By Andrew Biggs
Today is day one of the first test cricket match of the Australian summer.
It’s Australia versus India at the Adelaide Oval. Australia is still reeling from the ball tampering scandal in South Africa last year, and they face the world’s number one test playing nation, India, who have never beaten Australia in a series here.
Australia’s two leading batsmen are not on the team, having been banned for 12 months after the ball tempering scandal. One is the captain, and since that controversy Australia has lost heavily in all forms of the game.
On top of this, just last Tuesday there were allegations against the brother of the sole Muslim member of the Australian side, who was arrested when it was discovered he was involved in a terrorist plot against Australian politicians and landmarks in this country.
Okay, let’s stop right there.
All that above information I gleaned from my little brother, who now sits transfixed before the TV set as the cricket test begins, a microcosm of the entire country of Australia. I did happen to ask him: “So, what’s this cricket test?” and I was met with a stony silence until the ad break, when he turned and imparted the knowledge I used at the top of this column. Once the ads were finished, I returned to my invisible state and any attempt at verbal communication was sacrificed for cricket.
I’m in my hometown of Brisbane for a week. People often ask me what Australia’s national religion is. I answer: Sport. Forget Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. We worship cricket. There aren’t many things that drive red-blooded Aussie men to the brink of orgasm, but I would hazard a guess and say Miranda Kerr, Kylie Minogue and Shane Warne would rank in the top 3 and not necessarily in that order.
I am Australian in so many ways, but my confession is I can’t stand cricket. Try as I might, I cannot get myself aroused at the sight of eleven men dressed in white spending five days — yes, my American readers, five long days — on an oval playing one single game.
I was born into a family of stark raving mad cricketers. My childhood was a mix of worshipping Jesus Christ and some obscure New South Welshman named Donald Bradman, while my mother went weak at the knees at Max Walker and the ubiquitous Chappell brothers. My older brother Stephen had a shrine to Dennis Lillee in his bedroom while younger brother Egg spent hundreds of hours on his bed poring over cricket book statistics in an era long before the internet threw them up in your face in a millisecond.
Then there was Andrew. Strange dark Andrew, the Wednesday child, full of woe, disinterested in cricket and favoring writing short stories and reading books. “He’s a strange thing,” it was whispered behind the melanoma-spotted palms of my extended family. It was perfectly ok for Egg to hole himself up for hours in his bedroom deciphering cricket statistics. Woe betide wacko Andrew who wanted to while away the hours reading Charles Dickens and Somerset Maugham.
Let me tell you it was hard being the literary one in a family that put streamers up when Kepler Wessels announced he would bat for Queensland. Later I became a journalist writing feature articles for the Queensland Courier-Mail, even picking up an award, but on a scale of one to 10 my career rated a 3 next to brother Egg when he was selected for the Queensland second eleven for one brief week back in the early 1980s. He never went out on the pitch to play, but if I mention that I am accused of “always wanting to spoil things”.
When we were barely out of diapers, my father registered our three names on the waiting list for the Melbourne Cricket Club. The MCC is the most hallowed of clubs to belong to for any Australian with a waiting list of 30 years.
“Just think,” my father would say during our primary school years, “In another 25 years you’ll be able to enjoy matches from the Long Room at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.” Any reply from me such as “but we live 2,000 kilometres away from Melbourne, Daddy” was greeted with a clip around the ears.
“Not long now,” my father would say as we hit senior school. “Another 15 years or so and you’ll have that coveted membership in your hands.” We had hit puberty so my brothers were able to get a tingle in their loins at that thought. For me it remained the equivalent of erectile dysfunction.
“Almost within reach,” my father would say in our college years. By this stage I was writing short stories and even novels, not that anybody knew. Meanwhile my family could recite Egg’s latest score on the field as his cricket career blossomed.
Then, a terrible turn of events.
In 1984 I was sent down south as Melbourne correspondent for The Courier-Mail. It was a two-year posting and I had to send stories 2,000 km back to Queensland. It came with a number of perks, such as free cab fares, subsidized rent …
… and free membership to the MCC.
Upon hearing the news, my family went ballistic.
The irony did not pass over them that the one family member who loathed the game was the only one who was able to saunter in and out of the MCG whenever the mood took him. “Had a good night in the Long Room last night,” I would say on one of my many infrequent calls to my brothers and parents. “Spoke to one of the Chappell brothers, not that I knew which one it was.” More heretically, I was using the pass to fulfil my new-found interest in Aussie Rules – salt in the wound in my family’s eyes.
Suddenly my brothers took an interest in me. Egg, who, had he been on the TItanic would have packed his favorite cricket ball and groin protector before going off to save women and children, was down visiting me in a flash. “Where is it?” were his first three words upon my greeting him at Tullamarine airport, hand outstretched. I obediently placed the membership badge in his hand and didn’t see him for the rest of his visit, except on rest days.
Two years later my time was up and I moved to Sydney. The MCC badge was handed on to the person who replaced me, and I was non-compos-Andrew once again in my family.
In 1989 I moved to Thailand and it was around then I got the phone call from my father.
“Just to let you know your MCC membership has come up.” Then, a little sadly, he adopted his father-to-10-year-old tone with me. “And you know I think you should take it up. You never know when you’ll be in Melbourne and –“
“— and what, Dad? Suddenly develop an interest in cricket? It ain’t gonna happen, Dad. You have to face it … I just won’t ever turn. Please. Understand that.”
And then, really pathetically, I added: “I’m sorry.”
Family dynamics can be trying things. Just when I think mine is the most dysfunctional on the planet, I learn that just about every other family feels that way about their own. For me, I may continue to perform, write, host and produce things of quality and distinction, but because I lack that all-important gene, I may as well just sit at home scratching my cricket balls. If I had any to scratch.
NOW IF IT HAD BEEN 42 I WOULD HAVE UNDERSTOOD
By Andrew Biggs
He appeared out of nowhere.
My personal assistant. He was dressed in his work uniform. I don’t know where he came from but he ran towards me.
As he neared he smiled and crouched down right before me.
He must have been about a meter away from my face. He didn’t say a word, just kept beaming at me.
With a flourish he brought his right hand up and displayed, prominently, the number four.
Then, not a few seconds later, he raised a single ring finger. One.
That was when I woke up.
I’d forgotten about that dream until midday when my personal assistant waltzed into our office. Personal assistants apparently have pressing chores to attend to in the early morning, which explains why his 9 am start time progressively gets later and later.
It was lunchtime and I was sitting with my accountant and general manager, both older Thai women, enjoying some mid-priced pad kraphao kai dao. The maid was somewhere off in the background with a mop.
My personal assistant sat down with us.
“I had a dream about you last night,” I said.
“Really?” he asked. His eyebrows fluttered and he leaned forward. “Was it … erotic?”
It was a perfect moment to teach English vocabulary such as “nauseous” but instead I said: “You came right up to me and flashed a number at me with your fingers.”
The synchronized clink of two sets of cutlery was only superseded in volume by the rush of air as the office maid swooped over. It takes a lot for Thais to stop eating, but apparently I’d just precipitated that.
“What number?” the personal assistant, accountant, general manager and maid asked in perfect unison.
“That’s the thing,” I said. “I don’t know if it was two separate numbers, or a combination of –”
“What number!?” the personal assistant, accountant, general manager and maid asked again in perfect unison. Only this time there was something threatening in their collective voice. Eight eyes peered at me with arched eyebrows in a curious tableau.
“Forty-one,” I said.
If this were a cartoon, those four staffers would speed off in a puff of smoke like Wile E. Coyote. But they had questions.
“Are you sure about the number?” my accountant asked.
“Are you sure it wasn’t the other way around?” my general manager asked.
“Well the four was very clear,” I said. “You used your four fingers and hid your thumb. It was a sideways four. But then your single finger was upright.”
“Which finger did I use for the one?”
“Your ring finger. Or perhaps it was your middle finger.”
I said that to add a little levity to what was descending into a serious discussion, but it didn’t work.
“No! I would never use my middle finger in front of your face like that!” my personal assistant said. I appreciated his loyalty, though he cleverly omitted which digit he would employ had my back been turned.
Before 1 pm my four staff each had made their surreptitious phone calls to put money on number 41 for the next national lottery draw.
Here in Thailand, life revolves around the 1st and the 16th of every month. The national lottery is the single most important machine to ensure Thais remain familiar with the numerical system.
On the next 1st or 16th switch on Channel 11, NBT, and you’ll find one of the country’s top-rating TV shows despite it going to air in the graveyard timeslot of mid-afternoon.
It’s the Government Lottery Office draw. It features a row of six pretty girls with identical outfits and skin extracted from snails. They line up in front of plastic bubbles filled with bouncing balls and draw one out each, then solemnly hold the numbers up to the camera.
Don’t for a moment think the numbers are random. This is Thailand, where everything is predetermined, including the lottery, and it is every Thai’s mission in life to tap into the supernatural world to know what’s coming up number-wise.
That’s why number 41 was so important to know.
Lucky lottery numbers are often found in dreams. They can also be found in temple trees, too, deformed animals, strange-shaped fruit and plants the shape of everything from fairies to phalluses. Some of the richest monks in Thailand have accumulated their wealth from dropping candle wax into water, chanting something incomprehensible, then proclaiming what numbers are “holy” for the upcoming draw.
It is a national obsession. Every two weeks a total of 74 million lottery tickets are sold in this country. There are more lottery tickets circulating in any given fortnight than there are people in Thailand.
That’s just the legal lottery. There is a whole industry known as the “underground lottery” that some estimate to be even bigger than the official one!
It certainly is in my office.
The odds are dismal and in the seller’s favor. For example, supposing I gambled 100 baht on number 41 coming up. (“Coming up” here means it is the last two digits of the winning six-digit number). There are 100 different combinations of two-digit numbers that could come up. In a perfect world my winning should be 10,000. It’s not. It’s more like 6,500 baht, since underground lottery bookies give you odds of 65 to 1.
That night I found a (legal) ticket vendor with 41 at the end and bought three of them. Sad, I know, but when in Rome …
The winning ticket for the draw on October 1st was 452643. See those last two numbers? Forty-three!
The maid was excited. “That’s so close to 41!”” she announced the following morning.
“You may as well be 99 away,” I said.
“It’s a sign. Maybe next draw it’ll be even closer!” she said.
Despite the failure to find a bridge between my dream and instant wealth, my personal assistant was enjoying being the center of attention. He swanned around the office with his shoulders back, proud to have infiltrated the boss’s dreams.
“If you win first prize, you will need to give me a cut,” he told me.
“Dream on,” I said. “Get it?”
The winning ticket on October 16th was 200515.
“Your cut is zero,” I said.
“Did you notice that?” my maid said. “What’s four plus one?”
“Five,” said the accountant, who was good at such sums.
“Now look at the last number of that winning number. It’s five!”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said.
Late October I bought another ticket ending in 41. I couldn’t help it.
The winning ticket on November 1st was 149840.
Now my maid was writhing on the newly-mopped floor.
“We’re getting closer and closer!” she chortled.
No we’re not. The only thing we were closing in on was insanity.
I wish I’d never opened my big mouth. I wish that back on that first day, I’d laughed and said yes, personal assistant, it was an erotic dream and now let’s get on with our lives.
My office is now obsessed with number 41. So, too, is my personal assistant’s home village, located deep in the jungles of Buriram, where all the farmers are betting on number 41.
I will have to continue buying tickets ending in 41. I’m in this too deep now. To continue is madness. If I stop, I just know 41 is going to come up.
I am angry with my personal assistant.
I’m angry at him for coming into my dreams and flashing that four and one at me. Couldn’t he have just stayed away from me and my slumber?
And the most intriguing question of all; if it was the lottery, then what on earth was it?
GETTING DOWN AT THE DOGGY DISCO
By Andrew Biggs in Hollywood, California
It’s been a nightmarish two days for me here in the States as I have traipsed around the neighborhood trying to find a new beautician.
Not for me. For the dog!
What is it about there Americans? Their economy is up the shute and unemployment is rising fast. I see businesses close on a weekly basis in my neighborhood which, if you haven’t noticed my mentioning it 276 times already in this column, is Hollywood.
Toshi is a little shih tzu, the dog of my American mother. When I am not visiting, my mother pays a woman called Nancy $10 to walk him both morning and night.
Think about that, dear reader, as I did with horror. $20 a day times 30 days equals Nancy $600 a month richer from my mother alone. I’ve seen Nancy pull up with six or seven dogs yapping in her car, which by rights should be a Mercedes Benz judging by the cash in hand she takes home each month.
I put my foot down and told my mother while I was in town I’d be walking the dog for no fee whatsoever. Me and my high horse – the sooner it gets to the glue factory the better. The novelty of walking a dog every day wore off just around the time my jetlag did.
That’s because Toshi, like all dogs, poops at least twice per walk. By law that means I have to scoop up the poop using special gaily-colored plastic bags. Nobody told me about that part of the job before agreeing to do it.
Being a shih tzu and thus having more hair than intelligence, little Toshi regularly needs to go to what my mother calls “the beauty parlor” but sadly the one we normally take Toshi to has gone out of business. It was my job, then, to find a new “groomer” as they are called here.
Yes, that’s right, it’s a profession. God knows what university you go to to become a groomer, but if you can get a degree in hamburger making, which not doggie grooming? That’s how I found myself in my car trawling the streets of Hollywood for … dog groomers.
I almost crashed when I saw the sign on La Brea for the Doggy Disco. With the disco ball above the words, I thought: Surely it’s not a disco for dogs?
“It’s a disco for dogs,” the pleasant young woman behind the counter said. “You can bring your dog along and dance with him!”
Wouldn’t be the first time I danced with a dog.
The Doggy Disco is actually part of a spacious place called the Zoom Room which is, among other things, a “Canine Social Club”.
A social club? Aren’t those for ugly people who can’t get lucky on a Friday night? Dogs never have such problems but according to the Zoom Room literature thrust upon me, they do need help.
“Our special Doggy Disco nights feature laser light shows for your dog to chase!”
It turns out I can rent the disco for “dog birthday parties, adoption anniversaries, pet commitment ceremonies and Bark Mitzvahs.” Bark Mitzvahs!? Barking mad more like it! At $150 for one disco I think I’ll stick to the Viper Room on Santa Monica where drinks are only eight bucks a pop. I wonder if they’ll admit dogs.
The Zoom Room featured a supermarket for all my dog necessities, including a “Dog Casino” which was allegedly a “fun interactive game!” Dogs like to gamble? Then there were the “kosher treats for your pup” stuff in the fridge; I guess they’re to have at your “Bark Mitzvah.”
