A SPIRITUAL NEW YEAR
By Andrew Biggs
I had a special New Year’s celebration. I did something I never thought I would ever do.
It all began with a drunken question from an equally-drunken friend back in early December at an Ekamai establishment.
“So what are you planning for this New Year’s Eve?”
I paused before answering. I was onto my fourth vodka-tonic so I was ready to drop a bombshell. Only I couldn’t think of any bombshell to drop.
“What am I doing this New Year’s Eve?” I answered by way of a question — a good dialogue technique which works well in Hollywood movies and newspaper columns, but in real life sounds contrived. “I’ve decided I’m going to see in the New Year meditating at a temple.”
It was the vodka talking, dear reader. I have no alternative explanation as to where it came from.
My answer received the guffaws of disbelief it had been fishing for, except for the one Thai in the group, who didn’t get the joke, and instead leaned forward and said genuinely: “Anu-mothana-boon:” May you be blessed.
Here in Thailand the concept of meditating at Buddhist temples for New Year has been growing in popularity for many years. Looking at the holiday road toll, one hopes it continues to gain popularity, as nothing else, it seems, is able to stop the locals speeding, drinking and dying over New Year.
This meditation is known as suad kham kheun. You arrive anytime after sundown on December 31, and sit and meditate with monks chanting until the clock strikes 12 midnight. Then you may go home.
It’s not exactly my idea of a crazy time seeing in the New Year. And yet after my drunken announcement, and the sincere comment from that solitary Thai, I decided to go through with it. I was going to see in the New Year in a way I had never seen it in before — sober.
I chose Wat Phrathat Phanom as my destination. This is one of the most beautiful temples in the Northeast. It’s about 500 years old and allegedly contains a breast bone of the Lord Buddha. It is a tall, slim structure of white and gold. To pray, you walk three times around the cloister. As you walk, there are paintings depicting dire warnings about falling off the rails of life. One that stood out was a painting of three down-and-out shirtless men in a prison cell, with bottles of alcohol and drug paraphernalia strewn about them. “Alcohol, marijuana and drugs are evil things” booms the caption above the painting. Be that as it may, if I ever have the unfortunate necessity to be jailed, may I end up in that prison.
This temple is not only attractive; it’s remote. It is 725 km from Bangkok in the province of Nakhon Phanom; Hanoi is closer to it than Bangkok.
I have a friend who lives in Nakhon Phanom, so I called him to inform him of my imminent arrival.
“Great,” he said. “There’s a new pub that’s opened in town plus a street fair they’re going to hold by the river.”
I explained that on this trip I wouldn’t be visiting any newly-opened pub or street fair. I wanted to spend New Year’s Eve meditating at Wat Phrathat Phanom. My friend shot back with a number of questions, such as my date of birth and middle name and mother’s maiden name, to ascertain I was indeed the man he knew, and not some imposter.
That is how I came to board a low-cost flight bound for Nakhon Phanom on December 30, pick up an overpriced rental car, and ferry myself towards a three-star hotel in Nakhon Phanom city: What it lacked in amenities, it surely made up for in photoshopped pictures on Agoda.
Nakhon Phanom city hugs the Mekhong River with parkland and public space. If you are into gorgeous sunrises across the twisting Mekong, then this is the place to go. You’ll also find sensational grilled chicken, somtam and sticky rice. The local rice whisky is called lao hai, sold and served in an earthen jug. It’s very potent, not that I’d know. I was on another mission.
My hotel’s balcony terrace bar was a great spot to watch the sun disappear for the last time that year, made even more special when the bartender asked which musical artists I wanted to hear over the sound system. It was the only hotel in Thailand playing Kate Bush, Visage and S-Express early on New Year’s Eve.
We arrived at the temple by 10 pm. The temperature was around 15 degrees. My first reaction was shock. The place was crowded with people dressed in white and seated on bamboo mats.
“You never told me I had to wear white,” I hissed to my Nakhon Phanom friend, forced to come along with me.
“You never asked,” he said.
Oh what the hell. Without white clothes or even a bamboo mat, I sat down on the cold concrete in the open space of the temple with a few thousand others, and closed my eyes to meditate as monks chanted over a loudspeaker. Above us was an elaborate web of white string, some two metres off the ground. From it you could tie a piece of string and clutch the other end as you meditated, so that we were all connected in our prayers.
I must be honest with you; Nirvana was nowhere to be found in that first 30 minutes. My mind was jumping all about the place. The concrete was cold. My hands, raised in prayer position and clutching that cotton string, were starting to ache. So was my back. It took all my willpower not to throw up my hands, ask my friend the name of that new pub, and head back into town.
But then, some time after 11 pm, I kind of got into the groove.
Listening to the monks chanting was a little like swallowing a Xanax. I started to feel calm and collected. I started praying for everybody I knew, wishing them well in the New Year. Once I got through everybody I knew personally, both domestically and abroad, I prayed for Kate Bush and the surviving members of Visage (I forgot about a prayer for S-Express). I even prayed for you, dear reader. By midnight I was relaxed, contemplative and peaceful, as well as happy to be one member of such a large gathering. When midnight struck, it was kind of sad to leave.
The next morning I caught a low-cost flight back to Bangkok. I felt strong and thankful. And the weirdest thing is I’m already planning my next one. Maybe there is hope for me spiritually.
Or maybe not.
That was last Sunday. That afternoon I floated down to the supermarket. I decided to eat more clean food this year – another offshoot of the New Year’s Eve experience.
My trolley somehow entered the liquor aisle. I remembered I was out of vodka, and there were all the Absolut flavors peering out at me, so I reached out my hand and –
Wait a minute.
You’re going clean this year remember.
Come on. One can’t be an angel all year, can one?
Fine. Go ahead and grab it. Spoil all the good deeds.
It’s not spoiling them! I’m just covering my bases.
Falling off the wagon more like it.
I was never on it!
That is how my year started. A little torn, but a little ethereal at the same time. Relaxed. Full of positive energy. Well-stocked in the liquor cabinet. I’m full of spirits, in more ways than one.
DADDY, NO SUGAR
By Andrew Biggs
My heart goes out to Anusawn Chirapongse, the high-ranking government official who inflicted grievous bodily harm upon a Greyhound Café waiter.
“Grievous bodily harm” may be a little over the top. He slapped him after he summoned the waiter, who came over, gave Anusawn a deferential wai, bent down and said: “Yes, Pa?”
“Don’t call me that!” Anusawn snapped back.
Anger is a short madness, and we are all guilty of it. Only this week I, too, snapped at Khun Noi, the maid, after the internet connection at my school dropped out, right at a critical moment during a League of Legends stand-off, causing me to lose the game.
Khun Noi had “refaced” the internet, as she does from time to time, but normally she announces the fact beforehand so we can take precautionary steps. Only this time she didn’t, and by the time it was being “refaced” I was a goner.
How I wanted to “reface” Khun Noi. I would have if she had been standing a little closer.
(And I have taught her already that, in English we “reset” the internet, but she seems to have forgotten that. My maid is constantly picking up new English words, and for that I am impressed, though her pronunciation can be a little off. This is the same woman who, just prior to “refacing”, told me a student needed to “pot-porn” her class. Well at least she didn’t “can-cern.”)
So letting off steam to me is not a capital offence. But there is a curious aspect to this story that should interest non-Thais, for we must examine that terrible word the waiter uttered to his customer. Just what did it mean?
I have had staff call me Pa for more than two decades. Before this incident I never thought to ask anybody what it meant, for I naturally assumed it was an abbreviation of “Papa”, or father, which is in the Thai language as well. Surely Pa, while denoting a person of older age, also displayed a level of intimacy or familiarity that was not undesirable.
I admit that when staff started calling me this 20 years ago, I was a little perturbed about the age part. Was I truly old enough to be called a “father” by staff members not five or ten years younger than myself? That self-delusion has long since dissipated. Now I find it kind of nice that my staff can call me Pa without it being dependent on an end-of-year bonus.
So what on earth is this government official doing slapping a waiter who would call him this?
We foreigners know khun as a way of addressing another person in Thai, but the terrible truth is there are dozens of other words that can be used in its place. Knowing how and when to use them in the right settings and scenarios is an art that takes great time and practise. Not knowing how to use them properly can earn you a slap.
From my experience there are the “Big Three” ways of addressing an older person in Thai, all of which take into account a certain degree of familiarity.
The first one is sia (pronounced like “seer”), a Chinese word that refers to an older man with power and wealth. This can have both positive and negative connotations. The meaning can also extend to a wealthy man who keeps young girls as mistresses, or a sugar daddy, though not in every situation.
The second is hia (pronounced like “here”) and is of Chinese origin as well. It means “older brother” or phi chai in Thai. This extends to a boss, and is considered polite and okay to use. The problem for non-native Thai speakers is that hia, when pronounced using the wrong tone, becomes an insulting Thai term which would not so much earn you a slap as it would a bullet to the temple. Such is the complexity of the language; you intend to politely call the attention of that older man and you end up calling him a dirty lizard.
And finally there is Pa. This is the least offensive of the three, used for an older man who is generous or friendly. It even extends to a fashionable older man and yes, it does come from “Papa”. Here in Thailand children refer to their fathers using this word.
Does it have a negative connotation? This week another news agency unfairly reported that the waiter had referred to the official as a “sugar daddy.” That is stretching the bounds of accuracy. Yes, a Pa can mean a sugar daddy but it is not its primary definition, and certainly not in a restaurant. A waiter who comes over and calls you Pa is not expecting you to put him up in a Phrakhanong apartment and send him to hairdressing school.
So what was the problem? The official, who apparently knows the waiter, was possibly unhappy with the familiarity of the moniker.
Khun Anusawn is a member of the 200-strong National Reform Steering Assembly, set up in October 2015, which oversees the formulation of new laws during this crossover period. The NRSA was the body that last year announced it was pushing the death penalty for officials convicted of corruption (but not restaurant assault, clearly). More recently they have promoted a bill regulating the media, or “gagging” it as the media claims it to be.
Being a member of such an esteemed body requires others to treat you with respect and, if you are of the lower classes, extreme deference. A waiter calling you Pa is not displaying enough humble submission … and thus deserves a slap.
Is this true in the Anusawn Chirapongse case?
He was quoted as saying he would have preferred to be called pee (big brother) or loong (uncle) — titles used for men much younger than a Pa — a sentiment I myself was quietly brooding about 20 years ago, remember?
A little over a month ago, Anusawn celebrated his 60th birthday. This might not be a case of familiarity breeding contempt; it may be about a man coming to terms with his mortality.
As I write this column, an NRSA ethics committee is meeting to discuss this incident. The deputy Speaker of the NRSA issued this statement: “Society does not need to worry; an offender, no matter what his standing may be, must face the justice system.” Feel free to press the canned laughter button at your leisure, dear reader.
This incident is a storm in a teacup, but it does give us a glimpse into the machinations of Thai society, where deference is golden. Like I said, I understand where Anusawn stands. He is not a bad person. Perhaps he just had a difficult day. But we are responsible for our actions, and when one slaps, one must pay the consequences.
Well, sort of.
The waiter did file charges and our official was charged with assault. But it was reported in the Bangkok Post last Wednesday that the waiter later realized Anusawn did not have bad intentions.
“I would like to apologize to him if I addressed him impolitely,” the waiter said.
And that is where we must leave this little storm, with a bruised waiter apologizing to his attacker. In Thailand one must know not just how to control one’s temper; one must also know one’s place.
AUSTCHAM AND ADS
By Andrew Biggs
That unexpected fire at the Thai Belgian Bridge caused havoc with the inner-city traffic last Wednesday.
That was the evening of Sundowners, the monthly meeting of Austcham (the Australian chamber of commerce) at the Grand Hyatt Erawan. It was also the evening Austcham was having its presidential elections but how to get there?
The short journey from my office at Phrakhanong to the Hyatt by car would have taken more than an hour. I decided to catch the BTS.
What a swirling cacophony of idiotic messages and aural turbulence. What an uncivilized assault on my ears. Not Austcham, dear reader! The BTS!
Something radical has happened to the BTS in a few short years. When it first opened in 1999 it was considered an oasis in the maelstrom of Bangkok noise. You could escape the madness by walking up that flight of stairs to the platform or, had you performed some meritous task in your previous lifetime, you might even be lucky to use an escalator.
The platform offered respite from the streets. And once inside the trains it was even more tranquil, with minimal white noise other than Khun Sarocha telling me to please mind the gap between train and platform at every friggin’ stop.
Those were the olden days.
First of all, those ads blaring on the platforms.
I am a man who has successfully avoided watching television now for more than ten years. Now and again, if I’ve had a little too much to drink, I will flick on local TV but strictly for anthropological reasons. It is a pity Karl Marx never had a holiday in the Land of Smiles, for he would have relegated Thai game shows alongside religion as the opiate of the masses. One does not watch Thai game shows for any cerebral enhancement; in fact the opposite is the case. As I watch such programs I can literally hear my neurons fizzing and popping before they sputter out forever.
They are exercises in extreme idiocy. They have more bells and whistles than a gathering of Thai security guards. But it works and they rate very highly. The whole country, it appears, loves to watch local celebrities engage in inane activities. It is proof that to be a celebrity on Thai TV, you don’t only have to be stick-thin and good-looking; you must also possess an element of retardation.
So it was more than a little upsetting for me to arrive at the Phrakhanong BTS platform only to have such a program screaming out at me.
The king of Thai game shows is Panya Nirunkul, the owner of Workpoint, which churns out game shows at a frightening and successful rate. Panya not only owns the company — he also hosts many of the shows himself.
His classic modus operandi is to ask a question of a game show contestant, usually either an anorexic starlet or male comedian with some physical defect such as a giant mole or, even more hilariously, Downs syndrome. I am not making this up. Then, when it is time to reveal whether the answer is correct or not, Panya says: “And your answer is …”
There is a five-second pause as the camera zooms in on the participant.
“And your answer is …”
A roll of drums. The tension allegedly builds.
“And your answer is …”
By now the viewing audience is collectively wetting its pants. If the prize in question is particularly high, he will add, one more time:
“And your answer is …”
The music swells. More drum rolls. Anticipation floods the face of the starlet or Downs syndrome comedian. Pants-wetting turns into impeding orgasm.
“We’ll take a break and when we come back we’ll reveal the answer!” Cut to five minutes of advertising.
Game show fans are a little like goldfish; they have limited short-term memory. Five minutes is an eternity for anybody who finds hilarity in anorexia, and so after the ad break, there needs to be a short recap. At that point I mentally make a choice between the remote or a firearm, and to this day the remote has always won.
You can imagine my displeasure, then, when upon reaching the platform on my journey to Austcham, there he was, Khun Panya, onto his second “And your answer is” blaring out over the platform.
I turned in the direction of Erawan Square to make a quick prayer to the Lord Buddha, asking Him to send a sudden power surge to the Phrakhanong electrical system, shorting out the TV set, but it occurred to me that might also short out the train system, so I ceased and desisted immediately. Anyway, Panya was gone after an interminable 30 seconds, and in his place was a joyous teenager with ghost-white skin from the lightening cream she had just applied. That was when the train arrived so I did my best mainland Chinese tourist impression and pushed myself forward, stampeding over locals and jumping onto the train to escape this awful, awful noise.
Nothing got any better inside.
First, the good news. Khun Sarocha is no longer reminding me to mind her gap. The bad news; in her place are television sets inside the carriages. Inside, dear reader! Now it is Panya and the lightening cream lass within one metre of where I am standing.
In an effort to escape the TV monitor I glanced at the walls. They are now plastered in weird red ads for some company promoting something called “11st”.
What on earth is “11st”? Shouldn’t it be “11th”? The only thing worse than a blaring ad is a grammatically challenged blaring ad! The advertisement features a young Thai man who, if he isn’t transitioning then someone needs to have a good talk to him. He is holding up two fingers about five inches apart.
It looks more like a Tinder profile than an ad. I thought Thai authorities clamped down on obscenity in advertising; and besides, at five inches, why on earth is he boasting?
(It turns out the product is “Eleven Street,” not “Eleventh.” The graphic designer for that logo forgoes his bonus this year.)
Why are we still paying for the BTS? The purpose of ads is to support the cost of a product or service, such as in the hoary old past when advertising paid for newspapers and TV shows. I am being sandblasted by ads while using a service I have paid for — try using that business model for a paid internet service or App.
Back home after my experience I trawled the net and discovered there is a group of concerned citizens in Bangkok actively campaigning for a reduction in BTS advertising. This only happened two weeks ago. I realize there are far more pressing problems in Thai society but I’m signing up.
