LIES AND DECEIT ON THE BANGNA FREEWAY
By Andrew Biggs
The Bangna expressway is a corridor of lies and deceit.
Describing it like that may be extreme, but we are living in extreme times. We are required to react to everything in the most shocking way, and what better way to do that than to react hysterically to things which, back in the 20th century, warranted a cursory glance with a disapproving raised eyebrow.
These days it’s not enough to be cursorily disapproving.
A good example, just prior to my journey along the Bangna expressway last night, was on my Facebook timeline where a friend posted a link to “THIRTEEN AMAZING WORLD VISTAS – MY JAW DROPPED AT NUMBER EIGHT!”
How upsetting. First, why would any friend of mine would think I would get off on 13 amazing world vistas? Thirteen Amazingly Easy Vodka Aperitifs, maybe, but world vistas? The last time I looked there is only one world vista — from space. From where else am I expected to observe the world?
Second … when did journalism shift from attempted objectivity to a brazen disregard for it? What happened to the days of “just the facts”? And the most perplexing question of all — whose jaw are we talking about? I’m guessing it’s the smelly overweight thirty-something webmaster ensconced in his mother’s basement, thinking up sexy headlines for his list of stolen copyright photographs of world vistas in order to elicit internet ad traffic. Jaw owner, make thyself be known!
Number eight was bitterly disappointing, by the way, showing a lack of aestheticism on the part of the dropped jaw owner. Yes I admit I clicked through, like the popular culture fool I am, and like so many other experiences in life, the anticipation was more thrilling than the event.
But enough of this rant. Let us return to the unceasing flow of traffic along the Bangna expressway, and the lies and deceit found thereupon, of which I was a part this week.
Thailand has a very liberal policy towards billboards, which is a nice way of saying we can do what we like because we don’t like to monitor or control things here.
Driving down the expressway feels like walking briskly through an art gallery of works not suited to one’s taste. The sooner one gets to the gift shop, or Bangna, the better. Thanks to this liberal policy we have monster billboards cramming the expressway and blotting out the otherwise appealing vistas of eastern Bangkok, beckoning us to buy condos, visit chain restaurants, slap on lightening cream, and purchase brand name clothing as worn by sullen models.
I fully understand the need for shameless exaggeration when selling a product; I am the owner of a school advertised as being run by “Thailand’s number one English teacher”. But these expressway billboards are starting to get out of hand.
A good example is the new Central department store billboard which celebrates the store’s 70th anniversary. It has this sentence as the catch-phrase: “A second home that transcends generations.”
That sentence took me so long to digest I nearly rammed into the back of a Mercedes Benz. This is the type of sentence that can send me into a funk for a good couple of days as I try to work out the correlation between a shopping mall and something that transcends generations. From my experience the only things that can transcend generations are love and communicable diseases. But a mall?
It appears department stores and condominium projects are jostling one another to come up with the most over the top sentence for their billboards, sacrificed on the altar of clear English and eloquence, not to mention truth.
I have a suspicion the advertising agencies responsible have those sets of fridge magnets with perceived high-society words on them like “exquisite”, “ultimate”, “elegance” and “sophisticated”. When they get a new campaign account, they call in the maid or security guard fresh off the bus from Morchit and ask them to rearrange six or seven of the words in a line on the fridge. How else do we explain a “second home that transcends generations”?
Back when Siam Paragon opened, its billboards gift-wrapped the entire expressway network of Bangkok, not just the Bangna bit. Their trail-blazing slogan was “The Glorious Phenomenon”.
That put me in a funk for a week. This slogan was not just over the top; it was tautologous. I was under the impression every phenomenon was glorious. Surely “glorious phenomenon” goes into the same file as “new innovation” or “repeat again” or “first priority”. Such tautology is more of a crime than the fact it is an over-exaggeration — a word that also goes into that file.
There is another billboard, not far from the Central one, that tells me their condominium project is the “Ultimate In 21st Century Sophisticated Living Style”. That’s got to be the work of the maid.
I would have thought living in a 3 x 5 metre apartment, where the front door has you walking straight into the mini-kitchen, is hardly the definition of the “ultimate” in anything, unless you’re a sardine. And would somebody tell me what “living style” is, as opposed to, say, living?
Do you feel it too, dear reader? Are we becoming so more and more over the top that something has to burst?
We should be thankful. One of the flow-on effects of the 2014 coup d’etat was not just the eradication of the government. It also heralded the sudden end to a litany of giant billboards along the freeway, put up with taxpayers’ money, championing the wondrous and varied ministerial projects of the time.
Each and every billboard featured the face of the minister in charge, suggesting our taxpayers’ money was being channeled more towards licking the shins and legs of the ministers than any public announcements.
(The more polite Thais compare sycophantic behavior to licking shins and legs, as opposed to native English speakers who find solace in licking lower intestinal parts.)
That proliferation of politicians, all of whom possessed faces only their mothers could love, along the Bangna expressway was something that gave the current trend of unbridled exaggeration a run for its money.
If I were to draw up a list of 13 Thing To Improve Bangkok, I would include Banning Billboards, probably at number eight.
It’s happened in other parts of the world. Four American states have banned billboards. Ten years ago Sao Paulo in Brazil removed the 10,000 billboards around the city. India’s Chennai did the same in 2009. So did Grenoble, France, in 2014.
So it’s not that extreme. It’s probably not the most pressing problem the city has, and it’s not as radical an idea as, say, razing street food markets or destroying communities in and around historical sites for the sake of social order. Humongous signs making outrageous claims in the name of advertising are more disruptive to social order than, well, street stalls selling pork on a stick.
I am imagining a Bangna expressway with absolutely no billboards blocking the vistas. The sweeping views of the Khlong Toey slum, the majestic sun setting over Phrakhanong shophouses — breathtaking. Perhaps not on the list of world vistas, but could be, at a pinch, a new place in the city to drop one’s jaw.
CURSE OF THE DEAD CELLPHONE
By Andrew Biggs
It was when I awoke at 5 am that the terrible realization came to the fore.
The previous night, just prior to retiring, I’d performed my usual nightly ablutions. I did a quick clean up of my bedroom, placing dirty clothes in the clothes basket, as well as tossing a mountain of squeezed lemon wedges and empty yellow tonic cans into the trash.
I plugged in my iPhone to charge it overnight then fell asleep.
When I woke up, I reached for my cellphone only to discover the battery was at 3 per cent.
I blame those squeezed lemon wedges. Where did I read lemon before bedtime was bad for your mental faculties? How else could I have plugged in one end of the phone so deftly, then have totally forgotten to plug the other end into a power source? That’s the sort of thing a serial alcoholic does, not me.
The worst part was I had to be out of the house in 15 minutes in order to participate in a fun run at Rama 9 Park. I was a special invited guest, so I had to show up looking prepared and fit and fashionable. There was no time to charge my phone.
For the past five years I have run with an App that keeps track of all my runs. It tells me exactly how far I run and my time down to the split second.
That’s not all. It also tells me my average speed, kilometre by kilometre. These are called Splits, dear reader. Oh yes. I’m up on all the latest terminology though I suspect the etymology of “splits” predates Apps and iPhones. Each kilometre I run, I know exactly my time and speed. I know whether I need to speed up or slow down, the latter of which has yet to happen but that’s not the point. This information is at my fingertips if ever I need it.
It’s not just speed either. There is elevation to consider. My 5 km park run begins at an elevation of a few centimetres below sea level. You may be fascinated to learn, as I was, that my run takes me to 7 metres above sea level! How would I have ever known that without my cellphone?
Then I decided to become a paid member of this App and it was like opening Ali Baba’s cave. I was able to rank my runs according to speed, and even better — I could measure how many steps I was running per minute! This information, known as my Stride Rate, was exciting to pore over.
I could register my emotion after my run. That’s important to know and keep as a record. This App also recorded what songs I listened to during the run – even how fast I was running when each new song began.
It automatically calculated how many kilometres in total I’d run in my current pair of running shoes. Plus the temperature at the time. Plus the chance of rain at the time … and even the wind speed in the park!
I’m telling you; this App was running porn.
I knew how many kilometres I had collectively run over each week. This gave me the impetus to keep up the frequency of runs. I couldn’t retreat. Not while I was in control of this App, or more likely, the App was in control of me.
This morning my life was about to change.
As I got into my car, I plugged my phone into the power bank I keep in my car for such emergencies. Alas, the power bank itself was running on near empty. When I got the park my phone was at 7 per cent. Hardly enough to get me through the 5 km run.
I felt sick. Here I was, an invited guest to this charity Fun Run, and I’d be turning up technologically naked. The worst thing was that most of the other runners were young people, attached to all things mobile and technological. And here I was, the ageing celebrity uncle, without a cellphone strapped to his arm, let alone Bluetooth earphones.
What was the point of running that 5 kilometres? There would be no record of it. The Stride Rate, the Splits, the Elevation, the Steps, the Weather, the Precipitation – all lost to the winds of time (which this App could probably measure as well).
If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around, does it make a sound? Similarly, if I run 5 km without my App … did I run it? Should I even run it?
What a waste of time and energy. Plus for the rest of my life I would go running knowing that whatever statistics were being thrown up at me, they were lies, because this 5 km Fun Run that could not be factored in.
I may as well just quit right now.
Such was my mental state at the starting line, surrounded by fit and firm bodies encased in earphones and smart phones. I was the only one looking at the starting line; everybody else had their faces in their cellphone screens punching in their running data or logging into Facebook. Sad old me; a tall farang in a sea of downward-craned necks.
When the starting horn sounded I took off, sullen and resentful. Things started to change around kilometre number two.
For the first time in years I was aware of my surroundings. Without the distractions of statistics and self-enforced playlists I realized Rama 9 Park was a beautiful park. I passed gardens I’d never seen before, trees I never realized were so majestic, and pathways that were so tranquil.
Soon I was encompassed by a freedom — being one with nature, running through the trees and flowers and the breeze, regardless of its speed. I was aware of the sound and feel of my breathing as I settled in to the run.
By the time I crossed the finish line I was enjoying the experience. The exhilaration of my app statistics had been eclipsed by a new exhilaration from being devoid of them.
Was this a defining moment in my life, when I had been forced to step out of the all-consuming technology that binds us all, which turns a simple task like recreational running into a statistical spreadsheet worthy of a NASA computer console?
It should have been … but it wasn’t.
This story would have been great had I deleted my running App and returned to nature the next time I ran. But I didn’t. Two days later I was back in the park with a fully-charged cellphone and my running App back in full control, pulling the strings of my life like all those other Apps do.
After that run, I paused to enjoy the setting sun against the lake in the middle of the park. There were four young couples sitting near me, not that any of them were watching the unfolding spectacle. They all had their heads craned downwards in their cellphones, engaged in Facebook, Line, Instagram and Snapchat, far more interesting to them than an old sun going down behind the lake.
At least I had the decency to wait until I got into my car to shove my head deep into my cell phone screen, checking my Stride Rate, Splits, Elevation, Steps, Weather, Song List, Running Shoe Mileage and Precipitation. Like those lemon wedges, such is the evidence of my addiction.
LOVE AND DEBT ALLEVIATION
By Andrew Biggs
Guys, I have good news and bad news for you.
The good news is this: Never before have Thai women been so keen as to want to hitch up with you. We foreign guys are red hot in Thailand.
And the bad news? That’s coming a little further down.
The phenomenon of Thai women taking foreign husbands recently led to an internet bushfire that remains raging to this day.
It comes in the form of Madame Praiya’s Institute for Lonely Thai Girls.
Madame Praiya and I have something in common. We are both owners of academic establishments. Mine is certified by the Education Ministry and has enjoyed a spotless reputation for 13 years, thanks to an excellent curriculum and friends in high places. As for Madame, her academy has been running for just one month, but if the media reports are true, she is doing a roaring business without any friends in high places.
She claims to have had ten thousand enquiries in the month of June alone. I don’t mean to sound skeptical but do those enquiries translate into sales? Apparently so … her course costs 14,000 Baht, and she claims to be full up.
You can find details of Madame Praiya’s school on Facebook. The main picture is a set of slender female legs covered in fishnet stockings ending in a pair of high heels. “Sharing 100 tricks of the trade on how to snare a foreign man!” screams the headline. “How to spot a rich foreigner. How to go out on a date with a foreigner. How to ask a foreigner for money. Free consultation!”
She has attracted hordes of would-be students in the same numbers as critics slamming her school, saying it denigrates Thai women and Thai culture. This column does not intend to denigrate, though it may reek of envy. As a foreign male, I am also curious as to what Thai women need to know about us that requires an initial outlay of 14,000 baht.
But first, Madame Praiya herself.
I understand “Lady” or “Khunying”, but “Madame”? I don’t mean to be impolite, but the only women I have ever needed to address as “madame” were not ensconced in educational establishments. On the contrary. The average foreign male does not associate the word “madame” with “academia”. There are far stronger associations such as “are there any others to choose from?” or “can I get two at the same time?”
Madame is certainly attractive in her photographs, though of an indeterminate age; I admit I was reminded of Blanche Dubois from A Streetcar Named Desire. In a recent interview on Channel 3 she said she was an Isan country girl who once won a government scholarship to study overseas.
“What are your qualifications?” the reporter asked.
“Well, I’ve been on more than 5,000 dates with foreign men,” she replied. “Arabs, westerners, Indians … I know them all.”
This is a fact well publicized on Facebook: “With experience of more than 5,000 dates, Madame Praiya knows the tricks of the trade about snaring a foreign boyfriend!” I would beg to differ. How would she know – she’s been through 5,000 of them! If she went on a single date every day, with a day off on Sunday to recharge the batteries, that comes to a total of 16 years of dating. Sixteen years! She’s making Blanche look like a debutante!
And what is this knowledge Madame Praiya has gained after 5,000 dates? In her TV interview the first piece of advice is this: Arabs like fat girls.
“I’ve had plump girls come to me really depressed,” she explained. “I told them that if they are plump, or fat, Arab men will like them. It’s all about matching girls up with the right men.
“I know how these girls feel. They lack confidence, or have suffered great hardship and poverty in their lives. They are lonely. Having a foreign boyfriend can solve those problems.”
She’s right. Foreign boyfriends are great for all those niggardly problems such as your family mortgage and those three slovenly “brothers” who sit around on bamboo mats all day watching TV, one of whom is secretly your first husband.
Thai culture is embracing the phenomenon of pua farang, Thai slang for a foreign husband. Throughout the Northeast, women have swapped somtam for schnitzel, sticky rice for sauerkraut and pla tu for burgers.
Mahasarakham University, right in the middle of the Northeast, undertook an extensive study of why Isan women were attracted to foreign husbands. The research, entitled “Foreigners’ Wives: Cross-Cultural Marriage of Rural Women” took two years to finish and was spread out over the popular foreign-husband provinces of Khon Kaen, Nong Khai and Udorn Thani.
The number one reason for a foreign husband — and prepare yourself guys, here comes the bad news — was an escape from poverty, so Madame isn’t just whistling Dixie. They married in order to “to raise the family income and to reciprocate their parents for raising them”. Nowhere in the survey was there talk of marrying for love, hence the surge in popularity of Madame Praiya’s School For Lonely Thai Girls.
I spent a good couple of hours scrolling through Madame Praiya’s course details. She has some interesting sub-topics, such as “Ways To Spot a Rich Man” and “The Correct Way to Act in the Bedroom” ... lie back and think of debt alleviation?
The one that got everybody debating was “How to Ask a Foreign Man for Money.”
I wondered what the key phrases and sentences would be in this module. Perhaps she cover popular phrases like “My buffalo died,” “My mother is in hospital” or even “The hoe on the farm broke in two,” though a foreign man, upon hearing that last one, may misconstrue the sentence in the worst possible way and think she was referring to herself.
I was wrong. Madame Praiya explains that it’s important for a Thai woman to be able to ask for money, otherwise it may lead to some terrible consequences.
“I’ve had girls write to me in a very distressed state. They went on dates with foreign men, and in the end they had to pay for their own dinner! That’s something a Thai man would never do!” exclaims Madame Praiya, inadvertently placing her high-heeled foot in her mouth. What’s she doing sticking up for Thai men when she’s making a living steering Thai girls clear of them?
Her advice on this topic is this: “When going on a date with a foreigner, make sure he understands that you have expenses that he needs to cover.”
Is this something that we need to be told right away? Does the foreigner, upon asking the Thai girl out, need to immediately hear: “Okay I go with you okay but you pay me money okay?” Any girl who tried that would surely end up loveless, or at least on the interminable Tinder roundabout, having to go on 5,000 dates.