But no groomers. So I was soon back in my car and further up La Brea chanced upon a pet hospital! Maybe I was in luck!
Silly me for thinking a hospital would have a groomer. Well human hospitals do, don’t they? But I was greeting with an emphatic “no” when I entered the Hollywood Cat And Dog Hospital.
I was kind of attracted to the sign outside the front, which reminded me of something out of the Jetsons. But this was serious stuff; no trifling Doggy Discos around here.
Heading down Fairfax I chanced upon All Natural Pet Food Supplies and quickly pulled over. Inside was a store that ostensibly looked like any normal supermarket only it was all stuff for dogs.
What really took my breath away were the meat snacks with flavors that were sure to appeal to dogs such as “New Zealand Summer Sausages” and “French Country Café”, as if dogs enjoy such things. I started to feel as though I’d stepped into some canine Twilight Zone when the flavors included “Thanksgiving Day Sausages” – dogs are into giving thanks? – and “Grandma’s Pot Pie”.
Again, no groomers. That afternoon I was starting to grow weary of all things canine. Little did I know of the light on the horizon.
It was the next day and I was speeding back home along 3rd Street having had one too many margeritas at my favorite Tequila bar, when I spotted the oasis in the distance.
“The Doghouse!” the building shouted. It was white and covered in black dalmation spots, which looked very cute especially in my state. What got me the most was its phone number: Call 549-WOOF.
“Yes, we do grooming,” the lovely lady inside told me and I wanted to hug her. “Our groomers start work at 10 am.”
“Just a shave,” I said. “You know, get rid of the excess hair.”
“Bows or ribbons?”
“Hell no!” I roared just a little too loudly for her liking.
“Well we will need you to bring in his vaccination certificates, plus his certificate of neutering or spaying.”
In America you get a certificate for being gelded? What … you frame it and hang it on the wall? And is there circumcision for those Bark Mitzvah dogs too? This was getting beyond crazy.
“Is it just the hair styling? If so you probably don’t have to bring him along for a meet and greet,” she said, smiling.
That afternoon as I walked Toshi there were many thoughts rushing through my head.
How can a country in such a crippled economic state have such a thriving canine industry? And how is it in America dogs like to gamble, profess religion, and yearn for their grandmother’s pot pies?
They don’t in Thailand. I looked at Toshi and couldn’t help wonder what would happen had he possessed the unfortunate karma to be born in oh, Sakon Nakhon in the Northeast of Thailand, where thousands of Toshi’s brethren met a terrible fate recently.
But hey, in a week or so I’m back in Bangkok where soi dogs roam the streets frothing with rabies and the only dog I’ll hear in a disco is the Snoop Doggy variety.
I’ll still be smiling to be back. So will Nancy, all the way to the bank.
By Andrew Biggs
Three Weeks Ago
I haven’t seen Tee and his mother for more than three years, ever since Tee came begging for a loan to help with a down payment on a pick-up truck.
What a difference three years makes. He has transformed from pimply 17-year-old to strapping, albeit pock-marked, 20-year-old. His mother explains how much the two have missed me and how they are both well.
“With the exception of one thing,” she says.
Tee looks at me with eyes that resemble a cross between a doe and a hawk.
“I need to borrow 20,000 Baht,” he says.
That was quick. Exactly two minutes have transpired since the two have entered my office, and already I’m in danger of dropping twenty grand. Should I shoo them out now before it hits fifty?
“I must register for the draft,” he says. “In two weeks I have to front up to the satsadee.”
I am unfamiliar with this word. As I listen to Tee, I take my focus away from a particularly deep pockmark to the left of his nose, in the shape of a comma, and quietly punch the word into Google Translate.
Satsadee. Military Recruiting Officer.
Basically, Tee has to put his hand into a metal box in two weeks. If he draws out a red lot, he is drafted. If it’s black, he’s free.
Every April, Thai men aged 21 years and above must register for the draft, which is two years’ service. This being Thailand there are two ways of getting out of it.
The first is that boys in Years 9 to 12 at high school can attend military school once a week, exempting them from the draw.
And the second way?
“I pay the recruiting officer 30,000 Baht,” says Tee. “Under the table. In that way I am assured of a black card My family has scraped together 10,000 Baht but we are still short.”
“Wait a minute,” I say. “This can’t be true. The military launched a coup because of the corrupt system. They are overseeing the writing of a new constitution to eradicate corruption. They’re about to reveal 100 corrupt government officials. Why would they themselves allow such a system to exist?”
Silence from Tee and his mother.
“And why so expensive?” I ask. “The last time I helped a kid like this it was only 8,000 Baht.”
“And when was that, Khun Andrew?” Mother asks.
“1998,” I reply. Clearly inflation extends to graft as well.
“In my district it’s 30,000 Baht to ensure I don’t draw a red lot,” says Tee. “Half for the doctors, and half for the officer in charge of the draw.”
Tee explains that on the day he will have start with a medical examination, then do the draw. It is in one of those two scenarios that Tee will get his freedom.
“Either the doctor will say I have a disease or I draw a black lot,” says Tee.
“Why not just pay the doctor 15,000 and go with the disease? That way you save 15,000,” I suggest.
“It’s not as simple as that,” says Tee. It never is.
“Why not just volunteer to be a soldier?” I suggest. “It’s a great career here in Thailand, especially now they’re in power indefinitely. The money’s not great, but look at all the generals. They live in mansions!”
Tee’s mother coughed.
“Tee’s just getting his life back together again after that … unfortunate accident. He’s got a good job as a messenger, plus he has a new girlfriend and they’re going to get married.”
I look at the two of them.
“Two thousand baht for ten months,” says Tee, reading my mind.
I let out a big sigh.
“Oh alright,” I say.
Tee’s face breaks into a huge smile, all but obliterating the pockmark in the shape of a comma.
Two Weeks LaterThe army has announced this year it requires 99,373 recruits from a total of 344,254 young men. Tee would have had a one in three chance of drawing a red lot. If I were Tee, I’d save myself the 30,000 baht and take my chances, but Tee, or perhaps Tee’s fiancé, is having none of that.
In his district the odds are not so good. His district requires 132 recruits, and there are 273 young men who must draw lots. If not for the payment, Tee would have a 50:50 chance of being drafted.
The news of draft day captures the nation’s attention just prior to Songkran.
There is always a singer or actor who fronts up. This year it is heartthrob Mario Maurer, who like everybody else must take off his shirt for the doctors, and everybody swoons — with the exception of his Chinese fans, who claim he’s gotten fat. Mario draws a black lot.
There’s a star footballer too, Thirasin Daengdar, who clearly took my advice and volunteered for service in the air force, cementing his position as national hero.
And of course there were the numerous transgendered guys who were rejected for looking too much like girls but hey, at least they fronted up.
Somewhere amid the rest of the 344,000-odd young men was Tee, having handed a wad of cash to his uncle in the military, who then passed it onto the local recruiting officer, who then tutored him the night before on how to draw a black lot.
Life gets busy for me and I forget about Tee. Until yesterday.
Tee is calling from a phone booth in his home province.
“I drew black!” he chortles. “I drew black!”
“So you should have,” I answer.
The process, it turns out, was quite ingenious.
The red lots are made of cardboard. The black lots are made of much thinner paper. The recruiting officer teaches Tee (and three others) to close their eyes and differentiate between the two by rubbing them with their fingers.
The black and red lots are rolled up and inserted into drinking straws. Tee has to close his eyes and weigh up the straws to find the lighter ones. By law he has 30 seconds to move his hand around the metal box before he has to draw one out.
“The trick is to concentrate, and never lose your cool,” says the recruiting officer.
It took Tee all his cool to get through it, but he did.
“I’m glad I didn’t follow your advice about the doctor,” says Tee. “The chief medical officer turned up and oversaw everything, so the doctors couldn’t write me a fake disease. They just measured my chest and moved me on quickly to the draw line.”
The three boys before him had drawn out red lots. It took Tee 15 seconds to feel the one single lighter straw, and when he pulled out his hand – it was black.
“I’ve already transferred the first payment to you,” says Tee. “And I’m going to send you an invitation to my wedding. You’ll come, won’t you?”
I am happy that Tee’s future is optimistic and rosy. Let him get on with his life, free of the draft, and let the military get on with stamping out corruption. It is after all, as they repeatedly tell us, a cancer.
CEASEFIRE ON SUKHUMVIT
By Andrew Biggs
It’s a jungle out there on the streets of Bangkok.
Behind the wheel we curse, cut in front, blast our horns, tailgate, angrily flash our lights, and do whatever we can to ensure we get to our destination quicker than any of those other despicable drivers.
We create lanes out of the shoulder. We ignore all notions of fairness; if there is a line of 20 cars lined up to get off the main road, that won’t stop some buffoon in a dirty white pick-up or dinky Vios brazenly driving up beside the line and cutting in right up front.
We begrudgingly allow cars in front of us despite not using indicators. They change lanes every 10 seconds, or whenever a tiny space opens up between two cars in the adjacent lane which could lessen the duration of their trip by a good 10 milliseconds.
Each and every car is the enemy. How we loathe one other. It is chaos; pure, unadulterated chaos.
Thailand … the Land of Smiles? Only when you’ve succeeded in forcing that dirty white pick-up or dinky Vios off the road into the shoulder, with a bit of luck overturning it in the process. Ha! That’ll teach ‘em.
Thus it was a cheerful respite this week when I took time out from my hectic schedule to renew my Thai Driver’s License.
I am an extremely law abiding citizen if you don’t count occasional indiscretions, all of which have gone undetected by the constabulary (and boy oh boy, you should see the mighty slab of wood I am knocking as I write that).
When I realized my license had expired whilst gallivanting on my recent European tour, the first thing I did upon returning to Thailand was renew it for another five years.
I did it at the Department of Land Transportation on Sukhumvit Road, Bangchak. I arrived at 12.35 pm, only to be greeted and swallowed up by a crowd of people on the same mission.
If you are expecting this to be a horror story about the abysmal service of bullying government officials, then I suggest you make your way over to another website immediately, because you are going to be disappointed.
“One of our testing machines has broken,” a DLT official announced. “We’re really sorry, but this is going to take some time.” She handed me a purple card with number 162 on it.
The DLT staff were friendly and apologetic to us all. There was a feeling of Buddhist resignation permeating the atmosphere; perhaps it rubbed off on me. We all knew we were in for a long wait, so we made the best of it.
I met an affable Indian man with whom I shared a common friend. There was another Indian who, for a couple of hours, was my new best friend. He worked in IT at Suvarnabhumi and he even bought me a bottle of water.
But the crowd was almost exclusively Thai.
There was the gaggle of motorcycle taxi riders, still sporting their orange vests, sharing hilarious stories about their passengers. A young guy kept flitting from his seat next to me to his wife and newborn baby, waiting for him at the other end of the cavernous place. I learned about his wife’s difficult pregnancy and the miracle of his son’s birth.
At one stage I dropped my pen; a Thai lady retrieved it and handed it over to me with a lovely smile. I accidentally left my cellphone on my chair as the queue started moving; one of the motorcycle guys tapped me on the shoulder to return it.
It wasn’t all rosy, though.
We were forced to sit through a 50-minute movie, ostensibly to teach us road rules but I think we all left with a better understanding of how truly dreadful instructional videos can be.
It’s a soap opera that follows two Thai kids. The girl, Noodee, lives happily with her flawless mother and friendly father who sports the biggest ears I’ve ever seen on a soap opera star.
The father plays the benevolent road-safety-conscious character who dispenses insightful tips on safe driving every 45 seconds. He’s the type of guy I get put next to at embassy parties. If I’d been writing the script I’d have had him under the wheel of a 16-wheel truck at the bottom of page one but alas, he made it through to the end.
Noodee’s best friend is Shogun, a sullen boy which stems from the fact his mother has flown the coop and his father’s a speeding maniac who fails to buckle his seatbelt and likes to run red lights; to call him two dimensional is being extremely generous to his quota of dimensions.
I was suffering from jetlag and I admit I fell asleep for ten minutes in the middle of the video, but it didn’t matter because it was plainly obvious Shogun’s father was going crash his car with Shogun in it, of course, rendering the kid a vegetable with limited chance of recovery, not unlike how those of us watching were feeling.
The end was as pathetic as it was obvious. Shogun’s father sees the error of his ways, and in the final scene, Noodee’s jug-eared father ratchets up the pedantic meter as he gives him a lecture on the benefits of safe driving.
This causes Shogun’s father to give up smoking and dedicate his life to the full recovery of his son. He has transformed into a foppish doctrinaire just like Noodee’s Dad. I liked him better when he was a rebel.
At the end of the movie we were invited to wait outside again. This we did, and our conversations continued. When our names were called, in groups of 20, we all stood in a very orderly line that snaked back and forth in the testing room. Nobody thought to cut in as we moved slowly towards the machines that tested our reflexes and vision.
There was one simulator where one has to brake as quickly as possible upon seeing a red light. We were all in this together, cheering when any of us braked quickly, encouraging those who weren’t so quick.
“I’m sorry I’m taking so long,” one flustered woman announced. She was having trouble with the brake and accelerator.
“Don’t worry about it!” came a chorus of ten people waiting their turn, flashing their killer Thai smiles. Even the testing lady was egging her along – “just relax; I’ll give you another chance.” On the third attempt she got it; the room erupted in cheers.
From there we did three other tests, patiently waiting and chatting and passing the time.
Finally, after four tests, we were finished. At 4.30 pm I walked out with my brand new Thai license, good for another five years.
Walking back to my car, that is when it dawned on me.
The carpark was full of dirty white pick-up trucks and dinky Vios cars.
That friendly crowd in there was exactly the same people I encountered on the Bangkok roads every day of my life.
It was but a fleeting insight. Soon I re-entered the cacophony that is Sukhumvit Road.
Behind the wheel I seamlessly re-entered the world of cursing, cutting in front, blasting horns, tailgating, angrily flashing lights, and doing whatever else one can to beat those other despicable drivers.
By Andrew Biggs
It’s always fun catching up with Ronnachai, though the most recent time I saw him it nearly didn’t happen thanks to an incident along the way.
“I got pulled over for drink driving just outside Buriram,” he said. “I blew 82, whatever that means.”
Next to him his best buddy Tam burst into laughter and slapped his knee, while Ronnachai rolled his eyes and broke into a smile.
We were sitting at a roadside café on a mountain not far from his and my home in northern Chantaburi. Ronnachai is my next door neighbor and I’ve known him for more than 25 years, from his free-wheeling twenties to his more settled-down thirties to his now-turbulent forties.
