CHAOS AND HERMES HANDBAGS
By Andrew Biggs
This is the story of a Hermes handbag, an ageing academic and an overzealous police force. It is a story that one hopes will end in common sense, but then again I hope to win the lottery on the first of next month.
Let’s begin with the cops. Here in Thailand we have a special division of police officers whose task it is to crack down on cyber crime. What constitutes cyber crime is laid out in the shadowy Thailand Computer Crime Act of 11 years ago, but it doesn’t just encompass clear-cut cases such as forgery and theft.
This is the law that can wind you up in jail for liking the wrong Facebook post. In other words, you can go to prison for thinking you agree with something.
The law states it is illegal to post anything on the net that disrupts society. I get that. We want Thailand to be stable and prosperous, but pray tell — how does one define social disruption? Seriously. Taylor Swift’s last album was positively awful — every time that hideous lead single hit the airwaves it disrupted my life, and others I’m sure. Does she get arrested on her next world tour?
The key words are “disruption” and “panic”, and how those words are defined and subsequently acted upon is the task of the cyber cops over at the Technology Crime Suppression Division.
These are not police officers busting wife beaters and bank robbers. In the hierarchy of desired departments I bet they’re right up the top. It can’t be too taxing trawling Facebook all day for those heinous “likes”, in between a few rounds of RoV and Candy Crush.
They have a website where the home page boldly welcomes you to the “TECHNOLOGY CRIME SUPPRESS DIVISION”. You would think being so close to Google they could investigated correct English grammar.
It features a cute cartoon of a young man photoshopping the face of another guy onto the head of a dog. The door to his bedroom flies open and there’s the Thought Police – I beg your pardon … a Technology Crime ‘Suppress’ Division officer standing in the door frame, casting a long and stark dark brown shadow. To me the crime is not as big a deal as the fact a cop can get to his house so quickly. The last time I dialed 911 I had time to make myself a sandwich – and toast it in the pie iron.
On the website there are other short cartoons. Check them out; it’s at tcsd.go.th and in each of them, a young man at a computer is slandering, cut-and-pasting, or bullying on his computer anonymously. Ah but there is nothing anonymous about the internet thanks to the aforesaid law. I know that from frequenting Starbucks. By the time I’ve filled in my personal details to enable free wifi, my Toffee Nut Iced Latte With Extra Whipped Cream has gone lukewarm.
As the cartoons show, no matter what evil you may be up to, a TCPD officer is just around the corner ready to slap handcuffs on you.
(And for some inexplicable reason, those perpetrators are depicted as the nerdiest of guys. Every single one of them wears glasses, has unkempt brown hair and is noticeably pudgy, as opposed to the slender cartoon men in figure-hugging brown arresting them.)
Cyber crime is a massive problem all around the world. Heck, the Russians elected Donald Trump! Tracking down cyber criminals engaging in larceny and fraud should be the number two priority of the TCPD. They need to fix up that grammatical error in their name first.
The trouble is that’s not happening. That cyber law has morphed into a political tool. Who decides what constitutes a threat of panic and disorder? Is there a committee for that? As was suggested in this column last week, democracy-eschewing army generals are a little like party politicians. They need all the help they can get, especially when a hostile population starts growing tired of their shenanigans.
And this is where the handbag and the ageing academic enter our story.
As you probably know, the government is currently playing a waiting game with the general public over the scandal of deputy prime minister Pravit Wongsuwan’s two dozen very expensive wristwatches. It was right after that controversy erupted back in early January that a 77-year-old retired academic posted a picture of the Prime Minister and his wife, the latter holding a Hermes handbag. “Thai leaders must look expensive, not cheap,” he wrote in both Thai and English.
The comment immediately drew dozens of “likes”. It also drew the attention of the TCPD. Sudden end to Candy Crush. Cut to sirens wailing as they raced out to the home of the academic and arrested him on the spot.
Those seven words, according to the TCPD, constituted false information that sowed panic and disorder in society. Those are their words, not mine.
False information? The academic was hardly telling a lie. Since when has a Thai leader ever looked cheap? Certainly we’ve had some frugal ones — Chuan Leekpai and Chamlong Srimuang come to mind — but you could hardly describe them as “cheap”.
More surprising was the allegation that his comment “sowed panic and disorder in society.”
I remember the day our academic posted that comment. It was January 11, 2018. According to my diary I spent the afternoon in an office with a glass wall overlooking Phrakhanong BTS. I was also there the following day, too, and being on Sukhumvit Road, I was in an excellent position to be an eyewitness to any panic or disorder permeating Thai society.
And yet to me, those days were as chaotic as any other normal day on Sukhumvit Road. About the only panic and disorder that went on was in my mind, trying to fathom how a handbag could bring down Thai society. In my panicked state I can only be thankful Taylor Swift didn’t suddenly waft through the speakers. It does conjure up a bizarre scenario of innocent Thais screaming as they run up and down narrow sois, knocking over somtam carts, panicking uncontrollably, owing to a Hermes handbag.
Is it just a little too easy for a police officer to slap a charge of panic and disorder on an ageing academic, not unlike the way they slap cartoon handcuffs on pudgy nerds photoshopping faces of nemeses onto dogs? One cannot clearly measure and define such things as disorder, making the crime a value judgment.
The academic’s original comment garnered more than 80 “likes” from followers before being taken down. They have all technically broken the law, too, but nobody was arrested. Was it a shortage of staff that prevented 80 cop cars speeding out in all directions on January 11? Or is justice being selective in its punishment?
“It’s a weird experience to be a suspect at nearly 80,” Charnvit Kasetsiri told reporters later.
Actually he is Dr Charnvit, former Thammasat University rector, an esteemed academic who obtained his PhD from Cornell University no less. In other words he’s a smart man who doesn’t like ostentatious displays of wealth — and apparently that is against the law.
Dr Charnvit did do a little backtracking after the initial fiasco, for which he cannot be blamed. But has Thai society come to this? To perceive handbags and retired academics as harbingers of panic and disorder can only be viewed as Orwellian … or worse, Pythonesque.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
HOARY OLD COGS
By Andrew Biggs
The truth and the military make strange bedfellows.
This is not, necessarily, a savage indictment on Thailand’s current military regime. It’s true of any military. When ranked from most important to least, qualities like courage, fortitude, strategy, strength and unity are considered characteristics way, way more important to the military than trifling, annoying tenets such as truth and honesty and, let’s be frank, democracy.
There are two particular characteristics of any military that are on opposite sides of the boxing ring to truth and honesty, and they are power and face. Over in the West we know all about power. We don’t treasure saving face as much as it is treasured in the East, though that’s not to say we are devoid of it. Look at the foot-stomping, dummy-spitting imbecile ruling the White House; any hint of an attack on his character and by god he’s hittin’ that Twitter keypad with all the fury of a woman scorned.
This power and face-saving permeates not only the military but also Thai society, even in these modern, technology-driven times. Any foreigner trying to understand the Thai psyche needs a crash course in Siamese history, plus both an understanding and acceptance that no matter how much the Thai government may bleat about Thailand 4.0, the social psyche remains entrenched in Ayuthaya 2.5.
This was borne out in the last seven days with two big stories.
The first involved Thailand’s Education Minister, Teerakiat Jareonsettasin, or Dr T as we will refer to him today. He’s a real doctor, not an academic, and a psychiatrist no less. He has a platform of educational reform particularly in the field of English language teaching. The man is up against the plodding, slow cogs of the oversized Education Ministry machine, hindering his progress in the many reforms he has instigated, and indeed, a lot of teachers don’t like him for the changes he wishes to implement. The important thing is this: the man is smart. He’s not a military man despite his position … but he is also Thai.
Thus this week, when he was in London, while speaking to a small group of Thai students and businesspeople, he let down his guard and spoke frankly about Thai society. His comments were hardly original or ground-breaking. In fact he was just speaking the truth; saying that unlike England, Thailand was a society where the bigwigs were brazen. If accused of any wrongdoing they didn’t stand down like they do in the West. He referred to the case of the House of Lords member, Michael Bates, who turned up late for Parliament a few minutes late and was unable to answer a question directed to him from the Opposition. He offered his resignation for that, which was turned down by the prime minister.
“But in Thailand, having 25 watches is okay,” he said, referring to Prawit Wongsuwan’s dubious stockpile of top-end timepieces.
Dr T’s comments were spot on. Only a foot-stomping imbecile, the likes of which were referred to above, would think otherwise. And yet this honesty hit the cold metallic wall of the military government, not to mention the well-padded pink walls of Thai culture.
Upon his arrival back at Suvarnabhumi, Dr T probably didn’t bother about trivialities such as Customs and Immigration. Once the wheels hit the tarmac he whisked himself off to Parliament House to prostrate himself before the very man who refuses to budge from his position thanks to his 25 watches.
In a perfect world it would be the other way around, wouldn’t it? “Dr T, forgive me for my transgressions and for not standing down when it was revealed I had not been very complicit in the government’s policy of zero corruption! Let me step down immediately!”
There was even talk of Dr T having to step down for his comments, which didn’t happen, probably because even our military government might have had the wisdom to foresee the loss of face over an Education Minister resigning for telling the truth. He took business leave instead.
As clever as he is, Dr T is still part of a culture — and as minister, part of a regime — that places face and power over truth and honesty. What he did back in Thailand was expected of him and unsurprising.
That meeting, with the Prime Minister and Prawit Wongsuwan, was held right before the weekly Tuesday Cabinet meeting. Dr T didn’t make an appearance at that Cabinet meeting. Nor would I; imagine the glares and muted mutterings as he entered the Cabinet meeting office. Unsurprisingly the Minister for Timepieces was there and probably was welcomed with ingratiating >>wais<< from all and sundry as he swept into the room.
The other example of this curious value system has been running for two weeks now.
It is the case of super-billionaire Premchai Karnasuta being caught red-handed by a struggling parks official from an impoverished family.
Premchai hunted, shot, killed and skinned protected and endangered animals in Thung Yai Naresuan Sanctuary, Karnchanaburi. These included the Black Indochinese Leopard which was skinned. Thanks to park official Wichien Chinnawong’s diligence and — here come those words again — truth and honesty, he managed to get Premchai to a police station.
That in itself is a magnanimous feat in Thailand, where a wealthy person has any number of ways to get himself out of a sticky criminal situation before the cops even get involved.
(Premchai has denied the charges. He’s done nothing wrong by hauling arms, ammunitions and a huge bag of salt into a national park, he says.)
Wichien was lauded by Thais as a national hero. How interesting to see the reaction from the police, though, clearly a little uncomfortable with having to book a powerful billionaire. Nowhere at police academy do they teach them how to do that.
First, the investigation would take 45 days. That seems an inordinate amount of time for a clear cut-and-dried case of poaching.
More sinister were the comments from Sirivala Ransibhramanakul, Thailand’s deputy police chief, who intimated the cops would be pressing charges against Wichien himself, for the crime of waiving a 100 baht entry fee when Premchai entered the park.
(It is even more sinister when considering it within the framework of Thailand’s >>phu yai<< patronage system that he had to do that. Any order from the top down, such as waiving of fees, must be followed without any consideration of its legality. As head of the police force, Srivala is more than aware of that.)
Srivala’s comments offer non-Thais a glimpse of the shadowy undercurrent of Thai culture, or what happens when power and saving face are threatened by truth and honesty. It is much easier to exonerate a powerful construction mogul by discrediting the evidence of a disgraced sanctuary worker, as opposed to an heroic one.
So it is not just Premchai who is on the hunt. The system is intent on hunting down those who dare to question or prosecute the powerful ones. Just this week the Prime Minister vowed to crack down on those protesters demanding democracy, saying these protestors had to “follow the law” — a curious remark from a man who ripped up the constitution in 2014.
The Black Leopard. Dr T. Wichien Chinnawong. Three separate hunts. It is up to the growing numbers of thinking, educated Thais, armed with technology and knowledge, to ensure those hunts don’t all end the same way.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
HOW TO GET GOOD AT THAI
By Andrew Biggs
I have a great story to tell you that will appeal to any non-Thai currently doing battle with learning the Thai language.
My life turned a full circle this week as I began a teaching gig at Ramkhamhaeng University Demonstration School. A gaggle of my best teachers are there in February conducting an extended English camp, and on day one I went to the school to show my face and chat to the students.
It was also very emotional, as it was a return to my Thai language roots.
This school is attached to Ramkhamhaeng University, naturally. What other university would it be attached to? It is named after King Ramkhamhaeng the Great, who 700 years ago ruled the kingdom of Sukhothai and is credited with thinking up the Thai alphabet. His statue can be found right in the middle of a roundabout at the center of the university. It is the one royal image I often finding myself lighting joss sticks in front of to this day— for a reason I am about to explain.
If the cute and well-behaved students of Ramkhamhaeng University Demonstration School find English hard to grasp, they should spare a thought for every non-Thai who has ever considered seriously learning the Thai language. Thanks to its tone rules, lack of spaces between words and my beloved Siamese King’s vast, elongated Thai alphabet — all 44 consonants, and that’s not counting the 32 vowels — the Thai language is daunting, frustrating and elusive.
For my own experience in learning the language, we need to travel back in time to 1995. I had been in Thailand for five years and was at a level of Thai considered acceptable but not brilliant. And so, in my typical style, I decided to go straight for the jugular. I applied to study Thai at university.
I chose Ramkhamhaeng University because there were a lot of graduates at the office, and they seemed to be hard-working people. Ramkhamhaeng at the time was the world’s largest semi-open university with some 300,000 students learning out of textbooks and/or in classrooms. That figure has since gone down thanks to the dwindling number of young Thais and the proliferation of universities over the last decade.
Ramkhamhaeng serves a very useful purpose in Thai society, because anyone with Grade 12 can study there. There is no Entrance test. Every Thai knows the saying: “Ramkhamhaeng University: Easy to enter, difficult to leave.” I know that sounds like a Twilight Zone episode, but what it means is getting a degree from this university requires discipline and time management, something we all lack at times.
I was the first westerner ever to apply to study at Ramkhamhaeng. I was on page one of Thai newspapers on the day I applied to be a student. There I was, pictured receiving my student ID card. It was fun to be the center of attention for once, and I walked out of that university feeling like I was on top of the world.
When I opened the textbooks, I came crashing back to earth.
There is a subject in first year that all Thai students fear. It’s called English 101. It’s all that really interesting stuff in English, like how to conjugate verbs and the 12 tenses of English plus conditional tenses and – I know, I’ve lost you already. Just the thought of that subject scares the living daylights out of every first year Thai student.
Except for me.
I was probably the first student that went into the final exam without ever having opened the textbook. I breezed through the 100 questions, even quietly ignoring the ones that had no correct answers, and left early.
There was another mandatory first-year subject, but the feeling towards that subject was vastly different. Thai students giggled at how easy it was. That subject was Thai 101, or basic Thai grammar stuff they had all learned since they were toddlers.
Except for me.
I will never forget the day I opened the Thai 101 textbook for the first time and saw the myriad rules and regulations governing the Thai language. I felt betrayed.
I’d always been told there were no rules to Thai – no tenses, no plurals, nothing but nice easy one-syllable words. You could put words in any order as long as you smiled or performed a traditional Thai dance as you spoke.
Suddenly I realized this wasn’t true. Suddenly I was confronted with 16 different ways to refer to oneself … another 14 or so to refer to “you” … and the most difficult thing of all, the Royal Language used specifically for the monarch. And I was expected to know all this!
The Royal Language scared me the most. It was difficult enough to remember “walk” as dern. Now I had to know that it was praratchadamnern when referring to royalty. Granted it was lovely to the ear, but like a plate of bad somtam, the knowledge went in one end and out the other. Nothing stuck in my brain.
As examination day drew closer, I got the sinking feeling I wasn’t going to pass Thai 101. What a terrible loss of face. Here I was, the apple of the uni’s eye, their first farang studying there, with all eyes on me … and I was going to fail. I had sleepless nights planning ways of getting out of the test, like stepping in front of a bus on Ramkhamhaeng Road. I didn’t want to kill myself, but I would have been happy to be critically injured.
My idea of studying Thai at university level was crazy. I should have spent my nights doing what every other expat does in this city; sitting in Patpong bars, gyrating on a bar stool at Nana Plaza or even sitting in the audience of the latest Bangkok Community Theatre production. Anything was better than being inside the pages of that Thai 101 textbook!
One week before the exam I got a call from my friend Taweesak who worked at the university.
“So how are you feeling?” he asked.
I couldn’t hold back my feelings. “Terrible!” I ejaculated.
“Why? What’s happened?”
“It’s this subject … TH101. I can’t remember the information. Who could possibly learn 16 different ways of saying “I”? One week to the test and I know I’m gonna fail. And I’m going to look bad, and everybody in the whole country’s going to know the truth that I’m actually pretty stupid and –”
Taweesak was laughing by this stage. There is nothing quite as infuriating as a laughing Thai in a moment of crisis, despite their best of intentions, but before I could berate him he said: “Relax. I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Here at Ramkhamhaeng, we have a special way to ensure you will pass your subject.”
Being a cynical Australian, I immediately jumped to the wrong conclusion. “How much do I put in the envelope? How do I get it to the teacher?”
“Nothing like that,” he said. “I’m going to make you do something I’m sure no foreigner has ever done before. But it will make you pass. Just meet me outside the statue of King Ramkhamhaeng tomorrow at midday.”
And with that, Taweesak hung up.
Ramkhamhaeng University is named after a very famous King of the Sukhothai era from 800 years ago. This monarch is credited with creating the first written Thai alphabet. His austere statue is located right in the middle of the university.
I’ve always felt an affinity with King Ramkhamhaeng, so it was only fitting my friend Taweesak made me meet him at the foot of the statue. “So you’re having problems with TH101?” he asked.
“That’s an understatement,” I replied. TH101 was the first Thai subject I had taken, and the sheer volume of information about the Royal Language and Thai grammar was causing me sleepless nights.
He handed me some joss sticks and a lotus bulb and pointed up to the statue. “Okay. You’re going to bon barn,” he said.
