THE CAVE BOYS IN THREE ACTS
by Andrew Biggs
ACT ONE: Lessons Learned
I will never forget the moment man first landed on the moon.
I won’t ever forget the morning the Shuttle exploded, or the night the jets crashed into the twin towers in New York.
And now this week. I will never forget the moment, at 10.41 pm last Monday night, I discovered the boys in the cave were found alive.
To see footage of them sitting on that rock, all alive and well, made this crusty, curmudgeonly, hard-hearted columnist break down and cry. Twice.
There are so many lessons to be learned from the boys in the cave. Just off the top of my head I can think of five.
1. In times of difficulty, Thais are wonderful.
I know. We can all be wonderful in difficult times, not just the Thais. But this happened on Thai soil, and the workers and volunteers in the mountains of Chiang Rai were simply superb. I know colleagues and students who were there, and the spirit of unity in the face of adversity was magnificent.
One Navy seal, via Twitter, commented on how the women who volunteered in the makeshift mess hall smiled so beautifully when they served the food “and kept smiling afterwards”. Another expressed great surprise at finding an espresso machine smack bang in the middle of the jungle. “Thailand, I salute you!” he said.
We westerners often gripe about the Thais and their myriad faults and shortcomings and devious tricks and selfishness and ruthlessness and inhumanity. I will never, ever be part of that clique, and I always wonder, when I hear such complaints, which perfect country the bellyacher comes from. I do not require an answer; I simply hold a fervent hope for the bellyacher to return to it quickly.
2. It’s time we taught Thai youth how to swim.
This is not a bellyache.
It sounds like one but it’s not. This is a cry for common sense, even if it does reek of locking the stable after the horse has bolted.
It’s time swimming is incorporated into the national curriculum. I was once told by a high-ranking official that students in Bangkok would benefit from this, but rural kids don’t get that much of a chance to enjoy swimming pools and thus it would be a waste of budgetary funds to provide lessons at a national level.
You wanna talk waste of budget money, Mr High Ranking Official? It’s kind of difficult to know where to start. Perhaps we could begin with the 88 million baht embezzled by high-ranking officials from the Education Ministry’s poor students fund. Or perhaps we could alert him to the fact that water isn’t found just in swimming pools, but also in reservoirs, ponds, dams, rivers and khlongs.
He does have a point, though. Such an addition to the physical education curriculum would require additional funds. So here’s a radical idea: How about a moratorium on Education Ministry officials skimming the usual 20-30 per cent of budgets. I’m not advocating ceasing their behavior entirely — that would be like asking the tides to stop coming in and out.
Rather, just for one year, they should allow education budgets to be used fully for educational purposes. It may mean sacrificing the purchase of Mercedes Benz vehicles and Fendi handbags for a short while, but think of the benefits. Those kids would be out now, for a start.
3. Thai kids can speak English!
I’m so happy I just want to put on my boogie shoes and dance.
Did you hear those kids when the British diver first spoke to them? They answered him straight back in English! I’m so damned proud of them!
There is this unsubstantiated notion that Thai kids, especially rural types, are ignorant when it comes to English. The 12 boys in that football team proved them wrong.
The Japanese media highlighted this part of the story. Apparently in Japan they believe that like themselves, Thais are bad at English. The trapped cave boys were able to converse with the driver and give him information. Of course they used vocabulary like “eat” and “hungry” and even asked if they were leaving today. God bless you, kids. You made us ESL nerds proud of you.
4. Decent, good-hearted governors never die. They just get shunted off.
It is a generally accepted fact that the higher the position of government civil servants, the sparser the talent.
The further out of Bangkok, too, the more propensity for provincial governors to engage in untoward practices that make those Education Ministry embezzlers look like kindergarten students.
Not our Narongsak from Chiang Rai.
Governor Narongsak Osotthanakorn’s got five bachelor degrees, for crying out loud! They run the gamut from geology to engineering to law. Not only is he smart, he’s a straight-shooter who scrutinizes projects and building proposals, especially those submitted by dark forces driving Mercedes Benz cars clutching Fendi handbags, and rejects those that appear untoward. He recently rejected a major tourism project and waste-processing plant because something was fishy.
He’s not only honest. Look at the way he coordinated the campaign with these boys.
There is a great clip of him, filmed clandestinely a week ago, of Narongsak addressing divers before going into the cave.
“You go in there imagining those boys are your own children,” he is seen saying. “And you pull out all stops to make sure they come back. If you can’t do that, then leave right now. It’s okay. I won’t report you to your superiors if you choose to leave. This is your one opportunity. But if you stay, rescue those kids like you’re rescuing your own children.”
It’s powerful and heart-warming.
Such a person should be held up as a role model, but he’s not. He has been shunted off to the smaller province of Phayao. Make no mistake; it’s a demotion. In a system riddled with corruption and dark feudal lords with claws in rural provinces, a man like Narongsak has to go.
How ironic it is to have a system that allows corrupt government civil servants to be moved to inactive posts when they do something wrong, with the same fate dealt out to those who do something right.
5. Over in the Royal Thai Police, when do they say “enough already”?
The appearance of that high-ranking cop at the cave site, and his threatening conversations with the tireless people frantically trying to locate the missing boys, was like pulling back a bandage to reveal a festering wound that absolutely refuses to heal.
Surely there must be a level to which human decency can no longer be breached, resulting in a need to act to rectify a bad situation. The reform of the police system is so long overdue, it is surprising police officers themselves are not marching in the streets.
So much of Thai culture is based on maintaining dignity, and thus so much violence results from people losing face. Police officers are human beings, and their contribution to the rescue effort was magnanimous. How they can stand by and allow one man to send their reputation crashing down like a house of cards is baffling.
We must remain positive. We can only hope the cave incident is the catalyst that shows how important it is to reform the police force and to enable new, cleaner blood to rise towards the top. It also serves as a reminder that, following the national park incident earlier this year that to this day remains unmediated, a leopard may be able to be shot dead, but it cannot change its spots.
ACT TWO: Coach Ake
The dust is settling on Tham Luang, the Chiang Rai cave that stopped the world for two weeks.
Now that the emergency is over, it is time for the world’s armchair critics to cast sage analysis on the situation. Notice the word “sage” isn’t capitalized. There is no reason for it to be, for it adorns that sentence only to add an element of sarcasm.
This column was written last Wednesday. No doubt since then many details have emerged about the incident, such as the fact the boys were sedated on their way out, or that three of the boys aren’t even Thai. They are stateless, and the one that spoke English so well when first discovered is in fact Burmese, living in a church in Mae Sai while his parents work in Myanmar.
It isn’t just the boys, either. Another stateless individual is the coach, which brings us to the pivot of our story.
It is easy for us to waggle fingers as we sit in our easy chairs, as opposed to a dank pitch-black oxygen-starved cave filling up with fetid water. The surge of collective humanity that was evidenced worldwide, as we prayed for the safety of the boys, was a rare and uplifting phenomenon.
At the same time there was an undertow of blame being apportioned to that stateless coach, whose name is Ekkapol Chantawong, or Coach Ake.
For many he was to be saddled with blame. Would he face criminal charges, it was asked? He flew in the face of warnings against entering the cave, after all. Just this morning in the Bangkok Post, Letters to the Editor featured one breathless, indignant correspondent: “Had his team stayed out of the cave, none of this would have happened.”
It is such sentiment that evokes in me an immediate pang of regret towards those beautiful trees that are felled and turned into newspaper for the purpose of printing such diatribe. I am reminded of my youth when, late at night, TV channels would wind down their broadcast and the screen would flick to discordant static that begged to be promptly switched off. Nobody likes loud, incessant clamor that serves no useful purpose.
While it may be a nice use of time for more idle types, playing the “what if” game is one that is as pathetic as it is futile.
It is also very self-serving. It is a venture into self-aggrandizing analysis of the past, not to learn lessons or formulate steps to prevent such situations re-occurring, but to apportion blame and throw lightning bolts.