Things haven’t been going well for my old friend. A failed marriage, a downturn in chicken manure and rubber prices (two industries that helped pay off his first vehicle only to allow his second to be repossessed), and not being elected at the last local village poll have all resulted in Ronnachai going through a rough patch.
Despite this he still smiles and tells great stories with a perpetual cigarette in his hand. If you ask him about corruption, he can talk for at least half an hour non-stop about Thailand’s ills thanks to the scourge of under-the-table payments and vote buying at local government levels he has experienced first-hand. Nothing animates him more than corruption.
At least he has given up alcohol. That happened in the beginning of 2016 and he only drinks when his best friend since childhood, Tam, comes to his village for a visit.
Like right now.
I arrived in Chantaburi this morning and by chance Ronnachai had just arrived back from a weekend trip to Buriram with Tam in tow.
We were sitting watching the sun go down over the mountains on Khao Pansaa, the first day of the Buddhist Lent. The sale of alcohol was strictly prohibited, which meant beer bottles were placed under the tables out of eyesight.
“It happened at lunchtime today,” Ronnachai said, as Tam cackled beside him in a drunken stupor. “We’d just set off from my cousin’s house in Buriram when we were pulled over by the cops.”
“Were you drunk?” I asked.
My question sent my two old friends into more gales of laughter.
“Of course we were!” shouted Ronnachai. “We’d been drinking since the night before. I’d had a few hours sleep, that’s all. Tam here was worse than I was. He could hardly stand up.”
Tam appeared proud of this fact and sat up a little straighter, though not too much straighter otherwise he would be out of reach of the surreptitious beer bottle under his seat.
“Anyway we’d only been driving for 15 minutes or so and we get pulled over by the cops just outside Buriram city.”
Ronnachai paused to light a cigarette and take another swig of his beer.
“The cop turned out to be a really nice guy. He asked me to blow into his device. I asked if I could sit and wait a while until I sobered up but he just laughed and said no.”
“Yoghurt,” interjected Tam out of the blue.
“Huh?” asked Ronnachai.
“They say if you eat yoghurt before blowing in the bag it will reduce the alcohol reading,” he said, nodding sagely.
“Who the hell is ‘they’? That’s nonsense. Anyway so I blew in the bag and the reading was 82 – over the limit!” said Ronnachai. “The cop took my license immediately.”
He pointed at Tam. “He was useless! Was hardly coherent enough to even register what was going on. I had to do all the talking.”
“How did you get here then?” I asked.
Ronnachai seemed not to understand the question.
“If you blew 82, then how did you manage to get here?”
Ronnachai put down his beer. He threw the stub of his cigarette away into nearby bushes and leaned forward, inches away from my face. He was about to make an important point.
“Two … thousand … baht!” he said, full of fire. “I had to pay 2,000 baht!”
“I said at the time it was way too much,” babbled Tam.
“You did not! You were so drunk you didn’t know what was going on!” admonished Ronnachai.
“You paid a 2,000 baht fine?” I asked, and Ronnachai shook his head vigorously.
“The cop said if I was to be arrested and go to court I’d end up paying 8,000 Baht, or maybe even 15,000 Baht, for drunk driving. So he asked for 4,000 – half of what I would pay if it got processed.”
“Paeng!” hissed Tam but we both ignored him.
“I told him 4,000 was too much, and after a while he agreed to 3,000 baht but nothing below that. It was unfair. He had four or five of his friends there – what chance did I have against five cops? I didn’t have that sort of money on me, so he made me go to the nearest ATM.”
“I hope he did the driving,” I said.
“Yeah. On his motorbike. So we get there and by this stage I’m thinking: Three thousand baht! That’s way too much. So I withdraw three grand and come back to the cop and I say to him: Listen, brother: I have a wife and two kids. I can’t afford three thousand baht. Here’s two thousand, and I’ll keep the other one thousand for myself.”
“And you know what?”
Another pause for effect.
“He agrees!” said Ronnachai, sitting back, smiling while shaking his head at the sunset in front of us. “It got me thinking. I should have said I had a minor wife as well! I should have offered that cop one thousand baht. He probably would’ve agreed to that.”
Ronnachai drank some more beer. There was a momentary silence; he had come to the end of his story.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “What happened then?”
“End of story. He got his money, and I got my license back.”
“And what – you continued on your journey?” I asked.
“Sure. What else was I gonna do?! He couldn’t drive,” he said, pointing to his friend. “He’d drunk twice as much as me!”
“Didn’t the police stop you?”
“The cop told me I should wait a while before I sobered up, but I had to get back here by sundown. I had a customer coming to buy chicken manure and nobody else could help him shovel it into bags. All my Cambodian workers left after the public holiday and still haven’t come back.”
“Weren’t you worried about being pulled over again?”
“Well that’s the thing,” said Ronnachai. “I demanded a receipt from the cop in case I was pulled over by another police stop further along, but he said he couldn’t do that. That pissed me off. So I demanded he call the next police stop ahead to tell him not to arrest me a second time, which’d be totally unfair but typical of Thai cops. There’s no way I was gonna shell out another two grand!”
“We … didn’t … get … shtopped … again,” slurred Tam, falling asleep as he spoke.
It was time for Ronnachai to take him home. We got the bill and walked to our respective cars.
“Are you okay to drive?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said Ronnachai. “I know all the cops around here anyway.” He sighed. “Two thousand Baht … gone like that!”
And he was gone, too, in more ways than one, his pick-up wobbling somewhat within its lane down the mountain towards his home. With a bit of luck he would make it home.
THE ART OF TRANSPORT
By Andrew Biggs
There is a new business that has opened up on my way to work.
It’s called “Car Media Solutions” and that very name sums up everything that’s weird about modern society.
It was difficult to guess initially as to what service was being peddled. The fact it is offering solutions means there is a problem, and that problem is in the form of “car media”, whatever that is. If I had to guess I would say car media involves publications, broadcasters and websites devoted to automobiles, although the last time I flicked through True Vision’s plethora of TV channels, not one of them boasted being a “Car Channel.” If only the same could be said of shopping networks.
My assumption was completely off beam. “Media” here is not of the communication kind. Rather, it means bells. Whistles. Lights. Neon. And every conceivable thing that can flash and wink at me, affixed to a moving vehicle.
It’s not enough to have red brake lights at the back and white lights at the front of your vehicle for night driving, nor are the cute indicator lights enough to break the monotony. It is now possible to transform your vehicle into a discotheque.
Is this a portent of the apocalypse? We have witnessed the death of book shops and music stores only to be replaced by shophouses that can turn your pickup truck into a Studio 54 on wheels. I may not be able to find a shop that sells dictionaries or classic novels along Srinakharin Road, but thank goodness if I ever feel the need for red, green and blue flashing lights that trill up and down the contours of my sedan synchronized with my brake pedal?
It should be hardly surprising, since this is a country where expressions of popular art are found in the place we spend such an obscene amount of time — our roadways.
Just yesterday I returned from a couple of hours viewing such a display of Thai modern art.
Some of the depictions were of well-known identities of Thai folklore. More than a few were of a religious nature, weaving traditional Buddhist notions into a more contemporary theme.
Others were a little racier; expressions of the female form, highly stylized, yet exuding a pastiche of emotions that captured the mood and tone of the artist while evoking feelings within the observer of a nature that complimented the easily-apparent and undiluted intentions of its creator.
Excuse me while I pause … not just to turn down the Pedantic Meter, but to take a breath. That last sentence was 46 words.
You have probably already guessed the artistic works in question were not rendered on canvas. They were painted on metal.
This gallery passed me by, generally in the left lane, as I sped along highway 36 to Rayong two hours west of Bangkok.
Rayong is Thailand’s wealthiest province. Approximately one-third of all tax is collected from this single province, thanks to all the national and international conglomerates who have set up factories and refineries there.
Last Monday was a holiday for you, dear reader, but your favorite columnist had a gig in the heart of the eastern seaboard. During that trip I realized I was being distracted … by art!
There, emblazoned on the sides of every second truck and bus I overtook, were scenes as colorful as they were diverse.
There was, on the back of one truck, the Lord Buddha at the moment he attained enlightenment, his head shooting forth a golden aura as asps wove themselves around the Bhodhi Tree, a picture of serenity and all-knowingness, right above YOU ARE PASSING ANOTHER FOX.
(It did make me think twice about overtaking the truck, but even the Lord Buddha’s serenity couldn’t assuage my fear of not making it to the gig on time.)
I think it’s great that in an industry as dull as logistics, colorful art has permeated the very trucks that make up its core.
I saw a bus covered in Japanese anime – girls with big eyes and tiny waists holding bouquets of brilliant flowers, staring up into the bright electric blue sky while a nameless superhero with a bulging chest and equally-bulging red crotch flew overhead.
A Somchai Sinla bus went for a more American approach. Mickey Mouse beamed at me next to a very imposing bald eagle. Another bus had what appeared to be Adam and Eve on the plains of Isan, each giving the other a look seen commonly on the second-floor bars of Nana Plaza.
Then there was the truck with six macho cowboys with handlebar moustaches; the truck owner was clearly a fan of either the wild west or Silom Soi 4.
On the return journey the sun had gone down and the painted art was replaced by art of a neon kind — the type sold at that new establishment I mentioned at the top of this column.
I witnessed a bus bathed entirely in purple neon light. It looked like something out of The Matrix. The dark purple lights curved around the mudguards and on the corners of the bus, not unlike the lights at the disco at the Sunnybank Pub where I grew up. While dancing to “Get Up And Boogie” your teeth would light up, not to mention the dandruff on the oversized collars of your purple polyester disco shirt.
There used to be a time you would see buses like that one all the time, a time when all Thailand’s provincial buses were travelling discos. At the back, a disco ball and flashing lights blazed all night as drunken travellers danced and cavorted with total strangers to “YMCA” and Boney M’s “Daddy Cool”. Restrictions on alcohol consumption on public transport has meant the death knell for most of these buses, but I still saw one last Monday night.
Where does a truck driver get the money for such adornments? Neon lighting isn’t cheap. It is little wonder truck drivers can only afford flip flops while driving, and the very cheapest of methamphetamine, when they have to pay off their works of art!
I’m not complaining. It is refreshing to see artistic expressions as opposed to commercial ones on the sides of private buses and trucks in rural Thailand. They are bright and creative and nothing like the clean, soulless buses and trucks in civilized countries like Australia.
There are no Buddhas or Japanese anime on our freighters. Our buses and trucks are adorned with such killjoy information as HAZCHEM or phone numbers in case the truck driver is driving recklessly.
Bravo to the trucking and bus industry here for adding vibrant color to its vehicles. Is there anything harmful about such artistic depictions on the sides of buses and trucks? Well, maybe.
A Thai friend tells me the religious icons are talismans. They are visual amulets to ward off bad luck, to protect the driver as he makes his way along the upcountry lanes, roads and super highways.
That’s a nice idea but one wonders if our drivers are placing too much faith in them. Are we also forgetting that “car media” is a distraction from the job of driving a motor vehicle?
Today on a local news website there was a picture of a bus crash. The driver lost control and crashed into a ditch. As the bus is being dragged out of the khlong, one can clearly see, covered in streaked mud, the row of intricately-painted Buddha images along the top just above the windows.
A talisman is ultimately just paint on metal, and that is no match for methamphetamines and a leaden foot in flip flops.
A MILITARY COUP ... AND NOTHING TO SAY
By Andrew Biggs
(Note: Written during the week of the military coup, May 2014)
This week your favorite columnist is restricted by what he can write.
According to the National Council for Peace and Order, I am not allowed to criticize them. Nor am I allowed to tell lies about them.
I can live with those two edicts. Throw enough money and alcohol in my direction, packaged with a few veiled threats concerning the ease with which a visa can be abruptly cancelled, and it is quite startling, if not pitiful, how quickly I will toe the line.
My question is this: If I can’t criticize or tell lies about them, can I tell the truth about them?
Now we are in murky water because if the answer is “yes”, what if the truth is unpalatable in the eyes of the NCPO, which in turn makes it tantamount to criticism? That would bring me face to face with the coup leaders faster than I could imagine.
Thus I am in the position of being unable to write anything that criticizes, lies or tells the truth about NCPO. Nor can I ignore the NCPO, considering the current climate, for fear of being branded a military lackey. Lesson to be learned; don’t let your kids grow up to be columnists in a failed state.
The only way I can get around my unfortunate predicament is to make this column an educational experience.
What have I learned from living under curfew owing to a coup d’etat?
1. Working in the electronic media is a bitch
“Read this,” my radio producer said to me upon reaching the studio last Monday night, pushing an officious-looking document towards me.
It was a directive from the NCPO. Under no circumstances were radio announcers allowed to give any opinions. News was to be read, and that was all. There was to be no comment, no explanations, nothing.
“How intriguing, considering we’re a news analysis program,” I replied. “How come newspapers are still printing opinion pieces?”
My producer gave me that “don’t give me any of that farang gobbledygook” look.
“Because they are newspapers,” she answered. “They have more freedom than the electronic media. Just read the news reports I have printed out and nothing else. They will close us down if we make any form of criticism.”
“Can we mention the anti-coup protests?”
My radio producer gave me a look as if her grandmother had been hit face-on by an amphetamine-crazed bus driver as she quietly masticated betel nut at a Vipawadee-Rangsit bus stop.
“Okay I get it,” I said. “No mention of the protests.”
“Just act as if everything is normal,” she said, a sentence that could very well end up as a nomination for Ludicrous Directive Of The Year at the 2014 Stupid Awards.
What was I to do?
I had a brainwave. I would take the opportunity to teach vocabulary associated with the coup.
You know, words such as “coup d’etat”, “curfew”, “military” and stuff like that. That killed at least ten minutes and ensured your correspondent was safe from the lumpy pillows at military prison for another day.
Trust my inquisitive co-host to ruin it for me.
“And what about the word ‘junta’?” he asked.
“Oh that’s a military government, but it’s a very negative word. It conjures up ideas of a forceful, strict, unjust group of soldiers taking control. I don’t think you could use it here.”
It turns out that’s exactly what they’re using here, in the local and international English media, including this one. I had no idea. I had just inadvertently offered an opinion on the new military government.
Nevertheless we managed to pull off an informative, albeit dull as ditchwater, radio program without a single intentional opinion thrown in, just as our radio producer told us. We didn’t act like the newspapers. We read directly from the scripts.
How ironic. All our scripts are lifted straight from newspapers.