In the meantime, our prime minister should seriously consider taking time out from wielding Section 44 to catch that elusive embezzling monk over at Thammakai Temple, and turn it towards the BTS. It’s time for a public burning of ads in public places. It is abhorrent and anyway, anything that makes Austcham look peaceful needs to go right now.
GREAT MOMENTS IN THAI ENGLISH
By Andrew Biggs
This week environmentalists cautiously hailed a victory of sorts, as the government agreed to set zero the proposed Krabi coal-fired power plant.
Don’t worry, dear reader. It is not necessary to understand that first paragraph. I was just testing you. Or rather, I was testing myself.
For the last few days I have been trying to create a grammatically-sound English sentence using the phrase “set zero”. Contrary to what you may be thinking, this activity was not dreamed up to while away the time in an otherwise sluggish work week.
“Set zero” is the current vocabulary de jour in Thailand, or more specifically, the Thai language. This is a common occurrence; many English words have pole-vaulted themselves into Thai such as “okay”, “bye bye”, “discredit” and, weirdly, “hors d’oeuvres”. Thais like short sharp English words (like “hors d’oeuvres”?) and feel much more comfortable saying “happy”, for example, instead of mee khwam suk, a phrase that is an interminable three syllables long.
Now and again an English phrase pops up in Thai and spreads like a road rage clip on Facebook. That is what has happened with “set zero” just this last week with the coal power plant controversy.
Actually, it was resurrected. “Set zero” was first used in 2013 when the Yingluck government was mischievously pushing a reconciliation law.
The phrase faded away along with the law and the Yingluck government. But it is back. Last Monday’s announcement of the moratorium in order to assess environmental impact meant the government was going to “set zero” the proposed Krabi power plant.
I have nothing against English words and phrases bleeding into the Thai language, but what about a phrase like “set zero” — that doesn’t exist in the English language? Google the phrase; up comes pages and pages of Thai entries. “Set zero” is technically not an English phrase. It is a Thai one.
Why go to all the trouble of making up a brand new English phrase when we already have “start again”, “reset” and “back to square one”?
When I explained this via the media this week, many Thais were genuinely surprised to hear “set zero” was a figment of any reputable English dictionary’s imagination. I have even added it to my Top 5 list of English Words Invented by Thais, sitting at #5. And the rest?
When Thais want to show support for a friend down on their luck, they pat that friend’s shoulder, crease their brows and say: “Fighting!” Do that to any hard-luck native English speaker and he’ll reply: “Huh?” Do that to any hard-luck Thai and he’s answer: “Thank you.”
“Fighting” is a bastardization of “Keep fighting!” or “Fight on!” or even “Don’t give up” if we want to venture into three-word sentences. This one they didn’t invent; they adopted it from South Korea, land of the soppiest soap operas in human history which get lapped up by Thais. A few years ago I got up on the wrong side of the bed and, in a huff, tweeted that “fighting” was not used by native English speakers and Thais had made the word up themselves. I had a few snippy responses from Thais, saying it was used in South Korea so it had to be right. One wonders about the future of this country if it is gleaning its English knowledge from South Korea. Uppa Gangnam Style to you, too!
#3 Again, please?
We native English speakers speak quickly with accents sometimes impossible to understand. What does a Thai do when he or she cannot understand? The population is evenly divided. Half will nod and smile, pretending to understand, while searching in their peripheral vision for the nearest exit. The other half will say: “Again, please?”
Thais are mortified to learn that this succinct yet quaint phrase doesn’t exist outside the 77 provinces of Thailand. Which is a shame, since “Again please?” is kind of good. It’s certainly easier to say than the clunky “Would you repeat that, please?” and friendlier than the guttural “Huh?”
#2 Hyde Park
Only in Thailand could you take the proper noun of a popular park in London and turn it into an intransitive verb.In the Thai language, the verb “to Hyde Park” means “to say something in public”. For example: “The Prime Minister will Hyde Park about set zeroing the Krabi power plant project.” Again, please?
Here’s the gerund form: “Under martial law, politicians are barred from Hyde Parking until the next elections.” I am assuming the past participle is regular: “I have Hyde Parked since dawn.”
Isn’t that wonderful? But wait. There is an even better one.
I wrote about this once before. Please allow me to summarize it again, as it is priceless.
The Thai phrase ded-sa-molay means “dead”. For example: “The Krabi power plant is ded-sa-molay.” “If you Hyde Park one more time, there will be no set zeroing for you; you’ll be ded-sa-molay.”
“Ded-sa-molay” is not Thai. The phrase comes from English. Say it out loud. Does it sound familiar?
In 1954 Dean Martin scored a #1 hit with a song called “That’s Amore.” It was a big hit in Thailand, too. “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore …”
Thais misheard the word “dead” in the first syllable of “That’s amore” and started to use the song title in place of the word “dead”. To this day, Thai slang for “dead” is actually the title of a hideous old love song whose title means “That’s love.” Now you understand why I love living in Thailand!
As we leave this list, it must be pointed out in fairness that English has been influenced by Thailand.
The idiomatic “white elephant”, for example, comes from the ancient kingdom of Siam. Any albino elephant born became the property of the King immediately. It was considered auspicious to present a baby albino elephant to royalty, while at the same time quietly accepted that this giant animal had no use for the owner on his farm, since it had to be given away. Thus emerged the idiom “white elephant”; something big and bulky that serves no function.
More recently “ladyboy” has entered English dictionaries after hovering like a drone around the official lexicon for years. It’s in Oxford now, though Merriam Webster is still putting up a fight. And finally, for my Australian readers, the legendary horse Phar Lap comes from the Thai word for “lightning”.
Creating new phrases from English words shows enterprise on the part of Thais. And anyway, there are more English-as-a-second-language speakers than there are native speakers in the world today. The lines between what is right and wrong are blurred.
Another thing: it is imagination and innovation that is required in these modern times, as Thailand launches yet another cute little English phrase, “Thailand 4.0”, in an effort to push the country into the digital age. How a coal-fired power plant fits into any plans for a modernized society remains as mysterious as the origins of “set zero” but hey, who am I to rain on Thailand’s parade? Fighting, guys, fighting!
BEAUTIFUL AND DEADLY
By Andrew Biggs
Anubal Narathiwat is one of the largest primary schools in the provincial capital of Narathiwat, the southernmost province of Thailand right on the Malaysian border.
Every morning at 8 am assembly, the 1,437 school children in Years 1 to 6 line up in front of the flagpole and sing the national anthem.
A Year 6 girl takes the microphone and recites a Buddhist prayer. Half the students place their hands together in prayer; the other half cross their arms.
When she is finished, a Year 6 boy takes the microphone and recites an Islamic prayer. There is a collective switch in pose; half the students place their hands together in prayer, while the other half cross their arms.
Finally, all the students place their hands together. The religious boundaries come down; the students are united in meditation. Assembly over. Off to classes.
There was something very consoling and logical about the entire process, which I witnessed last Wednesday, since I spent most of last week in this province. What do you do when half the school is Muslim and the other half Buddhist? Simple. You stand in lines, and you take it in turns to pray. Then you go off and study together. One can’t help but wonder how it is that the primary school kids get it, but the adults don’t.
Despite the civility of the morning ritual, these kids live in the most dangerous part of Thailand, where more than 6,000 people have been killed via bombs and guns and another 10,000 injured over the past decade.
Narathiwat, along with Pattani and Yala, are the three southernmost provinces wracked by conflicts over separatism and religion. The violence is as mysterious as it is relentless, but life has to go on. Even the terrorists have families, with children, and those children need to be educated.
And here are those children, standing in perfect lines in front of the Thai flag, the Muslims and the Buddhists all mixed up, getting on with their lives.
What happens to these kids? Where does it all fall apart? At what age do the barriers go up? When do they get suspicious? When does it start to be not okay to live side by side with your Buddhist or Muslim brethren? Who feeds them the information that turns some of them into terrorists?
Foreign embassies are unanimous: Stay away from Narathiwat, unless you have business there, and if you do, get in and get out as quick as you can. Bombs can and do go off, and while foreigners may not be the targets, car bombs don’t discriminate.
When Anubal Narathiwat School first contacted me, to ask if I would be willing to run an English camp for the Year 1 and 2 students, their first question was: “Would you be brave enough to travel down here?” I told them I risk my life on a daily basis in the terrifyingly lawless and dangerous Bangkok traffic. Surely the probability of being killed and maimed is much higher on Sukhumvit Road. What’s a short trip to the South between friends?
The tragedy of Narathiwat is that it is such a beautiful city. It is a tourist town without tourists.
It’s right on the beach, and those beaches are pristine, white and wide. The town is tiny and everything is within walking distance. Sea breezes rush down the corridors of the main streets. Palm trees dot the city. There is a bustling morning market and an equally frenetic night market.
The food is sensational; arguably the best authentic Muslim food you’ll find in the country. There are restaurants where you can sit overlooking the Bang Nara River. Alternatively you can sit at a Muslim coffee shop and stuff yourself with rotis and matabas and >>khao yam.<< That was my last Tuesday night; sitting on a street corner, amid yellow and green two-storey buildings, at a roti shop where half of Narathiwat’s residents stopped to buy dinner. At the table next to ours, the local council was meeting informally over tea and rotis. It would be easy to fall in love with this atmosphere — but how dangerous it would be to do so.
Strolling back from the roti shop to our hotel, there are concrete barricades found outside many of the shophouses. We passed another coffee shop that was bombed in 2009, one of nine places that were bombed in a single night. It never recovered, and remains a shell to this day, with a group of four very young soldiers holding four very big rifles at a make-shift check point in the shadows outside.
Directly across the road is closed-down cinema, now home to swiftlets, whose saliva is used to make birds nest soup.
Even our hotel was a target, back in 2005, when a bomb went off in an adjacent restaurant.
During the day soldiers stand, backs to the road, along the main roads of the town. In the afternoon as students stream out of schools they cluster around school gates, since the terrorists target teachers.
Economically, this picturesque town is hurting. Narathiwat has no major businesses, factories or industries. Tourism would give the place a much-needed boost, but the only foreigners you find here are shady Russians. No native English teachers dare live in the town, which has a direct effect on the education of Narathiwat schoolchildren.
My Narathiwat experience was memorable, but my heart does go out to the beautiful young children, still blind to the divisions of religions, who are living in violent times. I could grow to really like this town.
One incident did give me a jolt of reality, however.
As I was about to leave, a Channel 5 reporter interviewed me about my visit. Santhiti Khojidmet, a Narathiwat native, asked me if I was afraid to be there.
“Not in the slightest,” I said. “You can’t live your life in fear of terrorists. I’d be happy to come down here again. I’d even think about taking a holiday here.”
Fine words, fit for media sound bites, and words I even convinced myself were admirable – until I turned the question around.
“What about you?” I casually asked. “Have you ever seen any violence?”
“Well, yes,” she replied casually. “Five times. Hospitalized, too.”
It turns out this female reporter has been the subject of national media more than once.
On January 16, 2007, she was covering news in Ban Bue Jo district when a second bomb exploded right where she was standing.
“Second bombs” as they are called are the bombs terrorists let off a short time after the first one. The aim is to inflict as much death and destruction upon the people who have rushed to help the victims of the first one.
In that incident, the bomb ripped apart the man standing next to her, killing him instantly. Santhiti was thrown three metres into the air and landed on concrete. She was wearing a yellow shirt in honor of the King at the time; her picture went around the country. She spent the next month in hospital.
She has been caught in bomb blasts another four times since then.
Her editor in chief has offered her a position in Chiang Mai, but she isn’t taking it. “Narathiwat is my hometown,” she says. “Like most people, we were born here. We can’t live anywhere else. Why would I move?”
Why would you move? What a question.
By Wednesday night I was back in Bangkok, a thousand kilometres from those gorgeous Anubal Narathiwat schoolkids, missing them greatly. But Santhithi made me realize my rose-tinted view of this tourist ghost town needs an attitude adjustment. As beautiful as it is, it is a town that needs to be treated with the utmost caution.
SHOUTS AND MOANS
By Andrew Biggs
Two songs threatened to bring down Thai society in just the last seven days. One was about the evils of military rule. The other was about moaning the name of your ex-lover on your wedding night mid-coitus.
Which one do you want to hear about first – the political one or the sexy one? Did I have to even ask!
What if I told you they were remarkably similar in their intent?
We don’t need to spend too much time on the political one, and thank goodness for that. As I write this, it has not been one hundred percent established whether it is a crime to like this song or not.
Even the police had to think about that. Earlier in the week yes, it was shaping up to be a crime, but common sense stepped in and now the probability of being jailed for liking this song has dropped to just 50 percent. One hopes it will drop down to zero by the time you read this over the weekend, but one cannot be sure, so let’s focus on the sexy song in just a few paragraphs.
The saga surrounding the political song, sung by a collective called “Rap Against Dictatorship”, was covered more than adequately by Bangkok Post star columnist Kong Rithdee this time last week, so do go back to last Sunday’s paper and have a read of that article.
The song is called Prathet Ku Mee which means “My Country’s Got That”. It’s a protest song about all that’s wrong in modern day Thailand, starting with the non-arrest of the black panther killers to the inability to make choices in the land of the free.
The music video is powerful, as it draws upon scenes from the October 14, 1973 and October 6, 1976 student uprisings that were brutally oppressed by state forces. It emulates a famous event, where one student was strung up and hanged at Sanam Luang amid a cheering crowd, including children, who then bashed the corpse with broken chairs.
The song references that era and its relationship to what is happening in 2018. It is a familiar scenario here in Thailand which we used to call a broken record back when we listened to songs such as Prathet Ku Mee on vinyl. Now and again a song will pop up that doesn’t curry favor with the ruling government. They are invariably storms in teacups. The more they are attacked, the more popular they become.
Only this time around we are now in the fifth year of military dictatorship, and such musical protests are frowned upon more than usual. The police, one target of the song’s vicious lyrics, made vague assertions a week ago that anybody who liked and shared the video on Facebook might be committing a criminal offence.
Those lyrics were false, they claimed, and spreading false information that may damage national security or cause public panic. That meant the single act of pressing “Like” on the YouTube video could mean a jail sentence of five years or a 100,000 baht fine.
By mid-week the police had softened their approach. National deputy police chief Srivara Ransibrahmanakul, vilified in the song for his handling of the black panther case, said that sharing the song was not illegal.
Pol. Maj. Gen Surachate Hakparn went one step further. As head of the technology crime centre, he said that everybody is entitled to express public opinions.
“Society’s elders must accept that it’s not possible to prohibit or restrict personal opinions, especially among the youth,” he wrote. “Adults should see them as views from another perspective that they should listen to.” Surachate is absolutely correct, and it is refreshing to hear such views from police and the government.
If there was a national music chart in Thailand, Prathet Ku Mee would be at number one with a bullet, so to speak, despite zero airplay. The military regime couldn’t stop it. The cops couldn’t stop it. And in fact, the more they drew attention to it, the more it gained in popularity, resulting in some 25 million views on Youtube. Could anything detract from its popularity?
Well … yes. It came in the form of a luk thung song about sex.
Thailand’s country music scene is a hotbed of innuendo and lewdness. Just last year this column explained the double-entendre in the title of a hit song by a young male singer. His song, with a chorus lamenting “I Can’t Speak English Well,” when sung quickly sounded curiously like “My Penis Is Not Hard.” There were ripples of discontent over the naughtiness of that song, but nothing compared to the avalanche of disgust of the current hit song — most probably because it is sung by a woman who is clearly, er, enjoying her conjugal rights.
It’s not just that number one political song that’s absent from commercial radio airplay. It’s this one, too, sitting firmly at number two.
The song is called Khrang Cheu Ai Nae which roughly means “Call Out My Name In A Moaning Voice Whilst You’re Having Sex With Your New Husband.” Don’t shoot the messenger, dear reader. I’m only reporting the facts.
Like most country music songs, it’s about a poor upcountry boy who loses his girlfriend to a wealthier Chinese-looking guy from the city. We’re supposed to feel sorry for the guy but I don’t. He may have a good heart but he’s clearly a no-hoper, dressing badly and having a face only his mother would love.
This jilted lover’s name is “Ai”, which is a generic term for “big brother” and a vital cog to the story’s punchline.
Ai’s girlfriend leaves him for the light-skinned guy in the Honda Civic. When she gives Ai the bad news, a despondent Ai asks her to call out his name “in a moaning fashion” on her wedding night, as she and her Chinese husband are performing their conjugal duties for the first time. Ai isn’t just a poor farm hand — he sounds a little kinky to boot, suggesting the woman dodged an Isan bullet. She refuses, claiming her new husband would kill her if she did that.