It feels good to see somebody else slip up. For many it feels good to throw stones, too. Scour social media and you’ll find Coach Ake being described as careless, foolhardy, and a “bloody idiot” for leading those boys into the cave. Some suggest a committee be set up to examine his actions, perhaps the foolhardiest suggestion of all, not just because it is a waste of taxpayer’s money, but also because the whole world already knows of his actions. Never in recent history has a man’s actions been more examined on a global scale!
Maybe it was remiss to venture into a cave one week before the rainy season started. Goodness. These are adventurous boys looking for fun. They want to explore. Isn’t that what boys are supposed to do? It reminds me of when my mother would send my brothers and I outside at 9 am and “don’t come back until dinner time”. As kids we had the whole nearby forest to explore. Granted there were no caves, but there were poisonous snakes and spiders and weird forest hermits lurking.
These are pastimes that boys enjoy, and sometimes out there in the big wide world, unexpected things happen. A snake bites. Flood waters cut off entrances.
And anyway, the alternative to adventure — lounging on a pillow in your bedroom, eyes staring blankly at a tiny screen, thumb endlessly flicking through friends’ Instagram accounts — may be a much safer and much more common alternative, but it sure as hell isn’t my idea of youthful exuberance.
And how easy it is to be wise after an event. Recently I purchased a pair of second-hand shoes at the Train Market on Srinakharin Road. They fell apart two weeks later. if only I’d stayed away from the Train Market that evening, none of that would have happened.
I once wrote a book that was a dismal failure. It sold a good 300 copies despite a print run of 5,000. The extra copies made great New Year and birthday gifts for a long time, until I ran out of friends to give them to, and indeed, my friend list diminished from the outrage some of them felt towards receiving such a parsimonious gift. I lost a lot of money on that, and the fallout prevented me from writing another book for two years. If only I’d not written that book, none of that would have happened.
You can play this game too, can’t you, dear reader? Our lives are littered with “if onlys” if we expend enough energy on that topic. We do foolish things all the time. We take risks. We ride the shoulder on the expressway, cross roads where we shouldn’t, drink and drug ourselves stupid. We are human beings on a life adventure.
And if sometimes we stuff things up, as the Wild Boar Team and its coach did, it is much more constructive to look forward and take positive steps to remedy the situation.
This is why we need to embrace Coach Ake and his actions, for it is his actions that ensured those 12 frightened boys didn’t perish in that cave within a few days.
Coach Ake, besides being stateless, is also an orphan. There is a photograph of him and his family doing the rounds of the media. It shows a young Ake, aged about 5 or 6, with his mother and father and little brother. By the age of 10 years, his entire family would be dead from disease. Left as an orphan, he spent eight years as a novice monk in a temple, as many poor children in rural areas do when there is nobody else to look after them. He left the monkhood to help take care of his ailing grandmother.
That experience, as a meditation monk, would ultimately save the lives of the 12 children, as he taught them how to meditate in that temple to save energy. While he was at it, he taught them how to find clean water, he gave his rations to the kids, and generally acted far and above the call of duty.
Imagine how wracked with guilt the guy was. Look at the early video clips, and Coach Ake is keeping way out of the limelight. In his first correspondence to the boys’ families, he asks for forgiveness. Now he is out, he also must cope with knowing a retired Navy Seal died during the rescue.
But you know what? You wanna play “what if”? What if he’d never gone in? What if he’d turned back after football practice, saying you guys go ahead, I’m going home. The outcome would have been very different, and far more tragic.
Make no mistake. He saved those boys. What a hero, and he sits there alongside those amazing Thai and foreign divers whom we take our collective hats off to.
Coach Ake, the stateless orphan who lives for football and gives his all to those kids, must now, even with all those setbacks, try to reassemble his life. This is no time for vociferous scribes to crucify. Show some humanity. Afford him some congratulations.
ACT THREE: Aftermath
The good times are over.
Last Wednesday’s press conference with the Wild Boar Team should have been a fitting curtain call. The world finally got to meet those kids for whom we collectively held our breath, and we weren’t disappointed.
For a little over an hour they related their experiences, apologized, expressed remorse, and paid homage to Saman Gunan who lost his life trying to rescue them. Dressed in football gear, the 13 boys looked fit and healthy and spoke with twinges of innocence and humor.
It was a reminder of the feel-good aura that accompanied the entire news story, when humanity dropped its tools and rushed to that cave in Chiang Rai to help get them out.
At that press conference the boys were accompanied by Navy Seals in dark glasses and caps, and Lt Col. Park Loharachun, who stayed with the boys in the cave and clearly had a good rapport with the kids.
Missing on the stage was the Chiang Rai governor, Narongsak Osotthanakorn, who on the same day of the press conference began duties in his new downgraded post of Phayao governor. In his place, in his stiff civil service uniform, was the brand new Chiang Rai governor, sitting like a proud father next to the boys, basking in the Wild Boar limelight, contributing nothing but a reminder of the hoary old cogs of the Thai civil service, which we will address in exactly five paragraphs’ time.
If only the press conference last Wednesday were the end. Now that the boys have been rescued, hospitalized, treated and paraded before the media in brand new football outfits, the next step is the most important and long lasting of all — normalcy.
These kids need to get back to soccer practise, school, homework and family life. Their brief glimpse of fame should, at their age, be just that. The media should leave them alone, but here in Thailand, like most of the world, the media is not going to go down without a fight. They are circling them like hawks right now.
It also means the good times are over. For a brief few weeks there, humanity was a uniting force that forgot about our foibles and shortcomings. We showed our very best side. It was a glorious time to be alive and to be human, albeit excruciatingly nerve-wracking.
Now that the story is over, however, our foibles and shortcomings are seeping back again.
The news that three of the wild boars, including Coach Ake and the star kid, Adul, are stateless highlighted the plight of so many stateless people in this country, unable to gain citizenship owing to archaic and cruel laws and the denizens in office who bask in their impossible intricacy. For any stateless person, poor and under-educated, the required proof and documents to become a Thai citizen fall far beyond their reach.
Ake and Adul charmed us all at last Wednesday’s press conference. What a perfect opportunity it would have been to have announced the instant approval of Thai citizenship. Let’s face it; Thailand’s image in the world received a healthy boost from this incident. Their being granted citizenship would have been an extra feather in the country’s cap.
It took one civil servant, high up, and one politician, also high up, to douse all that. There would be no special dispensation for the three Wild Boar boys.
This announcement came from Arthit Boonyasophat, who ushered in the end of the touchy-feely time, and brought us back crashing down to earth.
Arthit is director-general of the Department of Provincial Administration. His announcement was akin to a violent electrical storm breaking over your open-air beach wedding at a five-star Phuket resort, where you skimped on the umbrellas to save on the budget.
There would be no privileges. Arthit would act strictly according to the Nationality Act. Someone needs to find this man and quietly whisper “Section 44” into his ear. He went on to explain that it wasn’t his responsibility anyway — that belonged to the Interior Minister — but he had to “supervise the issue”.
Can’t you feel it, dear reader? The shackles of red tape slowly closing around those three boys? If rising cave waters couldn’t squeeze the life out of them, just watch government red tape finish off the job.
We then had deputy prime minister Prawit Wongsuwan reiterate that their cases would adhere strictly according to the law. Again, where is Section 44 when you need it?
There is a precedent for these three boys, unfortunately. Remember Nong Mong, the paper plane hero of Thailand? He featured in this column last September. Here was a boy who charmed the country with his paper plane prowess.
Mong was big news in September, 2009, when as a 12-year-old Northern boy he won the national paper airplane flying competition. 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 in Japan. Being stateless, he couldn’t get a passport. Mong’s application to travel outside the country had to be processed by those hoary old grinding cogs of Thai bureaucracy for which Arthit and Prawit are responsible for giving grease and oil changes. The Interior Ministry said no.
Mong burst into tears on live television. In a rare show of sensibility the government stepped in and did the right thing. They didn’t do what Arthit espoused this week – they didn’t follow the strict letter of the law, because this is Thailand and thankfully, every law can be adjusted for the situation. It issued papers for Mong to travel.