2. The Cartoon Channel is dangerous to Thailand’s stability, but Facebook isn’t
I can understand wanting to ban E! Channel, and we owe the NCPO a vote of thanks for taking all cable stations, including E!, off the air, giving us respite from the relentless waves of celebrity news.
The first two days after the coup were a landmark in the history of modern Thailand.
For the first time ever, 68 million Thais sat down in front of their idiot boxes, ready to watch their favorite game shows and soap operas.
Instead they were greeted with ancient marching songs extolling the virtues of being born to be a soldier.
That wasn’t a criticism, by the way. They are, after all, soldiers, and what other music would they think to subject 68 million people to? Playing the same three marching songs 159 times over, however, reminded me of a hideous weekend back in 1991 when an American radio station did the same thing to Michael Jackson’s brand new single, Black Or White. Not my favorite song either, but at least Black Or White had a hook.
When I first heard there were protestors after the coup, I immediately started making placards with messages such as HOW ABOUT SOME DISCO HITS and GIVE KATE BUSH A CHANCE. That came to an untimely end when I learned with great disappointment they were protesting the coup, not the choice in music.
What a pity I wasn’t the musical director for the junta.
I would have started with some classical music like the Brandenburg Concertos. In Australia at a juvenile detention center, they started blasting those concertos out on loudspeakers instead of the usual rap and hip-hop music they allowed the young detainees to choose. Despite an initial uproar over the switch, violent acts at the detention center dropped by 30 per cent.
That wasn’t a criticism, by the way. I’m just saying if you want to placate the masses, the Brandenburg Concertos are a good start.
At least the game shows and soapies were off.
In the west we have laugh tracks to tell us what’s funny. Here in Thailand, they have all manner of strange noises, such as “bleeeeep” “whoop-whoop-whoop” and “boingggggg” and it has now reached the point where on some programs those noises are non-stop.
It is a true assault on your senses. Watch a Thai comedy and you will understand why otherwise normal people pick up M-16s and mow down innocent schoolchildren.
All that went silent for a full 24 hours after the coup.
The effect was horrific. Vast swathes of the population had nothing to do. In some parts of the country people even took to reading books. Thai Mensa estimates the general population’s intelligence collectively rose 2.45 per cent as a result, alarming news to any military junta in any country around the world.
The shows quickly went back on air.
As the Cinderella song says, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Sunday morning I was at the gym when a game show was being blasted out from a nearby TV as I engaged a futile machine to increase my abs.
It was a show featuring stars and starlets whose immense physical beauty was inversely related to their grey matter. “Which of our star guests would most likely fall in love with his enemy? Hahahahahahah!” Whoop whoop! Bleep! Boingggg!
How I yearned for a decent military marching song.
By Sunday things were just like they had been pre-coup. And that is where we are today, dear reader; a country of bleeps, boings, no critical thought, no lies, lots of whoop-whoops, and a gaping chasm where truth should be.
CUSTARD’S LAST STAND
By Andrew Biggs
It’s been a hectic few weeks for your columnist as he entertains visiting family members and tries to work.
Work and family. Just that would be enough, but I had to go and eat a piece of chicken that gave me the worst food poisoning I’ve had in years.
My doctor wanted to admit me to hospital, but my mother was flying in that night and it might be a little melodramatic if she went directly from Suvarnabhumi to a Samut Prakan hospital where her son lay dying.
So the doctor wrote me an extensive prescription. “Er … can you throw in some Xanax as well? Four would be enough,” I said as he wrote, trying to sound as casual as possible.
He stopped writing momentarily and looked up. “What is the reason?” he asked.
“I have half a dozen family members arriving in the next 48 hours,” I said.
“I’ll give you ten,” he replied, bless his heart, and went back to his writing.
Family, food poisoning and work … thank goodness a lot of that work took place in lovely Hua Hin.
The first time I ever drove from Bangkok to Hua Hin was in 1991 with two Thai colleagues. A little more than halfway down we hit the city of Phetchaburi.
“We have to stop!” my colleague who was driving announced, to which the other Thai lady in the front seat nodded vigorously then looked to me, sprawled in the back seat reading “Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance” (big at the time; I was only reading it for show).
“There it is!” the first colleague shouted as she pointed to a big sign. “Mae Gim Lang!”
Phetchaburi is famous for its palm sugar, and thus it is the Thai capital for all things sweet, sticky and sickly. If there is a Hades for diabetics, then it’s Phetchaburi.
One big store that sold these products back then had the name “Mae Gim Lang”. “Mae” means “mother”, and I was a little disappointed not to have seen Mother Gim Lang in the flesh. I did, however, walk away with enough sugar to bounce a hyperactive kid into the stratosphere.
For all the amazing tastes Thai food has to offer, I just can’t seem to get off on Thai desserts. To me they are all water and sugar and ice cubes in a dazzling pastiche of colors that reminds me of “Strutters”, the Sunnybank Hotel’s discotheque of the late 1970s.
There was one dish that was delicious at Mother Gim Lang’s, and that was the Thai custard known as mor kaeng.
Every time I went to Hua Hin after that, it was mandatory to stop at Mae Gim Lang to pick up some Thai custard.
Two weeks ago I made that trip to Hua Hin after not doing it for several years. Mae Gim Lang is still there, but boy oh boy does she have company.
There is now a Mae Gim Lai store selling Thai custard. A little further along is Mae Gim Lui also selling Thai custard.
Gim Lang. Gim Lai. Gim Lui. What a coincidence – three mothers with similar names all selling similar custard!
If only that were the end of it.
Also beaming at me from the side of the road were signs for Mae Samarn who, surprisingly, sells Thai custard. Not far away is Mae Luan who has Thai custard. As you pass Phetchaburi city and head towards Cha-Am, there is now Mae La-Miad and -- as shocking as this may be for some of you – she is selling Thai custard.
Would you believe me if I told you there was also a Mae Tom, a Mae Ploy and a Mae Boonlam selling Thai custard?
(I spotted a single father -- Por Kheng -- in Phetchaburi selling Thai custard. I hope his friends don’t make fun of him.)
What is it about the proliferation of these mothers whipping up thousands of square tins of sweet Thai custard every day? Market forces mixed with a dearth of copycats, and Thais are very good at this.
Down in Chinatown there are entire streets where you can buy identical Buddhist paraphernalia. Near Nang Lerng is a stretch of road where three different fried banana shops try to peddle their wares as you sit in traffic – which one started it all?
The road to Surin reminds me a little of the mothers of Phetchaburi province. This road is in the Isan heartland, home of sticky rice and somtam and … grilled chicken.
“ONLY 30 MORE KILOMETRES TO THE MOST DELICIOUS GRILLED CHICKEN IN THE WORLD!” the sign trumpeted at me as I sped along the highway observing the sign for a speed limit I’d exceeded by a good 20 km per hour.
Grilled chicken! The best in the world? How exciting! Then:
“ONLY 15 MORE KILOMETRES TO THE MOST DELICIOUS GRILLED CHICKEN IN THE WORLD!”
This time there was a giant statue of a smiling rooster as if being killed, drawn and quartered was a fun thing. By this stage I was getting really excited.
“ONLY FIVE MORE KILOMETRES TO –” you know the rest. I wouldn’t be lying if I told you I was slightly aroused by the thought of eating the most delicious grilled chicken in the world. Thank goodness there were no traffic cops to pull me over – how embarrassing would that have been in my aroused state?
Then finally up ahead, two big roosters with happy smiles and the restaurant sign: “THE MOST DELICIOUS GRILLED CHICKEN IN THE WORLD.”
I parked the car and purchased two whole chickens. I took a piece of breast and sank my teeth into it.
Star Wars fanatics who waited sixteen years for The Phantom Menace will understand how I felt. There was nothing superlative about the chicken at all; it was dry and withered and didn’t have the spice one can find on the side of any road in Thailand – except for where I was.
Ten kilometres down the road came another sign:
“17 KILOMETRES TO THE MOST DELICIOUS GRILLED CHICKEN IN THE WORLD!”
All in all I counted four “MOST DELICIOUS GRILLED CHICKEN IN THE WORLD” restaurants and not one of them would have withstood a polygraph test.
It is the same anywhere in rural Thailand. In Samut Sakhon, it is a small stall selling plastic bags of salt. One hundred metres down the track, there’s another … and another … and another. Nothing different about the stalls at all; exact replicas selling exactly the same thing.
This used to upset me. I mean, couldn’t there at least be a token attempt to make your stall different to your neighbors? I had got myself really worked up when I was informed of the truth. They are all the same owner. The one company creates 15 similar stalls and sets them all up on the side of the road.
Not so in Phetchaburi. Capitalism and competition are the driving forces in that city of sugar, but I just worry Phetchaburi is going to suffer the same fate as Strutters, that disco at the Sunnybank Hotel 30 years ago.
It wasn’t long before Sunnybank had a “Bell Bottoms” and “Groove Factory”, not to mention “Disco Ball” and the intimate “Funky Niche,” which died a quick death because nobody in Sunnybank could understand French.
The point is, saturation comes to all things on the market, be it Sunnybank discos or Thai custard. Some of these mothers are going to end up with a lot of excess sugar on their hands.
These days I dare not stop for Thai custard. There are too many mothers and I have my one and only mother with me this week in Thailand, and that is enough. With her and another five family members staying, I don’t need any excess sugar. Xanax? That’s another story.
DEATH AND INACTIVITY
By Andrew Biggs
There has been a push this week for the death penalty for corrupt government officials — may I be the first to announce my opposition.
The push is an amendment proposed by the National Anti-Corruption Commission, better known as the NACC, though perhaps FUTILE might be a better abbreviation for all that commission is up against.
In a nutshell, punishments are going to get tough for government officials who engage in bribery. A corrupt official would be liable to five to 20 years’ imprisonment, life in jail — or execution. Talk about going from one extreme to the other.
As I said, I am opposed to this but not on any humanitarian grounds. I’m all for putting corrupt officials to death. The first few we could even make a public spectacle, say, in that space between Paragon and Siam Center reserved for Thai pop stars whose mini-concerts require a substantial bribe to sit through.
Imagine if we really did put officials to death. We’d save so much money on salaries. We’d lose all those gnarly heads of departments who drive Mercedes Benz cars and live in mansions, replaced by bright young things not yet exposed to the rotting system in place now. Surely that has to be good for Thailand.
Well, yes. But killing corrupt officials is not going to work, which is why I am really opposed to it. Thailand is trying to make a giant leap, when really all it needs is a small step.
Getting a job in the Thai Civil Service is the dream of every mother and father for their children. On paper the salary is not great, but there are all sorts of added benefits, of which the main one the NACC is admirably attempting to quash.
You and your immediate family get good health care. You receive a pension. Your community respects, and indeed often worships you thanks to the perceived power you wield. Have you ever been at an airport when a high-ranking civil servant is about to board? The only thing lacking in the send-off is a chorus of archangels accompanied by a marching band.
In short, you are secure, well-respected – and unsackable.
It is that unsackability, along with the propensity to secure ill-begotten gains, that is Thailand’s lethal cocktail.
There is a very good reason why corruption is rife in Thailand. You can get away with it.
Nobody denies corruption is rife, and it invariably stretches to the top of any ministry. With that in mind, off the top of your head, how many high-ranking officials have been jailed in recent times over bribery?
I can think of just one, and that was back in 1996. Does that count as recent?
It’s just worth the risk. It’s like when I cross Rama 4 Road in Klong Toey late at night after finishing my radio show. There is a footbridge above me, which would be the decent, law-abiding way to cross. But the truth is, at 10 pm there aren’t that many cars on Rama 4, and my propensity to get splattered is low.
If it were 5 pm, when the cars are relentless and there are lots of people around, I wouldn’t dare cross both for safety and face-saving reasons.
Government officials engage in bribery because they can. The difference between those officials and me is when they do get “hit”, they don’t get splattered on Rama 4 Road. They don’t get sacked. They get transferred.
Actually, the full phrase is transferred to an inactive post. In Thai it is sent to examine government business at the ministry. A rose by any other name; both mean go stand in the corner for a few minutes.
(It happened again this week, though not for bribery reasons. The head of the waterworks was “transferred to an inactive post owing to his handling of the lack of water,” as if the poor guy could have reversed this current lack of rainfall.)
What exactly is an “inactive post”?
In my 26 years in Thailand I have visited some government offices full to the brim with inactive officials, but not posts. These are men and women whose inactive demeanor is only broken when they announce with triumphant malaise: “You forgot a photocopy of your work permit in triplicate.” That seems to make them feel better.
Is that where evil government officials end up – wedged between expressionless men and women in a barren office? Is there a sign on the door that says “Inactive Posts”?
More to the point – what are we doing with a government service that admits to having inactive posts in the first place?
How does that make us, the taxpayers, feel, knowing our hard-earned taxes are funding departments that proudly announce they do nothing? I know we’re not allowed to protest at the moment but if ever there were grounds for a gathering at Ratchadamri, there it is.
Being sent to Inactive Land is only half the story. After that there is the establishment of a committee to get to the bottom of the situation. This committee’s biggest task is not to scrutinize; it is to buy time and that, more than a mansion and Mercedes Benz, is the best thing to purchase if you are a government official who’s been found out.
When you are sitting at an inactive post you are essentially watching as you fall from page one of the newspaper down to page four, and then six, until you have fallen right out of the public’s memory. That’s when you slowly, and carefully, creep back to your former post. Shame, like fame, is fleeting.
This is why we don’t need death penalties.
Let’s be a little nicer and replace inactive posts with real punishment for wrongdoing, such as termination of employment and jail.
This is a drastic step for Thai society, in some ways more drastic than a death penalty, because being sacked and going to jail for civil wrongdoings are just not part of the Thai way of doing things. It upsets too many members of your immediate family, makes you lose face, and no more 21-gun-salutes at the airport.
This is why I am against this new law; not because putting corrupt government officials to death is bad. Let’s not make the leap from “inactive post” to “death.” Why not try sacking them instead?
Times are getting tough for corrupt officials, since there is another law about to be enacted, at the end of this month, known as the Government Convenience Law.
This law means government officials can no longer wrap you up in red tape; they must stipulate exactly what forms are required for doing government business – only once. Worse, they have to state how long the process will take.
Roll on the new laws!
Well, roll on, but not too quickly. I notice there is a clause that states those who pay bribery money to officials will also be arrested. A couple of years ago when I was on the lecture circuit, I was often asked to sign “extra forms” shoved in front of me while collecting my fees.