We now reach the climax.
On their wedding night, we see the woman and husband in their new home. In what has to be a contender for the award of Most Ludicrous Scene In A Popular Song 2018, the woman lies down on the bed. Her naked husband moves towards her … but she remains in full bridal gown, make-up intact, not a strand out of place on her three-cans-of-hairsprayed head. She is, after all, a good Thai girl.
As things get underway the woman starts moaning all the different vowel sounds of the Thai alphabet: “Oh oh oh oh! Ee Ee Ee Ee! Ah ah ah ah!” And yes, dear reader, at the very end, with a slightly mischievous look, she lets out what we’ve all been waiting for, including the jilted boyfriend standing in the shadows outside: “Ai Ai Ai Ai!”
GET IT? SHE DID IT! SHE SAID HIS NAME!
Which just goes to prove my theory of similarity. Against all odds, in the face of imminent personal danger, she said the unspeakable. In that respect, those two songs have more in common than we ever thought.
By Andrew Biggs
As I write this column, a pick-up truck travelling home to Hat Yai for Songkran has just crashed, killing two and seriously injuring another five of the same family.
The pick-up in question lost control and slammed into trees on the side of the road in the province of Prachuab Khiri Khan, just past Hua Hin. The driver was killed instantly.
The rest of the injured passengers — six in total — were sitting in the back of the pick-up and were thrown out of the car. One of those six passengers died on the way to nearby Sam Roi Yod hospital. Two of the seriously injured are children.
Yes, but at least they were having fun.
That last sentence was a cruel thing to write. It was uncaring and morbid. But it is relevant to what is going on in Thailand today, and it’s better than my original sentence of “I told you so!” whilst jumping up and down like a kid in a candy shop.
This column is being written late Sunday night before Songkran. Normally there isn’t such a gap between writing this column and it being published, but I received a plaintive email from my esteemed copy editor asking if I could send my column early this week.
It was for some reason I can’t quite remember. With the impending Songkran, my copy editor wished to spend more time at the temple listening to monks preach about ways to avoid suffering … something like that. The details are lost, but I acceded, though not before telling him that if he really wanted to avoid suffering, he shouldn’t open the bottle in the first place.
I have a nightly radio show co-hosted by the inimitable Ornuma Kasetpheutphon, a well-known award-winning TV and radio announcer. She hosts a TV show called Sathanee Prachachon (The People’s Station), where grass-roots people come to air their grievances, so she has her finger on the pulse of Thailand’s rural population.
We often we end up chatting about current topics. A few days ago we talked about Songkran, in particular the government’s plan to instigate a ban on passengers travelling in the back of ubiquitous pick-up trucks.
That ban was quickly repealed after the entire country howled in protest — a ban on riding in the back of pickup trucks? Whatever’s the next crazy idea – adhering to traffic lights? Stopping at zebra crossings?
Thailand is one of the world’s biggest markets for pick-up trucks; more than half of domestic vehicle sales are pick-ups according to the Land Transport Department. Unfortunately the department doesn’t keep figures as to how many of those pick-ups are driven by drunken speeding lunatics over Songkran, but I would hazard an educated guess and say, oh, a conservative 95 percent.
This is the week statistically you are most likely to be killed on the roads. Thailand is number two in the world for traffic deaths per capita, and it is over Songkran where the bodies stack up more than any other time.
It is not rocket science as to why. Alcohol and speed are the two major reasons. That, and the hilarious custom of standing on the side of the road shoving buckets of water into the faces of passing motorcyclists.Every year, without fail, the government comes out with a new campaign to reduce the road toll. Every year, without fail, the campaign fails. Last year they tried repossessing the cars of drink drivers. It didn’t work. The road toll jumped from 364 to 442. That meant a dead body every 20 minutes for seven days. Even the threat of vehicle repossession didn’t faze the drunkards.
Why is that? It is easy to say “the authorities aren’t tough enough”, but the real answer could lie in a word so devoid and detached from road carnage and yet so Thai — the element of sanook.
Sanook is an intrinsic part of Thailand and its culture. If it ain’t fun, it won’t work. Could it be Thailand’s love of all things sanook that stops any meaningful steps in reducing the road toll?
Anybody coming from a country not in the Top Ten Highest Road Fatalities In The World (the other 9 are impoverished African nations) would understand the government proposal to ban riding in the back of pickups. It’s just not done in countries with normal road tolls.
I tried to push this point in our radio show this week, but Ornuma spoke for most Thais when she said:
“No, that cannot be done. You can’t do that in Thailand.”
Why not, I asked?
“Khun Andrew, you come from Australia. You may not understand that in Thailand, we have a lot of poor country folk.” How I wanted to ask exactly how coming from Australia would render me unable to grasp that fact, but sometimes it is better to keep the peace and allow co-hosts to continue uninterrupted. For a time.
“If you ban people sitting in the back seat, how are poor families in the provinces going to travel? It’s an ingrained part of Thai culture. Let’s say you have to drive to a wedding 30 kilometres away. You have a family of six, so only three or four can sit in the front. What is going to happen to the other two? How are they going to get to the wedding? Are you going to force them to stay at home?”
Point well taken. Imagine how high I would be on the Farang Popularity Chart if I denied one third of an impoverished Isan family the right to get smashed on local rice whiskey at a wedding, all because they couldn’t sit in the back of a pick-up. Although I do wonder in which parallel universe I would ever have the power to issue such edicts.
Our radio show has the option of listeners sending in comments as we speak. Khun Ornuma’s supporters were outnumbering mine.
“I agree with Ornuma!” one read.
“Poor people would be disadvantaged … again!” read another.
I tried to make the point that spending a boring night at the rural homestead may not be as fun as getting sozzled at a wedding — but “poor and left out of the party” is better than “mangled and dead”.
“Ornuma’s right,” came in another SMS.
“Thais love sanook,” another one said.
“And let me ask you one thing,” said Ornuma. She was enjoying the spoils of victory. “What are the reasons people die on the roads? I’ll tell you. Number one is alcohol. Number two is speed. Nowhere on that list is sitting in the back of a pick-up truck.”
She had a point. Illogical, but still she had a point.
Like the government, I caved in. I threw to an ad break and changed the topic.
I have no idea what the death toll is for Songkran this year; my copy editor needed temple time, remember? But it is freaky to think that as I write this column, there are approximately 442 people who are very much alive but who will be very dead the time it is printed, not to mention the 4,000 or so who will be injured. That doesn’t even count the two dead in Prachuab Khiri Khan, whose deaths fell a few hours short of the beginning of this Songkran’s Seven Days of Death road toll.
The one light at the end of the tunnel is the government’s declaration that the pick-up truck ban will be enforced after Songkran.
That’s positive, albeit a little weird. It’s as if we are allowing 442 people to die before enforcing a law that could have prevented their deaths. But this is Thailand, and remember, dear reader, as Ornuma reminded me … you too might come from Australia.
By Andrew Biggs
I happened to be in front of the television, that ancient device we used to watch before Youtube, two Thursday nights ago when a calamity befell the nation.
You may have heard it as it happened. It was around 11 pm when approximately one and a half million Thais screamed in exasperation: “What???!!?!”
I was shouting it too.
This story begins at 8 pm on the evening in question as I sat down to write an essay for my Master degree. This requires intense concentration and silence and, as I write the final paragraph, a stiff vodka tonic.
I was on my opening paragraph, wallowing in academic sobriety, when my 19-year-old Thai niece entered the living room. She normally sits with me doing her own first-year university homework, but tonight would be different.
“Khun Andrew,” she asked. “May I turn on the television?”
A strange request. “Why? What’s on?”
“It’s the final night of The Mask Singer.”
“The Mask Singer. We’re going to find out who is the Durian and who is the Black Crow.”
I, like you, had no idea what she was talking about.
It transpires the two of us are both out of the loop when it comes to what’s red hot in the Thai entertainment industry.
The Mask Singer has been on every week for the past four months, despite the glaring grammatical error in its title. Surely it should be the Masked Singer? Or the Singing Mask? Or perhaps I should be less anal and mix myself that vodka tonic?
It’s a talent show. They started off with 32 singers. According to my niece, they were all famous. I expressed surprise at the idea of Thailand having that number of famous singers, but my niece did say they famous. Not talented.
There was a clever novelty; each singer wore an elaborate mask and outfit, so that viewers had no idea who they were. Every week someone got eliminated and that person tore off the mask to reveal their identity.
On this particular night, the show was down to the final two. And it was starting at 8 pm.
This had been a television phenomenon in Thailand for four months. Apparently the show blitzed the ratings; it was on Workpoint Channel, a station that is close to knocking the two big TV channels, Three and Seven, off their ratings perch. This was the show that could very well make it happen.
Meanwhile the Durian singer was Thailand’s most hyped superstar without ever seeing his face. He even had his own Line stickers.
I figured I could continue padding out my essay with the TV in the background, so my niece switched it on. Soon my interest waned in my essay and was drawn to that final show.
“I think I’ll take a break,” I said to my niece, joining her on the couch in front of the TV. Who would have thought I would never return to my textbooks that night?
The two finalists were both excellent, though Durian was clearly better than Black Crow. But you should have seen the hysteria during that live broadcast. It was Beatlemania for the new generation; hordes of screaming girls waving banners, with conveniently half of them cheering for Black Crow, and the other half screaming for the Durian.
The Black Crow sang. The Durian sang.
The winner was announced at 9 pm — the Durian.
Dear reader, I have never seen such hype in a TV show. It surely pushed the limits to just how hysterical we human beings can become before we explode, or disappear in puffs of smoke.
This was thanks to some very slick production and a tall, slightly skeletal-looking male emcee who clearly placed his fingers in an electrical socket during the frequent ad breaks to maintain his energy.
There was also a panel of nine jittery judges. None of them could stay in their seats; they resembled that sideshow attraction where you have to use a hammer to hit little clowns that keep popping up in all manner of places.
In short, it was slick and glitzy and successful. It is amazing to think that what transpired next would send it all crashing down like a pack of cards.
First of all, we had to find out who the loser really was.
That act took a good ten minutes, as cameras cut from every single angle as the Black Crow tantalized and taunted us as he slowly revealed his identity. He was a local singer of some notoriety, though hardly a superstar.
As the Durian took a back seat, our emcee then interviewed the loser … for an entire hour.
I remember visiting Madame Tussaud’s wax museum in London, in particular the section where they have the torture devices of old. The most memorable was the rack, where the victim is tied down and stretched, slowly, until all his limbs and ligaments are torn apart.
That was what The Mask Singer did to its faithful and dedicated audience for a good hour. They even had the audacity to take a break for the Royal News for 15 to 20 minutes before they returned to even more of the loser’s lackluster backstory.
By 10.30 pm, two and a half hours I could never get back, I turned to my niece. “Let’s switch this off. Surely we have too much human dignity to endure this any longer.”
My niece may not have understood what “human dignity” meant but she certainly got “let’s switch this off”. She started to get as jittery as those judges.
“No! No! We have to see who the Durian is!” she pleaded. And I relented.
At 10.50 pm, just short of three hours after the show started, the emcee finally wrapped up his interview with the loser. If they’d spent an hour and a half on him, how long were they going to spend with the victor?
The Durian came back out. “And now … we’re going to find out who he is …” the emcee screamed, as the crowd collectively wet itself and the judges bounced up and down like Despicable Me minions.
“ … NEXT WEEK!”
Cut to credits. End.
My niece and I sat there, gobsmacked. Apparently not just the two of us either.
The online backlash began before midnight. “Boycott The Mask Singer” campaigns erupted on Facebook and Twitter. Hashtags sprang up such as #RIPTheMask (leading some innocents to enquire as to why we had to rip up the masks). The entire population went ballistic, and I don’t blame them. I myself felt like a Tinder date who is wined, dined, taken dancing, promised the world then dropped off at the No.129 bus stop on Viphawadee-Rangsit Road without even the bus fare.
But weirdest part of the story has yet to be told.
This show is all about revealing who a mystery singer is and the shock derived from finding out.
But guess what, dear reader; everybody already knows who the Durian is!
He’s Tom Itsara Kidnitchee, lead singer of the band Room 39. So this story is even more bizarre in that the Thai viewership knew exactly who the guy was all along — and still were prepared to pretend to be shocked.
Last Thursday was the night the Durian was finally revealed. Ho hum. I certainly didn’t watch it, and as this column was written prior to the broadcast, I’m guessing there was an apology, the revelation, a drawn-out interview, an extra song or two, and then goodbye.
Only I wasn’t watching it. Nor was my niece. We are both students who understand that experience is knowledge and anyway, she had homework to do. I had essays to pad out.
By Andrew Biggs
I once had a student who was preparing for a trip to Australia.
He was a 30-year-old engineer from Chiang Mai who’d won a three-month scholarship to Melbourne. His English wasn’t great but he was a fast learner and diligent. Anyway, it wasn’t his English that bothered me.
It was the way he spelt his name: Turdsack.
Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t immediately jump up and slap my knee and look to the heavens as I guffaw over a name worthy of an Asian bus conductor out of a Carry On movie.
Actually I am perfectly at home with a name like Turdsack; the last syllable rhymes with “truck” anyway, and both syllables are stand-alone Thai words with magnificent, almost elegant meanings.
The problem was he was on his way to Australia.
As a native of that country it was my civic duty to inform him such a spelling of his elegant name might render otherwise civil Australians speechless or, at worst, stifling giggles at his first Melbourne function.
“Do you, er, have any other names you go by?” I asked bespectacled Khun Turdsack as he sat opposite.
(This is not such a ridiculous question in this country. My artist is known as Banjerd to his family, Vichien to his work colleages, and Black Ant to his mates. I suspect his plethora of names has more to do with dodging loan sharks than auspicious sounding names, however.)
He didn’t. His name was Turdsack and his nickname was Sack. Neither was going to bode well in Melbourne.
“Look, I don’t normally do this, but I’m going to be frank with you,” I said. “You have to change the spelling of your name.”
“Why, Ajarn Andrew?” young Turdsack enquired, leaning forward, and I told him in no uncertain terms.
At first he tried to remain calm but soon his eyes widened. “A sack is a big bag?” he asked. “And a turd is …?”
“Yes,” I said, adding that colloquially it also meant a nasty person.
I blame Thai linguists, who have decided that a transliterated “a” sounds like the “u” in “truck”, hardly a common way to pronounce it in English.
That aside, the trouble is that Turdsack sounds really nice in Thai. “Turd”, for example, means respect for somebody, while “sack” is power or ability.
One of the joys of learning a language thoroughly is that after a while you begin to hear the nuances; the beauty of words as they tumble out of your mouth.
No better example of this is “Porn”, the popular woman’s name.
There is a richness, a beauty about this word in Thai, and so it should since the word itself means “blessing” or “benediction.”
Tragically we in the West associate those four letters with something on the other side of the linguistic playing field far detached from richness and beauty (unless you find Hustler Magazine a blessing … tell me you don’t).
Every night the sounds of thundering male laughter echo across Patpong as foreign guys learn their new friend’s name is “Porn” or some derivative such as “Porntip” or “Somporn.” Hilarious.
It’s a travesty, I know, that one of the Thai language’s most beautiful words ends up trashy in English.
In my first month in Thailand I stayed for a few nights at “Porn House” in Chiang Rai. Much to my surprise there were no neon flashing lights, windowless walls or Gideon Bibles as you find in more seedy establishments.
It was guest house run by a friendly 30-something teacher named Porn.
On the second day I was there I made a really stupid comment, as Miss Porn was making me a cup of coffee and Vegemite on toast.
“Do you know what your name means in English?” I asked.
The change in Porn’s face was clear. From a sunny morning disposition she juxtaposed into dull resignation, albeit quickly, until she forced herself back into sunny disposition. The only thing missing was her rolling her eyes.
“It means something bad,” she muttered. “Would you like one toast or two?”
At the time I thought she’d been offended by my mentioning a rude word in English, but no, of course not. What really happened was a brief disclosure of her tedium at hearing Farang #5,987 enquiring about her name, and all the titillation that accompanied the enquiry. I wasn’t any different from the rest of them after all, she was no doubt thinking.
Once again the official linguists are at fault.
More than a hundred years ago they decided that a “P” sound in Thai should be rendered as “PH”. We have Russian tourists right now referring to Phuket as “Fooket”, or the already-unpronounceable Ko Phang-ngan as “Ko Fang-nygngygngan”. At least that’s how it sounds to me.