(I have since been through numerous Thai-English dictionaries and almost all convenient omit bon barn … I assume Thais just don’t want we westerners to know about this practise.)
He saw my quizzical expression but continued nevertheless. “Go up to the statue and pray to King Ramkhamhaeng. Tell him what you want. Then come back down.”
What a relief! Was it that simple to pass a subject at this university? “Not quite,” said Taweesak. There is a catch, as there always is. “You also have to tell him exactly what you intend to do if your wish comes true. If you ask King Ramkhamhaeng to pass TH101, and you pass, then you have to kae bon -- or repay the Great King’s kindness by performing an act.”
“Er … what kind of act?” I asked my friend.
“Well, some people give thanks by dancing naked in front of their deity of choice. Most people get friends to hold up sheets so nobody can see you.”
I was wondering who I would choose to perform the dubious task of holding up a bedsheet while I stripped off and performed a traditional Thai dance in front of a deity … and what about those folks in high rise buildings and aircraft?
“Anyway here at Ramkhamhaeng we don’t often do that,” said Taweesak, and boy did that reduce my anxiety tenfold. “Students here will repay the kindness by running around the statue.”
“With my clothes on?” I enquired.
“Of course,” said Taweesak with a laugh. “We’re not sex maniacs you know!”
Of course you’re not, Taweesak. It’s perfectly acceptable behavior to strip off in public and dance in front of a statue.
“Students will promise to run around the King 99 times.”
Ninety-nine times! I would later measure out one time around as being 300 metres. I would have to run 33 kilometres! By now I was weighing up which was worse – the shame of failing a subject, or the fatigue of running almost an entire marathon. Or, of course, the naked thing.
“You don’t have to run it all in one go. You can break it up over a few days. And you can also get your staff to run some of them for you,” explained Taweesak with a deadpan expression suggesting he was being serious.
I had no choice. I was there; I had to go through with this. I took off my shoes and began climbing the steps towards the ominous figure of King Ramkhamhaeng.
“Oh and I nearly forgot!” shouted out Taweesak from below. “You are talking to a King, so remember to use Royal Language!”
Now I wanted to just break down and cry. I was in this ludicrous situation because I couldn’t remember the Royal Language … now I was expected to get OUT of this situation by USING Royal Language!
As panic threatened to rain down upon my central nervous system I got an idea – I would bon in English. I knelt down, clasped my hands together, closed my eyes and began.
“Pleasssse, King Ramkhamhaeng. Help me pass TH101. And if you make me pass, I’ll run around you 99 times. With love, Andrew. Oh, and take care of your health.” I prostrated myself before my beloved King, and soon I was down the bottom again.
Well, a week later and I did the test. I was even more convinced I was going to fail. But life in Thailand is a life of nothing but surprises, and when the test results came out, I got the shock of my life.
I had passed TH101.
It felt like I had won the lottery. I called everybody I knew – and some I didn’t. I called my mother in Australia. “I passed my first Thai subject at university!” I squealed. My mother misunderstood; she thought I came first in the whole of Thailand in the subject of Thai, beating even the Thais. When I found this out I took absolutely no steps in putting everybody straight.
It was Taweesak who put a momentary stop to my self-aggrandisement. “So when are you going to kae bon?” he asked.
Oh never mind about that. I passed. That’s the main thing. This was my initial reaction until this faint voice echoed in the back of my head – from the ancient monarch himself perhaps? – whispering: “Remember. Next semester … TH102.”
I chose midnight on a Monday night. I figured there’d be no one there, and so late that night I dragged out my old running outfit, which was more frayed at the edges than I was on the day of the TH101 test. I drove to the university. I parked outside. I walked in the darkness towards the statue, silhouetted against the moonlit sky. Just the night, King Ramkhamhaeng, and the moon, all witnesses to my extended run of thanks …
… and one hundred Ramkhamhaeng students!
Imagine my surprise to see, in the darkness, 100 students all doing what I was doing that night! How egocentric of me to think I was the only one who had bonned (note the past tense) before the tests! It is testament to my courage that I threw up my hands, thought “What the hell” and began running round and round and round a total of 99 times, stretched over three nights, with nothing but Thai students laughing and ridiculing me.
To this day I still visit King Ramkhamhaeng when I need things. I do it quietly, and these days my kae bon usually takes the form of a charitable act of some kind. I have never had the audacity to strip down and dance naked by way of thanks. I can imagine the statue’s hands creaking up to the royal eyes to shield the view.
I used to wonder why King Ramkhamhaeng had been so gracious to allow me to pass a subject I had so little knowledge of.
“King Ramkhamhaeng is very benevolent,” Taweesak explained later. “And I guess when he saw a farang coming up those steps, he might have been a little surprised. Plus you were probably the first person ever to bon in English. Perhaps His Majesty didn’t understand you, but took pity on you and decided to help you out. Don’t ever forget his kindness.”
I haven’t. And that, dear reader, is how I got good at Thai.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
By Andrew Biggs
There is nothing particularly outstanding about the tiny rural school of Wat Ban Pathong Tha Noen Samakee, 360 kilometres north-east of Bangkok.
It is just off the main highway that runs all the way up through the North-East of Thailand. While it is located in Nakhon Ratchasima province, on a map it appears closer to Khon Kaen. This is the heart of rural Thailand.
The school is a collection of wooden and concrete classrooms. The front boasts a faded pink concrete wall, behind which is an equally faded playground of slides and swings.
It has only 83 students. That is a tiny handful by Thai school standards, where schools can carry as many as 3,000 students. It is hardly on the A-list of choices for school directors, that top position in every government school that all administrators aspire to. Thus when the school director of Wat Ban Pathong Tha Noen Samakee retired in September last year, nobody was clamoring to fill his shoes.
The civil servants, whose job it is to find such a school director in this educational zone, work for what is known as Primary Education Area 6. For the sake of brevity, we’ll call it Primary Education 6.
It is probably not far from the truth to say they were scraping the barrel when it came to candidates. But that is no excuse for what they did, which ultimately propelled them, and this little rural school, into the national media spotlight this week.
In November last year a new school director arrived by the name of Nathapop Boonthongtho, 51, an overweight fellow with a ruddy face. But he didn’t just start a new job three months ago — he also started a not-so-clandestine affair with a Year 8 girl in his very own school.
The two apparently hung out together in public places. They sent each other cute Line text messages, which went viral this week. Nathapop promised to marry her on February 14, Valentine’s Day, something I am guessing every Year 7 girl wishes to hear a man say. But let us not skirt the issue. This was not love. This was textbook pedophilia.
It all blew up this week and both director Nathapop and the girl have done a runner, apparently in different directions. Primary Office 6 has announced that Nathapop may – just may – have criminal charges leveled against him. Worse, he may be sacked from the civil service. One normally has to bludgeon an entire village to death before one is sacked from the Thai civil service. The normal punishment for pedophilia, corruption, rape and murder while on civil service duty is to be shunted to what they call an “inactive post”. Heaven forbid otherwise; they may lose their social and retirement benefits.
All this covers up the real story. It’s not just Nathapop who should be jailed. Every single one of those Primary Office 6 civil servants should be locked up with him and, in a perfect world, have the key thrown away.
That’s because Nathapop only made it to this tiny rural school because he was booted out of his old one, thanks to a clandestine affair he was having with a student there. The only difference was this wasn’t a Year 8 girl – the last one was in Year 6.
He only escaped conviction because he transferred 200,000 baht to the family of the girl in question then quickly left the school.
His old school is just 28 km from the new one. I would hazard a guess that news travels fast, and when the school committee and locals heard that a known pedophile was about to be their school director, they protested.
They wrote a letter to Primary Office 6, which chose to ignore it. They were, after all, the ones who decided to send him there. Nathapop came, so to speak, and the rest is history.
It is difficult to remain cool, calm and collected when faced with such facts. One doesn’t know quite how to act when government officials responsible for the education of youth shunt a pedophile from school to school, hoping his raging sexual perversity will somehow go away. On the contrary. Nothing is better for a pedophile than new territory.
Few books in recent years have moved me as much as Betrayal did. It is a book about the Boston Globe newspaper’s investigation into the network of pedophile priests within the Catholic Church in the USA at the turn of the millennium. You may know it as the movie Spotlight, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2016. While the movie is very good, nothing prepares you for the book’s detailed accounts of systematic molestation that was swept under the table for decades by the Catholic Church.
Its message was that the only thing worse than pedophilia is a system that protects it. The Catholic Church knowingly took steps to cover up its rampant pedophilia, the very worst being the Vatican itself, recalling cardinals who oversaw the suppression of child molestation back to the fold to be given obscure roles in Vatican City. The church was effectively closing its wings around these wrongdoers. If only the church had done the same to its child victims.
Well-known pedophile priests were shunted from diocese to diocese, while victims who dared to make waves had the full weight of the church hover precariously over their heads. Some priests were sent to special centers set up to “cure” them of their desires, and the fact the church had such centers tells you enough about how rampant the problem was.
The Catholic Church is not such a main player here in Thailand, where Buddhism is the preferred choice of spiritual comfort. But look at the similarities in the two events. I read the story from Nakhon Ratchasima this week and the ghosts of that Betrayal book start hovering around me.
If you have a moment, go take a look at Natthapop’s Facebook page. There are pictures of him dressed in his full civil service regalia. It makes you want to raise your hands and >>wai<< him out of respect. His main picture has the words: “Nattapop Loves the King.” In another picture, he professes his love for his mother. This is a man who ticks all the boxes of Thai respectability which, ironically, opens the door for him to satiate his lust for schoolgirls.
This column does not set out to attack Nathapop himself. He’s a sick man who requires punishment along with some form of medical or psychiatric attention. I think we can all agree he needs to be kept as far away from children as possible, right?
Well, maybe not everybody. Primary Office 6 knew about the scandal at the old school. It seems having an affair with a Year 6 girl, who would be aged around 12 years, is not enough to warrant your sacking. What they did, instead, was move him from one school to another.
We can at least be thankful a committee has been set up to examine all this. And who is investigating this gross miscarriage of justice and dereliction of duty?
It’s the Primary Office 6 itself. And boy have they taken some really strong punitive steps.
They have “moved him to an inactive post within the Primary Education Service.” As of tomorrow he must rock up to Primary Education 6 to continue his career working with children.
(Writer’s Note: In August, 2018, eight months after this story was published, Nattapop was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years’ jail. He was sacked from the civil service with no benefits. Photo courtesy of The Nation)
By Andrew Biggs
Happy Songkran, dear reader! This is the traditional time I close the windows, draw the blinds, and remain ensconced in either my bedroom or, when I’m feeling adventurous, the living room for three whole days.
I’ve been through all the Songkran stages. I’ve stood on the back of a pick-up with 18 others, splashing water from giant barrels while zipping through the streets of Chiang Mai. I’ve sat on bamboo mats pretending to enjoy local rice whiskey as wizened drunks relate interesting anecdotes with no clear endings three times over.
I’ve also sat in horrendous traffic jams extending all the way from Bangkok up through Saraburi in Nakhon Ratchasima.
I have reported live on TV from Sukhothai one year; another year from Nakhon Ratchasima dressed in traditional Thai garb.
I’ve danced in the middle of Silom back in the days when Songkran was fun there. I’ve even been an emcee, five years running, at the Khaosan Road Songkran Festival, standing on a stage as drunken crowds of western tourists shot streams of water from their water guns directed straight into my crotch.
There are limits to how many times one can be soaked by total strangers for three relentless days. Participating in Songkran festivities for the first time is a little like losing one’s virginity; it’s sloppy and exciting and life-changing. After that, well, there are only so many positions and variations one can explore before the thrill wears off.
Every year in the lead-up to Songkran, the government implements campaigns to get Thais to stop chucking buckets of water over strangers like they’re on fire.
This may come as a surprise, and disappointment, to new arrivals, but the culture of dousing strangers with jets of water from high-powered water guns is a relatively new one.
The proper way to dispense water is a soft and delicate process, pouring water from a small cup over hands or a shoulder, at the same time giving a blessing to that person.
This year the government campaign is stressing being respectful and having “greng jai” in your behavior over Songkran.
“Greng jai”? Now we’ve opened a can of worms.
Thais are very proud of their feeling of “greng jai”. It is inherent to the Thai psyche. And because there is no exact English translation, they have got it into their heads that foreigners, namely Europeans, don’t possess the feeling of “greng jai”.
“Greng jai” is a feeling of not wanting to put another person out or hurt another person’s feelings. It’s a feeling of consideration for others. It’s not performing a certain act because somebody else might feel not good about your doing it. It’s, it’s …
See, dear reader? As I try to explain this feeling, I am sucked into the quicksand of English vocabulary. The closest word to it is “consideration”, but even that seems a little flaccid – another dreaded adjective for anybody who’s been here three decades.
I once wrote an entire book entitled “What Does Greng Jai Mean In English?” which sold nearly 100,000 copies. It paid off a significant part of my mortgage. It’s still in book stores to this day, though these days it is more like to pay off a single bottle of Uncle Smirnoff over the Songkran break.
“Greng jai” is a nice thing, but it has its dark side. “Greng jai” turns you into a caring, thoughtful human being – it can also transform you into a directionless jellyfish.
I used to play squash with a colleague whose nickname was “Eddie From Hell.” One Wednesday I was sitting at my desk and saw him running down the corridor on his way home when I said: “See you tomorrow at 9 am for squash.”
Eddie From Hell stopped. Looked at me. Opened his mouth. “Maybe,” he said. And ran off.
“Eddie!” I screamed and he stopped in his tracks. He came back. “Siddown,” I said in my best John Wayne accent, and Eddie from Hell sat down reluctantly.
“You’re not coming tomorrow, are you?” I said.
He ummed and ahhed and spoke in every tangent other than direct. Finally he said: “My mother is arriving from upcountry tonight, and I have to take her to the hospital tomorrow morning.”
“So,” I began, realizing the futility of even asking, “Why didn’t you tell me you wouldn’t be able to make it?”
Eddie From Hell looked at me and, true to his name, replied: “Greng jai.”
Greng jai. He didn’t want to say: “I can’t come tomorrow morning,” because he was considerate of my feelings. He didn’t want to upset me, so it was easier just to leave me like a shag on a rock at the squash court the next morning.
This incident happened many, many years ago but it always stuck with me. As did this one:
We had a new show on TV. The process was simple – we filmed the show, edited it, sent it to me to check the English graphics, changes would be made, then we sent it to the TV station. I told my assistant producer the new process and he understood clearly.
We filmed the first episode. My assistant producer, whose nickname was Chicken, went away and edited it. He sent a copy to me to check, and sure enough, there were 10 mistakes.
Chicken sat down with a pen and paper and jotted down the mistakes as I went through the tape with him. Spelling mistakes, graphics in the wrong color, extra words to be added – the usual stuff. He nodded wisely and wrote furiously.
At the end I asked him the fatal question: “How quickly can you get these changes done so we can send this to the TV station?”
“Well, um, actually … it’s like this … I sent it to the TV station already,” he said.
You did what? The fact he had sent it already was bad enough. But the guy had sat there for half an hour writing down the changes he knew all along he wouldn’t have to make. “Why didn’t you tell me in the beginning before we wasted all this time telling you to make the changes? Why, Chicken? Why?”
“Greng jai,” Chicken replied.
So that’s the conundrum. Yes, “greng jai” is an admirable quality because it shows your concern for others, not to mention being brought up correctly. But it also can be a hindrance to progress, or a shield to hide reluctance or even cowardice.
And while Thais pride themselves on their “greng jai”-ness, I sometimes wonder if they are navel-gazing with rose-tinted glasses. There ain’t much “greng jai” during peak hour traffic on Bangna-Trat highway, I can tell you. And look at all our high-ranking military, civil servants and politicians bleeding the public coffers of government budgets at figures of up to 30 per cent. There is no “greng jai” when it comes to corruption. Nor, as it appears from the recent campaign, are we very “greng jai” around Songkran.
But you know, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
These days when I won’t arrive for another hour I tell my workmate I’m “10 minutes away”. This is the key to living harmoniously in Thailand. You don’t have to be responsible for your actions. You don’t even have to act! You just have to be “greng jai” of everybody — except for those drunken idiots splashing you with water. Happy Songkran, dear reader!
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
SMASHING THE GLASS
By Andrew Biggs
Anybody doing business in Thailand has horror stories about red tape.
Not a day goes by where I am responsible for felling at least one tree from somewhere deep within a national park. Page after page, I sign the bottom of useless photocopied pages, in triplicate, one after the other, all the time either contemplating life or how to end it all and put myself out of this bureaucratic misery.
A recent under-the-wire news story revealed Thailand has officially some 700,000 different government forms in order to do business here. A law reform panel wants to reduce that amount to about 1,000. They also want to merge agencies so people who will no longer need to seek approval to run their businesses from a multitude of state agencies.
What admirable goals, but don’t hold your breath. “Red Tape” must be filed right next to the “Stamping Out Corruption” folder in the drawer marked “Governmental Pie In The Sky” — an action which probably can only be accomplished by filling out a necessary form.
There are just too many government agencies who stand to lose if they merge with other agencies. Plus there is the argument that if one takes away a civil servants’ duty to supervise filling out forms — exactly what is left for that servant to do all day, other than await retirement?
This week the extent of this country’s obsession with official forms rose to the surface. It happened last Sunday night and it involved Manit Intharaphim, a wheelchair-bound commuter who got arrested for smashing the glass door of the BTS at Asoke train station.
Manit, like you and me, uses the BTS to get around town. Last Sunday night he was at Asoke when he was confronted by a BTS official who demanded he “fill in a form” to say he was disabled.
This is a little weird since no other BTS station requires a form to be filled out to use the service. Disabled people do get to use the skytrain for free, but this was not the point.
Manit refused. Did able-bodied people have to sign a form to get to the platform? If not, then why should he?
The BTS manager, dressed in his red tie, came over. “If you don’t sign this form, you cannot use the service,” he said.