Mong jetted off to Japan where he won bronze in the world championships. Upon his return he was greeted by every politician and civil servant of the day. Mong returned to Chiang Mai to continue his education.
It is now 2018, and Mong is 21 years old — and still stateless. If he couldn’t get an ID card, what chance do the Wild Boars have?
So we have moved from man’s humanity towards his fellow man to back to our regular state; that of man’s indifference to fellow man, especially those whose parents were born outside the country.
I’m not just talking about Thai bureaucracy either – what possessed Elon Musk to destroy his international reputation with that “pedo” comment? His allegation of pedophilia against a key member of the rescue was not just a slur on a local hero. It was a slur on Thailand.
Musk’s inference — that any western man living in Thailand was only there for to play with little boys — is a slur on Thailand more than western men. This is a situation that Thailand famously bristles at every time this dubious reputation arises.
And yet the government was quite happy to let that one pass by without a whisper. Musk’s little spat was wrong on all sorts of levels, and may we be reminded of it in the not too distant future, when electric cars replace gasoline ones, for my money will be going straight to Tesla’s immediate competitor.
So the feel-good era of those few weeks is over. May we reminisce about the time fondly, when for a moment we were decent human beings working and praying as one.
It’s over now. We are back to reality, which means school for the kids, bureaucracy for all, statehood for none, and immoral juvenile stabs by the likes of Elon Musk. I’m willing to tolerate it all — just leave those kids alone and let them get on with growing up.
NOTE: In September, 2018, Mong finally received his Thai citizenship papers.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
BYE BYE BRUNCH
By Andrew BIggs
This week marks the end of an era at the Bangkok Post, as we bid farewell to the part of the paper known as Brunch.
It has been my home for almost ten years, since I began writing this weekly column in the first week of 2009. But do not despair (or rejoice); neither I nor the Bangkok Post is going anywhere.
It is just a cosmetic change. Compare it to your getting a new haircut, or changing your predominant clothing color, or emblazoning a new tattoo of fire that licks up the side of your neck to your chin, rendering you unemployable at least anywhere around me.
It was the Lord Buddha himself who called on his followers to embrace change. He called it anicca. Things are constantly in a state of flux, the Lord Buddha explained, and thus one cannot tether oneself to anything in this world, including Sunday magazines with the name Brunch attached to them.
Unfortunately, to describe anything like this as merely cosmetic is not entirely telling the truth.
The media on the whole is being turned upside down by this current massive technological tidal wave, and it’s not just Shelley Winters and Gene Hackman who are feeling the brunt of it.
Every single one of us is witnessing changes at a rate never before experienced in the history of man. I just finished reading Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, a fascinating account of we humans from 200,000 years ago to the year 2018. There are events that dramatically changed humanity’s course, such as the cultivation of wheat, or the taming of electricity, or the invention of the printing press, or embarking on voyages of new world discovery.
These changes were at a snail’s pace when compared to how our lives have rapidly altered by the internet which, incredibly, had only been with us extensively for a little over a decade before this column began in Brunch.
The internet has changed us technologically, economically and behaviorally. Of the last category, in academic circles there is concern about how to educate Generation Alpha, children born after the year 2010, who no longer view tablets and cell phones as objects separate from themselves. They are perceived as appendages like arms and legs. Nor can they concentrate on anything for longer than ten minutes. Why do these children need to learn anything, when the collective knowledge of mankind is available to them at the tap of a finger?
But we are talking about changes to the media. Now that we are all connected, we have an insatiable appetite for news. And yet the traditional and authoritative news sources we have relied on for decades, or even centuries, now feel the heat.
The thirst for news has moved online. Circulation figures for newspapers in their traditional form — that is, printed on paper — is a shadow of figures from 25 years ago. When I first came to Thailand, Bangkok had 16 daily newspapers. I counted them one morning. Sixteen! The majority have gone … and yet the number of people reading news may indeed have tripled or quadrupled since that time.
I am a child of the printed medium. I was part of an intake of cadet journalists who were also on the cutting edge of technology; the paper I worked for had just been computerized. Gone were the hot metal racks of letters being lined up to print the daily paper. How modern and technologically forward we were!
Back in those days, we cadet journalists were lectured on the importance of objectivity. We tried our hardest to distance ourselves from the facts and present something that was as objective as possible.
This was fraught with difficulties. The fact we had to choose the most important part of the story to make the lead paragraph meant we had to suspend objectivity for a moment. And of course, we were all racing to get the best, most sensational story and there were many times we didn’t let facts get in the way of a good story. But at least we had that ideology. At least we had that goal.
Another important difference was this; what we wrote was passed to a chief of staff and editors for editing and to choose what should go on page one, where the most important stories were found. Such was the gate-keeping role within the media organization.
That era is long gone. The whole notion of objectivity and news selection has flown out the window. Nobody wants to wait until the morning to check up on the news when it is available, live and streaming, read by breathless raconteurs, 24 hours a day on websites.
Gone, too, is the middle man; the gate-keeping component of journalism since anybody, and I mean anybody, can set up a news website these days.
This new era of journalism is about opinions and stand-points, as odious as they may be. Fox News has cleverly tapped into the fears and bigotry within the hearts of a large swathe of the under-educated American population. Meanwhile over at CNN they are making celebrities out of their anchors and reporters, rather than focusing on their jobs of relating the news in an objective manner.
Then we have despot leaders like Donald Trump who shout “fake news” at any news organization that prints the facts about him, demeaning the traditional press, confusing the general public even further. And with such freedom in shouting opinions to millions, the insidious element creeps in; Russia appears to have infiltrated the American election via news boards and news sites, swaying opinions and leading constituents to vote in a particular way. This could never have happened in the olden days, when alcoholic chiefs of staff cast a blurry eye over the day’s copy and decided what was good for publication and what was not.
I am not against what the Buddha said. I am happy to embrace change. But I do regret some social change, and not just the move from paper to online for our news sources.
We are no longer coagulated as a society. We have stopped passing around the same newspaper to read at the breakfast table, after which we could discuss more contentious news items. We have stopped sitting down as a family to watch the same TV shows at night time, to discuss the next morning at the water cooler, choosing instead our own personal Netflix to go sit in our rooms and watch on our own. We have stopped flicking on the radio, collectively getting excited when some ear-worm jumps to number one, choosing to make our personal playlists instead.
Try as I might, I can’t find anything social about social media at all.
Last Sunday I found myself sitting in the brand spanking new Da Nang international airport in Vietnam, waiting for a flight home to Bangkok. I had an hour to kill, but luckily I had a book in my bag. Half an hour into reading it, I looked up.
I realized of those many dozens of people waiting with me in the lounge, every single one of us had our head down staring at things in our hands. Every one of us. There was absolutely no verbal interaction going on. And it was me, only me, among those dozens of people clutching a book.
Yes, Lord Buddha, all things must change. But at this rate? See you next week, dear reader, which may come a little quicker than you think!
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
RATE YOUR LIFE, er, FLIGHT
By Andrew Biggs
“Thank you for flying AirAsia. Please rate your flight.”
This message popped up on my mobile phone after my latest return trip to Chiang Mai last Sunday night.
I was the first one off the plane, and it was the first thing that bleeped at me upon leaving my Hot Seat and hitting the Don Mueang people mover that assists passengers traversing the 15.4 km distance to the luggage carousel.
Rate my flight? It’s not enough for me to “like” my friend’s pics of Starbucks coffee or videos of baby’s first steps, is it? We have progressed past that. I cannot simply experience a life experience any longer.
My cellphone now knows, without prompting, when I have gotten off the plane. That is worrisome enough. More sinister is it asking me to “rate” the experience.
Like you, dear reader, I get bombarded with cellphone messages from companies. Grab is ceaseless in its promotion of its food delivery service. Line keeps sending e-coupons for spa treatments. Me in a spa? The closest I got to one of those was the KKK Foot Massage place I wrote about last week — and that was 200 baht for an hour-long massage. At that price who needs coupons?
