SPEAKING IN TONGUES
By Andrew Biggs
Thailand is reeling with another monk-in-sheep’s-clothing scandal.
A monk is flying on a private jet to Europe for a shopping spree. That was after he made a TV ad for an air purifier. Not bad for a guy who’s taken a vow of poverty and whose wardrobe consists of three saffron robes; why go all the way to Paris to buy those?
This is what happens when we worship men more than religion.
I’m very familiar with religious charlatans, growing up in the southern suburbs of Brisbane, Australia, where travelling preachers would ride into town, or rather fly in on TAA or Ansett business class.
When I was little, my siblings and I used to love it when our parents would head off into the night for some swish Sunnybank dinner party where Devils-On-Horseback were the hors d’oevres and flummery the dessert.
It meant our beloved baby sitter would look after us for a few hours.
Her name was Mrs Spence, a really old lady of 35 or so (I was 13 at the time) with a bob of grey hair and warm and friendly manner.
Mrs Spence was a devout Christian. This was in direct contrast to my own family, whose idea of a “Holy Trinity” was a hat trick of English batsmen out during the Ashes.
One time she mentioned a travelling preacher was coming to Sunnybank for “charismatic renewal” and would I like to come along? I was on the tail end of my Suzi Quatro obsession and was looking for something new so I said yes.
Thus one Saturday afternoon, Mrs Spence and I went to a charismatic renewal service at the local Methodist Church.
The church was packed. I remember it being a carnival atmosphere, with the focus on a slick, handsome man in a heavy suit who told us, flashing a killer smile, how he’d once lived a life of crime stealing cars and indeed, ever since I have never been able to separate men who steal cars from those who sell them.
This preacher exuded charisma as he told us how he found God in jail.
“Do you have any troubles in your life?” he shouted. “Let Jesus resolve them!”
He invited the congregation to move to the front where he would place one hand on people’s foreheads, after which they fell to the ground and proceeded to “speak in tongues”.
“What are they saying?” I asked Mrs Spence.
“The ancient language of the Lord,” she replied, clutching a sensible handbag in her lap.
“I’m going up there,” I told Mrs Spence.
I made my way out of the pew and up to the altar. The preacher man was shouting “He is risen!” and “Hosanna In the Highest!”
One by one the Sunnybank folk fell back, caught by his henchmen staff, as he got closer and closer to me. There were two more ahead.
“The Lord will protect you!”
I held my arms up, copying the others. The preacher laid his right palm on my forehead.
A strange tingling feeling instantly emanated from his palm. It seemed to fan out throughout my skull and down my spine. I fell backwards.
As I was laid on the ground, I began to speak in tongues.
“Mashimmina shimmina takka-dakka-mashimmina”
After a while I stopped. Walking back to the pew I was a changed boy. I had found God.
Mrs Spence was thrilled. She set up a meeting with Father John at St Barnabus, where he invited me to be an altar boy. This was the Anglican Church so being an altar boy wasn’t the shadowy, regret-for-the-rest-of-your-life position found in other places.
For a good few weeks I floated around school holier than thou, thinking a lot about Jesus and being in heaven where I’d be able to say “mishimmina” for eternity far away from the fires of Hades. Why he had chosen to “Out Lucifer!” me, as opposed to the more positive “Praise Jesus!” he bestowed on others, remains a mystery.
Not long after, something went wrong with my Super 8 projector. I removed the back of the projector and discovered a piece of film was stuck. I reached in to pull it out … and got the electric shock of my life.
The same feeling I got from the preacher man.
It didn’t take long for me to put two and two together.
No wonder he was wearing long sleeves on that hot Queensland day. No wonder he kept his palm closed as he placed it on our foreheads before pushing us back. I hadn’t found God … but I was definitely a little closer to Benjamin Franklin.
And so began my healthy distrust of all people religious, especially those who demand payment. Poor Mrs Spence, a widow surviving on a pension, gave an extraordinary amount of money to that preacher’s henchmen as we walked out.
This week Thailand is grappling with a monk by the name of Nane-Kham who has an amazing following out in Si Sa Ket.
He’s the guy who flew to Europe in a private jet because there just isn’t enough room in Thai Airways economy class. For that I don’t disagree; the only difference between him and me is I didn’t take a vow of poverty.
This is a monk who once built a giant Buddha image at his temple in this impoverished North-eastern province.
“I need some gold to make clothing for the Buddha,” he announced to his faithful clan, made up predominantly of women above the age of 35.
How much gold do you think his ardent followers managed to toss his way? Ten kilograms? A hundred kilograms?
Try nine thousand kilograms.
For the last few weeks he was back in the news, as this charismatic monk flew to France in a private jet.
If that wasn’t enough, a couple of days ago he made an advertisement for an air purifier! Honestly, it was straight out of the shopping channel.
“We monks have hectic lives, getting up early and collecting alms, then seeing followers, which can make us sick,” says Nane-Kham, as he sits in a gold embossed chair.
Beside him is a black plastic thing with FRESH AIR written next to it. In the bottom left hand corner of the screen the brand name VOLLARA comes up.
“When I’m feeling a bit run down, I turn to this machine, Fress Air.” Fress … his pronunciation, not mine.
We cut to shots of monks in hospitals.
“Thailand has 300,000 to 400,000 monks and they get sick often. Why not make merit by purchasing a Fress Air air purifier? I’ve been given many different brands but this one is the best.”
With cheesy music in the background we see that sea of mature ladies in white, doting on his every word. They are smiling, but not as much as the CEO of Vollara must be.
Nobody knows where the Buddha is buried, though fragments of his bones can be found in temples scattered across the region.
Authentic? I have no idea. But I do know all those little fragments must be turning in their graves. It’s enough to make you want to speak in tongues.
(Note: Nane Kham ended up being defrocked and is now serving a jail sentence.)
By Andrew Biggs
By the time you read this column, I will have returned from a week away at detox.
Yes, you heard right. Detox. Angelina Jolie’s done it. In fact just about all of Hollywood has done it, so naturally, it’s my turn.
I’ve never really been into detox – it’s something people with too much money, time, and toxins encrusted onto the walls of their intestines do. And yet for the first time in my life, I am giving up all worldly pleasures and disappearing off to a remote southern island, only this time it is to detox.
That means giving up all those things that bring me so much comfort in my frequent hours of despair and self-loathing, such as potato chips, Swenson’s Earthquakes and two-for-one Long Islands every Wednesday at a bar not far from my work place. There’s no alcohol or fatty foods during detox. In fact, I have to give up all food whatsoever. For one week, I will not even be eating.
I know, it’s crazy. But ever since I ran a full-marathon I’ve been looking for new life challenges. I dabbled in religion for a few months but the guilt trips were debilitating. Traditional Thai fruit carving was so dreary I wanted the knife to carve out my own wrist instead of the watermelon.
Then one February morning, a breezy phone call from my friend Andrew.
“I’m going down to Samui to detox this Songkran,” he said in his American drawl. “Wanna come?”
Now there’s something I haven’t ever tried! My friend gave me a quick rundown of what it would entail – no eating for a week, and at the end of it I’d feel fantastic. The idea of getting off on not eating as opposed to the usual suspects was intriguing. I said yes.
February turned to March, which quickly rolled over to April. Suddenly I was two weeks away from leaving when I started getting the emails from Andrew’s PA, Khun Shela.
Since you are only two weeks away from your detox experience, we would ask you to stop eating all meat. Also, no caffeine in any form. Eat plenty of raw vegetables and fruits, and we probably don’t need to remind you not to drink any alcohol as of now.
The reality of what I was doing gripped onto me like toxins in an intestine. To me, Samui is synonymous with food and drink, having fun with Eurotrash, bad tailor shops and overpriced public transport. It’s like a giant glass of vodka-tonic rising out of the Gulf of Thailand. That was all going to change.
I stopped eating meat for two weeks. I stopped all alcohol and to my surprise, that wasn’t a problem. But the killer was coffee. Within three days of giving it up I was experiencing tunnel vision and bad headaches. I became unbearable to my staff, and I lost my smile somewhere on the way to work in those first few days and never regained it.
That wasn’t the worst. One week before detox, Khun Shela was tapping away again:
By now your pre-detox should be well in session. We advise you to do a Liver Flush prior to the cleansing program. I enclose the recipe.
Believe me, dear reader, a liver flush tastes worse than it sounds. It’s olive oil, garlic, ginger, cayenne pepper and orange juice blended to form a bilious sludge one is expected to drink and then, fantastically, keep down. I did it for five nights in a row. It’s supposed to clean out your liver and gall bladder but let me tell you it cleans out your intestines as well.
And speaking of the lower body …
Part of “detox” requires what they call colonic irrigation. Don’t pretend you don’t know, but for the blissful uninformed, it requires getting a “colema tip” and affixing it to the end of a tube. The colema tip is then inserted up one’s rear end, and coffee is pumped into your rectum. Oh all right, not your rectum. Mine.
I have two very major issues with this:
1. I can’t drink coffee, but I can shove it up my backside? An orifice is an orifice is an orifice. I feel betrayed I have foregone my two morning black coffees for two whole weeks only to arrive at a resort where it is pumped up my behind.
Upon disseminating this information to friends, I have come across many fascinating facts. Apparently if you pump vodka up your backside, you get drunker than if you drank it. I can’t imagine doing that … wouldn’t all those ice cubes hurt? Another friend told me the ancient Mayans used to pump peyote, an hallucinogenic derived from the cactus plant, up their backsides in a religious ceremony where they then allegedly “saw the Gods”. I bet they did. I can’t imagine what I will see when that colema tip makes contact with my backside, other than a stoic yet horrified expression from the staff member assisting me.
2. Just look at the bogus information one is fed about this colonic irrigation. “The process removes poisonous layers of waste that is caked to the inner walls of your intestines.” Two years ago I had a colonoscopy. Six hours before the camera-on-a-leash went into me, I had to drink a potion even more disgusting than Liver Flush. But it did the trick, leaving your intestines spotless so that the camera could investigate. And I mean spotless.
After the event I was given a VCD of what the camera had explored and seen deep within me. In the comfort of my home I opened a bottle of South Australian chardonnay, put on my favorite Mozart horn concertos, and watched the VCD as it explored my nether regions.
At the doctor’s the next day I had to ask her. “My intestines were so clean. Where was all the rubbish that’s supposed to be caked to the sides of my intestines, which colonic irrigation is supposed to remove?”
My ever-so-diplomatic doctor simply smiled and said: “Now you know.”
Well, I might have known, but it isn’t stopping me two years down the track giving up food, alcohol, caffeine, meat and my sensibility for one whole week. But who knows? Maybe I’ll come out of it a more stable, likeable human being. Maybe that burst of energy will kick in, or I’ll lose so much weight everybody will think I’ve got a disease.
I just hope for the sake of the resort staff it works. Otherwise the only tip they’re gonna get when I check out is of the used colema variety.
(One week later:)
Upon arrival at the spa, I was presented with my spa pack, including a booklet entitled “Your Cleansing Fast”.
Page one was disheartening: “We here DO NOT PROFESS to be MEDICAL AUTHORITIES or ADVISORS.”
Now they tell us!
Does that mean I can rise up and revolt when you start denying me food? Also included in the pack was a long plastic tube with a hole on the end, like a mini lawn sprinkler. This was our “colema tip”, and it sat ominously next to a new tube of KY Jelly.
This is the heart of detox. All was explained on Day One, when we were invited to the reception area. We sat around as the staff flicked on a 20 minute video explaining the colemic process.
I had imagined a nice ward with friendly smiling attendants who made soothing comments like “Goodness the weather’s hot outside today isn’t it?” as they placed warm white towels over your crotch while slipping the little colema tip surreptitiously into your sphincter. “Now you just relax there for 15 minutes and I’ll be back when it’s over,” one attendant would say from behind her white mask, her head cocked slightly to one side as she winked at you happily.
Reality was far more jarring. There is no “Colon Ward”; you do it alone in your own bungalow bathroom. So that explains the big black ugly meat hook hanging next to the toilet, the type you see in a butcher shop or every sequel of Friday The 13th . We had to fill a bucket up with coffee and warm water, then hang it precariously from the meat hook.
Precariously? I should have saved that word for what I had to do next.
Next to the meat hook is something resembling a surfboard, but the only waves around were those of nausea upon knowing what I had to do. The surfboard was a “colema board” and it had a sizeable hole at the end big enough for a head to pop through. Only my head wasn’t going anywhere near it.
The idea was to lay the surfboard down with the hole over the toilet. Then you lie down on top of it with your backside against the hole. A hose goes between the bucket and the colema tip. You smother the tip with KY Jelly and presto, the colema tip is in your nether regions faster than a Catholic priest celebrating Children’s Day.
For the next half an hour, you lie there as coffee goes up into your intestines. After a few minutes there is a full feeling like you are about to explode. You flush out, then take in, flush out, then take in. All the time I was lying on a plastic board suspended above the ground thinking: “Please God, don’t make a Thai Rath photographer come bursting into my bathroom.”
It was scary, ludicrous, and after a few times, more than a little funny. It did lead to interesting dinner conversation. A chatty Croat-Brit woman spoke non-stop of the spidery monsters coming out of her ample backside, as Andrew and I delicately sipped on our clear broth and carrot juice.
“I released a lot of black sludge this afternoon. Then some of it looked like a mini pine tree. I examined a few of them and wondered how long they had been inside me. What about you guys? What have you been excreting?” Madam, please.
Despite the caffeine rush, I remained in a constant state of weakness and hunger. Energy levels were down; not to the point of despair, but my one motivation was the alleged sparkling, wonderful feeling one got after two days of not eating.
Alas, it didn’t come. I took solace in the myriad New Age experts I could pay 2,000 Baht per hour to tell me about my chakras and energy channels. Honestly, these farangs are onto something. I would be quite happy to open anybody’s chakras for 2,000 Baht an hour. Just find me four or five tourists a day, and I’m earning 280,000 tax-free Baht per month! Who needs a university education?
Jennifer the Iridology lady was lovely, though my friend Andrew was a little disheartened when she gazed into his eyes and pronounced: “You have impacted fecal matter.”
“That’s the first woman who’s gazed into my eyes and said that,” he said despondently.
My favorite was Abigail, a beautiful British psychic with 89 angels who accompany her on a sublime cleansing mission. For an hour they weaved their magic as she held my hand and filled me with light. And why not? I certainly wasn’t getting any sustenance from the spa … why not try it with angels?
When it finally came time to break the fast, the spa told us to do it slowly and carefully.
“On the first day of breaking the fast eat RAW FOODS – all fruits and salads” the Detox manual ordered me in capital letters which shook my chakras to the core. To hell with that. At the airport Andrew and I ordered a coffee “for the mouth”. On the plane back I felt I was in heaven as I placed a cooked carrot into my mouth and chewed on it. Later that day I would eat half a sausage and some mushrooms.
My system literally rejoiced. My mood changed abruptly, and I transformed from sluggish curmudgeon to affable raconteur. The first morning back I ran 5 km around Rama 9 Park and it felt fantastic to have the energy to be able to exercise. I could feel my stomach enzymes breaking down food with wide grins on their acidic faces; my intestines gaily twisting and dancing as they sent fecal matter down, down, down.
My detox experience was not wasted. I had a week off; I read lots of books about positive thinking and setting goals. But was it life changing? Some of the other guests were ecstatic over it all. I wasn’t. Maybe it’s because after so many years in Thailand, my diet does already include lots of fruit and vegetables. I eat a lot more raw stuff than if I was living in, say, Sydney, on a diet of pizza, and meat pies.
And maybe, just maybe, it is a little presumptuous and arrogant of us to think that the fantastic machinations of our human body require a “break” from food now and then. Such were my thoughts nearly a week after getting back from detox as I enjoyed the lively company of friends while snacking on moderate portions of Oriental Bakery items.
Let’s face it. Detox is good. Pastry is better.
BORDERING ON INSANITY
By Andrew Biggs
On the road to Phnom Kulen I spot the sign; a turn-off to Preah Vihear.
“Oh look,” I say out loud. “There’s the road to Khao Pra Viharn.”
“That’s not the way you pronounce it,” says my guide. “It’s Preah Vi-here.”
“The Thais pronounce it Khao Pra Viharn.”
“The Thais don’t own it,” says my guide.
I am in the North of Cambodia not far from Siem Reap, home of the Angkor Wat and a town which, by its very name, reflects a troubled relationship.
“Siem Reap” means “The Defeat Of The Siamese.” The word “reap” either means “to fight” or “to flatten” in Cambodian depending on whom you talk to, but it signifies a Khmer victory over the Siamese somewhere in antiquity. It also signifies how closely intertwined the two cultures are; it has the same meaning in Thai. Talk about feuding siblings.
