Inside the surreal world of the Red Shirts

Outside the violence rages, but within the protesters' Bangkok camp there are rubbish collections, DIY temples – and an Elvis impersonator

A leisurely cup of coffee and a complimentary hard-boiled egg were not what I expected to have pressed upon me in Red Shirt City. But then, as I quickly learned, the surreal is the norm inside this vast encampment of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UFDD), which has occupied much of Bangkok's commercial district for more than two months.

I hadn't expected, either, to see a well-established infrastructure and full civic amenities within this spontaneous society – regular rubbish collections, tented shower blocks, mobile toilets, DIY temples and the splendid efforts of a meticulous street sweeper. Makeshift pavement cafes abound. At lunch I was overwhelmed by menu options. And on the market stalls below a flyover everything is available – from fresh fruit and vegetables to Thaksin Shinawatra baby grows – to sustain this popular protest for as long as the will of the Red Shirts holds out. In the doorways of the surrounding office blocks, hotels, shopping malls and cinemas, security guards maintain their regular watch, seemingly oblivious to the buildings being long evacuated and closed.

Amid all this, it came as no surprise to have a brush with an Elvis impersonator: on a stage at the heart of the camp, under a banner declaring "Peaceful protesters, not terrorists", and between political polemics, a balladeer – scoring full marks for enthusiasm – paid his full-volume tribute to The King before an audience of beaming elderly ladies, while a man did his best to rent me a deck chair. A drum kit was already in place for the next entertainer. Earlier, I survived a Thai interpretation of John Lennon's Imagine.

Backstage, in a leaking marquee, I found the Red Shirt media centre. Its operation appears prone to swinging, in a trice, between hard-bitten professionalism and delightful, chaotic amateurism. I must have looked hot and tired. Or utterly bewildered. Or all three. Spotting this, a lady press officer forced her way through the world's news media – comparing this year's body armour – and handed me a bottle of water and a pink towel, deliciously moist and chilled, along with a ticking-off for my evident intensity: "You have to be happy when you're working," she said with a smile. Soon this was followed by the coffee. And the hard-boiled egg.

I sat down with Dr Tojirakarn Weng, one of the Red Shirt leaders. Why, I asked, had the Red Shirts rejected the government's offer of new elections in November?

"We say 'yes' to the proposal," he told me. "But first the rule of law must be upheld. The deputy prime minister must be arrested over what happened on 10 April. (The deaths of several Red Shirts.) And the soldiers must draw back to their camps."

And if that doesn't happen?

"Well, this government can have war or peace. If it is war, we will wait here until they come and kill us."

The possibility of imminent slaughter did not appear to be troubling those beyond the marquee. In all directions, under shelters fashioned from plastic sacking on scaffolding or bamboo poles, families stretched out on raffia mats, reading the newspapers, dozing, cooking, washing their clothes, chatting and playing draughts with bottle caps.

In most areas it has the atmosphere of a rock festival. Think urban, oriental Woodstock – without the nuisance of Crosby Stills & Nash. Given the routine absurdity of Red Shirt City, the least surprising aspect of my forays inside was to come under fire. The area certainly is not, as we have been told repeatedly this week, sealed off. On my first trip to the barricades, by motorcycle taxi, I did not realise – until we pulled up on a broad, empty, dual carriageway, after twisting through side roads, and hurtling along deserted boulevards, past indifferent police and army positions, gun shots cracking the evening torpor – that we had entered the Red Shirt zone.

A burnt-out bus nearby suggested we were no longer in the Bangkok of my arrival, only an hour before.

At our next stop, where a side street met a main thoroughfare, locals urged us to scamper to join them in the shelter of an empty market stall. Many, although not motorcyclists, were wearing crash helmets.

On the corner, just thirty yards away, black-clad men were leaping out to fire small rockets along the road. The response came – between menacing pauses – as sharp, measured, rifle cracks, rattling among the office blocks. An army or police sniper was firing from behind us.

With one shot, I saw a chip of asphalt leap from the road just 10 feet away. Pressed back into our shelter, I had no way of knowing who or what was responsible for a series of explosions. But they were detonating close enough to be felt as well as heard. Advice to evacuate, and to escape by another insane motorcycle dash, came from a youth swathed in a black headscarf and carrying a night-stick. At no time did I see a Red Shirt, even these apparent UFDD militia men, carrying a gun.

Outside the camp, anti-Red Shirt Thais are eager to tell foreign journalists that the protesters – mainly the rural poor from the north-east – are all on the payroll of the deposed prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Mr Thaksin is undoubtedly a man of deep pockets and, in buying and selling, whimsically, during exile, an English Premier League Football Club, is an atypical champion of a downtrodden and disenfranchised peasantry. But that doesn't adequately explain the presence, in Red Shirt City, of Jindar Intarahutti, 64, and Pimtong Pattarakomol, 52.

Both are from central Thailand. They met and became friends at the protest two months ago. They have been living here ever since, sharing a straw mat close to the stage.

It would, one feels, take more than a small bribe from Mr Thaksin to persuade two middle-aged ladies – and Mrs Intarahutti is also infirm – to leave their homes and families, go to the capital, sleep under the stars and endure self-evident discomfort and danger. And be prepared to do so indefinitely. They are here because they are angry. It is an anger that arises from a sense of deep injustice; a tenacity and bravery built on a conviction and driven by a motivation more elevated than cash.

"My prime minister (Abhisit Vejjajiva) is corrupt," croaks Mrs Intarahutti. "He does not try to work for everyone. He is selfish.

"I used to sell clothes. I made 100 baht (£2) a day. But I got sick with thrombosis. Now I can't work. I can't afford an apartment any longer. I will have to go into a home for the poor. So I am staying here. Life got very hard after Thaksin."

Mrs Pattarakomol chips in: "Thaksin provided people with jobs and he provided the poor people with access to funds. We will stay here until Abhisit resigns."

Neither lady is frightened of what might happen next. Enduring gunfire and explosions (and occasional cabaret crooners), they sit on their mat, serene and cross-legged.

"We are not afraid," says Mrs Pattarakomol, "because there is a shrine here with a Brahma (Hindu god) guard." She motions towards a miniature plastic temple, adorned with a mug of burnt-out joss-sticks.

Mrs Intarahutti may be less spiritual than her companion, but she is no less resolute. "We will not run away," she says. "I will give my life for democracy."