These were blank documents and I always wondered what they were for, until I started to put my foot down. Are these new laws retrospective? I’d hate to lose my life over a How To Get Good At English speech.
By Andrew Biggs
My friend Stuart is in charge of Bangkok Comic Con, a four-day annual exhibition held at Bitec.
Stuart is an affable, friendly, wordly fellow despite his roots in Gippsland, Victoria. Or rather, he is affable and friendly for 48 weeks of the year.
As his annual event looms his face becomes strained and gaunt, and friends are tossed aside as the stressful task of running a mega comic book event takes over.
You’d think an event filled with the likes of Wonder Woman, Doraemon, Superman and Spongebob Squarepants would be kind of fun to organize. It’s not.
Stuart co-ordinates this event featuring 120 different exhibitors ranging from HBO and Warner Brothers down to independent artists and it takes a toll on his personality.
Breezy phone calls about life are replaced by “in-a-Comic-Con-meeting-call-you-back” spoken in under a second and then a clunk as my call is ruthlessly cut off … with the exception of a call I received last Tuesday.
“Two liaison officers have pulled out at the last minute,” he panted without so much as a “hi Stu it’s me”. “Do you know anybody who can do it? It’s for Comic Con.”
“I take it they need to have a basic knowledge of comics,” I answer.
“Not at all. They just need to be able to speak English. Anyway are you coming yourself? Were you ever into comics?”
Was I ever into comics?
Was I ever into comics?
Oh Stu …
I am a child of the 1970s, and much of my youth was spent lying on my bed with my eyes affixed to comic books; the same way today’s youth affixes itself to smart phones and tablets.
I didn’t have Facebook to find my friends. But I did have Richie Rich, Archie and Jughead, Electroman, Little Lotta, Superman, The Human Torch, The Invisible Woman and Batman.
I was obsessed with these characters, mainly coming from the Marvel and Harvey Comics stables, and to this day I can remember all sorts of trivialities about them. Harvey Comics’ Richie Rich was the “poor little rich boy” who, when I was 10 years of age, I could not fathom how we were supposed to feel sorry for him.
Richie had yellow hair and a big red bow tie, suggesting he was a child version of Donald Trump without the obnoxious bits. He had a friend called Little Dot, aimed towards female readers and for whom I never really had an affinity. Her quirk was that she loved “dots”, which didn’t excite me as much as the thought of having a butler, private jet, caviar for breakfast and a fountain outside my mansion.
Another of my comic obsessions was the fat girl called Little Lotta with superhuman strength, always bashing up bullies with cartoon violence that was exciting for a 10-year old. It probably explains the violence that arose in the 21st century when all those Little Lotta fans grew up.
As I grew older I progressed onto Superman, X-Men, the Fantastic Four and the Green Hornet. I devoured these stories then devoured them again and again. One of the biggest fights I ever had with my younger brother was when, as retribution for my accidentally melting part of his Hot Wheels Sky Jump set, he gathered up my Marvel Comics and set fire to them in the backyard.
Each comic book contained two long stories and one short one, but they also contained ads for things only a pre-pubescent Sunnybank boy could ever dream of.
There was the Hypno-Coin, a round disc that could hypnotize your friends, that cost only a dollar. The catch? You had to send that buck to New York, in the far-flung United States, and do you think they’d send it all the way back to Australia for that piddling amount?
Other items totally out of my reach yet advertised relentlessly included a book on how to throw your voice, Sea Monkeys and X-Ray Specs (“See through clothing!”). How I wanted those X-Ray Specs! How I wanted to see through clothing! Consider it pre-internet porn for kids.
There were some comic book characters I never took a shine to. I was never enamored of The Amazing Spiderman. He was a little too dark and melancholic for me; I was much more at home with Archie and Jughead and Betty and Veronica, or the juvenile whodunits of Scooby Doo that spawned a TV series I watched religiously — or perhaps it was the other way around.
(I even wrote a play when I was 12 called The Groovy Cats that ended with the Cats catching a wicked janitor, whose final words were: “I would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those pesky kids!” I’ve been plagiarising ever since.)
I was about 14 years old when I stopped reading comics and moved onto books. Before I was 20 I’d gone though severe phases of Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen King and my all-time favorite, Roald Dahl — both the kids stuff and his wonderful adult short stories.
That was all a long time ago.
It was a little embarrassing when in 2013 Bangkok was declared the “World Book Capital.” Apparently this moniker moves from country to country each year, but why would Bangkok be even considered for such a title? World Food Capital, maybe, but books?
My own books are distributed by Thailand’s biggest bookseller and for three years now they have been feeling the pinch. It is a tragedy that books could be going the same way as music albums, thanks to the free-for-all internet and a culture in this country that does not warm to purchasing things over the net.
Despite this the news is not all bad. Thailand has a literacy rate of 96 per cent.
Three years ago the Thai reading rate was five books per year. Actually this sounds good; only it pales compared to Malaysia’s 40 books per year and Singapore’s 50. Surprisingly, Vietnamese people read 60 books per year despite having a literacy rate lower than Thailand’s.
If comic books leads to reading novels as one grows up, like it did with me, then let’s not be too down on Thai youth. They were an important step towards my current status as nerdy bookworm, and I’m proud of that.
So yes, Stuart, in reply to your flippant question I am a man who grew up on comic book characters. I craved the wealth of Richie Rich, the strength of Little Lotta, the deductive power of the Scooby Doo kids. Alas I got none of them in adulthood; although I seemed to have ended up with the brooding melancholia of Spiderman, ironically.
Stuart is my friend. I can’t let him down.
In a fit of altruism, I call him back the next day.
“Listen Stu, if you’re in a tight spot I’d be willing to help you out. After all, what are friends for? I’ll be a liaison officer for you if you can’t find anybody.”
“It’s okay we found two people,” he snaps back. “Besides you’re not really into comics are you? Listen I’m in a Comic Con meeting I’ll call you back.”
GIVING ME THE COOKIE RUNS
By Andrew Biggs
Fern has a new high score on Cookie Run.
Fern has hit 1,042,511 points and is now at Level 20. This is good, since Fern was at Level 19 just the day before and Level 18 last Friday. Her ascension has been astounding.
Two minutes after Fern’s triumphant SMS I receive one from Mr Onn.
Mr Onn has achieved a new high score of 1,868,147, totally eclipsing Fern.
Not ten seconds later I receive an SMS from Peachy who has managed a high score of 840,230, somewhat paltry compared to Mr Onn’s effort but “compare is despair” as my friend Captain Pat says.
This week we had an earthquake in Chiang Rai, bombs in Hat Yai and the Prime Minister got the boot all in the space of 48 hours.
Nobody texted me about any of those three pieces of news. And yet in the same period of time I had a total of 13 people send me the feverishly exciting news that they had hit new highs on Cookie Run.
Why am I telling you all this?
Well for a number of reasons, the most primary being when it comes to the abyss of useless passive-aggressive information constantly springing out of my iPhone, I don’t want to be depressed on my own. I think Captain Pat got it wrong. “Compare” isn’t despair; try “share.”
My phone beeped three times in rapid succession during an important meeting to announce the achievements of Fern, Onn and Peachy. That in itself was irritating enough, and one could put it down to a case of bad timing if one were a little more tolerant of fools than your columnist is.
What the hell is Cookie Run anyway?
I refuse to find out. All I know is it involves a lot of jumping and sliding, neither of which activity your columnist is likely to perform for gravitational, not to mention aesthetic, reasons.
We can blame a little green App from Japan called Line, pronounced Lie in Thailand which is appropriate, since that is what we tell our bosses when they ask what we’ve been doing for the past few hours.
Cookie Run is a game that is downloadable from Line. It’s Pacman for the Vacuum Generation. It’s one of those mindless games one can play to while away an otherwise lazy afternoon at work, and indeed, the workplace is the venue of choice judging from the myriad messages I receive informing me of High Scores and New Levels.
In one single day last week, the assortment of Cookie Run players announcing their achievements was staggering. They ranged from Silom night workers to entertainment company directors to Muslim separatists in the Deep South.
One of those nine cabinet ministers ejected last Wednesday afternoon has a Senior Advisor who recently penetrated Level 16. No wonder that minister got such bad advice, unless he was enquiring as to how one could get past that infernal Level 10.
I’ve been waiting for a report to be finished for a week now from an outside company. The writer is two weeks’ late and it’s messing up a project of mine, but he says he is absolutely flat out hence his tardiness.
And yet in the space of one week he has progressed from Level 14 to Level 18. I know this because Line beeps me at the end of every Level. I’d give my right arm for a beep telling me the damned work is finished.
It worries me that we humans have a desire to broadcast such feats, if a Cookie Run high score can be deemed a “feat”. And I won’t even start on the annoyance of being snapped out of a meeting by the likes of Fern, Onn and Peachy.
Who are Fern, Onn and Peachy anyway?
I’m glad you asked that question, dear reader.
Fern is a sales executive of mine who resigned back in 2014 for reasons not to be detailed here in order to avoid defamation litigation, since truth is no defence in this country. To say she left under a cloud may be understating the intensity of fluffy condensed water vapor.
As for Onn, we worked together 20 years ago on a magazine. We haven’t chatted for a good ten years, when he was in between jobs and asked if there was any work going.
As for Peachy … do you honestly think I would be friends with anyone possessing such a nickname?
I have no idea who Peachy is (certainly not one of my deep south separatist friends – they’d have blown her up based solely on her nickname), but she clearly knows me, since Line syncs you up with people who possess your telephone number, whether you have theirs or not.
So ... an underperforming ex-employee, a work colleague from the mid-1990s, and some anonymous young woman with a sickly nickname … none of these three has any legitimate reason to be contacting me nowadays unless it is to apologize, lodge an application form or announce a name change.
I know what some of my more opinionated readers are thinking. “Why doesn’t he just delete Line and be done with it?” they denounce, spitting morsels of apple-cinnamon muffin onto my byline.
Well believe me I wish I could, opinionated readers, only the entire business world in Thailand now runs from Line user groups.
“There is one way you can stop the notifications,” a staff member told me this week.
“How? Tell me how!” I replied, using both hands to tug at his work-shirt collar.
“You download Cookie Run, then go to the settings and block notifications.”
Someone give those Cookie Run creators a medal! Pure genius! I actually have to download the damned thing to stop it bothering me!
Well I did it.
I downloaded Cookie Run in order to block it.
But just before I did, I figured I may as well play it to see what the fuss is all about.
And this is where I must end this column. I wrote that last paragraph at 7.45 pm. It’s now 3 am and I must be going to bed.
BUDDHIST TENETS, UNDER THE TABLE
By Andrew Biggs
The new department head greets us with a friendly smile as he invites us into his office.
He is a middle-aged man with a full head of hair and a moon face, sporting a slight paunch, and dressed in a suit despite sweltering temperatures outside.
I am in a province an hour’s plane ride away from Bangkok, where we have been undertaking a government contract to provide English training for a group of government workers. The project has been a resounding success thanks to my excellent instructors, a well-researched curriculum, and a keen desire from the students to learn.
“Please, take a seat, both of you,” says the amiable department head, and my assistant and I do just that, in front of his desk, which is cluttered with papers and books. “Now … tell me what you are doing.”
For the next ten minutes I explain our training, our approach, and what the outcome is expected to be. Throughout my explanation the new department head listens intently, nodding and smiling.
He has been in his new position for just a week. As a courtesy my assistant and I have visited to congratulate him on his new position, but more importantly, to explain the work in progress. Often in Thailand a new broom sweep clean, but since we are halfway through we need his continued support.
I am ten minutes into explaining what we are doing when he interrupts.
“It all sounds fine, and my staff say your training has been invaluable,” he says. “But I have one question for you: Do you incorporate Buddhist teachings into your curriculum?”
The question throws me.
“Buddhist teachings?” I asked, stalling for time. I shot a sideways glance at my assistant, a Thai woman of seamless ability, but she shot me back a glance that suggested on this point, even she, too, was falling apart at the seams.
“Yes,” said the head. “Teaching the five Buddhist precepts, for example.”
He leant forward at his desk. “You probably understand the state of Thai society at present. We are wracked with corruption. Our standards have fallen, and sooner or later our society will fall apart. If we don’t start teaching core Buddhist values, our country could go down the sinkhole.”
I could do nothing but nod sagely.
“We need to get back to our basics,” he continued. “We need to teach the basic values of honesty and sincerity, just as the Lord Buddha taught. Once we learn those core tenets, then and only then can Thailand return to its glory.”
He grabbed a few books from the pile on his desk. I realized they were dharma books, written by well-known monks across the country, on topics like goodness and making merit and meditation. He passed them over to me.
“You can borrow these if you like,” he said. “Incorporate the ideas of goodness and honesty and fairness into your curriculum, and I will be a happy man.”
At this point we must leave this new department head, along with my assistant and myself, who were at this stage comforted with the knowledge that, at least in one upcountry province, one government worker was clinging onto righteousness.
Last Tuesday there was a news story that sent ripples through the Thai media but barely made the English press. It was the anniversary of the establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Commission. The NACC is the agency set up by the military a month after the 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra from power to investigate ill-gotten wealth of government officials.
Seated at a raised table covered in pleated gold fabric, the NACC chairman held a press conference where he presented some chilling facts and figures about corruption in the Land of Smiles. His message in a nutshell: We are wallowing in a cesspit.
The NACC, for example, has handled 35,000 corruption cases over the last eight years. That averages out to one corruption case every two hours, dear reader — not even taking into account weekends and public holidays!
The majority of cases involved bribery, embezzlement and document forgery but listen to this: the NACC says in the last government fiscal year alone, corruption resulted in the loss of 330,000 million baht from the government budget.
I suspect we say that figure a little differently in English … it’s either 330 billion in the US, or one third of a billion in the UK, right? Aren’t we doing the American form of a billion these days? In the interests of keeping the peace, I’m going to continue to use the Thai way of saying it but just in case you need to see it as a number, here it is: 330,000,000,000.
In other words, over the last year, as you and I went to work, paying our taxes, sending them off to the government to use, a grand total of three hundred and thirty thousand million baht simply vanished. Disappeared. Into pockets of persons unknown.
I don’t know about you, but that seems like an awful lot of money.
It comes out to just under 5,000 baht per man, woman, transgender and child in Thailand. Did you see the picture on page one this week of the elated rice farmer, holding up 5,000 Baht, his payment from the government for not planting rice? That could have been the entire population of Thailand, measured by the amount of money that disappeared in the short space of 12 months.
I have to admit I felt a tinge of depression at these figures. Is it humanly possible to stop a tsunami-sized wave of corruption, the likes of 33 billion baht a year? Is the NACC the only way to stem the evil?