Preah Vihear is the temple perched on a 600-metre sheer cliff overlooking Cambodia. The temple is 1,200 years old. It’s in Si Sa Ket province in the country of Cambodia, and if you have been following the story of this temple you will understand that.
It was an important temple of the vast Khmer Empire that controlled the region a thousand years ago. For a while Siam conquered the area that is now Cambodia but in the end lost it to French Indochina around the turn of the 20th century. The French got a big crayon and drew a border between Siam and Cambodia; a border that is as blurred as the two cultures themselves.
One of the casualties of that big crayon was Preah Vihear. It’s technically on Thai soil but belongs to Cambodia. There was a dispute over maps that went to the International Court of Justice in 1962 which ruled in Cambodia’s favor and the Thais have been seething ever since.
I am simplifying an extremely complicated story; suffice to say the Thais felt aggrieved and that is probably why the temple was difficult to visit for a long time –the only way to get there was via Thailand, which meant sometimes the gates were open and sometimes the gates were closed.
Worse, it is estimated that hundreds or even thousands of soldiers from both sides have been killed in skirmishes in and around Preah Vihear over the past 50 years. In 1979 there was a truly horrific event; thousands of Cambodian refugees were sent to Preah Vihear and literally pushed over the edge of the cliff by the Thai military government, under the helm of General Kriangsak Chomanan, who was tired of shouldering the burden of them.
More recently there was a dispute on adjacent land to the east and west of the temple, which went to the International Court of Justice in 2013 and again, the Hague found in favor of the Cambodians.
In these flag-waving, make-the-Thai-people-happy times, the issue of Preah Vihear remains a bitter pill for the Thais. It cuts very deeply into the Thai psyche — imagine Australia being forced (by foreigners, no less) to hand over part of its land to New Zealand, or England handing the white cliffs of Dover over to the French.
Only a month ago there were further clashes and deaths on the Thai-Cambodian border as two Cambodians were captured and allegedly burnt to a crisp by men in Thai military uniforms.
As a resident of Thailand I have only ever been subjected to the Thai side of the argument and, of course, the Thai culture. Having just spent a week in Northern Cambodia, I begin to wonder what the fuss is about.
“Preah Vihear is part of our heritage,” the Cambodian tour guide is saying solemnly.
He has been silent for about as long as it took you to read all those explanatory paragraphs; I myself have zoned out, gazing at the paddy fields and roadside stalls on this chilly January morning, a vista so evocative of North-East Thailand and why shouldn’t it be? We are 150 kilometres away from where Northern Cambodia segues into Thailand’s Isan.
“Yes, you guys definitely own it,” I say, trying to be nice.
“We have a rich culture that goes back many centuries,” he continues, now sounding a little like a Cambodian Ministry of Tourism advertisement. I suspect he learnt that line off by heart a while ago.
“Take our New Year, for example. Did you know the Cambodian New Year does not happen in December?” he asks.
“Yes, really. It happens in April, and it is celebrated over three days. We think of it as a time for us to return home, and for the family to be close together. The Cambodian culture values the family highly. We are a very close family unit.”
The tour guide is on a roll.
“Yes, we pay respects to our elders, then we celebrate the New Year. It is our custom.”
As we approach the mountain known as Phnom Koulen I ask him about the language. Cambodia, has its own system of counting; I try to compare them to the Thai numbers but my guide is not having any of that. He would rather go from English to Cambodian.
“One … moo-y … two … bee … three … bai … four … boon … five … brumm.”
When we get to ten, something interesting happens. Cambodia has separate numbers for multiples of ten – and they are the same as the Thai numbers. I would like to tell the tour guide that but I fear it would go down like a lead balloon.
As we progress up the mountain, we discover the Cambodian and Thai languages have many words in common. Despite being surrounded by countries with tonal languages – Laos, Vietnam and Thailand — the Cambodian language itself is not tonal. And yet even without the tones there are similar words; in Thai a school is a rong rien while in Cambodian it is sala rien. The word sala can also be found in Thai – meaning rong.
There are hundreds of words like this. If you can read Thai, you can almost read Khmer since the letters are very similar.
(The Guinness Book of Records claims the Khmer alphabet is the longest in the world with 74 letters. Thailand has a mere 59.)
Soon we are onto spirits and unique Cambodian ghosts.
“We have a ghost here,” my guide explains with pride. “She is a woman … a beautiful woman with a head and no body. Instead, she just has entrails and they hang down beneath her. She flies around at night time preying on young men in villages.”
I nod my head with interest. I dare not tell him that Thailand has a ghost, too, who is a woman; a beautiful woman with a head and no body. Instead, she just has entrails which hang down beneath her and yes, she flies around at night time preying on young men in villages.
On the return trip to Siem Reap my guide regales me with other stories of the unique Cambodian culture, and all the while I see the ghost of unique Thai culture hovering behind him.
By the time I reach my hotel I feel sorry for all those soldiers, both Thai and Cambodian, as well as all those refugees who have lost their lives over the cliffs of Preah Vihear. If there is one thing more tragic than burning an enemy to a crisp over our differences, it is killing them over our similarities.
SLOW BOAT TO OBLIVION
By Andrew Biggs
As any long-term expat knows, Christmas and New Year is the time of year when relatives and friends of yore suddenly pop up on our doorsteps.
I’ve seen decades lapse between last seeing a face and the unheralded Facebook-friending back in August, followed by, a few messages down the track, casually mentioning he will be “passing through Bangkok” with his wife and child from a previous marriage.
I must have been asleep the day my primary school teacher explained the definition of “passing through” as being “spending four nights in your guest bedroom and may we borrow some towels oh and my wife is lactose intolerant.”
My younger brother does not belong in this group, though he is the first out-of-towner on my doorstep this season, arriving last Sunday and disappearing exactly two and a half days later to avoid being equated with fish.
Like most of my house guests he is not over here to specifically see me; he’s off to Cambodia to help out a charity in Siem Riep that is building a school for a local community.
“I’m thinking of spending a couple of days in Phnom Penh then going up to Siem Riep,” he wrote to me in a cyber conversation we had earlier this year. “I understand there’s a boat you can take that goes up across the picturesque Tonle Sap to Siem Riep.”
The sentence froze me in my tracks.
“Fly,” I replied.
“But I wanna see the countryside along the way and –“
“Listen. I know that I’ve done some terrible things to you over the years, such as when I bullied you into getting a mullet back in 1983.”
“Not as bad as dragging me along to that Limahl concert.”
“You’re totally making that up.”
“No I’m not. You claimed Kajagoogoo were the new Beatles.”
“Yeah right. And keep that story to yourself, okay? Anyway the point is this: despite all those terrible things, you have GOT to believe me on this one. Fly to Siem Riep. Whatever you do, don’t take the boat.”
One of the very worst days of my life was the day I took the slow boat to Siem Riep.
This was back in 1995 when the United Nations was still a presence in Cambodia as the country dragged itself out of the post-Pol Pot era on all fours.
My friend Catherine and I decided Cambodia might be an interesting place to visit. That’s how we ended up spending four fascinating days exploring the Cambodian capital.
Then we wanted to see the Angkor Wat, and Catherine mentioned there was a daily flight up to Siem Riep from Phnom Penh.
A domestic flight? In Cambodia?
There was no way I was getting on a domestic flight in Cambodia. That’s the sort of thing that made all of three paragraphs on page 16 of any Australian newspaper buried below the story about Fiji’s National Day: PLANE CRASHES IN RURAL CAMBODIA: NO SURVIVORS.
I had a fear of flying back in the nineties. As a result when the Internet spread its tentacles around the time of my Cambodian trip, I was already a regular visitor to airdisaster.com, scaring myself with black box audio of ill-fated plane crashes that inevitably occurred in such countries as Cambodia.
To make matters worse Cambodia’s national carrier had the dubious name of Royal Air Cambodge, which sounded way too much like it rhymed with “dodgy” or “botched take-off” for me ever to book a ticket on them.
“Oh no,” I said to Catherine one day outside Toul Sleng. “It’s the boat for us!”
That is how we ended up at a travel agent who showed us a picture of a sleek speed boat with a handful of happy western-looking people waving on board as it cut a swathe through the tranquil Tonle Sap on its way to Siem Riep.
“SEATS 20!” The caption roared in happy italics.
“Tomorrow morning at 9 am boat go! You go to jetty at 8 am!” a friendly man claiming to be a travel agent shouted at us, despite being only 50 centimetres away.
That following morning was cursed from the minute I woke up.
I had the worst stomach. Who knows what precipitated it; I blamed a plate of vegetarian fried rice I’d eaten the night before, though Catherine meekly suggested it may have had something to do with the 10 cans of Angkor beer washed down with a cleansing bottle of traditional rice whiskey that seemed such a good idea at three in the morning.
The jetty had no public bathrooms, and so from 8 am until 11 am I was on a tour of substandard bathrooms in shanty houses beside the jetty.
That’s right. Three hours. How foolish of me to even think the boat would leave on time.
And while indeed our boat may have seated 20, I guess they weren’t counting the extra 30 they could fit on the roof; which was where Catherine and I ended up.
It was a creaking rickety old boat nothing like in the picture, without a single happy waving western person in sight, at least not in the vicinity of the hot roof we were forced to sit upon.
The two-dozen Cambodian passengers crammed themselves, their chickens and their rice sacks into the compartment below deck.
Me? I sat with my arms wrapped around my legs, dehydrated, throbbing head down my lap, trying to remember any meditation techniques that would aid in shoring up the onslaught of dysentery.
For 15 minutes we chugged down the river.
“At least it can’t get any worse,” Catherine whispered to me as we left Phnom Penh.
There should be a rule against friends saying such things.
crack crack crack crack
The sound of gunfire.
It was at that precise moment we started being fired upon.
I looked up and saw smoke coming from a man standing on the banks, pointing in our direction. With the smoke rising, he clearly wasn’t just pointing his finger.
“Oh god,” I whispered. “We’re gonna die in the Cambodian countryside. That doesn’t even warrant page 16!” Catherine had no idea what I was talking about.
The engines were cut. The entire boat, especially the roof where we were sitting ducks, went eerily silent. Time seemed to stand still.
Soon after the boat started up again and we continued to move along.
To this day I have no idea who was firing at us or for what reason. What I do know is this. I learned more meditative mind-over-body control tricks in that eight-hour boat ride than I ever have in any new-age incense-filled alternative therapy center, and believe me I’ve been to a few.
Yes, eight hours.
We broke down in the middle of Tonle Sap and floated for a good hour or two in the unrelenting heat.
By the time we reached Siem Riep I was a shell of my former self. My face was drawn, shoulders slumped, and gluteus maximus muscles well and truly fused.
It goes without saying the first stop in Siem Riep was not the Angkor Wat. It was Royal Air Cambodge, where I booked two seats back to Phnom Penh in three days’ time. Seats close to the bathrooms.
As Murphy’s Law would have it, Royal Air Cambodge had a brand new fleet of airplanes thanks to Malaysia Airlines having bought it out not so long before. The flight lasted 30 minutes, up and down, with a delicious dinner and a journey smoother than any Thai silk.
“Are you sure I should fly?” my brother asked me again via email. “Aren’t I missing out on the boat experience?”
“Do you miss Limahl?” I asked, and the online booking was quickly made.
Merry Christmas, dear reader!
TALK OF THE OLD TOWN
I have a houseguest this week in the form of Captain Pat, back in Thailand for a brief holiday after 10 years away.
He’s been with me two days now and it’s interesting to see the reaction on the faces of some Thais he runs into, one of whom literally melted upon seeing him.
“I grew up with you,” she gushed, clutching her chest. “You were a part of my morning when I was ten years old!”
It’s true. A little more than ten years ago, Captain Pat was probably the most well-known farang face here in Thailand.
Had you stood him next to Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis and Michael Jackson, the average Thai would have immediately pointed at him, broken into a smile and exclaimed: “Talk Of The Town!”
Back in 1997 Patrick was an ad executive in Bangkok working for Brian Marcar, of BEC-Tero Entertainment fame.
Patrick and Brian came up with an idea for a TV show that taught English for Thais who had just returned from overseas.
“What can we call it? It needs to be a show that will become the talk of the town,” Patrick said.
“You just named it,” said Brian.
Channel 3 gave Talk Of The Town the (then) graveyard timeslot of 6 am. It’s hard to believe that 20 years ago nobody wanted that time; it’s morning prime time today.
Patrick’s background was in advertising and comedy, and with a local beauty queen presenter he entertained an audience of one and a half million Thais each morning with slapstick routines in English.
In the first year they went through TV hosts as often as the country was experiencing coup d’etats. Then a bit of market research discovered that Thais returning from overseas weren’t paying the slightest interest in Talk of The Town.
But look at the student numbers!
English teachers across the country were setting homework, which was to watch Talk Of The Town and write down all the idioms and phrases that were being used. The show did a sudden about-face, ditched the recently-returned Thai audience, and turned to students.
They also needed a new host. Tall, bald, Australian Patrick contacted tall, bald, Australian Andrew Biggs. Thais loved us both, and to this day I suspect it was because nobody could tell us apart.
I always thought Patrick chose me to replace the beauty queens because of my good looks and talent.
“Nothing of the sort,” Patrick told me only this week. “It was because the beauty queens took too long in make-up, sometimes up to two hours. You took ten minutes.”
That was 1998. For the next eight years I was the host, playing Abbot to Patrick’s Costello.
The show became something of a morning TV institution. Schools started inviting us to film there, and in Captain Pat’s eyes, the more remote and inaccessible the better. We travelled from Surin to Mukdahan, from a remote hill tribe village in Chiang Mai to the coast of Ranong.
“Come and visit! Our village is about to have its annual Eel Festival!” one teacher, Ajarn Yaowapa from Chumpolburi in Surin, wrote to us once. Soon we were all in her tiny village, staying at Ajarn Yaowapa’s house because there was no hotel, trying to keep down curried eel over rice we’d been served just before filming.
We had a lot of fun with our celebrity status. Captain Pat and I were stopped on the street by Thais telling we were the very first faces they saw upon waking. What a thought.
One night I was in Patpong and caused a minor commotion on the street when a group of katoey performers screamed upon seeing me.
“We watch you every day!” they chortled.
“First thing in the morning?” I asked.
“No – last thing before bed!” the leader of the group announced.
Fan mail flowed in from Laos and Malaysia. Once, a group of 80 monks in two age-old buses from the monk university came to visit the studios. They caused a massive traffic jam on Sukhumvit Road as they attempted to manoeuver an illegal U-turn in the middle of peak hour to get to us.
When they finally arrived, the chief monk shrugged it off. “We can do anything in the monk bus,” he said with an ethereal smile.
(Even more bizarre was the fact I wore an orange silk shirt with no collar the day they came. In the photo I took with them, you simply cannot locate me.)
One time I was singled out of a very long line waiting to go through customs at Don Meuang International airport. The immigration officer had a look of thunder as he motioned for me to a small interrogation room. Everybody looked at me as if I were a drug dealer as he led me away and demanded to see my passport.
He took my passport, stamped it, handed it back and said with a cheeky grin: “I watch Talk of The Town every morning.” I had just jumped the queue in the cutest way possible.
But we knew we had made it when counterfeit Talk Of The Town merchandise went on sale around town. One day one of Captain Pat’s staff rushed into his office with some terrible news.
“On Sukhumvit Soi 101 there’s a street stall selling Talk of The Town embroided logos for 50 Baht each!” he gasped.
“Buy a hundred of ‘em,” ordered Captain Pat. The counterfeiter was 30 percent cheaper than the supplier he was using at the time.
Australia Day each year became a big event for Talk of The Town, as we took the opportunity to teach such important phrases as “G’day” and “Stone The Crows!” and “I’m Off Like A Bucket Of Prawns In The Queensland Sun.”
It led one columnist to lament that “Andrew Biggs and Captain Pat are teaching the entire country to speak English with an Australian accent” — as if that was a bad thing!
Sadly in 2002 Patrick said goodbye to Thailand. We recycled Patrick’s sections for a long time, without him ever knowing nor receiving residuals.
In 2008 the show finally came to an end. Nine years on Thai TV is like dog years, and the idiom “Talk of the Town” is still used by Thais to describe anything that is enjoying popularity.
Recently BEC-Tero got time on Burmese television to make TV shows. And what was the very first show they resurrected? Patrick is now a celeb in Myanmar, as reruns of his segments have been on prime time TV there for three years.
Last December I gave a speech in Chiang Rai and afterwards a lady in her forties approached me clutching a big bag. “My name is Ratchada,” she said in perfect English. “And I have something to show you.”