But Madame Praiya stands by her instruction.
“You know, sometimes foreign men invite Thai girls to go with them on a holiday for a week,” she said on national TV. “That means the girl may have to miss work for a week. And when they come back, they have nothing to show for it!
“I teach them that when they go on a date, they have to speak frankly to the foreign man and explain that they expect something in return. She has her expenses, you know.”
And with that advice, the good Madame very much earns her moniker. She may call her establishment an “institute”, but the rest of the world has a very different word for it.
By Andrew Biggs
One of my staff bought a car this week.
It’s a second-hand Nissan Silphy, which according to the old owner is “as good as new”, a statement one must take with Goderich, Ontario, the largest operating salt mine in the world. Nevertheless my staff member is thrilled to be paying 8,000 Baht to a finance company for the rest of his working life along with any future offspring’s.
It was the picture of the car he posted on Facebook that piqued my interest.
My staff’s name is Pee, and being of the younger generation documents his entire life on the internet. This is the staff member who got a nose job two years ago. Instead of holing himself up in his seedy Ramkhamhaeng apartment for a month, he chose instead to photograph the nasal swelling and document his pain and progress on a daily basis.
It’s the same when he goes through a break up, and boy do those come frequently. Semi-poetic paragraphs of lament hit that Facebook timeline like a sledgehammer for the world to see and comment on. “When, oh when, will this darkness leave me?” he wails on Facebook, garnering hundreds of sympathetic replies with the exception of mine: “When you turn the friggin’ light switch on. Wash your face and get to work immediately.”
So it was no great surprise he would post a pic of his first-ever new car on Facebook. So what was wrong with the pic?
I respectfully asked Pee if I could use his photograph in my column this week. Luckily for us, Pee is going through another breakup so he is too busy constructing self-pitying tomes of lost love to consider the ramifications of foregoing copyright, and he assented.
In the picture you can see the new car, bright and shiny thanks to some excellent last-minute detailing. There’s Pee in front of it, wearing a t-shirt that color-coordinates with the bright red ribbon on the windscreen, placed there either to celebrate the event or to cover a dirty big unyielding scratch on the bonnet.
Kneeling on the ground, Pee humbly performs the traditional Thai wai of respect. In his hands he clutches yellow garlands as an offering to the vehicle. This is what offended me.
The next day I call him into my office.
Pee sashays in, holding up a glistening set of keys and making them tinkle as he smiles broadly.
“Yes I know. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” I say.
I explain that his Facebook picture bothers me. In this day and age, why is Pee prostrating himself in front of a car? Why is he worshipping a vehicle, as opposed to a deity or even aspiring qualities such as goodness and honesty?
Just last year a famous TV celeb saw his career go down the tube thanks to a minor traffic accident. Furious that a motorcyclist swiped his Mini Cooper, he demanded the motorcyclist prostrate before his car as an act of humiliation. The whole nation chastised him for that. Didn’t Pee learn anything from that episode? Why is an intelligent (albeit perpetually heartbroken) young man like Pee praying before an engine?
“Oh no, Khun Andrew,” replies Pee. “You misunderstand. I’m not praying to the car. I’m praying to Mae Ya Nang.”
The name throws me. Mae means “mother”, Ya is “grandmother” and Nang means “a married woman”. I have the holy trinity of the female species in one name.
Pee sees the confusion on my face.
“She is a goddess. An angel. Thais believe in her. And her role is to look after cars.”
Welcome to another well-kept secret of Thai culture and society, I hear myself thinking. For the next few days I ask a number of people about Mae Ya Nang and indeed, she is widely known and respected.
“She is an ancient Thai deity who looks after travellers,” one friend, a teacher, explained. “She looks after boats, carts, bicycles and any other vehicles. Since Thai society in the past relied heavily on waterways, Thais respected her a great deal. They often had ceremonies paying homage to her.”
In this modern era she shows no signs of abating. Her influence extends to airplanes and you can find her image in cockpits. “It’s for good luck and safe travel,” says Pee.
My accountant appears out of nowhere, and before I can sign off on more debt, she adds that in the South you will see gaily-colored ribbons tied around long-tailed boats. These are offerings to Mae Ya Nang. “Fishermen believe she will protect them when they go out to sea, and bring them lots of fish. You will fishermen praying to her on the shore before setting out each day.”
There is quite an elaborate ritual associated to her as well. This involves five different types of fruit, a bowl of rice, a glass of water, tobacco or betel nut and three cigarettes. It appears Mae Ya Nang enjoys a puff, and I am immediately endeared to her.
So when you get a new car you place all this stuff on a table in front of the car. Start the engine, press the horn three times, light nine joss sticks and make the offering to Mae Ya Nang.
That last sentence I translated from the internet, on a page devoted to Mae Ya Nang and how to pay her respect. There are many such pages. It was interesting to read the comments after one article; one poor chap was in a terrible state. He’d been lighting a single joss stick as opposed to the mandatory nine. “What am I to do?” he lamented in a tone not unlike Pee during one of his myriad Facebook post-break-up posts.
Personally, I am surprised that after so long in Thailand I have never come across Mae Ya Nang before. Maybe it’s because I don’t go fishing that often. I appreciate her role in Thai society, protecting and safeguarding the vehicles of travellers, though it has to be said with the utmost respect to Thais and Thai culture — she is not doing a good job.
I want to deferentially shake Mae Na Yang by her celestial shoulders and tell her that she really does need to pay greater attention to her duty. Thailand may be one of the few countries where you pray to a deity who specifically looks after vehicles; why, then, does Thailand sit at number two on the list of countries with the most road accident deaths? An average of 24,000 people die on the roads annually. At 44 deaths per 100,000 people, we are second only to Namibia, and even then we’re knocking at that African nation’s door — they have 45 deaths per 100,000.
Shouldn’t the gods be making a difference?
When it comes to deities, Thais are quite pragmatic. “That’s carelessness on the driver’s part,” said my teacher friend. “No god can help you if you speed.”
Pee agrees. “She can only help me up to a point,” he says. “If I speed, or drink while driving, then that is my mistake, not hers.”
At this point I apologize to Pee for jumping to the conclusion he was praying to his car to show it deference, as opposed to praying to a beautiful ancient goddess.
And yet my new knowledge still leaves me feeling uncomfortable. Belief is an entirely personal affair; having a lead foot is not. As Pee hits the Bangkok roads, one of 700 cars that enter them daily, it is a little disappointing that despite having a beautiful deity looking over us from the heavens, even she cannot stop us wantonly killing one another on the roads. Oh what fools these mortals be.
SHOOTING PAPER PLANES INTO THE SKY
By Andrew Biggs
It is hard to believe nine years have passed since Mong Thongdee hit the media spotlight.
Little Mong was big news in September, 2009, a few months before the violent clashes between anti government protesters and government troops which killed two dozen people.
His was a cute story; a 12-year-old Northern boy who won the national paper airplane flying competition, which apparently is an annual event.
He was in grade 4 at the time, a little older than his classmates. That was because Mong wasn’t Thai. He was born in Chiang Mai, but his parents were itinerant Burmese.
The irony was Mong, having won the national competition, was expected to go on to represent Thailand in the international championships held in Japan. Only he wasn’t Thai. Nor was he Burmese. His nationality was officially nothing.
Thus he couldn’t get a passport. Oh, but the kid might win the international competition, which would look great for Thailand on the international stage at a time when Thailand needed all the positive news it could get, but if he won, he wouldn’t be Thai, and … and so it went on.
Mong’s application to travel outside the country had to be processed by those hoary old grinding cogs of Thai bureaucracy —the ones that go around and around, shifting their great weight in a circular motion, making loud clunking noises but going absolutely nowhere. There was no way anything was going to happen fast, and if it did, it would be way past the date of the international championships.
Then the Interior Ministry said no. The heartless interior minister at the time even told the boy to go represent Myanmar instead, which was impossible since Mong wasn’t Burmese. Talk about rubbing salt into the wound.
Mong burst into tears on live television. “I really want to go because I have been practicing hard, but I know the adults say I can’t go because I don’t have Thai citizenship,” he said, as the hearts of millions of viewers collectively melted.
In a rare show of sensibility the government stepped in and did the right thing. Whether that was the right thing by Mong or the Interior Ministry, which copped severe flak for its cruel smack-down of a 12-year-old kid, remains for you, dear reader, to decide. It issued papers for Mong to travel.
And so little Mong jetted off to Japan where he won bronze in the world championships. His paper plane stayed in the air for 16.45 seconds, outperforming his personal best of 12.5 seconds at the Thailand championship.
The cutest footage was of Mong courtside in Japan with his bronze medal around his neck, holding up a picture of Their Majesties King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit, talking about how proud he was to win this for Thailand.
Upon his return he was greeted by every politician and civil servant of the day. The Science Minister was there. The MP for Chiang Rai was there. Mong made a trip to Parliament House where he showed the then Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, how to fold a paper plane.
He was made Youth Ambassador for the Science Ministry which included an educational scholarship allowing him to study to the level of PhD. This was a reward for “creating a positive reputation for Thailand internationally.” And there were public promises that his application for citizenship would be fast-tracked.
That was September 2009. Mong fell off the front pages, returning to Chiang Mai to continue his education. He disappeared — along with all those promises from the politicians of the day.
Mong is now 20 years old and still stateless.
What is it about Mong that make this super-talented man so unpleasant to Thais?
The answer lies in his parents. They belong to the Thai Yai ethnic group that can be found across South-East Asia but predominantly in Myanmar. They are better known as the Shan, who have been waging a battle against the Burmese governments in their quest for their own state. They have been bullied and attacked in Myanmar, though as we can see, that belligerence is not confined to our western neighbor.
The official Thai line for denying them citizenship is “because they are not Thai”.
This answer brings up the question of what exactly constitutes a Thai. And why are Thais being selective about which foreigners can be Thai and which cannot?
Take the ethnic Chinese for example. In the space of a hundred years they have managed to spread their genes throughout the Thai population, obtaining Thai citizenship with ease, while those in the Northern hills have been denied it. Geographically and demographically, Mong’s father has more in common with a Thai than a man from mainland China.
The reason given for denying Shan people nationality is that it can be dangerous to the country’s stability. This is strange, since with a couple of rare exceptions, almost all ill-will created in Thailand is the work of its citizens, not foreigners.
Nevertheless this was the excuse the Interior Ministry gave Mong when he was 12. Having him leave and re-enter Thailand could pose a “threat to national security.” Paper-plane champions apparently possess a great potential to turn into terrorists.
This “threat to national security” is an abstract concept that, I’m ashamed to say, is beyond my comprehension. Can anybody explain the danger of giving statehood to children born of Shan parents on Thai soil — especially a kid who is being supported, educationally, by the very government that refuses to give him citizenship, because he has been a good citizen of the country … despite the fact he is not a citizen? I know; hand me the ibuprofen.
It is also curious that we still hold onto such beliefs. It is as if Thailand is trying to contain its gene pool. Call me a bleeding liberal, but the more cosmopolitan the society, the better. I love the fact there are Thais of Indian, Chinese, Malaysian, Cambodian and even Western descent.
Look what happened when the Chinese genetically invaded this country. The place prospered. If you are truly concerned about the stability of the country, surely swathes of stateless people in the mountains are more dangerous than homogenizing those very same citizens.
Mong Thongdee returned to the media early September as he attended the national paper plane competition in Muang Thong Thani in his role mentor to students from his school in the North.
He is all grown up now; a 20-year old still completing his high school, and with plans to do a bachelor degree. He works as a drone pilot trainer.
What came shining through the interview he gave the Bangkok Post was his positive outlook on life. Despite being let down by every single one of those bigwigs who photo-bombed his public appearances nine years ago, he is not bitter.
He sees the events of 2009 as an opportunity for him to continue his education, and to pass on his talents to the next generation. Try as I might, I cannot find a shred of evidence to suggest his attitude is harmful to the stability of Thailand.
And his return coincided with some brutal racial profiling going on in his parents’ home country, as Myanmar refuses to come to grips with the fact that a couple of hundred thousand of its people don’t fit their gene pool.
The massacre of the Rohingya people is an example of what can happen when xenophobia goes to the extreme, especially when it is focussed on a portion of its own people.
It is chilling to think that Thailand’s policies on ethnic groups, though thankfully not its actions, run along the same lines as Myanmar’s. Mong still has hope, but he need not hold his breath.
(Note: In October, 2018, a year after this column, Mong finally received his Thai citizenship. It was around the same time the Wild Boar team members received theirs.)
By Andrew Biggs
There is movement at the end of my soi.
It started a week ago and now the changes are swift. A sign goes down, a sign goes up. Old wooden planks, serving as roofs and walls, get prised apart. Tables and chairs and cookers are being gathered up and moved across the road.
It was the duck noodle shop on Monday; then the fried chicken stall the next. And last night, as I returned home from a late-night meditation class at my local temple, it was Jeck, owner of Bangkok’s best grilled chicken and somtam side-of-the-road stall, scraping away at his giant half-barrel, from where I have purchased a nation of fried chicken over two decades, getting ready to move on too.
This week I have a story for you that is so microcosmic of Thailand, I hardly need to even point that out to you. Everything in this column is true, bar the pathetic stab at respectability just then about coming home from meditation class.
It began 20 years ago when I first moved into the neighborhood.
I live in a small soi off busy Srinakharin Road, not far from the Bearing intersection, which the Prime Minister visited in May since it floods there regularly. I was upcountry at the time, so I didn’t get to don my phrarathapattan suit and stand solemnly amid the onlookers. One of my neighbors claimed the visit caused traffic to be jammed on Srinakharin Road; she said that shaking her head and frowning, and I of course shook my head and frowned as well just to be polite. But she is being unfair. Srinakharin is permanently jammed. Blaming the PM for Srinkaharin traffic is a bit like me blaming that meditation course on my stumbling into an errant tree on the way from my gate to the front door.
When I first moved here, the eastern side of the soi entrance had a brand new building housing a supermarket.
On the western side was a vacant block, and upon it were five makeshift restaurants, side by side. One featured duck noodles; another was kai yang run by a skinny young man called Jeck.
The other three had khao man kai, khao moo daeng and one of those anything-you-want-to-order makeshift restaurants with Mama noodles hanging out the front. Of all the mysteries this country holds, one of them is why anybody, with all the choices available, would want to point at a packet of instant noodles and demand they be fried up in front of you for dinner.
That was the little community, or chumchon in Thai. Five little shops, wooden and quaint, with toilet rolls on rickety tables and bent spoons and forks.
One day this little chumchon started dismantling itself. They moved from the western to the eastern side of the soi, right in front of the supermarket on the main road.
“Somebody’s leased the land, so we have to get off it,” Jeck said.
The east side was vacant for a month. Then a new, nicer-looking wooden structure went up. A painted wooden sign said: SRINAKHARIN SEAFOOD.
Suddenly scruffy looking young men wearing bum bags and with permanent cigarettes dangling from their mouths stood outside the restaurant, and anybody who parked on that side of the road were being charged 10 baht. This upset everybody who parked there to run in to buy groceries from the supermarket, including myself, but I was spared the extortion. Scruffy looking men in bum bags smoking cigarettes may be fluent in fleecing innocents, but they are not so fluent in English. They took one look at me and ran a mile.
Their standover tactics didn’t work with the likes of other Srinkaharin folks either. They were gone within a week, as was the seafood restaurant not long after. And when it did, those five little restaurants drifted back, slowly, across the road to where they had been originally.
The supermarket went bankrupt. This heralded a few more makeshift shops. The Rohingya refugee crisis precipitated the arrival of a Rohingyan woman selling delicious rotis. The end of my soi was not only a bustling market of delicious take-home food; it was cosmopolitan as well.
Then … a chumchon catastrophe.
Someone purchased the land on the western side. “They’re going to build an apartment block,” Jeck told me. He packed up and moved back in front of the bankrupt supermarket, but wait – there were now new shops there. So Jeck and his pals moved to the side of the supermarket, meaning the abandoned building now had a bustling market on two of its four sides.
The apartment block never got built to the west. Meanwhile to the east, a new supermarket opened and the entranceway had to be cleared. Those shops took the opportunity to move back to western side.
This yo-yoing continued for two decades. I have watched the duck noodles ladies grow old (as they, no doubt, have watched me). Jeck is now married with two daughters. Every day they are up at dawn, selling their specialties, day in and day out. And now and again they pack up and move.
Something weird happened just last year. The second supermarket also went bust, but inexplicably a wall was built along one side of the footpath right outside the building. It cut right through where all the makeshift shops, including Jeck’s, had been situated, as if it was deliberately built to stop them taking up footpath space. Was it an act of revenge? Did the landlord get a dodgy plate of duck noodles? Whatever the intention, it caused those stalls to pack up and cross the road once again.