No. There is another way, and that is clean and honest government officials.
Perhaps that amiable regional department head is right. The only way to stem the quagmire of cheating. bribery and corruption is though Buddhist tenets about being honest, fair and kind.
These are not just Buddhist tenets either; they belong to any religion and perhaps this is this country’s only lifeline. The alternative? Well, I’d hate to be here when corruption cases start hitting the NACC once every hour.
An hour later and the amiable new department head is finished.
I am filled with a sense of hope for the future as I say my farewells. My assistant exchanges phone numbers with him.
I promise to pursue his suggestions, though inserting Buddhist precepts into an English curriculum will present me with challenges, but nothing I am sure I can’t do.
Fifteen minutes later, my assistant gets the phone call.
The amiable department head.
“What’s my cut?” he asks with blunt brevity. She asks for clarification.
“You know what I’m talking about. My cut. How much do I get from this contract? I have expenses, you know. I need 20 per cent but I’ll settle for 10. You better give me an answer quickly; I have another company about to present their services and I could easily switch over to them. So what is it? What’s my cut?”
A WRINKLE IN TIME
By Andrew Biggs
We are in the middle of a intense meeting discussing commissions and profit margins and project viability.
My eyes are trying to focus on a sheet of figures but my head is swimming, my forehead creased and weather-beaten by my sales team’s demands.
I look up and spy Au, one of my Sales Executives (as they prefer to call themselves replete with capitalization) tapping her left cheek and pouting in my direction.
This is not a pout of displeasure, nor does she wish to kiss me. Thais point with their lips; did you know that? They make a pouting movement in the direction of where they want you to look. And currently Au, my sales girl — I’m sorry, Sales Executive — is pouting at me while tapping her left cheek.
“Your face,” she says.
I immediately go to touch my own left cheek, figuring a remnant of pad thai is dangling there, but I am wrong.
“No, no,” she says. “Your face.” She pauses. “You look … old.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Your face,” Au, the dominatrix, replies. “You are starting to look old.”
Apple, my Senior Sales Executive sitting across from her, leans in to me: “It is time for you to baby-face.”
Time for me to what?
I feel like the skinny guy on the beach who gets sand kicked in my face.
“’Baby-face’ is not a verb!” was all I could blurt out. I throw down my pen for effect, because that’s what they do in Hollywood movies when somebody wants to make a point.
“You should do something to your face,” says Au.
“I heard you the first two times,” I answer.
“No need to be upset,” says Au.
“I’m not upset,” I answer.
“These days we all get baby face treatments,” says Apple, whom I had always, up to that minute, assumed was beautiful thanks to Mother Nature.
Au is nodding. “It is time,” she says with genuine concern and accurate conjugation.
The sales figures have gone to the wind. I have officially farewelled my youth, and am now on the precipice of that next phase of my life.
Goodbye, natural beauty and Aussie Bum. Hello baby face and Botox.
How I want to tell my Sales Executives that I experienced a terrible night’s sleep the night before.
I ended up switching on the light and whiled away the hours reading, doing logic puzzles and surfing Buddhist dharma websites until sleep finally came, explaining my panda eyes and pallid complexion during that meeting.
It is of no use. I am helpless against the tide of modern Thai social values.
Not long ago my school occupied space at Major Ekamai and on the way to work I was invariably gridlocked right next to a massive billboard for a place called Wuttisak.
Wuttisak is a beauty clinic that has been wildly successful in Thailand. I love the slogan: “Wuttisak … because you can’t hang around waiting to be beautiful.”
They even have a slogan for men — “You can create being handsome” — which is manna from heaven for any zit-faced Chinese-Thai desperate to look like a Korean teen.
Basically you go to Wuttisak to come out looking like skinny white Korean pop stars. It used to be Japan. Before that it was America. Who’ll be next? Australia? Not unless beer guts and cellulite become a fashion statement.
In traffic, looking down at me, were the smiling faces of three Korean male pop stars who were as huge in 2010 as they are now forgotten.
These three young men with their spiky haircuts and lily-white skin smiled with teeth so virgin-white I could have sworn they were castrati. So this is the destination modern society has arrived at; men looking like women, and women the same shade as porcelain toilet bowls.
And indeed, the quest to remain youthful and white is now a national pastime in Thailand. There are Wuttisak clinics in Bangkok everywhere. I remember when massage parlours were so prevalent, but who cares about sex when you have to stay young?
There was a time when cosmetic surgery wasn’t the big deal it is today in Thailand, a gentler time when people grinned and bore their smallish noses and darkish skin.
I always thought that was what made Thais such an attractive group of people. Clearly the same thoughts weren’t shared by the Thais.
“You have a lovely nose,” I remember a student of mine telling me in my first month in Thailand. I had spent two and a bit decades on this earth without ever hearing anybody compliment me like that.
I remember the first time I saw a Thai with a nose job, and it scared the living daylights out of me. It was in the linen section of Robinson Ratchada. She was a pretty young girl of 20 or so, but as I brushed past her on the way to the bargain basket I did a double take.
She had a nose like the bunny slope on Kitzbuhel. It looked so bizarre, so out of place on that delicate face, that it verged on macabre.
Did she go into surgery thinking she would come out beautiful, only to emerge as a freak with a strange snout and elongated nostrils?
Some sleepless nights I lie awake thinking about that girl. Did she get further surgery? Did she go through life having to put up with people saying: “What’s wrong with your nose?” as the Thais, oft-times devoid of subtlety, are wont to ask?
In two decades “plastic surgery” has changed to the more acceptable “cosmetic surgery”, a branch of medicine now so hotly sought after and lucrative in Thailand you need a phu yai to help you secure a place.
Do I have a problem with that? Yes, I do. The customers going in for skin lightening, nose jobs and botox injections are not just crinkly khunyings and ageing male advertising executives hoping for one final year dancing at DJ Station; they are teenagers, as evidenced by the models selected for the billboards and TV ads for cosmetic clinics.
So let’s get this straight. We more mature folk go to beauty clinics to look young. Meanwhile, young folk go to beauty clinics to look … young? Either the clinics are amazingly clever, or we the general public are amazingly stupid, or both of the above.
“You need to look young again, Khun Andrew,” says Au with the best intentions, of which I am having none of.
How I wanted to tell her of my recent trip to Australia, where one night over dinner my siblings and friends got onto the topic of cosmetic surgery in Thailand.
“It’s cheap and it’s very good,” I boasted. “We have royal families from around the region flying in for their nips and tucks.”
“Well just look at your face,” cousin Susie said. “How else would you explain your lack of wrinkles?”
Her comment threw me.
“But I’ve never had any work done,” I said, to which my siblings, cousins and close friends all broke into unbridled guffaws.
“What!?” I screamed.
“Come on … you live in Thailand and you’ve never ever once had a Botox injection?”
The more I protested, the more guilty I sounded. And that’s where I leave you this week, dear reader. Your columnist, sitting in a Brisbane pub surrounded by those he loves, the center of derision, with siblings pointing and laughing at my not-so-wrinkled face.
Stick that in your pipe, Nong Au, and smoke it.
By Andrew Biggs
Okay, so it’s bye bye to the two baht coins.
Nice to have seen you guys again. Take care and we’ll check you next time you’re in town, which, according to my calculations, should be January 2020.
The news that the government was phasing out two baht coins didn’t surprise me. You see, the two baht coin is the Brigadoon of the currency world in Thailand. I’ve lived here 23 years and it has surfaced on three different occasions.
On average that means every 7.6 (recurring) years they magically appear and become part of our lives. Then they vanish.
I kind of feel sorry for the coin. It’s the equivalent of the buck-toothed, chinless middle sister in an otherwise attractive family; the kid who is clever enough but you just can’t get past the unpalatable exterior. You’d rather she stay in her room reading Charlotte Bronte while you play with her more attractive siblings by the pool.
Thais dislike the coin so much they take to scrawling a big ugly “2” on each side of it in thick black magic marker pen. You never see them do that with a one or five baht coin. Perhaps that’s why they have never taken to it -– the two baht coin is a five-baht wannabe.
Or maybe it’s because in Thailand, coins are in a perpetual state of change, just like the impermanence of life my local abbot at Wat Samut Prakan likes to go on about on those occasions I visit.
One of his shticks is “impermanence” and that is a word that roundly typifies coins in Thailand. The other word is “cyclical”; those two baht coins are starting to resemble a Cher Farewell Tour.
And “variety”. When I first arrived in Thailand in 1989 there were five different one Baht coins. Put down your coffee and Danish and think about that, dear reader. Receiving change was a fun exercise to see which one Baht coin landed in your hand.
There was a big clunky one, a middle sized one, a commemorative one, a mini one … what a feeling it was to plunge one’s hand deep down into one’s trouser pocket. Just the sound reminded me of Christmas.
I actually had a mini-collection of those five different one baht coins on the counter of my modest Khlong Toey room before they disappeared along with a very disappointing short-term visitor early one morning. An American friend at the time claimed there were actually six different coins and that’s the problem with Americans as I see it. Why the need to exaggerate when there are already as many as FIVE?
The party was over in the early 1990s when somebody high up in the Treasury attempted to streamline Thai coins, bless their hearts. We were left with just one kind of one baht coin, but at the same time we got another coin in place of the confusion.
We used to have a ten baht note here in Thailand; it was a brown banknote and quite ubiquitous upon my arrival in 1989. I guess Thailand just wasn’t big enough for the ten Baht note and me; one of us had to go.
The 10 baht coin was a hit from the word go; the two baht coin must have been smarting something fierce over that.
The problem was the politicians. We had a few dud prime ministers in a row back in the mid 1990s and one of them decided it would be a good idea for the ten baht note to make a comeback.
Nobody exactly knew why, but in 1995 the funky brown ten baht banknote was back. It was like Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive song which was still huge at the time in Samut Prakan discos as we all asked: What on earth are you doing back here?
This return was a national scandal for a very long time in Thai politics -- about three days. At the time I was sick and had to sit through a no-confidence debate launched by the opposition on TV. The highlight was the opposition claiming the return of the ten baht coin was nothing but an exercise in corruption and bad decision making.
In response, the then prime minister picked up a sack of the popular ten baht coins that happened to be on his desk. “Look how heavy this is!” he cried. “Much heavier than a set of banknotes. We don’t want to burden the Thai people!” Indeed he didn’t; he resigned in the wake of a corruption scandal soon after; a year later the baht collapsed in the tom yam kung financial crisis.
My favorite controversy over Thai money was a big story from 1990. A Chinese Thai lady met some foreigners who sold her a counterfeit printing machine. You fed in blank pieces of paper and out came real-life American dollars.
The woman unzipped her mattress and paid the foreigners a fortune for the machine. Well, as P.T. Barnum said, there’s a sucker born every minute, though it could be as rapid as every 15 seconds in Chinatown. Furious she’d been conned, the woman called the police, as you do when your attempts to become a criminal are thwarted by criminals.
“I paid good money for this machine and was duped,” she told the cops and the media. “Let this be a lesson for anybody purchasing equipment.”
Buyer beware, that’s all I can say. One hopes the lady found alternative revenue sources that weren’t so tainted with evil foreigners, like robbing banks or swiping gold chains from the back of a motorcycle.
Not so controversial was the introduction of the one thousand baht note in the early 1990s. The problem was that its color resembled a faded ten baht note and caused me to purchase the most expensive garland ever.
I was at the Viphawadee-Suthisarn intersection when a little girl selling garlands came up to my window. I asked for two of them and she asked for 30 Baht.
In the darkness I handed over a 20 Baht and a 10 Baht note. The traffic lights changed and I was gone … along with the 1,000 Baht note I’d had in my wallet, as I discovered later. I had handed it over inadvertently in place of a ten baht note, pricing that pretty little garland at 1,020 Baht.
Now that the two baht coin has gone, I wonder what is next in store for us.
I notice the 50 Baht note has changed again. That’s a banknote I kind of feel sorry for. Sometimes it’s plastic, then it’s back to paper, then the color changes a little. It’s the Nicole Kidman of the currency world, undergoing extensive readjustment, never really looking quite right and ending up nothing like it used to look.
Perhaps we’ll get a 5,000 or 10,000 Baht note – wouldn’t that be the ultimate status symbol to waft about?
Whatever it is, we’ll keep you posted, two baht coins. Goodbye. Go and wash all that magic marker off your sides and take a 7.6 year break.
And don’t despair. As long as we have hungry politicians with grandiose ideas, you’ll always be welcome back. At least you’ll come in handy as a tip for my hired help as they perform their duties in 7.6 years’ time.
(Editor’s Note: This column was written in 2012 and yes, the 2 baht coins did make a return.)
THE BIG APPLE VS THE BIG MANGO
By Andrew Biggs
I am typing this column in sub-zero temperatures on the other side of the world.
I worry the icicles on my fingers may play havoc with the inner workings of my MacBook Air, as they rattle and break off my fingers. An exaggeration, perhaps, but that is how it feels. I am shivering, frozen and, in part, shriveled.
So where am I? You call it New York. I call it a refrigerator.
I am in the United States on vacation, celebrating my very first Thanksgiving with my extended family in Washington DC.
I was forewarned about this unique American event. I was told it was an annual celebration where American families gather to give thanks, after which they dredge up every skeleton in the family closet and push each other’s buttons to the point of inducing flying crockery, all the while filling up on variations of high-caloric mushy food that could be consumed with a straw.
The yanks call that a special event? Sounds like every day in my home country of Australia.
My Thanksgiving was wonderful with so many memorable moments … the most memorable one belonging to the ANA flight attendant as we touched down at Dulles.
“Welcome to Washington DC, where the temperature outside is minus four degrees,” she said in broken English.
“You’d think they’d find better English speakers to make these announcements,” I said to the woman seated next to me. “I could have sworn she said minus four degrees.”
Alas, her English was not broken. Frozen, perhaps, but not broken.
I have lived in Bangok for 24 years, a city whose median temperature is 31 degrees Celsius. A popular Thai saying is that the country has three seasons: “hot”, “very hot” and “fornicatingly hot”.
We had a freaky day about a year ago when the Bangkok temperature went from 31 degrees one day, then all the way down to 18 degrees the next, only to shoot back up to 31 degrees.
In December the temperature can drop to perceived freezing levels, which are around 25 to 28 degrees Celsius. That’s when you see security guards wearing beanies and ear muffs, rubbing their gloved hands together as they shiver through their mid-twenties days. Celsius, dear reader, not Fahrenheit.