She dug deep into her bag and drew out a dozen or so big writing pads, full of her scribble.
“Thirteen years ago I was a physical education teacher. I wanted to be an English teacher, but didn’t have the qualifications or the experience.
“Then I started watching your show every morning, writing down everything you and Captain Pat taught me. See?” I gasped at hundreds of hand-written pages of former Talk of The Town scripts.
“Now I am the head teacher for the foreign language department at my school. And it’s all because of you two!”
Both you, dear reader, and I know it wasn’t because of Patrick and me at all. It was her hard work and motivation. But it does give you a glimpse as to why we have a unique perspective on Thailand. The show is gone and we have both moved on, but the legacy remains.
I do miss the immigration fast track, though.
NOW IF IT HAD BEEN 42 I WOULD HAVE UNDERSTOOD
By Andrew Biggs
He appeared out of nowhere.
My personal assistant. He was dressed in his work uniform. I don’t know where he came from but he ran towards me.
As he neared he smiled and crouched down right before me.
He must have been about a meter away from my face. He didn’t say a word, just kept beaming at me.
With a flourish he brought his right hand up and displayed, prominently, the number four.
Then, not a few seconds later, he raised a single ring finger. One.
That was when I woke up.
I’d forgotten about that dream until midday when my personal assistant waltzed into our office. Personal assistants apparently have pressing chores to attend to in the early morning, which explains why his 9 am start time progressively gets later and later.
It was lunchtime and I was sitting with my accountant and general manager, both older Thai women, enjoying some mid-priced pad kraphao kai dao. The maid was somewhere off in the background with a mop.
My personal assistant sat down with us.
“I had a dream about you last night,” I said.
“Really?” he asked. His eyebrows fluttered and he leaned forward. “Was it … erotic?”
It was a perfect moment to teach English vocabulary such as “nauseous” but instead I said: “You came right up to me and flashed a number at me with your fingers.”
The synchronized clink of two sets of cutlery was only superseded in volume by the rush of air as the office maid swooped over. It takes a lot for Thais to stop eating, but apparently I’d just precipitated that.
“What number?” the personal assistant, accountant, general manager and maid asked in perfect unison.
“That’s the thing,” I said. “I don’t know if it was two separate numbers, or a combination of –”
“What number!?” the personal assistant, accountant, general manager and maid asked again in perfect unison. Only this time there was something threatening in their collective voice. Eight eyes peered at me with arched eyebrows in a curious tableau.
“Forty-one,” I said.
If this were a cartoon, those four staffers would speed off in a puff of smoke like Wile E. Coyote. But they had questions.
“Are you sure about the number?” my accountant asked.
“Are you sure it wasn’t the other way around?” my general manager asked.
“Well the four was very clear,” I said. “You used your four fingers and hid your thumb. It was a sideways four. But then your single finger was upright.”
“Which finger did I use for the one?”
“Your ring finger. Or perhaps it was your middle finger.”
I said that to add a little levity to what was descending into a serious discussion, but it didn’t work.
“No! I would never use my middle finger in front of your face like that!” my personal assistant said. I appreciated his loyalty, though he cleverly omitted which digit he would employ had my back been turned.
Before 1 pm my four staff each had made their surreptitious phone calls to put money on number 41 for the next national lottery draw.
Here in Thailand, life revolves around the 1st and the 16th of every month. The national lottery is the single most important machine to ensure Thais remain familiar with the numerical system.
On the next 1st or 16th switch on Channel 11, NBT, and you’ll find one of the country’s top-rating TV shows despite it going to air in the graveyard timeslot of mid-afternoon.
It’s the Government Lottery Office draw. It features a row of six pretty girls with identical outfits and skin extracted from snails. They line up in front of plastic bubbles filled with bouncing balls and draw one out each, then solemnly hold the numbers up to the camera.
Don’t for a moment think the numbers are random. This is Thailand, where everything is predetermined, including the lottery, and it is every Thai’s mission in life to tap into the supernatural world to know what’s coming up number-wise.
That’s why number 41 was so important to know.
Lucky lottery numbers are often found in dreams. They can also be found in temple trees, too, deformed animals, strange-shaped fruit and plants the shape of everything from fairies to phalluses. Some of the richest monks in Thailand have accumulated their wealth from dropping candle wax into water, chanting something incomprehensible, then proclaiming what numbers are “holy” for the upcoming draw.
It is a national obsession. Every two weeks a total of 74 million lottery tickets are sold in this country. There are more lottery tickets circulating in any given fortnight than there are people in Thailand.
That’s just the legal lottery. There is a whole industry known as the “underground lottery” that some estimate to be even bigger than the official one!
It certainly is in my office.
The odds are dismal and in the seller’s favor. For example, supposing I gambled 100 baht on number 41 coming up. (“Coming up” here means it is the last two digits of the winning six-digit number). There are 100 different combinations of two-digit numbers that could come up. In a perfect world my winning should be 10,000. It’s not. It’s more like 6,500 baht, since underground lottery bookies give you odds of 65 to 1.
That night I found a (legal) ticket vendor with 41 at the end and bought three of them. Sad, I know, but when in Rome …
The winning ticket for the draw on October 1st was 452643. See those last two numbers? Forty-three!
The maid was excited. “That’s so close to 41!”” she announced the following morning.
“You may as well be 99 away,” I said.
“It’s a sign. Maybe next draw it’ll be even closer!” she said.
Despite the failure to find a bridge between my dream and instant wealth, my personal assistant was enjoying being the center of attention. He swanned around the office with his shoulders back, proud to have infiltrated the boss’s dreams.
“If you win first prize, you will need to give me a cut,” he told me.
“Dream on,” I said. “Get it?”
The winning ticket on October 16th was 200515.
“Your cut is zero,” I said.
“Did you notice that?” my maid said. “What’s four plus one?”
“Five,” said the accountant, who was good at such sums.
“Now look at the last number of that winning number. It’s five!”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said.
Late October I bought another ticket ending in 41. I couldn’t help it.
The winning ticket on November 1st was 149840.
Now my maid was writhing on the newly-mopped floor.
“We’re getting closer and closer!” she chortled.
No we’re not. The only thing we were closing in on was insanity.
I wish I’d never opened my big mouth. I wish that back on that first day, I’d laughed and said yes, personal assistant, it was an erotic dream and now let’s get on with our lives.
My office is now obsessed with number 41. So, too, is my personal assistant’s home village, located deep in the jungles of Buriram, where all the farmers are betting on number 41.
I will have to continue buying tickets ending in 41. I’m in this too deep now. To continue is madness. If I stop, I just know 41 is going to come up.
I am angry with my personal assistant.
I’m angry at him for coming into my dreams and flashing that four and one at me. Couldn’t he have just stayed away from me and my slumber?
And the most intriguing question of all; if it was the lottery, then what on earth was it?
By Andrew Biggs
Late Saturday night something happened to me that has never occurred before in the quarter-century I have spent here in Thailand.
I got breathalyzed.
It was an experience that filled me with a number of emotions. Thankfully one of them wasn’t remorse for downing a Smirnoff Ice four-pack in the hour preceding, since I am a responsible upstanding member of society who doesn’t mix alcohol and driving — that and the fact I was battling a severe cold.
Instead I felt surprise, revulsion, elation and finally irony, and it is those four emotions we will examine in this column this week.
First of all, surprise.
How is it I can manage to live 25 years of my life in a country that figures prominently in the Top Five Road Deaths Per Capita In The World without ever getting breathalyzed?
Figures are unreliable but conservative estimates show that every year, 12,000 to 15,000 Thais die on the roads. Another 70,000 are maimed. Most are due to alcohol and speeding. I don’t know about you but that sounds to me like a national disaster. An annual national disaster.
I was here back in the 1990s when the police announced breathalyzers had been purchased from overseas and they would start to be implemented in this country.
For a very short time the cops even announced where they would be setting up their roadside breathalyzer stops, providing drivers with an extensive education on alternative, albeit circuitous, routes home.
The fact is, they have been in place for at least 20 years and not once have I ever been stopped.
I am not exactly a hermit, either. I have lurked in the trendiest bars and restaurants around the Thonglor-Ekamai area for more than two decades. I’ve danced, maybe not until dawn, but at least until 11 p.m. at RCA, Saphan Khwai and Ratchadapisek shoulder to shoulder with the country’s best known actors, singers, society figures and yes, even children of politicians when scraping the barrel. Each time I did this I had to get myself home. Never once did I get pulled over.
Well that is not entirely true. I’ve been stopped at police breathalyzer points before, but I’d always been waved through.
Never once has a machine been thrust in my face. Until last Saturday night, that is, and that’s when the second emotion, revulsion, set in.
I must quickly add that it was not revulsion towards the police, who were doing their job. The revulsion was directed towards what was in their hands.
I got stopped on Srinakharin Road. The police often set up there late Friday and Saturday nights, but it has been a source of curiosity to me in that they set up on only one side of that road – the side going into the city, not out of it.
In other words, they are breath-testing those already showered, dressed and ready to have a night out on the town. This is convenient for all those drunken revelers making their ways home after numerous rounds of vodka shots at Ekamai nightspots.
That all changed this week. The police set up on the left side of the road, or rather the right as in “correct” side, catching those coming home, including me.
This time I was waved over and upon winding down my window, a friendly police officer shoved a long thin box at my head.
“Please blow into this,” he said.
It was a rectangular-shaped four-sided metal box, probably half the size of a Chivas container but of the same length. At the end of it, barely centimetres from my face, was a round hole. No rim; no tubing. Just a round hold cut into the metal.
And I have to blow into that?
No disposable plastic attachment, no protective tissue paper. I assumed this box was travelling from car to car, each driver thrusting his mouth against it as if kissing some unresponsive fellow patron at closing time.
You don’t get to my age without having had some pretty strange things pass your lips. I will not traverse any deeper along that particular path.
It has to be said, though, that I draw the line at having to put my mouth against something perhaps a hundred of my Samut Prakan brethren have just kissed. We Samut Prakanians are hardly the crème de la crème of Thai society; we have sweat shops and garbage dumps and the Crocodile Farm. I ain’t getting up close and personal with all that! Wasn’t there some way we could do it and avoid oral herpes at the same time?
In the end I found a way to blow into the hole without my lips ever touching metal, and within a minute I was on my way.
I waited 25 years for that?
The third emotion was elation.
Finally the Thai police are getting serious about drunk driving. Those road toll figures are nothing short of a tragedy and it appears the police are taking their first steps towards controlling that deadly toll.
As stated too many times in this column, I come from a country where driving and alcohol used to be rampant too. Our death toll was horrendous, until the Australian cops realized how much money they could make out of fining people for drink-driving.
How cynical of me for writing that, but you know what? Let them make money from it. Their crackdown drastically reduced the Australian road toll and exactly the same thing can happen here, too. There is only one way to stop people drink-driving on a mass scale and that is to scare them into not using their cars. The ramifications have to be worse than the risk.
That’s why I was elated to see the cops last Saturday night. I don’t care if the decision to set up breathalyzer stops is a financial one. Well done, boys in tight brown!
We have arrived at the final emotion; that of irony.
My very first foray into alcohol breath-testing in Thailand occurred the same month two high-profile news events took place on the same topic.
In the first, a local actress while driving home late at night ploughed her Mercedes Benz into a parked police car, killing a 44-year-old Suphan Buri police inspector.
The circumstances are dubious, thanks to that actress’s absolute refusal to be arrested, be breath-tested or even go to the police station, and instead going home to bed.
What a great example of how the media has a role in educating the general public; it is good to know that in Thailand one has such choices. I know if I committed a heinous crime, my warm bed would be far more desirous than any dirty police cell.
The second incident is more intriguing.
The city police bureau chief got stopped not once like I did, but twice, at roadside breathalyzer stops. On both occasions the chief lashed out at his subordinates for doing their job … on him of all people.
He refused to blow into the box and, this being Thailand, his subordinates sent him on his way.
An actress, a police chief, and your humble columnist. Only one obeyed the law and blew sober. Ah, the irony.
THE PART-TIME TEETOTALLER
By Andrew Biggs
Buddhist Lent is upon us.
I’m going to refer to it by its Thai name, Khao Phansa, not to be a show-off but more because I’ve never felt comfortable with “Lent.”
It conjures up too many childhood memories of sanctimonious religious friends broadcasting their hunger pangs in the lead-up to Easter, not to mention that dreadful “Forty Days and Forty Nights” hymn we were forced to sing.
Khao Phansa on the other hand is light and breezy and free of religious connotations and neurological disorders. And it’s timely; it began just two days ago, when Thais all over the country lit candles and walked three times around their local temples to mark the start of this auspicious three-month period of the year.
(The only setback was it fell right next to Asarnha Bucha this year, a double whammy when it came to the ban on the sale of alcohol but that, dear reader, is why God invented pre-stocked liquor cabinets.)
For me, Khao Phansa is a time I take time out to drink an annual toast to my old friend Ongart.
I first met Ongart 20 years ago as he sat on a bamboo mat outside his Chantaburi home. Little did I know then that Ongart was the poster boy for rural men addicted to the local rice whiskey known as lao khao, or “white alcohol”.
He was surrounded by a few friends on the mat and I was invited to join them. In Thai this is known as “creating a circle”, or sitting down with your mates solving the problems of the world over a clear liquid that I foolishly thought was vodka.
Lao khao is not vodka. It is a foul, raw substance that must be responsible for 90 per cent of this country’s liver ailments. It could substitute for petrol in an empty gas tank on a lonely highway.
It gets a rural boy drunk in seconds, and he remains that way – drunk and raucous on a bamboo mat – for a good four hours until he finally gets on his motorbike and speeds off home.
Ongart’s face was ruddy and jowly. His skin was a map of creases and crevices, interspersed with blotchy burst blood vessels that would rival a septuagenarian’s.
Imagine my surprise when I found out he was my age and not of my father’s generation; 25 years of age going on 50, with grey unkempt hair that was spiky, not as a fashion statement, but from an absence of shampoo and water.
His clothes hadn’t ever seen an iron or washing machine. He was skinny as a rake with skin as dark as the Chantaburi night (see what happens when I go without a drink for 48 hours thanks to liquor bans? I get poetic).
The second time I saw him was at his wedding.
It was an attempt by village elders to get Ongart’s mind off alcohol and onto something more constructive. He arrived at his own wedding drunk, took one look at me and dragged me up to stand beside him as his best man.
I don’t remember much else about the wedding except it was the first time I tried sartor, a sweeter rice whiskey which, once I got past the awful taste of the first three glasses, didn’t taste so bad on the fourth, and rendered me unconscious on the fifth.
I saw less of him after that as he moved five kilometres away to live with his in-laws. Whenever I did see him we’d end the conversation with my handing over a hundred baht. He’d hug me, call me his brother, and stagger onto his motorbike. Within minutes he’d be at the local shack that sold rice whiskey.
Why am I tell you all this? Every year when Khao Phansa came around, something very weird happened to Ongarj.
This hopeless alcoholic quit alcohol.
He’s not the only one. All over Thailand, otherwise incurable drunks quit liquor for three whole months to mark Khao Phansa.
I tried it once, back in 1996, when I was a lot younger and naive and trying to blend in with the locals. I think I lasted about a month before my close friend, Common Sense, paid me a visit and bashed me about the head with a blunt object.
Every year, without fail, Ongart went from full-on inebriation to teetotality for 40 days and 40 nights, times two, plus ten.
I didn’t know this until way after he got married. One night I drove to my Chantaburi home to be greeted by the usual suspects “creating a circle” on my balcony. Only this time they brought along a total stranger.
He was a good-looking young man with jet black hair neatly parted on the side. It is difficult to tell the age of Thais at the best of times, since the country has clearly made a collective pact with the Devil on ageing, but this guy had to have been in his mid-twenties.
He sat quietly, cradling a Sprite in his hands. It wasn’t until I got much closer than I got the shock of my life. It was Ongart.
His face had lost ten years. His skin was clear, and god knows where his jowls had disappeared to.
He did it every year. He stopped singing hideous Thai folk songs late at night when we were all trying to get some sleep, and his hour-long rants about the government and corruption and poor people turned into welcome silence while his mates carried the gregarious baton.
How can one be a hardened alcoholic for nine months of the year, then completely stop for the remaining three?
Ongart’s transformation lasted all the way through to Ork Phansa, or the last day of the 90 days. That falls in early November as the rainy season dries up.
You can imagine the nationwide celebrations on that night. It’s a bit like those iconic pictures you see of World War Two servicemen returning home to their girlfriends on the docks, only these Thai guys are not sucking face. They’re sucking lao khao for the first time in three months, and boy it must feel good.