There was movement again this week. The front of the abandoned supermarket facing the main road has been cleared.
Overnight the duck noodles returned to its original place to the west. So did the khao man kai and the fried chicken stalls. They have completed a 20-year circle.
My biggest fear has been Jeck.
I watched from my car as he and his wife scraped out the half-barrel late at night, ready to move their shop yet again. But today he is not on the western side of the road. Could it be that my beloved kai yang vendor has finally gone someplace else?
We are born, we grow old, we suffer pain, and we die. Such are the fundamental tenets of Buddhism. It is true of grilled chicken shops, too. Luckily we pass through this process at different times, so that a chumchon can continue to remain a community.
Jeck may be gone, but for the rest of that community, it is life as normal.
How resilient they are. There may be great torrents of rain and gridlocked traffic. There may be a new landlord that boots them to the kerb, then another who boots them back, then another who builds a wall just to spite them.
They are a community tennis ball, lobbed back and forth across the net of commerce and greed, powerless to the mood swings or morality of those in power. They just want to get along with the job of raising their families and making a living. For that I am grateful of them, and even proud, though I wish sometimes they would collectively get together and make a stand, for despite their impoverished state, together they hold power. They are, after all, feeding society.
Now if I can just find where Jeck went.
A POLITE LADY AND AN UGLY MAN
By Andrew Biggs
UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is toying with the idea of women-only train carriages.
The idea is to stem the rising tide of female harassment in public places after British Transport Police reported a rise in sexual assaults on trains.
Jeremy, don’t. Just don’t.
I live in a country where we have such things. We, too, have high rates of sexual assault.
So we have lady buses and, to my absolute horror, lady parking.
Expats in Thailand are generally a friendly enough lot. But scratch the surface and each has his or her own pet peeve.
I have a friend who absolutely hates the word “farang”. Detests it. Thinks it’s the most demeaning word on the planet and bristles whenever he hears it.
My friend Stuart goes nuts when a department store salesgirl says: “No have.” I can relate to that one. It’s the tone of voice that sets him off; the lackadaisical, wouldn’t-give-a-flying-airplane drawl that accompanies those two words, usually followed by locating the aforesaid out-of-stock item on a store shelf within a radius of three metres.
Then I met a guy at an Austcham meeting who led me through a dull conversation for a good 15 minutes — until he started raving about Thai taxi drivers.
“They round the price up every time. Every time!” he started screaming. “Like, if it’s 54 baht, and I give him 60, he doesn’t give me any change back. It’s like a mandatory tip! And that’s illegal!”
What a strange thing to raise one’s blood pressure over. He should be thankful the taxi driver even turned on the meter in the first place. And we’re talking six baht, the equivalent of 23 cents. Not to mention why anybody with a short fuse over illegal practices would think of joining Austcham in Thailand. My dull friend wasn’t just dull; he was masochistic.
And as I said, we all have our pet peeves.
Mine is lady parking.
Now and again I venture into department stores in Bangkok. I always bring some form of weaponry with me, such as a handgun or double-edged dagger, since the car park sends a very clear message; Bangkok department stores are so dangerous, there needs to be parking for women only.
I dislike the “lady parking” floor as much as Stuart dislikes female shop assistants, and nearly as much as that Austcham guy wants to murder taxi drivers.
They are even worse when you’re running late. A good example: I was once a judge for a competition at CentralWorld, and I got there five minutes before the competition was about to start.
Unfortunately this was a Saturday and despite being handed a parking ticket by female parking attendant on the ground floor, the parking lot was full.
Except … for … one … floor.
I’d gone up and down all six floors twice and the calm that normally envelops my life, thanks to deep breathing techniques and medication, was faltering.
My cellphone started to ring. I knew it was the nice competition organizer and she’d be asking where I was so I ignored the call.
I was tempted to pick it up and scream into the phone: “WELL IF YOU’D SET ASIDE A CAR PARK SPACE FOR ME I’D BE SITTING AT THE JUDGE’S DESK BY NOW”, except that I remembered her asking me that two weeks ago, with my reply being a cheerful: “Oh no, don’t worry, I’ll take a cab. What sort of idiot takes his car into inner city Bangkok on a weekend?”
I was on my way down when I hit the half-empty Lady Floor.
This is a regular car park floor, only the pillars have been painted pink, since that is the color of ladies apparently, even in this day and age.
Not only that, but the writing is in flowery script, a font that goes well with parasols and crinoline hoop skirts.
I’d had enough. It was outrageous enough to be given a parking card for a parking lot that was full; but to have to be subjected to a half-empty Lady Floor coated in pink paint on the way up and down?
The entrance to the Lady Floor was partitioned off, and a female security guard guarded it.
“I’m in a hurry,” I said in Thai, briskly and reeking of self-importance. “I’m a high-ranking judge for a very important high-class event about to start on the ground floor in full view of hundreds of people, including a smattering of khunyings.”
The middle-aged lady in the security guard uniform smiled back at me. “Only ladies,” she replied.
“Yes, I know, but — look, the whole idea of this floor is ridiculous. It is gross sexual discrimination of the worst kind. It’s probably even illegal according to United Nations equal rights statutes.”
“Sorry, lady only,” she said in English.
“How do you know I’m not a lady?” I asked. “Seriously. There are plenty of women who look like men. Look at Demi Moore or Sarah Huckabee. Do you stop them from parking here?
“Do you strip-search women who look like men? Why don’t I just keep a wig in the back seat of my car and put it on and shout khaaaa at you as I drive in? Would you let me in then?”
Those above two paragraphs were said in my head, dear reader. As much as I wanted to shout them at the security guard, I knew it would have been futile.
Though I had a valid point.
“What about transgenders? I’m assuming you let them in, but what about if Chaz Bono came to Thailand and wanted to park here? He’s a woman, you know.”
“If he’s a woman, he can park here,” she said.
“Well that’s not fair,” I said, as my cellphone went off again. I ignored it. “Please let me in. I can’t find a park anywhere else.”
“Sorry, lady only,” she said in English, and then in Thai: “It’s a safe place for women to park.”
“Oh, so Thai men are so dangerous you have to cordon off entire car park floors to avoid them?”
I shook my head incredulously. “All men are bad and all women are good? Well I’ve got one word for you: Lucrezia Borgia. All right, it’s two, but would she be allowed to park here? What about Myra Hindley or Kellyanne Conway? Can they park here?”
“If they are women, yes,” she replied.
I was utterly frustrated. Has Thai society failed if it needs to segregate the sexes? Shouldn’t we be educating young boys about giving respect to women? Lady Parking and Lady Train Carriages are an admission of failure. Take note, Jeremy Corbyn.
My cellphone was going off again. In anger I picked it up.
“Where are you, Khun Andrew?”
“I’m on the Lady Floor trying to find a park since the whole carpark is full but still the parking attendant on the ground floor gave me a ticket and –“
“We have a space reserved for you on the ground floor next to the parking ticket booth. Just drive back down. There’s an official waiting for you there.”
I looked at the security officer in front of me; a woman who earns 300 baht a day to stand in a stinking hot, carbon-monoxide-infested parking lot for 12 hours, but still manages to be friendly and smiling, even at ugly farangs who are fluent in Thai.
“Sorry, lady only,” she said again in English.
“And you are a lady,” I replied, as I drove off down to the ground floor to my preferential, and thoroughly undeserved, treatment.
By Andrew Biggs
“Boss, I need to take four days off in the middle of March,” my driver said to me a month ago, breaking a silence I’d been enjoying in the car.
My driver taking four days off is not a catatonic-inducing event. Just between you and me, I relish the solitude of driving myself around for a few days. I get to crank the speaker up loud, and for a short time I’m relieved of having to emit non-committal grunts in acknowledgment of his observations of nearby vehicles.
Still, I had to know why.
“I’m getting married,” he replied.
Well that was a bolt out of the blue.
I was aware my driver shared a room with his girlfriend, who works in the fruit and vegetables section of my local Big C.
I was also aware of the daily arguments my driver has with her, which sometimes seep into drive time. He is forever confiding in my personal assistant about her dim view of his alcohol consumption and suspected philandering, after which my personal assistant passes on a precis to me during coffee break.
“Is this the same girl you wished death upon recently?” I asked, trying to sound as casual as possible. My driver just laughed. And nodded.
“You fight every day with her. Shouldn’t you sort out your differences before you get married?”
“She’s such a nag … always complaining about my drinking. Two beers and she screams at me. And she’s worried I’m going to go off with some other girl.”
“And do you?” I asked.
“No! Not that often!”
There is a forlorn-looking face in the rear vision mirror. “I’m doing it for her parents,” he said.
“No, nothing like that. I just have to do the right thing by her parents.”
This is very confusing.
In such situations I make a beeline for my accountant. She is an older Thai lady who takes care of 14 dogs in her townhouse, so she’s an expert on mating rights. Why was my driver going to marry a girl he didn’t like for the sake of keeping her parents happy?
“It’s called >>pook-khaen<<,” my accountant explained. “It’s a way of showing the village elders that two people are a couple. It’s often the case with the poorer class, since they may not be able to afford a full-on wedding.”
“So it’s a wedding?”
“Not really,” she said. “It’s a ceremony where the elders tie string around the wrists of the two young people, and then it’s settled. There is no shame or anything. They are a couple.”
I am forced to accept that my driver is engaging in a ceremony set in the Twilight Zone, in a place between engagement and betrothal, not for his own sake, or his girlfriend’s, but for the sake of the elders.
“Where is this ceremony taking place?” I asked him later that day.
“There isn’t any ceremony,” he said. “We’re going to her hometown in Surin, and her parents will tie strings around our wrists. That’s all. No registration. No ceremony.”
“And then you’re a couple?”
“But you complain, every day, to my personal assistant that you don’t want to be a couple.” I made a note to remind my personal secretary that I’d snitched on him.
Silence from my driver.
“Answer that question,” I say. “You fight with her every day. Now you’re going to marry her in a ceremony that isn’t a marriage. And this is to make her parents happy.”
“Boss, you are a farang. Maybe you don’t understand how Thais do things.”
So now even my driver is playing his “you don’t understand” card.
But that’s only the half of it. Things go downhill swiftly.
“I need time off next week,” said another one of my male staff two weeks ago.
“Don’t tell me you’re getting married,” I said.
“I’ve got my college graduation ceremony this Sunday.”
This young man has been studying at a college every weekend for the past two years. I knew he was nearing the end of his studies.
Graduation is a big deal in Thailand, much bigger than it is in the West. This is because for many institutions, members of the Royal Family hand out the certificates.
Even where this isn’t the case, such as with my staff’s college, graduation is still a big deal. The school director is dishing out the certificates this Sunday, but that doesn’t stop them having to rehearse.
There is a rehearsal in the morning. He needs to be at a Pattaya hotel at 7 am for that, and it takes three hours. The 400 students then have lunch, and in the afternoon, the ceremony begins. It seems like an awful amount of time for handing out pieces of paper.
Female graduates often pay a make-up lady and hair stylist to come and doll them up, usually at around 4 am. My staff member is required to shave off his straggly beard and moustache, and dispense with all earrings and other pieces of jewelry. They are forbidden in the ceremony.
It’s also compulsory to attend, but you haven’t heard the worst of it, dear reader. Like my driver’s wedding, this is a ceremony that doesn’t exist.
You see, it’s not even the end of the final semester. That’s another month away.
“I still have a report to finish,” said my staff member. “And I have to take my final exams.”
“Wait … you’re graduating ahead of time? How can they give you your graduation certificate? I mean, why not just take the certificate and not do the exams?”
“There’s nothing inside,” he said.
“I don’t understand.”
“There’s nothing inside the casing the director presents to us. It’s just the outer casing of the degree, but there’s no degree itself. They’ll send that to us in another two or three months. After we graduate.”
“But you’re graduating this Sunday.”
“No I’m not. I’m having the ceremony.”
Okay. So call me stupid. Call me an ignorant farang who doesn’t understand the mysterious ways of the ancient Siamese culture. But why is this college having their graduation ceremony mid-March, when the semester doesn’t end until the end of April and scores won’t come out until July? And … why the need for a rehearsal for a ceremony that basically hands over nothing to the students?
My staff member knows the answer: “The hotel didn’t have any free days available for graduation after July. This weekend was the only one. So the college was kind of forced to have it then.”
Well of course. How stupid of me. A hotel ballroom’s availability should be the mitigating factor in staging any graduation ceremony, right? After all, hotels are hard to find in Pattaya.
That has been my week. I have signed off on personal leave for two of my staff to get married and to graduate, neither of which happened, and yet required one to make a round trip journey of 1,000 km, and the other a day trip to Pattaya and a loss of facial hair.
Last Sunday has been and gone. I quietly snooped on both staff’s Facebook pages and there they are — one celebrating wedding bliss, and the other looking very clean-shaven in his graduation gown, clutching flowers and a teddy bear and wearing a “Congratulations” sash.
I’m not saying anything. After all this is Thailand, and when a tree doesn’t fall in the forest, it clearly makes a sound.
(Note: Written during the week of His Majesty King Bhumibol’s Royal Cremation, 26 October, 2017)
By Andrew Biggs
The Royal Thai Anthem is known as Pleng Sansern Phra Baramee, or “The Song The Praises the Glory of the King”.
This piece of music is 130 years old. It was the third national anthem of Siam for more than 40 years, from 1888 to 1933 — the one prior to that was the UK’s “God Save The King/Queen” with Thai lyrics.
It is a curious melody in that it almost feels as though you are being guided, musically, along a path that steadily rises, like travelling up a mountain. The jungle clears and gives way to a magnificent view; the sun comes out and finally, as you reach the summit, the cymbals crash and you let out a victorious “Hurrah!”
The melody sounds classically European and there is good reason for that. It was written by 19th century Russian composer Pyotr Schurovsky and it is lucky for him that he did write this piece; although big in his era there is precious little else about the man today other than his contribution, musically, to royal Thai functions.
The melody may be European but the lyrics were written by a well-known Thai music instructor of early-to-mid 1800s. The combination of that melody that sweeps you up the mountain and its profound lyrics makes this a remarkable piece. I like the way it begins with the solemn pomp and circumstance of royalty, before morphing into a love song of concern for the monarch, until one reaches the climax with that grand and final cha-yo which is Thai for “Hurrah!”
(An interesting historical footnote: the original lyrics ended in cha-nee, which can be roughly translated as “like this” or “as it were” or even “so far”. Thai is a tonal language; a slight deviance in the tone and the word sounds like “gibbon”. Apparently this riled King Rama 6, who ruled from 1910, and had the lyrics changed to the final and much more befitting “Hurrah”.)
This piece of work remained the national anthem up until the Siamese revolution of 1932. Luckily the royal anthem remained intact for royal occasions, and it is the same one you hear in movie theatres just prior to the film starting to this day.
In that year of the revolution a new national anthem sprouted up, the second stanza announcing Thailand as a “civil state” which curiously remains to this day. The melody is claimed by some to have been “borrowed” from the Polish national anthem, though having heard both back to back, one could argue the relationship is tenuous. And, by no means coincidental, it ends in a similar but not so effective “Hurrah”.
It is my humble opinion that while the Thai national anthem serves its purpose, when it comes to profundity and richness of music, the original runs royal rings around it.
It is almost impossible for Thais to extricate this melody from the memory of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. It is understandable; a mere 14 years passed between the coup of 1932 and his assuming the throne. It is an anthem which may be 130 years old, but for more than half that time it was used for a single monarch.
This week the song belongs to King Bhumibol when the funeral pyre is lit at 7 pm on Wednesday night in Sanam Luang.
Last Saturday found your columnist in a university classroom, where he is trying to plough through a Master’s Degree in Education. It is a class of 22 Thais aged 25 to 50 years and predominantly school teachers.
Our lecturer came in, sat down and said: “Before we start, let’s watch a video together. It’s of our King.”
Silently we all got to our feet.
For the next ten minutes we watched the TV monitors and quietly sang to the Royal Thai anthem. It is the version that can be found on YouTube; a huge crowd that must number in the hundreds of thousands occupies all of Sanam Luang, with a 100-piece orchestra under the baton of Somtow Sucharitkul. To get a couple of hundred thousand people singing in unison, spread across such a vast area, must have been a logistical challenge of Herculean proportions, but it worked.
It is a piece of film conceived, filmed and edited in just four days by Thailand’s master film director MC Chatrichalerm Yukol, and shot using 50 cameras and a couple of drones.