And yet … the one Thai transliteration that SHOULD be spelt with the silly PH rule ends up as Porn. Why isn’t it Phorn, or, even more distantly, Phon? We in the know could still pronounce it correctly, but at least it would wipe the smile off the drunken faces of Nana Plaza sex tourists.
More than a few Thai women bearing this name have sent me emails about this as they travel overseas. Should we write it a different way?
I am torn between two camps. Why attempt to alter something that is so majestic in its mother language?
At the same time, Thai women already undergo brutal treatment at the hands of foreign customs officers, not to mention the pervading overseas reputation of Bangkok as a sex capital. Isn’t having a name like Porn just going to exacerbate things?
I wish the Porn question was more cut and dried, such as my friend Go who spelt his last name in English as Cun-ta-vichai. The two hyphens I put in myself. He dispensed with them, and the result was more than I could remain silent on.
“But it’s spelt like that on my passport!” he protested.
“Change your passport,” I said.
Such are the landmines embedded in our travel across languages, and by the way it is a two-way street. Simple English words we use on an hourly bases (here, he, yet) have vulgar meanings in Thai if spoken with the right — or wrong — intonation.
If your name is John, it means “poor” in Thai. Bob is a scary Thai ghost with a pinprick for a mouth. Tom is a lesbian. Tim means “thrust” or “poke,” while Mark is betelnut.
My own name sounds a little like the Thai word for “cute”, which is all well and good and breaks the ice at parties. But if you switch the syllables around, as Thais like to do for fun, it means: “Show us your … private parts.” Of all the nerve! I’m changing my name to Turdsack!
Speaking of my bespectacled student, the story has a great ending.
Young Turdsack returned for his next English lesson having done all his homework. At the end of his lesson he said to me:
“I took your advice.” About what? Nobody ever takes my advice!
“My name. I changed the way I spell it,” he said.
And he brought out his notebook. On the cover he’d crossed out “Turdsack”.
In its place?
THE BEST LAID PLANS OF CRABS AND MEN
By Andrew Biggs
Recently I found myself in Surat Thani at the early morning wet market.
“Let’s buy some crabs,” my School Director had said the night before. “We can release them into the river to make merit.”
My School Director is regular in her efforts to tam boon, or “make merit” as the vague English translation happens to be. Making merit is a bit like selfless service; doing something good without expecting a return. That is perhaps not entirely true; by performing the selfless act, there is an understanding that the good karma will find its way back to the purveyor; if not immediately, then sometime in this life or, if you’re unlucky, the next.
My School Director regularly releases fish to make merit, so it was no surprise upon arriving in Surat Thani that she suggested releasing the crabs. “It will be very good karma for us, not to mention good business,” she added with a nod and a smile. Thais are as ethereal as they are pragmatic; I wish I could balance the two so well.
Very early the next morning we found ourselves in the middle of the bustling morning market in the narrow sois off Talat Mai Road, near where the slow boats set sail for the islands of Samui and Phang-gnan. We soon found a crab seller. We bought six live crabs and put them in a bucket.
There is a popular Thai idiom that says “like putting crabs in a crab pot”. It’s used for situations concerning young children, especially any effort to get them to sit still. I had no idea how difficult it was to keep a crab in a crab pot, or in my case a bucket, even in the 50 metres from the crab shop to the jetty.
New knowledge for me; crabs don’t like to sit peacefully in a bucket. They scramble and jostle for freedom. One actually made it, spilling out onto the road. This caused a commotion as shoppers, vendors, a security guard and even a passing female school teacher attempted to scoop up the errant scurrying crab without getting fingers sliced off by furious pincers. With some deft handwork from the school teacher of all people, we got it back into the bucket and we hurried across the road to the jetty.
“Normally we would bring our hands together and pray now,” my School Director said. “But that may not be a good idea with these crabs in the bucket. Let’s do it afterwards.”
And with that we both tipped the bucket into the brownish waters of Surat Thani River. Six black crabs disappearing into the brownness: plop, plop, plop, plop, plop and plop.
I didn’t have a good feeling about the incident.
For a start, the water in the river around that market was hardly pristine. Not one of those crabs upon hitting the water made any effort to snap their pincers with glee or start joyously frolicking around. They fell like stones into the murkiness, gone forever.
Nor did we think to enquire as to whether they were fresh-water crabs or, in the case of the Surat Thani River, brackish-water crabs, if indeed such crabs exist. Had I just spared the life of six crabs … or had I sent them all to a grave much quicker than any Surat Thai crockpot could have?
Sometimes we humans, along with mice, have best laid plans and intentions, but all we do is end up causing more suffering. Just ask that tortoise in Chonburi.
Thailand hits the front page of CNN and BBC regularly, but who would have thought we would do it with that poor tortoise that swallowed nearly a thousand baht in coins and ended up dying last Tuesday.
The number of coins found in the belly was closer to 900. With every single one of those tossed coins was a fervent wish, an ardent hope, or some form of celestial bargaining. I imagine there were wishes for love, wealth and health. Some probably asked for their houses to sell quickly, or for a sharp upturn in sales at their noodle store. Others may have just been making merit. Nine hundred different wishes with the toss of 900 coins – one by one straight into the mouth of that poor turtle.
Turtles are considered auspicious animals in this part of the world. They represent luck, strength longevity. Hence they can be found swimming around temple pools.
This week we received a rude awakening about that. The hopes and dreams of 900 people culminated in the painful life, and slow death, of that tortoise, who had been named omm sinn, or “piggy bank”. It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.
If those 900 people knew they were contributing to the painful death of a tortoise, would they cease and desist? I’m sure they would. Experience is education; now that we know about that tortoise many Thais will think twice before tossing a coin into a tortoise-filled pool. After all, we have had precedents in the shape of birds and elephants.
There was a time back in the noughties when there was a concerted effort by many Buddhists not to patronize old ladies standing outside temples with birds in little wooden cages. “Release a bird and make merit!” they would shout, shoving their rickety cages into your face at temple entrances. “Good luck for you!”
Good luck for me, but hell for the bird. It does sound like a nice thing to do, especially to the ears of foreign tourists. How Buddhist and karmically aesthetic; until one learns that the birds have had their wings clipped, and their glorious ascent into the heavens lasts about as long as a crab lives after being released into brown sludge – back into the wooden box they go.
We learned to stop patronizing elephants, too, who once came to Bangkok in large numbers. It is considered lucky to run under the belly of an elephant, until we learned how tortuous and stressful it was for a pachyderm to plod down Sukhumvit Road with all the automobile commotion and pollution.
Then there are the “rescued” buffalo.
On a trip to Hua Hin I visited Wat Takiab on the southern cliffs, where a buffalo was tied to a fence. Above him was a big sign: MAKE MERIT! SPARE THIS BUFFALO’S LIFE!
This ruse involves a buffalo or cow whose destiny is the slaughterhouse. By making a donation to the temple, collectively around 10,000 baht, its life is spared and it gets to roam free.
That’s just weird. If you care enough for the life of animals, then for god’s sake put down that Big Mac or grilled pork on a stick this instant. Surely by becoming a vegetarian you would spare more than the life of a single buffalo. And just exactly where are all these spared buffalo roaming? Certainly not at Wat Takiab; all I can see are monkeys. One suspects the buffalo is led off to another temple for another chance of being spared, with another 10,000 baht to be split between the owner and the monks.
But back to Surat Thani.
That evening, of the day we released the crabs, we ended up dining at a popular restaurant by the side of the Surat Thani River with great views of the city. Six of us enjoyed a seafood feast — including one dish of curried crabs still in their shells.
My School Director knew exactly what I was thinking.
“It’s okay,” she whispered. “They’re not the same ones. These crabs are much bigger. And anyway … they’re delicious.”
By Andrew Biggs
Three new government campaigns started up this week:
1. A police campaign demands motorists stop at zebra crossings in an effort to curb the rising road toll.
2. The Transport Ministry is launching a drive to public vans pick up no more than 13 passengers per trip, in a campaign that started last Monday.
3. The Social Development Ministry is cracking down on government officers, asking them to stop the practise of procuring under-aged prostitutes as gifts for their departmental heads.
I don’t know about you, dear reader … but did one of those three campaigns seem to just jump out and bite you on the balls of your feet?
Government campaigns come and go with the tides and they usually don’t elicit such a stark reaction. I’m not a spoilsport; the police should be praised in their efforts to make motorists stop at zebra crossings, though getting a driver to stop is akin to standing on the beach at Rayong and shouting at those tides to stop going in and out.
So cross campaign number one off the list. It didn’t bite my feet. Throw it into the too-hard basket. And while you’re at it, cross number two off because of its sheer dullness.
That leaves us with number three — and the best evidence ever in my ongoing theory that the youth of this country are the very last demographic that needs to be educated.
It’s been three years to the day since my mid-week holiday in a five-star Hua Hin resort was thwarted by the coup d’etat.
My plans for a night out rubbing shoulders with Hua Hin’s local Scandinavian population morphed into an evening in front of the TV, as military tunes churned over and over on all Thai channels.
Over the next few months we got to know our new leader, General Prayut Chanocha, who in between administering the country managed to write a song about “returning happiness to the Thai people”. Only in Thailand can the leader of military junta find time to write a hit single.
Another of the prime minister’s works was a list of 12 Core Values for Thai Youth. I touched on these values last week in this column during our animated discussion about Thailand’s need for critical and analytical thinking among its youth. And yes, one of the Core Values is the ability for students to think critically, so the Prime Minister and myself are on the same frequency regarding that issue.
Overall the values are neither sinister nor particularly unique. They are universal values that can be applied to any culture, and include such things as being kind and moral, preserving traditions, being honest, pursuing knowledge, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
This list was dispatched to every school in the country. Thai youth were then forced to learn them off by heart, to recite them, to sing them, to make posters about them, to write essays about them and, on rare occasions, to follow them.
And this being the land of military hit songs, there were a few months where the media blasted us with songs — yes, more hit singles — with local fresh-faced stars singing the 12 Core Values. There was even a Thai luk thung version with kids dancing in rice fields while reciting the Core Values. It felt a little North Korea-esque for a while there, but we got through it.
The prime minister may have had good intentions but he was preaching to the wrong crowd. He only needs to seek out his Social Development Minister for the reason why.
There has been a sex scandal brewing in the far northern province of Mae Hong Son involving child prostitution. The details are as harrowing as they are heartbreaking for the original mother who discovered her daughter was a part of it. Her efforts to bring Mae Hong Son’s upper echelon to justice will make a good movie one day, as she is David against a Goliath comprising the police force, top civil service men and Thai culture.
Whether that Goliath will crash to the ground is something the embattled Thai media will have to keep its eye on, but for the moment, we should take solace in the knowledge that the wheels of justice are turning albeit with a creak.
In a nutshell; civil servants were currying favor with their bosses via under-aged prostitutes. A policeman had procured 20 under-aged girls, including the mother’s daughter, to service some local bigwigs.
It is a shadowy corner of Thai culture that normally doesn’t see the light of day. This may come as a surprise to you, dear reader, but the male civil service has not been dedicating itself to serving only you. It also likes to serve its superiors. We call it sucking up to the boss; in Thai it’s “licking the boss’s shins and legs” but clearly, as Mae Hong Son has revealed, the licking doesn’t stop there.
The Mae Hong Son governor has been moved to one of those fabled inactive positions. He is claiming innocence, saying his misfortune is the result of sins from a past life. Police and civil servants have been arrested too.
What the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security did this week, by announcing its new campaign, is tantamount to admitting this aspect of Thai culture is widespread and systematic.
Minister Adul Sangsingkeo said he was working closely with relevant agencies to find ways to stop government subordinates buying sex services for their bosses to celebrate special occasions.
The ministry describes the practice as an “inappropriate norm” and kicked off its campaign to educate state officials about the inappropriate nature of this culture.
State officials need to be educated on that? You mean … they don’t know that already?
It is a little eerie to contemplate. If what the Ministry says is true, then the civil service is being run by men who still think having sex with a 16-year-old is a good way to celebrate. Whatever happened to birthday cakes and bottles of Johnny Walker Red?
These are men who wear uniforms decorated in all manner of medals and baubles, who stand when the national anthem is played at 8 am and 6 pm, who profess their loyalty to the country and crown. They are the very models of respectability that many aspire to; a secure life in the civil service. They have families; wives and children, many of whom are under-aged daughters.
And to get where they are, they had to pass tests. Those tests, to get into the civil service, are stringent and difficult. A good portion of it is about culture, ethics and morality and clearly their education on culture in the workplace didn’t stop at the test.
It is a sad situation and a good reason why the Core Values are probably wasted on the young. Thai youth should be spending their time doing homework or kicking a football somewhere. Besides, kids kind of get what’s right and wrong already. They haven’t been polluted by the system yet; their primary tasks are to study and to respect their elders.
Yes, respect their elders. It’s one of the Core Values. And it’s something every Mae Hong Son student has at some stage over the last three years recited off by heart.
Well you can stop now, kids. As for the grown-ups … start reciting.
EDUCATING THE EDUCATORS
By ANDREW BIGGS
The whole country, from the prime minister down, has been talking education, bandying about two words in particular: “innovation” and “technology”.
This culminated in an education fair entitled EdTex, held at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Center, where the consensus was that for Thailand to survive, it needs an education system that is both “innovative” and “technological”.
This is a wonderful thing to aspire to. While academics espoused opinions and theories (me being one of them), the big elephant in the fairgrounds was the idea that perhaps Thailand doesn’t really want innovation and technology. Because “innovation” and “technology” are on the opposite side of the spectrum to what the education system is today, namely “tradition” and “obeisance”.
These are heady times for the Thai education system. Last Monday the prime minister called for an overhaul of education at a time when academically, the whole system is upside down. And that’s a nice way to describe it.
What is wrong? Just about everything. The national curriculum calls for “student-centered learning” but the majority of classrooms are still steeped in the traditional century-old methods of teacher instructing students, and not a word out of those students either unless spoken to.
National examination scores aren’t great. Last year the nation collectively failed all five subjects on the O-Net test; that is, the average scores couldn’t hit 50 per cent. No prizes for guessing English was the worst subject of the five, with some of the remote border provinces scoring an average of as little as 17 per cent.
This year’s scores are allegedly better, according to the government body that sets the exam. The country passed one subject, Thai language, with an average national score that just scraped above 50 per cent. This is apparently good news, though failing 4 out of 5 subjects would never have been good news to my parents when I was a kid.
There are other challenges. Students numbers are falling because of an ageing population. Private universities are laying off teachers and not renewing contracts for the simple reason there is nobody to teach.
Meanwhile the Education Ministry plods along, dinosaur that it is, with the same age-old structure and philosophies, marching towards that meteorite about to crash into earth and wreak mass destruction.
Amidst all this there is a call for “innovation” and “technology”.
These are the two catchwords of this new era. They are at the heart of Thailand 4.0, a government-instigated campaign to push Thailand into the 21st century.
For Thailand to survive, or be a competitor on the ASEAN and the world stage, it needs to embrace both innovation and technology. Who would argue with that?
But could Thailand really cope with “innovation”?
One of the biggest criticisms of the Thai education system is that it does not foster critical thinking. Every prominent Thai academic, politician, instructor and educator makes this statement.
Instead the Thai education system is top-heavy in rote learning; students are expected to know the names of the Kings of the late Ayuthaya history, for example, including their dates of reign. That’s it.
Meanwhile at school, kids are expected to learn the “12 Values of a Good Thai Student” off by heart. These include things like loving your country, religion and King (rule #1) and respecting your elders (#7).
For “innovation” to occur, Thai students need to be able to criticize, synthesize and evaluate. But does Thai society really want its young people to criticize, synthesize and evaluate?
Critical thinking is all about challenging the norms. It’s about looking at facts, breaking them down, putting them back together and making value judgments on them. It’s asking the question “What do you think?” and allowing the freedom of expressing opinions, which may just veer from your own.
Thailand’s rote-infested classrooms are hardly the environment for a child wishing to engage in critical analysis.
I am trying to imagine a young student, in the middle of rote-learning those 12 Values Of A Good Thai Student, putting her hand up and saying: “Why should I love my country, teacher, when so many of our politicians and government workers are corrupt?”
Or her friend, sitting next to her, adding: “I don’t have a religion, teacher. I’m an atheist. Why does that make me a bad person?”
Or the student near the window suddenly asking: “This business about respecting elders. Does that extend to those corrupt politicians and government workers? Do I have to wai them, too?”