In a matter of weeks, the grey flecks returned to Ongart’s hair. Once back in his life, that white whiskey unwrapped its bag of tools and started etching those cracks and crevices back into Ongart’s face, while his jowls dusted themselves off and resumed their places around his jawline.
I once asked him why he didn’t just stop drinking altogether. His wife stopped whatever she was doing in the background and shot a helpless glance at me, then a resentful one at her other half, but Ongart just slapped my back and laughed and asked for a hundred baht.
I don’t see Ongart these days. One night, five years ago, after a day on the white whiskey he got on his motorbike and drove it into a ditch. He lay in a coma for four months before he passed away. Perhaps it was that extra month off the booze that did him in; too much for his soul to bear.
His two sons are now 15 and 13 and the spitting image of their father, except neither is remotely interested in alcohol or any other drug. They have memories. They have seen what white whiskey can render them, other than fatherless.
I dedicate this normally-sanook column to my old friend on the anniversary of his annual giving up of alcohol. At least he did it. For that feat, he was a greater man than I ever have been.
WHAT’S IN A THAI BUSINESS NAME?
By Andrew Biggs
There is a building not far from my home in Samut Prakan that I pass whenever I take a shortcut to Sukhumvit Road. It’s a boring, designless concrete factory or shop or something or other. And out the very front, in very big letters, is the name of the business:
It’s a name that has left me wide awake on starless nights. For the life of me I can’t work out what it means. I mean, it’s got to be a lab or chemical processing plant … but Newish Germs? As opposed to, say, Brand New Germs? Or Second Hand Ones? And what is the market for such germs? Is it one of those BOI factories only allowed to export? Or is it a product solely for the domestic scene?
Yes I know Samut Prakan is the hub of all things dirty and manufactured but even out here I can’t imagine locals fronting up to the counter of this establishment in their plastic flip-flops and Imperial Samrong sarongs asking for a kilo of newish germs. “And don’t give me brand new ones like you did last time! I’m onto you!”
Company names. It’s one of the great mysteries of life in Bangkok, and another example of the way Thais can take innocent, virginal English words and twist them, decapitate them, perform heinous sexual acts upon each and every syllable, then put them back together and bang! There’s a brand new company name that no native English speaker could ever have thought up.
I pass a shop every day with the name “Culminate Airy”. It sells air conditioners of course. See how I said “of course”? While admitting to it being a silly name, doesn’t it actually conjure up the idea of coolness? The managing director probably opened a Thai-English dictionary for the first time in his life, found the verb “to culminate” and liked the idea of it describing his bank account once he opened his air conditioner shop. And we all know air conditioners make the room “airy” so … why not?
Most of these clumped-together names are attempts at describing bank accounts rather than products. Bathrooms in Bangkok are festooned with porcelain from a company called Billion Million, or Billion Billion, or Million Billion, or all of the above. That’s plain ostentatious, but every time I see it on the side of a toilet bowl I figure it’s describing the number of germs in the general vicinity rather than a bank balance.
Once I was at a wedding when a work colleague of mine introduced her husband to me. He instantly handed over his name card. He was Managing Director of his own company which went by the name of … Zenith Profound.
I laughed out loud – it was a reflex action like when the doctor knocks your knees – and instantly regretted it. They immediately wanted to know what was wrong with the name. I quickly changed the topic to how hideous the bride was looking but it didn’t save me. The truth is, there’s nothing funny about it ... except that “zenith” means the very very top, and “profound” means the very very depths, and you’ve clumped them together like a mad scientist grafting an extra head onto a body in some B-movie from the late 1950s so that it could chase big-breasted blondes at night time.
Along Phetchaburi Road there is a little supermarket called “Stable Minimart”. As opposed to … um, all the unstable ones dotted around the city? It’s sandwiched between a divorce lawyer and a shop that rents out S & M leatherware.
You could pass these names off as examples of business owners who lack a general knowledge of English, or who don’t have the resources to consult a native English speaker, but that’s not always the case. Back in 2006 it came out that the then prime minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, had set up a company in the Virgin Islands to facilitate the sale of AIS to Singaporean company Temasek –for the good of the country, of course.
The name of this company? “Ample Rich”.
I don’t know about you, but “Ample Rich” immediately scrapes up against that part of my brain that likes English words to go together peacefully and without any fidgeting. Ample Rich? When could you possibly use those two words in a conversation? “I have ample rich chocolate cupcakes on my plate – is there anything more savory on the petit fours tray?”
Knowing Thaksin, he probably wasn’t talking about the taste of cupcakes. Did he mean >>“Amply Rich”,<< which would have sounded much better, though hardly two words you would have expected to spill out of the good ex-PM’s mouth. “I am amply rich now. From now on, all profits from my investments go straight to the impoverished and underprivileged of Thailand.” Nod of the head. Ethereal look. A momentary beat before he loses it and breaks into uncontrollable laughter. “Just kidding. Another northern Thai sausage, Yingluck?”
All these names are of course approved by the Trademark and Company Names division of the Ministry of Commerce here in Thailand. They all get passed, unlike when I tried to get my name registered as a company in 2005.
The same people who approved Culminate Airy and Zenith Profound rejected me on the grounds that “somebody else had already registered the name ‘Andrew’.”
What?? Like, only one company can use that name? It turned out to be St Andrew’s School, which required me to write a long document explaining that Andrew was a common and boring name, and since when could you copyright a name that half the Commonwealth had after Prince Andrew was born in the 1960’s?
My appeal was accepted. Just as well. I would never have considered sending anthrax in the mail as revenge, but a few newish germs in a postpack may not have gone astray.
BROKEN-HEARTED WEED KILLER
By Andrew Biggs
This week I made a mercy dash to Chantaburi after receiving a disturbing phone call Sunday evening.
“Lersak’s tried to kill himself,” Samai breathlessly told me over the phone. “He drank weed killer at your house.”
Not the kind of thing one wants to hear after settling down to one’s first Sunday screwdriver; I was in my car and on the motorway in no time, hurtling towards the eastern province at a speed that would have required 100 Baht firmly attached to my driver’s license had the cops pulled me over.
I have a modest wooden house in the hills of Chantaburi, a province nestled on the Cambodian border. It’s very peaceful except that it’s right near one of Cambodia’s bigger casinos catering solely to Thais, who make the 250-km trek from Bangkok in hundreds of rented vans every weekend.
It’s the casino that regularly harbors Thai politicians when they need to make hasty escapes but besides this attraction, Chantaburi is also a picturesque corner of Thailand with lots of fruit groves and rolling hills.
My Chantaburi village friends are so nice and friendly and accept me for all my faults and eccentricities, especially if I turn up with a bottle of 100 Pipers and a dozen soda waters.
One of my best friends there is Lersak whom I have known for nearly 20 years. Thirteen years ago he fell in love with Hattai, an 18-year-old local girl. They never married; Hattai moved to Bangkok and got her degree, while Lersak stayed in Chantaburi running his rubber plantation.
In retrospect what happened was clear to see, though not for us who were so close to the events. Hattai grew out of Lersak. Recently in the Bangkok office where she worked she met a guy and, well, Lersak got sidelined. Two weeks ago she broke it off with him.
“Lersak’s over at your house … dying,” Samai explained over the phone as I reached the halfway mark of my mercy dash.
Dying at my house? Crazily I’d forgotten to bring my camera along. And besides … what is it with Thais killing themselves to get back at their lovers?
Despite the proliferation of massage parlors on every corner of this country, there seems to be a strong commitment – or perhaps it is a sense of ownership – when it comes to finally meeting up with one’s life partner. The commitment part is good; but thinking you can “own” anyone is dangerous, and this is clear when someone in a relationship here wants out, but the other doesn’t.
Over the years of reporting the news in this country I am baffled by the constant recurrence of one particular news item and it is this: Thai man has girlfriend. Thai man has relationship with other woman. Thai girl kills herself to “get back at” the Thai man.
It’s been my experience that being alive is far more disturbing to an ex- than being dead. I just need to get this idea through to heartbroken young Thais who want to die to revenge an ex. This usually takes the form of jumping from a great height from one of those dreadful suburban apartment blocks.
I once met an American man here who lived in a nice apartment who had a Thai girlfriend who was a university student. They’d been together six months. He met somebody else and decided to call it quits, so the next time his girlfriend was visiting, he told her the news. She nodded and took it in with an ashen face.
He went to the kitchen to get a drink, and when he returned she was gone. There, on the balcony, he spotted her shoes. She had jumped from the 15th floor.
Now if Hercule Poirot or Nancy Drew had spent any time in Thailand they would have spotted the important discrepancy in this story. Any Thai would have left her shoes by the door when she came in to the apartment. Why were they now out at the balcony? Simple; while he was in the kitchen she’d taken them out there before jumping. It was a sign. She was going to show him; teach him a strong lesson. She was going to kill herself and make sure he knew what she’d done!
The poor girl. There’s a match for any old boot, as my mother used to say frequently, but that is beside the point; she left that balcony and hurtled down through the atmosphere thinking “Ha! This’ll show him!” Thwack.
It’s all too tragic to even think about.
If it’s the guy who’s hard done by, he’s more prone to act like Lersak and drink the local version of Drano, or worse, murder his girlfriend for daring to be with another guy. Such is the heart of we humans, especially when we delude ourselves into thinking that we can really “own” somebody else.
I am telling you all this because, after 250 kilometres breaking the speed limit, I arrived in my little home of Chantaburi to a very-much-alive Lersak, sitting under his house with a glass of whiskey in front of him and a forlorn expression.
It turns out he’d trudged up the mountain with his bottle of weed killer into the forest where he couldn’t be found. And then what? Unscrewed the cap and chugged it down, sputtering and choking on the poison as it wrested the very life out of him?
Hardly. He telephoned Hattai.
“I’m up here in the forest … about 20 metres diagonally to the left behind Andrew’s house. Next to the single mango tree amid the rubber trees. You’ll never find me. I’m about to drink weed killer. I’m ending it all because of you, Hattai. Goodbye!”
All he needed was a swelling of violins and a commercial break to complete the picture. Hattai of course quickly called Lersak’s mother, who called his best friend Wan, who happened to be at the rubber plantation, who sped over on his motorbike 30 minutes later with a gaggle of locals to find Lersak sprawled out under my sala with a hardly-touched bottle of weed killer.
I was furious.
“I … drove … three hours … for this?” I snarled. “This isn’t a suicide attempt! It’s not even a cry for help! It’s … pathetic!”
Lersak to his credit didn’t disagree. I actually felt sad for him, having been jilted then having staged a very bad suicide attempt. Haven’t we all felt like him at some stage in this life?
Lersak got over Hattai. In a short while he met a new girl, from Sa Kaew province, and now they have a beautiful daughter, a girl who was but a bottle of weed killer away from never existing.
BUFFALO AND BLACKHEADS
By Andrew Biggs
This week’s number one song on the Thai pop chart is a song by Stamp.
Hmmmm. Stamp. Is it just me, or is the name of that band just a little … bit … D-U-L-L?
Far be it from me to offend anybody in the Thai music industry, but it’s the kind of name you’d think up with your school friends and let’s see … what can we call ourselves? “Eclipse”? Nah, the chemistry nerds in grade 11 have already chosen that one. “Stardust”? Heavens no. Everyone will think of Alvin and that’s not a good look. Maybe I’ll think of a good name as I take this letter I’ve written to my mother to the post office to buy a stamp. Hey! That’s it! “Stamp”! Let’s call ourselves “Stamp”!
It’s a ludicrous scenario, I know — when was the last time you took a letter to your mother to the post office to buy a stamp? But it is yet another example of the Thai music industry and its insidious attempts to mangle and maul the English language.
The Thai music industry is littered with death squads dedicated to the eradication of proper English usage. In the past there were just two big record companies in Thailand, are both of their names were dubious.
Grammy. Now let me see; could that name have come from the patented, copyrighted music awards from the USA?
Then there’s the other one that’s called RS Promotion. Where I come from, RS is a popular adjective that stands for “rat shit” and is used to describe anything that is below quality. No need to insert any sardonic comment about the relationship between RS pop stars (some rats would even take offence) and the English colloquialism.
We have left the golden age of radio and music purchasing. But I was there when it was golden, and I listened to Thai pop music for 20 years, emerging from the experience unscathed. For the first 10 years in Thailand I edited a youth magazine and thus was obliged to expose myself to local pop music on a weekly basis.
Twenty-five ago just about every band had a Thai name, or so I thought. Imagine my surprise when the band I heard as “Noo-woe” actually was “Nuvo”, or the folksy “Cara-wahn” was spelt “Caravan”.
Back then, and surviving to this day, was a motley bunch of Thai guys whose concerts consisted of the same protest song sung in 20 different ways while the meatheads in the audience killed each other in brawls. They called themselves “Color-Bow”. It’s actually Carabao, which comes from the English word Caribou.
These names were pronunciation mutations that are bound to happen when an English word crosses into Thai territory. What bothered me back then were the attempts by the industry to make Thai artists trendy and cool by giving them English names that were anything BUT trendy and cool.
Back in the mid-90’s a rock band emerged that captured the hearts of Thai teenagers. They called themselves “Smile Buffalo”.
Smile what? It soon became apparent that the band had meant to call themselves “Smiling Buffalo”, but their knowledge of English was at the same level as their guitarists’ musical ability.
Didn’t anybody at the record company think to call an English teacher and ask: “Ajarn, is ‘Smile Buffalo’ correct?” Because it isn’t … it’s an order you give to a buffalo when you want it to smile.
Oh there was much worse, dear reader. In 1994 a new alternative band enjoyed their six months of fortune and fame at the top of the charts. When I saw the first press release for this bunch of rockers, I nearly choked on my sai krok isan.
“Thailand’s newest rock sensation – Blackhead!”
Now I’d seen everything. Four young guys in rock star pose going by the name “Blackhead”. I do hope they weren’t expecting fame in any English speaking country. When we interviewed them, all became clear: “We are Asian guys, with black hair on our heads. We want to show the world we are as good as any farang band.”
Wonderful philosophy, but …. Black Hair, nong, not Blackhead! You can’t go around calling yourself something caused by excess oil in your sebaceous glands. What’s next … Acne? Or will two members splinter off and form Genital Warts?
(Despite such names, Smile Buffalo and Blackhead outlasted the competition and enjoyed some ten years at the top, which just goes to show the music industry has no place for anal English instructors like myself.)
There were others. I felt the band “Silly Fools” reeked of tautology – what kind of fool was there other than a silly one? Then there was the duo of two beautiful teenaged girls chosen for their stick figures rather than any singing ability, who had a hit with “Please Pick Up My Handkerchief”. They called themselves “Triumphs Kingdom.”
That’s ironic, because Thais are allergic to any English plural form; they would rather go to battle against the Burmese than add an “s” to anything. And yet … “Triumphs Kingdom”? Thankfully one of the members turned to a life of crime selling amphetamines and ended up in jail – tragic for her, but a true blessing for any music aficionado.
These days almost no Thai pop star has a Thai name. Even Thai songs have choruses in English, a phenomenon that stretches across Asia. You would think with the improved English language ability among Thai youths these days there would be better band names.
Not so. In the last ten years the names were as bad as during the golden era. I remember when the Thai band “Potato” was popular. I fully expect “Broccoli” or “Rhubarb” on the charts soon. And what about the extremely popular “Big Ass”? I saw videos of Big Ass concerts with fat girls screaming in the front row and think: Have you no dignity, young ladies?
Some band names are a complete mystery to me. Is “Getsunova” a bastardization of “Casanova”? I suspect it is but that’s okay; I just love their publicity shots. I could swear they’re the four guys at the end of my soi wearing orange tunics with numbers on their backs.
There’s also a band called “Sweet Mullet”. Are they talking about the fish or the haircut? The four-man “Pancake” has a lead singer who sings as flat as their namesake. “Chick-Ka-Chick” is made up almost entirely of men. And what about “Clash” and “Prince” – weren’t they around in the 1970’s and 80s? The answer is – no.
On another day we will talk about solo singers and their dubious names which have littered the Thai charts, but one of my favorites was “Moddy”, who dressed in such revealing costumes it was lucky the Ministry of Culture hadn’t come into existence. “I’m a modern girl, so I want to be known as ‘Mod’, and a cute form of that is ‘Moddy’,” she revealed, leading us to suspect that “Idiotty” might have been a more appropriate moniker.
Which brings us back to “Stamp”. It’s not a band; “Stamp” is a young man who is still populatr to this day, so it is probably unfair to lump him in with Blackhead and Smile Buffalo. But still … Stamp? Try as I might, I just can’t get excited over that name. Or perhaps I am simply no longer moddy enough.