And now AirAsia is asking me to “rate” their flight — on a scale of one to ten.
How does one “rate” a flight? I don’t rate my experience buying somtam from the lady halfway down my soi. Nor do I rate my experience in public toilets when the need arises.
This extends to flights. I mean I went online, purchased a ticket, quietly chose the more expensive Hot Seat without telling my accountant and put it on the company account. In return I received a service, namely, being jettisoned through the air at 600 km an hour from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, and then back again. End of story.
I fulfilled all that was required of me within that process. I checked in, resisted the temptation to carry anything elicit on board, and even gave cursory attention as the flight attendant explained how to buckle and unbuckle a belt as if I were a retarded child.
I turned my cellphone onto flight mode. Throughout the flight I didn’t make too much noise, which can’t be said for the Chinese tour group seated three rows down in the Cold Seats.
I didn’t smoke in the toilets. I admit I didn’t purchase any of the embarrassing merchandise peddled halfway through the journey by unenthusiastic flight attendants. I don’t blame them. If I had to spend my life explaining belt-buckles and holding up lackluster purses, I too would not be engaged.
I did not steal the life vest, since an on-board announcement told me such behavior was “a serious offence”. I’d never thought to steal the life vest before; that announcement has now got me thinking.
(That voice, by the way, is that of my friend Patcharee Raksawong, who has one of the most beautiful English accents. It is music to my ears following the last one, who pronounced “masks” as “macks” and “whistle” as a “vizzle”.)
When the plane landed I didn’t use my new-found knowledge about how to unbuckle a belt and jump up before the plane had come to a complete halt. I waited patiently for the seatbelt sign to go off then gathered my belongings and disembarked, which is the proper term for what Americans have bastardized into “deplaning”.
In summary: I was a model passenger. I didn’t see any AirAsia staff taking the time to rate my behavior. Why, then, should I rate theirs?
Like you, dear reader, I lead a busy life. I am tied to my cellphone for all manner of communication, with the exception of the face-to-face verbal kind, but who does that anymore. It is a never-ending process of sending and receiving data, including correspondence via Line, Whatsapp and Messenger and updates to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Myspace. I threw that last one in just to wake you up.
On top of all that I am now being asked to rate my flight.
Look, the flight was fine. It got me safely to my destination and for this I am grateful. Is this the criteria for rating a flight? If so, why bother with increments of one to ten? There can only be a rating of 10 (that is, safely arriving at one’s destination) and the more catastrophic alternative — zero — and how on earth would I be in a condition to make that value judgment?
Or is this a rating for service on board? If so it opens up a whole new hornet’s nest.
You see, I didn’t receive any service. This was not for any mistake on the behalf of the friendly AirAsia Flight Attendants. It’s just that I had no need for them, and I am sure the feeling was mutual.
How do I rate that? A ten for doing absolutely nothing? Or a zero, since there was no opportunity for me to experience their service? I can’t give them a five, as that suggests their service was not up to standard, and that would be unfair.
In my eyes, my flight to Chiang Mai and back last weekend was a transaction. I paid money and I got a service. I’m sure AirAsia was happy about that, as I was. Can’t we just leave it at that? Why ruin the experience by having me rate it?
It’s not the first time. Last week — just days before my Chiang Mai flight— I went to Soi Thonglor to drop off some documents. The recipient was at a restaurant call Art Sabai and I was there for all of five minutes.
Upon leaving the establishment I received a similar SMS to the one AirAsia sent me. “Please take time to rate your experience at Art Sabai. Click here!”
I grabbed my cellphone by its neck and threatened to throttle it: “How did you even know I was there?” I screamed at it.
My experience at Art Sabai? It was awful. Literally as I walked in, clutching documents under my arm, I got a call from the bank because my accountant had forgotten to pay my credit card — again — and when would I be making a payment?
On top of that I was late in sending those documents. It was all my fault. The recipient was unimpressed with this tardiness.
So how was my experience? I felt belittled, and frustrated, and revengeful. My experience at that restaurant was a one or two out of ten. No, I didn’t order a thing, but hey, you asked!
I have one further issue that needs to be brought up. If, on the off chance, I did choose to spend my valuable time rating my flight experience, just who would read my review?
Nobody. That’s who. My rating gets thrown in with the other tens of thousands of figures, to be instantly collated and analyzed deep inside the inner machinations of the AirAsia computers. A rating of ten elicits no praise from grateful AirAsia execs. Nor does a zero result in fawning public relations officers knocking on the front door of my mansion in leafy Samut Prakan.
So why should I feel bad about pressing that little x in the top right-hand corner and dispatching that unsolicited request to trash oblivion?
I didn’t do that. I rated the flight a ten. I didn’t want the computer to feel bad.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
MY BRUSH WITH THE KKK
By Andrew BIggs
Greetings from Hat Yai, Songkhla province, where your columnist is enjoying a foot massage at a place called “KKK Massage”.
Yes, KKK Massage. That’s the name, emblazoned in big letters on a shophouse not so far from the famed, if not slightly over-rated, Kim Yong markets, where they say you can buy absolutely anything — if “anything” to you can be defined as chestnuts, pistachio nuts, dates and cashews.
There are dozens of foot massage places around this bustling Southern market, but just the name of this establishment is enough to pique my interest and patronage. This is not for any reasons of racial bias, but more for its sheer audacity.
There is nothing inside KKK Massage that suggests it despises black people, although I do inadvertently start humming Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” upon entering. The décor is faded blue wallpaper with sofa chairs which recline to an almost horizontal position.
I’m here with one of my office staff and as the masseuses wash our feet, I remark that the place has a nerve to name itself after the KKK.
“Why?” my staff member asks in all innocence.
His question is a fair one, and certainly answers the underlying concern of why such an establishment would want to name itself after the Ku Klux Klan.
The average Thai has no idea of what the Ku Klux Klan is, and thus would have no compunction in naming a massage parlor (foot massage parlor, dear reader) using those three letters. As odious as the name is, in the minds of Thais it is no different a trio of letters as, say, LLL or MMM. This explains why offensive racist organization names can be used in retail shops here, such as KKK Massage, Hitler Youth Barber or MAGA somtam stall.
When I first came to Thailand there was a toothpaste called Darkie, complete with a black man in a top hat grinning back at you on the tube. At the time it was one of Thailand’s best-selling toothpastes.
Five years ago I was in a large retail outlet here when I noticed a sale on cleaning utensils. There, on a sign above the discounted goods in gigantic lettering were two words: BLACK MAN.
Not just words; a picture as well.
Black Man products featured a logo of a black man in a suit and bow tie, thrilled to bits he’s got all these cleaning objects on hand. And what a range it is; mops, brooms, sponges, dustpans and brooms, window cleaners – all ironically white but sporting the proud Black Man image. THINK OF CLEANLINESS, THINK OF BLACK MAN screamed the company slogan, clearly ripped off from the Foodland ad.
We can send a man to the moon. Information spanning the entire globe fits right inside my cell phone. Yet still we had Black Man mops and Darkie toothpaste?
I craned my neck towards the Black Man window wipers. There on the back of the packaging were the proud words: MADE IN THAILAND. Worse -- the Black Man logo had an R in a circle. Black Man was a registered trademark!
That really got my blood boiling. The Thailand trademark office and I are not the greatest of friends, and it dates back to when I was registering my business here, a business name that included my own name. I submitted my application. It was rejected.
The official reply was I couldn’t register the name “Andrew” in my company name because >>another company was already using it<<. That company happened to be St Andrew’s, a school down the road from where I lived.
Well I wasn’t going to take that lying down.
I stormed down to the trademark office where I explained that Andrew was as common a name as Somchai or Somsri. He was even a saint, albeit a B-list one. If only I’d registered my company name as something really offensive like Black Man or Darkie or KKK Massage. Those would have been passed in a flash.
The Black Man logo bugged me so much I even called the company.
“I’ve just purchased one of your products and noticed the brand name when I got home,” I said when the Black Man operator answered. “I’m wondering if it might be a little ... offensive?”