Such students exist only in my imagination, and in the current climate they should stay there. I dare not imagine the suffering they would go through for making such views known.
“Innovation” sounds like such a good word, but when students start to challenge and critically analyze, inevitably society comes down on them like a ton of bricks.
Meet Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal for instance, who at the ripe old age of 21 years has been a student activist for six years now.
Netiwit, bespectacled and stern-looking, is well-known in the Thai media as a student who challenges the norms. He’s currently in the Faculty of Political Science at Chulalongkorn University and in first year managed to get himself elected university president.
When he was still in high school he came out against rigid rules such as standardized haircuts. “Why do we all have to look the same?” he asked in the media.
He is against the culture of hazing at universities, where senior students subject freshmen to humiliating acts all in the name of creating harmony, and usually killing one or two students per year in the process. Last year he proclaimed himself a conscientious objector over the draft.
The biggest shock came just a week or so ago. Chulalongkorn University is named after King Rama 5, who was a progressive King best remembered for abolishing slavery and discontinuing the practise of prostrating oneself before a king.
There is a ritual for all new Chulalongkorn students to go to the statue of King Rama 5 on Ratchadamnoen Avenue and prostrate themselves before it. Netiwit chose instead to stand and pay his respects.
He incurred the wrath of staunch royalists and conservatives, including the prime minister, who criticized the boy for disrupting tradition. Netiwit shot back that the prime minister himself had disrupted the democratic tradition of Thailand three years ago and had no right to accuse him of such a thing. Like him or not, Netiwit earns kudos for courage.
Netiwit’s beliefs come from critically evaluating a situation. Why is it necessary to prostrate oneself before a statue? It is, after all, just a statue, and one of a King who abolished, ironically, prostrating before kings.
Yes, older Thai generation, this is what you must look forward to if indeed you want your youth to have skills in criticizing, synthesizing and evaluating. But it is what Thailand needs.
Netiwit is considered a radical student with ideas that extend way beyond the confines of Thai culture. And yet, isn’t innovation just that – searching for new ideas and methods beyond the norm?
Netiwit is also labeled a trouble-maker, but that is exactly what Thailand needs. It needs a bevy of trouble-makers, willing to instigate upheaval in the education system.
Look at all the countries surrounding us in this region who are making strides in education while we get left behind in our muddle of rote and tradition.
As painful as it may sound, the likes of Netiwit will help propel Thailand forward into this new Thailand 4.0 era. There is no alternative, other than that meteor strike, which is as inevitable as it will be welcome.
By Andrew Biggs
The annual Australian TV awards called The Logies were on last week.
A friend provided a link to one portion of the program. It was a less frenetic moment featuring the names and faces of those in the TV industry who had passed away in the last 12 months. So many faces from my youth popped up, while a singer provided a moving and slow rendition of David Bowie’s Heroes.
This year one name and face dissolved in and out which brought a nostalgic tear to my eye:
Jaye Walton, TV Personality.
What is even more curious is that the average Australian may not remember who she was — she would have much greater recognition here in Thailand.
Jaye Walton was a larger-than-life Australian expat who mingled in Bangkok expat social circles for more than three decades.
She had a life before that too, as host of a daytime TV show called A Touch Of Elegance. It ran from 1968-1980 on Channel 10 in her home state of South Australia, which is how older Adelaide viewers would remember her.
With her striking blonde hair, Jaye offered tips and tricks for Australian housewives of that era. In a Barry Humphries DVD where he sends up Australian life in the 1970s, she makes a brief appearance in a clip where she introduces South Australians to a new type of food straight from Italy called “pasta”, pronouncing it with an elongated “ah”.
Barry Humphries appeared as a guest on that show as his alter ego Les Patterson, inebriated and raucous, as another guest attempted to demonstrate a spaghetti-making machine. It was hilarious, and very controversial at the time.
In the 1980s Jaye came to Thailand to make a series of documentaries for the Tourism Authority of Thailand. It was during that time she interviewed Their Majesties King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit. She ended up settling down here, becoming a tireless worker for Thailand’s National Cancer Institute.
Any foreigner who was in Thailand in the 1990s and noughties would remember Jaye, because she landed herself a morning talk show on Channel 11 not unlike A Touch Of Elegance from her Adelaide days.
That morning talk show was called, perhaps a little unimaginatively, Morning Talk. She teamed up with another expat powerhouse of the time, Valerie McKenzie, and they interviewed just about every expat who ever got sent to these shores. The first half was Valerie’s interview; the second half was Jaye’s. Then it was switched around the following week.
There was perhaps nothing innovative or technically stupendous about the program, but it did last a helluva long time.
Back in the 1990s in the analog era there were almost no English shows on Thai TV, but these two saw out the decade with their weekly half-hour program featuring interviews with CEOs, chefs, five-star hotel managers, tailors, architects —just about anybody whose name may have popped up in the media. Jaye’s staff would be onto you in a flash. They interviewed Thais, as well, but only those who could speak the language, which back then made the guest pool limited.
The show was always taped at a five-star hotel that happened to be a primary sponsor of the show.
I remember my first interview with Jaye Walton. It was in 1993 and it was at the Shangri-La Hotel on the river. On YouTube there is a Morning Talk program from 2013, which suggests Jaye was on Thai TV for two decades.
Actually I was interviewed three times on the show. She and Valerie had a small stable of expats whom they knew they could call on at a minute’s notice, to fill in for that guest who either came down with a cold, or cold feet, at the last moment.
“Khun Jaye would like to interview you for Morning Talk,” came a phone call one morning around 11 am while I was still working for this newspaper’s chief rival circa 1997.
“But she’s interviewed me twice already,” I replied.
“Khun Jaye would like to interview you again.”
“Okay. What day, when and where? I’m away all next week.”
“One pm today?”
Jaye and Valerie were great sports. They could be seen together swanning around expat events such as the Ploenchit Fair and the annual Australian Embassy Australia Day party back when it was held on embassy grounds.
They were two colorful characters on the Bangkok landscape, eccentric and yet down-to-earth, full of life.
Both were strong and sometimes fierce personalities whom you either loved, feared or despised. I thought they were great.
They were the picture of poise and elegance on camera, but off camera, these two Aussie women, particularly Valerie, could put a painters and dockers union worker to shame with their language.
Meanwhile Jaye loved a glass of wine and a chat, which could end up in salacious gossip. She had an opinion on everything and everyone.
Then something happened. Something drove a wedge between Valerie and Jaye. Perhaps it was because they were two strong-willed women in such close proximity for such a long time. They split, somewhat acrimoniously, and Valerie was suddenly on her own continuing Morning Talk.
As for Jaye, she created a new TV show, called Thai-Oz Talk, which was broadcast on a Sunday afternoon. A newly-arrived expat, particularly of Australian persuasion, would now be on TV twice.
I remember the last time I saw Jaye and Valerie together; it was at an Australia Day function and, while they stood in the same circle of eight or nine people, not a word was spoken between them.
Jaye’s health began to fail as she moved into her 80s and she returned to Adelaide sometime after 2013.
I saw her for the last time in Adelaide in 2014, when she attended a function at the Tourism Authority of Thailand. She was in good spirits and we reminisced about the good old days of Thailand, with her expressing a desire to return.
She never did. She passed away in March this year.
Valerie has gone, too, passing on in 2013 owing to cancer, but not before picking up the Outstanding Australian Award at the Austcham Business Awards.
I miss them both.
A friend of mine visited Jaye just a few months ago in the Lutheran home where she was staying at the end of her life. A heart attack and stroke rendered her a little incapacitated.
Her lodgings featured walls with pictures of Jaye and the Thai Royal Family, a constant reminder of her happy days in this country.
My friend brought her a bottle of champagne. She took one look at the bottle and said: “Thank God! What took you so long?”
Both Jaye and Valerie may be gone, but they blazed a trail in the English media industry here in Thailand.
It is worthy to note that in this current world, where there are at any given moment hundreds, if not thousands, of Thais emceeing their own TV shows from the comfort of their bedrooms via Facebook Live, it was just a short time ago we had just one or two English TV shows for the whole country.
Vale, Jaye Walton, TV Personality.
By Andrew Biggs
Living in Bangkok is like winning the lottery; it’s surprising how many relatives and friends, and children of estranged friends, come out of the woodwork at vacation time.
I have international visitors visiting me regularly, dear reader. This is how I know, despite being allergic to seafood, precisely how long it takes for fish to go off.
It is the small price I pay for living in paradise.
Many guests are happy to fend for themselves and enjoy exploring this city. Like you, I too have had house guests who display character traits of special needs students. My liquor cabinet finds itself depleted more rapidly than usual, and that’s not even taking into account what the visitors are drinking.
On that glorious day when the visitors leave, I find myself driving off to Suvarnabhumi, slightly over the speed limit to ensure the experience is over and done with as quickly as possible.
During that journey I always ask them a simple question: “What did you enjoy the most about Thailand?”
The answer is invariably the same. The Thai people. The friendliness, the politeness and the hospitality afforded to them during their short stay by the locals. Even the special needs visitors admit to that.
I continue to pry. “What else?” I ask, and weirdly, the next answer is always the same as well.
The nice restaurants, yes, but it’s the street food that grabs everyone. Those fried bananas that give you angina just looking at them. Pad thai off the street. Isan sausages. Grilled squid. Somtam and sticky rice. Khanom krok. A thousand different taste sensations amid the swirling cacophony of Bangkok streets.
If this column is being read by any of the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s upper echelons, then this information should evoke pride in the knowledge that people and food are what tourists find impressive here.
But they should also feel revulsion, like I am feeling, that those in power are threatening to eradicate one of those two desirable aspects. And no, it’s not genocide.
There are two terrible events going on in the world at this moment.
The first is the tension building up between the United States and various hotspots such as Syria and North Korea. The second is the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration’s attempt to rid Bangkok of street food.
I’m going to leave the first topic for international media analysts. This is not laziness, but an attempt to spare you from what could evolve into an often repeated philosophy on the cataclysmic effect Donald Trump may have on the extinction of the human species.
So let’s do the other one.
For the BMA to announce it is going to kill all street food must be grounds for the BMA’s removal … yet again.
If Bangkok must eradicate its street food because it’s messy and unhygienic, then let Paris dismantle the Eiffel Tower because it’s old. Make London tear down Big Ben because people don’t read traditional clock faces any longer, and have Istanbul close its spice markets because they smell.
As for Amsterdam, surely those tulip fields would be better off utilized as condominium projects.
There are moments in a country’s history where the general populace feels the need to rise up and demand change and this has to be such a time.
I’m talking about grass-roots battles for change, in an era when those in power are no longer serving the common good, like the French Revolution or the Boston Tea Party in the United States. How quaint that we can bundle the BMA into those events, but we surely can and must.
Thais have experience in such changes. Coincidentally, the swapping of that bronze plaque beside the statue of King Chulalongkorn last week is a reminder of it happening right here.
That memorial plaque commemorated the 1932 revolution in which Siam turned into a constitutional monarchy after 800 years of an absolute monarchy.
Last week staunch royalists dug it up, as if that somehow made the event go away, and replaced it with a plaque with a more feel-good message in support of the monarchy. Oh but we are off the track, as usual.
I believe that we, the people of Bangkok city, like the people of Syria, or North Korea (or the United States) need to rise up against the despots in charge. We do not have an al-Assad or Kim Jong-Un or Donald Trump at our helm. But we do have the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration.
No street food?
Bangkok is in danger of obliterating the very thing that attracts 30 million tourists here annually —a lot of them staying at my place.
In fact, “obliterate” appears to be the word of the year in two very distinct forms.
The first is the systematic destruction of every market, theatre, park, vacant lot, wooden mansion, and any other structure built in the 20th century in order to construct condominium complexes.
Sukhumvit Road is now a corridor of condos with exciting names like Nature Park, The Happy, The Millennium and The Coast. This is progress and the tenets of capitalism at work, and I should be grateful. The frequency of my houseguests will dwindle as they discover the Land of Smiles has turned into the Land of “luxury” 26-square-metre granny flats overlooking a non-existent coast.
The other danger is the BMA’s plan to eradicate Bangkok’s street food in the interests of hygiene and tidiness and safety.
Hygiene? Tidiness? Safety?
Since when have these ever been important issues?
Look at the roads! We just farewelled 390 Thais over Songkran, killed in car accidents. We just nixed a law that would have prevented people from sitting in the backs of pickups — all because it might upset some folk who need to get to and from work.
For more than two decades successive Thai governments have wrestled with the uncomfortable international reputation of Bangkok being the sex capital of the world.
Governments have promoted other areas of Thailand that attract tourists. And come on, let’s face it. If it ain’t sex, it’s gotta be the food.
This has got to be the most exciting cuisine in the world, ranging from the five-star restaurants right down to the street food. The latter can be controlled and tidied up, if need be, but eradicated?
And we are forgetting the greatest group of consumers of street food. These are people far away from the 30 million tourists who visit here each year. They are the 68 million Thais, many of whom slave away on a minimum wage of 300 Baht per day, who have no alternative but to eat off the street.
I have a sneaking suspicion that we perhaps don’t need to stage an uprising, dear readers. The ramifications of this decree are so deadly to the tourism economy that it has to be shot down.
Either way, the street food goes or the BMA goes. And I’m not giving up my pad thai for anybody.
MADNESS AT MY LOCAL HOSPITAL
By Andrew Biggs
As a card-carrying, law-abiding expatriate in the Land of Smiles, I am required to visit my local hospital once a year to obtain a medical certificate.
Everybody applying for work needs it, not just wayward expats eking out a living in the Land of Smiles, biding their time until some statute of limitations runs out back home.
It is a stipulation for having a work permit. One needs a medical certificate stating one is not suffering from five distinct ailments, which are syphilis, elephantitis, leprosy, tuberculosis — and madness.
Yes, I know. A bit random. And I was enjoying the list until I got to the last one, whereupon a sudden chill was sent by my sympathetic nervous system right down my spine.
It was my regular doctor who informed me that if I could answer my name and address correctly, it was assumed I was not insane. Slightly irrational, yes, but eminently convenient when pursuing a work permit.
Every year I also get a real health check-up from the same hospital. That’s a much bigger deal and more serious affair.
Annual check-ups in Thailand are wonderful things. Where else in the world can you spend a couple of hundred US dollars to get an ECG, abdomen check, blood test, hearing test, eye test, urine sample, lung X-ray — and free breakfast?
At my hospital you are greeted by picture-perfect young receptionists in trendy grey jackets who have clearly taken advantage of the cosmetic wellness clinic on the second floor.
My hospital always offered five different annual health check-ups. The cheapest cost 1,200 Baht, but nobody bought that one since it was called BASIC in really big letters in the brochure and nobody likes to be called that.
The next three packages went by the more acceptable names of Programs A, B and C and were priced around 3,500, 5,000 and 7,000 Baht respectively.
The final program was the Executive Package with a price always hovering around the 10,000 Baht. I could restock my entire liquor cabinet with that budget, a mindset that dictates the mandatory nature of my annual check-up.
Nevertheless over the last few years I’ve bought that one. The hospital always seemed to be having a “special discount” on this package and last year I managed to get away with it costing around 7,500 Baht.
I always had to wait an hour for my results, so with my 100 Baht free voucher at the hospital’s restaurant I would order a sensible salad and water just in case the prognosis was bleak and I’d be going macrobiotic for the last few months of my life.
An hour later I’d be back in the Executive Waiting Lounge — way too close for comfort to the smelly A, B and C Package waiting area. The Basics were standing outside in the smoking area.
Finally I would see my doctor, who would scan through the copious results and declare me fit and healthy “though perhaps you could lose some weight”. On the way out I’d buy a sausage wrapped in pastry along with a pandanus-flavoured tea cake at the S&P counter. Macrobiotic be damned!
That has been the ritual for the last few years.
Last Tuesday, while waiting for the results of my syphilis blood test, I went to the counter and casually enquired about booking my Executive Check-Up.
There was a pleasant young man, though slightly obese, sitting behind the counter. I briefly pondered upon the prudence of placing a slightly obese gentleman at a counter selling health check-ups, but perhaps the hospital was understaffed that day.
“We’ve revamped the system and changed the name,” the pleasant young man informed me.
He pushed a brochure before me.
He was right. They are now called “Perfect Check-Ups.”
My Executive Package was gone. In its place was the “Perfect Plus Program” … at 32,565 Baht.
Had I the slightest scrapings of syphilis in my system it would have flared up instantly and virulently.