BOATS AND ERECTIONS
By Andrew Biggs
There is a billboard that caught my attention this week while sitting in a taxi flitting in and out of four lanes of traffic on the three-lane city expressway.
It depicts a young man and woman sitting back to back desolately on a bed. It was clear they were desolate by the hang-dog expression on the man’s face, and the ankle-clutching stance of the woman.
It’s not often we see desolation on inner-city billboards. I’m far more used to billboards featuring the lily-white happy complexions of Thailand’s young actors and actors pushing collagen drinks or bird nest soups or any other of the myriad charlatan products out there.
What also grabbed my attention was the Thai writing next to the unhappy couple.
Reua lom bahk ao.
The boat sinks in the mouth of the bay.
What a curious headline!
“What does that mean?” I asked my taxi driver, a happy middle-aged fellow who had been enjoying practicing his English on me until I feigned a cell phone call to shut him up.
“Reua lom bahk ao?” he asked back. He broke into a great middle-aged Thai smile. “Oh! You know? You know?” He paused and flashed me a leering smile. “You know?”
“No, I don’t; that’s why I’m asking you.”
“You and lady same-same but you no good. You go first but you very fart. No good, you know?”
I have been in Thailand too long; I understood exactly what he was talking about.
If ever there was an example of my theory that language doesn’t get much more vivid and descriptive than Thai, then there it was.
I’ve spent 29 years in this country and here was yet another colorful idiomatic phrase that completely passed me by. Nobody had ever said it to me before. And thank God for that, judging by its meaning.
No wonder the couple on the billboard looked so dejected! No wonder the woman was clutching her sturdy ankles; that’s about the only sturdy thing she was going to be clutching that evening for any satisfactory length of time.
(And if you’re new in town, the taxi driver wasn’t that bad in English. You just have to know that ‘same-same’ has the added meaning of ‘sex’ here, while ‘fart’ is in reality ‘fast’ since Thais have difficulty with consonant clusters consisting of S and T.)
How clever of the Thai language to equate premature ejaculation with the sinking of a boat just as it was to enter a harbor. When I got to my office I googled the phrase and sure enough, there it was, hundreds and thousands of times over on the internet.
I did get it the wrong way around. The boat is leaving the harbor, not entering it, as my School Director and Senior Sales Manager, both females, pointed out to me over lunch that day.
“It sinks before it even sets out on the journey,” my School Director explained as she popped a serendipitous Isarn sausage into her mouth.
“I thought it to be more like the train entering the tunnel,” I said. “It’s the boat entering the mouth of the harbor. You know?” Curse that taxi driver! He’s got me saying it now!
“Or the sparrow,” chimed my mannish Senior Sales Manager. She was enjoying a lunch of fried oysters, as was her wont. “When the sparrow has a drink of water.”
I gazed at her intently, expecting her to continue, but it appeared she was finished with her explanation.
“And?” I asked.
“That’s all,” she said. “The sparrow drinks water. That’s what we say in Thai. Nok krajok jib nam.”
“Yes,” said my Director, eyeing a second sausage. “The sparrow takes a sip of water.”
I don’t know, dear reader, but perhaps I’m just a little slower than the rest of humanity. How on earth does a drinking sparrow relate to premature ejaculation?
Being the boss, I was able to demand an explanation.
“Have you ever seen a sparrow drink water?” my Sales Manager asked. Before I could answer, she was making mannish pecking movements with her right hand towards her plate of fried oysters, accompanied by a very vocal: “Jib! Jib! Jib! Jib!”
“It’s the same as the boat in the harbor,” added my Director, winking, and I fell further down into the Stupid Hole.
It took them five minutes to pull me out.
The idea is that the sparrow’s pecking at water is a very short, spasmodic movement, not unlike a man who finishes quickly during sex. I find that metaphor a little tenuous and not as imaginative as the boat one, but still, how great is the Thai language!
The conversation didn’t stop there.
“What about the one about the dove?” asked Director to Sales Manager. “In Thai we say: nok khao mai khan, or ‘The dove does not sing’.”
“You can use that when you feel excited for sex but there is no change – down there,” said my Sales Manager, motioning towards my crutch. Despite every conceivable attempt not to, I reddened ever so slightly.
“Speaking of birds, what about the idiom ‘washing the face of the chicken’?” asked my Director.
“Stop right there,” I said. “I’m eating.”
There was an uncomfortable pause.
“Oh what the hell; tell me,” I said and they explained, in polite Thai, how it referred to the erect state of a male upon awakening, if indeed such things can be explained in polite Thai.
“That one is not considered a negative phrase,” said the Sales Manager. “Nothing is stronger than the boat sinking.”
Later that day I was back on the freeway and noticed that the billboard in question wasn’t on its own. It was part of three big signs, the first being the sad couple. The second explained in large letters that NEARLY ONE IN THREE MEN SUFFER FROM PREMATURE EJACULATION and there was a website to visit.
The last one revealed the boat had been dredged up out of the harbor, because in that one the couple were now smiling in each other’s arms, as if their love would last forever, which is a relief since it appeared to have lasted three seconds at the most in the first one.
I have a very old book of common Thai proverbs and sayings that are so entertaining, and not just of a sexual nature.
In Thai, for example, if you “make a sculpture out of water” you are telling lies, since this phrase dates back to an era before we could freeze water into ice-cubes. Yet you still hear it today.
If you “build a house over a tree stump”, you are committing bigamy. A jack of all trades is somebody who “knows things like a duck” … whatever that means.
If you “find a good tree after your axe is broken”, you fall in love with a beautiful woman after you’re already married. A “jar of pickled garlic on legs” is a short fat girl.
When you look at all those, a boat sinking in the mouth of the harbor isn’t so out of place.
I have only one reservation. Why is the man in the billboard a farang while the woman is Thai? Would it have been too close to the bone to have used a Thai male? Just sayin’.
Our story should end there, but it has an interesting footnote.
Remember my casual google of reua lom bahk ao? That was three days ago.
Ever since, I have been bombarded with ads for every erectile dysfunction clinic in town, and believe me there are lots of them. In these modern times Big Brother is not only watching me — he is waiting for my boat to sink.
(Author’s note: From 2012)
By Andrew Biggs
Today is day one of my re-emergence after a month of hibernation, albeit self-enforced.
I step out of the cave, blinking and rubbing my eyes, oblivious to everything that has gone on around me. And it’s all because I wrote a book.
Yes, a book, dear reader. An entire book. In a month. In my non-native tongue.
I know what you’re thinking. I’m just some well-connected columnist spitting out sometimes-witty observations on a weekly basis. No, dear reader, you’re wrong. By day you may see me swanning around Paragon with whichever khunyings may still be in favor. But by night? Bring out the codpiece and cape!
I am something of an accomplished author in Thailand. While my count of books published in the English language stands at nil, this latest book I have written is my 16th – in my non-native tongue.
“Steel Noodles” will be my 16th book in the Thai language. My biggest title has sold around 250,000 copies, and I have a cumulative sales total inching towards three-quarters of a million.
My literary career began in the 1990s when I put out my very first book in the Thai language. It was a collection of my weekly columns I was writing for a political magazine about life here as a westerner.
The book, “Thailand In My Eyes,” shot to number one, surprising the entire literary world including its author. Everybody was asking: “Who the hell is this guy? Where did he come from?”
I was thrilled to have the best selling book in the kingdom for a couple of weeks. It was the timing that was all wrong.
You see, I went number one the week Thailand went bankrupt.
It was July 1997, when the tom yam kung economic crisis blew up and the Baht quickly turned to jelly along with everything else. Despite that my publisher, Dok Ya, kept paying me royalties although sadly in Thai Baht when it was sinking to 53 Baht to the American dollar.
Still … number one is number one, right? Who cares if you’re selling 50,000 copies or a mere 500 per week? Believe me, I saw both.
I was flavor of the month, and my book ended up being the country’s second biggest selling pocket book of 1997. I was pipped at the post by a book about the fad sweeping the nation called chivajit. That book was all about macrobiotic dieting and meditation.
Officially I was thrilled a book on such a healthy topic was selling in the hundreds of thousands. Officially. Privately I was warding off the dull waves from the Sea Of Losers as I sat on the lonely beach known as Number Two.
My publishers milked me for everything, and I was a willing partner. “Thailand In My Eyes (Again)” came out, yet another collection of my rants. It went Top 10. You’d have thought Thailand would have had enough of my eyes by then, but no. The following year “Thailand In My Eyes (For The Last Time)” scraped the Top 10 but only just.
That should have been it, but in 2000 my fourth book entitled, and I’m not kidding, “Thailand In My Eyes (Back From The Dead)” won me the Golden Flogger accolade at that year’s Dead Horse Awards.
Around the same time I was travelling around Thailand giving a speech about learning English. I gave it so many times I was sure the sound engineer, a dull young man with pimples and a protruding forehead, no doubt from one of those provinces with the fruit-carving competitions, could surely have hopped up and delivered the speech on stage verbatim had I suddenly dropped dead before a performance.
After several hundred renditions I knew it off by heart. One month I sat down and churned it out in Thai, my first experience at literary hibernation.
Talk about a reinvention! The result was “How To Speak English Like A Guava” which I am proud to say sold a quarter of a million copies and continues to sell to this day. It enabled me to pay off my mortgage, and my liquor cabinet, some five years ago.
Putting out a book is fun if it hits. In 2005 three of my books hit the Top 10 simultaneously. I was like Adele on the pop charts today; ubiquitous, popular, and overweight in a cute way.
I have also been like Mariah Carey when she released Charm Bracelet and Glitter. You don’t remember those albums? I have a book or two like that.
I wrote one book while I was riding the crest of fame and ordered 5,000 copies to be printed. That was 2007; to date it has sold 300 copies. Just this week those 4,700 remaining tomes were sent back to my home, after sitting in a humid Kingkaew warehouse for five years.
How coincidental they came back just as I was sending this new book off to the printer’s this week.
I hope it’s not an omen. This is my first new book on the Thai market in two years. That’s an eternity in a market where 500 new titles hit the market every month and 95 per cent disappear without a trace.
This is my first book that gets released electronically in Thailand as well as the hard copy. This is the way books are heading – are there still people out there willing to purchase books? In Thailand a bestseller is a book that sells 5,000 copies, and that figure has probably reduced drastically in the wake of illegal downloads. My back catalogue no longer sells like it used to and this month I found out why; each book is now available free on a Thai search engine!
Is Andrew Biggs still saleable? Will “Steel Noodles” be the equivalent of Santana’s “Smooth” and soar to the top of the charts, firmly re-establishing me as a literary force to be reckoned with?
Or will it … no, forget it. It’s all good no matter what the outcome.
Sometimes when life gets me down, when I am standing at the Foodland cashiers at 2.10 pm with a bottle of Absolut, I remind myself I can bash out an entire book in Thai in a month. That’s either truly impressive, or simply renders me the Jackie Collins of Thailand minus the plastic surgery.
Wish me luck. If “Steel Noodles” does blitz the bestseller charts I may just quietly purchase one-third of some faraway dull province and set up my own fruit carving school. There are worse fates in life.
(Author’s note: It did do well, dear reader. Four print runs. Followed by another successful book in 2015. Since then I’ve gone electronic as I witness, sadly, the decline of the Thai book-buying public.)
By Andrew Biggs
It’s been a pornographic week here in Thailand, full of breasts and genitals and all sorts of other body parts that have no place in Thai culture.
Hardly the stuff that the government wants to be known for, I know. Just listen to our politicians scream whenever Bangkok is depicted by foreigners as the sex capital of the world. Not that they were doing much screaming this past week. Drooling, yes. Screaming, no.
This week we discovered what those very same politicians like to concentrate on as they sit in Parliament. And if you think it’s governance, you’re in dreamland.
So who is responsible for that pornographic picture that flashed across the big screen in Parliament?
No, no, don’t go down that “hackers outside the building” road. We’re all grown ups here. Who was watching porn during the constitution debate?
Come on, own up. We’ll rap you over the knuckles, express mild outrage at the dent you have made into Thai culture, then we can all forget about it and move on.
Or do we get more serious out it? I thought pornography was illegal here. Should they resign? Do they get a 500 Baht fine? I only ask because just four days prior to that incident, a 19-year-old Ayuthaya man was fined that amount for exposing himself. No, not his genitals. His breasts.
When I first heard this news I kind of misunderstood it. A guy took off his shirt and got arrested for indecency – hallelujah! That’s something I’ve waited for for decades!
You see, throughout my delicate formative years I was exposed to the unholy sight of aged men wandering the beaches of Surfers Paradise in nothing but stretchy speedos, their man boobs swish, swish, swishing in sync with their stride.
Honestly … as a young boy that really affected me. Why did we ban women’s breasts on our beaches but allow floppy guy ones? And believe me, the average thirty-something Queensland male, with some two decades of Fourex beer and meat pies inside him, had a bust on him bigger than the average Thai girl’s.
Sadly my joyous cries of hallelujah fizzled as I read further into the Ayuthaya story. The man in question, Sarawat Suparb (his last name means “polite”, curiously), is a transgender. He is a member of the “third sex”, a term I have tried to avoid since I can’t work out which sex is the first and which is the second.
Last Friday on the very first day of Songkran young Sarawut performed an act which, according to the Culture Ministry, threatens the 1,200 year Thai culture in terms of its offensiveness. He took off his shirt in public.
If only young Sarawut hadn’t achieved his lifelong ambition of having a woman’s body. If only he’d stuck to his original boobs which, judging from his stick-thin physique, weren’t offensive at all. But no, the guy had genuine silicone implants. And for that he got arrested.
Whoah, stop right there. So Thai culture frowns upon women’s breasts in public, regardless of whether those breasts are on a woman or a man? Does this mean, then, a woman with no protruding breasts can take off her shirt in public? I’m not being flippant. Does a flat female chest warrant indecency, just as flat male chests do not?
I know. I’ve completely lost you. But it does give me a slight thrill to know that men can be arrested for indecency just for whipping off their shirts and revealing women’s breasts.
Speaking of slight thrills, our Thai politicians got a few of their own this week as they pored over porn.
It turns out more than one government MP chose semi-naked women over the constitution debate. On another side of Parliament an MP was watching his own pornography on his cell phone.
Did you see the picture in the press? The politician in question was clearly overweight and no doubt possessing unsightly man boobs of his own. I should be thankful they were covered over, except he was wearing a very unfashionable tan-colored suit. No wonder the guy needs to watch porn; he ain’t gonna get lucky wearing that.
Don’t think these Thai politicians are anything special. Watching porn in Parliament? They’re not the first to have done it.
It happened during a parliamentary debate to an Indonesian politician who belonged to the “Islamic Prosperous Justice Party” (a name so clunky it would bruise your feet if you dropped it).
In February there was a celebrated case of the Indian MPs who were caught watching porn on a mobile phone, while in the USA, a state senator ogled over topless women on his laptop -- while debating an abortion bill.
It’s funny how in every incident, the politicians are victims.
The Indonesian MP claimed he inadvertently clicked on an email link, though this doesn’t explain the fact the tablet was under his table and he was breathing heavily. The American guy claims a friend sent him the link and he looked at the pic for four seconds before closing it.
In India, one of them claimed he was “trying to switch off the handset”, hence the pictures of his hand gripped so tightly around his device – electronic device, that is.
In last Wednesday’s case it wasn’t the innocent politicians, but nasty hackers from “outside”. In the words of House speaker, the picture that flashed up on the big screen was “beamed in by hackers.”
Beamed in? I thought we stopped beaming in things around the time the original Star Trek series was axed. How does one “beam in” things via the internet or closed circuit TV anyway?
While both pictures in Parliament this week – that which was “beamed in” and that on the smart phone of the sartorially-challenged MP – were pornographic, in both pictures the women had their breasts covered.
Don’t you see? They weren’t contravening Thai culture at all!
This is the only conclusion we can make following the events of the past week: It’s wrong to show your breasts in Thailand if you’re a woman, or even if you’re a woman trapped in a man’s body. Man boobs are fine, along with completely naked fat men and women since they’re not sexually attractive at all.
But vaginas? That’s perfectly okay, if we are to follow the lead of our politicians last Wednesday, who seem to eschew breasts but go for pictures of women who have misplaced their panties.
And if you can get your head around all that, then you are either much deeper into Thai culture than I am – or one very sick puppy.
By Andrew Biggs
“Oh my god Khun Andrew … what is this?”
It’s not a week after Songkran and I’m in a studio to record a radio show. The incredulous voice belongs to my co-host, Puk, who has just arrived. She walks towards me, eyes wide open.
“A beard!” she announces.