The melody of the Royal Thai Anthem drifts across the vast space as a drone swoops over the crowd. There is a day and night version, which we watched, together, standing and singing silently to ourselves.
It was filmed on October 22, 2016, just over a week after His Majesty King Bhumibol passed. Your cynical old columnist had a tear in his eye by the end, not just for the magnificence of the performance, but for the sight of such a huge outpouring of grief for the passing of the King.
At the end of the video, as we sat back down, I realized I was in a room full of people sobbing, including our lecturer. Every single one of them. That classroom was a microcosm of Thai society, which grieves for the very heart that stopped beating last October 13, 2016.
It is a common reaction from Thais, especially the likes of politicians and ruling types, to hide behind the shield of Thai culture when trying to explain away misdeeds or villainy. When backed into a corner, officials will blurt out that we foreigners “can’t understand because you are not Thai”. This inevitably means “leave me alone to carry on my mischief in peace” — with the exception of one very clear example we will witness this week.
I believe that if we are not Thai we cannot understand the depth of feeling towards the monarch who was King Rama 9. There is no need to escort the argument over to logic or science. It comes from the depth of humanity’s capacity to feel a great love, and a shining example of what happens when humanity comes together as one. That is what was unique about the country of Thailand for all these decades.
There are foreigners, some vocal in the media, who cynically dismiss this as an example of mass brainwashing, or blind faith owing to a lack of education not unlike the situation in North Korea. Their ignorance is as loud as their allegations. What must be frustrating for these critics is that their arrows just don’t penetrate.
My heart goes out to all my Thai friends and colleagues who are struggling with the realization that as of 7 pm Wednesday, their beloved King is gone forever. I am truly sorry they must endure this grief.
But it is also time to move on.
We have mourned for a year, and no matter how much the kingdom grieves, the mourning must come to an end. Anybody who has lost a loved one knows this. The sadness may never dissipate, but there needs to be a conscious effort to pick oneself back up again. This is Thailand’s challenge for 2018.
And as clichéd as it may sound, King Bhumibol has not really gone away. He’s in the hearts of 68 million Thais, and look; the institution of the monarchy is still there too, along with that touching song that praises the glory of the king, be it the present one or those of the past.
Our remembrance must echo the path of that beautiful song that praises the glory of the king; starting with solemnity, rising with concern, and ending with a rousing “Hurrah”.
Vale His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
TAKE THIS THERMOMETER AND SHOVE IT
By Andrew Biggs
For the first time ever, in the nine years I have written this weekly column, I write to you with a temperature of 38.7 degrees.
Apparently that’s pretty high. I’m not an expert on body temperature, but it was high enough for me to end up in a special waiting room at my hospital, separated from the Samut Prakan masses, and not because I was a VIP.
At my hospital all patients are required to have their height, weight, body temperature and blood pressure measured in an alcove that is just a little too open-air for my liking.
“How exactly does my height correlate to my influenza?” I asked in a curmudgeonly fashion as I stepped off the scales this week. “Am I going to shrink because of it?” If the young man recording my height and weight found my comment funny, he certainly employed all his professionalism not to show it.
It was in that room that my temperature was recorded at 38.5 degrees. They thought I may have been suffering from a contagious disease — of all the nerve! — fearing whatever terrible disease I was harboring might spread throughout the hospital, into Samut Prakan, then out across the country. Finally I was going viral, though for all the wrong reasons.
(Life imitates art. My one foray into feature films here in Thailand was a starring role in ‘Sars Wars’, a black comedy about a mutant SARS virus that spreads throughout Thailand, changing everyone into zombies. I played the carrier of the disease.)
Thus I have not been out and about in my usual travels around town this week. No art openings, fashion events or embassy functions for me. Instead of clutching a wine glass, I have been clutching a digital thermometer purchased by one of my staff and the object of most of my attention these past two days.
“Place the device under your tongue, in your armpit, or in your anal cavity,” the instructions state. “Try alternating cavities for a more accurate reading.” Are they serious? That is not the kind of thing one wants to read when one is feeling queasy.
Monitoring my body temperature has been a little like following share fluctuations on the stock market, or the chart run of the latest hit by Taylor Swift. For a day there it went up, up, up, leveled out and, with a bit of luck, will come crashing down within a day or two as my clutch of colorful antibiotics kick in.
It did mean a trip back to my local hospital with whom I have a love-hate relationship. It started out as love; back in 2010 I extolled the virtues of the place in this column, praising it for its wonderful service at a fraction of the cost of the hospitals in, say, the United States.
That has been true right up until my last bout of flu in 2015 and annual check-up in 2016. Then, earlier this year, I went back to the hospital to get that medical certificate one needs for my work permit.
It was during that visit I received a shock. My local hospital had taken a leaf out of its very own Cosmetic Wellness Centre on the second floor. It had self-medicated and given itself a massive cosmetic overhaul.
You should see it now, dear reader. The front entrance has been transformed into a glittering lobby. I would not be surprised to see it pop up on Agoda’s list of hotels for Samut Prakan — all that’s missing are bell boys and the desk where you sign up for tours to the Crocodile Farm.
It’s all so high-tech now. The hospital has its own App. The doors have been replaced with sliding glass; to get through, one needs to press the button marked PRESS (whatever happened to OPEN?). The lobby is painted grey and duck-egg blue. The staff are all in crisp grey suits.
When I staggered in last Tuesday, I was greeted by the sight of five young women in those sensible grey uniforms standing at a counter marked “Customer Relations”. Not a hair was out of place on any of them; I almost expected them to ask if I wanted chicken or fish.
“Good afternoon, sir, how may I help you?” one asked me in perfect English. “May I ask your symptoms?”
On any other day I’d be fawning over this young woman, extolling her perfect English, marveling at her pronunciation.
Not today. I was hitting 39 degrees.
I felt like gripping her by the shoulders, shaking her violently and saying: “This is Samut Prakan! Nobody speaks that perfectly!”
From there I had to check in, get tested, see the doctor and pick up my medicine. In and out in an hour and a half. It was when I paid the bill that I realized duck-egg paint and grey suits don’t come cheap.
The Thai medical industry has jettisoned itself into the 21st century. They have woken up to how great their service is for the price they offer. That can only mean one thing. At my hospital, the cost of seeing a doctor has doubled.
The bill for seeing a doctor this week, including a blood test, came to 3,500 Baht, roughly twice what it was last time. Seeing a doctor is no longer cheap. It’s not expensive, either, and I can’t fault the service, but it may not bode well for those in power who want Thailand to remain a medical hub.
But hey. There are only a few things I am willing to spend a lot of money on. Good shoes, for one. Nice pillows for another. Everything else – underwear, socks, life partners – can easily be picked up in the bustling aisles of any outdoor Thai market.
When it comes to health I would be crazy to penny-pinch, especially since I am living in a country with affordable health care of generally high quality.
And let’s put that price rise into perspective. It’s just a little over a hundred US dollars. I can’t imagine how much that would have cost me had it happened on a trip to the USA where I had to take out extra medical insurance to cover me for one million baht in case of an emergency – which, apparently, wouldn’t have been enough.
And the system here is sensible. You see a doctor, he gives you medicine.
Back in Australia, you’re lucky to get a strip or two of dull old colorless antibiotics from a wizened chemist who smells like a musty old used teabag. That’s after you’ve made the arduous trek from your doctor over to the drug store, clutching that prescription, since in that modern society they still haven’t found a way to place doctors next to the drugs they prescribe.
Here in Thailand I see the doctor, wait 10 minutes then pick up a bag of pills that resembles a 1970s discotheque -- blue for sleeping, green for pain, yellow for killing germs and purple just for taking the edge off daily life. Wash them all down with a screwdriver and you’re feeling fantastic in no time.
Speaking of which, from that first paragraph to now, my temperature has dropped back down to 38.5 degrees. May it continue its downward trend. I look forward to the day when I dispense with that digital thermometer because let’s face it — being sick is not just more expensive these days. It’s also a pain in the anal cavity.
A CHOICE OF DRUG, A DRUG OF CHOICE
By Andrew Biggs
Jackie is the grown-up daughter of my dear friend Kelly. Now she’s 21 and wants to take a year off university and travel around South-East Asia.
This is the email I received from her:
“Hi! This is Jackie! I don’t know whether Mom told you, but me and my boyfriend are going backpacking around Asia and want to include Thailand! We were wondering if we could stay with you for a week or so when we get to Bangkok! We’ll arrive in December! Is that alright? Does that put you out?”
Not half as much as your overuse of exclamation marks puts me out — that was my first reaction which I kept to myself, of course, since Jackie is a very pleasant young lady, not unlike her mother was when we first met in the States around the time KC & The Sunshine Band were having hits.
I wrote an email back explaining how she and her boyfriend would always be welcome at my house. I was willing to overlook the three-day House Guests And Fish Rule — though I did worry how long “a week or so” was in the mind of a millennial.
The email she shot back precipitated the quandary we are about to discuss.
“That’s great! Looking forward to it! And just to let you know … me and my boyfriend are into w-double-e-d among other stuff! Can you get some for us? Don’t tell Mom!”
Thus began a moral dilemma which, on the surface, seemed easy enough to answer for sensible folk such as me and you … oh but she’s got me saying it now! You and I.
I may have many roles to play in this life, but one of them is not pushing drugs onto youngsters. On the other hand, how hard would it be to find weed in this city?
I would probably have to disguise myself as a sex tourist and saunter down to any of the bars in Nana Plaza, order a Singha beer then, as I waved the change away to the under-dressed waitress with the sick buffalo, whisper to her: “Say … where can a man get a little w-double-e-d around here?”
Imagine the look of confusion that would cloud her face, as the poor girl tries to put four English letters together. Then there would be the sudden, beautiful, broad smile of realization, and her ear-splitting retort: “Ohhhhhh ... same-same GANJA??” resulting in the heads of everyone in the bar turning to look at me.
Marijuana may not be hard to find, but I did worry about what constituted Jackie’s “among other stuff”.
Did she mean >>ya ba<< (methamphetamines), >>ya k<< (ketamine), >>ya e<< (ectasy) or >>ya i<< (ice)? Or was she referring to the more traditional class-A drugs such as heroin and cocaine?
Was I about to welcome two young people into my home who were going to spend their days shooting up or toking up? Did I have an obligation to tell my American friend of her daughter’s intentions, or did that make me a rat?
Two close friends, both women in their early fifties and both at the top of their fields, gave two opposing opinions when I threw this dilemma at them.
“You absolutely do not buy drugs for her,” said the first. She’s a well-known Australian pediatrician and mother of five. “Not only are you fostering a drug habit, but you are betraying your friend. How is she going to feel knowing you’ve bought drugs for her daughter? And look at where you’re living. South-East Asian countries have strict laws on drugs. If she gets caught with them she’s in jail. How would you explain that to your friend – that her daughter was in jail because of drugs you purchased for her?”
Yeah, but it’s just marijuana, I said, which was like a red rag to a bull.
“I’ve had cases of schizoid behavior from teenagers who have smoked too much marijuana. Imagine having that on your conscience. What if she overdoses on harder stuff? What if she wants heroin or cocaine – imagine confronting your friend after she finds out her daughter died thanks to drugs you bought.”
It wasn’t the breeziest of conversations I’ve ever had with her.
One week later I caught up with the other friend, a New Zealander, who is the dean of a university faculty there, and in Thailand for a holiday.
“Absolutely, yes,” she said over coffee at Kuppa. “Not only do I agree you should buy it, but you have a responsibility to do it.
“I won’t get into the moral aspect of using drugs, suffice to say your agreeing or not agreeing to buy drugs has no effect on her habit. She is going to do drugs regardless. So what’s she going to do if you say no? She will buy them off the street. She immediately risks entrapment or, worse, buying bad stuff and that can be life threatening.
“Isn’t it better to find her a bag of dope and say here, use this, but only at home, not outside? As for the hard stuff, you need to find out exactly what she wants and make a decision on the possibility, or non-possibility, or acquiring it for her.”
So there you have it. Sometimes it’s difficult having both staunch conservatives and bleeding liberals as friends, especially in moral dilemmas with the spectre of December arriving.
There is a very thought-provoking book that has made an impact on drug policy in recent times. That book is called Chasing The Scream by Johann Hari, and it gives a history of the century-old war on drugs. It advocates decriminalization of all drugs. While this is shocking on the outset, the arguments are strong that we have lost the war on drugs. Strict enforcement doesn’t work. Criminal gangs control illicit drugs worldwide and with that comes all the associated violence. Users are criminals rather than patients. And in countries where drugs have been decriminalized or at least controlled, there has been a reduction in users as well as lower crime rates.
I finished the book with some reservations but generally in agreement with the author. And yet, no matter how much I believe decriminalization is the answer, the fact is that drugs are illegal and there are harsh fines for users.
What really worried me was that nightmare scenario of Jackie using something that would kill her.
I’d have to call Kelly. I would either have to tell her that her daughter died from drugs I knew nothing about, or she died from drugs I bought for her. Which one was worse?
I had the email even plotted out ready to go:
I regret to inform you that I have been led, kicking and screaming, into my advanced years. Because of this untenable but unavoidable situation I do not indulge in substances other than the ones I can purchase between 11 am and 2 pm and then 5 pm to midnight, a situation I will explain upon your arrival in the Land of Smiles. You are welcome to stay but sorry, no drugs. I do appreciate the fact you felt comfortable enough to confide in me, and to assume I too would be spending my twilight years spaced out on w-double-e-d and other stuff.
Lots of love,
P.S. It’s okay. I won’t tell your Mum.”
That email was plotted out, but never sent. The situation resolved itself.
This incident occurred last October. In November Jackie broke up with her boyfriend. The Asian trip was called off.
By Andrew Biggs
Late Thursday afternoon the silhouette of my driver appeared in the doorway to my office.
“Do you need to be driven anywhere special tomorrow?” he asked.
What kind of question is that? I’m perfectly capable of driving myself anywhere special I care to go. I have a valid Thai driver’s license, which I got after a difficult written test— not because of the information required, but because the translation was so abysmal.
In the past you had to sit a 20-question multiple-choice exam to get a Thai license, which was thoughtfully translated into English for foreign residents.
“Thoughtfully” may not be the best word to describe it. There had been very little thought put into translating that document, as the English was indecipherable.
It was so bad I wanted to ask for a copy of the original Thai test and do that one. The only thing stopping me was the scowling government official supervising the test, who made a point of telling us, with an expression that hovered between Hitler and constipation, that there would be absolutely no talking during the exam. I figured his reaction to my going up and asking for the Thai version would be akin to him turning into a Venus fly trap. I instead drew on one of my major life talents — winging it — and sailed through … until I got to question number 18.
How does one choose A, B, C or D when one doesn’t even understand the question? Clutching the test paper in my two hands, I bravely stood up and walked slowly down the aisle toward the cruel overseer; Oliver Twist clutching his bowl going up and asking for more.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” I stuttered, “but … well I can’t really understand the English in question 18. I was wondering if you could tell me what the question is in Thai and I could –”
“C,” he answered.
I was thrown for a second.
“C,” he repeated. “Choice C.”
That’s when I realized he was giving me the correct answer.
I thanked him and rushed back to my desk before Stockholm Syndrome could rear its ugly head. And I passed.
But back to my driver. The answer is yes, young man, I could drive myself anywhere I liked tomorrow, thanks to a very savvy reverse park and a benevolent cruel overseer 20 years ago. However your job is to ferry me around town as work dictates and indeed, I had a work-related appointment at 9 am the next day.
My driver fell silent.
“I see,” he said. “I was wondering if I could take tomorrow off.”
“What – and drive myself around?” I asked. Of course it was a frivolous remark, made only to make the poor kid feel as though he was a vital cog in the organization, which he isn’t, but then that’s pretty funny coming from the CEO. Like so many organizations, you can take the driver and the CEO out of mine in a single barrage of gunfire and the organization would still run itself smoothly.
He nodded. “Okay,” he said. Pause. “Then I won’t take the day off.”
“Is there something you have to do?”
“Not really.” Pause. “Yes.” Pause. “No.”
“So why do you want the day off?”
“I need to go to my uncle. He’s asked me for help.”
“To do what?”
“To help him.”
This type of vague talking in circles does get maddening. Some people have trouble creating a logical thought process. My driver is one of them. It’s like when I ask in an English class: “What’s your favorite food?” “Somtam!” “Why?” “Because I like it.” Or this: “What is your favorite type of music?” “All music!” “What is your favorite sport?” “I like all sport!” For heaven’s sake, take a stand will you!
My driver is an offshoot of an education system that spits out under-stimulated graduates. It was time to wrap up this meaningless circular conversation.