The operator laughed and put me through to a pleasant gentleman who informed me that the Black Man brand name is 50 years old and a bestseller in Thailand for cleaning equipment.
“It’s interesting, because before you we’ve never had a Thai call to complain about the name,” he said. I was torn between deep disappointment in Thais for not finding such a brand offensive, and selfish pride in being able to pass myself off as a Thai over the phone.
What about foreigners?
“Oh yes, now and again we get foreign suppliers asking why we use such a name,” he said. “Foreigners are the only ones who ask about it.”
Ah, those pesky foreigners. I could just hear this company the day they tried to market Black Man overseas. It’d be like a Scooby Doo episode: “We’d have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddlesome farangs!”
It is all the more interesting when you consider that Thais themselves have a very short fuse when we foreigners demean their culture. Tourists are regularly berated, and arrested, for draping themselves over Buddha images. Last November two American idiots were arrested for baring their backsides at Wat Arun, because that’s a really hilarious thing to do.
Buddha is not to be tattooed nor is he a decoration, scream hypocritical billboards directed towards foreigners to and from Suvarnabhumi international airport. These billboards are ignoring the millions of Thais who adorn themselves with Buddha images of the ink and amulet kind. But you get the message.
Before you shake your head and scoff too much, dear reader, I must hasten to say this story has a happy ending, in that education truly is the savior of our society. Like my staff member in Hat Yai who asked “Why?”, somewhere down the line Darkie and Black Man executives asked the same question.
Often such naming transgressions are the result of a lack of knowledge rather than determined racism.
Darkie toothpaste? In the early 1990s it had morphed into Darlie, and the smiling man in the top hat had been white-washed. It remains a toothpaste still popular in Thailand to this day.
Black Man too! Clearly a few more meddlesome foreigners called after me. Sometime in the last five years, it too quietly changed its name.
It’s now Mop-BM in English, and the slightly weird “Be+ Man” in Thai. The black-faced logo is gone too, replaced by a white face; yes, Mop-BM execs, we white folk do household chores as well.
This is all good … but what of KKK Massage?
I told my staff member I assumed the KKK had nothing to do with lynching. I guessed that it stood for something that began with the letter kor kai in Thai, rendered as a K in English. Maybe it was named after the founding three siblings — Karun, Korkiat and Kanokwan perhaps?
Our massage finished and after generously tipping my masseuse ten baht, I went to pay. The shop owner sat at the cashier’s table.
“I gotta ask you,” I said. “Why is this place called KKK?”
He blushed. “I like to play poker,” he said.
That’s it? Only that? He should have called it Flush Massage; beats three kings every time.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
JAMMIN’ ABOUT JAMS
By Andrew Biggs
It was a headline worthy of finding scissors, cutting it out, setting it in a mid-priced Big C frame then hanging it on my study wall.
“PM: VIPs must hurry through intersections” was the headline in question.
I wasn’t the only one to gasp. I attended a fashionable dinner party Wednesday night, the day it was published, and it was the talk of the table.
You see it’s a headline that’s open to at least two major interpretations. The prime minister is either defending the police action of blocking we, commoner motorists, whenever a cabinet minister feels the urge to be somewhere on the other side of town during peak hour. Or he is urging VIPs to get a move on when they journey forth across the clogged capital. Don’t dilly-dally at those four-ways, members of cabinet. This is, after all, the lead-up to an alleged election.
This column has tried its hardest to avoid the topic of traffic jams, not just because it is hackneyed, but because the problem is so ubiquitous it is futile to discuss it. In the ten years of this column’s existence, it has been the main topic a grand total of once.
Which is strange. Far be it from me to blow my own horn, but a long time ago I made a positive contribution to alleviating Bangkok’s traffic problem. The fact I have never revealed it in ten years is testament to my modesty or my growing problem of memory loss. So allow me to pick up that horn and take a deep breath.
Back in 2003 I was instrumental in getting two overpasses constructed on Srinakharin Road, thanks to a relentless campaign I mounted on live TV every Saturday and Sunday morning.
Back then I was hosting a news program. I was also living on Srinakharin Road, an arterial road so jammed, it took an hour from the Lasalle intersection to my leafy mansion two kilometres away.
Some of my more hardened critics will pounce on this, claiming I instigated this campaign as a means to get home sooner. To those critics I say you are way off the mark but yes, as usual, your slander contains a skerrick of truth.
There was one night, as I sat in that grid-locked traffic, when I turned my head to the next car. There inside was a father with his three children, all in school uniform, all ashen faced, trapped like I was. Imagine all the things they could be doing if it weren’t for having to sit amid petrol fumes and bumper to bumper cars.
And so I launched my little campaign. It became something of a running joke. Every time there was a news item about Theparak or Lasalle, I would slip in a question as to when the local MPs would build overpasses on both those intersections, freeing up the flow of traffic and making life for we east-siders so much more liveable.
Then I was invited to give a speech at party headquarters of the reigning government. The speech was about learning English and my audience was members of parliament. “Who are the representatives of Samut Prakan, and when are you going to build overpasses at Lasalle and Teparak?” I asked before anything else. Incredibly, at that very event, the MPs put their hands up and announced the budget had already been passed.
Did that make me feel happy? Powerful? Vindicated? None of the above. It took two long years for those two overpasses to be constructed. You thought the traffic was bad before? I looked back nostalgically on the days when it only took an hour to travel those last two kilometres home.
Good things come to those who wait. When the two overpasses finally opened, the difference was incredible. Suddenly those last two kilometres took me five minutes (and, sometimes late at night, just 60 seconds). I was lauded for my media campaign by fellow residents and for a brief moment I felt like a champion of human rights; a bit like the Mother Theresa of the eastern suburbs.
But this is Bangkok. There are no happy endings when it comes to traffic stories, including this one.
Within six months that road became as jammed as it was before the two bridges were installed. The volume of traffic just grew and grew. Such is the nature of the beast. Road space in the average Western city is 20 to 30 per cent. In Bangkok it is just eight.
And now we have promises of new subway, monorail and skytrain lines. They are all being built at the same time. We can only pray they all connect up, for history has shown that city planners here don’t just lack foresight, they lack any semblance of intelligence.
This is why the traffic has been particularly bad the last month. Construction has been compounded with heavy rain … and those infernal cavalcades for alleged political bigwigs.
It has always been the custom for traffic to be halted to ensure smooth travels for the royal family. This is known and accepted by the general populace, but some time not so long ago this courtesy extended to include the prime minister. Then his deputies. And now his cabinet ministers.
Cabinet ministers? Do you have any idea how many members of cabinet there are? The next time you’re at the supermarket, go down the aisle where the eggs are sold and have a glance at three packs of a dozen eggs. That’s how many cabinet ministers we have.
All these ministers are afforded the courtesy of road closures to ensure their smooth journey from parliament house to … where? Certainly not City Planning School.
The Bangkok Post published a story this week about the rising number of complaints from the general public about these cavalcades. Too many B-list cabinet ministers are demanding the police hold back the masses for them to sail through the intersections.
National police chief Chaktip Chaijinda was quoted as saying there would be harsh penalties for officers who complied with these requests. “We do not want to portray the idea that cabinet members are more important than the public,” he said, prompting me to make a mental note to buy Chaktip a drink if I ever see him out and about.
The prime minister was of the same mind. Reporters asked if he would be reducing the number of cavalcades for the cabinet mutton dressed as lamb. He replied that VIPs needed to hurry through intersections, as opposed to the rest of us, who are expected to remain in our vehicles sitting like lemmings lined up on a cliff.
He suggested a maximum of 30 seconds per cabinet minister. One can only pray they don’t decide to all go shopping at the same location at the same time, for that would mean a delay of exactly 18 minutes.
What a pity the cavalcades couldn’t be abolished for all except the royal family. That would mean every politician, cabinet or otherwise, would have to sit in the same infernal jams the rest of us encounter on a daily basis, experiencing that same listless, faraway, ashen-faced resigned look of those three children I saw in that car 15 years ago.