“Yes, a beard,” I say. “I grew it over Songkran. God knows I had nothing else to do.”
That was meant to be a joke but it goes over her head.
“It’s not very long,” Puk answers. I want to reply “said the actress to the bishop” but two jokes in a row falling flat would be too much for my ego to bear.
“When will you find a knife and kill it?”
I know exactly what she means.
“When will I shave it off?”
“I haven’t thought about that. Maybe I’ll keep it for a while.”
Puk furrows her brow. “You can’t do that.”
“Why not? Don’t tell me the military is cracking down on beards.”
Puk begins to unpack her notebooks. “You’re a teacher. You can’t have a beard in the classroom.”
“That’s news to me.”
“A teacher cannot wear a beard. No, wait. What I mean is, a beard like that.” She points to my chin.
“You mean some beards are okay and some are not?”
“If it’s a thick beard like Santa Claus, then it’s okay. That’s a happy, friendly beard. But a short beard like yours …” She shakes her head. “It’s not a good look. It looks … scary.”
Twenty-seven years in Thailand and I still get thrown by the occasional unearthed cultural more. Here was one being thrown right in my face — the lower region of my face around the chin and mouth.
I take a deep breath. “Let me take this opportunity to teach you an English saying. You can’t judge a book by its cover. Have you ever heard it before?”
“Then despite the clear obstacle that is growing on my face which obstructs my ability to teach, let me explain. It means you cannot judge somebody by how they look.”
“But you can!” shoots back Puk, who happens to be a public speaker of national fame. “You can judge somebody by the way they look!”
“You mean if I grow a beard it may mean I’m a child molester?”
“Have you noticed how many child molesters have beards?”
Good lord. She had a point there, dammit.
“For every saying, there is another one that says something different. For example in Thai we say cha cha dai phra lem ngarm: To make the knife sharp, you have to work on it slowly and carefully. But at the same time we have nam kheun hai reeb tak: Quickly draw water when the tide is high.”
Slow and steady wins the race. Make hay while the sun shines. I was too fixated with my beard to explain those two English equivalents.
“So you’re saying if I wear a beard in class, it doesn’t make me look good?”
Puk nods. “It’s a Thai culture thing. People will think you are dirty.”
“No. That’s Thai.” She pauses. “Have you noticed no Thai teachers have beards?”
“Thai men can’t grow beards like we can. Western genes are more conducive to growing beards. Thai guys would if they could.”
“Are you looking down on Thai men?”
I can’t win today! But I’m not finished; as they say, it’s not over until the fat bearded lady sings.
“Let me tell you something, Puk. You say appearances are everything.”
“In our culture, yes.”
“And I have to look clean-shaven and presentable to get ahead?”
“Because clean-shaven and presentable means I’m a good person.”
“Then I have two words for you. Stephen Hawking.”
Puk does a quick search on her iPad and she realizes she knows him. But I’m not finished. “According to your argument, Stephen Hawking would never be welcome in a Thai science classroom because of his appearance. And yet he is one of the greatest scientific minds on Earth.”
Puk peers at Hawking. I have crushed Puk. It feels kind of good, so I stroke my beard.
Suddenly she points at the screen and says triumphantly: “Yes! He can come into the classroom! He does not have a beard!”
At this point I give up.
Bizarrely, just three weeks ago I met a new Australian teacher, Tom, who had arrived in Thailand looking for work. This young man had great credentials and a very pleasant demeanor — and a big, bushy beard. If he ever wanted a change of life he could join the circus as a ventriloquist.
My Thai School Director was adamant. The beard had to go. “Corporate students may not accept his beard,” she said. “Young children may be frightened.”
I tried to explain that beards were a fashion statement among younger guys these days, particularly the fuzzy under-the-chin and neck look so favored by ISIS suicide bombers. How furious ISIS must be to know they inspired a western culture fashion statement.
When I was in Europe late 2014 young guys were sporting them everywhere; in inner city London I spotted more beards than a gathering of Republican politicians’ wives. Here in Thailand you’ll find lots of beards at hipster gatherings, Carabao concerts and vinyl record stores, but Puk and my School Director are right. You don’t see them in classrooms. So what to do about Tom?
Tom’s beard was not of the Muslim terrorist kind. His was a more full facial swirling beard favored by the likes of Santa Claus and gun-toting Trump supporters. My Thai School Director is not often wrong in things of a cultural nature, so we had to at least ask Tom if he’d depart with his beard.
Being yellow-bellied, I instructed my Head Teacher to call and ask. “He’s willing to trim it,” my Head Teacher reported back, “But he doesn’t want to shave it off. He values his beard immensely. He’s part of a special Facebook group for people who wear beards.”
“Oh for crying out loud,” I said. “He’s Australian! We don’t have strong affinities for things like beards!”
But back to Puk, who is still pointing at my beard, making clucking sounds. As she is doing that, I can’t think of a single well-known Thai who has a beard. I’m not counting straggly wisps below the nose and chin. That isn’t a beard; it’s “bumfluff” as we say in Australia. Even in the period piece soap opera that is all the rage at the moment, where there are lots of buff Siamese lads, their hair may be long and straggly but their faces still resemble baby’s bottoms.
Just as we are about to start recording, Puk says something quite out of the blue. “You know, maybe you’re right. Your beard makes you look more … “
“… distinguished? Handsome?”
“The first word. It’s all grey so it makes you look like an old man. There is a little bit of black, but not much. It’s mostly grey and silver, like old men have. Without your beard, it’s difficult to tell how old you are. But like this, it is clear.”
She nods, and I wonder if she’s being honest or just very, very sly. Because as sure as the sun rises tomorrow morning, I’m losing that beard the moment I can get to the bathroom.
HANDLEBARS OF DEATH
By Andrew Biggs
Bangkok is a great city for anybody with a death wish.
If you want to overdose on heroin, come on over. Try crossing the street on a zebra crossing. Just choosing the wrong song in a karaoke bar can get you killed.
And here is a new way: slip on some spandex and spending a leisurely day on a bicycle.
Bangkok is a city choked by traffic. Most western cities allocate up to 30 per cent of their surface area to roadways. In Bangkok we have just eight. Then there are those 500 new cars that go onto the roads every single day.
Not enough roads. Way too many cars. So what does the government do? It builds bicycle lanes and encourages bike riding! Are they crazy?
Ten years ago the only cyclists on the streets here were the certifiably insane. Now it is trendy to bicycle, the perception being that more bikes in Bangkok makes us more eco-friendly and less reliant on our cars.
If Bangkok’s traffic is a monster, then bicycling is the little lamb it is devouring with relish. For it is neither healthy nor even eco-friendly to ride a bicycle in Bangkok. It is plain stupid.
Two terrible bike accidents, one taking place in Chiang Mai, in the space of 48 hours this week has brought to light the folly of getting on a bike.
On Sunday a drunken 24-year-old female university student crashed into a trail of cyclists, killing three and injuring six. The next day in Bangkok, a man crashed into three cyclists on Ratchada-Ramintra Road, killing one and severely injuring the other two.
How do we describe these accidents? Tragic. Horrible. But let’s call a spade a spade; they are also expected.
Every Friday I wake up at 5 am to make the trek from my home in Samut Prakan to the province of Patum Thani just north of Bangkok. What a picturesque province Pathum Thani is, with winding country roads amid rice fields alongside the sprawling bends of the Chao Phraya River.
It is this rural beauty, especially in the early morning, that attracts lines of bicyclists along the narrow roads. And that is what scares me most.
This being Thailand, motorists race through those curves at breakneck speeds. The scenario may be peaceful, but the pick-up trucks speeding down those roads are anything but. I want to wind down my window and shout at these cyclists: “Go home! You’re way too young to die!” but that would just make me look like an idiot, regardless of how true my words may be.
Of course cyclists must die on the roads here. It is a logical result of the unbridled chaos on our streets. How irresponsible it is for the powers-that-be to actively encourage citizens to ride bicycles. You may as well actively encourage them to play Russian Roulette.
Two years ago a new campaign was announced called “Bangkok Smile Bike,” the idea being you could make use of free bikes provided by the city. Again, what a great idea … but only if you had a death wish.
Perhaps for this reason the campaign was discontinued in January this year but I heard the bikes were being stolen, for which we must thank the thieves. Who knows how many lives were saved.
Bangkok desperately needs its citizens to swap cars for bikes, but you can’t just paint little green lanes on the sides of the roads, or set up a network of smiling bikes, and expect things to change overnight.
First of all the shoulder, or the side of the road where cyclists have to be, is the most dangerous part of any road. It is here where cars wanting to escape the jams in the real lanes choose to drive without fear of road rules, let alone speed limits.
Coupled with that are the motorcyclists and even cars that choose to brazenly ride on the wrong side of the road. And street stalls. And motorcycle taxi drivers. And you want to ride a bicycle amid all that?
If I were a more optimistic man I would immediately answer: strict law enforcement is the answer. Crack down on drink drivers for a start. That 24-year-old Chiang Mai girl would surely agree with me. If only a police road block had arrested her before her accident; how much less of a burden on her conscience would a court rap have been … as opposed to what she has to live with now?
There needs to be more strict enforcement to stop riding the shoulder, texting while driving, riding on the wrong side of the road and speeding. Only then would you even think to consider a campaign to use bicycles.
But as I said, I would have to be a man of hope and optimism to suggest all that. I am not that man. The problem runs deeper than just getting tough on motorists.
Road deaths are so commonplace now the media doesn’t report them unless it’s a slow news day. It’s like bombs blowing up people in the South. We just aren’t horrified anymore.
Each year 13,000 people die on the roads in Thailand and another 20,000 are injured. We no longer stop to consider what that that means in terms of humanity.
As an example, take Thunyakorn Densirimongkol, an intelligent and beautiful young woman doing her Phd in Architecture. You should see her picture; she literally radiates with life.
Bright, attractive … and dead, as of last Monday, all because she chose to ride a bicycle with two friends down Ratchada Road at 8 pm. She was struck and killed by a man who, after the crash, got out of his car, took one look at the three fallen cyclists – and ran for his life.
That’s as tragic as the story of Peter Root and Mary Thompson, a British couple who travelled the world by bicycle. The two 34-year-olds had spent two years bicycling through Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and China before making the mistake of coming to Thailand. In Chachoengsao they were killed by a pick-up truck driver who swerved as he picked up his cap from the floor of his vehicle.
Not tragic enough? A Chilean man who spent five years cycling 250,000 kilometres around the world was struck and killed near Khon Kaen in February of this year. The facts speak for themselves; Thailand is one of the world’s worst countries for cyclists.
I have a friend, Jonathon, who is a long-term resident of Bangkok and an avid cyclist, eccentric as he is. While writing this column I called him up, and this was his one piece of advice: “Don’t ride in Bangkok.”
“I used to ride from Ekamai to the Grand Palace. It was really enjoyable. Once in a while you’d have a bus on your tail but other than that it was fine.”
That was 15 years ago.
“These days I won’t ride down Thonglor or Ekamai. People are so short-tempered. I have to stop on every corner because of some idiot making an illegal turn.”
I asked Jonathon what he thought could be done to alleviate the situation. “Scream abuse at them,” he said, before I clarified my question: What could be done to make it safer for bicyclists?
“Nothing,” he said. “Don’t even think of riding here. It’s a death wish.”
A death wish, dear reader! Jonathon’s own words!
Didn’t I say that at the beginning of this column?
That is the reality of Bangkokม a city where spandex and bicycles are on a par with tourniquets and heroin. Just say no.
I LIKE MY GODS BIG
By Andrew Biggs
Back in the 1970s when I was a little boy, we had a tourist attraction not far from home called the Big Pineapple.
How tragic. How could modern civilization think to build such a thing and think it would be popular?
I am reminded of the immortal words of P.T. Barnum who claimed there was a sucker born every minute. The Big Pineapple was a monstrosity, yes – but it was also a big hit.
The state I grew up in, Queensland, is the only state in Australia where country folk outnumber the city slickers. There is an abundance of pineapples, bananas, oranges, avocados and custard apples.
In the midst of this abundance there are fantastic beaches and one such strip is known as the Sunshine Coast. On the road there, just a few hours outside of Brisbane in a small town known as Woombye, there was a shrine to this agricultural buffet and it was called the Big Pineapple.
It was a 16-metre-high concrete and steel structure in the form of a pineapple and painted in hues of orange and yellow and green – just like a real pineapple! How ingenious and artistic we Queenslanders were!
I loved it as a kid. You could walk inside the pineapple and climb up some stairs to afford a lovely view of, well, pineapple plantations, as fascinating as they can be.
On the way up the stairs there was a visual display of the intricate process in which pineapples are harvested. You know, plant ‘em, pick ‘em, put ‘em in trucks. It didn’t take much to titillate us rural Queensland kids.
That wasn’t all! You could then board a rickety train known as the Nutmobile for a 15-minute circuit of the Big Pineapple’s grounds, where you could view amazing fields of macadamia trees. Incredible but true; the Big Pineapple didn’t limit itself to pineapples. It had macadamias, too!
I don’t remember much of those vistas from my seat on the Nutmobile – I suspect macadamia trees didn’t have the same thrill for a child of the 70’s as did, say, pet rocks and sea monkeys. But at the end of the circuit the Nutmobile deposited you right outside the Big Pineapple Restaurant which served the most delicious thing I have ever tasted.
That was a macadamia nut sundae, made with fresh Big Pineapple macadamia nuts, caramel topping and whipped cream all spooned over vanilla ice-cream.
It didn’t take long for me to grow up and realize that the Big Pineapple was, other than an informative glimpse into the pineapple farming procedure, a monument to the infantile obsession we humans have for all things big.
There was even competition, with an identical Big Pineapple being built in not-so-far-away Gympie in 1971, the same year the original was made. In 1971 NASA was still rejoicing about sending man to the moon. We Queenslanders were fervently building big pineapples.
Thanks to the success of the Big Pineapple by the decade’s end the state was home to the Big Cow (ludicrous), the Big Lawnmower (hideous), the Big Banana (phallic), and the Big Bulls (suggesting “hit” must have fallen off during a cyclone).
No wonder I took flight.
Enough was enough. I uprooted myself and settled in the tranquil Buddhist country of Thailand, where the local people understand the value of quiet meditation and charitable deeds in order to create good karma for this life and the next. A land devoid of Big Pineapples and Big Bulls.
That was more than 20 years ago.
Two months ago I had a speaking job in Kabin Buri, a sleepy town in the province of Prachinburi.
I was driving along the highway enjoying vistas of rice fields when a billboard jumped out at me like a serial killer in a teen horror flick. Only this billboard wasn’t brandishing a knife and ski mask. It brandished a message that was more frightening.
YOU’RE HERE! THE TURN-OFF TO THAILAND’S BIGGEST SCULPTURE OF GANESHA!
The Big Ganesha?! Here was a billboard advertising a tourist attraction, namely a massive blob of concrete fashioned in the shape of the Hindu god Ganesha, or Phra Pikkanet as it is called in Thai.
Ganesha with the elephant head. Ganesha, the god that removes obstacles from your life and widely revered here in Thailand.
So the big craze has finally made it way to Thailand. Did a Ganesha apostle from Thailand take a holiday on the Sunshine Coast? Am I somehow partly to blame?
It’s spreading, too. On a recent trip to Rayong I was caught unaware by a billboard advertising the WORLD’S BIGGEST GUAN IM STATUE!
Is this a sign of increasing spirituality, or merely an acceleration of the destruction of Thailand’s mountains in our quest for more concrete?
I wonder if I am better off karmically if I actively seek out the biggest Ganesh in the world on the road to Kabin Buri, rather than bowing before the framed picture of Ganesha that sits above my CD collection (right on top of the B artists, namely the Bee Gees, Boney M, Brick and Kate Bush).
By praying to a ton of concrete, does that ensure my next life is full of Mercedes Benz and plush inner-city mansions? Am I doomed to middle-class mediocrity yet again because all I have is that framed pic above the CDs?
Big Ganeshas are as popular with local folk as Big Pineapples. The Ganesha Giant on the way to Kabin Buri was well-attended the day I drove past. Of course you have to pay; that monument to spirituality costs money, and in this regard the Big Pineapple was more spiritual in that it was free to enter.
Here we are building giant renditions of what should be a personal relationship between you and whatever god you may believe in. Do we really need personal gods blotting the skyline? Doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose of having a personal religion?
It was a troublesome train of thought that chugged away inside me on the road trip past Ganesha, which probably explains why my speech at Kabin Buri that day was a little lackluster.
Just when Thailand’s biggest Ganesha was fading from my memory, as things are wont to do at my age after three days, another shock.
