The Moment

5 | 18 | 10: Bangkok

  • To countless visitors, Bangkok has seemed the magical if epically chaotic capital city of a sublimely beautiful nation that branded itself "the land of smiles," and that at times epitomized the world-changing nature of Asia's economic modernization. In truth, it was never that hard to find Thailand's darker side, from villages where the sex trade is a way out of poverty, to a bitter insurgency in the Muslim-majority south. Since a military coup in 2006, it has been not a peaceful, harmonious Thailand that the world has seen but rather one riven by conflicts between rich and poor, town and country. On May 19, in the most violent episode of the troubles so far, military forces moved in on an encampment of thousands protesting against the government, right in the commercial heart of Bangkok--in a week, some 40 have died in the turmoil. Retreating protesters set fire to scores of buildings; acrid smoke filled the air so often perfumed with spices and flowers. Bangkok's lesson: creating a truly modern society from one that was until recently poor and feudal is not easy. Nobody's smiling now.