That is all I want to say on the topic. We’ll pick it up again in 2028, when I suspect things will be exactly the same, unless we can curb vehicle and cabinet minister numbers.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
SONNET IN PLASTIC
by Andrew Biggs
I am sitting in a diner in the Southern town of Surat Thani, staring down at three toothpicks.
Other patrons of this morning restaurant may be looking at me, wondering why this big farang is sitting with his eyes fixed on three little toothpicks swathed in plastic.
It is a transitory moment in an otherwise hectic schedule; the realization that those three little toothpicks somehow sum up our obscene love affair with all things plastic.
Last night I wandered down to the riverside market in Surat, the one next to where the slow boats leave for Koh Samui and Koh Phangnan. I bought three different things from three different stalls; fruit, pork satay and deep-fried spring rolls. I was trying to be good but those spring rolls looked so delicious I could not resist.
Upon returning to my hotel room, I laid all the food out. I realized I had more plastic than I had food:
1. The fruit consisted of pineapple and guava. Each required a separate bag, along with the chili and sugar concoction I didn’t even ask for, but nevertheless received. Those three bags then were thrust into a bag so I could carry them. Total bags: 4
2. The pork satay came with delicious peanut sauce in its own little bag. So, too, did the cucumber in sweet vinegar. And of course, there were the three satays. Oh alright, six. All this into a single bag. Total bags: 4
3. Those deep-fried spring rolls — two of them cut up into pieces then covered in a sticky, spicy sweet sauce. It’s okay, dear reader, I have plans to go for a run tomorrow morning. Interestingly, this cholesterol-packed treat used the least bags. Total bags: “Only” 2
This double-digit plastic bag count is what kind of upset me (as did those deep-fried spring rolls, but that was limited to my stomach). My dinner resulted in 12 plastic bags being thrown into, and filling up, the hotel room trash can which, I was forced to realize, was a trash can with a bin liner. A plastic bin liner.
And now, the next morning, here I am at the Surat Thani diner, having asked the waitress for a mai chim fan so that I can delicately pick my teeth behind a well-mannered hand. I didn’t get the one. I got three. Each wrapped in its own plastic!
Since when did we start wrapping toothpicks in plastic? It was bad enough when straws got the treatment. I thought we were supposed to be concerned about the environment, and yet instead of finding ways to cut down, we instead search for things to further wrap.
Recently I went to Tops Supermarket, the one nearest my suburban mansion in leafy Samut Prakan. It was not a full shop, just some necessities like non-fat milk and leafy green vegetables and Smirnoff. I had about 12 items when I reached the sullen-looking cashier, who was sullen for reasons you are about to discover.
As she ran those dozen items through the register, she tossed them casually to the end of the counter. This in itself was jarring enough; normally she tossed them into Tops regulation plastic bags.
Then the horror; there were no plastic bags!
“What’s going on here?” I enquired.
Nong Sullen (pronounced Sul-LEN if you’re reading this column out loud to nephews and nieces) didn’t look up when she said: “Tops doesn’t use plastic bags anymore.”
To me, hearing that was like hearing some fantastic news, such as: “You just won the lottery” or “Oh look – there’s a full bottle of Absolut at the very back of the liquor cabinet behind the mescaline.”
Tops had stopped using plastic bags? What a triumph. Thailand ranks in the top ten countries in the world that uses plastic bags the most. This single executive decision by Tops surely would be enough to send Thailand tumbling right out of that top ten.
I felt like penning a letter to Tops, forgiving them for all their transgressions in the past, and warmly embracing the supermarket chain with a vow to be a loyal customer to the very end. There was, however, a small problem. The issue of my 12 grocery items being tossed unceremoniously to the other side of the cashier.
“What am I supposed to do with these?” I asked the cashier, pointing at my purchases. She, too, pointed towards a single grey paper bag.
Just the one?
From what I could gather from Nong Sullen, each customer was allowed one grey paper bag to self-pack their groceries. This was somewhat generous of Tops, but what about those of us who didn’t just stop for a Pepsi and packet of fags? That sole paper bag was not going to be enough to house all my leafy green vegetables.
“That’s all you get,” the cashier replied.
Tops had changed its policy somewhat dramatically, with no large posters with big numbers counting down to their new policy day, or instructions on how to make alternative arrangements. No doubt our cashier had been bombarded with angry customers suddenly faced with the prospect of shoving the weekly groceries into a single paper bag.
“Can I buy another one?” I asked.
“No,” she answered, not curtly, but clearly a little tired of life, sounding like she wished my bottle of Smirnoff was passing down her throat rather than through the scanner.
Luckily I had one of my staff with me, who was able to carry the remaining leafy green vegetables that could not fit into the paper bag, so the trip was not entirely a disaster. But it wasn’t a good look for me, wandering through that shopping centre clutching kale and holy basil against my chest.
One day later I had to go into Tops again. To my surprise, the plastic bags were back!
Had Tops caved in to angry customers and relented on the non-plastic bags?
“It’s only no-bags on the 3rd of every month,” the cashier explained. She was a different one from the sullen girl of the day before, but I noticed Nong Sullen was stationed at another check-out and looked far more relaxed with her life.
That night I went on the internet. Tops apparently had a non-plastic bag day back in July that was such a hit, they decided to keep it going one day a month. Slightly disappointing news; I would have been happy to hear the no-bags rule was permanent. It is something we humans have to adapt to, if not sooner then later when the planet finally shakes us off because of our bad behavior.
But get this; Tops said it saved an incredible 500,000 bags on that no-bag day. This is a staggering statistic. It means that in any given month, 15,000,000 Tops bags are taken home and tossed away into the environment, no doubt ending up in land fills or in the stomachs of our sea life.
And so here I am, a single farang sitting in a Surat Thani diner, staring down at the three toothpicks wrapped in plastic on the table. I only asked for one. It’s a little like buying a bottle of water at 7-Eleven and receiving it in a plastic bag along with enough plastic straws wrapped in plastic to feed a poor family of five for a month, if indeed poor families ate straws. I’d retreat to my hotel room, but the cleaning lady hasn’t come yet and I can’t bear the sight of those 12 used plastic bags in the plastic bin lined trash can.
Twelve bags per meal? Let’s say all of us in Thailand are doing the same. That’s 816,000,000 plastic bags for a single solitary meal.
Hold the green leafy vegetables. I need to open that Smirnoff.
Please comment below!
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
by Andrew Biggs
I have the best neighbors on all four sides of my home in leafy Samut Prakan.
Truly I do. It’s the primary reason I refuse to move to the inner city — that along with the small issue of a mortgage.
My neighbors are polite, friendly and watchful. They call me at work when my dog jumps the fence. We exchange gifts over New Year. And, like so many Thais, they are brutally honest. Like early this morning, which in my world was exactly ten minutes ago.
“Good morning,” chirped Khun Adisak, as he waited outside his home with a tray of food for the monks. “Are you getting fatter?”
Do not be alarmed, dear reader. This is a legitimate form of greeting in Thailand, the Land of Smiles and People Who Constantly Remind You Of Your Growing Waistline.
Khun Adisak is not being malicious. Nor is he speaking out of concern for my health. He has made an observation about me, and, being close, can happily and freely report on my physical state to my face.
It is a small part of Thai cultural mores that differs vastly from those of the West. In the ten minutes since our meeting, I’ve trying to put our conversation into a western context.
This is difficult; bare-footed monks in saffron robes didn’t roam the streets of Sunnybank, Brisbane, where I grew up. You were more likely to see feral cats or Mr Russo the milkman, hungover in his beat-up combie van.
But just say I wandered out onto the Sunnybank streets, as I did here this morning, to get the morning paper. There was Adam, my friendly next door neighbor, sitting quietly outside smoking a cigarette. He smiles, waves, looks up and says with a broad grin: “You’re looking fat.”
Unacceptable behavior, unless Adam is a sociopath. It’s one thing to say something nasty to a neighbour; to smile while saying it is downright Silence Of The Lambs.