I was driving to Nakhon Nayok last week when I chanced upon this sign:
GANESHA PARK! FEATURING THE WORLD’S BIGGEST STATUE OF GANESHA!
Oh ... my … goodness. It’s Gympie and Woombye all over again, only this time it’s a religious war!
Again, I delivered a dreadful speech. My mind was on other things –how in the world can one have TWO biggest statues? Not only that, but on another recent trip to Rayong in the east I saw a sign for the BIGGEST GUAN IM statue. That can only spell trouble.
Everybody knows competition within a religion tends to finish up with fisticuffs and/or bombs.
And indeed, even the two Big Pineapples ended in tears. The Woombye one was destroyed by fire while the Gympie one went broke and was dismantled not that long ago. So what’s going to happen when a country goes crazy over building more than one biggest deity?
I had the right idea all along back when I was a kid. I’ll stick to worshipping that macadamia nut sundae.
IT’S THE THOUGHT THAT COUNTS
By Andrew Biggs
Those three letters coursed relentlessly across my smartphone screen last weekend.
The message came from students, friends, acquaintances. Every time it beeped at me I admit I felt all warm and fuzzy, which was nice since I was on an alcohol-free weekend and I needed something to get me through, though after a few dozen times they also brought tinges of regret.
Regret that I was one year older? Nah … regret at how the internet has turned us into instant, finger-jabbing, anti-social creatures more intent on gazing at a screen than socially interacting … or networking for that matter.
What a creature the internet is. Like the antagonist from Texas Chainsaw Massacre it has taken to huge chunks of human experience with a chainsaw and hacked them to pieces. Gone are so many things we once took for granted such as record stores, book shops, travel agents and suburban cinemas. How efficient everything is now. How vanilla.
Add birthdays to that list of long-gone experiences, or perhaps I write BDs to keep up with the times since in these modern times “birthdays” is a word with way too many extraneous letters to write out in full.
It was a subdued BD, without the raucousness of last year nor the embarrassment of two years ago that resulted in a nasty rash. In fact this year my BD was spent running; I ran a 10 km mini-marathon that left me feeling my calf muscles along with my age.
As one progresses in life, one begins to stop counting and announcing BDs as fervently as one did when one was, say, ten and a half or, as my student told me a month ago, “In three months and two weeks I’ll be 13.” If that were me I’d be grasping onto 12 as long as I could.
While the outpouring of well-wishes were truly touching, this year’s BD brought home how different modern life is when compared to just 15 years ago, not to mention how the internet has pushed us far away from the thrill of social networking. Who has the time to social network any more when one’s attention is plunged into a little three-by-two inch screen for most of the day?
One only has to tap the screen three times … H … B … D … and one has sent a birthday wish.
That’s great for those you would like to keep in good stead with for purposes of business or inheritance, but with whom social interaction is just a teensy bit too abhorrent. But do we now extend the net to everybody?
Imagine telling our grandparents when they were kids that in the near future, people would tap a screen exactly three times and a birthday message would be delivered. They would peer over their pince-nez and ask quizzically: “What about the stamp? How does the postman deliver it? And where is the card?”
Back in the 1970s when your columnist was around the age of that student who couldn’t wait to hit 13, there were old folk who often told stories of what we kids called “the olden days”. We’d even ask them about it: “Uncle Ted, what was it like in the olden days, before all these modern things like color TV and pet rocks and Donna Summer?”
Uncle Ted would stroke his beard and regale us of stories about positively hoary times, back when ageing Uncle Ted was still a kid. The freaky thing is that Uncle Ted was probably only 35 at the time.
Why am I telling you this? Because I’ve turned into Uncle Ted, that’s why.
It wasn’t that long ago when birthdays meant having to embark on a series of interactions as varied as they were tedious, but at least we got out there in society and socially networked, not to mention moving our bodies around.
There was the trip to the shop to pick out the card, where one had to socialize with the newsagent, and often you’d run into a neighbor and have a chat. Then you had to go home and write something on that card. A simple “Happy Birthday Therese” wasn’t enough; you had to then jot down a few lines telling Therese what you’d been up to, sign it with a few kisses, and seal it in an envelope.
After addressing that envelope, you took it down to the post office, stood in line, bought a stamp which required some socialization with a grumpy postal worker before placing it in the letter box. The card, I meant, not the postal worker.
Three to seven days later, depending on where Therese lived, she got the card. She would string up the cards at her workplace or at home, depending on where she would get a better reaction. The more cards she had attested to her self worth, naturally.
Such was the process that was in place anytime from the year 1850 to the year 2000.
By the turn of the millennium things started to change. Cards turned into e-cards, remember? That was popular until clever Russian scammers worked out ways to render your computer inoperable via viruses embedded in the attachments. Aren’t we humans wonderful; we can even find ways to sabotage birthday cards.
E-cards gave way to SMS and Facebook messages. Within that medium the messages shrunk. It is no longer necessary to write HAPPY BIRTHDAY because that would require 14 taps of the screen when you include the space. It is better to tap the screen three times and hit send, because it’s a more efficient use of your time. In that way you free yourself up for more important activities, such as endlessly scrolling down your Facebook timeline, sullenly comparing your bleak existence to the wacky antics of your Facebook friends.
You don’t even have to waste valuable energy tapping three times. We are now in the era of stickers.
Stickers used to be adhesive things you’d shove on the back of your car which said things such as HONK IF YOU LOVE JESUS or IF IT’S ROCKIN’ DON’T BOTHER KNOCKIN’. They were big back in the days when Uncle Ted was still 35; but stickers in 2015 don’t even technically exist. They now belong to an application known as Line.
There are stickers for everything including HAPPY BIRTHDAY. Why send Line stickers? Oh dear reader, get a grip; it’s a single tap and it’s free!
Birthday cards still exist; they are useful when faced with the difficult experience of having to come face to face with a birthday celebrant. But we no longer string them up and measure our self worth through the number of cards we receive. Today we just count the Likes on our Facebook page.
Thus the intention behind a birthday card from 1995 and a Line sticker from 2015 is exactly the same; the internet has just made it easier to connect. For this we have the internet to thank, not just for enabling us to send messages quicker, but also for diluting the human experience.
As my BD proved, we are now in the era of social networking without ever having to socially interact.
THE SOUTH’S BIGGEST JUSTIN BIEBER FAN
By Andrew Biggs
Her name is Arena and she accosts me on the front lawn of the Songkhla resort.
“You’re Andrew Biggs!” she cries. “I used to watch you on TV when I was a little girl!”
Yes, dear reader, I am blessed to be greeted with such a comment, though it is very much a double-edged sword.
While it is nice to elicit a reminiscent smile, that sword is also rusty and painful as it plunges deep into my ego, reminding myself that this woman is all grown-up now, and if she enjoyed me as a “little girl”, then indeed I am not the spring chicken I used to be.
Sheepishly Arena asks if it is possible to get a photo with me. I wonder if my “yes of course” was way too fast, as is usually the case with ageing delusional spring chickens accosted by the real thing.
She is with the young hotel PR manager who will take the pic. Arena stands next to me, smoothing down her dress and trying to stand as tall as she can.
“I know, I’m too short,” she says.
“No you’re not,” I say. “It’s just that I’m 186 cm tall. Anybody next to me resembles a dwarf.”
“Yes, that’s right. I am a dwarf.”
“No that’s not what I meant to –“
“Okay, the both of you, smile!” says the resort manager as she holds up her tablet and snaps a picture of Arena and me.
“I’ll be uploading that to Facebook right away!” Arena says with the eagerness found only in an 18-year-old. “My friends will be so jealous!”
She rushes over to look at the picture. The winning smile turns upside. “Oh no, no, that will never do. I look so fat!” Delete.
“You’re not fat,” I say as Arena resumes her place next to me.
“Yes I am,” she says. “And that pic made me look even fatter. One more time … please!”
“One … two … Go!” says the resort manager, a joke that Thais used to make often when taking photographs (a reference to the airline One Two Go, a joke you don’t hear that often these days owing to a One Two Go plane crash at Phuket airport in 2007, rendering the airline non-existent).
Arena is short with eyes that resemble acorns, a round face and a gorgeous smile. People in the South of Thailand are a little darker than their compatriots to the North.
She is pleased with that latest picture, as pleased as an 18-year-old can be about a picture of herself when she is bombarded with TV advertisements telling her only tall light-skinned thin people are beautiful. She is none of those things, but she exudes beauty and the seeds of poise already at the age of 18, more so than any skeleton I’ve seen on a Sunsilk ad.
Arena is at the hotel as an intern. She’s in her final year of a hospitality degree and this requires three months’ slave labor at a hotel. Excuse me, work experience at a hotel. Arena’s into her third month and loving it.
“So you’d like to work in a hotel after you graduate?” I ask, warming to Arena’s smile, not to mention her enthusiasm and innocence.
She nods. “Well yes, but I don’t think it will happen. I have to look after my mother. She’s all alone when I’m here. I could never leave her alone for a long period of time.” This is said without the slightest hint of regret.
I enquire as to siblings, but they have all married and moved away having started their own families. Arena is the last child, and the onus is on her to be a constant companion to her sick mother, who lives 150 km away. I have no idea where her father has gone.
“So how does your mother manage without you while you’re here?” I ask.
“I go home every weekend,” she says proudly, and I imagine little Arena sitting on those rickety old inter-provincial buses chugging 300 km up and down the highway each weekend.
I launch into my spiel about the necessity for her to explain to her mother that she needs to gain a career and experience, so that she can provide for her mother comfortably in the future. Arena nods, but like so many others before her, I suspect my sage words of advice are falling on deaf ears.
“I think I’d miss her, too,” says this little Songkhla pearl. Her cellphone springs to life; her ringtone a Justin Bieber song. When I later ask her if she likes Justin Bieber, her face gets even more excited than when she spotted me on the lawn, which is probably healthy.
“I LOVE Justin Bieber!” she squeals. When I explain that he’s coming to Bangkok next month for a concert, she gasps and those acorn eyes turn to paste. I promise that if she can get herself to Bangkok, 960 kilometres away, I’d buy her a ticket, which is not on the cards since 150 kilometres is already a long distance for her.
It is time for Arena and her manager to move on. I say goodbye, and I am aware she has put me in a good mood.
Later on in the day I run into Arena again and she asks for another photo since the one on the lawn had her squinting and she “still looked a little fat”. Lightening creams have a lot to answer for in this country.
“Did you mean it about the free ticket to Justin Bieber?” she whispers in between photos.
“Absolutely,” I say. “Just make sure your mother approves.”
And Arena was gone.
That is where we have to leave her, dear reader.
Short, dark-skinned Arena, radiating beauty, worried about her weight and height and skin, obsessed with Justin Bieber, and at one with her smart phone. She could be a teenager from anywhere in the world, and with her ailing mother’s best interests at heart, she is the kind of daughter any parent would be proud of.
And with the exception of her round face and almond eyes, she was covered from head to toe in her hijab.
Little Arena comes from the heart of Yala, one of three provinces where Thais, both Muslim and Buddhist alike, rip each other apart on a daily basis with bullets and bombs, decimating families and rendering them fatherless, motherless, or even obliterated altogether. In the name of religion. In the name of politics. In the name of a separatist state.
Whatever. I can only pray Arena’s rickety old bus sticks to the main roads.
And while we consider the situation in those three southern provinces somewhat distant and alien, this week I came face to face with the goodness, the aspirations and even the fan-crazed devotion of a typical teenager who could have come from anywhere in the world, save for the clothing.
She reminded me of the goodness in people wherever they may be. So let’s pray for peace in the South, while I quietly pray Justin Bieber gets to see Arena at Impact Arena.
By Andrew Biggs
There is an ad on Thai TV at the moment for a skin product that whitens your armpits.
That’s right. Your armpits. It’s an add for a roll-on deodorant but the main thing is not that you smell nice. Rather, your armpits will be white.
The first time I saw this ad, I immediately took off my shirt and examined myself before a full length mirror. Dispelling immediate thoughts of starting a diet on Monday, I lifted my arms to see if indeed I had black armpits, and whether they were unsightly.
Thank goodness there wasn’t a camera in the bathroom. But it was one of those moments that ad agencies should be congratulated for – they have created a brand new insecurity for me to spend my money on.
The TV ad begins with a stick-thin but beautiful Thai teenager in a terrible quandary. An allegedly handsome Thai teenage guy has walked past and noticed her armpits are … dark.
That’s what she gets for ignoring the recommendations of the Thai Ministry of Culture and choosing to wear a spaghetti-strap tank top. If only she’d been wearing an ankle-length long-sleeved traditional Thai dance outfit on the skytrain that day, the guy would never have noticed.
Whatever. Her armpits are dark, that’s all that matters on the TV ad. She may as well have buck teeth and a bung eye. But thanks to some revolutionary new roll-on deodorant, her armpits are now white and her life immediately changes for the better.
I’d like you to pause for a moment and look to the ceiling as you ponder exactly in which situation is a Thai going to show off her armpit.
If I hadn’t seen the ad I’d be hard-pressed trying to work out when exactly a young Thai gets into situations where she has to raise her arms above her head, revealing the terrible secret under her arms.
You are doubtless smarter than I am and thought of the two situations the ad shows us – one is on the skytrain, where Rake Girl sullenly holds the plastic strap, thus revealing her cursed armpit, as the cute guy with the light armpit fetish wanders past with a disapproving scowl.
You can see it in his face: “No sex with her tonight … she’s got BLACK ARMPITS.” Then, after se has used the product, we see her raging away at some concert by a Korean Ken Doll, and she’s throwing those arms about, revealing lily-white armpits, proof that indeed all you need is to be white and light underneath your arms to be beautiful in Thailand.
If ever there was evidence Thai society is degenerating into madness, then here is your proof.
How did we get here? When was it that skin care company executives held a meeting and discussed the next part of the body where they could exploit our insecurities? Between the legs? No, that may go against Thai culture, which forbids acknowledging the existence of procreation. What about the armpits? Now there’s an idea!
It has always been a personal mission of mine when teaching English to explain that the oft-used “black” and “white” skin should in fact be “light” and “dark”, and while we’re at it, how about laying off this belief that light skin is good and black skin is bad? We in the West have gone through that and believe me, the results aren’t pretty.
There’s a big black hole in the Thai education system that avoids the subject of discrimination, or at least the notion that skin colour should not be a factor in determining who is beautiful and who is not – or, as it seems to be the case here, who is good and who is bad.
For every Thai who says “We are all Thais” there lurks feelings that people from the North-east, by far the more colorful and fun part of Thailand, are inferior to the rest because of their “black skin”. The North, however, is different. Thai men prefer Northern ladies because they have “white skin”. There is a universal confusion among Thais about how strange it is that western men love the Isan girls … how could they? Their skin is black!
The answer lies at Surfers Paradise, of all places, where I grew up.
It was there, back in the 1970s when we were more interested in KC & The Sunshine Band than melanomas, we stupid white folk stretched out on the beach for hours in the vain attempt to get a suntan, or as the Thais would put it, black skin. Because of this, one in three Queenslanders get a form of skin cancer but hey, a small price to pay for being beautiful.
And so, over in Australia, fat white Aussies are trying to go dark, while darker-skinned Thais long to be light. What’s the difference?
The difference, I suppose, is that we are taught that skin colour should not be a factor in determining one’s worth. Now whether we decide to follow that or not is up to us, but at least there is that attempt to educate. I don’t see that anywhere here in Thailand.
I have to admit I got a bit of a shock about skin color beliefs in this country when I first arrived. The popular Thai word for a person of African American heritage used to be nigg-ro which you still here sometimes, an appalling amalgamation of a word which I correct whenever I hear it, whether it be from the mouth of a tuk-tuk driver or a khunying.
Back in 1989 when I first arrived here, the leading toothpaste of the day was … DARKIE. And just in case you didn’t get the meaning, there was a picture of a smiling black African straight out of the Black And White Minstrel Show. I was so flabbergasted I immediately snapped up a dozen and sent ‘em home as Christmas presents.
We skip to more recent times and what is suncream in Australia is touted as skin whitener or lightener in Thailand, despite being the same product. Ads for these products bombard Thai TV sets with the clear message that it’s good to be “white”.
The ads are akin to the slimming centers’ Before and After shots. Dark-skinned pretty girl has a life of parental rape and brotherly incest – why else would she have that sullen look on her face? Thank goodness for Ponds! Praise you, Revlon! The girl is now white and happy, frolicking in Siam Square with Thai guys whose hormones are simply raging for white.
The black girls are at home in their bedrooms with the lights off, modern-day Janis Ians, cheating themselves at Solitaire.