Is that so, said Manit. He went and purchased a 26 baht ticket to Chidlom from the machines. “Now I’m not using it for free. I’m just like anybody else,” he said. He then wheeled himself over to the lift to take him up to the platform. It was locked. Nobody came to help; ticket or no ticket, that form had to be signed.
In hindsight he admits he lost his cool and started shouting: “I bought a ticket but I cannot use the service!” He started smashing the glass door repeatedly using his bare fist until it broke. A foreign family stood nearby. “I think they thought I was a little crazy,” he said later.
Manit’s actions got him hauled off to Ploenchit police station, but no charges were laid. If justice was indeed an upheld tenet, the men in figure-hugging brown instead would be throwing the BTS executives in jail along with that officious manager last Sunday night — not just for implementing a system that reduces disabled people to second-class citizens, but for violating the orders of the highest court in this country.
Regular readers of this column should remember Manit. It reinforces my long-held view that anybody who reads this column is not just fashionable and chic, but stays ahead of the news. You see, Manit is a friend of mine, and was featured in this very column last year as Thailand’s “Wheelchair Warrior”, demanding equality for Thailand’s 1.6 million disabled.
Manit has been all over the TV news media this week, and in every interview his first comment was the same: Violence is wrong. Don’t do what I did. While that may be true, his smashing of a door is nothing compared to the despicable behavior of the BTS in its treatment of the disabled.
The BTS provides the service, but the owner of the system is the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration. The BMA was ordered by the Supreme Court to install elevators in all 23 BTS stations in 2015. They were given a year to carry out the order.
Three years later and the BMA has not complied with the ruling. I can’t imagine the commotion that would ensue at my front door if I were to ignore a Supreme Court order for three years, just prior to my being hauled off to the Bangkok Hilton in handcuffs. And yet for the BMA it is business as usual.
Even more astounding is the idea of making a disabled person sign a form in order to use the service. Last Sunday a BTS officer appeared with a clipboard and explained that to use the BTS, Manit needed to “fill in a form” to show he was disabled.
Thus lies the madness. A man in a wheelchair, clearly disabled, must sign a form in order to verify he is disabled.
“Oh, but what if he’s a regular able-bodied person pretending to be disabled in order to use the lift?” I hear a BTS executive saying somewhere in my imagination.
I would like to meet any able-bodied person who would go to the trouble of purchasing, then hauling around, a wheelchair in order to fake a disability so as to avoid two flights of stairs. Some people really do have too much time on their hands.
“We need documentation in order to run the free service,” that same executive replies, by now starting to look a little sheepish.
Well, no. You don’t. There is something more important than documentation. And that is the rights of the disabled, as enshrined in Thai law which forbids you to discriminate against them. (At this stage I would land a forceful blow upon that make-believe official’s head, not unlike the one Manit delivered to that sheet of glass last Sunday.)
I sympathize with Manit, but at the same time I am a little lost for words when it comes to any organization that makes a conscious decision to force wheelchair-bound people to fill out a form … to prove they are wheel-chair bound.
Who proposed this idea? Was it someone in middle-management trying to climb the BTS corporate ladder? Perhaps it one of those less-cerebral executives who rose up the BTS ranks via currying favor, or a cash-strapped relative of the boss. And was there anybody, a single person who, as this idea rose up through the organization and meetings and implementation, put up their hand and say: “I don’t want to make waves, nor do I want to affect my annual bonus, but isn’t this just a little … um, wrong?”
It does need to be said that the BTS was aware it made a blunder. Rather than send the glass door bill to Manit, they offered a sheepish apology mid-week. They would not be pressing charges, and that insidious form would be going the way of bureaucratic reform – straight into the trash can.
For Manit, the fight goes on. He’s given the government seven days to ensure equality for the disabled, which happens to expire today.
“I’m not proud of what I did,” Manit told me this week. “But Thailand needs to look at the big picture. My rights are not the same of yours. This is round one of our battle to change that. There is more to come.”
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
AUNTIES MAD AS HELL
By Andrew Biggs
You may have noticed it’s been difficult to get your Thai friends to go out on a Wednesday or Thursday night.
That’s because the country is in the grip of a soap opera on Channel 3 called Buppha Sanniwat. Everyone is watching.
Thai soapies usually feature violence, betrayal, corruption, fabulous wealth and injustice. Interestingly, Buppha Sanniwat features none of these, but that doesn’t matter. Thais are getting those ingredients in real life thanks to two axe-wielding aunties on Srinakharin Road.
Everyone is watching that one, too. Their story is one of violence, betrayal, corruption, fabulous wealth and injustice. No wonder the whole country is riveted.
It was so audacious it even pushed Premchai and the black panther off the front pages which, if I were more of a conspiracist, would believe it had been planned that way.
And here is the exciting addition to the raging aunties story — I know the area like the back of my hand.
Yes, dear reader, for the past 10 years I have walked right past the now-famous gates outside their home. I have been a constant patron of the vibrant, bustling markets that encompass the aunties’ house like a marauding army.
For 20 years I have exercised regularly at Rama 9 Park off Srinakharin Road. In fact this column, now in its tenth year, started off because of my running the 5-km track around that park while I trained for the Bangkok Marathon.
My subsequent account of that 42-km run was published in this publication under the ego-shattering headline “Run, Fatboy, Run.” It came from the name of a popular movie at the time — can’t think of any other reason the editors would want to call it that.
The same dishonorable editors who thought that title up then asked me to write a weekly column about life in Thailand, and look, ten years later I’m still here. But we are off on a tangent. This is not about Thailand’s most famous Australian idiot savant. It’s about mad-as-hell aunties acting like a scene out of a soap opera.
The road between Srinakharin and the main entrance to Rama 9 Park is a straight one that cuts right through a housing estate called Seri Villa.
Saturday and Sunday mornings at the park are alive with joggers, tai-chi adherents, bicyclists and families on brisk walks. Once the exercise is over they wander out those main gates and into colorful, bustling markets on either side of the road.
There are buskers and parades of monks receiving alms. One market is devoted to herbal remedies.
The choice of local food is cheap and astounding. There is a coffee bar where an amiable elderly gentleman explains his meticulous drip method. It is a community of vendors catering for absolutely everybody …
… with the exception of one mansion right in the middle of it.
A tall concrete wall surrounds it, not unlike the type of wall an embassy would construct to keep out jihadists. The main iron gates are elaborate and ornate but even those you can’t really see.
They are plastered with signs exuding plaintive calls for help. They detail court orders demanding the markets be shut down. Court appearances. Calls for justice. Demands that absolutely nobody can park in front of their house. It isn’t enough their neighborhood is defiled. They have to go and defile their own front gates as well.
For years my feeling was this: You have bought a house right in the middle of a prime tourist destination. Here is a community of thousands of small vendors eking out a living. Sure, it’s probably a bit of a hassle on a Saturday and Sunday morning, when half of eastern Bangkok comes to visit. But isn’t that like a resident next to the Eiffel Tower complaining of the crowds and disruption? If you don’t like it — and you are clearly not screaming for a quid — why not find another place to live?
That’s how I saw it. How unfair would it be to evict an entire community for the sake of one single, solitary house — >>mansion<< — right in the middle of it all. Where is the justice in that?
When the home-owners, two ageing aunties, finally appeared in the media two weeks ago — to take an axe to a pick-up parked illegally in front of their home — it was like welcoming an old friend. So these are the residents of the mysterious mansion I’d trudged past all those years!
Two things immediately rose up in my heart.
The first was schadenfreude. We all harbor a secret desire to smash illegally-parked pick-up trucks; at least I do. That is probably something I need to work on with my therapist, but in this country, drivers of pick-up trucks have on average a lower intelligence quotient than the general population, which explains their lack of road rule knowledge. That sounds cruel, I know, but sometimes in life you just gotta take an axe to idiots.
The second feeling was compassion. For the aunties, not the pick-up owner.
The subsequent media attention these two received revealed how wrong I’d been in my thinking.
Those markets were illegal. They were set up in residential zones. One seeks peace and quiet in one’s choice of residence; one does not purchase a mansion smack bang in the middle of markets.
And as it turns out, this is not a case of which came first. The chicken came way before the egg, and those two women sure as hell aren’t eggs.
With all the money they have (they own the land upon which Paradise Park is built), they have been unable to ensure the relevant city officials carry out their job of ensuring a residential zone stays that way.
I sympathize with them and understand their frustration. I used to live in a townhouse; overnight my next-door neighbors turned their townhouse into a late night karaoke bar. Nobody dared do anything because the owner was a cop. The only solution, friends told me, was to move house.
I didn’t; the place closed down after a few weeks thanks to some diplomatic meetings between myself and the cop. But it does show what happens when law enforcers do the wrong thing. One feels helpless and frustrated, and those are the feelings that precipitate picking up an axe.
The BMA’s Public Works Department along with Prawet district are responsible for allowing a quiet street turn into a cacophony of street markets.
It began in 2008, coincidentally the same time I started running around the park. Six officials have been in charge of the bureau in that time, one current and five retired.
If proponents of justice have any extra time on their hands — highly unlikely in between following the cases of the Red Bull heir, Pravit Wongsuwan, Premchai and the black panther — they should add those six to the list to watch. For Thai society to really develop, the population needs to be closely watching more than just Buppha Santiwat.
What possesses BMA officials to ignore five huge markets?
A lack of manpower? That is out of the question. Look at the voracity and enthusiasm they displayed in shutting down other markets around town. One would suspect the task of killing a market could well relieve them of the tedium of otherwise docile civil service life. At least they get out of the office.
So what is it, dear reader? Why would BMA officials turn a blind eye? I can’t think of a single, glaring, reason. Can you?
A STORY OF GAMBIAN PROPORTIONS By Andrew Biggs
I wonder how many of my readers could pinpoint the country of Gambia on a map.
No, no reaching for Google Maps. What does it border? What is it famous for?
Such questions need not bother you too much, especially if you are feeling like I am this morning following a prolonged visit from Uncle Smirnoff and his delightful travelling companion, Ms Absolut, just last night.
I couldn’t pinpoint Gambia either. It’s in West Africa, a tiny country sandwiched between Senegal and Guinea-Bissau which probably doesn’t help you that much. It has a population of just 2 million and looking at the map, it’s as far away from Thailand as you can go before starting to come back round the other way.
And yet this remote little speck on the African expanse has incurred the wrath of our volatile Prime Minister and his government here in Thailand.
Gambia is one of the poorest countries in the world. It is a destination for sex tourism, primarily older female Europeans looking for younger beach boy types. While prostitution is illegal, it is widespread and encompasses child prostitution.
The Gambian government has launched a campaign to clean up sex tourism. The Tourism and Culture Minister of Gambia, Hamat Bah, kicked it off this week by announcing: “We are not a sex destination. If you want a sex destination, go to Thailand.”
Well, didn’t that set the bells ringing over at Wat Rakhang?
There are not that many words that instantly engage the fury of a Thai military junta. “Democracy” and “elections” spring to mind, but they are trumped by anybody describing Thailand as an A-list destination for international sex tourists.
This is a news story that never stops coming. For more than two decades the Tourism Authority of Thailand has pushed the beaches, mountains, temples, food, festivals, culture and smiles of the local populace. And yet, ask the average foreigner to think of Bangkok, and what’s the first thing that springs to mind?
Is this reputation justified? Absolutely not, but in defiance of the Jackson 5, one bad apple does spoil the whole bunch, girl.
And this very issue got your favorite columnist into a whole lot of trouble back in July, 1993. It presents some food for thought for our Prime Minister, who this week, amid official diplomatic protests over the Gambian comments, announced that Thailand had to change its international reputation as a sex tourism destination. Now. Or else.
Back in July, 1993, a scandal of unforeseen proportions erupted in Thailand that threatened to escalate into an international incident.
British publisher Longman put out a new English dictionary, — “A Dictionary of Language and Culture” — defining words in a more relaxed tone.
It defined Bangkok as a city known for “its Buddhist temples and a place where there are a lot of prostitutes.”
You could have heard the collective shriek of discontent from as far away as Gambia. Academics threatened Longman book burning events. Police officially banned the publication, marking the first and last time in Thai history that the local constabulary took an interest in English dictionaries.
A spokesman for the then government, a handsome young man fresh out of Oxford by the name of Abhisit Vejajiva, said that defining Bangkok by its prostitutes was a bit like defining English by its soccer hooligans.
A weekly political magazine asked me to write a column, in Thai, about my take on the whole thing. It was my first attempt at a column in Thailand, and talk about starting off with a bang if you’ll excuse the pun.
In that short column I argued that Longman was wrong to define Bangkok as it did … but could you blame them?
The truth was, any male arriving in this country was bombarded with Thais offering them sex. I used my own experience as an example.
At Don Muang International Airport, there used to be a counter where you could sign up for a Bangkok By Night Tour (ie. brothel trip) before you even left the restricted zone. Once past that counter, you’d get into a cab where the driver would ask you if you needed a woman for the night.
At your hotel there were prostitutes working the bars and lobby sofas, as well as glossy brochures advertising massage services in your room.
Strolling down Silom, young men thrust cards in front of your face advertising trumpets, razor blades and ping pong balls, none of which were for sale.
Tuk tuk drivers asked if you “want lady”. Thai guys dressed as used car salesmen shouldered up next to you: “You want lady?” Pause. “Man?” Longer pause. “Boy? Girl?”
Can you see where I am going, dear reader? Bangkok may not have been a city full of prostitutes – but the locals sure as hell made you think that way.
This is what I wrote in that column of mine. Where else in the world could I arrive and in the space of 24 hours be asked if I wanted sex by an airport official, taxi driver, tuk-tuk driver, hotel attendant, casual passer-by and every single bar worker in the Silom area?
That’s what I wrote, and boy did the >>pla ra<< hit the fan when it was published.
There were howls of discontent from conservative elements of Thai society, calling for my immediate ejection from the Land of Smiles. There were also people who begrudgingly agreed. As one reluctant supporter wrote, supposing everywhere I went in Thailand somebody offered me chocolate. Was the country going to jump up and down when I went home and told everybody that Thailand was the land of chocolate?
And that was just for the tourists.
There used to be brothels on every corner of this city catering for the local Thai males. They went by names such as “massage parlors” and “coffee shops”, the latter of which never had coffee on the menu. Even “barber shops” were fronts for brothels.
The remnants of that era are the giant massage parlors along Ratchadapisek and environs, such as Victoria’s Secret which was recently embroiled in that human trafficking scandal.
I visited one of those giant brothels once. It was one of the most demeaning sights I’d ever seen.
You chose girls from behind a glass window. There they sat, on tiers, with numbers attached to their bikinis. They were divided into three groups. To the left the girls sat under a sign saying “AVERAGE”. The middle girls sat under a sign saying “BEAUTIFUL”, while the far right were the “FIVE STAR” girls. I was just waiting for somebody to come up and ask how I’d like my steak cooked.
You chose a number. An attendant repeated the number into a speakerphone. The girl in question gathered up her handbag, got up, and left the room. If you looked closely you’d see a quick roll of the eyes to her friends as she left.
I pray that those days are far behind us. Like every big city in the world Bangkok has a thriving sex industry, but is this a city where sex is more rampant and abundant than anywhere else?
Probably not. The prime minister says Thailand must change its image, but that does not happen from the outside in.
It’s like the Burmese getting angry at the outside world when they slaughter a couple of hundred thousand Rohingyas. Before shooting the Gambians, we should be aiming our gun towards the navel first.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
HAIR TODAY, GONE TOMORROW
By Andrew Biggs
The news about the burgeoning fake cosmetics industry — and the celebrities risking arrest for being presenters — reminds me of an incident last year in my own office.
I have changed the names of the people concerned to protect them from instant arrest; my staffer Piyapong shall be henceforth known as “Pek”, while Benchawan shall be called “Miss Lek”.
This is what happened.
I was aware of a change in the office air; over a short time Pek’s interest in his cellphone increased three-fold, while Miss Lek was scurrying over to Pek’s desk to carry on conversations at a decibel level that only those two, along with elephants and whales, could pick up.
Every lunchtime Pek disappeared out the door clutching small boxes. “Pai toora,” he would say, which translated directly means “I’m off to do some business.” The inherent meaning: “I’m off to do something shameful and/or illegal.”
Was something untoward operating out of my educational establishment? I was determined to find out, not to stamp it out, but to demand a 30 per cent cut. If senior Education Ministry officials can skim 88 million baht off government coffers without anyone noticing, why can’t I?
I finally confronted him.
I asked Pek what was going on, and to his credit he didn’t skirt the issue. He was running an online side business. He never meant to infringe on office time, but his business had grown rapidly.
And what was this online business that was doing so well?
“I’m selling say-rum,” he said.
It took me a few different trial intonations in my head to realize he was taking about serum. In Thai they string out that first syllable, and what should be the second unstressed syllable comes out sounding like an ad for Captain Morgan.
“It’s hair growth serum,” he said. “You know, for moustaches and beards.”
Pek explained he was surfing the net and came across an ad for hair growth serum. Then another. Then another. There were five brands. He bought one and applied it to his top lip and (somewhat stringy) beard. The hair follicles grew stronger, he claimed.
“You should try it,” he said.
“I have no need for hair growth stimulants,” I said. I caught Pek’s quick glance to the top of my head, so I added: “Around my mouth and chin.”
After seeing there were five different serums out there, Pek got to thinking: Why not sell it himself?
He discovered a factory in Samut Prakan that makes and bottles hair growth serum. But get this: this factory caters for every one of those different hair growth serums out there on the net. Pek claims there are at least five big names in Thailand for hair growth serum. They all come from the same place.
As Big Name Number Six, Pek could order a unique scent such as chocolate or fruit or rose (he chose vanilla). The factory would design his logo for him to put on the little bottles, which explains why all those hair growth serums have labels that are sinister in their similarity.
Never one for wildly original thoughts, Pek chose the name “Pek Serum”.
Pek had to order a minimum of 100 bottles. For the smaller size, the factory asked for 50 baht per bottle. Pek then sold them online for 270 baht. The bigger bottle cost 100 baht per piece and he sold them for 400 baht.
“And that’s how you started selling them online,” I said.
“I still had one more thing to do,” he said.
Products need presenters, and there are different presenters for each of those hair growth serums … or is it seri? Sera? In my life I have never had the need to pluralize that word in conversation.
Ads pop up online featuring young men with bushy moustaches and beards clutching bottles. Some are winking, some are giving a thumbs-up, while others stare at the camera like deer in the headlights.
Pek trawled Facebook looking for guys with good moustaches. He found six. He sent off emails asking them to be presenters. Four of them agreed! Within one week they had sent back pictures of each of them holding up Pek Serum with a big smile and thumbs-up. One, sadly, was deer in the headlights and had to be discarded. There was no talk of a fee. The guys were paid with a bottle of Pek Serum each, so far untried, yet garnering the thumbs up of some of the bushiest moustaches in Thailand.
Pek advertised on Facebook at 300 baht a day.
Like hair sprouting out of a newly post-pubescent motorcycle racer, things started to really rumble. Within a month Pek was a regular face at the private postal delivery service near my office. He was clearing 1,000 to 3,000 baht per day in profit, which meant he was earning more selling Pek Serum than he was helping to educate Thailand in English.
This explained his brand new SLR camera, his iPhone 8 and clothes from H&M and Uni Qlo. He’d been cutting out ads for new cars. And to think I put it down to drug dealing. “What’s in it?” I asked.
That question stopped Pek in his tracks. He looked quizzically to the top of my head again.
“It’s hair growth,” he said.
“I know, but what’s the active ingredient?”
Pek’s face clouded over. “It makes your hair grow.”
“You’re not answering my question.”
“It’s certified by the Food and Drug Administration. It’s legal.” Silence. Pek grinned. “I don’t know.”
“So you’re the owner of a hair growth serum, a business so successful it’s eating into your regular office time, but you don’t even know what’s in it? And why all the constant secret conversations with Miss Lek?”
“She’s going to launch a vitamin supplement,” he said. “It helps to relieve heart attacks and cancer and makes your skin clear.”
Who would have thought? I’m surprised it doesn’t mop my floors as well.
And yes, dear reader, Miss Lek did launch that vitamin supplement, which while a steady seller, never reached the dizzy heights of Pek Serum. Her advertising costs were higher than her revenue, and Miss Lek’s magic pill fizzled. I guess consumers aren’t ready for a pill that can cure cancer and lighten your skin at the same time.
Pek’s story does not have a happy ending either. Pek Serum was a hit for six months. In that time hair growth serum number seven came along, as did eight and nine. That Samut Prakan factory must be making a fortune.
By the time number ten popped up, the market was saturated. Thank goodness Pek didn’t give up his day job.
So you can see that when the scandal about fake cosmetics broke last week, I wasn’t so surprised. Across Thailand, in bedrooms and studio apartments, regular Thais are flogging every conceivable cosmetic, lotion and health supplement man can think up. They are free of the constraints of market regulation, shop rental, consumer laws and, of course, tax. Nor must they tell the truth.
My only surprise was the bevy of local celebs who lined up to promote those fake cosmetics. They got paid to do it, as opposed to Pek’s mustachioed supporters whose payments were as elusive as Pek Serum’s active ingredient
Pek is now experimenting with diet pills. He told me there are a lot of fat people out there just wanting to lose weight.
“There’s this factory in Minburi that makes pills that make you lose one kilogram per day,” Pek, rake thin, explains.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
THE BOY WITH HALF AN ALPHABET IN HIS SUITCASE
By Andrew Biggs
Little Potae came to stay with me over the school holidays. His parents went to the South to work on a construction site. Could he stay at my place while they were down there?
That, dear reader, is how I ended up with an 8-year-old in my house for a fortnight.
In the West we have a saying that fish and house guests go off after three days, but this truism does not work in Thailand since rotten fish, i.e. >>pla ra<<, is an essential ingredient to any Northeastern dish. Thus there is no compunction for a house guest to feel the need to move on after 72 hours, or, in Potae’s case, 336 hours.
Ah but I risk sounding like a curmudgeon. It was delightful having Potae ensconced on my sofa, killing aliens and the walking dead all day long in between Ben Ten episodes on TV.
He comes from Nakhon Phanom, 600 km from Bangkok in the remote Northeast. Having just turned 8, he has already been in the Thai education system for four years if you count the three years of kindergarten before Grade One.
I’ve seen his school. It is a collection of wooden buildings which, if not requiring a good paint job, may instead benefit from a good bulldozing. Education budgets rarely make it out that far. They tend to sputter and burn out in provinces a little closer to the capital, leaving Potae and his schoolmates with the dregs.
“In this house, we speak English all the time,” I told Potae on Night One,as we sat eating dinner. My brazen lie caused one or two family members to choke on their steamed rice. Nevertheless I continued: “Can you speak English, Potae?”
Potae chose not to reply. He continued spooning Thai omelette into his mouth.
So I asked him again.
Still not a word. Not even a shake of the head.
It stayed that way for three days. No response. Potae chose instead to engross himself in his smart phone (where the aliens and walking dead met their untimely deaths) and Ben Ten.
It was on Day Four that I managed to get some words out of the kid.
“Do they teach you English in your school?”
Potae didn’t look up from his smart phone. Clearly in rural Nakhon Phanom one is allowed to continue zapping aliens without having to answer questions from elders. But I wasn’t an alien. I wasn’t going to be zapped.
The second time I asked, he nodded his head quickly. A thaw in the relationship!
On Day Five I took him to KFC. By this stage I was beginning to realize that eight-year-olds never stopped eating. When breakfast was over it was time to bring out the Lays. After that it was Pocky chocolate sticks, sliced mango, then some sugary fake chocolate crispy things in the shape of smiling faces which I suspect will render Potae a diabetic in a decade or two. And all this prior to 9 am.
At KFC I asked Potae about his English again.
“Can you count to ten?”
He finished chewing on his chicken nugget, swallowed it, then shook his head. I wanted to explain that it was okay to multi-task; he could eat and shake his head at the same time, but our relationship hadn’t advanced to that level.
“You can’t count to ten?” I asked again, but alas, Potae had already picked up another nugget.
“What about the alphabet?” I asked in the meantime.
Potae nodded with an ever-so-slight smile!
“Well thank god for that,” I said. Clearly those chicken nuggets were doing the trick, so I asked: “Can you recite it for me?”
He held up another nugget. Without any eye contact, staring out towards the KFC menu above the counter (was he going to order more?), he said: “A-B-C-D-E-F-G.” Chomp.
It was good to hear Potae’s voice after four days of silence. But nothing after G was forthcoming.
“There’s a little bit more to it than that,” I said. “What comes after G?”
Potae stared up at the ceiling. Anywhere but directly at me. He reached for the french fries. I took that as an “I don’t know”.
(Potae’s nickname is actually the first two syllables of the English word “potato”, not that Potae would know that, since the word consists almost entirely of letters beyond G.)
By this stage I was starting to feel frustrated. I am aware of shyness in children, but we were into Day Five and really, there should have been a crack in the glacier by now.
Or could it be that Potae was just a product of his environment? If it was true that he’d only learned up to the letter G, what hope was there he’d have been taught anything else, such as good manners?
I took it upon myself to change all that. I decided I would send Potae home not only with a few extra kilograms around his waist, but also with some knowledge. I would take it upon myself to teach him a little English. What an altruistic person I am!
One of the things I quickly discovered about being altruism is that it requires time and effort, both of which I had very little.
And yet in the remaining week I managed to teach him the rest of the alphabet. It cost me a few boxes of Pockys but I did it. I overheard him reciting it in his bedroom on the last night. He got all the way to Z, skipping over R and S but that was okay.
I also taught him “stand up”, “sit down” “turn around” and “jump”. I taught him “good morning”, “good night” and “thank you”, not that he once volunteered any of that information unless I dangled a cylinder of Lays or packet of diabetes in front of him.
Potae left my home last Sunday.
A relative came to pick him up. When the pick-up truck pulled up outside Potae ran out with his little suitcase and scrambled into the car. He didn’t stop to say goodbye.
I hear from his family in Nakhon Phanom that he had a wonderful time in my home. How he managed to transmit this information to his next of kin is beyond me, and I suspect his satisfaction stemmed more from Ben Ten and his constant eating than from any time with me.
I did ask his parents about his education, and they said Potae’s teacher was a mathematics instructor, choosing to teach math over English. That explained his inability to recite the entire alphabet, though one would think a math teacher, when forced to teach English, would at least start by instructing his students on how to count.
Just before writing this column I consulted the Thailand Basic Education Core Curriculum, the standard for all Thai schools. For each school grade there are “Grade Level Indicators” which explain the basic information a child must know upon completion of that year.
For grade one, those indicators include the ability to “act in compliance with simple orders heard”, “specify the alphabet and sounds”, and “choose the pictures corresponding to the meaning of words and groups of words heard”. Note that I fulfilled two of those three indicators in Potae’s short stay with us.
And what of the other 40 kids in his class who didn’t get to go to Bangkok for two weeks over the school holidays? They are still stuck at the letter G. And Potae, as cute as he is, is a silent example of an education system that is beyond broken.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
By Andrew BIggs
This week our prime minister came face to face with the hottest musical group in Thailand.
The group is BNK48, a band I’ve been aware of for at least six months. This is not because of any predilection for following the local pop charts, something I would only recommend as punishment for tourists overstaying their tourist visas. They first came to my attention thanks to a catchy little song that has been ubiquitous since the end of last year.
There is one song that can get any Thai, aged 3 to impending retirement, up on their feet and dancing along, complete with synchronized hand movements. That song is called “Fortune Cookie”.
It’s an earworm. Hearing it for the first time transported me back to the late 1970s. It was the Nolan Sisters all over again; female voices belting out a melody that borrowed brazenly from nursery rhymes against an infectious dance beat. Society can radically change, cultures can differ, but we humans haven’t lost our desire for a good old singalong by young girls in skimpy costumes.
My memory of the Nolan Sisters is that of five Irish girls mugging for the camera while performing rudimentary dance steps to “Gotta Pull Myself Together” and “I’m In The Mood For Dancing”. Their popularity faded around the same time as their looks, which was no coincidence.
I always thought five singers in a single group was kind of pushing it, but they were sisters, and imagine the family dinner table explosions if one or two were sacrificed for the sake of pop conformity.
Well BNK48 is having none of such restrictions. They are a vocal band consisting of 30 members. Yes, that’s right, dear reader. I wrote >>thirty<<. That’s not a pop group. That’s a show choir!
The general rule in pop is the more members there are the less talented the band, with the exceptions of Earth Wind & Fire and Parliament/Funkadelic. A band with more than ten singers is simply there to cover up members with influential fathers. But a band of 30 members? That’s the Nolan Sisters times six. The law of averages states at least a third must be tone deaf.
This is a trend borrowed directly from Japanese and Korean pop bands. Nowadays every single J-pop and K-pop group consists of a dozen or so single-sex members who are as interchangeable as minor wives of a Chinese meat ball magnate.
Two years ago I was caught in an unholy traffic jam outside Central Lardphrao thanks to a Korean boy band’s meet and greet. The band was “Exo” which consisted of 12 skinny South Korean boys with faces as white as sheets.
(One member sued to get out of the band in 2013, then another in 2014, then another in 2016, reducing the number of future plaintiffs to just nine. Do you think their art suffered because of it? Come on. This is not artistic loss; it’s natural attrition.)
On that day, when 10,000 screaming teens converged on Central Lardphrao, only five of the band’s remaining nine members showed up. Imagine if I’d camped out for a meet and greet with the Nolan Sisters and only three appeared. And Exo wasn’t even there to perform. They were here to sell skin lightening cream to Thai teenagers.
Popular music has always been about manufacturing artists for money. But there was always some attempt to suggest the band in question was, well, musical. This is not the case in these modern times, such as with BNK48 which began as a casting call for pretty young girls who wanted to dress up and dance.
Actually that’s not quite correct. It began back in Japan in 2005 with the original AKB48, an all-girl band who dressed as schoolgirls and danced like synchronized swimmers in a drained swimming pool to their big hit — yes, you guessed it — “Fortune Cookie.” Since then they’ve sold the franchise to China (SNH48), The Philippines (MNL48), Taiwan (TPE48) and even geeky Indonesia (JKT48). Thailand is the sixth in line; “Fortune Cookie” is the musical version of rinse and repeat.
This week I asked my 20-year-old Thai niece, a good yardstick for teen trends, how popular BNK48 was among her friends. “Not huge,” she replied, “We’re a bit too old for them. Though one of my male friends is totally in love with Cherprang.”
“How would he know which one she was?” I asked. My question was a valid one; out of 30 girls prancing around in identical schoolgirl outfits, how does one differentiate? At least with Abba one of the girls had blonde hair and the other was a brunette.
(The Nolan Sisters would have been a little more difficult, since all five had mousey brown hair and resembled quintuplets.)
So how does my niece’s friend manage to have a favorite? It turns out Cherprang is BNK48’s “class captain”, so she gets to stand right in the middle in the front row. She is the Mick Jagger of the band if indeed Mick Jagger wore a skimpy dress and possessed no musical talent. Cherprang is clearly the envy of the other girls, too — you can feel the seething jealousy emanating from those also-rans with influential dads down in the back row.
The band stages “handshake events”, which is 2018-speak for “PR meet and greets designed to sell merchandise”. But get this; you don’t actually get to shake their hands, thanks to a strict rule that one cannot touch any BNK48 member. Imagine if a long-tail boat containing BNK48 members sprung a leak and sank in the middle of the Chaophraya River. Like royalty in the Ayuthhaya era, you’d have marketing people shouting “Don’t touch! Don’t touch!” as poor Cherprang departed this world for the great lip-sync in the sky.
My niece claims her friend once waited two hours in line to meet Cherprang at a “handshake event”. In the end he instead got to meet one of the nameless ones from the back row for a grand total of five seconds. That was after purchasing their single. I am not sure to be more shocked by the audacity of BNK48’s marketeers or the stupidity of my niece’s friend.
At Parliament House this week the prime minister met six members of BNK48, dressed in short purple skirts with pink frills in matching schoolgirl outfit styles — the girls, not the PM.
This should not have been as big a media event as it was. It did raise the question of why the event took place and what correlation existed between 64-year-old Prayut and a gaggle of teenage girls dressed up like staff at a Soi Thaniya fetish bar for Japanese tourists.
But the teenage online world lit up in shock as the prime minister posed with six members and … I hope you’re sitting down for this … he shook their hands! Yes, he touched members of BNK48 despite not purchasing any of their merchandise!
“PM breaks the rules” screamed the headlines, as if breaking the rules was alien behavior for an army general who staged a military coup.
So why did the PM have to meet this girl band? Well let’s see. Any BNK48 fan who is over the age of 18 is eligible to vote. Such an appearance makes him endearing to Thai youth, and no aspiring post-election prime minister would eschew that opportunity.
So like BNK48 itself, this has nothing to do with music. It’s about popularity and marketability and, ultimately, making a profit. And for anybody thinking to criticize, just remember the hands-off rule.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
THE PIED PIPER OF BRIEFCASES AND WASHING MACHINES
By Andrew Biggs
It was a dark and stormy night.
I’d been beating away for a couple of hours — on my Macbook — when I felt the need for a break. So I casually flicked on Facebook.
Scrolling down my Timeline, catching joyous glimpses of the wildly interesting lives of Facebook Friends living life to the fullest (as opposed to me, still working at 9.30 pm on his own), I happened to notice an ad for a leather belted briefcase.
It was a briefcase in sienna brown with good stitching and faux straps. That is, it looked like they were buckled straps but in reality those straps hid button snaps, which meant there was no need to open and close the belt straps. I liked that. My more pretentious friends would sniff at that but it was functional and reeked of hipster chic.
I clicked on the ad.
I spent five minutes exploring the ins and outs of this leather bag. My current briefcase, which I’ve had for two years, has served me well but like its owner it is starting to fray around the edges and sag in undesirable places.
This new one would be an ideal replacement. And it was a bargain, the website alleged, at 8,900 baht. I am not one to shy away from impulse buying — I have a bookshelf and wardrobe as evidence — but on that particular dark and stormy night the voice of reason stepped in.
Reminding myself of my upcoming house renovations, for which the painters were demanding I surrender an arm and a leg, I clicked on the little red button at the top of the screen. Bang. It was gone. One minute later I was back at work, and that is where the story should end.
This incident took place a week ago.
It was probably by Friday or Saturday that I started to notice something curious. More and more frequently, I was being bombarded by advertisements for leather briefcases.
They would pop up in google ads. The original one I saw on Facebook? It was now the single most common ad that wedged itself between all those joyous posts from my wildly interesting Facebook friends living life to the fullest.
But here’s the weird part; I started to feel as though leather suitcases were stalking me. I do not have a history of paranoid behavior – not while sober, anyway – but was it a mere coincidence that a leather briefcase ad popped up on CNN?
Upon checking out the Billboard website this week, there, at the very top of the page, was an ad for — a leather wallet! Good lord! The leather briefcase is extending its tentacles to include its closest relatives!
That made me uneasy. It was as if the internet, born of academics wanting to exchange knowledge between universities, was now a living breathing identity with the express purpose of sucking me into a vortex. It was a black hole drawing me round and round, down, down towards its very core, in which an 8,900 baht leather hipster briefcase was situated.
Have you ever cleared out your junk folder in Gmail? I have. Thanks to Google filters I am spared daily emails from fleeing Nigerian princes and ads for penis enlargement pills. Are these spam mails hitting my inbox purely by accident?
Or is something more sinister going on? Does the internet know I am going through difficult financial times owing to greedy painters, and would just love a wealthy Nigerian prince to park his millions in my bank account? As for the latter ads, we’ll not cross that bridge in the interests of Bangkok Post being a family newspaper.
And how perverse is Google. It blocks such spam, yet allows spam of an altogether different form to bombard me via ads. Google’s motto is Don’t Be Evil, except for leather briefcase companies wanting to pay Google lots of money.
And of course the biggest worry of all: I clicked on that ad in the privacy of my office, all alone, on a dark and stormy night, remember? Now the whole internet seems to know I’m just dying to buy a leather briefcase.