Even more interesting is the context in which Khun Adisak’s comment can be found. Here is the short conversation, one hundred per cent small talk, after we waied each other outside our respective homes.
Me: “I can’t see the monks anywhere.”
Khun Adisak: “They’re doing the rounds of the village. They’re not up to our soi yet.”
“They’re usually here by now, though, aren’t they?”
“Yes. They’re a little late. Are you getting fatter?”
You see, dear reader? No context whatsoever. No quiet build up to the verbal sucker punch that resulted in the reflexive tensing of my stomach muscles inward. And yet in the Thai context it was perfectly acceptable. Khun Adisak had shifted the small talk from tardy monks to my physical state.
It is hard for foreigners to wrap our heads around the notion that here in Thailand, commenting on somebody’s descent into adipose hell is a societal norm. It’s okay in this part of the world for a third party to bring to one’s attention one’s packing on the pounds. Not only is it normal; it is rife.
Even more shocking: in most situations there is no malice intended either.
Khun Adisak has never displayed malice. There are times I feel agitated when chatting to him but this is purely neurotic behavior on my part. I am generally a good neighbour — generally — but as I chat I am in constant fear he is going to bring up the issue of my dog suddenly barking at 2 am for no reason, or Kate Bush cranked up to full volume for a song or two, or clandestine cigarette smoke near the back fence. No, my neighbor never brings up such glaring inadequacies in me. He chooses, instead, to comment on my impending obesity.
In the West we are told that when engaging in small talk we should avoid the “big three”, namely, politics, religion and sex. This is especially true in this modern world of Donald Trump and pedophile Catholic priests.
Instead we are taught to comment on the weather, or last night’s soap opera, or the stock market. Here in Thailand, add one more topic to the list; the one Khun Adisak brought up.
There are numerous words for “fat” in Thai. There is the ubiquitous oo-an, by far the most common.
Oo-an is not only an adjective to describe a bulky person. It’s also a common nickname, by god! Think about that, dear reader. Imagining going through life not just being fat, but being named it as well. “Hi Fat, how are you doing?” “Hey Fat, what are your plans this weekend?” “Pass the ketchup, Fat. And shouldn’t you be laying off those french fries?”
Another common nickname is Nui. I bet you have met a Nui or two in your life. Just this week I ran into my former staff member, Nui, a respected producer of children’s television programs.
What do you think Nui means, dear reader? Go look it up on Google Translate and you’ll find three very clear definitions: “fat, plump, chubby.”
Nui is rake thin. People with such names as Oo-an and Nui often are. They get their moniker from their physical state at birth. The puppy fat may melt away, but there is no escaping the name. My TV producer has a name that constantly reminds him of his plumpness as a kid.
This is unthinkable in the West. It’s like me having a daughter named Skye, but choosing to call her Chubs in every social situation for her entire life. Hi, my name is Philip, but please call me Flabby. It just doesn’t work, does it?
So where does it come from? How can it be that my wonderful neighbor can casually throw into an unrelated conversation about monks the fact I’m allegedly becoming a blimp?
The answer probably lies in the fact that oo-an doesn’t sound as nasty and cold-hearted as the English word “fat”. “Fat” carries so much more baggage, whereas oo-an feels a little lighter and more airy.
Plus there is the traditional belief here, probably of Chinese origin, that being fat is a sign of prosperity.
This theory is supported by another Thai word for fat — that is somboon and yes, it’s yet another popular Thai name! “You’re looking somboon these days” is a common observation of friends who haven’t seen each other for a while. Western civilization translation: “My, you’ve clearly fallen off the Jenny Craig wagon, haven’t you?”
But wait. There is another more popular translation of the word somboon. It is an adjective that means “complete, perfect, valid.” Out of this all-encompassing translation of completeness, the Thais have managed to create a sub-definition of “fat”. Bless their hearts.
This absence of malice is hard for the West to fathom, and despite all my years in this country, I still feel my hackles — no doubt ensconced somewhere in fatty tissue — rise when I am tormented by the oo-an word. You can take the boy out of the western country, I guess.
And it did result in my dragging out the bathroom scales from the very back of the linen cupboard and weighing myself for the first time since my hospital flu visit two weeks ago.
And look. I’ve dropped nearly two kilograms! I feel like shouting this news over to my next door neighbor, but the monks have been and gone and so has Khun Adisak.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
by Andrew Biggs
There’s a new condo project being advertised on the side of the road I noticed on my way home from Rama 9 Park. It’s called White Wall and the giant billboard says: “Passionate Living starts at 33 million Baht”.
The figure of 33 million, while steep, is not unusual in this modern frenzy of Bangkok real estate. It does seem an exorbitantly high price to pay for passion — and would surprise Nana Plaza patrons who are used to paying 1,500 baht plus a bar fine.
It has been my experience that those fortunate enough to be passionately living are not defining their passion with a price tag. Passionate living is all about exploring the bounds of experience with energy and zest — and would you look at that, dear reader! Just then I created a sentence that would fit comfortably in any advertorial for a new Bangkok block of flats!
Oh but we don’t call them flats here. We don’t even call them apartments. They are condos, or in the case of White Wall, “home offices”.
The top end targets foreigners. With so many projects going up there is naturally great competition, and not just in advertising budgets. It’s hard enough having English as your second language; to then have to think up new and creative ways to describe those condominiums must be beyond difficult … which is why so many of them are beyond ridiculous.
At present near Ploenchit BTS there is a new project which trumpets from a billboard: “Bangkok’s Newest Shining Beacon.” I didn’t know we had treacherous rocks and crashing waves around Ploenchit but then again, I’m a Samut Prakan boy and don’t get out too much.
Meanwhile Saladaeng One explains, in full capitals, that is is “Invincible in its location, with Bangkok’s financial district on one side and stunning Lumpini Park on the other”. Invincible? Are we under attack? And from what … the kimodo dragons that have overtaken the park?
It’s not the only one that is a portent of impending calamity. Over at The Hyde, things feel a little threatening. “Life will NEVER be the same” it explains in its advertising brochure and website, with an emphasis on the word NEVER. That to me sounds like the catch-line for yet another M. Night Shyamalan disappointment.
The problem is this: it is 2018. We’ve been advertising luxury high rise projects for 30 years. The variations on names and snappy slogans explaining rooms that resemble shoeboxes have run their course.
This explains why we have the weirdest titles for new condo projects. There is one going up in Thonglor called “Eyse”. Is that a typo for “Eyes” or are we just being a little trendy? There is “The Parq” opposite Bejakitti Park. I don’t think “The Parq” is a spelling mistake. The letter Q is on the opposite side to K on the keyboard, so we assume the error is intentional.
Next year Sukhumvit 19 will have a complex called “Shaa Asoke”. I’d read that as “Shah” but hold your horses, dear reader. Have I got news for you.
That word “Shaa” has two acutes. Yes. You heard right. There’s one over the first “A” then one over the second. I’d type it here but I have no idea where to find an acute on my Macbook keyboard. I’ve seen many things in my life, but never have I witnessed such a word and last night this conundrum sent me to the liquor cabinet in my quest for proper pronunciation. Even worse; realizing “Shaa Asoke” is not even on Asoke. It’s on Sukhumvit! That’s when I started mixing my drinks.
Copywriters around the world are would-be novelists and poets. They don’t have the talent for the Great English Novel but they can put together a few sentences to express a notion or, more realistically, the abstract desire of a condo project owner who wants something “big” and “luxurious” and “grand” as he waves his hands around in the air.
They should feel happy about their not being able to write great literature. There’s no money in that. Copywriters can make much more. And so they lock themselves in rooms with cigarettes, whisky bottles and thesauruses, churning out new ways to describe the same old thing.
But the problem in the copywriting world is the same in the modern music world. We have run out of combinations of notes. This is why every new Ariana Grande or Justin Bieber song reminds those of us who are, er, a little older of something that was on the charts from the 70s. It also explains the rise in hip hop music, which relies more on rhythm and drum beats rather than melody, a thing noticeably absent in most songs about homies in bling-bling dissin’ their bitches.