“Okay then. So you’re not taking the day off.”
“If you say so.”
“Can you help your uncle tonight? I don’t need to be picked up until 9 am tomorrow.”
“He lives in Ayutthaya. I can only help him in the afternoon.”
“Are you helping him move house?”
“No. I need to help him rough somebody up.”
“My uncle needs to punch somebody tomorrow. At his work. He asked me to help him.”
“Your uncle needs to attack somebody at his workplace?”
“He attacked him first. The other guy. He hit him. They work together in the same glass-cutting factory. They had an argument and the other guy hit him. So now my uncle is going to hit him back.”
“Isn’t there a foreman who might have a different view?”
“The foreman is arranging it.”
>>“The foreman is arranging an act of violence in the factory?”<<
My driver nodded. “He says the other guy deserves to be punished, so he’s going to get the guy in a room, lock the door, then send in my uncle to punch him a few times. He needs some help, so he’s asked me to go along too.”
You know that internet click-bait stuff that says things like: “Ten amazing feats of nature! My jaw dropped at number four!” And then you click on it and there’s nothing jaw-dropping about it? Well that wasn’t me. My jaw dropped at that moment and I didn’t need to click on a single damned thing.
“You’re kidding me,” I said. “You’re going to help your uncle punch out another Thai guy because of some petty argument?”
“It’s okay. He’s not Thai. He’s Burmese.”
This is supposed to make me feel better? It reminded me of the guy I saw selling carved ivory products in a mall in Bangna. I told him I was unhappy about him selling this stuff because it was illegal and endangered elephants. “It’s okay,” he replied. “They ivory’s from Burmese elephants.”
“Sounds to me the Thais are ganging up on the Burmese guy,” I said.
“The foreman is Burmese, too. He says the other guy deserves it.”
“So let me get this straight. You want to take a day off work so you can drive up to Ayutthaya to help your uncle attack a Burmese co-worker? And the factory is complicit?”
I admire my driver’s loyalty to his family. I also appreciate his honesty in letting me know what he is doing, if not his ability to discern the difference between justified leave and thuggery.
“What if this factory worker is a descendant of a Burmese warrior?” I asked. “It wouldn’t be good for my image to be ferried around by a driver with a black eye and swollen lip next Monday.”
My driver put his shoulders back. “You don’t have to worry about that. The foreman says he’ll get some guys to hold him down.”
It is moments like these I wonder when, oh when, I am going to understand the psyche of my Thai staff. Will I ever delve deep enough into this culture to fully understand it? Who would have thought that, out of left field on a Thursday afternoon, my borderline-docile driver would ask to take personal leave to help some relative thrash the living daylights out of a Burmese migrant worker being held down in a glass-cutting factory?
The next day he turned up and picked me up as usual. Later in the afternoon, after a refreshing lull in mind-numbing in-car conversation, I asked about his uncle.
“He’s okay. I told him I didn’t think it was the right thing to do on a working day.”
“Good to see you are taking my advice.”
“He’s postponed it to the weekend when I have my day off.”
TRIALS OF A THAI TWENTY-YEAR-OLD
By Andrew Biggs
If Hollywood sitcom writers ever feel hard up for new ideas, they may like to pop over to my house for inspiration.
I am sharing my leafy mansion with my 20-year-old Thai niece. Let’s call her Gift, since she would be mortified if I used her real name, though that would require her reading this column, something the average 20-year-old Thai apparently doesn’t care to do on a Sunday.
Gift is living with me now, since my home is situated not too far from her university.
What a breath of fresh air it is to have a youngster in the house. It makes a change from the usual visitors — that is, nobody. Gift has taken over the spare bedroom and looks like she is here to stay for the duration of her degree.
We get along famously. She is bubbly and full of life, which one friend cruelly observed to be perhaps an example of opposites attract.
Some early mornings, as she flits about making mountains of toast and Nutella (you can eat that sort of thing when you’re 20) and as I reach for coffee and Tiffy, I wonder if we could be the basis for a hilarious sitcom. You know … follow the wacky antics of a trendy 20-year-old uni student who shares a house with a moribund but fabulously wealthy B-list celebrity!
So what have I learned from living with youth? It is my observation that young Thais no longer live their lives. Instead, they document them.
For the first time in my life I know what I have eaten for dinner every night for the past few months. Gift feels a need to photograph every meal we make together.
Not just photographs either.
“Khun Andrew, what are you making tonight?” she asked me one night.
I turned around to answer and there she was, holding up her smart phone, recording me at the stove. Which then turned into a video clip, which then got uploaded. Repeat. Repeat.
Gone are the days of a casual sentence or two on Facebook about how we’re feeling. In fact according to my niece, Facebook is no longer the place to go for the younger crowd. “It’s kind of for old people,” she revealed to me one night, and my heart visibly sank, so she quickly added: “Except for you, Khun Andrew. I don’t mean you.” Digging a hole, Gift.
These days it’s Instagram, where you can post a video and it hangs around for a day.
Gift is constantly uploading.
“Khun Andrew, what are we buying today?” she suddenly shouts at me in the aisles of Foodland. I spin around and yes, I’m being filmed.
I am required to come up with some witty repartee so that Gift can post it to all her friends who can see what a funny clever uncle she has. What happened to the good old days when I could push a trolley through fruit and vegetables with a scowl on my face?
Every day Gift posts a video with topics such as “Shopping with Khun Andrew is fun!” or “What’s he cooking tonight?” Soon will I have to peer around the corner before I raid the liquor cabinet, for fear of a gaggle of Thai uni students finding out the terrible truth about my half-and-half vodka tonics?
And that is the crux of the matter. Somewhere out there in cyberspace are 1,083 young people whose phones make a little beeping noise, whereupon they look down and see Gift and me shopping at Foodland. That’s how many Instagram followers Gift has. It’s not as though we are skiing down the Swiss Alps. We’re grocery shopping. Have I become the Kim Kardashian of Samut Prakarn?
In the meantime Gift, by stealth, has taken control of the music in my house.
I am a man of eclectic musical taste although I do avoid the shallow factory-pop of the likes of Shawn Mendes, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, and those guys from One Direction.
Yes, you guessed it. Gift is obsessed with Shawn Mendes, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, and every friggin’ one of those One Direction guys.
For this reason I know that the biggest hit in Thailand right now is “Panama” by a tattooed balding Italian hipster named Matteo. I hear it every morning. I would make a disparaging comment about it but when I open my mouth to do so, a little neon light spelling out “curmudgeon” starts to blink on my forehead.
I’d also forgotten how life is a constant drama at that age.
“Khun Andrew, I need to talk to you about something,” Gift recently said upon approaching me as I sat on the sofa, tonic in hand, in the middle of Stranger Things 2. Her face was so unsettled I even put down my tonic, something I only ever do in emergencies or unexpected visits from monks. “I have a terrible problem, and I need to ask you what I should do.”
Now she had my attention.
Young people are up against all sorts of pressures. Suicide rates, not to mention schizophrenia and road fatalities, are at their highest in her age bracket. Technology and innovation move forward in leaps and bounds, but they also carry with them ease of access to one’s obscenity of choice.
There are temptations of new and powerful synthetic drugs, too, that have flooded night clubs. Luckily Gift eschews all drugs, even alcohol. Her idea of a night out is meeting up with friends, swapping Instagram pics and chugging down pitchers of “bubble-milk tea”. Not exactly my drink of choice (unless you added a generous dose of Kahlua) but at least she finds drink and drugs abhorrent. I’ve even lectured her on the perils of such addictions, carefully eyeing the skies in case I needed to dodge an errant lightning bolt or two.
And what was her terrible problem?
“I may have to drop one of my university subjects,” she said. “Please don’t be upset with me. It’s just … it’s so difficult, and if I continue, I may get an F, and that would spoil my chances of first-class honors!”
Was that my cue to gasp in horror?
I know, I know. Everything in perspective. Gift is a straight-A student and the possibility of a B was bad enough; failing is akin to abortion or teenage pregnancy in someone else’s world. Still, she is studying accountancy, so I explained that a talent for shifting figures about and shunting ill-gotten revenue to offshore tax havens were skills far more attractive than first-class honors in the eyes of employers. It wasn’t such a big deal.
It didn’t help. For two weeks she was stressed out about it.
Just tonight I sat down with Gift for a little talk over dinner. We bought bammee noodles and pork, so there was no need for a photograph.
We decided she would drop that subject, something I pretended to look concerned about. It didn’t mean a lot in the grand scheme of things. I also slipped in my distaste for Justin Bieber in my house, and how life would be a little easier without so many of those One Direction guys wailing at me — at least in the morning.
What I also wanted to explain was my discomfort about being involved in an ongoing reality show. But as I opened my mouth to say that, blink blink blink went the little neon sign. I held my tongue.
No doubt there will be other dramas in Gift’s life that I will hear about. It’s all grist for a sitcom. And what’s weird is this entire column reads like a Seinfeld episode. I swear it was inadvertent.
By Andrew Biggs
My beloved dog of 15 years is dying.
His descent into canine dotage has been swift. Gone are the days when he bounded down the driveway to greet me at my front gate, tail wagging, jumping for joy, pawing and slobbering over my mid-priced Robinson slacks and Platinum Plaza work shirt.
These days it’s enough for him to lift his head slowly and stare out towards me with milky eyes. The light has left those eyes, and he labours as he breathes. He’s deaf, blind and has lost his balance.
It felt wrong to allow him to suffer any longer. I decided to put my beloved dog down.
Only it didn’t happen.
My dog’s name is Akkradej, a strange name for a dog, since it is a respectable Thai male name for a human. Nearly 20 years ago a stray dog gave birth to a litter of ten. The tenth one out only had three legs. Nobody was keen on raising a three-legged canine. So I took it.
The locals suggested all sorts of nasty names for the dog. Tripod, for example. Triangle was another one. A British friend suggested Clover, which I had to reject since my mind associates clovers with four leaves, not three, and besides it’s a bit of a dicky name isn’t it?
I decided to give that pup a bit of dignity and named it Kanokwan, a very, very beautiful female Thai name. It was a bit like calling a dog Felicity or Millicent. Since then all my dogs have had fancy Thai names.
My dogs have an average life span of about five years which is about the norm in Thailand. Akkradej is an elder statesman in comparison.
For the first time in my life I had to contemplate taking responsibility for putting a beloved pet to sleep.
It was not an easy decision, but when I finally did announce it, it was greeted with uncomfortable silence from my staff.
“You can’t do that,” my accountant finally said.
“No, you can’t,” said the maid.
“Better to let him go to sleep himself,” said my assistant.
“It is a sin to take a life. It is better for Akradej to die naturally,” added my accountant.
“It goes against the tenets of Buddhism,” explained my assistant, batting his eyes, and sounding just a little too holier than thou for a Monday morning.
“That’s ridiculous,” I answered. “He’s in pain. He can’t even walk. Where is the quality of life?”
“That is not for us to decide,” said my accountant.
I wouldn’t expect anything less from my Buddhist staff. What I didn’t expect was the same point of view from veterinarians.
I live in a part of town where it was once almost impossible to find a vet. My original vet from 20 years ago worked out of his shabby shophouse. He was a natural with animals, but sadly he gave up his profession to sell Amway.
Now there are seven veterinarian surgeries within a two-kilometre radius of my home. They range from little shop houses to one that has four floors, a lift, doctors with stethoscopes around their necks, attractive reception staff and entire walls of medicine.
My local vet is very reliable and kind. He works from a little shop house. When I asked his staff about putting him down, I was told: “The vet wouldn’t perform that service.”
But he’s a vet.
I got my assistant to come down off his high horse and call the gaggle of vets that have set up practices around my house to find out who would do it. I cannot attest to the validity of my research, since my assistant was dragged to the task kicking and screaming, but apparently the verdict was this: None of them would do it.
This reminded me of another quirk of Thai vets. Remember Kanokwan? She may have only had three legs but boy, that didn’t affect her love life.
At eight months she was on heat and for three days slinked around my moo bahn like a brazen hussy. Finally I found a vet nearby and called her to have Kanokwan neutered.
“Has your dog had sex with any of the male dogs?” a woman asked when I explained my predicament.
She used the verb pasom pan in Thai – “to mix the genes” – and I foolishly answered: “I’d say she’s been mixing her genes as often she possibly could! It’s a veritable canine orgy out there!”
The joke fell flat. “Then the doctor will not perform the desexing operation,” she said. “She refuses to desex any dog that’s already mixed her genes.”
I put the phone down in shock. Clearly karmic retribution was more fearful that a proliferation of stray dogs.
Speaking of karma, remind me to come back in my next life as a Thai vet. They don’t spay. They don’t put to sleep. So what exactly do they do?
They charge. Like wounded, unspayed bulls.
Poor Akradej took a turn for the worst, and had to spend 10 long days and nights at my local vet’s clinic.
I received a frantic phone call from the vet’s on day eleven.
“Your dog is gasping for breath and the vet is upcountry for the day,” said the nurse. “He needs to go to another vet for the night.”
This meant my sending him to that five-star pet hospital. I had no idea there were such places — the Bumrungrat of the animal world. The next time I have relatives coming to visit I may end up putting them up there.
The very first two questions they asked were a portent of things to come: “What’s wrong with your dog?” followed by “How are you going to pay — cash or credit? We’ll need a down payment of 10,000 Baht.”
Poor Akkradej. Within minutes of our arrival he was surrounded by two doctors and some nurses, all jostling to prod and jab and needle and stroke him. I was told Akkradej would have to stay overnight; if only I’d invested in Bitcoin back when it was $150.
The next day I returned to be told he had “ear infections on both sides and trouble with vertigo and an irregular heartbeat and here is a bill for 10,150 Baht.” Believe me, as I handed over my credit card it wasn’t just Akkradej who was experiencing an irregular heartbeat.
That hospital told me they’d need to operate on Akkradej to relieve the problems, plus he’d need extensive physical therapy and the heart doctor would need to do a series of tests, and this would require my mortgaging my home and getting a short-term loan from my parents.
They got it all wrong.
The real issue was my beloved dog was very, very old, and dying.
I gathered him up in my arms and took him home, where at least he could die with dignity.
That night I thought through my decision to put Akkradej to sleep.
Could I really live with the fact I’d authorized the death of my beloved pet? This is something quite acceptable and normal back home in Australia, where even a dog’s attack on a neighbour, for example, requires the animal to be put down. This cultural more has resulted in an absence of both rabies and stray dogs, one of the rare but pleasant offshoots of a non-Buddhist country.
Not here in the land of smiles, where it is a sin to take even an old and pained animal’s life, be it in the case of a potentially pregnant Kanokwan or an ailing elderly Akkradej.
On this one, Thailand, we shall just have to agree to disagree.
By Andrew Biggs
Tove Lo is a Swedish singer enjoying a hit in the dance clubs at present.
Her song is very catchy and kind of fun. It is called “Disco Tits”, and here are the lyrics to the chorus:
“I’m sweatin’ from head to toe I’m wet through all my clothes, I’m fully charged, nipples are hard Ready to go.”
Needless to say it’s a raunchy little number, in which Tove Lo informs us she loves to go out to clubs where she drinks to excess, gets really high on a number of drugs, then hits the dance floor looking for a man. Her account of that series of events is far more street-cred than mine.
The point is, this song is not just an update of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. It’s also entrapment.
Welcome to these modern times where the issue of allegations of sexual abuse and molestation has spread its tentacles thickly and audaciously over so many industries, most notably the entertainment field, causing monumental social earthquakes.
Big names are dropping like flies as we uncover and are exposed to the lurid behavior of the rich and famous. Harvey Weinstein is the poster boy for rabid predator producers and their casting couches. Kevin Spacey has just set back gay tolerance a good 20 years by mixing up child molestation with his homosexuality. Bill Cosby loves Rohypnol and women, in that order.
The “sexualization” of children is new too. Now there’s a word that will make it into the Oxford Dictionary’s new vocabulary list for 2017. Didn’t we used to call it sexual objectification in 2016? Or just plain old pedophilia? This week some model tweeted that she wanted to “wait four years” so that one of the Stranger Things child actors could mature and she can have her wicked way with her. Boy did she cop an avalanche of cyber-hate over that one.
Suddenly human behavior is under scrutiny thanks to modern technology, and our sexual behavior in particular has become a minefield. It appears the alleged good old days of the last few decades weren’t so good after all, especially if you were a young woman in close proximity to middle-aged men in power.
The rock that is Hollywood has been turned upside down, revealing the most open secret of all about how its starlets have not just been climbing ladders on their way to fame. Allegations of famous Hollywood figures engaging in retroactive sexual assault are almost as frequent as mass shootings in America.
Weinstein, Spacey and Cosby’s careers are over, while others are teetering. Ben Affleck may have dodged the career-ending bullet despite owning up to a couple of groping incidents. Amazon Studios boss Roy Price got fired for sexually harassing an actress. Over 200 women have filed sexual assault complaints against director James Toback. Two hundred! Jewish author and activist Elie Wiesel, who wrote the harrowing holocaust book Night, has been accused of sexual assault. He cannot defend himself; he’s dead.
Versace. Dustin Hoffman. Bill O’Reilly. Even 93-year-old George Bush Senior likes to grope women’s backsides, it has been revealed, cackling: “You wanna know my favorite magician? David Cop-A-Feel!”
(And yet others don’t seem to get tarnished by their lewd behavior at all. Remember Donald Trump’s brazen conversation about his strategy for foisting his bulk on women, caught on tape and released just prior to him winning the 2016 US presidential election? Didn’t stop hordes of women voting for him.)
The genie is out of the bottle when it comes to sexual harassment. This is healthy for those women who had been molested but couldn’t speak out. But that is not the whole picture. There are too many variables, or offshoots, that are threatening to turn perceived justice into ludicrousness. The sexual harassment bandwagon is now making all sorts of stops where it should not go.
Bob Weinstein, Harvey’s brother and guilty by fraternal association, has been accused of predatory behavior after asking a female executive out to dinner. She said no, and he asked again and again. The man sounds annoyingly persistent, but is persistent annoying behavior now tantamount to sexual harassment?
After the Spacey revelations, a BBC news story revealed all sorts of men had come out of the woodwork claiming to have been sexually molested by the actor. One was a filmmaker in his thirties whose crotch was grabbed by Spacey. Another was a bartender in his twenties who, after refusing Spacey’s advances, was given a 5,000 pound watch by Spacey.
This columnist would never, ever, stand up for what Spacey has done. One does have to weigh up, however, just how traumatized a 30-something filmmaker can be when an actor hits on him, or how much one man’s life was ruined by accepting a 5,000 pound watch — and whether the perpetrator should go to court over such incidences.
The same can be said for women’s empowerment. The battle for equal rights and respect has been a long and tortuous one for women. France may soon join Portugal and Belgium in banning wolf whistles, for example, as part of an ongoing program to make men learn to respect women.
Sometimes I wonder if that long and tortuous road to respect is actually circular, and we are about to overstep that empowerment and end up right back where we started from, as Tove Lo has demonstrated.
Tove is not an island on the pop charts. Artists like Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Beyonce, Fifth Harmony and a host of other singers strip down to their underwear on stage as they sing about empowering women.
What is empowering about Tove Lo’s public proclamation of sexually-stimulated breasts? Surely that is more demeaning that empowering. How would her mother react to this? Even the song title references an undignified description of women’s breasts. Is the empowerment fight a circular one which, once empowered, sees us take the extra step of liberalization and return us right back to where we started from, with women being perceived as sexual objects, because when Miley struts on stage in her underwear, or Tove starts singing about her colloquial breasts, how else can they be expected to be perceived?
And what if some guy, listening to Tove, dares to put his hands on those hard nipples of hers? Does he get arrested for groping? If he does, he is not allowed to say she was “asking for it”, as was the catch-cry from our misogynist past, because that is blaming the victim. It is okay for Tove to publicize her physical heightened response to sexual stimulation, but god help the man who responds to her invitation.
This is the topsy-turvy world of today. When do we say “okay, this has gone a little too far”? France, for example, may be congratulated for banning wolf whistles, but it is also considering making it a crime to ask for a woman’s telephone number. Of course we must respect women, and we have to include those who exercise their right to sell themselves via sex. That does not mean they want sex, as any male responding to their proclamations will find out. See? Told you it was complicated.
The definition of what constitutes sexual harassment and molestation needs to be redefined and honed, to ensure more extreme or dubious definitions are excluded. Tove Lo throws up a conundrum about modern life that can only get more intense and dangerous if not roped in.
And the worst part about it? I really like the song.
BETTER LATE THAN AUSTRALIAN
By Andrew Biggs
On my recent trip home to Australia, my mother took me aside on the last day.
“I can really see Thai culture has had an effect on you,” she said as we ate our last meal together. “In three ways.”
I waited, quiche perched mid-air on fork, for the impending triad.
“First, you are so much more relaxed and even-tempered. Gone is the hot-headed Andrew from before.
“Second, you smile so much more. That’s got to be a direct result from living in Thailand.”
“And third?” I asked.
“You are never, ever on time.”
I knew there’d be a sucker punch. But it really did come out of the blue and I praise my mother for her perfect timing and delivery. I know where I inherited my wit, as well as unrelenting sarcasm.
It was nice of her to mention the first two. I suspect anybody, when compared to their persona of three decades ago, is a little more relaxed and even-tempered. The smiling bit is nice, and I attribute it directly to rubbing shoulders with Thais. As for the last one?
My mother was reacting to two mornings in a row where I said I’d drop in “around 10” and arrived sometime around 11. This is so normal for me now that I forget it’s a no-no in the west. What’s an hour among friends and relatives? And anyway, isn’t time a man-made concept?
I was never like this before. I used to be a journalist, having done my journalism cadetship in my homestate of Queensland on a newspaper that absolutely held to deadlines. You missed a deadline in filing a story and you were smitten from the newsroom. Either that or put on horse-racing results for three months, not dissimilar to law-breaking Thai government officers who get shuffled off to inactive posts instead of jail. In short, back then there was absolutely no thought of >>not<< missing a deadline.
I also did a stint reading radio news and that was even more precise. A 5 pm news bulletin meant starting exactly one second after 4.59.59, primarily because sister stations were taking the feed.
I may have been less relaxed and less level-headed back then, but I sure knew how to do things on time.
When I first came to Thailand I got a job at a newspaper. A big difference between the Aussie newsroom and the Thai one soon became clear: A deadline of 5 pm in Australia meant 5 pm on the dot. In Thailand, a deadline of 5 pm meant 5 pm on the dot … or a little after 5 … maybe even 5.30 but it would be good to have it sent to the editors by, say, 6 pm.
It took a long time to wrap my head around that concept. One would think it would be a relief not to be so tied to deadlines, but as any procrastinator knows, the only thing ensuring you get that essay, short story, test paper or in my case news story sent off on time is a deadline.
It was the same in radio here. My last regular live radio gig was at a news talk station, on a show starting at 8.30 pm. It never started at that time. TV stations are the same. Look at TV schedules here and be amused by the prime-time shows that start at 8.40 pm or 9.10 pm. They really go on air at 8.43 and 9.17.
I have emceed big events here in the Land of Smiles. Some of them are run by organizers who thrust time schedules into my hand saying “We must run exactly to schedule.” They have entries such as “8.17: Emcee welcome guests. 8.21 Emcee invites Minister on stage for opening address. 8.31: Video plays.”
I read this every time and nod earnestly at the organizers. Inside I’m promising to run naked down Silom Road if the real event even vaguely follows this time sheet because it never, ever does.
(And the most common variable that mucks it up is the Minister himself. VIP guests, particularly government ones, are never on time. My favorite was the permanent secretary who arrived one hour and five minutes late for the closing ceremony of a seminar with a red face. It wasn’t for feeling embarrassed; he’d come straight from the traditional Thai massage parlor in the hotel basement. The 300 educators waiting for him all that time didn’t find it the happiest of seminar endings.)
Thai culture has chipped away at my inherent Germanic approach to time, to the point where yes, mother, I am not a person who comes on time. Sometimes I make an effort, such as my weekly office meeting which is supposed to start at 1 pm, but invariably starts at 2 pm. Getting 10 people to meet in a room at a designated time in Thailand is about as feasible as a national election next February. It just ain’t gonna happen.
This week the most curious of events occurred and it rose like a beacon shining in a sea of tardiness.
It was at Fight Night, the annual charity event at the Marriot Marquis Hotel, featuring four boxing bouts by expat amateur pugilists. It raises funds for Operation Smile, which provides free operations to Thai kids suffering from cleft palates.
Your favorite columnist was emcee for the night. It’s run by expat A-lister Therese Beauvais, her husband Kevin and an amazing team with so much dedication and vitality they make me exhausted just watching them.
But get this: Fight Night’s timing is down to the >>second<<. As in, I am required to make an announcement at 7.15, 7.30, 7.45 and we start at 8 pm. No, not 8.15 or even 8.03. Eight pm on the dot.
“Okay let’s go,” I said at 7.59 pm.
“No, wait!” cried Don the light and sound guy. “You’ve got another 48 seconds.”
I had to catch myself. Another 48 seconds? What is this — Greenwich?
It did indeed run like clockwork. I felt exhilarated after the event, and not just because of the fighting. How wonderful to be part of a team like that, working in precision and to a schedule.
My mother would have been proud.
Sitting on the plane home to Bangkok, I did think a lot about what my mother had said.
I’m not on time like I used to be but you know what? I kind of like it that way. I like the way time is more fluid in this part of the world.
This can be maddening to newly-arrived expats who, upon coming face to face with the tardiness of Thais, may just want to assume the pugilist role like that of the Fight Night boxers and slam a few heads.
But who says being on time is so great? Look at the traffic out there, people. Look at our frenetic lifestyle. To be so precise about time that one cannot be a minute late is not my idea of a happy life. If being a little lackadaisical time-wise goes hand-in-hand with smiling more and being a more level-headed person, then I say be late and be damned.
Even that crack team of precision-time keepers on Fight Night is prone to the realities of life. We followed a schedule that ran like clockwork — until, in the third bout, there was an unexpected TKO in the first round.
That didn’t just send the other boxer reeling; so too, did it send the time schedule.
“We’re ten minutes ahead of schedule,” Dyan, one of the organizers, fretted after it. Who’d have thought you’d ever hear that line in Thailand?
By Andrew Biggs
Congratulations to the little boy on page two of the Bangkok Post last Wednesday, throwing his hands up with joy at being selected to attend Chulalongkorn University Demonstration Elementary School.
Actually, the six-year-old wasn’t “selected” per se. He passed the exam required to enter grade one. He was among only 100 who got in out of more than 2,000 students who sat it.
I wish the kid well … really, I do. He has learned a life lesson about hard work and success. But once father and child are safely out of hearing distance, I do have to shake my head at an early childhood education system that is outmoded and relentless in its pressure.
The school in question is one of the most sought-after government primary schools in all of Thailand. Attached to the prestigious Chulalongkorn University, it does what so many popular government schools must do in order to select the very best students. It makes the students sit an exam.
Only the very top students get in, which perpetuates the exclusivity of these schools. But that is not the burning issue for this Sunday.
The little boy in the photo is not the only one to have learned a life lesson. In another 1,900 households across Bangkok, there are children wallowing in their failure, in their feelings of insecurity and stupidity, recovering from the double-whammy of having to undergo a grueling exam at the age of six – and their subsequent failure. One can only hope they are not being berated by parents for not making them proud, though I suspect a small percentage may just be indulging in that practice, too.
There are positive steps being made in the Education Ministry towards more equality in education, not to mention weeding out those high-ranking officials skimming tens of millions from funds for poor students.
Despite these steps, we are still in a system where we deem it necessary to give five- and six-year-olds exams to get into schools. The probability of securing a seat is minimal owing to sheer numbers. It also perpetuates the myth of the “better schools” which post much higher grades in national tests and competitions. Of course they do — they have the brainiest kids.
I am a popular man when it comes to friends and relatives trying to get their offspring into such schools. I have a bottle of Opus One in my liquor cupboard, still unopened for reasons unbeknown to myself, whose acquisition is the direct result of helping the son of a close Thai friend get accepted into a prestigious school.
No, I didn’t call the principal and ask for special dispensation. That poor child had to undergo an English interview of 5-10 minutes duration before being accepted into the school.
Five to ten minutes! That’s longer than the average English job interview in this country!
My friend called the week before the test. Could I pop over and tutor his child? Perhaps unsurprising to my regular readers, I was very vocal in my displeasure. Not because of the tutoring … as you already know, my friend has a well-stocked wine collection and so I’m assured ample refreshment, along with a drive home via the back streets.
My displeasure was over the fact a six-year-old, fresh out of kindergarten, needed to be stressed out by an English test to get into a school.
The kid himself wasn’t stressed. He was kind of bemused by it all, unlike his parents, who were biting their nails. And you know the result, as evidenced by that solitary Opus One.
While my friend’s son was not stressed, he is in the minority. There are psychological studies that reveal there is nothing like failing a test at an early age to reinforce feelings of insecurity and futility.
I saw this for myself. I once accompanied a niece of mine to her exam to get into Grade One at a popular Bangkok school on the east side. For two weeks prior to the test her mother prepped her, since this was not just a test of Thai. It was also a test of Mathematics and English. Her mother thought that my presence might somehow help in the selection process of getting. My presence made no effect whatsoever, but it was nice to get out of the house that sunny Saturday morning.
There were four classrooms of children. My heart went out to all those gorgeous little kids, clearly perturbed, as they were then herded into the classrooms on the second floor.
About 20 minutes later one child came screaming out onto the balcony. “I can’t do it!” she kept screaming in between sobs.
That poor child. I don’t blame her, and thank god there was just the one. It’s no fun conjugating verbs at the age of six.
Is there a better way to get children into government schools, ensuring equality for all? Yes, there is, but before we examine that, we need to do away with one particular traditional Thai custom.
In Thailand we don’t just get into good schools via our intelligence. With all the corruption news of late, it may not surprise my readers to know there is a dark side to getting into good schools, and that is via shady donations under the table.
Last year this came to light when a disgruntled parent filmed officials at the popular Samsen Wittayalai School demanding a donation. The methods for such payments can be found throughout the continuum from “latent” to “blatant”. At the school where my niece applied, for example, the very last question on the application form asked: “How much would you be prepared to donate to the school if your child was accepted?”
It is interesting to note that in the Thai academic world, much as been said about the Finland model of education.
As stated previously in this column, Finland is perceived to have the best education system in the world. Every week, a Thai Airways flight takes off for Helsinki, catapulting yet another delegation of Thai academics into the small European country on fact-finding missions. The idea is to learn from the best and apply it to here.
And it’s true. Their education system yields the best results and is often spoken about in education conferences here. But this is the irony; Finland is an education system that is fast doing away with examinations. They are not into competition; rather they are into identifying the lower-performing students and closing the gap between them and the high-performing ones. There is no test to get into schools, and no tests throughout your school life! Even more radical is that they are tossing up the idea of doing away with subjects altogether, and employing a more holistic approach to learning.
They stress fun and games for primary school kids, challenging them through social interaction and identifying their own personal skill sets. It’s incredible; with no formal national testing, Finland has churned out a collective student who is smarter than the rest of the world.
They are not just smart; they are happier, too.
And speaking of happiness, congratulations again to that child resting in the crook of his father’s arm, who got into Chula.
It is not just the other 1,900 kids I worry about. Sitting there at number 1,901 on the list of failures, or perhaps more rightly at number one, is the system itself.
By Andrew Biggs
Chai grew up on a small plot of farmland 30 km outside of the town of Kalasin.
His childhood was that of waking up, planting rice and vegetables, going to school, coming home, planting rice and vegetables again. Rinse and repeat.
It was a circle. That’s how Chai himself described it, drawing one with his hands.
“A circle every day,” he said. “The circle made me really tired. I wanted to leave.”
He said this circle happened from birth up until the age of 16. When it was off-season for rice harvesting his parents left Chai with his grandmother and went to Bangkok looking for itinerant work. One year, when he was 10, they didn’t come back for three years. What little money they made from selling rice and vegetables went to paying off debts incurred by his absent parents to local loan sharks.
I know all this from one afternoon, when Chai sat with me as I corrected 200 test papers. He worked with us for two weeks, a friend of a full-time staffer. Chai came to my attention when I told him to go to the coffee stand and get me a cup of tea. He came back with a mug of hot coffee with a tea bag in it.
“What are your goals in life?” I asked him, more to alleviate the tedium of correcting test paper number ninety-seven than a curiosity as to what kind of dreams a young man would have from such a background (particularly one who doesn’t understand what constitutes a cup of tea).
“I want to go to Korea,” he shot back. “It’s been my dream since I was a child. I don’t know how it will happen, but that is my dream.”
Why travel so far? One can escape mundane rural life by moving to a city like, say, Bangkok.
“No,” he said. “I want to live in Korea.”
Chai, like so many Thai millennials, grew up with Korean soap operas and mini-series on Thai TV.