Have you ever been witness to an accident or emergency situation? For the first couple of seconds it doesn’t quite register what you are witnessing. That is how I felt as the number 32,565 loomed before my eyes.
Slowly I came to my senses. I asked for a glass of water, then enquired as to how my annual check-up suddenly became a price that was able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
The young man pointed a pudgy figure to the bottom of the brochure. “Promotion Price … 24,000 Baht,” he said, almost joyously, as if it were a number to be celebrated.
“That’s still three times what I paid last year.”
“Yes, but look at all the things you get checked.”
He was right. There was a formidable list of items, but as I discovered upon reaching home later that day, almost the same number as last year’s. Slightly more.
What had happened in the world between last year’s check-up and this one? Was Donald Trump to blame? Global Warming?
“It’s not just a single doctor any more,” he said. “There are five specialists who participate in the process.” As he spoke he held up five pudgy fingers just to stress his point or perhaps he didn’t think I could count to five.
Actually, he was wrong. In the past there were three specialists, which, when considering the full price of 10,000 Baht, averaged out to 3,333 Baht per specialist.
Surely the new price should be 16,665 Baht taking into account five specialists. Alas, judging by the look on the young man’s face, this mathematical equation was as foreign to him as a garden salad.
That’s when he went in for the kill.
He explained that the hospital now charged according to age. You can still get the 10,000 Baht check up … but only if you’re aged 20-35 years.
Once you turn 36, it’s 22,530 baht for the premium package … and once you’ve celebrated the big five-oh, it’s 32,565 Baht (permanently discounted to 24,000 baht).
“It’s because you’re over 50,” the young man informed me.
“I was over 50 last year, too,” I informed him back.
What a conundrum. This was a greater weight on my mind than awaiting the results of a syphilis test.
Nothing is more important than maintaining good health, and my annual check-up was very important. But this was not one, small, inflation-based, incremental price rise. This was one giant leap for mankind.
It was an issue in the Thai media exactly two years ago. The Medical Council expressed concern at private hospitals charging exorbitant fees, a result of the rise in “medical tourism”. It generates more than 1 billion Baht in profit annually.
Unfortunately demand has outstripped supply, and private hospitals have reacted by bumping up the prices. Don’t believe me? Go and enquire about a medical check-up at my hospital holding last year’s brochure.
I told the young man I would think about it.
A few minutes later the nurse returned with a white envelope in her hand. I was all clear. I had none of the Big Five.
That was when it hit me.
For the sake of my legal work status, I could never sign up for this annual health check-up.
Paying more than three times the amount for the same service from just a year ago — well that’s just sheer madness.
And to work in Thailand, one cannot be mad. It’s one of the Big Five. What if the Labor Department were to find out?
I walked out of my hospital, possibly for the last time, clutching that envelope in my sturdy hands. I had just proven myself to be sane.
THRUST INTO THE LIMELIGHT
By Andrew Biggs
Back in January, 1956, a young unknown American singer named Elvis Presley released his first single called Heartbreak Hotel.
While appearing on the Milton Berle Show, Presley started rhythmically gyrating his pelvis as he sang. Half the country screamed in delight. The other half gasped in horror. What was this base, barbaric, sexual abomination of a dance that stirred the collective loins of America?
The Catholic Church, always one to pounce on anything loin-stirring, claimed the pelvic thrusts “roused the sexual passions of teenaged youth.” This enraged the church because, as we would later find out, that was the mission of their priests.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is too young to remember this controversy. He was just two years old when Elvis started thrusting his pelvis in public, and who knows if the news reached his family home in Nakhon Ratchasima. This week public thrusts returned to the spotlight, proving that in six decades we may have moved forward technologically in leaps and bounds, but when it comes to sex, we’re still fumbling in the dark.
Elvis was not just the King of Rock And Roll … he’s also the father of “twerking”, the act of thrusting one’s pelvis back and forward rapidly to music. Twerking is provocative and sexually stimulating, apparently.
(I write “apparently” because just then I tried doing it in my living room. I put on my Missy Elliot’s Greatest Hits and started thrusting my pelvis back and forth to the music in front of some unexpected dinner guests. Nobody admitted to arousal, although one of my dogs did start barking, but that was probably because of the music.)
Over the last few months a musical phenomenon has gripped Thailand in the form of Lamyai, an attractive 18-year-old country music singer with a pleasant enough voice. She released a song called Phu Sao Kha Lor which means “Girl Who Likes To Have Fun”.
The song is innocent enough. “I’m not very studious or diligent – I just wanna go out!” Lamyai sings. It’s very catchy. As this column is being written, it has notched up 250 million views on YouTube — almost four views per Thai citizen!
Do you want to hear something even more incredible? There’s not even a music video for the song. It’s just one of those lyric videos where the words flash up on the screen. No lip-synching, no bells and whistles, and definitely no twerking.
Lamyai’s concert and TV appearances are a different story. Dressed in the skimpiest gold shorty-shorts, when it comes to the chorus, she does her own style of Thai twerking, thrusting back and forth, back and forth, a total of nine times.
(How does she get nine? The song is in 4-4 time so she should have gone for eight thrusts or 12, though I fear 12 may have had the Cultural Ministry Police blowing their whistles.)
Thrusting one’s pelvis nine times contravenes Thai decency. At least that’s what the PM thought. One wonders where he got that arbitrary number from, but let us not wade into those cultural waters.
I am not offended by the prime minister’s comments. Society needs to have elders pull the youngsters in tow, or at least offer an alternative, more conservative opinion to keep their behavior within accepted norms. A healthy society should be made up of pelvis-thrusting liberals and staid cross-legged conservatives, with the general population hopefully making value judgments that put them somewhere in between those extremes without being persecuted for their choices.
One such conservative is Rabiabrat Pongpanich, a well-known campaigner for women’s rights and a former senator. Ten years ago, when singer Tata Young released her number one song “Sexy, Naughty, Bitchy Me”, it was Rabiabrat who came out claiming Tata was a bad example to young girls. At the time Thailand was grappling with a new fashion trend – spaghetti strap tops, and she was very down on those too.
When Lamyai became front-page news this week, the media immediately ran to Rabiabrat, knowing she would give some great sound bites on the pelvic thrusts that aroused the prime minister enough to make him speak about her (on three separate occasions in the one week).
There is nothing wrong with this. Free speech is free speech, and a little moral controversy doesn’t harm any of us. It’s when things start bordering on the ridiculous, such as calling police in to arrest singers on stage, or ordering the Cultural Ministry to issue bands on songs, that we need to start scratching our heads.
Does an 18-year-old’s pelvic thrusts really warrant prime ministerial, and the media’s, interest? And does twerking really pose a threat to Thai culture as the PM intimated? He says it’s inappropriate for Thailand. Has the prime minister been to Patpong lately? Has he seen the glittering brothels that dot Ratchadaphisek or any other main road in the country?
Of course he has. But that is not the point.
The prime minister is right to say there are bounds to public decency, and young people need to understand what is morally acceptable and what is not. In this regard, the prime minister and Rabiabrat have every right to air their opinions, and young people should listen. They don’t have to follow the advice, but at least listen and evaluate the situation for themselves.
Unfortunately such storms in teacups also bring out the crazies.
One government spokesperson blamed the twerking on farangs. We apparently like to gyrate our pelvises more than Thais do. “Thais don’t need to follow foreigners in everything,” said one general, seemingly ignorant to the fact that Thais, too, require pelvic thrusting to propagate the species.
Another spokesperson insinuated that such sexy dancing leads to women getting raped, a truly abhorrent line of argument that exonerates the male from his insatiable urges. So it’s okay for me to murder a person for wearing a Mariah Carey t-shirt and claim he egged me on?
At least Lamyai didn’t get banned.
In 2005 Sinjai Hongthai came out “I Love Her Husband” while Chai Muangsing brought out “My Wife Has A Lover”. A disturbing trend to say the least; the Ministry of Culture banned both from the radio.
They were seen as going against Thai culture, the ministry announced, since no decent Thai woman would ever secretly love another woman’s hubby. Worse, listening to the songs could promote “marital infidelity”. And just to prove they weren’t joking, they banned a third hit, “One Woman, Two Men”. One suspects that a song entitled “One Man, Two Women” wouldn’t have garnered an eyelid bat from the Culture Ministry.
Sadly for the media, this storm in a twerking teacup ended peacefully and, gasp, sensibly. Lamyai agreed to tone down her act for the sake of decency. The Prime Minister thanked her as she announced a reduction in the number of pelvic thrusts in the chorus from nine to just three.
In Thailand that’s a compromise; in the West, that’s a quickie.
SEX AND THE SUNGLASSES
By Andrew Biggs
The woman gyrates in front of the camera from the comfort of her little room in the Bangkok suburbs.
She is no more than 21 or 22. She is dressed in a polka-dot bikini top that reminds me of Katy Perry. She’s also wearing hoop earrings and way, way too much make-up.
As she chats she thrusts her breasts towards the camera. She pouts, stares doe-eyed, then starts jiggling again along with her animated speech. Her shoulders heave and stretch, and now and again her myriad bracelets clink as she brings a hand, festooned in bright red nail polish, up to casually rest in her cleavage.
No, dear reader, this is not a pornographic video picked up from that DVD vendor on Silom right at the foot of the stairs to the Sala Daeng BTS station. This is Facebook Live. Her name is Nong Gift, and she is selling sunglasses.
She has a live audience of 800 people when I stumble across her. This irks me, because anytime I’ve done a Facebook Live English lesson, I have never had more than 500 people. Could it be that people prefer pornography to English lessons? Perish the thought!
An audience of 800 is more than she will ever get standing at a stall flogging sunglasses at Chatuchak.
Nong Gift may not be the ideal Thai girl to bring home to introduce to mother, but she is well-known.
She is what Thais call a “net idol”. She comes onto Facebook live around 9 pm every night wearing something skimpy, then proceeds to sell sunglasses to an audience of predominantly men. That audience has one hand on their smart phone, and I have a good idea where the other one is.
Nong Gift is now tapping her breasts absent-mindedly with that pair of dark sunglasses.
“It’s a great buy at just 499 Baht and I’ve only got three of them left,” she says, smiling a little too teasingly. “You’d better hurry! Just write jong (order) in the comments box and a pair is yours! Well thank you Charn-narong, you have the first pair. Only two more left. Ronnachai gets the next pair – who is lucky last? Girls will just love you if you wear these – they’re perfect for guys who haven’t been lucky in love. Well too late everybody! Somkid just bought the last pair! Now … what else do I have for you today?”
Charn-narong. Ronnachai. Somkid. I close my eyes and imagine three lonely Thai guys lying on cheap mattresses in rented rooms, unlucky in love, torn between having enough money to pay the rent and Nong Gift’s breasts. And the latter conquered.
Nong Gift wasn’t the only net idol I watched that night a month or so ago, but she was certainly one of the more — how shall we put it — titillating. Each net idol entertains in their own special way; if they haven’t won the gene pool lottery like Nong Gift has, then they are wacky over the top types, or more earnest personas.
There is an entire slab of the young Thai generation that no longer sits in front of the TV. Instead, they trawl YouTube and Facebook watching net idols such as Nong Gift sell their wares.
This is the definition of a “net idol” in Thailand. We called them “shop assistants” back in the olden days. They no longer stand behind counters filing their nails; they go live on the internet with “TV shows” devoted to selling products. This makes me pine for the good old days when television was restricted to 13 minutes an hour for ads. Nong Gift’s homemade show features 60 minutes of ads per hour … and still she gets more hits than me! What’s she got that I haven’t?
Other net idols sell cosmetics, cameras, shoes, hair growth serum, clothing, soap, acne cream … everything their parents’ generation used to find in a shopping mall or at Chatuchak.
I have no idea if, on that night I channel-surfed those net idols, I chanced across Nong Preow, the cosmetic-selling net idol from Khon Kaen who captivated the nation this past week. Though Nong Preow didn’t captivate the nation selling cosmetics.
Her real name is Preeyanuch Nonwangchai, but she is better known in the Thai media by the cute moniker Nong Preow. “Nong” means “little sister”. “Preow” sounds a little like the city of Rio with a “B” in front of it. It means “sour”, but in an idiomatic sense it means someone trendy, fashionable and edgy.
Our trendy and edgy Nong Preow was a net idol with a strong following … before strangling a female friend to death, chopping up her into little pieces and burying her in a forest. Net idol one day, fugitive the next.
She escaped into Myanmar, got arrested there, then got sent back to Bangkok via the Chiang Rai police. Her every move was televised live on Facebook.
Why? Why was Nong Preow suddenly the hottest commodity in the online world?
She is the Kim Kardashian of Thailand — beautiful, talentless, and catapulted to stardom for actions considered less than salubrious.
But it’s the beauty aspect that pulled everybody in. Preow is a femme fatale who became a personality for the sole reason she was so damned attractive. For a few days there we even forgot she hacked her friend to pieces with a saw.
It was Thailand’s equivalent of following OJ Simpson in his car along the freeway. Thanks to Facebook Live, one could tune into the Preow saga almost 24 hours a day. Even the cops in Chiang Rai fell under her spell and afforded her all sorts of luxuries, in between taking selfies with her.
Why did Thailand stop for this and not, for example, Donald Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement? That happened the same day Nong Preow fled the country. The London terrorist attack hardly merited a blip over here either, since it happened the day Nong Preow was located and arrested by Myanmar police.
Did you read about the novice monk who was brutally murdered, then buried in temple grounds with a concrete path poured over the top of his body? Police investigating the incident came across a locked room. Inside was the 78-year-old abbot of the temple who’d been kept hostage in those quarters for two years with temple officials feeding him every day. Nong Preow even smothered that story!
In these modern times, entertainment has morphed into amateurish sex shows in order to sell sunglasses, or Facebook Live reality shows of beautiful young fugitives chatting like friends to the arresting cops.
And speaking of online sales …
It appears our soldiers are emulating the Nong Gifts and Preows of the online shopping world. Two airforce personnel were arrested this week after setting up their own little online shop … selling weapons of war. You may have missed that story; it was the day Nong Preow held a press conference.
I wonder if the troops employed the same sales strategy as Nong Gift.
“Now just look at this long, sleek AK rifle in my hands, and if you order within the next 60 seconds, I’m gonna throw in a bag of M67 grenades. Charn-narong just purchased the first one! Good choice, Charn-narong, the girls are gonna love you with that rifle slung over your shoulder. Ronnachai too! Just one left. Come on guys! A great long rifle makes up for any shortcomings you may have elsewhere – well would you look at that! Somkid’s in!”
By Andrew Biggs
It’s been a busy news week with all sorts of issues jostling for attention, but not a single Thai man skipped over the news from Phayao last Saturday.
It was the story of the wife who cut off her husband’s penis. He and the severed appendage were whisked off to nearby Pong Hospital.
In a fit of remorse the wife then swallowed a bottle of weed killer and she, too, went to hospital, albeit a separate one from her phallically-challenged husband.
This all happened around 3 o’clock in the morning. By the time the sun rose on Saturday, the husband had been reattached, and the wife was dead.
This story did the rounds of the world media, probably filed under “Yet Another Weird News Story From Thailand” at each news agency. For me, it was a case of deja-vu, for reasons you are about to learn.
(While researching the details of this Phayao story, I googled a few key words in Thai … and up came a picture of a severed penis in a Thai ICU ward. Five days later and the image still refuses to leave my head.)
Thailand is well known as a leader in various circles. We are a world exporter of rice. We’re a prime tourist destination. The whole world is in love with Thai food.
But did you know Thailand also has a reputation in the medical world for two particular surgeries?
Those surgeries are gender realignment and penile reattachment. This is not a cheap joke to keep you entertained while reading this. It’s true; nobody removes, and reattaches, penises like the Thai medical profession.
People come from around the world to have gender realignment surgery. In the West things are a little tougher and bureaucratic for anybody wanting a change of sex. One has to undergo psychiatric questioning, along with other western notions such as a “window of reflection” – giving time to contemplate the magnitude of the decision.
In Thailand, it’s different. Hospitals advertise the cost of a sex change on the front page of the Bangkok Post. Ditch the Oprah Winfrey-esque “window of reflection” … just turn up with a fist full of Baht, and your manhood is gone before you can say Jacqui Robinson.
I’m not saying this is a bad way of doing things. From my own experience (as in, good friends who have had gender realignment) people who change their sex don’t do it on the spur of the moment. There perhaps needs to be a minimum age for the surgery, but most people contemplating such surgery have been experiencing a “window of reflection” since birth.