Let the youngsters have their fun. If white armpits is the fashion of the day, then good luck to them. And at least that girl in the ad got her guy. She can look forward to a long, happy life in a relationship with a guy who gets off on armpits. Be careful what you wish you, nong.
AUSTRALIA, AFTER THE COMMERCIAL BREAK
By Andrew Biggs
I am watching the most amazing thing I’ll see on TV for a long time. Those aren’t my words; they are Ken’s.
Ken is a rapid-talking over-joyous man on the wrong side of 50, displaying signs of extreme teeth bleaching along with a probable background in used car salesmanship. He is about to reveal to me something called “nutrient infusion” on live television.
“Now watch closely Janie,” he says to the tall woman standing next to him. Janie wants to reply but she’s helpless against Ken’s verbal tsunami. “You’re about to witness nutrient infusion! It’s gonna boggle your mind!”
He flicks a switch on a gadget that resembles an oversized bullet containing fruit. There is a loud whirring sound and in a split second, that fruit is a river of centrifugal juice.
“Didja see that Janie? Did ya? Those infusion blades go at 20,000 revs per minute! It transforms ordinary foods into super infusion foods!”
Ken’s eyes are ablaze. Janie is teetering on orgasm. There is an energy from these two that could only be derived from nutrient infusion … or a few quick lines in the green room before going on air. I suspect the latter.
I’m sprawled out on the morning sofa, remote in hand, my mouth well and truly agape but not owing to anything those infusion blades have liquefied. I’m aghast at the ghastly state of Australian television.
I am back home, dear reader, although only for a week, returning to Brisbane and my ageing parents who have various health issues, none of which could be adequately cured by nutrient infusion.
The last time I was here the Australian dollar was worth more than the American one, making it the most expensive place on earth. Eccentric, flamboyant Uncle Andrew living the envious life of a high-profile Bangkok celebrity suddenly turned into embarrassing poor cousin eating Mama noodles in the Queen Street Mall.
Thankfully the Australian dollar is now around 70 cents to the US dollar and things are more affordable but not by much. Yesterday I caught a cab home from the city and in the time it took to sneeze the fare was already $25.
I used to be hyper-critical of Thai TV, with its cheap soaps, juvenile game shows and merciless advertising. I used to get on flights back to Australia thinking: “Thank goodness. Back to some decent TV.” How condescending — and wrong.
Australian commercial television has surely superseded Thai TV in its banality. Take Ken and Janie and their glorified blender. Morning TV is riddled with such “segments”, not “advertisements.”
Australia has grown slicker, more commercial — and definitely a lot bigger around the waist. Perhaps Ken’s only mistake was to demonstrate his nutrient infuser using fruit; had he used cream, sugar and chocolate, Australia would go ape over it.
“Warm Donut with a Teasing Dollop of Gelati” was a sign I saw in the Queen Street Mall yesterday, proving we have gone way past a simple donut for a snack as well as summarizing the physical appearance of the average Australian these days. And what’s with the “teasing” dollop?? Exactly what is that dollop teasing, other than your heart and arteries?
The direct result of Australia’s national corpulence can be seen on television.
The week I’ve been here the idiot box has gone nuts over The Biggest Loser, a TV show where four grossly overweight families jostle – or jiggle – for the top prize.
I was mortified. This is not simply an hour-long program once a week. It’s on three times a week in prime time.
The weekly climax is when these morbidly obese people strip down, stand on giant scales amid sinister music and long, drawn-out shots of the humiliated contestants, until a slender blonde bimbo congratulates or berates them on how much weight they have lost.
I watched this segment and felt the same as I would if I got caught peeking through a keyhole in a public bathroom. We humans are doomed and the evidence is clear – the destruction of our natural world, and the TV show named The Biggest Loser.
The biggest controversy on The Biggest Loser — other than the love child carried by one of the hard-faced female trainers, sired by the already-married male trainer who goes by the single name Commando – is a team of three sisters where the thinnest is 130 kg. Using accents we call “bogan” here in Australia, these girls demonstrate a very strong argument for the pitfalls of the Australian education system, not to mention euthanasia.
Here’s an example of what one of the sisters said, word-for-word, while performing one challenge:
“Aw come on youse two just gimme a break will youse? I can’t do it! I can’t do it I said! Youse are shoutin’ and yellin’ and screamin’ at me but youse don’t understand! I can’t do it! So youse can just leave me alone alright?”
Australia is not a stupid country; we did, after all, get rid of Tony Abbot. In fact we’re a pretty intelligent and prosperous country (one in 20 Australians is a millionaire, according to one report right after Ken and Janie).
And yet we are transfixed with imbecilic shows. I saw one that features Australians sitting and watching their favorite TV shows. Yes, that’s right … the camera is trained on couples, families and friends, sitting in their E-Z-rockers, resembling warm donuts with gelato dollops, making comments on any of Australia’s 16 talent shows, 23 cooking programs, or the fat chicks on the Biggest Losers. So now we watch people watching TV. I swear … the end is nigh.
The world is reeling with some pretty big stories such as the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe and the ISIS threat. And Australia? Here are the top three stories that captivated Australia this week:
1. A grandfather spent six days in the Australian outback surviving solely on eating black ants. The media have dubbed him “The Ant Eater.” It’s the perfect Aussie news story because it’s about food. “Janie, 3.5 ounces of black ants provides 14 grams of protein,” a happy morning hosts informed Janie, who is interested but nowhere near the level she was with nutrient infusion.
2. A Queensland politician was caught “sexting.” A constituent asked for information on an administrative matter, and he replied by sending a pic of his genitals. Twice.
3. Prince Charles and Camilla are coming to Australia. Their itinerary does not include Victoria or Queensland, which has caused a ripple the size of the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe. “Come to Melbourne ya slackers!” is the solitary sound bite Channel 7 used for this story, spoken by somebody who is supposed to represent the feelings of the Australian general public. Are we allowed to refer to British royalty in this manner?
Morning TV also assembles panels of “experts” to comment on stories. One morning there was a report that suggested homework should be abolished for primary school kids. A worthy discussion topic – so why did Channel 9 invite the weather man, their leggy female news reader, and a motivational speaker with only the top half of his body intact to discuss it?
(The motivational speaker was the worst – born without legs, he sat on the couch supported by his arms, his only contributions being feeble one-liners about him getting “legless” the night before and his arguments “not having a leg to stand on.” Steely knives, come hither … put me out of this torture!)
This afternoon I hop a plane for the serenity and sensibility of Bangkok. Farewell, beloved home country that obsesses over black ant recipes and fat girls. Farewell Australia, where Ken tells me a device called nutrient infuser is going to be the most amazing thing I’m going to see on TV.
You know what? He’s right.
BREAKING THE BANK LINES
By Andrew Biggs
This is the sign, prominent and loud, that pounced on me as I strolled past Bangkok Bank this week.
“PLEASE GET A LINE,” it announced, stuck to a glass window, behind which a bank teller, as sullen as he was youthful, sat with a face like thunder.
My right hand twitched, wanting to reach for my top pocket where a whiteboard marker nestled, so that it could change the N in LINE to an F. Because that’s the kinda guy I am.
The sign both worried and comforted me.
Worried, because what is it about putting the English more prominently than the Tagalog and Thai? Are we westerners bigger line-jumpers than those two?
This was not Silom or Soi Cowboy. This was near the Khlong Toey slum on Rama 4 Road, a tract of Bangkok not overly frequented by native English speakers except, of course, for hotel managers and embassy staff visiting their dealers. So why was the English more prominent than the Thai? As for the Tagalog, I can’t imagine the friendly Filipinos being line-jumpers.
Nevertheless the surly young man was making a point. For goodness sake, foreigners, form a line will you? That in itself is a good sign for it shows banks are at least making an effort.
When people ask me what big changes I have seen in Thailand over the past two decades, one of them has to be at the banks.
You should have been around here 20 years ago.
Those were the bad old days when there was an 18-month wait to get a telephone line installed, and going to the bank was like pulling out your own toenail with oversized tweezers, something I do regularly just to remind myself of how awful an experience it used to be.
Twenty years ago, going to the bank required a bankbook, a pen, and a copy of Crime And Punishment.
To make a transaction you filled out forms in triplicate, placed them in your bankbook and took it up to the counter, behind which sat dusty middle-aged men and women tellers in faded light brown shirts and nylon slacks.
You put your bankbook in an old rusty wire basket, already full of other bankbooks, and stood back. And waited. And waited.
There was no central basket. If there were four dusty tellers there would be four rusty baskets, and you had to take your pick.
You never knew if the bankbook under yours was a simple withdrawal of 400 Baht to pay the Burmese maid’s monthly wages, or some businessman wanting to close his account and open another one. The former was a five-minute job; the latter required a tent and tinned food and War And Peace (if you were more than half-way through Crime And Punishment).
Now and again, one of the tellers would pick up the basket and flip it over.
Slowly he would go through the pile of bankbooks, calling out your name when he got to you.
What a nightmare. You couldn’t even duck out for a few minutes for an ice-cream lest your name be called and, upon not replying, your bankbook was jettisoned to the very top of the new basket that had yet to be flipped over.
It was hot and there was no air–conditioning. Heaven help you if you’d eaten a bad hoi tod the night before. That happened to me once. I remember using all the will power I could remember from my Uri Geller phase to control myself as waves of nauseating spasms engulfed my body. The bank bathrooms were in sight but what happened if I ran out there and my name was called?
When the dusty man finally did call your name you’d crawl over to the teller on your knees, like an impoverished upcountry maid does as she approaches her fabulously wealthy khunying boss in Thai soap operas. That’s how it felt, anyway.
The teller worked with all the speed of an ailing snail. Now and again he would get up and disappear from his desk. Attending to critical bank business? A cigarette break more like it.
Another thing that retarded things even further was line jumpers … men who never crawled up to the counter. Rather, they marched in with their shoulders back and smelling of Brylcreem.
They slammed down wads of bankbooks and chatted openly with the tellers. Nobody dared say anything for fear they were somebody with a good surname or carrying a gun. But they made the wait longer, and to this day the smell of Brylcreem makes me want to reach for Dostoyevsky.
In the mid-to-late 1990s banks started to toy with the idea of making people stand in line. I remember wanting to dance the Macarena, big at the time, when I first saw one in a bank. We can thank the tom yam kung economic crash for that, after which foreign banks were allowed in and – gasp – the locals were exposed to strange never-before-seen things like ubiquitous ATMS, teller efficiency and standing in line.
No more rusty baskets. But like public restrooms in this country, the idea of a single line for all tellers was way off. Instead we had four lines for four tellers.
I would choose teller number three and sure enough, Murphy’s Law, I was right behind the Yaowarat grandfather depositing his sack of one-baht coins that required counting.
So things are much, much better when it comes to banks. The tellers aren’t as dusty as they used to be, while finally we take numbers and are called forth, not by curmudgeons, but a friendly, slightly erotic-sounding female computer voice.
As for the sign with the wrong English I saw this week … that story has a happy ending.
I returned to the sign the next day to take a photo of it, and the same youthful teller was sitting there.
Upon seeing me, he ran up to me with a big smile. It turns out he wasn’t such a surly young man after all. On the contrary, he was keen to know what was wrong with the words and how the sign could be improved.
I suggested “Please form a line”. He asked about “Please get in line” but I said that might be okay for the Thai Military Bank but not for the more touchy-feely Bangkok Bank. He got me to write the correct English down for him, and even waiied me as thanks.
“And what about the Tagalog … is it correct?” he then asked, to which I replied I had limited knowledge of that language.
“Shame,” he said. “That’s the language out of all of them I really need to get right.”
Oh … really??
On that note he and I parted, both with new-found knowledge; his in the form of a new English sign, and mine in the comforting fact that Filipinos are even worse queue-jumpers than we westerners. Who would have thought?
MORE LIKE A DEVIL DOLL (Part 1)
By Andrew Biggs
Back in 2016, Thailand embarked on a brief love affair with Angel Dolls.
The whole country went crazy over these dolls that had alleged mystical powers to bring good luck. Airlines were charging for their seats; grown men and women chatted to them, took them to beauty parlors and even, stuffed them full of amphetamines and smuggled them down to the capital. It had gotten so wacky, international news agencies were following the story keenly.
What could one do? Well there were two choices:
1. Moan, groan, chastise, berate, belittle and scream at the idiocy of the world; or
2. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
So I chose number two. I decided to get myself my very own Angel Doll.
1. GOODBYE SCREWDRIVER, HELLO ANGEL
My staff were helpful in finding an Angel Doll. It comes from the countless hours they spend deep in Facebook and Instagram at the expense of the work I pay them to do.
Sampeng was the centre for purchasing these dolls, they told me. That’s how I ended up at Mega Wang Burapha department store.
I arrived on the day there had been news that drug dealers, too, had gotten in on the act. Dolls stuffed with methamphetamines were found in Chiang Mai and thus, Angel Dolls were no longer out on the streets. Buying one was akin to buying illicit drugs.
There was a conspiratorial conversation with one street vendor who admitted she had two Angel Dolls if we “wait a minute”. I wondered if I should have asked for cocaine or methamphetamines as well. I was reminded of the old days of purchasing pornographic videos on Patpong (birthday gifts, of course) and having to wait as the staff rushed deep into the soi to obtain Debbie Does Dallas Director’s Cut.
The first doll, a boy, was just plain ugly. The second one, a girl, was ugly too, but apparently this was the “look” of the Angel Dolls. The vendor and my staff cooed and fawned over her; I could only see her as Chucky in a dress which you’re about to find out was not far from the truth.
This doll cost me 2,000 Baht plus 200 Baht for the Thai dress. The equivalent of three Absolut vodka bottles for a doll.
“She will bring you good fortune,” said the vendor. “But first, you need to place a spirit in her.”
“I need a spirit in me too,” I answered. “But I just sacrificed three bottles of them.”
2. BUDDHIST VOODOO 101
Angel Dolls needed to be “blessed” by monks. Yes, monks of the Buddhist faith, the very religion that spells out clearly not to believe in hocus pocus and notions like putting spirits in plastic dolls. On the way back from Sampeng I took my doll to a temple and was surprised to be chastised by the abbot, who told me he would do no such ritual.
His view was shared by the famous monk Phra Payom, who this week likened Angel Dolls to Krispy Kreme donuts or Roti Boy coffee buns. He predicted most dolls would end up in the trash within three months. Talk about a killjoy!
Luckily there was a monk over in Nonthaburi who is of another opinion, and appeared to be blessing hundreds of these dolls as we spoke for a generous donation of course.
Nonthaburi was a little too far for me to travel, and the traffic was bad, so I decided to bless my doll myself.
“Abracadabra,” I whispered, humming a few bars of the old Steve Miller song, and making a mystical face.
That should do the trick. Luck be a lady tonight.
3. VALLEY OF THE DOLLS
Sampeng was a hive of activity for Thais and their dolls. You could see them everywhere, and not five minutes after securing mine, I ran into a trendy young man by the Chester Grill ketchup bar holding Nong Nicha, as he has named his Angel Doll. This young man paid 15,000 Baht for Nicha. I have to admit I felt a little jealous, not to mention inadequate with my pathetic two-thousand-baht baby I was clutching.
“And what is your baby’s name?” he asked.
Good lord. I never thought of a name. I blurted out the first one that comes to mind.
“Andrea,” I said.
4. A DAY IN THE LIFE AND ANDREW AND ANDREA
First, I took Nong Andrea for a walk through a shopping center. Andrea helped pay for gas at my local gas station. We did had a mishap at the lifts, where I got Andrea to press the button, only to accidentally tear off her arm from the shoulder.
Things got worse. At afternoon tea, I purchased a tea and tart for Andrea, since you have to treat these dolls like real children. Andrea didn’t move, so I ended up having to shove the tart into her face.
Children can be so contrary at times.
5. THE LAST STRAW
That damned doll has brought me nothing but trouble.
On the very day I acquired Andrea, I was maneuvering a U-turn on Phetchaburi Road when I accidentally brushed past a yellow barricade. I have NEVER hit a barricade before in my life, and I was completely sober — though I may have been obsessing about those three lost Absolut bottles I forfeited for Little Miss Chucky over in the passenger seat.
I totally blamed Andrea for the accident. In fact, since acquiring her, my productivity had gone straight down. I had no concentration. I was 2,200 baht out of pocket. I felt depressed.
At least my staff were no longer spending all day on Facebook and Instagram — they had more important things to do, like braiding Andrea’s hair and adding hair clips and brooches.
At the end of the day I was reminded of Phra Payom’s prophecy. Only he was a little out on the timeline. It didn’t take Andrea three months to end up in the trash. More like three hours.
And that is where we leave Andrea. In the trash. Only there is more.