The country is in the iron grip of a 15-year Korean fad. I have been here long enough to see Thailand go through many such phases.
When I first arrived in 1989 it was in its farang craze, that is, loving all thing western. This morphed into the luk-khreung craze, where all the models and movie stars were half Thai and half-something else.
This was a cultural about-face since before that, half-Thais were looked down upon. They were lower class; the unwanted children of north-eastern prostitutes and American soldiers. Boy did that perception turn around quickly, until they were eclipsed by the Japanese craze of the 1990s and early noughties. Then Korea stepped in.
Korean soap operas are produced with a much higher budget and quality than local soapies. They are often period pieces set in ancient palaces with all the associated scandals amid regal splendor.
The very first Korean TV series that captured the heart of the nation was the story of Dae Jum Geung, a woman in a Korean palace of a few hundred years ago. It was on Channel 3 every night at 6 pm and the whole nation was glued to it.
That had to be around 2005 because I was doing a morning TV show at the time. It went to air at 6 am on Channel 3. I remember going to give a speech at a school where the teacher had teased the kids the day before saying at morning assembly: “Tomorrow we are going to have a visitor whom you all know, because this person appears on Channel 3 every day at 6 o’clock.” The children were frenzied with excitement upon hearing this — until I turned up. They thought they were getting the actress who played Dae Jung Keung, who went to air at the “other” 6 o’clock.
Chai remembers that series very well. “It made me fall in love with Korea. And now I want to live there,” he said.
“What do you want to do there?”
That threw him a little. “Work.”
“But what work do you want to do?”
“You need to learn a trade,” I said, wise older person that I was. “Then you can find work over there.”
Chai smiled. “Not necessary. I will just Robin Hood.”
That sentence may confuse non-Thais, but in fact everybody in Thailand knows what it means. No, it’s not the guy who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. In Thailand, “Robin Hood” is a verb. It means “to go to another country on a holiday visa but upon getting there find work and stay for as long as you possibly can without getting caught by authorities.”
There are Robin-Hooding Thais in America who have been there for decades. “Robin Hood” also explains why Thais get what they perceive to be a rough deal by immigration authorities in countries such as the United States … and Korea. Chai’s decision to “Robin Hood” to Korea may be grammatically abhorrent, but it’s a very common behavior.
Two weeks after our conversation Chai collected his pay and left us. He kept in contact via his friend who was my staff member for a while. He got a job at a call center in Huai Khwang. A month later he was waiting tables at a Central World restaurant. Three weeks later he was at a car sales office in Ramkhamhaeng.
Six months passed, as did Chai from my life.
It was exactly one week ago that I was sitting with my staff when I asked: “Whatever happened to your friend Chai?”
“He’s living in Korea,” he said.
“How on earth did he manage that?” I asked.
My staff member rolled his eyes. “He says he saved up the money himself,” he said. “But I know the truth. He got his mother to sell a plot of land in Kalasin for 100,000 baht.”
It was clear my staff member wasn’t happy with Chai’s decision.
“No need to be jealous,” I said. “He is living his dream, and you should admire him for that.”
“Admire him?” My staffer was incredulous.
“Yes, admire him. Let me tell you something. In this life, you have to follow your dreams. Chai had a dream to leave the toil and suffering of his life in Kalasin, and that’s what he did.”
My staff shot me a “that’s what you think” look, and brought out his smart phone.
He showed me Chai’s Facebook page. He flicked through selfies of his arrival at Suvarnabhumi, checking in, going through security, sitting on the plane. How young people can think such pictures are of any interest to others is beyond me.
There was a Facebook Live video of his arrival at Seoul airport. It went for 35 long minutes.
“And now, look at this,” said my staffer.
The most recent post is Chai wearing a balaclava and clutching a hoe. He stands in a field of cabbages along with a raggedly bunch of other workers.
The caption reads: “Freezing here! Going to work in the fields at nearly zero degrees! I don’t know if I’m going to make it. How about giving me some encouragement?”
Chai has fulfilled his dream. He broke the circle just as he wished.
He replaced back-breaking tedious farmwork in the stifling heat of Kalasin with back-breaking tedious farmwork in the freezing cold of Korea. Chai didn’t break the circle … he completed it.
NOT DEAF, VERY DUMB
By Andrew Biggs
There has been a commotion this past week in the media over the appearance of two attractive young westerners begging for money at a Khlong Toey intersection.
Just four days ago The Bangkok Post published a photograph of one of them, a woman, clutching a bunch of Thai flags and trying to flog them off car window to car window. There was a man as well.
Why were they begging? Why were they so attractive? And most importantly to the authorities — did they have work permits?
It wasn’t just the Bangkok Post that spotted these two. Your favorite columnist came face to face with them almost a whole week before they hit the media!
It was Friday morning, December 1, and I was on Kasemrat Road waiting for the lights to turn red at the Rama 4 Road T-junction.
I was sitting in the back of my stately automobile while my driver and personal assistant sat in the front. My PA was playing a popular luk thung song over the car stereo system. Normally I would never allow the likes of hired help to control my own car’s playlist, but he was playing one particular song because he “thought I might be interested in it from a language point of view.”
It’s a song sung by a young Thai country singer who bemoans the fact he cannot speak English and thus cannot pick up western girls. To rub salt into the wound, all the pretty Thai girls he knows aren’t interested in him on account of their desire to hook up with foreign men.
(A terrible cop-out; this singer, even dressed up in his glittery rhinestone-studded jacket and posing to a camera with gauze stretched over its lens, has a face only his mother would love. A little less kabuki make-up along with a jar or two of protein powder may yield better results than an English conversation course.)
The name of the song is Ai Khui Bor Khaeng which is truly ingenious, revealing the Thai people’s wicked sense of humor. It means “I Don’t Speak English Well,” but really it is a lewd play on words. When sung quickly, it sounds very much like “My Penis Isn’t Erect”. To date it has racked up nearly a million hits on YouTube proving that toilet humor is universal.
That is how I remember the sudden appearance of the western beggar.
“I Don’t Speak English Well” was blaring out of the speakers, my PA explaining how one particular Thai vowel turns the linguistic lament into a paean to erectile dysfunction, when I was aware of the appearance of a street beggar clutching paper Thai flags.
He was in his early twenties, looking healthy, and much better-looking than the runt singing that double-entendre country song. He looked as though he’d hopped a bus from Khaosan Road to Khlong Toei.
And he stopped at each car lined up at the red light, handing over a Thai flag with a small slip of paper.
“Wind down the window!” I bellowed at my driver. “And turn down that godawful song!”
Both orders bore instant fruit. As my driver wound down his window, the smiling young >>farang<< passed a Thai flag to my driver along with the slip of paper before walking off.
In perfect Thai, the printed message read:
“Hello. I’m a deaf man. I’m selling this flag for 100 Baht so I can save up enough money to buy a hearing aid. Can you help me?”
A deaf guy? Saving up to buy an earphone?
Yeah right. And I’m a Saudi prince.
“He doesn’t look deaf,” said my PA immediately. “He’s too handsome to be deaf.”
There was no time to berate my PA for his un-PC views on the disabled, even if he did have a point. I was more offended by anyone, regardless of aural affliction, flogging a 20 baht Thai flag for five times its price.
Within 30 seconds the allegedly hearing-impaired beggar was back.
“Hand it back,” I barked to my driver, to which he wound down the window and obeyed. The man took it back and was gone.
I do regret that last order; had my stinginess and outrage over the inflated flag not marred my judgment, I would have purchased it then and there to use as evidence for this column.
But that wasn’t the end of it.
As the lights changed and we moved forward onto Rama 4 Road, I realized the guy wasn’t alone. There was another foreigner peddling the overpriced flags — a very attractive blonde woman.
“Look at her!” my PC exclaimed as we whizzed past. “So many attractive deaf people today!”
It really was a jarring experience on so many levels.
We foreigners do behave badly over here so often. Didn’t we just have two gay guys baring their buttocks at a temple? Now even the deaf ones are playing up.
It’s certainly not the first time I’ve spotted westerners standing on the streets of Khlong Toei doing things that people of sane mind would never think to perform.
Now and again there are religious types, foreigners who stand on the side of the road with a loud speaker attached to a long pole, blaring out messages about how we should repent our sins and turn to Jesus because he is the Lord.
It takes a special kind of nutcase to stand in the blazing heat amid petrol fumes, holding a pole with a speaker extolling the virtues of Jesus — or rather, the peril of not doing so. These poor souls have nothing going for them; being religious types, they naturally don’t possess the physical beauty we saw in those two faux deaf backpackers. Anyone lacking sexual appeal needs something to clutch onto in life, hence the religious poles.
They may be wacky, but the fresh-faced youngsters clutching flags are worse.
They are taking advantage of the kind nature of Thais. Here in this Buddhist country there is the notion of “making merit”, or doing something altruistic in order to create good karma.
My next door neighbour, for instance, is a very elegant lady with never a hair out of place and always immaculately dressed.
I just found out she spends one morning each weekend cleaning out the toilets of the local temple. It’s something she does for no other reason than to perform a good deed. Buddhism promotes this kindness and self-sacrifice.
So when young people get it into their heads that it would be great to play on the generosity of the locals by faking a disability, I get a little angry. I’d take it one step further; even if they are deaf, what right do they have milking motorists of 100 baht in exchange for a cheap flag?
How upside-down is this modern world! Thais are convinced westerners are rich and Thais are poor. But did you notice the cute juxtaposition in the news this week?
On the day these two impoverished foreigners were out plying the streets, deputy prime minister Pravit Wongsuwan was being held to task for being photographed wearing a Richard Mille wristwatch. It retails for up to 10 million baht.
These two deaf foreigners want hearing aids? They should quit their street side antics right this minute and join the Thai army.
By Andrew Biggs
This week’s tale of pretentiousness and warped social mores begins in the sleepy seaside town of Hua Hin.
Sleepy seaside town? Such was the description of Hua Hin when I first made a stop there a quarter of a century ago, but now?
There’s nothing “sleepy” or even “seaside” about the place.
It’s a beach town where you can’t see the beach. The main road doesn’t run parallel to it; I have no idea where a family who decides “I say! Let’s go to the seaside!” would park their car and unpack their pails and spades. That last sentence sounds like I’m living in an Enid Blyton alternative universe, but you get what I mean.
For many years the two major seaside towns were Pattaya and Hua Hin. The former was the racy older sister who flirted with all the boys as she sat on the beach in a thong listening to EDM.
Hua Hin was the pudgy little sister with pigtails and coke-bottle glasses who sat, in her sensible floral one-piece with the bright orange and brown frills, reading Nancy Drew and Black Beauty.
That all changed. Pattaya is still the same, though at her age she should be thinking about settling down, while Hua Hin? She has turned positively metrosexual, giving up the semi-rural beach atmosphere for colossal condo projects, five-star resorts and high-class malls.
My sister arrived for New Year with her family, including two children who are going through their angst-ridden teen years. I thought perhaps that having a hipster uncle in Bangkok, Thailand, might score points for me on the cool scale. Nope. Bottomless computer screen more preferable.
My sister berated me for taking her to Hua Hin because I sold it to her as a “nice quiet holiday”. It didn’t help that my niece had just returned from Florida, USA. “This place looks like Miami,” she said as I took them for a leisurely drive.
“Hardly a seaside town,” replied my nephew, 14, in a tone so dry I reached for my water bottle containing liquid far more spirited than my nephew and niece would ever be.
On that cloudy day we ended up in a brand new upmarket shopping center, just down from Market Village, another shopping center. Yes, Hua Hin requires two mega-malls, otherwise what is one to do in a beach city without access to a beach?
Driving into the car park, the first thing I came across was a partitioned area, with an absence of cars, and a sign: SUPERCAR PARKING.
Supercars … in Hua Hin?
“Does Superman shop here?” my sister asked, sitting with me in the front.
I came to a stop right in front of the sign. A security guard saw me slow down and immediately rushed over, blowing his whistle and pointing off stage somewhere. The message was clear; move on, riff-raff.
I drive a Teana, dear reader. Yes, that’s right, a luxury car … sort of. It’s a Teana from 2008 so yes, there are a few scratches and nicks, the tyres are bald, and that strange rattle in the engine refuses to go away.
Nevertheless it is still a Teana. It’s good enough for the security guards at the entrance to my housing village to salute it. Upon entering and leaving they stand to attention, click their heels and salute. This became a bone of contention a while back when my car was being serviced and I happened to walk out of the housing village, past those security guards. Both young men looked up at me as I passed. Not a salute. Not a stand to attention. Not a click of heels. It gave me the uneasy revelation that they are not saluting me on any given day — they are saluting my car.
But there we were, my family in my banged-up Teana, with a security guard blowing a whistle at me.
This provoked the worst reaction of all — my nephew and niece looked up from their smart phones.
“He doesn’t want you to park there,” said my niece.
“Not necessarily,” I snapped back.
“Then why is he blowing that whistle and pointing?” asked my nephew.
The truth is, I was never intent on parking in the SUPERCAR zone. I merely wanted to take a picture of the sign. Foolish me. Now I had people, both inside and out, clutching whistles and smart phones, assuming I wanted to park there.
“I thought you said you were famous here,” my nephew muttered, in droll teenaged tone.
“I never said anything of the sort. And what’s that got to do with anything?”
“A famous person would be allowed to park there.”
“Not if he was in a Vios. Isn’t there a Candy Crush or Angry Bird you have to get back to?”
Then I realized; the security guard wasn’t blowing his whistle and pointing me away. He was pointing me into a vacant car space, directly opposite the SUPERCAR PARKING sign. Of all the embarrassment; not only am I not allowed to park there … I have the humiliating vista of looking at the empty spaces, like some beggar standing outside a palace!
What has happened to Thailand? One of the big news stories doing the rounds at present is about our deputy prime minister, Prawit Wongsuwan. Now remember this government is not in power via an election. It stormed its way in, screaming about the rampant corruption of the prior administration and swearing to eradicate all corruption in a zero-tolerance campaign.
Therefore it doesn’t look good when General Prawit is the owner of 24 extremely expensive watches, all of which he claims were given to him by friends. Where on earth can I find friends like that?
You just know that, somewhere in his dressing parlour, General Prawit has a small sign attached to a gilt-handled drawer that reads SUPERWATCHES.
It’s not just the anti-corruption crusaders who are basking in luxury. It was revealed, in 2016, that one of the strongest contenders for the position of Supreme Patriarch in this country was an avid collector of high-end cars. He had a Mercedes W186, one of 6,757 cars investigated by DSI police that year on suspicion of tax evasion.
Monks in Supercars — sounds like a Russ Meyer movie. If ever the monk has a sermon to deliver in Hua Hin, I know just the place where he can park.
Our values are all upside down. When I build my first strip mall, I’m going to make a sign that says SUPERINTELLIGENT PARKING. Don’t laugh, dear reader. Surely a mall full of smart people discussing things rationally and scientifically is a more desirable shopping experience than one full of rich luddites in fancy cars.
And wannabes. This week I was at the Emporium when, as I entered the place, I noticed that they, too, have a stretch of car park devoted to SUPERCAR PARKING. There was not a single space available, and as I walked past I counted two Bentleys in a row, two top-of-the-range Mercedes Benz cars, then finally one Lexus.
One … what?
I swear to god. There was a Lexus parked right there in the SUPERCAR parking amidst the Bentleys and Mercedes Benz.
I was filled with uncontrollable rage. A Lexus?! And some security guard with a whistle in his mouth was telling me in my Teana to move on?
My beloved Thailand … where corruption hunters sport one of two-dozen million-baht watches. Where ethereal abbots hord the finest of material possessions. Where supercar slots are filled with Lexus cars, if filled at all.
I absolutely love it.
STREET FOOD, STREET CARNAGE
By Andrew Biggs
There are two categories where you can find Thailand sitting at the top of the world charts.
The first is for street food. There isn’t another country in the world that can match the variety and quantity of what is peddled roadside here. CNN has lauded Thailand, in particular Bangkok, for the best street food in the world. So has Conde Nast Traveller, Virtual Tourist, Skyscanner … the secret is out.
The second category where we have clinched pole position is in road fatalities.
For years we languished at number 2. That all changed late 2017 when it was announced we had finally taken over the top spot with a road death rate of 36.2 per 100,000. On that dubious chart, Thailand is followed by Malawi, Liberia, The Congo, Tanzania … hardly the type of countries you would bring home to meet Mother, and we managed to top them all.
There you have it. Two world number ones for Thailand – street food and road fatalities.
A person unfamiliar with the way we do things in Thailand may find it a little curious, perhaps, to learn that the powers-that-be have cracked down on, and taken major steps to eradicate, exactly one of those two categories. And it ain’t road fatalities.