My curiosity got the better of me. I decided to face the fear … and perform a little experiment.
Yesterday I went online. I took a deep breath and summoned up as much Dutch courage as I could muster. In a brazen moment, which required three glasses of Asahi with vodka chasers, I typed the following into Google:
I want to buy a washing machine.
I don’t need a washing machine. I just wanted to see what would transpire.
What came up was your expected list of washing machine dealers. There were ads as well as regular websites. Powerbuy was at the very top.
Just to make sure the message was understood, I went one step further:
Where can I buy a washing machine in Thailand?
Again, Powerbuy was the first to be listed. So I clicked on Powerbuy. I was mildly interested; who would have thought there are 167 different washing machines to choose from? My favorite speaker company, Bosch, even makes one, though for 29,900 Baht I closed that window quicker than you could say Guess Whose Mum’s Got A Whirlpool. I ended up at Sharp’s bottom-end machine at 4,990 baht.
Then I went to Facebook and typed in the same thing. Then I hashtagged #Iwanttobuyawashingmachine on Twitter.
I felt alive, dear reader. Face the monster! I felt like Max van Sydow in The Exorcist. Adrenaline pulsed through my veins; not exactly the usual reaction on my fourth Asahi and chaser.
Then I sat back and waited.
Sure enough, the creeping terror began.
Ads for leather briefcases gave way to ads for washing machines.
On Facebook, I saw nothing but Powerbuy ads — and incredibly, as you can see in the accompanying picture, the ad featured that overpriced Bosch machine!
Interestingly the wallet ad is still at Billboard, but I suspect it is only a matter of time before that, too, is swallowed up by the overpowering presence of washing machines.
A month or so ago, when the Cambridge Analytica scandal erupted, I wondered if any company had “scraped my details” off Facebook. My conclusion was I was probably not in any particularly desirous demographic to warrant any interest.
This week I discovered differently. It was good to be reminded that anywhere I travel on the net, I am being followed, even if it is only by marketing company bots. We have crossed the line from the internet of things, to the internet of things for sale.
And what a force it is; when used wrongly, at best it persuades me to buy things I hardly want. At worst it can sway vast numbers of gun-toting Americans to vote for a misogynist conman for president.
And how long will this washing machine barrage last? Will I be harangued by Powerbuy for eternity?
As I write this, the war is still relentless. That was my Songkran, dear reader. Five days of greedy painters, leather suitcases, washing machines — and a sinister dark force that watches everything we click on in our travels around the internet. It makes 1984 look utopian.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
ON THE BUTTON
By Andrew Biggs
A brand new community mall opened at the end of my soi in leafy Samut Prakan.
It transformed the community. Suddenly I had a KFC, Au Bon Pain, Starbucks, Baskin Robbins, Burger King, Dunkin Donuts, MK Suki, Pizza Hut and Domino’s within walking distance of my home. Why would one need to venture into the city ever again, other than to check for cholesterol levels and diabetes?
Driving into the car park the first time, there was a big shiny automated ticket dispenser in front of a boom gate. On the machine was a prominent red button, and the words PRESS HERE in oversized Thai letters.
Standing right there, between myself and the machine, was a woman in a security guard’s uniform. She flashed me a warm Isan smile as I wound down the window, then pressed the prominent red button.
A ticket popped out. A recorded female voice from inside the machine announced, in Thai: “Please take the ticket.” The happy security guard did just that. Then she passed it the good 200 centimetres over to me.
“Khob Khun Kha,” she said.
“Khob Khun Kha,” came a much louder recorded female voice from inside the machine.
The boom gate opened. I drove through into the parking lot and found myself a space.
The experience left me a little unnerved.
It felt like the beginning of a Twilight Zone episode, and when I visited the Gents bathroom immediately after, I expected Rod Serling to appear from one of the cubicles and announce in earnest: “Submit for your approval: A young handsome Australian makes a journey to a brand new mall for the first time …”
There was something eerie about it. Perhaps I was over-reacting, or just feeling a little out of sorts; it was 4 pm after all and I was still completely sober.
Every time I visited that mall after that, there she was. The pleasant Isan security guard, flashing me the best smile in the world, pressing that prominent red button and wishing me the very best in life as she passed the parking card over to me, in unison with the recording from the machine.
What was it that weirded me out?
I guess it was the fact the management of this mall, despite the investment in an automated car park machine, figured I lacked the cerebral capacity to look at a sign which screamed PRESS HERE on a prominent red button — and press.
Or even more sinister was theory #2; could it be the average driver in this country is unable to make the connection between a sign reading PRESS HERE and a prominent red button? Drivers may be stranded by the perplexity of the task in hand.
There is a third theory: Management is just being courteous. The customer is God, according to every sales manual that has rolled off the press over the last century. God should be afforded every convenience when He rolls up to the strip mall on a late (and temperance-filled) Monday afternoon. This includes installing a security guard at the automated ticket machine, because God help Him if He’s expected to roll down His window, extend His right arm, press a prominent red button and retrieve a ticket all on His lonesome.
I suspect it’s a combination of Theory #1, #2 and #3 with an emphasis on the middle one.
There are no limits to man’s idiocy when he gets behind the wheel and in this country even those boundless limits get pushed further outwards.
The entrance to the expressway is the clearest example of this. There are two ways to get onto the freeway; hand over cash or buy a pre-paid Easy Pass. The Easy Pass alternative is meant to facilitate better traffic flow. It also cuts down on manpower, as the Easy Pass lane requires nobody sitting in the booth.
And yet, Thailand must be the only country in the world where the Easy Pass lanes are >>slower<< than the cash lanes.
Why? Well, there are a lot of drivers out there who just haven’t managed to figure out that to use an Easy Pass lane, you must acquire an Easy Pass first.
Drivers rock up to the Easy Pass lane, wind down their windows and hand over the 50 baht to a toll booth operator. Imagine their surprise — if indeed surprise is an emotion that can be found within their cognizance — when nobody is there. The boom gate does not rise.
The cars bank up. A security guard must rush over and explain their predicament and then begin the frustrating task of getting them to reverse out of the lane and use an adjacent one, which means the car behind has to reverse, and the next, and the next.
Then there are those able-bodied drivers who see a sign which says “Parking for the Disabled” and choose to park there.
Just last Monday night I witnessed this at the Starbucks in the strip mall, when a so-called “supercar” parked there. The driver even moved the sliding barrier away to facilitate his park. This driver was clearly not disabled, and I’m not including his obesity nor his ill taste in expensive but badly-fitting black clothes. But it does take a special kind of human being to feel entitlement in brazenly parking in a space designed for the disabled.
It is these two groups — the idiots and the self-obsessed, which by the way are overlapping Venn diagrams — who are the ones causing havoc on the roads, and could very well have been the catalyst for installing a security guard right next to the automated traffic card dispenser at the mall. The idiots can’t work the damned thing out, while the self-centred can’t imagine anything more beneath them than pressing a button.
I hate to sound like a broken record, but isn’t this a fault in our education system?
The education alarm bells must start ringing if the average Thai is unable to read a sign saying PRESS HERE without realizing that one cannot progress forward without, well, pressing there. One can only hope there is a small corner of the National Core Curriculum that covers such a topic, and while we’re at it, let’s incorporate a little understanding of the rights of the disabled, particularly in the curriculum of wealthier schools where supercars are more ubiquitous.
But listen to this; my story isn’t finished. In the third week after the mall opening, the woman disappeared.
I’m talking about the happy lady security guard dispensing the cards.
This filled me with hope.
I’m serious. It dragged me out of the Twilight Zone, because in that TV show the episodes never ended well. The absence of that woman, namely her transferal to another station, meant that the strip mall, and I, had restored our faith in humanity.
I felt a sense of achievement by pressing that prominent red button myself, and pulling out that card from the machine all on my lonesome.
It felt good. The fact there was no pile-up of cars, like in the Easy Pass lane at Bangna on a daily basis, meant that other drivers were getting it too.
You see? Education really does work. All you need to do is to educate and demonstrate, and people will get it.
This is positive. This is progress.
It was an uplifting thought while it lasted … a good three days … before my theory shattered around me.
On day four she was back.
“Where have you been?” I asked.
“I caught a cold,” she said.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
SUMMONING THE SACRED SPIRITS OF STUPIDITY
By Andrew Biggs
My office was abuzz with the news of the medium who went on TV last week and summoned the spirit of an ancient Brahman god.
“You should have seen it,” the maid, Noi, excitedly told my staff. “At first she was normal, then right there in the middle of the interview, suddenly –”
Noi paused to contort her face into that of someone suffering from extreme diarrhea owing to over-indulgence in fermented fish paste. Noi spoke in a voice that gasped and rasped like an over-exerted karaoke bar singer:
“I … am … Jatukham Ramathep!” she said.
“What nonsense,” I said in passing, then when safely out of distance, pounced on my PC and did a search of the TV show.
Such mediums are commonplace on Thai TV. Do you have that AIS Playbox in your home? It came with my internet connection; a box you plug into your TV set and you are able to view some 100 local TV channels.
I used to fret over the dearth of educational TV shows back when we only had six national TV stations. With the advent of the digital age, we now have one hundred. And yes, dear reader, you guess correctly: 100 TV channels as opposed to six means 16.66 recurring times less opportunity to find anything educational.
On nights when I need reassurance that my life does warrant some value, I pick up that Playbox remote and slowly flick through every one of those channels.
They are a litany of has-been actors and TV hosts, now spending way too much time in cosmetic clinics, holding up bottles of miracle cures, jewelry, kitchen appliances, Thai folk music CDs and incontinence diapers for the elderly. And if you order within the next 30 minutes, they’ll throw in a set of steak knives absolutely free!
In between those are the spiritual channels. Unhappy men sit at tables extolling the wonders of the Koran. Buddhist nuns explain karma to farmers. And there are what the Thais call reusee or hermit monks who wear brown robes with lots of bling. They look like overweight used car salesmen in fancy dress.
They talk about ancient spirits who have contacted them, in a similar way to evangelical Christian pastors who claim God speaks through them. Why these deities choose such dirtbags to spread their word points to a poor lack of judgment, indicating they are the Dalit of the spiritual world and thus should be avoided at all costs.
Speaking of cost, for a mere 999 Baht, I can order this amazing replica of an ancient Brahman god that will bring me great fortune. Or I can attend a gathering of the hermit monk’s most ardent followers at Rama 9 Park this Sunday, though I am obliged to make a “small donation” of 509 Baht to attend.
Before I came to Thailand my only experience with mediums was the movie The Exorcist. In my mind mediums were people possessed by demons whose heads spun around as they informed dinner guests they were going straight to hell, using vernacular that would even embarrass a motorcycle taxi driver.
Now, thanks to those TV channels, I am better informed. Mediums in Thailand can be softly-spoken friendly folk. And they don’t want your soul. They just want your money.
The woman who this week caused a stir on national TV, however, ratchets the medium outrageousness up a few extra notches. This attractive, amiable middle-aged woman went on a nightly TV current affairs program.
But this was not Channel 132 on that Playbox. This was Channel 3, or rather their digital station, which brings a level of respectability that your average medium could never aspire to.
The woman’s name was Saeng Suriyathep, which translated means “Sunlight Gods-From-The-Sun”. Dressed in an orange shirt, she calmly explained how, for the last 15 years, the spirits of nine different deities enter her body on a regular basis, suggesting she is not so much ethereal as she is suffering from self-enforced multiple personality disorder.
Then, as if right on cue, in the middle of the interview, one of those spirits paid her a visit.
Noi’s impersonation was spot on. The woman’s eyebrows raised. Her eyes widened. The corners of her mouth turned down.
It reminded me of drama class from high school, where we had to self-consciously contort our faces and bodies according to instructions from the drama instructor: “Be a lion! Now be a monkey! A slithering snake! Feel the animal! Feel!”
Little Miss Sunlight started talking in a raspy voice.
“I … am …. Jatukarm Ramathep,” she boomed. “I … have come … to spread goodness … to the world.”
(Somebody perhaps should have whispered in Miss Sunshine’s ear that in fact, the famous Jatukarm Ramathep is not a single deity. It’s two men. Technically her deity count is now ten.)
What is amazing is that Messrs Jatukarm and Ramathep knew about Facebook. They even knew about Facebook Live and are heard on one video clip instructing the cameraman to “pan to the left, pan to the right”. When the interviewer asked about this, the deity answered, with not a little hint of centuries-old indignation: “Why can’t ancient deities learn about modern technology too?”
It wasn’t just the medium being an idiot, either.
“Viewers, you’ll never believe this!” the breathless interviewer, Noom Kanchai, explained wide-eyed to the camera. “Just prior to recording this program, there was a blackout in the studio! Then the tape machine broke down! Then we had sound problems! Then I started coughing …”
This was proof, he intimated, that his guest was possessed by ancient spirits intent on disrupting the electricity over at Channel 3.
Noom Kanchai copped a lot of flak from the social media world after this went to air, which is a relief. It shows Thai society is becoming more educated, and is able to make value judgments on quacks, as opposed to the past when vast swathes of the population would blindly accept that a suburban nobody was home to nine ancient Brahman deities. Or ten.
But what Noom is most guilty of is the irresponsibility of allowing such fraudsters to reach a mass audience. He legitimized her. You can tell your viewers a hundred times to “use your discretion” in viewing his guest, as he did, but the fact remains you allowed that guest on your show in the first place.
And as for the technical disruptions? I have worked in Thai TV for more than 20 years. I can’t remember a single program where there wasn’t a blackout, or a broken tape machine, or faulty sound. Noom claimed he had to do four or five takes. I’ve done shows where I had to do 10 takes without a Brahman deity within walking distance.
There is a very well-known Thai saying that Noom himself used on his show. It is a saying that is used when you hear about something supernatural, or ghostly. Mai cheua ya lob loo. “If you don’t believe it, don’t disparage it.”
To me this saying is far more dangerous than any spiritual charlatan. It is a mechanism to keep the masses fooled. I absolutely exercise my right to disparage bad actresses who fake ancient spirits entering their bodies. I disparage gladly and gleefully. I would go one step further and say we, Noom Kanchai included, should rise up and forcefully eject such people from society.
Thailand no longer needs ancient spirits to intimidate. It needs education and critical thinking. May the ancient deities rest in peace, and allow the living to get on with the task in hand of expanding our minds positively. That, to me, is far more important than the gods, with or without steak knives.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
By Andrew Biggs
How wonderful to be back in the Land of Smiles after my week-long sojourn to Italy, as documented in this column last week.
Despite my best efforts, on the way back home I did not get an upgrade to business class, nor could I even secure an emergency exit. Thankfully it was an overnighter, so with the help of a little limoncello and half a Xanax the trip was swift.
There is no rest for the wicked, as your correspondent had to embark on a quick turnaround and head straight for the western province of Kanchanaburi for a week-long English boot camp.
Rome and Kanchanaburi are such polar opposites. This is a captivating jungle province on the Burmese border with tourist attractions such as the Erawan waterfall and a meandering river whose serenity is broken each night by floating disco restaurants. There’s nothing like “Ring My Bell” to shatter the serenity of an evening in the jungle, but your correspondent is far from that river.
The big attraction here is the Bridge on the River Kwai. The river is pronounced kwair in Thai but apparently this was too difficult for western POWs to say, hence the bastardization.
I have been here so many times, and incredible as it may seem, there is a tenuous link between my recent trip to Italy and this visit to Kanchanaburi. In Italy I went to visit the Vatican. The first time I visited Kanchanaburi, I went to visit a nun.
The year was 1989; I was a wide-eyed and optimistic backpacker with a desire for adventure off the beaten track. I bought the Lonely Planet Guide to Thailand which ensured everywhere I went was very much on a track well-beaten by tourists.
Thais have a special word for backpackers. They call them farang khee no, or literally “bird shit westerners.” The notion is that of a traveler who ends up all over the place, not dissimilar to a bird whose droppings do the same. And while Thais will tell you that the definition is affectionate, let me be the one to shatter that illusion – it’s cruel and probably right on target.
I was a proud “farang khee nok” staying in guest houses populated by eager young Americans, Europeans and Aussies taking gap years to see the world. Everybody was reading “The Incredible Lightness Of Being” and “Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance” except for me – I was into Agatha Christie. Those same guest houses were home to hipsters who sat around smoking dope and strumming guitars. I found them tedious; there are only so many times one can listen to Neil Young’s “Comes A Time” without contemplating suicide.
One night there was a group of hipsters next to me enjoying their fruit shakes while a Thai guide was explaining to them: “While you’re here, you must see the Floating Nun. She is number one!”
I immediately looked up from my copy of Murder on the Orient Express.
“She’s a very old Buddhist nun who has been floating on water for a long, long time,” he said. “Every day at 11 am and 3 pm she goes down to the water. She prays and meditates. It’s truly unique, and she reaches a deep state of meditation by doing it. And she floats! She doesn’t sink! It’s incredible!”
Now I’d heard everything.
I have to admit I am attracted to such attractions. It is probably how I ended up at the Dwarf Restaurant in Manila a number of years ago, or how I am a regular patron of an eatery not far from my Bangkok home called the Flying Chicken Restaurant. Order a chicken and before they serve it to you they set it on fire, ring a bell, turn on disco lights then catapult the flaming chicken through the air onto a spike on a helmet worn by a man riding a unicycle.
A floating nun trumps all that.
In all my life I had only ever heard of the Flying Nun, my favorite TV show as a kid in which Sally Field played a nun who, whenever the wind blew, managed to tilt her headwear and was able to fly through the air. It’s the kind of idea one can only think up after limoncello and Xanax.
That night I consulted the Lonely Planet and was happy to see the Floating Nun mentioned briefly. She performed her ethereal aquatics at a temple called Wat Tham Mangkorn Thong.
The temple was a tourist attraction with sparkling Buddha images but I wasn’t there for those. I’d seen so many temples backpacking I was templed out. I spotted a handwritten sign at the entrance: “THIS WAY TO THE FLAOTING (sic) NUN” accompanied by an outrageous arrow. I followed the sign.