This content overload also affects the condo world, as copywriters push and shove for the best slogan to outdo the competition. We will one day look back and study this era as the time when things got a little out of hand. Catch-phrases have gone beyond over the top. They are now unreadable.
“BE AT LEISURE IN YOUR FASCINATED WAY.” That’s what the massive billboard says at aforesaid Eyse. I had no idea I had to be fascinated when I was at leisure. Or is that sentence like pondering the universe itself — trying to make sense out of catastrophe?
The Hyde — the condo that warned me that my life would NEVER be the same — has this opening paragraph: “Experiece the glamorous residence that blends splendid structure with unrivalled style.”
It’s not the sentence’s superfluous rhetoric that bothers me. My concern is more simple than that. Pay attention to the first word in the sentence. That missing N makes me think twice about parting with 20 million to purchase a condo there. If they cut corners on the copy editing, where else are they slashing?
I’m not complaining. I am in awe of anybody who can think up, and be brave enough to submit, a sentence such as the following that can be found in The Hyde’s advertising: “Luxuriate in spacious privacy equipped with every conceivable comfort, thoughtfully designed to chic sophistication with the best of contemporary elegance.”
I needed to stop and grab a quick power nap in the middle of reading that. It felt like wading through a pool of porridge. And why, later on, after reading “a steep ascension to the summit of residential elegance,” do I immediately think of the elevators at Ikea?
As already mentioned, this absence of anything new, combined with the sometimes dubious way English mutates here, has created all sorts of interesting condo names. The Trendy. The Exclusive. The Resident. The Line. The Cube. There is an alleged luxury condo block called “The Diplomat.” Heaven knows what clandestine, socially unacceptable and alcohol-filled shenanigans go on in that place.
But my very favorite is a block going up right now as we speak. It’s 33 floors and 331 units. How on earth will they fill it up, I wondered, until I saw its name and location.
It’s called “Siamese Exclusive Queens”. Even allowing for the word “exclusive” in its title, being situated on Rama 4 Road, a stone’s throw away from Silom Soi 2, they will never be starved for customers.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
A SWINE OF A FLU
By Andrew Biggs
It’s been a busy two weeks for your favorite correspondent, who has managed to travel to eight different provinces in ten days.
No, not adjacent provinces either. It was down to Songkhla, then up to Chiang Mai, then across to Nakhon Ratchasima, followed by Nakhon Nayok, Chonburi, Khon Kaen … et cetera.
The result? Today, deadline day for this column, I am sick with the flu. Feeling wretched, sorry for myself, and lacking in wit and wisdom.
It had to happen. One can’t sit in an airplane with 200 strangers and not expect to pick up something other than worthless frequent flier miles.
It is also very bad timing; there have been news reports of a resurgence in swine flu with Livestock officials on guard against the African strain making its to Thailand again. Remind me to pray that doesn’t happen … again.
In 2009 Thailand was hit with swine flu. What a horrible time that was to catch the simple flu. The country locked down as it tried to prevent the flu sweeping across the country. Anyone who caught the dreaded flu was not met with any sympathy or suggestions to drink lots of water and get plenty of rest. You were not considered a patient; you were treated as a leper.
I know; I caught the flu right in the middle of the swine flu outbreak of 2009.
Everybody was paranoid about catching it, because some 44 people succumbed to the disease that year and official figures show just under 5,000 people caught it. That was a mortality rate of just 0.88% but at the time we were all dead scared.
In that climate of fear I came down with the flu.
It was clearly just a regular flu, or at least that’s what my doctor told me, but he was just one opinion. The general population rushed to their sheds at the back of their houses to retrieve their ten-foot barge poles whenever they saw me coming in my regulation mask and pallid complexion.
I remember jumping into the back seat of a taxi and coughing. No, not a thunderous, phlegmy, guttural cough from the depths of my lungs. It was more of an acceptable, almost foppish “a-hem” but the driver – who I might add had just extinguished a cigarette as I got into his nicotine-stained carriage – immediately wound down his window and stuck his nose out into the Bangkok pollution, as if that was somehow going to save him from the dreaded farang in the back seat. Lung cancer, mai pen rai. Farang flu, not on your life.
Anyway I survived, and the odds are clearly in the favor of that taxi driver too. My trip to hospital during those scary times was not the usual happy experience.
Happy? Oh yes. Visiting a hospital in Thailand always reminds me of my youth. Every August in Brisbane, Australia, we had what we called the Exhibition, a gathering of Queensland’s best of all things agricultural, if not cerebral, for one glorious week. It was the one week of the year the state’s farmers donned their best Akubra hats and stood in circles comparing the sizes of their horse studs. Going to the exhibition was an assault on your senses – the smell of beer, sawdust, horse manure, sheep, horse manure, fried foods and horse manure. But this is not why it reminds me of Thai hospitals.
As a kid you had to go to the Exhibition pavilions where you bought what we called “sample bags” full of colorful cheap and nasty games and chocolates. I am reminded of those sample bags every time I go to hospital in Thailand, as I am about to explain.
During swine flu of 2009, it was a different story.
When I arrived at the hospital the usual young man in a suit escorted me over to a nurse who took my blood pressure then placed a thermometer in my mouth.
“I don’t have a temperature,” I said rather pathetically as her hand, sensibly ensconced in rubber gloves, guided the mercury under my tongue.
“38-point-five,” she said in a tone of voice used for axe murderers. “You have a temperature.”
She may as well have said: “You’re the weakest link. Goodbye.” The suited young man whipped out a surgical mask and handed it to me. “Wear this,” he said curtly, and then, as if his arm had been twisted: “Khrab.”
He, too, donned a mask as he guided me into the antiseptic depths of despair known as the waiting room. There, dozens of other masked folk sat waiting for their names to be called. After depositing me there he shuffled off in the direction of the bathrooms, no doubt to shed his suit in preparation for a full-body hose and scrub down.
It didn’t take long for the cattle to be herded in, one by one, and soon I was face to face with a doctor who, in my allotted three minutes, told me I had a flu but “probably not swine flu”. That’s because my temperature hadn’t reached 39 degrees. He figured I wasn’t at risk. This was at the tail end of the epidemic, and the doctor explained that being tested for swine flu would cost me 4,000 baht. This was back in the era before private hospitals got greedy, and 4,000 baht in 2009 would be equivalent to about 23,650 baht in today’s climate of fleece-what-you-can-from-the-patient.
“Get plenty of rest and come back if your temperature goes over 39,” he said. I was then led to the cashier and drug dispenser where I received an exciting array of colored pills in little plastic bags.
This is the medical equivalent of the Brisbane exhibition sample bags. And like those bags from my childhood, each little bag promised so much but ultimately delivered so little. “TAKE TWO EVERY SIX HOURS” one little packet sternly read. When I opened it, it was Tylenol. How disappointing — imagine my excitement had it been Diazepam or Cerepax! Now you’re talking, doctor!
I spent four days in bed. Nobody visited. One of my friends, as a (literally) sick joke, told everybody I had swine flu. Ha ha, very funny, you may as well have bricked up the door to my bedroom. I would have gone crazy from the solitude save for one saving grace. I watched Seasons One and Two of the old 1980s prime time soap opera Dynasty. The day I was strong enough to return to work I ordered Season Three from Amazon because I didn’t think my life would be fulfilled if I didn’t find out what happened to Fallon’s baby. Since then I have always associated Krystle and Alexis with lying sick in bed all alone for a week surviving on rice porridge and Tylenol.
The world has changed since 2009. Hospital fees have doubled, and I no longer have to order soap operas off Amazon thanks to Netflix and Pirate Bay. But the flu is still no fun, so I apologize for leaving you early this week to go get some further rest.
Next week when I am feeling better I promise to regale you with hilarity and share with you more pearls of wisdom — pearls before swine in the very truest sense.
Stay healthy, dear reader. Please comment below!
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs