’s fears of more trouble occurring in the region. He was accompanied by a large group of government officials including former Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai who passed where I was standing. When Leekpai saw me, he broke away from this entourage and walked up to me and we both exchanged a Thai “wai” the customary greeting in Thailand where both hands are clasped together accompanied by a slight bowing of the head by the person who is younger or of lesser social standing. I figured some of the officials who went to Hat Yai after the bombing were there to assuage any foreigners’ fears about violence in the region.
I stayed in Hat Yai for another night before heading to Bangkok. Then a few days later, there was a military coup in Bangkok-but that is another story.