I was led by a temple boy to a stark concrete pool, probably about three or four metres across and about one metre deep. There were another two or three Thais standing around smoking cigarettes. I was the only representative of the western world.
I should have known something was up by the fact the wizened Thai woman dressed in white arrived at 11 am on the dot – no Thai ever comes on time. She climbed into the pool and lay on her back. I leant forward for a better view.
She clasped her hands together, then using her feet pushed herself off from one side and floated across, like a lackadaisical torpedo, to the other side. Then back again. Then out of the pool. Then she was gone.
The temple boy drew out a plastic bag from his trousers and walked around collecting donations.
What … that was it? I was obliged to throw 10 baht into the plastic bag but I did it with a very heavy heart. I quickly made my way back into town, realizing I had witnessed something even blander than “Comes A Time”.
Somewhere in the back of my photo cupboard I still have a picture or two of that famous Floating Nun. It was my first introduction to sham tourist attractions in this country, though certainly not the first in my life.
I grew up not so far away from the Big Pineapple, a monstrosity along the Queensland North Coast highway where you can actually go up inside and witness, via a photographic exhibition, the amazing process of growing and harvesting pineapples – that is providing you can stay awake. On a trip to Brussels I felt underwhelmed at the statue of the urinating little boy – I had travelled halfway across the world to see that? And now here I was in the jungles of South-East Asia, having paid money to see an old lady stay afloat in a concrete play pool …
Not long after that initial trip to Kanchanaburi there was a story in the local papers here about the Floating Nun. She may have been able to escape the rigors of regular day job, but she wasn’t able to escape her mortal coil. She died in 1990.
But the resourceful Wat Tham Mongkol Tong didn’t miss a beat. A week later there was a new Floating Nun in the concrete pool unimpressing tourists.
And, as I have just discovered on YouTube, there is one still there to this day. Only these days you are required to throw money into the concrete pool as she prays. Whoah, this old world keeps spinning round, it’s a wonder tall trees aren’t laying down …
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
OPIATE OF THE MASSES
By Andrew Biggs
This week your correspondent is unable to make any casual observations on Thai life owing to the fact he is 8,823 km away.
Greetings from the Eternal City! As I write this I am sitting at a “ristorante” in Rome, Italy. That’s Italian for “restaurant,” by the way, a fact I gleaned from a slightly snotty waiter when I enquired as to the word’s English equivalent.
I am staying not far from Campo de’ Fiori, the site where Julius Caesar was murdered during the ides of March.
This is my first visit to Italy since 2001 when I drove all the way down the Amalfi Coast to Sicily in a rented Fiat 500. Mount Etna happened to be erupting and I took some molten rock back home, only to be dealt karmic retribution by getting completely lost on the train back to Rome.
(Catching the train from Sicily to Rome, one must cross the Strait of Messina. Trains do not travel over water; it uncouples itself and the carriages line up on a barge that floats over to the mainland. Your correspondent, his sense of direction a little distorted owing to a potent bottle of limoncello, could not locate his cabin during this uncoupling and made a slight idiot of himself as he ran through railway corridors trying to find his seat. Next time I’ll take the plane.)
I write this having just spent four hours in the Vatican. It’s the jewel in the Italian crown when it comes to tourism though writing that is technically incorrect. I have always harbored a grudge against a certain Bangkok deejay who, back in the mid 1990s, asked a question on air that would earn the first correct caller a bottle of Chivas Regal. His question was: “In which country can you find the Vatican?”
Incredibly I was the first one through and answered triumphantly: “Vatican City.”
“Wrong answer,” the deejay replied before hanging up on me unceremoniously, for all of the Bangkok listening public to hear.
The second caller answered “Italy” to which the British deejay ejaculated “That’s correct!” and congratulated the dunce on his knowledge, asking how he felt about winning a bottle of Chivas Regal. His feelings about that are lost forever in my memory, unlike my own feelings of anger and resentment that fester to this day.
We all know I was correct. The Vatican is not in Italy. It’s in Vatican City, the world’s smallest country with a population of 600 citizens of which 75 per cent are clergy. That night I bought a bottle of Chivas Regal just to spite that deejay, who has been rightfully related to obscurity in the Bangkok radio industry — much like the industry itself.
Today I returned to the center of the Catholic Church for a three-hour walking tour. The history and artwork are spectacular. I don’t feel any closer to God after the experience, though it did give me a whole new understanding of how it feels to be an ox, crushed up against other oxen, being jostled and jousted forward relentlessly towards the slaughterhouse, all the while being told to shut up by men in uniforms. It’s hardly conducive to conversion.
This is not an exaggeration. The Vatican gets upwards of 20,000 tourists on a busy day and around six million visitors per year. I believe I saw a good wad of them this morning.
Surprisingly that figure is less than the annual number of visitors to the Grand Palace here in Bangkok, which sits at around 8 million, yet is half the size of the Vatican.
At least at the Grand Palace you can wander around where you like. Not so the Vatican, where you are herded from one chamber to the next, catching quick glimpses of the world’s most exquisite art, but unable to truly appreciate them owing to the production-line nature of the journey.
This morning the queue to get into the place had to have stretched over a kilometer. That’s longer than the line at a new Krispy Kreme outlet in Thailand. It costs 16 Euros to get in, or around 600 Baht, a little more than you pay for the Grand Palace, which is free for Thais.
The Vatican Museum is not free for anybody, and one can understand why the Pope doesn’t want Catholics getting in for nix. Ticket sales generate 80 million Euros >>per day<< and another 20 million in merchandise. Half of that is profit. No matter how close your proximity to God, one does not bite the hand that feeds.
Once inside a visitor must pass security, the ticket counter and a swirling mass of tour group humanity. After that is a staggeringly huge collection of paintings, frescoes, tapestries and sculptures, though it feels like you’re viewing them from Siam BTS platform during peak hour as the train doors open.
While I stood in front of Raphael’s School of Athens fresco, for example, one of the most beautiful paintings I have ever seen, the man next to me fainted. His condition was not so much due to the breathless magnificence of the work. He was breathless owing to a stuffy chamber infested with carbon monoxide from 20,000 creatures being herded through.
The Sistine Chapel is the same. Again, I can understand how it can be life-changing to view Michelangelo’s masterpiece. I am open to anything life-changing but it is hard to feel ethereal and sublime when museum police are hissing “Shhhhhhhhhhhhh!” every minute or two. How ironic that they jettison tens of thousands of people through a church at 16 Euros per head yet expect it to be silent.
Viewing the artwork housed within the Vatican Museum is an exercise in witnessing the talents of the best of humanity. Sanzio’s Expulsion of Helidorus From the Temple, for me, was magnificent. So too was the work of Botticelli and the marble sculptures.
There is a recurring theme in much of the artwork, and it is not the exultation of God. It is more about conquering and controlling. Centuries of artwork reveal the Catholic Church’s need for consolidation of power to the extent that opulence sometimes morphs into obscenity. We are also reminded of the not so regal nature of the place. At one stage we are herded from one chamber of exquisite art into the former residence of the Borgias, where Lucrezia used to wander in between dispensing with her husbands.
Remember that figure of 20 million Euros per day in merchandising? I was relieved to find that at the end of the tour, outside St Peter’s Basilica, there is a gift shop! It is almost as if the Vatican wants to bring you down to earth after all that artistic splendour by sending you into a shop selling you the absolute antithesis of masterpieces. It is here one can buy bottled “holy water” for 2.50 Euros, Pope calendars, plastic rosary beads and little metallic crosses all for a couple of Euros. I swear if I’d have seen a Papal snow dome I wouldn’t have been surprised, not to mention instantly snapping it up.
These days the whole world is travelling. The Vatican, like the Grand Palace and Thailand itself, is a victim of its own success. Thailand will have some 30 million visitors this year. The Vatican shuffles through up to 20,000 visitors per day. When do we say “enough”?
I don’t have the answer to that question on this glorious sunny day in Rome, as I prepare to enjoy my rigatoni and Peroni, not necessarily in that order, far from the Vatican crowd. It’s not important, or, as we say in Italian, >>non ti preoccupare<<. See you in Bangkok next Sunday!
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
by Andrew Biggs
I once was special guest on a kids TV show where my task was to explain the story of Father Christmas.
My audience, on the set, was a dozen six-year-old Thai kids. I did a good job. I built up the story well, starting with Santa’s factory in the North Pole, and climaxing with him coming down the chimney and leaving gifts under the tree.
That bunch of kids was transfixed. Especially one little boy, who kept drawing closer and closer. By the time I got to the chimney part, he was standing right next to me, wide-eyed, staring at my mouth.
“And that’s the story of Santa Claus,” I concluded. “Do you have any questions?”
The little boy next to me shot up his hand.
“Why are your teeth so yellow?” he asked.
Never work with children or animals goes the old adage in the TV industry. I can see what they mean, but I don’t agree with it. I can’t imagine anything more fun than working with kids on TV.
It is not often your favorite columnist is ripped out of his daily hectic Bangkok life and hurled towards a forest temple in the middle of nowhere.
But that is what happened to me this week. And as I write this column, I am sitting in a dense forest just outside a structure known as the “Pavilion of Knowledge”, having just completed my evening task of mentoring.
It is here a group of 12 boys aged 8-11 years have come from all over the world to be novice monks for the month of July. Their ordination service is today, but I am writing this on Wednesday night, sitting outside, trying to to remain in a meditative state, but being tested by a swarm of menacing oversized mosquitoes. Buddhist Precept Number One states it is a sin to kill. The mosquitoes are thus spared. Begrudgingly.
It’s not just me and the kids who are here. There is the small matter of 20 cameras and 200 staff surrounding us.
You see, it’s a reality show, live and being beamed across the country and the globe.
Like you, I have only seen reality shows consisting of young people, whose gene pool has sacrificed wisdom for physical attraction, wander around pools in skimpy outfits, either back-stabbing or fornicating, or both at the same time. In hundreds of years, when they study the downfall of human society, they will find a correlation between these shows and social decay in the early 21st century.
It took Thailand to cut a swathe through the detritus of the reality show industry and come up with an ingenious idea. And in many ways, it was an idea that was staring them in the face.
Take 12 kids, have them ordain as novice monks in a temple, and follow their spiritual journey.
That has been the idea for an annual reality show called True Little Monks on the True cable channels 60 and 99. It has been a big hit locally for seven years now and has picked up numerous awards.
Then this year, they decided the children would not be Thais. They would be foreigners, and the show would be in English.
Thus 12 amazing little boys were selected from a field of 500 candidates. There is a British boy as well as Australian, Kenyan, French, New Zealander, Nepalese, Portuguese and Chinese representatives.
Last week they were bundled off to a temple called Wat Pa Sai Ngam in Ubon Ratchathani, 613 km to the northeast, not far from where Thailand, Laos and Cambodia converge, which is where I am sitting now swatting the mosquitos.
It’s a meditation temple surrounded by giant boulders stacked on top of one another. As a result, there is almost a Jurassic Park feel to the place.
Right in the middle is the very serene Pavilion of Learning, bathed in foliage, and it is here the 12 boys gathered, starting last Monday, on their spiritual journey.
For one week they learn how to be a monk. Then today, they shave their heads, don saffron robes, and become monks throughout July.
I am on the show as well. My official title is spiritual mentor, and by god if you spit out your coffee like that one more I swear I’ll end this column right here and now.
My task is to guide these young people along the correct path. Each night I spend an hour with them asking about what they learned. It is very intimate; just me and the kids … and 20 cameras, glaring studio lights, and 200 staff running around holding up whiteboards reading WRAP IT UP – FIVE MINUTES.
For the past week the boys have learned about the Five Buddhist Precepts, the Four Noble Truths, the Eight-fold Path to Happiness. They have learned how to “wai” to monks and Buddha images. They have been taught how to walk while meditating.
It goes without saying that their so-called mentor is as much a student as they are. And yet for all that spirituality, they are still little boys full of energy and often forgetting they should be well-behaved. But that is what is refreshing about this experience. They may end up little monks, but for now they are little monkeys.
When I first get to meet them, they are excited to tell me, live on camera, that my name is “Werdna”. I thought it was Pali Sanskrit. Wrong.
They have decided to call each other by their names spelt backwards. Thus, little “Bin Bin” is now “Nib Nib”, and I seize on that opportunity to teach them that a “nib” is a tip of a pen.
Attempting to pull the conversation back to more ethereal matters, I ask them: “So tell me, children, how do you feel about being here in this temple, about to embark on a wondrous journey?”
In unison: “HUNGRY!!!!!”
They are unable to eat after 12 noon, and my session is at 8 pm. This aspect of being a monk, along with daily waking at 4 am, is the mostchallenging.
“What do you think you’ll do after you leave the temple?” I ask. I want them to talk about spreading the word, but instead one of them shoot his hand up and says: “I’m gonna sleep in till 10 am, and eat as much as I possibly can whenever I like!”
There are problems, too, with sitting in the lotus position for extended times, and early meditation efforts result in occasional yawns and lapses into sleep. I’m talking about myself, dear reader. Sometimes the kids.
Meanwhile Jaydet from Australia is breaking out in a heat rash and requires a clandestine hospital visit. Ar-tee, one of the quieter boys, is feeling homesick. Little Put, 11 years old, reads fantasy novels for fun. When the other boys have their nap time at midday, he reads. This latest one, a Magnus Chase fantasy novel at 520 pages, is the third in a series. He explains in great detail the synopsis, and I nod my head sagely as mentors are supposed to do, hoping he doesn’t notice the story goes over my head. But how refreshing to see kids engrossed in books.
Tonight’s mentoring session ends by my asking each of them: “Tell me the one important thing you learned today.” The first answer is: “I learned that a nib is the end of a pen.” Not exactly the answer I was looking for.
Wrapping it up, I ask the all-important question: “Children. You’ve learned so much these past few. Are you ready to become little monks?”
I fully expect a joyous affirmation drowned out by the title music and final credits of that day’s broadcast.
Instead they blurt out in unison: “Nooooooooooo!”
Never work with kids or animals? Getouttahere!
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
ALL BETS ARE OFF (WORLD CUP 2018)
By Andrew Biggs
Even before that very first match in which Russia trounced Saudi Arabia, the Thai government was threatening to do its own trouncing. This time around, it would get real tough on World Cup gamblers.
There would be a three-pronged effort between the Central Investigation Bureau, the Immigration Bureau, and the Anti-Money Laundering Office (AMLO).
Police submitted a list of 300 online football betting websites, mostly from abroad, hoping to block them in Thailand. From May 1 to June 13, 722 suspects were arrested. Things were off to a good start.
And when the World Cup began on June 14, the message was clear: Gamble on the World Cup, and the authorities would come down on you like a ton of bricks.
Thais are avid gamblers — nearly as crazy about it as Australians — and will gamble on absolutely everything.
The problem is, gambling is illegal in Thailand.
Thai newspapers Khao Sod and Matichon have launched a fantastic competition. All you have to do is buy a newspaper and predict who will be the champion team for the World Cup.
This is exciting. For a bet of just 20 baht, the price of the newspaper, I have the chance to win a brand new Mazda pick-up worth over 750,000 baht.
Tomorrow my home country Australia is playing France. They haven’t a snowflake’s chance in Isan of becoming champions, but didn’t we say the same thing about Donald Trump prior to the 2016 presidential elections?
I place my bet. I buy the newspaper, fill out the form, writing “AUSTRALIA” as my guess for the winning team.
That afternoon I light a special joss stick and place it inside the spirit house outside my home.
“Even if I don’t win the pick-up truck,” I whisper magnanimously to the shrine, “Please make Australia be the champions.”
The deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Bureau says cops are losing the battle against both online and offline football gambling.
“You can catch physical gambling pools or arrest gamblers in the den. But it is almost impossible to track down those masterminds, both Thais and foreigners, behind online football gambling rings,” Deputy Commissioner Phanurat Lakboon explains.
One of the problems is that Thailand’s neighbour, Cambodia, allows gambling. Against their will, Thais are lured over the border to glittering casinos in places like Poi Pet, which is Cambodian for Boondocks. While there they seize the opportunity to gamble on the World Cup.
The other problem is that Thai law is not very harsh when it comes to punishments.
Gamblers, it appears, get the same lenient treatment as pedophile school directors and embezzling permanent secretaries. They cop a small fine and get transferred to inactive posts. The maximum fine is 1,000 Baht, which is nothing when you could win, say, 20 million baht.
Shattered by Australia’s defeat to France, my depression is alleviated by a giant ad in the Daily News. The popular newspaper is giving away prizes worth over 20 million baht for those who correctly guess who will win the World Cup!
I quickly make the purchase of the newspaper and cut out the four coupons required, then write down my bet as to which team will be the champions.
Brazil had a rocky start, with a tie against Switzerland, but I’ve got a good feeling about them. Besides, their national colors are similar to Australia’s. With this in mind, I put my money on Brazil.
I send it off. It’s a sure gamble. I am now in the running to win gold, a Mitsubishi Pajero, a Honda motorbike or free air tickets.
My personal assistant warns me not to get my hopes up. I’m up against millions of Thais who will also enter the sweepstakes, but I figure you’ve gotta be in it to win it.
The Bangkok Post is reporting that AMLO is working closely with banks to monitor suspicious financial transactions. This is in a move to impound assets of people involved in gambling during the World Cup.
Up to 36 banks and financial institutions have teamed up to form a countrywide operation to help AMLO. Phone network service operators are also on board to beef up the crackdown.
My Thai staff admonish me for sending in my predictions so quickly.
“You should do what the Thais do,” my personal assistant says. “Wait until the very last day of the competition. There will be only four teams left. Then send in a thousand entries for each team.”
My interest is piqued. “Isn’t sending 4,000 entries a little expensive?”
“Think about it,” he says. “Supposing you send in a thousand postcards at 5 baht each. That’s 5,000 baht times four, which is 20,000 baht. It’s still a good bet if you win.”
Today I notice one phone service network is running a great competition. If I sign up, I can win 30 million baht in prizes just for predicting the winner of the World Cup.
Thirty million Baht!
