Bangkok Noi Canal: Beginner's Route
Once you get to the river, stop and take a seat.
From here you have a great view out across the water, and the dozens of random watercraft that make it one of the most interesting parts of Bangkok.
Welcome to Thammasat University. When the university was founded in 1934, it was known as The University of Moral and Political Sciences. It was the brainchild of a guy by the name of Pridi Banomyong, a key player in the 1932 coup which moved the country from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, which it still is today...most of the time.
The 1932 coup was one of the most seismic events in Thai history, and an intensely turbulent time in Asia. Not only did the country have to deal with an entirely new form of government after 150 years, but its neighbors were also dealing with their own political and social issues. This tested old relationships and forced the entirety of South East Asia to rethink age-old assumptions. And on top of all that, the events leading up to WWII were just getting underway. So yeah...a pretty busy time.
Among all that, Thammasat University opens. Because of its pedigree, the university has always been identified with Thailand's turbulent politics in some way. Eventually, Pridi was forced into exile and the university was forced to remove the word "Political" from its name. As the university grew, it became a hotbed of new ideas and new perceptions about what defined Thailand.
So, let's get going now. I'll tell you more while you walk.
With the river on your right, make your way along the walkway.
In 1973, Thammasat students were enraged at the arrest of 13 pro-democracy classmates. They started a protest demanding their release that soon swelled to hundreds of thousands. The protest ended with a predictable crackdown by authorities, the collapse of the government, and nearly 80 people dead.
That was bad, but three years later, in 1976, it got even worse.
Students were infuriated by the return of some of the people exiled only a few years prior and after weeks of protest, staged a mock hanging at Thammasat to bring attention to their cause. Seeing this as a pointed reference to the monarchy, the military finally had enough and moved in. The gates were locked, trapping the students where you're walking right now.
The protesting students were branded communists and the military fired upon them with pistols, rifles, and grenade launchers. The campus was soon stormed, forcing students who were still alive to jump into the river to escape; those who were caught were beaten, hanged, raped, and burned alive. Pretty ugly stuff.
And what did it take to stop all this madness? A rainstorm. The death toll is estimated to be between several dozen and over 100, depending on who you ask, but no one knows for sure.
This event was one of the darkest in Thai history, and is still a very controversial topic that most prefer not to mention. Annual memorial ceremonies are held, and the scars linger. If you're curious, there are plenty of articles and photos online, but be warned - the photos are not very nice to look at. In fact, one of the most famous ones in which a protester swings a folding chair at the dead body of a student hanging from a tree was used as the cover for the 1980 album Holiday in Cambodia by the Dead Kennedy's. So...yeah.
Thankfully, nothing like that has happened at Thammasat since. Today, it's one of Thailand's leading universities, with alumni going on to be top government officials, national artists, leading corporate figures, and members of the royal family. Around 30,000 students go here, taking courses in 23 different faculties.
A good friend of mine is a professor here, and has nothing but good things to say about it.
Continue walking along the riverbank. I'll meet you up ahead.