There has been fervor in the way the government has blotted out the lower classes wheeling their street carts onto the footpath. They cite “social order” and “adherence to the law” as the reasons — their words, not mine.
“Social order” and “adherence to the law” are laudable aspirations, but talk about skewed priorities. I wonder how a stout middle-aged woman selling fried noodles is a greater danger to “social order” than, say, a drunken meth-head racing his motorbike home at 140 km an hour after two bottles of rice whiskey.
This column was written last Thursday, at the close of “Seven Dangerous Days” as the police call it. This is the period between December 28 and January 3 where fatalities are at their peak.
Actually there are “Fourteen Dangerous Days” in Thailand. The period over Songkran in April has its own “Seven Dangerous Days” as well. We don’t bundle them together because it’s nearly half a month and that may frighten away some of those 30 million tourists who visit Thailand annually. And anyway … just the fourteen? When you’re number one in the world it’s “365 Dangerous Days,” isn’t it?
Last year almost 500 people were killed in the seven-day New Year period. As I write this the figures are in for Day Six and 375 are dead, which means this year’s toll will end up around the 450 mark. That’s less than last year.
One wonders if the road safety folk will be smiling and patting each other on the back over that. It does remind me of the 2010-2011 “Seven Dangerous Days” when, the week prior to the start, the then-police chief ordered a death toll of “no more than 300.”
Imagine that: “I want to see 300 dead bodies lined up outside my office by the end of the week and no more!” It ended up at 358.
This week the Probation Department hit us with the most telling statistic of all; that drunk-driving cases accounted for 90% of traffic offences over the New Year Holiday period. We can safely say that the one, single, solitary reason we kill each other in such huge numbers is alcohol.
Whatever you do don’t show that above paragraph to the powers that be. They will use it as a tool to continue what has been a litany of misguided campaigns over alcohol in this country. Those campaigns are nothing but half-measures up against an inherent culture of drinking-till-you-drop.
As I drive into the city on the freeway, I see the same tired old billboard that depicts a New Year’s basket with a bottle of alcohol inside. “GIVING ALCOHOL IS AKIN TO CURSING THE RECIPIENT!” it shouts, as if somehow this is going to reduce the road toll. By January each year it disappears so we can all get on with our lives — except for those who were killed over New Year.
Meanwhile police are “cracking down” by seizing the cars of drivers found to be drunk. This is not a crack-down. This is common sense!
The cops are quick to point out that the cars will be returned after the holiday period. Well thank goodness for that. How is a drunkard expected to get around without his vehicle? It must be a relief for the country’s burgeoning drunk-driver population to know that they can quickly get their cars back and continue their behavior in peace.
There are other admirable but futile attempts, such as a law forbidding alcohol to be sold between 2 pm and 5 pm in order to stop people drinking during that time. Or no alcohol to be sold within a radius of 1 km of schools or temples to stop students and Buddhists from drinking. Whoever thought up these laws no doubt still puts their teeth under pillows for the tooth fairy to collect.
Absolutely everything implemented to reduce the death toll in this country has been a failure, because they are really just skirting the big issue: Nobody is afraid to drink and drive.
Towards the top of this column I mentioned Thailand having an inherent culture of drinking-till-you-drop. I, too, come from such a culture. We Australians are big drinkers, and yet our road toll, per head, is way lower than that of Thailand’s.Is it because we are smarter than Thais? Good lord no. It’s because we are afraid.
One of the dubious claims to fame of my state, Queensland, in the 1970s and early 1980s was its high road toll. There was a reluctance to accept the correlation between guzzling bottles of Bundaberg Rum and Fourex beer, often at the same time, then getting behind the wheel and driving home. Queensland is the only state with more rural folk than city dwellers which, like Thailand, is where the majority of drunken accidents occur
Queensland continued along in its alcoholic daze until someone in government looked at the road toll – and health care costs -- and decided something had to be done.
The cops got tough on drink drivers, starting random breath testing and dropping the legal blood alcohol limit to 0.05. Anybody could get pulled over and if they were over the limit, they lost their licence. As simple as that. No giving it back after the holiday. It was gone for at least three months.
Judges lost their licenses. So did politicians. Even the cops! We all knew somebody who fell foul of the law and lost their privilege — not right — to drive. It was only this fear of hitting a random breath testing stop that made us curtail our behavior.
Here in Thailand such a heavy crack-down would be greeted with howls of dissent. Losing your license? Then how on earth are you supposed to make a living? What about the poor rural folk, whose very lives depend on their vehicles?
The answer is: Tough. You drink-drive, you lose your license. Next.
One day – one day – somebody high up in the Thai government will cotton onto this simple fact. The road toll remains high as long as repercussions remain low. Tough cops, tough laws and a strong educational campaign about drink-driving really does work, even on us Queenslanders.
And it’s not as though there is any place to set up roadside breathalyzer stations. Look at all that space on the sidewalks.
ONCE YOU GO WHITE ...
By Andrew Biggs
Deadlines can be merciless things.
I have a weekly deadline for this column to which I strictly adhere, and just writing that sentence makes me peer ominously out the window for fear of a lightning bolt splitting me asunder.
Like all journalists, your favorite columnist must send this column in at a specific time and day, and if I am a little late, then my editor turns into a monster.
I am telling you this because a news story dropped literally hours after I’d sent last week’s well-honed and polished column. It was a story so outrageous I almost prostrated myself before my editor, asking her for another day to churn out another twelve hundred words on it. Alas deadlines, like editors, are merciless.
I am talking about the story that did the rounds of the world media about Thailand becoming the hub for penis lightening.
Yes, the world media. In fact the only two Thai news stories that made CNN and BBC last week were penile bleaching and the Prime Minister telling reporters to ask questions to a cardboard cut-out of himself – two separate cases of white-washing for the world to see.
Before we begin let me get two things off my chest. First, owing to the sexual nature of this topic, I will not bow to cheap journalism and litter this column with double-entendres. I noticed one news agency snuck one in, reporting that social networks had been “aroused” by the story. Good one, ha ha, I get it, but you won’t find any such verbal ejaculations in this column.
Second, there is a strong reason for my bringing up a news story from seven days ago, which in the journalistic world is an eternity.
Back in 2015 I reported on an ad on Thai TV for a roll-on deodorant whose express purpose was to whiten your armpits. I thought I’d seen everything until that ad.
In it, a Thai teenage girl is in a terrible quandary. On the skytrain an allegedly handsome Thai teenage guy walks past her and notices her armpits are dark. She may as well have had buck teeth and a bung eye. The cute guy throws her a disapproving scowl. You can see it in his face: “No sex with her tonight … looks like it’s just me and the smart phone again.”
Then she undergoes a radical transformation. After she has used the roll-on deodorant, we see her raging away at some concert, flinging those arms about, revealing lily-white armpits, proof that indeed all you need is to be light underneath your arms to be beautiful. And look! There’s the cute guy, raging away next to her. Exactly how did he manage to hook up with her at the concert? And since when have Thai girls favored stalker boys with underarm fetishes?
It has always been a personal mission of mine when teaching English to erase the commonly-held notion that light skin is good and black skin is bad. My mission has been an abject failure; I may as well stand on the beach and tell a tsunami to stop.
What is “suncream” in my home country of Australia is touted as skin whitener or lightener in Thailand, despite being the same product. Ads for these products bombard Thai TV sets with the clear message that good things happen in your life when you are “white”.
The ads are akin to Before and After shots for weight loss centers. Dark-skinned pretty girl sits at home alone listening to Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” on endless loop. Thank goodness for Ponds! Praise you, Revlon! The girl is now white and happy, frolicking in Siam Square with Thai guys whose hormones are raging for white.
In 2015 I hypothesized that the armpit was the last nook and cranny left on the body for skin cream companies to exploit. It looks like I was wrong. Again.
Thailand is now the “hub” for men who wish to lighten their penises. At least that is how the world media reported it last week, and it begs the questions — who are these men and what’s gotten into them?
Call me ignorant, but I had absolutely no idea there was an industry devoted to such a thing. The same week, CNN did a report on Venezuela being the new world hub for “butt-lifts”. As ludicrous as that is, I do get that one. Everybody sees your butt. Who sees your white penis?
I did a google search and indeed, “penile bleaching” as it is known is out there. I can’t imagine the pain of rubbing bleach on one’s nether regions. It reminds me of that one time I chopped up chilies before answering the call of nature, and the searing pain of the ensuing hour.
Actually it’s not bleach as in peroxide. It’s a laser treatment. “We use small lasers,” the female doctor who administers the treatment explained in a media interview with AFP. Sorry, lady, small or big, it’s a laser on my private parts, and that still makes me cross my legs while typing this.
How is a dark member a bad thing, especially for the younger guys who are taking advantage of the service? I was told millennials make love in the dark, the only exception being while filming the act on their smartphone for their Twitter followers.
And yet, dark-membered Thais are allegedly rushing to have it done. Or so says the place performing this service, Lelux Hospital, a skin care clinic with three branches in Nonthaburi and Bangkok. The treatment costs 20,000 Baht and requires five trips to the clinic before one starts to really look opaque. The clinic claims 100 men have done it. And this is what we call a “world hub”?
What are the possible positive benefits of a light-colored member?
This question forced me to do some painstaking research on the internet. This being a family newspaper, I will not want to dwell on the details, suffice to say not once, in the hundreds of pages I researched and videos I watched, was there a single mention or desire for a “light penis”. In fact if anything, there seemed an inordinate demand for phalluses of an opposite color, the very color Lelux is trying to eradicate, but we are getting off topic.
This is not the first time the genitalia of Thai men has hit in the media. A Thai doctor friend once regaled a group of us over a pad thai dinner about another curious trend from five years ago that again made me cross my legs under the rickety restaurant table.
Apparently there are quacks who dress in white gowns and visit rural villages offering to enhance the size of men’s organs through the injection of silicone. This has been reported in the media from time to time. The problem is that silicone sets hard, and often not in the desired shape. As he graphically explained over pad thai, he has seen young men with disfigured members as the silicone shifted awkwardly to the right, or ended up like the petals of a flower, rendering the penis unusable.
Still we can’t leave the thing alone. Penis lightening feels like nothing more than a manufactured attempt to strike at the very insecurity of so many men over the size and shape of their members, thanks to marketers and businesses who remind us, out of the blue, of the perils of dark underarms for girls and dark appendages for boys. And we wonder why we’re all screwed up these days. Excuse the cheap, and dark, double-entendre.
CROSS ABOUT WIRES
By Andrew Biggs
An important high-level meeting this week resulted in my being driven down Sukhumvit Road from the Ploenchit intersection all the way to Asoke.
This was largely due to my driver taking a wrong turn.
How I would dearly love to extrapolate on this minor point, focusing on the shortcomings of the Thai education system that fails to equip some Thais with the necessary knowledge to read maps. How else do I explain my driver, despite Google Maps shouting directions from his phone in clear Thai to “turn left at the off-ramp”, still turning right?
I will not extrapolate on that point because I have a new resolution not to say anything bad about my staff, even when they commit despicable acts of stupidity. Suffice to say, that is where I ended up — sailing down Sukhumvit Soi 3 towards Asoke in furious silence.
That Soi 3 corner used to be dubbed “Soi Kremlin” owing to the large number of heavily-made-up young Russian women who hung around asking passing male strangers for a light.
They are gone; although across the street is the famous and still-thriving Nana Plaza where doctors recommend hepatitis vaccine shots prior, and delousing after, any excursion near the vicinity. Workers included.
It was while I was sitting in the back of my car that I glanced out the window and realized something was amiss.
I haven’t been down that part of Sukhumvit for a while on the street level. But as I looked out, starting at Soi Kremlin, I realized there was something not quite right about the road.
Something was out of place … something, I daresay, a little sinister.
There is a great conspiracy theory out there on the net called the Mandela Effect. It states that our collective memories have been altered owing to glitches in the fabric of the universe.
Some put it down to CERN’s Hadron Collider experiments. We all believe something happened in the past when really it didn’t. Americans, for instance, are convinced they grew up reading books about the “Berenstein Bears” when in fact, it is spelt and pronounced “Berenstain.” The Queen in the Snow White movie says “Magic Mirror on the wall,” not “Mirror Mirror on the wall” as we all remember it to be.
That is the feeling I had on Sukhumvit this week. It was the same old Sukhumvit I’d known and abhorred all these years and yet … and yet …
The tailor shops were still there. So were the souvenir shops and overpriced restaurants. Had this trip been around 2 or 3 in the morning I might even have seen a gaggle of Russian girls hanging out for a cigarette lighter.
I wondered what the slight change had been that made the roadside look a little skew-whiff, a word my astute grandmother often used, especially when describing me.
Then it hit me.
The power lines.
They were gone.
Like most Thai streets Sukhumvit Road is normally a cacophony of inter-dispersed overlapping cables just above head level, though drooping dangerously close to the crowns of those of us exceeding a height of 180cm. The very top of the electricity poles are electricity lines; moving on down are telephone wires and, at the very bottom of the wire hierarchy, internet cables. The bottom ones are the ones that resemble dusty black spaghetti.
The actual poles belong to the Metropolitan Electricity Authority which rents out the space on them to the likes of TOT, Dtac, AIS and True to hang their wires.
Along Sukhumvit those poles are bare now. In fact they are completely gone! There is a renegade wire strung across the entrance to Soi 11 but to be honest, the change is quite staggering. Clearly they have been sent underground.
That was yesterday. As I write this column I am again in the back of my high-end sedan, my driver blazing forth down Srinakharin, confident he will make no mistake in navigation thanks to an absence of any turns whatsoever.
Srinakharin Road is another major roadway clogged with cars and three-tiered dusty black spaghetti. As we approached the Pattanakarn intersection there was one pole so overburdened with wires it was edging close to collapse.
This wire chaos is very Thai. It is almost an inherent part of any Bangkok street’s persona. This was confirmed back in June, 2016, when Bill Gates made a lightning visit to Bangkok.
In his short time in the capital he could have snapped any number of delightful vistas, such as the view from his Penthouse suite over the bustling Chao Phraya River as colorful long-tailed boats plied the waves.
Perhaps he could have snapped glorious Wat Arun, or the regal splendor of the Grand Palace.
No. He snapped the dusty black spaghetti instead.
He posted a pic on Facebook of our notorious wires. But Gates made a blunder – a lesser-sophisticated columnist might say he got his wires crossed — and said despite so many electricity lines there were still lots of blackouts.
First of all, they weren’t electricity lines he’d snapped. And second, Bangkok didn’t have a problem with blackouts.
These were facts the incompetent upper echelons of civil service responsible for power were quick to point out and jump up and down and high-five one-another with glee, the most energy they’d exuded since receiving their acceptance letter into the Thai civil service all those decades ago.
Nevertheless the damage had been done; the world had seen what we Bangkokians see on a daily basis.
How coincidental is this; despite decades of inaction getting these cables underground, not one month after the Gates pic, the government announced a 50-billion baht plan to put all cables underground on 40 roads in and around Bangkok. I am in the process of sending Bill Gates a list of other things to photograph next time he hits Suvarnabhumi in order to get those things done.
The fruits of Bill Gates’ trip have manifested themselves along Sukhumvit Road. The wires have gone. There is an expansiveness about the road; all the way from Nana to Asoke, you can look up and see a sky no longer marred by black wires —shame about the big concrete BTS up there but hey, it’s still an improvement.
For old expats, the change is uncomfortable. We’re so used to seeing disarray. There was a light at the end of the tunnel, literally, as we reached the Asoke intersection. Asoke still hasn’t been cleaned up, and dare I say it; there was a sense of warm familiarity as we were greeted with the twisting black eyesores suspended above the heads of scurrying pedestrians. Back to the Bangkok we know and love — how I missed you for a minute there!
Sukhumvit is a far cry from what it was even a year or so ago. The sidewalks are cleaner and wider and easier to traverse. It is orderly and open, at least on the outbound side.
It’s not just Soi Kremlin that’s gone, either.
Gone are the back-to-back street stalls selling exhaustive arrays of colorful trinkets and clothes amid makeshift stalls lit by stark light bulbs. Gone are the hagglers, the tricksters, the Burmese touts, the deaf vendors, the tourists in African garb, the calculators into which inflated opening prices are punched.
All that scrambling humanity pushing and shoving for attention. Gone.
And in its place?
Well, look at it now. It’s all tidied up thanks to government initiatives and Bill Gates.
It is cleaner and much easier to access.
In fact it is now a normal-looking street like you’d find anywhere else in the world.
And that, dear reader, is the big big problem.