That’s the first surgery. It’s the other one we need to look at today.
Thailand is also a hub for the surgical procedure of reattaching penises. When the Phayao story reared its ugly, and severed, head this week, it took me back to 1990 when I was new to Thailand and desperate to learn the language.
There was an older Thai woman, a school teacher, who helped me with my Thai. She got me reading the front page of Thai Rath newspaper, Thailand’s biggest selling paper, in order to increase my vocabulary.
Thai Rath was a bit of a scandal rag. I’m guessing it had an editorial policy of firing any editor who didn’t publish at least two pictures of dead bodies per day on the front page.
One day I was sitting with my prim Thai teacher and pointed to a random headline that I couldn’t work out. The only word I could read in the headline was the word “duck”.
“Okay, what’s this story about?” I asked. “I know it’s about ducks.”
My teacher read it quickly and her cheeks blushed.
I had chosen a story about a senior police officer from Mae Hong Son whose wife had discovered he had a mistress. Nothing strange about that … it is in the DNA of every Thai man, exactly six months after marriage, to get his wife pregnant then immediately find himself a mistress. This really cut up the high-ranking policeman’s wife, though not as much as her husband was about to be.
You know the rest. She cut off his penis while he was sleeping. And as every male reading this shifts uncomfortably in his chair, may I tell you it only gets worse.
The woman took the penis and threw it out the back window for the ducks to eat, fulfilling a well-known Thai idiom that is “feeding the ducks” – cutting off your husband’s manhood then getting rid of it before he gets any ideas of reattaching it. The West would probably label that a “window of reconnection.”
Once my teacher got over her initial bashfulness, she explained that this was a common occurrence and that Thai women found other creative ways to dispense of the evidence.
“Some flush it down the toilet,” she told me, coolly and perhaps calculatedly. “Wealthier women put it in the blender. I recall there was one woman who attached the severed end to a helium balloon and released it to the heavens.”
(Years later I realized this last scenario was impossible. Where does a Thai wife get access to helium? My older Thai teacher was embellishing, or maybe just fantasizing.)
Hand between my legs, I asked if Thai men were worried about this wifely practice.
“Oh yes,” she said, adjusting her pince-nez. “But that’s all right. We like to think of it as an insurance,” looking me in the eye and adding almost demonically: “kha.” Cue the Psycho violins.
Imagine the ignominy of having your name splashed across page one of Thailand’s biggest selling newspaper: Memberless in Maehongson. But it got even worse for the police officer.
Thai Rath reported that the cop woke up, realized what had happened, and jumped out of bed. Clutching his groin, he ran out to where the poultry were fighting over his manhood. Incredibly he managed to retrieve it, pack it in ice, and rush to the local hospital. My women readers may be wondering how on earth a man could drive himself anywhere while in such pain. Trust me; men would do anything to save their members.
After hours of surgery the procedure was a failure. Doctors were unable to reattach the penis, but they had a good excuse. According to Thai Rath, in big black letters on page one: it was too small.
“That’s enough reading for one day,” my Thai teacher said, folding up the paper and putting it back into her sensible brown handbag. “See you again next week.”
Ashen-faced, I watched her stride confidently away.
In Thailand, philandering husbands have resulted in knife-wielding wives, but knife-wielding wives have resulted in world-class penis reattachment procedures.
That’s good news for the Phayao man. Phayao may be a remote rural province, but the surgeons there have world-class skills. His penis was successfully reattached, so he is free to continue his philandering ways without the burden of a wife.
But in the English news story that went around the world, the very last paragraph quotes a Phayao doctor saying the man can now urinate, but will never be able to perform sexually again.
The very last paragraph!? Talk about burying the lead!
By Andrew Biggs
It’s a particularly ghostly period in Thailand, where last Wednesday we witnessed the annual ghostly fireballs on the Mekhong River and now we’re preparing for Halloween this coming Wednesday.
Seven days of spirits.
Ghosts are ubiquitous in Thailand. You know how, in the West, we have the occasional haunted house? And you know how there is a variety of benign spirits in the West — playful children, jilted lovers, lonely lost Vikings, etc?
Here in Thailand it’s a radically different story. Ghosts are not benign. They are, on the whole, women, and they’re not happy.
I wonder how many famous ghosts you can list from your country. I come from Australia and I’d be hard-pressed thinking of more than three or four.
This is in direct opposite to Thailand. There are dozens.
This country is overflowing with spirits, and as you travel further away from Bangkok, the number of those ghosts increases exponentially.
Not only do the numbers increase, but so does the ferociousness of the apparitions. Can you spot the underlying theme of Thai ghosts? Here are four famous ones:
She is a woman who, from the neck down, consists only of entrails and innards. She flies around at night time, her innards pulsating red, looking for young men to attack and rip open their stomachs in order to feed upon their raw gizzards.
This ghost possesses young women who start acting like crazy banshees. They look for young men to attack and rip open their stomachs in order to feed upon their raw gizzards.
3. Nang Tani
This is a ghost that lives in wild banana trees known as kluai tani. She has a greenish face and is believed to be generally benevolent except for young men. Some say she will attack and rip open their stomachs in order to feed upon their raw gizzards.
4. Mae Nak Phrakhanong
She is a woman who dies during childbirth while her husband is away at war. She terrorizes her entire town, and in some versions she attacks and rips open the stomachs of men in order to feed upon their raw gizzards.
Had enough of the raw gizzards yet? This is just the icing on the cake. I could also explain Phi Song Nang, Phi Tai Thang Klom and Kuman-thong but I will save the column inches by telling you this; they are female, and they really don’t do nice things to men. Think stomachs and raw gizzards.
Why is this country besotted with female ghosts performing torturous acts upon menfolk, usually around their stomach and nether regions?
These stories are taken quite seriously in remote rural areas. And as already inferred, it’s almost as if the frequency of evil spirits increases as educational levels plummet; we’ll have to explore that thought another week. Macho Thai farmer types cower when confronted with rumors that Kraseu or Bob is in town. They paint their nails bright colors and wear lipstick to “fool” the ghost, or so they say —that excuse is as thin as Larry Craig’s “wide stance” story.
I think the Mae Nark Phrakhanong story, number 4 on my list just then, is the most revelatory. She is to Thailand what the Loch Ness Monster is to Scotland.
This is the story: In a little village there was an attractive young couple named Mark and Nark, and with names like those I’m surprised they didn’t start up a travelling vaudevillian act.
Nark soon got pregnant, after which Mark went off to fight the Burmese. Nark later gave birth and both she and the baby died during childbirth, rendering the vaudeville idea no longer viable.
Nark and her child returned as ghosts. Mark also returned, his mortal coil intact, and went straight to his home and into the arms of his wife, unaware she and the kid were ghosts. He realized something was very wrong one night as his wife made dinner; pounding away at a chili paste with a mortar and pestle, she accidentally dropped a lemon down through the floorboards.
Mark watched as his wife reached her hand down … and down and down and down. Her arm stretched and elongated itself like a badly photo-shopped supermodel, until her hand reached the lemon.
Only then did the penny, like the lemon, drop. “Oh my Buddha! My wife is a ghost!” our dim but disturbed Mark exclaimed, rushing off in terror.
Nark terrorized the village until a sage monk at Wat Mahabut temple managed to trap her spirit inside a clay pot. The pot was tossed into the Phrakhanong Canal, ensuring the perpetual threat of her return. Even back in the olden days, that monk realized the potential of sequels.
I love the Mae Nark story, but how dumb is Mark? How does one sleep with a ghost or a corpse without knowing it? We’ve all had dud sexual experiences, but at least we knew the other person was >>alive.<< Either Mark lost part of his brain to the Burmese or he should be setting up the Phrakhanong chapter of Necrophiliacs Anonymous.
Whatever; it’s a fantastic story and one that, to me, truly reflects the unholy and uncomfortable relationship Thais have with the netherworld.
There is another side to the ghostly coin. These are the ghosts related to religion or animist beliefs.
Last Wednesday was the end of the Buddhist Lent. It is also the night of the biggest annual supernatural occurrence that takes place in Thailand.
They are the Naga Fireballs, ghostly lights emerging from the Mekhong River in remote Nong Khai province. Hundreds of thousands of people travel there to see them.
The fireballs are the work of a giant serpent that swims through the Mekhong known as Payanark, who shoots fireballs out of the river up into the full-moon night sky. It’s the only day that the fireballs appear.
Let me cloud the issue even further by explaining that Payanark is a >>mythical<< serpent. But the fireballs are real, and don’t you go saying otherwise or you’ll be in deep trouble, mister.
I know. I created media turbulence back in the mid-2000’s when I foolishly made an off-the-cuff remark one day on national TV that “anyone with any education could hardly believe the lights of Payanark.” Cut to commercial.
You could compare it to my standing in the middle of a World Championship Wrestling ring and revealing it’s all a pre-determined show. I was called all sorts of names relating to my hair style and ears and appendage size, not to mention a general call to have my visa recalled. The Land of Smiles I had grown to love turned on me in an instant.
While it’s generally believed these Payanark fireballs go back hundreds of years, it is only in the last decade, however, that they have gone from casual phenomenon to glitzy Las Vegas-style event.
It was no accident. What used to be known by locals as the “ghost lights” suddenly got dubbed the “Payanark lights” by the local council in the mid-1980s, and a cult was born. In other words the “age-old” tradition is, actually, 35 years old.
With such a huge amount of money coming into Nong Khai via tourism, the real question is: Is it in our best interests to disbelieve it?
The ghosts, too. Without the fearsome female entities threatening to eat their gizzards, would men behave themselves?
I don’t have the answers. All I know is that hell hath no fury like a Thai woman scorned. Living or dead.
Happy Halloween, dear reader!
By Andrew Biggs
How comforting to see, in the pages of the Bangkok Post, young people using condoms with none of the hang-ups or bashfulness associated with that contraception.
By using them, I don’t mean “using” them. The kids were blowing up condoms like balloons and wearing gaily-colored hats made of condoms in a news story that certainly piqued my interest.
It also sent me hurtling back in time to my early days in Thailand, when there was a scourge across the land and a dynamic politician who tried his best to stop it.
I’m talking about Mechai Viravaidya, the man who brought condoms out from under the table in Thailand. That other table eyesore, the toilet roll, cannot be attributed to him, nor can it be lauded for its role in eradicating any scourges, unless you consider decorum to be a scourge. The toilet roll on the table is a cultural abhorrence that would have Miss Manners turning in her grave if, indeed, she is dead.
Hooray for Mechai! I’ve always been a fan. So good to see him back in the news this week, accepting an award on World Population Day.
He was so ubiquitous when I first arrived in 1989. He was a senator back then, and Thailand was in the deadly throes of AIDS. It had already cut a swathe through the country, particularly the young women of the North and Northeast.
It is almost unthinkable now, but back in those days, any conversation about HIV or AIDS with groups of Thais, particularly men, would almost certainly end up with someone saying: “And you know it’s a disease brought into Thailand by foreigners.”
That comment threw me and there were times, in late-night drinking sessions, where I felt a threatened by it. Was I being blamed for single-handedly bringing it into the country?
Coincidentally … years later I would have a starring role in a Thai movie, a black comedy called Sars Wars and no, there’s no need to go check it out on YouTube. I played a foreigner who single-handedly brings a virulent SARS virus into Thailand and infects the masses, turning them into rabid zombies. Don’t snicker like that … it won a Thai Oscar for Best Special Effects.
Anyway the point is, it reminded me of those early days when drunken Thai men sitting at tables with toilet rolls would point at me and tell me, accusingly, that AIDS was a foreign virus. As if that somehow exonerated the unfortunate Thai men and women who were left with the burden of passing it on.
Despite its international reputation, Thailand is a conservative society, and one of the challenges of the 1980s was getting people to talk about condoms — literally putting them on the table.
That’s where Mechai came into the picture. Like me, he had a brief career as an actor, though he was chosen to play the handsome lead in a soap opera as opposed to introducing a mutated SARS virus.
Prior to the AIDS era he was already famous for his family planning clinics. Thailand’s population was booming in the 1980s. He founded the Population and Community Development Association and did some extraordinary PR stunts to curb the population.
The best one was the travelling vasectomy tents. He set up tents, one at Sanam Luang, and invited men to come along for free vasectomies. This was done as a way of showing loyalty towards King Rama 9, since the vasectomies were performed on December 5, King Rama 9’s birthday.
What a stroke of genius. And it worked, as thousands of men popped into the tents for a quick snip to ensure families no longer had seven children, on average, as they were doing ten years prior. He is cited as the most influential factor in getting the average number of children per Thai family down from seven to just one and a half in 2017.
He had transformed from “family planning man” to “AIDS man” when I first met him, as a journalist, interviewing him on more than one occasion, and then seeing him socially at his restaurant on Sukhumvit Road.
The first time I interviewed him he was the Minister for Tourism, Information and AIDS. Yes, there was such a position and one suspects it was created just for him. After being so instrumental (literally) in getting Thai men to stop reproducing, he now ramped up his condom campaign.
At the World Bank Conference in October 1991 held at the newly-constructed Queen Sirikit Convention Center, Mechai handed out “survival kits” to all the delegates, namely, condoms in key rings. Thailand made the international news more for that than anything that was ever discussed at the conference.
He was always a great interview. He is half British thanks to a Scottish mother, though his Thai genes have definitely won out in his appearance. I am very proud to say he was educated at Geelong Grammar and then the University of Melbourne.
In the early 1990s his restaurant on the grounds of the family planning clinic, called Cabbages and Condoms, was a must-stop for tourists. It’s been around so long now we are used to it but back then it was such a preposterous notion to open a restaurant whose chief décor was condoms. Thousands of ‘em.
I took all my foreign guests there. The food was good and where else in the world would you receive a condom instead of an after-dinner mint? It was in that era that the Thai word for “condom” was “mechai”. I admit to being a little envious of that fact.
There has been talk of late of efforts to boost Thailand’s population in order to increase productivity. This plateau of the population can be put down to Mechai’s tents of 30-plus years ago, and now the Thai government wants to give the country a vasectomy reversal.
I am opposed to this for all sorts of reasons, beginning with the fact that our planet is already overrun by greedy, coal-and-oil-gouging human beings who use on average 20 plastic bags per person per day. Wouldn’t Thailand be a better place to live with half its current population?
This is the ASEAN era, is it not? Aren’t we supposed to be opening our borders and allowing migrants to do those dirty jobs Thais no longer want to perform? Apparently not, with the recent news that the government has just succeeded in sending vast numbers of migrant workers home thanks to strict new laws — again blamed, like AIDS, on foreigners.
Mechai made his appearance on World Population Day which fell last Tuesday, July 11. He won a United Nations award for his work in family planning and HIV and AIDS prevention, and it was during his acceptance speech that Mechai stated the sensible obvious.
There were alternatives to boosting the population, he said. What about boosting sex education in schools? What about raising the retirement age from 60 to 70? What about giving more work to disabled people? How about legitimizing migrant workers? It all makes perfect sense, but we are living in an era where perfect sense is a scarce commodity.
As Mechai accepted his award, his students from Mechai Pattana School were doing the Condom Dance and having competitions to see who could blow up the biggest condom. Hence the pictures in the press. Mechai is doing what he does best; causing a stir and all for a good cause. He has succeeded in the fields of family planning and HIV prevention like no other.
Perhaps now, in his golden years, we can get him to do something about those toilet rolls on tables.
THE BUBBLE THAT BURST (July, 2017)
By Andrew Biggs
What a jolt to my senses — and mortality — to learn that 20 years have passed since the tom yam kung economic crisis of Thailand. Man that went quickly.
I was right here when it happened. I was witness to the bloated, ostentatious years leading up to it, the crisis itself, and the slow crawl out of the economic recession that followed.
And I can read about it too, day by day, as it unfolded.
I can’t remember who gave it to me, but it was 27 years ago that I received a diary as a New Year’s present. I’m sure that, after committing the cultural faux pas of ripping open the gift wrapping, I cooed and brayed and thanked the giver, all the while thinking how and when I could toss it in the trash.
Nevertheless I began writing in that diary on January 1st, 1990, figuring I’d lose interest in it by mid-January. I didn’t. I kept writing … every day until I got to December 31, 1990, when I bought another one. And another.
Yesterday I found a sturdy stool and climbed upon it to open my very top cupboard doors. I reached inside and found my diary of 1997 and opened it up. Two hours later, I emerged from my time machine bubble with some new insights into the ravages of time.