“It’s a cold snap,” my American sister gaily informed me upon my arrival in Georgetown, DC, though how anybody could be gay in sub-zero temperatures was beyond me. Nevertheless she was right; by the afternoon I was unable to smile, my ears were numb, and my speech sounded as if I’d spent the morning doing vodka shots, something I would have gladly done had I not feared my fingers would fuse with the shot glass.
I am now in New York City, and a relatively warm 5 degrees.
The last time I was in New York City was in the late 1980s when the movie Batman was a hit. I only remember that because I caught a cab back then with a taxi driver dressed as Batman replete with cowl and underwear outside his tights.
What a magnificent city. I witnessed the turning on of the Christmas lights at the Rockefeller Center last Wednesday night. I’ve been to Broadway shows. I’ve eaten a salted pretzel. I’ve purchased a Metropass for the subway.
A couple of things seem very apparent to me as a long-term resident of Bangkok.
First, everybody talks here. I mean, everybody. If it’s not to convey an opinion, then it’s to strike up a conversation with a stranger that often doesn’t require a hello or goodbye. It is more a quick exchange of information.
“Which way to West Broadway?” my New York native friend Niki asks a man on a cellphone at the lights in Little Italy.
“Straight down Mott Street over there, then turn right,” he says.
That’s it. End of conversation. It sounds abrupt and uncaring on paper but actually both participants sounded civil and friendly.
But it does go against every example of an English conversation I have ever used in a classroom. Niki should have begun the conversation with an “Excuse me”, after which she should have employed a more well-mannered: “I was wondering if you could tell me the way to …”
At the end of the conversation, she should have said: “Thank you, kind sir,” to which he would have replied “You’re welcome.”
Not in New York you don’t.
While Thais may take the crown for good manners, New Yorkers aren’t so interested in being polite as they are wanting to impart knowledge to total strangers.
On the subway people actually talk to each other. I stood next to a woman who was accidentally bumped by a man who apologized.
By the time I got off at the next stop, she had explained to him she’d been to an off Broadway show with her daughter Leslie which wasn’t so great but at least Leslie was going to shows which took her mind off her divorce from a deadbeat dad known as Luke whom she had warned Leslie about way before she decided to marry him but she went ahead anyway and now they have a three-year-old daughter Jessica.
All this to a total stranger.
On another crowded subway today, a black American man dressed in construction gear stood up for a well-dressed attractive yuppie (as we used to call them back when Batman was a hit).
“Oh no,” she retorted. “You’ve been workin’ hard all day, you need the seat more than I do.”
“But my mama always taught me to stand for a lady,” he replied.
“No she’s right,” chimed in another black guy dressed in construction gear. “You’ve been been haulin’ concrete all day, man, doin’ an honest day’s work. He’s one of Obama’s men, givin’ a black man an honest job to do.”
And so the conversation fans out; not for long, but enough for everybody to give an opinion.
And that’s just it. Here in New York, everybody wants to be heard. Thailand may be the Land of Smiles, but the USA is the land of Communicating, and nobody does it better than the New Yorkers.
We could learn a lot from New York politically as well. When I was here last, there was a nervousness about being in New York. Crime was rife and there were parts you just didn’t go near.
The city has benefitted from three terms of staunch conservative Michael Bloomberg as mayor. Crime is down and the economy is up. So who do New Yorkers elect to replace him? The opposite end of the spectrum … a staunch liberal. By a landslide.
That staunch liberal is Bill de Blasio who won the mayoral elections just last month. So New York jumps seamlessly from a staunch conservative economist to a bleeding liberal married to a black woman with a 16-year-old son called Dante who sports an afro straight out of Soul Train.
Why can’t we do that? Jump seamlessly, I mean, not sport an afro.
I always believed Bangkok and New York were similar. Towering skyscrapers above a cacophony of people all heading in different directions to different places.
I realized tonight, on the eve of my return to Thailand, that New York is the polar opposite of Bangkok.
New York is a freezing cold city full of people wanting to communicate and exchange information.
Bangkok? A swelteringly hot city full of people who don’t want to sit down and exchange opinions and solutions. Which is the better system? Do I even need to ask that question?
CIVIL SERVICE, COLORLESS
By Andrew BIggs
Our event is over. It has been a resounding success.
Months of planning all came to a head when we staged an English seminar and camp for high-ranking civil servants of a government ministry.
The participants, all 200 of them, gave us above-average positive feedback. We even wrote and published a well-received 200-page manual full of tips and tricks to help them with their English.
There is nothing else for us to do but to get paid. My accountant’s task this week was to call and arrange a time to pick up the check from the ministry’s finance department.
“They won’t pay us,” my accountant told me last Monday. “They can only see two colors.”
What does that mean? It’s the kind of conversation you might find in a William S. Burroughs essay. Or a statement made while tripping on acid with Andy Warhol at the Factory. But I am neither reading nor tripping, although what I am about to hear next makes me wish I was engaged in the latter.
“The Finance Department says it can only see two colors,” she said.
“I don’t care if they can see twenty-two colors. Where’s the check?”
“That’s the thing. They won’t pay us.” In her hand she had a copy of our manual. She pointed to the cover.
“See? There are only two colors.”
“The contract stipulates four colors on the cover. They can only see two.”
For a brief moment I wonder if this is the universe playing tricks on me. For years I have said that one of the reasons Thailand is such an enjoyable place to work is because there is never a dull moment. There is always something that happens that is unexpected, and I like that … BUT NOT THIS, UNIVERSE! I MEANT GOOD THINGS! NOT THIS!
I don’t need to get upset. It’s just a misunderstanding.
In the printing world you have three main types of publications; black and white, spot color and full color. The last one, full color printing, uses the CMYK color model – cyan, magenta, yellow and black – from which all colors can be created. In Thai it is called see see or “four colors,” referring to those four inks.
I assumed the ministry’s finance officials would understand this basic printing knowledge. My absent-mindedness has gotten the better of me again; I have forgotten that the road to hell is paved with over-estimating the intelligence of those in positions of authority, especially financial ones.
So l called the department personally.
“Kha,” said the government officer, in a very non-Land Of Smiles tone, when I asked for the name of the woman examining our account.
“Hello, I’m calling about the check we were supposed to pick up.”
Silence. Clearly she is not bedazzled by farangs who can speak Thai. So I press on.
“My staff tells me there is a question about the manual,” I said in a fatherly tone.
“We cannot issue that check. You didn’t fulfill the contract,” she shot back, hitting me right between the eyes.
“Yes, well, I’m sure you know that ‘four colors’ refers to a printing system using four separate inks. It doesn’t actually refer to four different colors.”
“Nevertheless, there are only two colors on the cover.”
Nevertheless? I take a deep breath and remember to act like the pho tree that shielded the Lord Buddha during heavy windstorms; I would bend, but I would not break.
“Those two colors you see are dark blue and red,” I said. “They are created by using the four inks of cyan, magenta, yellow and black, which are in fact the four inks that are referred to in ‘four colors’.”
“How am I supposed to know such details? All I know is if you add up dark blue and red, that makes two. The contract stipulated four.”
“I don’t think you understand what I just said.”
“What I do or do not understand does not matter. You didn’t fulfill the contract.”
“Can I call you back?” I asked, oh-so-wanting to add: “I need to find a feral cat to kick violently whilst chanting your name.”
When I put down the phone I stared at my accountant.
Foiled. In the final straight. By a stubborn financial officer with a lean and hungry look.
What an extraordinary system this is in Thailand.
To win a government contract, you must show a detailed breakdown of costs, at the same time concealing the 10 to 30 per cent kickback required to the person who signs off on it.
That kickback is crucial to the system, because it is disseminated to everyone down the line of authority. It’s when a single person is overlooked that the troubles begin.
Three years ago I presented an invoice to a government ministry after another successful contract. The invoice was eight pages long.
The officer took one look at the first page and announced the wording was wrong; we would need to write it in a more civil servant-ish style, i.e., unreadable.
My staff went back and made the changes she suggested, and returned the following week.
The officer went to page two. Ah, this word needed to be underlined, and there needed to be a rewrite on a sentence on page two as well. Go back and make the changes and come back in a week, she said.
You know what happened next. Next week page three required minor, insignificant changes too. “Could you perhaps go through the entire document and tell me what needs to be changed?” my staff asked the government officer sweetly, prostrating herself at her feet and licking her toes, one by one, as a sign of deference.
Eight times, dear reader. Eight times my staff had to return to that department until there were no more pages to find mistakes upon. Keep in mind that the contract had already been approved and the invoice was a mere formality.
There is a new law coming into effect that hopes to stamp out such government officers, or at least stem the corruption payments required for contracts to pass.
It’s called the Convenience Act of 2015. It aims to streamline government business and reduce the potential for corruption. A civil servant can send an invoice such as mine back to correct only once; after that it must be accepted.
Unfortunately that law is not going to help me with the two-color problem.
I am beginning to get cold feet. I can put on the Greatest Show On Earth for five days with unanimous praise, but if she can only count two colors on our cover, then I’m not going to see a single baht for that show.
There was a glimmer of light last Wednesday.
“I spoke to her again,” said my accountant. “She says she will reconsider if we can furnish her with a letter from a printing press explaining the system.”
A lifeline! Oh, thank you, Great Tsar Of The Finance Fiefdom Over Which You Rule! Thank you for your benevolence! I immediately call Khun Kiat my trusty printer.
“Sure, I can do that,” he says. “How long does the explanation have to be?”
“One page,” I reply.
“And how much detail should I go into?”
“Write it so that a Year One primary school student would understand.”
“It’s for a child to read?”
By Andrew Biggs
Once I had a staff member who started with me as a man and, when he resigned two years later, was a woman.
His name was Pop and his job was advertising sales for a magazine I was editing.
He came to his job interview in a suit and tie. Rakishly thin with a gait not dissimilar to Miss Thailand’s, he was a polite young man with a perpetual smile on his powdered face.
Pop was an enthusiastic salesperson, hitting targets and getting his commissions. What I didn’t know was that for two years Pop was quietly saving up those commissions for a life-altering trip to Pattaya.
Pop became a woman. Prior to that I’d never had a staff member of the transgender kind – not knowingly, anyway. I don’t make a habit of examining a potential staff member’s genitals during the English job interview.
What did impress me was how accepted he was in Thai society, right from the moment he started work as an effeminate young man until his last day as a beautiful woman.
Pop wasn’t the flashy type who’d come to work dressed in a feather boa with Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive blaring out of his pink Honda Civic. He was, in his own words, a “woman in a man’s body”, not even using the word “trapped” there which is a nice indication of his outlook on life.
There isn’t a school I’ve spoken at – and I’ve been to probably a thousand – where there wasn’t a ‘katoey’ at some stage of development sitting among the girl students comparing nail polish.
I’ve been to the most remote areas of Thailand and still they are there, happily living in their community. Once I chanced upon a small temple fair in the far northeastern province of Mukdahan. “Stick around,” the old lady cooking my noodles beamed with pride. “In two hours we have a Second Type of Female Beauty Pageant.”
That is my literal translation; while “katoey” is a common word to describe transvestites it can be disparaging in certain situations.
The Thai language has another word for both a man who dresses as a woman and one who has changed his sex – it’s sao prapet song -- or “the second type of female”, which sounds much more dignified. Whatever you call it, it is a third gender in this country which is generally embraced and accepted.
I can’t imagine the howls, threats, stones, fists and even fatal beatings I would receive if I chose to don a Queensland sunfrock and wander down the main street of hometown Sunnybank in a wig and high heels.
(Your columnist quickly adds that despite a smorgasbord of fetishes, cross-dressing has never been one of his things. Thank God. Think of the poor innocent children on the footpath.)
The point is, we Australians on the whole would be merciless to such a person as Pop. She’d have been bashed up at school. Somebody would have spray-painted “poofter” on the side of her pink Honda Civic. Guys would hoot and holler at her on the train, tripping her up or trying to steal her handbag.
While things are better here, Thailand is not utopia. Even with a blanket tolerance towards second-type girls, there are the occasional small blips.
Such was the case when it was revealed the Defence Ministry deems any transsexual “psychotic”, while a simple cross-dresser is merely a “katoey”.
In other words, in the eyes of the military it’s okay for me to put on a dress. Once I get the boob job, though, I’m mentally deranged.
The army’s argument is that anything that’s “reversible”, like hormones and padded bras, keeps you sane. The moment you make an “irreversible” decision such as removing your male genitals, you’re mad.
It’s always refreshing to catch a glimpse into the minds of those defending our country at the top level. I don’t know about you, but hearing people believe such things makes my own neuroses seem insignificant.
But the edict throws up far more questions than answers.
Does it mean women who get boob jobs are mentally deranged as well? All my closest female friends have been, well, uplifted at some stage. Are they all mad?
What about guys who have their genitals chopped off in their sleep by angry wives? By rights these guys must be psychotic too. Are they now exempt from conscription on the grounds of lunacy?
And … if wearing a padded bra means I am “sane”, should I be investing in such an undergarment for days I feel like I’m losing my marbles? Or is that way too esoteric for this column?
I also have questions about enforcement. Unlike my job interviews, I am assuming the military must examine a potential cadet in his nether regions. This conjures up all sorts of gross images of khaki-clad officers prodding sculpted boobs and vaginas to ascertain that a conscript is psychotic.
And the biggest question of all – what is it exactly about the actual operation that turns you psychotic? Every time I go in for enhancement surgery I am placed under sedation so heavy I’d almost kill to take some home in a bottle for those days when not even Uncle Smirnoff (let alone a padded bra) can lift me.
If you’re knocked out during an operation, how can that turn you psychotic? I was under the impression you go crazy thanks to jarring unpleasant events in your life – what’s so jarring and unpleasant about morphine?
This may all seem amusing and cute, and great fodder for columnists the world over, but spare a thought for Thailand’s transgender population who are of conscription age.
Thais need their military exemption for when they apply for jobs. Imagine having “psychotic” stamped across your forehead for the rest of your life.
That’s why the case ended up in court this week, when one young transvestite bravely took the military to court. Samart Mitcharoen fronted up for conscription and was rejected. He got the stamp “mentally deranged” and he’s very unhappy about it.
This is a bit like Samson versus Goliath – and indeed, nobody will ever know if Samson was wearing frilly knickers at the time he shot that stone. But Samart has the sentiment of his country on his side, since every Thai family has at least one relative who is transgendered and sane.
And besides, which to you seems more mentally deranged – a guy donning a dress, or donning military fatigues and devoting one’s life to killing other guys in military fatigues in the name of political ideology or man-made borders? I’ve always thought true psychosis lies in our perpetual belief that weapons of mass destruction contribute to our humanity, or that blowing up foreign cities is a great progress for civilization.