I get what my personal assistant is saying. For an initial outlay of 20,000 baht, I can win a first prize of 10 million baht. I’m starting to get the hang of this gambling thing. It’s fun!
But who to choose? I have gone off Brazil. I am edging more towards Russia, since they are the hosts and we all know Russia never plays by the rules. Putin is sure to be barking orders to secure the cup.
I decide to gamble on Russia, but I hold off placing my bet. When in Rome …
Surat Thani cops raided a football gambling den and detained 12 gamblers and two employees. That doesn’t sound a lot to me.
Meanwhile police raided four more locations in Hua Hin, arresting 20 suspects. That’s a grand total of 32 gamblers. Where could all the rest be hiding?
Nevertheless, police around the country, including Nakhon Keystone, are running around doing their best to stamp out all forms of World Cup gambling.
Speaking of stamps …
At my office’s weekly meeting, all the talk is about the World Cup. Since Australia is no longer in the running I am no longer interested. But then my personal assistant shoves a print ad in my face.
Thailand Post in association with Thai Rath newspaper is giving away 32 million baht in prizes! It is the mother of all betting campaigns and it’s brought to you by the government’s own post office.
For the cost of a postcard, I can win cash prizes of up to ten million baht.
“I might have to bet on that one,” I say.
“It’s not betting,” says my PA. “We call it loon choke in Thai.”
That translates as “performing an act in order to hope for good luck to come one’s way”. I consult my Merriam-Webster and it defines gambling as “to bet on an uncertain outcome” and “to play a game for money or property.” That definition fits what the post office is doing like a glove.
Sounds a lot like loon choke as well.
And that is where we are up to now. I’ve entered so many competitions I have lost count. It’s going to get busy at my office when it’s down to the final four teams; my staff will be begrudgingly filling out a lot of postcards.
This is what’s great about living in Thailand during the World Cup. It’s so exciting, especially when the sport can win you 10 million baht for the price of a newspaper!
Meanwhile the government is still trying to locate elusive gamblers. Or perhaps they just can’t see the forest for the postcards.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
By Andrew Biggs
The triangular yellow flags first began fluttering in my neighborhood two weeks ago.
A few at the end of my soi. In the windows at the supermarket. Propped up on food carts.
They began as a trickle. By last Monday they had permeated every nook and cranny of my otherwise carnivorous community in leafy Samut Prakan. Farewell, beef noodle vendor — may you enjoy the next ten days’ rest and recreation. The Jaysters have taken over the nation!
Those triangular yellow flags are signposts that the Vegetarian Festival has arrived.
Every year it feels like those flags with the big red letters spelling JAY creep up from behind and surprise me. They evoke two reactions: the first being a feeling that time is rushing forward at an ever-increasing rate. Is it October already? It goes Jay, Loy Krathong and then Phi Mai. In rapid succession.
The other feeling is that of foreboding. Unease. They may have the appearance of yellow, but they are red flags for me. For ten days they do their best to obliterate the culinary choices of the meat-eating majority, including me, though I don’t go down without a fight.
Thailand’s Vegetarian Festival began last Monday and finishes next Wednesday. Ten days of cleansing. Ten days of meditation. Ten days of rest and repose, which seemingly applies to your taste buds as well.
If you’re reading this Sunday morning then it means there are 5,160 minutes left before it ends and yes, I am counting down the minutes. I’m not anti-Jay. I just have trouble finding a good meal.
Newcomers to Thailand need to understand that while it’s touted as the Vegetarian Festival, technically it’s not. It’s a “Jay” festival, as the word is pronounced in Thai. “Jay” does not mean “vegetarian” — there is another word for that, which is mangsavirat meaning “without meat”.
Jay is an offshoot of vegetarianism; a child perhaps, and the Wednesday child if ever there was one. You know how every large family has the one kid who’s a little unlike the others? Dresses in dark clothes, holes herself up in her room for hours, listens to morose entertainers like Lorde and Sinead O’Connor?
That’s Jay in the vegetarian family. It’s non-meat-eating with some unusual exclusions. It also forbids dairy products, making it a full-blood sibling to dull old veganism. But wait. It’s goes even further than that.
Jay also forbids such innocent players as onions. That’s the onion in all its forms; spring onions also get the boot. One wonders where the meat can be found in a spring onion, or is it just because of its ability to make us cry?
Oh well, at least there’s garlic to spice it all up.
Well no, garlic isn’t allowed either. When I start being denied my onions and garlic, I start fighting back. What have onions done to deserve exclusion? If these were humans we’d be screaming racism. But they’re vegetables, and excluding onions and garlic is one of the most blatant examples of vegetablism I have witnessed.
Then there are the grey areas.
I’m reading a fascinating book at the moment about the history of the Roman Empire, in particular Constantinople. In 325 A.D. a group of bishops got together in Nicaea in modern-day Turkey to create what Christians know as the Nicene Creed. Their aim was to bash out the story of Christ so that everyone could agree on the details, which got hotly debated to the point of absurdity, such as how to define God the father, the son and the holy ghost, and whether Jesus was a deity of not owing to his flesh and blood status.
It is coincidental that I read this in the prelude to the Jay Festival. There is a general need for a Nicaean-like council to discuss whether or not honey should be included in the Jay menu.
There are strong advocates for both sides. Some die-hards say absolutely not, while others say it’s a liquid, thus a drink, and thus okay.
Apparently there is a reason for these exclusions. Traditionally, eating Jay ruled out all pungent and exciting ingredients because the diet did not want to evoke any sexual feelings within monks, since it is a festival intertwined with cleansing and good karma. On this point I must defer and accept, not because I’ve ever gotten off on an onion, but because I respect long-standing customs and culture, even if I do prefer to channel my culinary beliefs in diametrically opposite directions.
It is imperative to keep theologically-inclined folk away from temptations of the flesh, and so all the fun stuff is ruled out. If garlic helps in that quest, then so be it. What does that leave?
Beans and fruit, basically, which means Jay must rely on the mother of all dull foods – tofu. You can’t kill onions, but it’s okay to slaughter soybeans. Tofu doesn’t invoke any feelings of lust and desire, a point upon which you will receive no dissension from yours truly.
The end of my soi is a magnet for the Jaysters, as I call them semi-affectionately. All the usual stalls selling chicken, pork, beef balls, prawns, oysters and fish fillets pack up and disappear.
They are replaced by new stalls selling jay chicken, jay pork, jay beef balls, jay prawns, jay oysters and jay fish fillets. This is food made from protein and beans and flavoring.
That is curious. The Jaysters eschew meat and yet fill up on almost identical replicas of meat at twice the price. Things have become so refined it is now difficult to tell the difference between a real chicken and a jay one.
I am wondering if soon we will have jay spring onions and jay garlic. And am I allowed to serve such fake food to monks? Surely that’s a red rag to a bull if ever there was one.
But the centre of all things Jay is not the end of my soi. It is Phuket, where the theatrics of Jay-ism run wild. This is where self-professed shamans claiming to be possessed by ancient spirits wander the streets of Phuket in all sorts of trance-like states. Some of them have bulging eyes and speak in tongues so eloquently, it would put Christian televangelists to shame.
Others clutch giant cleavers and perform nasty acts upon themselves, such as incessantly slicing their tongues, or shoving spikes through their cheeks. Clearly the absence of spring onion and garlic in one’s diet doesn’t extinguish all aspects of exotic behavior.
Back in the 1990s, a local TV station known as iTV did an expose on these rituals. They followed a few of these religious shamen down to the market where they purchased ox tongues. They would later secretly put them in their mouths and slice them to pieces, pretending the tongue was their own. They also featured shamen who revealed their pre-pierced cheeks, so that the process wouldn’t be quite so painful when faced with an audience.
There was a terrible uproar after that program — not because the shamen were exposed for what they were, but because iTV had dared to reveal the truth.
Here in Thailand, diet is weaved into belief and custom, and for this reason we cannot bulldoze over it like a shamen running across pre-cooled hot coals. We must tread a little carefully and afford followers of Jay some respect.
For ten long days I too must tread carefully around those little yellow flags, being tolerant of those who choose to follow it. I remind myself that I live in a country with one of the best cuisines in the world. If that means having to sacrifice 14,400 minutes, when tofu and soy sauce reign supreme, then so be it.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
By Andrew Biggs
It’s not often that your correspondent crosses a road on foot.
This is not because he doesn’t like walking, nor does he possess a private helicopter for short hops to the mini-mart to pick up lemons and tonic water.
It is more because crossing a road is usually done by pedestrian footbridge, of which Bangkok allegedly has the most of any city in the world, thanks to the chaotic nature of the unyielding, frenetic traffic below.
But this week your correspondent found himself witness to a curious Thai custom as he embarked on that hairiest of activities, that is, crossing the road on a zebra crossing.
It all began after I found himself in a Thonglor mall half a kilometre from my desired destination. For that I must apportion part of the blame to Google Maps, which sometimes goes awry and leads me to Fake Destinations, a nephew of Donald Trump’s Fake News.
Being a rainy-free Monday night I decided to walk the distance. It would save time, since it would be faster than driving it, plus I would reach my daily Fitbit goal of 5,000 steps. Yes, I know, everybody else’s daily goal is 10,000 steps. Well if everybody else ran naked down Silom Road, would I have to do the same?
It was on that evening stroll there and back, during which I had to cross the busy Soi Thonglor street, that I notice that curious ritual: Thai pedestrians on a zebra crossing thank the drivers who stop for them, by way of a quick nod as they make it to the other side.
Blink and you’ll miss it. There is a brief smile and a nod of the head. On the surface it is charming, and another feather in the cap of the Thais, the most courteous people on earth.
Alas, I am one who likes to scratch the surface, and that is where it ends in tears. So disturbed was I by this action after deep contemplation that it affected my entire evening, even to the point where I accidentally walked an extra 300 metres past my destination, resulting in my Fitbit having the computer program equivalent of an orgasm.
If you are a relative newcomer to Thailand, you need to know some fundamental do’s and don’ts here. I will not infringe on the territory of Lonely Planet or the Tourism Authority of Thailand. I do have one thing you need to know that will save your life — and I’m not talking about marrying that woman with the sick buffalo. That will result more in deceased retirement savings than your own death.
I’m talking about zebra crossings.
Zebra crossings in Thailand perform a single function; and that is to break up all that boring black you see on the roads.
In the three decades I have been in Thailand, there has been no serious attempt to educate drivers to stop at them. Drivers, thus, ignore them. In the frantic race to get to one’s destination, the need to stop for a pedestrian is counter-productive.
Now and again there is a well-meaning campaign which lasts for a good two or three days. Last year Thammasat University students stood on zebra crossings holding up banners explaining it was illegal to ignore them. It reminded me of tortured souls in front of oncoming trains. I am guessing those students by now have graduated and are getting on with their lives, their campaign nothing more than a fading memory — as it is with drivers.
Back in 2015 it was announced with great fanfare by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration that white squiggly lines would be drawn on roads all over Bangkok. This was because lots of really progressive civilized cities had them, and they made drivers prepare to stop at zebra crossings. Sydney and London, for example, were full of white squiggly lines.
So too were Stockholm and Copenhagen. If Bangkok roads had white squiggly lines, then it proved it was progressive and civilized too.
Sydney. London. Stockholm, Copenhagen. Bangkok.
Can you spot the odd one out? Let me give you a hint; four of them feature drivers who stop at zebra crossings. One of them has drivers who speed up at the mere thought of them.
A squiggly line ain’t gonna stop a Bangkok driver. They don’t stop for anybody. Ambulances … pregnant ladies … the disabled? Not while I’m behind the wheel!
I once wrote a travel guide for Thailand in my first year in the country, gathering information for rookie foreign travelers. When it came to writing about getting around Bangkok, I wrote what I thought to be a succinct yet invaluable and perhaps life-saving paragraph:
“In Bangkok, zebra crossings serve no function other than to break up the blackness of the streets; they are pretty white lines on the road but that is all. Don’t for a minute think anyone will stop if you step onto one.”
What excellent advice for tourists coming from cities such as Sydney, London, Stockholm or Copenhagen. I felt more than a little holier than thou as I sent the story off to my Thai editor, Khun Veerachai, for perusal before being laid out on the page. If I could save just one life, then my article had been well worth the precious time I took to write it. Sanctimony is not one of my recently-developed character traits.
“Khun Veerachai would like to see you in his office kha,” his mousy yet polite secretary came over and said to me not a few hours later. “Now … kha.<<
I was still feeling pious when I entered my Editor’s office where I saw a print-out of my story on his desk, and a look of inclement weather on Khun Veerachai’s face.
“This paragraph about the zebra crossings. Can I delete it?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” I asked dramatically.
“It doesn’t really portray Bangkok in a good light, does it?” he said, choosing his words with the same care a durian aficionado chooses his first fruit of the season.
He went on to explain that my story would portray Bangkok drivers as brazen, wide-eyed sociopaths who’d stop for nothing, let alone a pedestrian.
Piety shrivels up and dies in the face of reputation. I put up a good fight, but in the end there was no way I could win. The lives of pedestrians needed to take second place to Thailand’s image, and the paragraph was deleted.
Twenty-five years have passed, and if Bangkok drivers were brazen wide-eyed sociopaths in 1990, what are they now? Is there a word for “brazen times ten”?
And yet despite being roundly ignored, zebra crossing keep popping up on our streets — often in tourist places. Why is that? Perhaps if we didn’t paint them on our roads, we would look like some under-developed nation and that would make us look bad on the international stage. Perhaps the government is keen on making us a hub for zebra crossings or, more recently, squiggly white lines.
What is the relationship between a zebra crossing and a squiggly line anyway?
It’s a psychological ploy. Apparently when you approach squiggly lines, you are led to believe the road is narrowing and that makes you slow down. At least it works like that in Sydney, London, Stockholm and Copenhagen, so it should work here.
Never assume anything, dear reader. First of all, this trick relies on the expectation that drivers have their eyes on the road. Bangkok drivers gaze intermittently at the road ahead but that is in between Line messaging, checking Facebook pages, watching soapies on the TV screen mounted just to the left of driver’s seat, and painting one’s fingernails.
Second, how can a squiggly line go up against a deep-seeded, ingrained desire to ignore zebra crossings for fear of having to slow down?
I know; I tried it once.
I was driving along Sukhumvit Road where there was a zebra crossing. I would normally have ignored it except that as I approached, a group of school students had already stepped off the kerb and was on the white lines.
I momentarily forgot myself; perhaps I was reminiscing about Sydney, or London, or Abba or Hans Christian Anderson. Whatever the reason, I slowed down. And stopped.
What transpired was a tirade of intimidation as the man in the pick-up truck behind me went ballistic. My actions caused him, too, to have to stop not to mention nearly rear-ending me. He blasted his horn and when I looked into my rear view mirror I could see his lips writhing and contorting, as is necessary when one spits vitriol at a bald-headed farang in the black Teana in front.
In summary; stopping at a Bangkok zebra crossing is as dangerous as a pedestrian thinking he or she can safely cross the road on one.
Wouldn’t it be great if squiggly white lines truly could change the bad habits of an entire city. It would be a lot cheaper than enforcing traffic rules, or mounting a serious campaign to teach Thai drivers what they must do when approaching a zebra crossing (and can we throw in an extra bit about how to properly use a roundabout?)
Perhaps that is why Thais are so nice to the occasional driver who stops for them. It takes a benevolent, educated, caring soul to slow down and allow them to journey across those broken white lines. That requires an acknowledgement of thanks.
I witnessed it twice on Thonglor last Monday. It reminded me of Sophie’s Choice. Amid the barrage of vehicles hurtling down Soi Thonglor, one or two of them made a decision. Do I run them down or do I save them? The three or four pedestrians around me on that crossing smiled and nodded their heads to the drivers who, in their equanimity, had made the ultimate sacrifice.
Bangkok could well be the only city in the world where this behavior takes place. I am wondering if I need to give a nod of thanks to people who stop at red lights. What about those drivers who drive on the left-hand-side of the road? Are they to be singled out, smiled at, and nodded at too?
I asked my Thai staff about this misplaced gratitude.
“We’re just being polite,” my personal assistant replied, somewhat offended by my disdain. “What’s wrong with that?”
“It’s like when you hold the door open for me and I walk through first,” my sales director, a woman, explained. “I say thank you. It’s good manners.”
I listen to their explanations and nod my head, just like a pedestrian does to benign drivers.
I don’t have the heart to tell them they are wrong. One does not need to be polite to a driver who stops at a zebra crossing. It’s the law. He must do it or he is fined 500 Baht — in a perfect world, that is.
Campaigns don’t work unless they hurt. What if we set up cameras that automatically fined any driver who ignored pedestrians on zebra crossings, just like the ones that catch me doing two kilometres over the speed limit on the expressway? I’m funding a mid-level police station somewhere in Isan with the fines I have to pay on a monthly basis. I would feel much more at peace with myself if I knew this money was coming from drivers who ran zebra crossings.
Or perhaps, more sinister-like, the nod of thanks is a metaphor for the entire Thai system of blind deference to one’s elders. We are currently riding the crest of a wave of unprecedented corruption in this country, which has left Thai culture bruised and battered, because the corruption emanates from some of the most respected tenets of Thai society.
Top officials at the Education Ministry have been gouging budgets meant for poor students. Meanwhile a large group of the highest-ranking monks is being arrested on charges of corruption, with some culprits having to flee the country.
The Education Ministry … the monkhood. Two institutions that command the utmost respect. The average Thai paid the deepest deference to these officials, who unknowingly were raping the system. When one is unknowingly prostrating oneself before thieves, what’s a little nod of thanks towards a selfish driver?
By the way, my travel guide story had an unexpected happy ending. Khun Veerachai was “asked to leave” not long after — something about unaccounted for expenses — and in the ensuing kerfuffle the order to delete my offending paragraph never made it to the lay-out guys. The paragraph ended up being published. Editors, like squiggly lines and zebra crossings, are oft times ignored.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE
By Andrew Biggs
The email came out of nowhere and hit me like a truck.