For example: I had no idea I could put away so much alcohol, sleep so little hours, then get up and go to work. Exactly when did I lose that ability? When did “leaving to go out on the town at 9 pm” get replaced by “happy to be in bed with a good book at 9 pm”?
Got home. Got changed. Went out and met the gang for two bottles of Johnnie Walker at Saxophone Pub. Didn’t pay. Everybody’s talking about Thailand going down the drain. Sounds like a load of rubbish to me.
-- Diary entry of June 1st, 1997.
I was never great at predicting impending doom.
Twenty years ago I was a journalist at the Bangkok Post’s main competitor, editing two of their youth magazines as well as hosting two TV programs and a radio show. And all the time, the Thai government was propping up the Thai baht against evil foreign forces.
You can read about what caused the crash elsewhere; by July foreign currency reserves were severely depleted as the government tried to ward off speculative attacks by hedge funds.
George Soros was the villain at that time; boy did the country hate him back then for doing what every investor and stock exchange player yearns to do; swoop in, make a killing, swoop out, regardless of the debris left behind..
There’s this guy called Soros who’s copping a lot of the blame for what’s going on. Wrote a backgrounder on him for the paper this afternoon. Got drunk on Ratchadapisek; home at 1 am. Wrote some scripts.
-- November 6, 1997 (Wrote some scripts? While drunk? Shame on me!)
Soros would try to make an appearance in Thailand a few years later for a seminar, but the scars of 1997 ran deep and was forced to cancel.
What dominates my diary at that time is the plummeting baht. It had always sat around 25 to 27 Baht to the American dollar. Then, on July 2, 1997, the government announced that the baht would be floated. It didn’t float. It sank.
This morning they floated the dollar. It’s the end of the good times for Thailand. 60 Minutes is in town wanting info from me on the crisis. Went to see Note Udom tonight; saw him after the show.
-- July 2, 1997.
It’s good to see I was more interested in seeing the comedian Note than worrying about my economic future. Or this one:
Princess Di died a few hours ago. How terribly, terribly tragic. Such a vibrant person, full of life, so human compared to the rest of that family. Everything’s topsy turvy in the world; all these formerly rich people are selling stuff out of their car boots in the Makro carpark on Srinakharin.
-- August 8, 1997.
A princess dying and gold necklaces being sold in supermarket carparks; truly a sign of the apocalypse.
Meanwhile the roads emptied out. By October the Bangkok traffic was the best I’d ever seen it, because of the massive number of vehicles being repossessed on a daily basis.
In meetings all day to determine how much money we must lose. We could be out of business within six months. The baht has fallen to 38 Baht and the crooks in power refuse to relinquish their seats. I’m so depressed about work. Got drunk on Sukhumvit tonight. Ended up at Thermae at 3 am.
-- September 4, 1997.
Thermae. I haven’t thought of that place in years. It was a downstairs bar on Sukhumvit between sois 13 and 15 that was allowed to open way past legal opening hours. I was a regular there for a while, though I can’t really remember much about it.
In October I had a 15 per cent pay cut. At least I still had a job. I was forced to lay off all staff on probation in my department. Then I had to lay off regular staff. There were tears as we had to close one of the publications. Then one of my TV shows got the axe. The radio show, too.
I made a keen observation in November:
When I first came here everybody was using the word “NIC” or Newly Industrialized Country. Then it was “globalization.” Now the new word is “IMF”. It’s bailing Thailand out, and Thais are feeling sore about it.
-- November 7, 1999
The IMF (the International Monetary Fund) may have come to Thailand’s rescue but it forced the country to make fundamental changes to fiscal and economic policy. And of course, there was that debt that needed to be paid back.
A few years later IMF would become a very dirty word; a foreign entity that Thailand had to pay huge amounts of money to. Nobody thought to blame the financiers who got us into this mess in the first place. It’s easier to blame the foreigners.
The human toll was the worst. I got to know Siriwat Woravetwuthikun, the real estate mogul who lost a fortune and ended up standing on the streets selling sandwiches. He became a cultural icon of the crisis. “I used to be rich,” he would say. “I used to be broke, too.”
A father of one of my students went temporarily crazy, holing himself up on a high-rise window ledge with a gun threatening to kill himself because of his debts. The friendly man who owned the gas station near my house did top himself. The luxury condos near our office, a grand 30-storey building, halted construction and remains that way to this day.
Things got scary when the Baht plunged to 56 Baht to the US dollar.
This afternoon for the first time in my life I went to the ATM, withdrew as much as I could (50,000 Baht), then wrapped up the money in tin foil and hid it under my bed. Just in case I need to leave the country quickly.
-- December 12, 1997.
How dramatic of me. And how utterly foolish. Imagine me jostling for a position on the slow boat out of Bangkok, amid thousands of fleeing foreigners, clutching wads of worthless Thai Baht wrapped in tin foil.Oh but hey it was a weird and wacky time, dear reader.
And anyway we all survived. I’m still here. Thailand is still here. Even Thermae still exists. Now if I could just find a way to slow the next 20 years down …
By Andrew Biggs
My chicken parmesan was an unexpected hit. Everybody at the table commented on how delicious it was.
Four hours later I am in the bathroom with a terrible case of the runs.
The next morning I discover one other at the table was also afflicted; the other two were okay, although one claims to be feeling “a little off” but he’s always been a bit of a sycophant and is only copying the two of us who fell victim to my vain attempt at cooking.
I relate this to my accountant, who immediately needs to know how many times I went to the bathroom (three), whether I am back to normal now (kind of), whether I took any medicine (no), and whether I knew I should only drink warm tea today (I did).
Then the questions begin.
I will not repeat those questions here, suffice to say it was a thorough investigation into the size and shape and consistency of that which left my body overnight, proving two things; how concerned my accountant is, and how utterly assimilated I am into Thai culture now.
It was only a few years ago I was witness to the most extraordinary conversation, and it all started when my sales staff Wanphen was away from work for a day.
She returned the next morning looking pale. “Sorry I was absent,” she announced to the other girls in the office. She grimaced and patted her stomach. “Tong sia!”
I can’t imagine walking into an Australian workplace and announcing — yes, announcing — that I had diarrhea to all and sundry, and then getting a reaction not unlike if I’d won the lottery. But that is what happened in my office. Their collective interest was piqued.
“Was it something you ate?” the accountant asked.
“Fried oysters at the market,” said Wanphen. “It was raining at the time. I shouldn’t have eaten them but they smelled so good!”
“Gotta be careful with fried oysters,” chimed in Noi the maid. She’d been cleaning up but that was on hold now..
“Fried oysters … they can have you on the toilet all day and night,” said my accountant.
“I know,” said Wanpen. “It started at about four in the morning. Then I had to go again at seven and again at nine.”
There was a collective “Oh-hoe” from all the girls. It’s a Thai exclamation of healthy surprise; the “oh” is high and short, while the ensuing “hoe” rides a rollercoaster up and down for a few bumps before coming to a stop.
“I couldn’t eat anything. As soon as I did, I’d have to run to the bathroom again!”
That should have been the end of it, but like the TV series Homeland she went on just a little too long. “In the end my feces were just water!” she said.
The women were fascinated.
The only odd one out was me, sitting not three metres away in an adjoining office, mortified by the watery details. I looked down at my morning coffee and was no longer keen to sip it.
“Things got a lot better by the afternoon,” Wanpen said. “Then I got another attack at three.”
“Watery?” asked Noi.
“No, it had firmed up by then.”
Straw that broke the camel’s back.
“Enough already!” I shouted from my office.
“Sorry, Khun Andrew!” my accountant said. “Are we being too loud?”
That was the piece de resistance; the women were apologizing for their volume, not their content.
In this country they shouldn’t be apologizing at all; she is doing nothing wrong other than prodding at my Western disdain for public talk about personal hygiene.
When people ask me the difference between Thai and western culture, I often tell those people to look no further than their nether regions.
Perhaps it is because Wanphen’s condition is more prevalent in this part of the world than mine. Perhaps it is because Thais are far more relaxed about bodily functions than me, a white Australian with traces of Elizabethan era nucleotides in my DNA.
It’s healthy, I know, to be open about bodily functions but surely not in the workplace! And such conversations usually come out of the blue and strike me when I least expect it — like tong sia itself.
“I cannot come to work today,” one employee called in one morning. “I am sick.”
“Oh that’s no good,” I said.
She wasn’t finished. “I have … the menses!”
The way she said it was like she had won the lottery. Her enthusiasm was not for the “menses”, but for remembering the correct vocabulary.
How I wanted to tell her that besides not having to be so explicit, it wasn’t the popular way to say she was menstruating. What stopped me was the inevitable question that would follow: “So what is the right way, Khun Andrew?” I have Elizabethan DNA, remember.
“The problem is not how loud you are,” I said to Wanphen and the others.
I explained how in my first year in Thailand I was struck down with an affliction not dissimilar to Wanphen’s. I fled to a drug store for relief.
The woman behind the counter was a Chinese Thai lady with a permanent frown and wearing a blouse probably re-gifted from a maiden aunt ten years previous.
There was one other customer as I entered. Two more came in behind me and waited.
“What do you want?” the woman asked me as the first customer was examining some drugs. (Ow arai? in Thai.)
“I have a bad stomach,” I said.
“What kind of bad stomach?”
“A bad stomach,” I said, a little lost for words.
“What are you passing?”
Blood spurted into my cheeks before I had time to tell it not to. “Well, I’m visiting the bathroom every couple of hours and –“
“Is it firm? Liquid? Somewhere in between?” Her voice was a little terse but that wasn’t what was bugging me. It was her decibel level.
“What color was it? Yellowy? Grey-brown? Were there pustules in your stools?”
I was too mortified to answer. Sweat broke out on my brow and I glanced furtively to the other customers. Were they chuckling? Making smelly faces?
None of the above. They couldn’t have been less interested. They were probably thinking what they would eat for their next meal.
That scene could never have happened where I grew up. I’d have paid a visit to the local doctor who would have asked such questions in the privacy of his practice. In roundabout sentences I would have explained my condition, after which the doctor would quietly write me a prescription – god, remember those? - and tell me to get some rest.
Juxtapose that with downtown Bangkok, where questions about my symptoms are broadcast to all within a radius of 100 metres from my standpoint at the Sukhumvit drug store.
When my accountant brought me my hot tea this week, she started asking more questions about my bad stomach. I answered without the slightest embarrassment.
“Thai food is very spicy,” said Ladda, who is still working for me all these years, though Wanphen has gone. “We all get tong sia regularly.”
“Chicken does it for me,” says my accountant.
“Shrimp for me,” says Ladda.
“Tom yam kung,” announced Noi the maid, also still here.
Listen to them all.
I know they’re deeply vindicated by the incident. Though nobody says it outright, I know they are all thrilled it wasn’t a bad somtam or nam prik platuu or hoi tod that gave me the runs. It was one thoroughly-western chicken parmesan dinner made by yours truly. Thai culture is spared the ignomy of blame.
By Andrew Biggs
The phone number was not one I knew, but still I took the call.
“This is Immigration Police … we’d like to make a time to see you.”
Would such a phone call initially have given you a chill down your spine as it did with me? I may live a life as chaste as Mother Teresa but I still feel a sudden surge of guilt.
It’s a bit like getting a phone call from the Revenue Department, or the Supreme Court, or the Narcotics Bureau. A shrill voice from the back of my brain immediately screams: “I didn’t do it!” before the voice of reason slaps that shrill voice down.
I do not have much to do with Immigration Police other than my annual trek to Chaengwattana for my re-entry stamp in my passport.
It is not an unpleasant task. There’s always a great OTOP market in the central part of the building and I make it a point to get there early in the day with the latest New York Times bestseller tucked under my arm. The service is streamlined and I’m out within an hour or two. I have no complaints.
There is an automated voice service that permeates the atmosphere of Thai Immigration. This is the female voice that announces whose visa applicant’s number is up, and to which counter the applicant should make his or her way.
Only this woman doesn’t announce. She barks.
She spits out numbers the same way I spit out fermented fish when I accidentally eat it . “Number … NINETY-THREE … at counter number … EIGHT.” That NINETY-THREE and subsequent EIGHT are laced with anger and betrayal. It is the voice of a woman who has just discovered her boyfriend has been messing around with her best friend. She’s livid. And she wants revenge.
If she is indeed human, then she needs therapy and she needs it now before she even thinks of issuing any further recordings for public broadcast.
And it is not the kind of voice one wants to hear when processing an application. Seriously. We need to hear Sade or the Brandenburg Concertos or — and I never thought I would ever publically state this — Kenny G’s Greatest Hits.
Instead it’s Scorned She-Devil. It’s almost as if Immigration wants a foreboding atmosphere. What new terror awaits ticket number ninety-three at counter number eight? A monster?
Worse, her voice ricochets across that vast Immigration waiting room since there are speakers strategically set up so that sometimes she can be heard somewhere to the left. Then to the right. Then ahead.
Then behind. It’s Dawn Of The Dead when the zombies surround the house; inescapable, trapped and terrifying.
In the 1970s there was a spate of disaster movies such as the Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno. I was but a child and yet fascinated with them — what child wouldn’t love the thought of a ocean liner flipping upside down or a skyscraper on fire?
Then came Earthquake, a movie starring Charlton Heston in which the city of Los Angeles was reduced to rubble.
Well that movie came with a theatre gimmick called “Sensurround”, which in hindsight was just the bass turned right up. The entire cinema would rumble and shake as if you were right in the middle of a real earthquake.
That was 40 years ago … so why would Sensurround suddenly pop back into my head after four decades, sitting at Immigration at Chaengwattana with my Zadie Smith? Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it … this woman’s voice is just like Sensurround. It permeates every nook and cranny of the place. It is designed to shake and cajole.
I know nothing about the woman who makes these announcements, although I have a feeling I know her older sister.
From 2006 to about 2010, when Suvarnabhumi airport first opened, there was a woman’s voice that could be heard every time you took one of those people movers.
As you approached the end of it, the woman’s voice would say in Thai: “Rawang sinsut tang leuan.” Be careful stepping off the people mover. It was a soft Thai voice, clear and polite.
Then she would say it again in English: “End of the walk!”
She didn’t just say it. She blurted it out as if you, the passenger, had tied her up and forced her to watch as you murdered her parents in cold blood with a Chatuchak hacksaw. “End of … the walk!” she screamed at you, the word “walk” revealing she was possessed by the devil incarnate.
Why did this pleasant Thai voice have to become so intimidating and insidious when shouting at foreigners? And which high-ranking Airports of Thailand official signed off on it? “Hmmm, I think this one sounds the best,” an AOT executive in a badly-fitting Robinson department store workshirt said, nodding to others at a meeting back in 2006 before the airport opened.
Do you see the common thread here? Immigration … Suvarnabhumi … foreign tourists to Thailand may be increasing in number, but who knows how long that will last whilst we are barked at and subliminally vilified at every mandatory checkpoint in the country.
You know who I feel sorry for the most? The Thai Immigration officers. They must sit at their desks from 8.30 am to 4 pm every day listening to her.
Does it ever go away? A friend who lives near the airport says he doesn’t hear the planes any longer. Could an Immigration officer work efficiently with that screeching going on, relentlessly, throughout civil service hours?
Two years ago, I ran into an acquaintance who worked at Immigration. She asked me how I felt about the service and whether there was room for improvement.
I told her everything was good except for that hideous voice.
There was an ever-so-slight roll of the eyes, suggesting she too was tired of the voice. She explained that the voice was Chinese since it came with the purchased announcement program.
“What you need,” I explained, “Is a softer voice. One that’s a little more polished around the edges. You know, friendly and inviting and yet at the same time very clear. A voice that reassures people that everything is fine, and that isn’t too grating to the ear. And preferably a native English speaker.”
Like my own, I heard myself say.
That was two years ago.
Well today, dear reader, you are in for a surprise.
Say your final farewell to the voice of that avenging female. Off with your head, Cersei Lannister of Chaengwattana! Begone, oh grievous voice that summoneth foreigners to numbered counters! Your services are no longer required.
That’s because a new voice is here; a voice whose tone is as calming as it is dulcet. Soft and yet strong, it is a voice that could send babies to bed, and it’s male. With a twinge of Antipodean.
And … it’s me.
Yes, dear reader, that was the reason for the phone call from Immigration. I had done nothing wrong; and last Thursday, I entered a Sutthisarn recording studio and laid down some tracks, as we say in the business, which entailed counting from one to 900 and telling people to visit counters with numbers.
So next time you’re at Immigration and find yourself in Australian Sensurround, don’t be too harsh in your condemnation. Remember the alternative.