In the address field was written: “ABiggs Sunnybank78”. Just that was enough to set my heart beating and adrenaline pumping.
The email came from a Romy Marotta and this is what he wrote:
“It is just so unfortunate. I do know Sunnybank78 is your pass word. Most importantly, I know your secret and I've proof of your secret. You don't know me personally and nobody paid me to investigate you.”
My heart sank from my chest down to my feet. Romy was right. Sunnybank78 was a secret password I used extensively ten years ago. It’s a combination of my place of birth and my birth year. Oh all right it’s not my birth year — it’s the year Kate Bush had her debut hit, “Wuthering Heights”, a song that changed my life — but don’t beat on me for telling a little lie. I’m under extreme stress as you are about to discover.
That was just the opening paragraph from Mr Marotta. I assumed Romy was a man, as I’ve never come across a person touting such a first name. Later I discovered it is a male name, and one that is “a popular baby name for hipsters” if the internet is to be believed. I suspect Mr Marotta is neither a hipster nor a baby. He’s certainly not a native English speaker, as evidenced by his next paragraph:
“I installed a malware on the adult vids (porn material) and you visited this site to have fun (you know what I mean). While you were busy watching video clips, your browser began working as a Rdp (Remote control desktop) that has a keylogger which provided me access to your display screen as well as web camera. Immediately after that, my software obtained your complete contacts from your messenger, facebook, and mailbox.”
I had to read that paragraph a good three or four times before it sunk in.
My first reaction was that Romy needed a good editor. How I wanted to take to that paragraph and clean it up! But this was not the time for semantics nor grammarian pedantry. Romy had taken control of my PC. He’d raided my contacts. What on earth was he going to do next?
“Next, I made a double-screen video. 1st part shows the video you had been viewing and second part displays the recording of your web cam (it’s you doing inappropriate things). “
A shiver went down my spine.
Evil Romy hadn’t just taken over my virtual world, like some Mini Me or Riddler. He’d been filming me while I visited websites!
“I will, no doubt send your video recording to all of your contacts including close relatives, co-workers, and many others. It won't protect you from the humiliation yourself will feel when friends and family learn where you have visited.”
Too late, Romy. I already felt sick. Physically sick.
You see, of late I’ve visited some internet places which, well, I don’t want anyone to know about.
Just recently, for example, I visited Mariah Carey’s official website. It was research, dear reader! Ya gotta believe me! I was trying to establish her age and birthplace, but while I was there, I did happen to click on her music video “Emotions”, one of her very early hits from the 1990s before she morphed into a space creature from an intergalactic video game.
Yes, I admit I sang along to it, bobbing my head back and forth, lip-syncing, rolling my eyes happily as she sang the chorus.
Romy had caught all that on film.
That wasn’t the only shameful act I’d performed.
Recently I went on YouTube and watched the scene from Sound of Music when Rolf and Liesl sing “You Are Sixteen Going On Seventeen” in the rotunda. Look, it had been a stressful day and I needed a break. I’m not proud of what I did but to err is human, to forgive divine.
And yes, I danced around while watching it. It is utterly shameful and embarrassing. Imagine if it got out. If my mother saw me in the midst of performing that act by myself, I’d never be able to look her in the eye again.
How could I stop Romy’s dastardly deeds? Luckily there was an ensuing paragraph that held the answer:
“Option One is to ignore this e-mail. If you do I will send your clips to your family and friends. Option 2 is to pay me $8,000. I'll erase the recording immediately.”
Eight thousand dollars! That’s 266,000 baht! Where am I going to come up with such a figure in so short a time?
That was when I thought: “I know. I’ll just go to the cops.”
“At this point you must be thinking, ‘I’ll just go to the cops’,” continued Romy, as if reading my mind. “Let me tell you, I have covered my steps to ensure this email cannot be traced time for me plus it won't steer clear of the evidence from destroying your lifetime. You will make the payment by Bitcoin (if you don't know this, search ‘how to buy bitcoins’ on google).”
Thanks, Romy, for that piece of advice at the end. I’d have never thought of that. And while you’re at it, quit hitting me with rambling stream of consciousness sentences. You’re a blackmailer not William Faulkner for god’s sake.
He concluded with a “Receiving Bitcoin address”, a long list of letters and numbers not dissimilar to when a cat runs across my keyboard. And a threat that if I didn’t act within 24 hours, those incriminating videos would soon be sent out to all my contacts.
You can imagine how distressed I was. I was tempted to bash out an email to all my contacts: “Please … if you receive a video from me with a Mariah Carey soundtrack, just DELETE IT.”
But as with all things adrenaline-induced, after a while I started to settle down. And smelled a rat.
First of all, I hadn’t used that password in ages. But the real revelation came exactly four days later.
I received another email with “ABiggs Sunnybank78” in the header! This time it was from Brooks Russ. Again, what sex is that? Or is Russ simply dyslexic?
“I won't beat around the bush,” Brooks, or Russ, began. “I do know Sunnybank78 is your pass word. More to the point, I know your secret and I've evidence of this. You do not know me and nobody paid me to check out you.”
Deja-vu big time. Brooks and Romy share a number of things in common, and not just the inability to spell password as a single word.
Brooks wasn’t as greedy. He wanted a mere $7,050 to stop my embarrassing videos cutting a swathe through my contact list, or a more manageable 230,000 baht. I assumed by paying Brooks, Romy would get off my back. I dared not entertain the thought I’d have to pay out a combined 496,000 baht.
A quick google of these email contents and I learned that this was a common scam perpetrated worldwide. With so many websites hacked these days, it is not so uncommon for evil types to get long lists of passwords and user names and do the rounds. If just one-half a per cent of recipients cough up the 8,000 bucks, he’s made a killing.
This is a great weight off my shoulders. My visits to Mariah Carey’s official website and other clandestine URLs remain private.
As for Tabitha Tilley, whose email just dropped in a moment ago, with the header “ABiggs Sunnybank78” — you can just go to hell.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
BIGGS, BUDDHISTS, BRISBANE
By Andrew Biggs
There’s nothing like a challenge from a cynical sibling to plunge yourself into a new adventure.
Greetings from sunny Brisbane, capital city of Queensland, Australia, and hometown of your favorite columnist. I have been here for a week; a quick family visit that coincided with Khao Pansa, the beginning of the three-month Buddhist Lent.
It’s also a time when often the most hopeless of alcoholics stops drinking for a whole quarter of a year.
One of my Thai friends is such a person, whose breakfast consists of a cigarette and a shot of rice whiskey. Come to think of it, it’s also his lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and late-night snack.
Well, come Khao Pansa he just stops and the transformation is remarkable. His gray hair turns black, his wrinkled face loses a good 10 years, and he is lucid in his conversation. Three months later he’s back to being a drunk, which means technically he is not only a functioning alcoholic, but a part-time one as well.
It was last Saturday, the eve of Khao Pansa, as I sat enjoying my second or perhaps third Bundaberg Rum and Coke at a trendy bar overlooking the Brisbane River, that I started to regale family members of the traditions of Buddhist Lent. It was during my anecdote about Thais going dry that a cynical sibling of mine asked how I would be celebrating the Buddhist tradition. Would I, too, be venturing into the stark reality of three-month teetotal-dom?
“Certainly not,” I exclaimed. “I’ll be going to a temple.”
“What … here in Brisbane?” my cynical sibling asked with an Australian guffaw — the worst kind.
It never occurred to me that my hometown might actually have a Buddhist temple or two. A few phone calls later and I was buzzing with excitement, nothing to do with that Bundaberg Rum either.
There is a thriving Buddhist community in Brisbane. Not only that — there’s a temple a mere 15-minute drive from my birthplace!
This would have been unheard of in my childhood. I grew up in Sunnybank, and yes, the community was as Twin Peaks as its name implies. It was completely Caucasian, an offshoot of the White Australia policy that controlled, or rather strangled, Australian immigration for decades right up until the 1970s.
When I was growing up Sunnybank had one Chinese family. Skip 40 years into the future and Sunnybank is the Asian hub of Brisbane.
It is a vibrant, culturally diverse, exciting part of town. Every race and color is represented, and best of all, by the second generation they greet you with “g’day”, shout “strewth!” when they’re surprised, and follow Australia’s national religion — the Holy Order of Australian Rules.
It is here in the southern suburbs of Brisbane where the newest Thai temple in the country is being constructed.
Buddhism is the fastest growing religion in Australia. In the last 20 years it has seen an 80 per cent growth in followers with just over half a million Australians claiming to be Buddhist, or about 2.5 per cent of the population.
The first Thai temple in Brisbane was on the second floor of a shophouse. It progressed to a home and then a temple, but had to be knocked down when the land was repossessed to build a motorway. In 1995 they purchased 10 acres of a former stud farm in bushland not far from my old stomping ground.
They named it Wat Thai Buddharam. To get there, you drive through semi-rural roads past the warehouses of supermarket chain Woolies. At a T-junction there is the sign, both in English and in Thai. I admit I got a warm feeling seeing Thai script in the Brisbane boondocks.
But the place is not exactly your cookie-cutter Thai temple. The first thing that strikes you is — where are all the trimmings? The yellow-and-brown building almost resembles a Christian church without the cross. It’s not ugly, but there are no ornamental roof tiers; no gables; no bejeweled snakes, giants, Garudas or swans; no dangly golden bits that tinkle in the southerly winds.
“The local community,” says the abbot, “wasn’t exactly happy with us setting up here.”
Cholatish Chanhorm, 47, is a Thai monk who has spent the last 18 years in Brisbane. Now a naturalized Australian, he speaks as diplomatically as possible when asked about the early opposition.
“Locals objected to the original architectural plans,” Abbot Cholatish explained. “They said the character of the area would be eroded by building a temple.”
One wonders how exactly the character of industrial bushland could be eroded by a beautiful Thai temple, but do not be too harsh on the locals. They know not what they do.
This area is not that far away from Pauline Hanson’s base. Back then the locals were probably very well-meaning but maybe not possessing a world view. Just this week while I was here, there was a protest not far from the temple over the relocation of a bank branch, requiring locals to use internet banking services instead. “Many of us here don’t know how to use the internet,” one lady with short cropped hair in a sunfrock told news cameras: “I mean, I know how to read my emails, but I gotta get someone to show me how to reply!”
The issue went before the Planning and Environment court in 2003. “It was the old attitude of – you’re in Australia now. Act like an Australian!” said one Australian temple official. “the plans were un-Thaied.”
It has taken almost two decades but the temple, and its four monks, and the Thai followers, have won the hearts of the locals. We are often frightened of what we do not understand, while at the same time, thankfully, the Australian character diversified to embrace foreign things like Thai temples.
There are now plans to build a very ornate ubosoth or ordination hall on the grounds in a deep bronze color. It is modernistic Thai temple in design and quite stunning — best of all, the plans have been passed with the support of the local community. They even blend in to the rustic surroundings! That gives me another warm and fuzzy feeling inside.
“We get on well with the local community now,” the abbot says. Then after a pause: “Well, there’s still one woman who perhaps opposes it, but as for the rest …”
Sunday morning at Wat Thai Buddharam was a wonderful experience. A large proportion of Brisbane’s 5,000-plus Thai community came out to celebrate Khao Pansa. I took my mother and siblings along, including the cynical one.
The majority of that Thai community are women. “They either own Thai restaurants or work in them,” explained one member. Indeed, on Khao Pansa day, there was a clear shortage of men to haul the giant candles used in the ceremony.
But how nice to see a community of Thais, and their Australian spouses, engaging on this happy occasion.As for the new ordination hall, it will be completed some time in the next five years. It costs 5 million Australian dollars to build, of which the temple has raised around 10 per cent. “Any donations are very welcome,” says the abbot in what must have been the understatement of the morning.
I wish them luck in their endeavors. I left the temple happy knowing that Buddhism has spread its saffron robes even to the outer suburbs of Brisbane, encompassing as well as fitting into the local community.
And incredibly, one week later, I have not had a single alcoholic drink. Who knows if I’ll last the full three months. Whatever you do, just don’t tell my siblings. They’ll just get all cynical on me.
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By Andrew Biggs
My heart goes out to the jilted bride who made the news this week, left standing in her wedding dress in front of a crowd of well-wishers, having to explain that her future significant other had chosen insignificance.
My heart also goes out to the groom. I have my nephew Neung to thank for that.
The 24-year-old bride had been stood up by her 18-year-old groom. They’d met in April and had allegedly fallen in love in the three short months since.
So what happened? He had another girlfriend, but the real deal-breaker was his inability to pay a bride price of 300,000 baht.
Does this surprise any of us? The average 18-year-old Thai man in this country is lucky to have 300 baht in his bank account. Only the 18-year-old sons of wealthy pork-ball factory owners could afford anything greater. And besides, did she seriously believe her ideal life partner would come in the form of an 18-year-old philanderer whom she’d met 90 days previous?
“Bride price” is a direct translation from Thai, where it doesn’t quite sound as cold and clinical as in English. The Thai word is sin sot, which translates as … well, bride price.
This is a payment that men must make to a bride’s family for the right to marry their daughter. I was first introduced to it 25 years ago when my friend Vichien wanted to marry his girlfriend at the time. Before anything, he needed to find the bride price.
“You’re buying her?” I asked, incredulously.
“No. I’m offering money for her.”
“Isn’t that the same? How much?”
“I don’t know. 50,000 Baht.”
“You don’t have 50,000 Baht,” I began, as Vichien looked to me and opened his mouth but I cut him off.
“Don’t even ask!”
“It’s just a loan.”
“I can pay you back right after the wedding ceremony.”
“Naiyana’s mother will return it to us immediately. We hand over the money during the ceremony for everybody to see then she gives it back to us.”
“What if she keeps it?”
“Then she’s stingy.”
“And I’m broke.”
I had so many questions. Could I bargain down the price? You know, knock 10 per cent off the bride price and Vichien will throw in five years of absolutely no mistresses or minor wives?
Nearly two decades have passed since that fateful night, and yes, Naiyana’s mother returned the money days after the wedding. But what a cultural eye-opener.
You see ever since I was a little boy, I was told the woman paid for the wedding, not the man. I remember my mother talking about “glory boxes”; suitcases unwed girls would use to collect stuff for married life. Though I never clapped eyes on such a box, I imagined them to be full of Wiltshire stay-sharp knives, bell-bottom tracksuits and K-Tel Record Selectors.
Over the years I have grown to understand the role of the bride price. Like so many things in this country, it is just a show.
Watch when a Thai star or some high-society offspring get married. The one thing you can depend on (other than a divorce soon after) is the mountain of cash and gold bars piled up in front of the happy couple. Sometimes these bride prices can run into the tens of millions.
Back in 2011 a big story erupted when the permanent secretary of the Transport Ministry was burgled while he attended his daughter’s wedding.
Thieves made away with as much as 200 million baht … in cash. The permanent secretary had a plausible excuse for having the equivalent of a small African country’s cash reserves in his hallways. His daughter was getting married, remember? That cash was the bride price, he said.
Why else, he asked, would he have such a huge amount of cash blowing through the halls of his Lardphrao mansion? Yes, he was arrested soon after.
Which brings us to Neung.
Neung is the son of an old Thai friend of mine who died when Neung was just 15. Neung was in Bangkok studying high school at the time. His father’s death meant he inherited a small durian and mangosteen plantation in Chantaburi.
Neung continued his education to Year 12. Before returning to the farm he had found himself a girlfriend, Natt. Once a month he would come to Samut Prakan to visit her for a few days.
Neung is now 36 years old. Incredibly to this day he still drives his pick-up once a month to spend time with Natt, staying at her parents’ home.
Neung drops in to see me on some visits, out of habit, and often when funds are a little low and there is fertilizer to be purchased. Yes, your favorite correspondent helps out in such circumstances, and thus has a constant supply of his very favorite fruit, mangosteen — as for his absolutely reviled fruit, Neung has known for years not to bring durian anywhere near my house.
It was just one month ago — three weeks before the jilted bride story broke — that I finally had it out with Neung.
“When are you going to marry Natt?” I asked.
“Mai roo,” he replied.
“What do you mean you don’t know? You’ve been together for more than 20 years!”
“Yung mai prom,” he said. I’m not ready yet.
“Since when has being ready ever stopped people from marrying?” I asked, as if I were an expert on the topic. But I did have a point. “Do you want to marry Natt?”
“Kor dai,” he said. I guess so. Pinning Neung down on anything was a little like pinning down a tent in a hurricane. It was clear I’d have to take some affirmative action if children of Neung and Natt were ever going to see the light of day.
“Now listen to me,” I said. “You’re going to get married right here at home to save money.”
“What about the bride price?” he asked.
I tried to hide my surprise. “Bride price?” I asked. “You’ve been going out with Natt for 21 years. Surely you don’t need a bride price? Have you asked her parents?”
“No,” said Neung.
I figured Natt’s parents would ask for 50,000 baht at most, which would be returned. Incredibly Neung, never one to commit himself to anything — Natt included — agreed to talk to Natt’s parents the following day.
Two days later, bad news.
“I spoke to Natt’s parents,” said Neung. “They want 300,000 baht … which they won’t return.”
They want … what?
“They’re happy with the idea of us marrying. They said their neighbors were starting to wonder when we were going to tie the knot.”
“And that wonder shall not stop anytime soon if they continue to set that kind of benchmark. What on earth are they thinking? Have you bargained them down? And why aren’t they paying it back?”
I suggested explaining to Natt’s parents that their request would never facilitate a wedding. It may instead facilitate Neung’s moving on, finding another girl whose parents weren’t quite so out of touch with the bride prices of suburban Samut Prakan.
That’s why I wrote, at the top of this column, that my heart also goes out to the groom in that news story. What a shame there are just too many over-enthusiastic brides, lackadaisical grooms, and greedy parents-in-law to ensure a “happily never after” scenario for couples.
Neung and Natt continue to see each other once a month; I daresay they will continue their monthly trysts for eternity, or when Natt’s parents pass, whichever comes first.
As for that couple in the news — things aren’t going to settle down so easily, for the real issue is not a lack of bride price. It is a mutual lack of common sense.