As for Pop, well, I ran into her about a year ago. She is now an English teacher at one of Thailand’s most prestigious school for girls.
I am truly proud of where she has ended up. If ever I have a daughter and have a choice between her being under Pop’s care or the military’s, you know where she is heading. Life under Pop? Ethical, safe and far less psychotic.
CLOSING THE BORDERS ... AGAIN
By Andrew Biggs
The prime minister’s threat to close the country sent all sorts of strange ripples throughout Thailand.
This column begins with the ardent hope that you already know this news, because if so I am saved a needless one hundred words explaining its background, thus allowing me to extrapolate my watertight theories and opinions on the topic for an extra one hundred words.
Ardent hope? Journalists are taught from an early age not to hold any ardent hopes, and to explain everything in a story as though the reader is an uninformed 14-year-old. At least that is what was beaten into me as a cadet journalist, and the “uninformed 14-year-old” bit is not casting aspersions on you, the reader, but more forcing us, the journalists, to be meticulous in our explanations and fact-finding.
(How ironic that that explanation alone has cost me one hundred words, thus ending any chance of my espousing watertight theories and opinions, while still obliged to provide you with the background to this story.)
This is what happened; Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha attended a meeting known as the Five-River Convergence held ten days ago. The five rivers were the junta, the military-appointed cabinet, the National Assembly, the constitution drafters and the National Reform Steering Assembly.
As part of his two-hour speech, the Prime Minister got a little worked up and said he would do everything necessary to return happiness to Thailand, “even if that meant closing the country.”
The PM’s critics came rapidly and venomously. What was he doing saying such things, what with Thailand’s international reputation already in tatters thanks to a coup, not to mention an impending EU ban on Thai seafood, a worldwide ban on Thai aviation, a dubious court case on Samui and some equally-dubious Southern generals burying Rohingya refugees? Actually when you bundle all those things into a single paragraph, closing the country may not be such a bad thing after all.
Relax, said the government. The prime minister was only joking. And it is true, our prime minister does sometimes shoot from the lip, and it is easy to take things out of context. This is the same man who blamed foreign tourists wearing bikinis for causing innocent Thai men — I beg your pardon, Burmese itinerants — to rape and bludgeon tourists to death on remote islands.
If outrage from business and social sectors was the first ripple, nothing prepared us for the second.
A quick Dusit Poll was taken of the Thai population. It revealed that academics and business folk were seething – but the general populace sure as heck wasn’t.
Most people agreed with the Prime Minister. Fifty-five per cent of all Thais. Close the country if necessary! If that’s what it takes to restore Thailand to its glory, then yes, board up Suvarnabhumi, build giant walls at all border crossings, but first boot out all the foreigners.
I don’t know about you, dear reader, but that gave me a queasy feeling. It was either that or the cheap gin I quaffed down after the Absolut ran out last night, but let’s assume the former. There is something a little sinister, isn’t there, about the so-called Land of Smiles that attracts an annual 30 million foreign tourists suddenly turning around and pointing them all towards the door.
But the general populace is onside with the Prime Minister. If closing the country means cleaning things up, then go do it. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time.
That’s right. It happened here once before, exactly 327 years ago, when all foreigners were booted out, and the country closed its doors and remained closed for a good 138 years before we were allowed back in. Worst of all, the closure didn’t seem to harm the country at all. It positively prospered.
There is an interesting period of Siamese history that revolves around a Greek man named Constantine Phaulkon, who ended up in Ayuthaya, the capital of Siam, during the reign of King Narai in the mid to late 17th century. A great weekend trip from Bangkok is to go to Lopburi, just north of Ayuthaya, and visit King Narai’s Palace, a magnificent structure with much of this colorful history explained.
King Narai had diplomatic ties with King Louis XIV of France and there were diplomatic missions to and from both countries, including one Siamese mission to Paris in 1686, two years before boot-out-the-farangs-year.
At the time Ayuthaya was one of the biggest cities in the world, and a cosmopolitan one at that, as Phaulkon discovered upon arrival. There were pockets of Portuguese, Japanese, Dutch, Persians, British and French.
Phaulkon arrived in 1675 as a merchant of the East India Company. In a very short time he mastered the Thai language and got a job in the Treasury. Along the way, he befriended King Narai to the point of being his confidante. This is where it gets murky.
Some believed Phaulkon had his eye on the throne. Others believed he was paving the way for the French to control the kingdom, since the French had such a large and influential force at the time. There was a religious fear as well, since Christianity was permeating the royal court thanks to Phaulkon and the French, and the Buddhist clergy were unhappy.
King Narai had an evil brother called Phetracha (we’re allowed to call him evil for reasons about to be explained), who was Phaulkon’s nemesis. Phetracha was either perturbed by Phualkon’s shadowy motives or simply jealous of Phaulkon’s close proximity to the King.
In a dramatic turn of events, King Narai fell gravely ill with dropsy (now known as edema). He called Phaulkon and his family together and announced his daughter would succeed him. Phetracha saw his opportunity and on June 5, 1688, he staged a coup against the dying King. He quickly executed Phaulkon for treason along with Narai’s son and brothers. King Narai died a few days later, after which Phetracha announced he was the new King. Narai’s daughter, the intended heir to the throne, was forced to marry King Phetracha.
One of the first things the new king did was boot out the French. Some 40,000 Siamese troops stormed the French in Bangkok and held them under siege for four months before sending them sailing. Then they kicked everybody else out.
It is believed some missionaries were allowed to stay, but for most foreigners, they were no longer welcome in Siam. It would be a bit like the General Prayut today booting all of us out but allowing Father Joe at the Mercy Center in Khlong Toey to hang around. Unfair, but understandable.
Siam remained closed to foreigners from 1688 until 1826, when the British were finally allowed to enter. The French would trickle back some 30 years later. So much happened within that period. The early 1700s was a golden age for Ayuthaya; then Ayuthaya fell to the Burmese in 1767. The Thais fled to Thonburi and set up the new capital there, soon crossing the river to what is now the Grand Palace and Rattanakosin. That all happened without any foreign influence — other than the Burmese, of course.
I have simplified a very complicated series of events to point out that yes, Thailand has a historical precedent in wanting to close itself off. It worked last time. It could work again. Perhaps that is why the Prime Minister can make such a comment and get away with it.
But what a story! What a climate to be living in: times of jealousy, jingoism, ethocentricity and betrayal. Oh but I am speaking of 1688, aren’t I.
By Andrew Biggs
Last Sunday was the last day of National Book Fair at Queen Sirikit Convention Center, where your beloved correspondent had a booth.
The bad news was that book customers are dwindling, and not just at my booth. The worldwide trend is away from physical books and towards e-books. Sadly in Thailand, the trend is simply away from physical books.
The good news? My booth wasn’t so far from the convention center’s restaurant and bar, the latter of which I spent a lot of my time in between dwindling customers. The lesser degree of readers was thus more than made up for by the ever increasing degrees of the beverages.
It was while I was at my booth, contemplating popping into the bar, that I was approached by three immaculately-dressed men with contented looks, albeit a little lean and hungry.
The oldest one wore trendy black-rimmed glasses with a skin glow that suggested he’d walked straight out of a Babyface Treatment at Nitthipon; with him was a younger man whose chin was a little long, thus resembling a horse. The third one was so unremarkable and silent I can’t even remember what he looked like.
“Khun Andrew! We are big fans of yours!” the spectacled one said as he greeted me.
“Yes we are!” said the horsey one. “And we have something for you!”
He handed over a little black sachet.
“If this is cocaine I have to tell you I moved onto other things long ago,” I said.
“No, no! It’s coffee!” the man in glasses said.
“Instant coffee!” added the horse, as if that somehow was a good thing.
I thanked them and explained the cocaine comment was just a joke, but I was just being polite; I haven’t willingly drunk, let alone purchased, instant coffee since the turn of the century.
It used to be the only form of coffee in this country, but 15 years ago Thais fell in love with real freshly ground coffee and now coffee shops are as ubiquitous as brothels used to be.
That’s ironic, since when I first arrived in Thailand, “coffee shops” were everywhere. That’s what they were called in Thai — coffee chop — but the truth is they were nightclubs-cum-brothels. And coffee was never on the menu.
So coffee shops died out, and coffee shops took their places. Thais discovered that there was indeed life after Nescafe, and the country now makes a sensational cup of coffee, often from locally grown beans.
Caffeine is a more reliable partner for me than any human being has been lately; at least when I get to the bottom of the cup it doesn’t require a cab fare or money for an ailing buffalo. Such is my love of a good cup of coffee; full strength, caffeine-powered, with no milk or sugar.
“This is special coffee,” added the horse. “It has reduced caffeine!”
Kiss of death.
“Reduced caffeine!?” I gasped, and the horse nodded triumphantly.
“Yet still retaining all the flavor!” he added.
“Who drinks coffee for the flavor?” I blurted out before I could stop myself.
“In fact, I am going to give you a whole box of the coffee,” said the older one. “What kind of coffee do you drink?”
“Black,” I answered. “Like my heart.” It’s a joke. I use it every time somebody asks me that question but it kind of went over the heads of these three. They were too busy shoving coffee into my hands, along with name cards.
Spectacles pointed towards the horse. “My partner will contact you to find out how you enjoyed it.”
“Will he just?”
“Did you know Manny Pacquiao gave up boxing to sell this coffee?”
“No, I didn’t know that,” I replied, which was the truth. The last I’d heard anything about Manny Paquino he was embroiled in a sex scandal, or was that Tiger Woods?
Before I knew it, the guy with the glasses had brought out a folder, within which were remarkable statistics which had to be reliable since it was printed on glossy paper.
“By selling this coffee, all your dreams can come true. Have a look at this figure, Khun Andrew!” He pointed at 487,000,000. Was I supposed to invest that figure?
“That’s how much you can earn at the very top of the ladder per month, Khun Andrew. Yes! Per month!”
Was that ladder I heard him just say, or pyramid? The pieces were falling into place. These three air-brushed young men weren’t honest book fans of mine. They were trying to rope me into a pyramid scheme!
I needed an escape. I glanced over to my booth but to my chagrin there were no potential customers. Damn those e-books!
Such a quiet booth situation usually coincided with Messrs Absolut and Bombay calling my name from the QSNCC bar, but the spectacled man drowned out those calls with his babbling about the untold hundreds of millions within my reach every month. The gelding looked on with a happy disposition. The silent one; who cares about him?
Three minutes I stood listening, dear reader, until I finally had to break the hard sell.
“Listen I have to get back to my booth –“
“Oh but wait, we left the best thing till last,” whinnied the horse. He pointed to a picture in the brochure of what I thought, for a split second, was a phallus. “Look at the secret ingredient of our coffee!”
“Ganoderma Lucidum!” cried the spectacled one, sounding like Bob Barker revealing a brand new four-door sedan in the showcase playoff.
“Perhaps you know it better as the lingzhi mushroom,” Horse added quickly. To my disgust I nodded back at him as if indeed, I did know that. “Used in traditional Chinese herbal medicine. It protects you from cancer.”
I’d had enough. The coffee may protect me from cancer but it didn’t do anything to dispel pyramid salesman. In the end I feigned diarrhea from a bad plate of somtam and left.
Three days later the Horse had discovered me on Facebook.
“Did you enjoy the coffee? Please help me out by buying seven dozen boxes. You can give them to all your friends and those who love drinking coffee.”
Seven dozen boxes?
To give to all my friends?
I haven’t had 96 friends since I was forced to go to religious camp when I was 15 years old. And what’s this business about separating “all my friends” with “those who love coffee”? What are you suggesting — that we’re green tea lovers? I’ve sued people for implying less!
I wrote back to him with links to a few googled articles not so favorable to the coffee scheme in question. He hasn’t replied.
Coincidentally, the day I received his message was the morning I read the news about a coffee company that was shut down by the cops.
This one was called One Fan Coffee out Minburi way and their sachets were actually an illegal mix of coffee and Viagra. What a clever idea, and why weren’t they selling it at my local Foodland?! I’d even consider going back to instant coffee knowing what else was in it. Certainly it renders lingzhi mushrooms a very poor and dare I say impotent second place.
This morning as I wrote this column I decided to forego my usual full-strength, caffeine-laced coffee, and instead boiled some hot water and opened a sachet of the coffee I’d been gifted by Horse, Glasses and Unremarkable earlier in the week.
“Lingzhi shmingzhi,” I scoffed as I tasted it.
It wasn’t half bad, dammit.
NIGHTMARE ON RETAIL STREET
By Andrew Biggs
Just got back from a clothes shopping trip in Los Angeles. Hardly justification for a column, I know, but bear with me. Things get a little more deep and meaningful as we progress.
Buffalo Exchange is a popular clothing shop for hip American teens so I went there today with my American niece Sabrina.
Fourteen-year-old Sabrina and thirty-something-Andrew have so much in common. She’s ultra-cool (that’s not one of them) and loves second-hand vintage clothes shops. I asked her along because I wanted her to cast her modern youthful eye over my selection of shirts I thought to be very suitable for a man of the 21st century like myself. It came as a surprise when Sabrina eyed each of my six choices with youthful revulsion.
“Slanty stripes,” she spat out upon seeing my first selection. “I … don’t … think … so.”
Next. “Oh no. That goes. Look at the two front pockets – are you on safari or something? Not a good look.” Her index finger slashed through my selection of six shirts so deftly it reminded me of Freddy Kruger.
At a loud vertical-striped blue number: “That’s goes for sure.” At the gaily-multi-colored dress shirt, the reincarnation of Mr Blackwell announced: “You want to look like a rainbow?” At a dirty pink long-sleeve: “There are some parts of Los Angeles they’ll assault you for wearing that.” As for the Billabong jeans (on sale for $8!) she rolled her eyes and announced: “You’ll forget the price soon enough – but nobody will forget how bad your butt looks in them.”
Out of the mouths of babes. The worst thing was she was right on all of ‘em. I wasn’t really upset; how liberating to be clothes shopping where I could actually choose things … where there was a selection of items in my size… give me Sabrina and her scythe-like finger any day over the horrors of Bangkok clothes shopping.
“Hello sirrrr, what you want to buy sirrrr, you want to buy shirt sirrrrr, what color sirrrrr?”
See how happy she is when I walk into her little shop? In Thailand, sales staff are so full of youthful exuberance you almost believe they are genuinely happy to see you. Sometimes there is more than one, and I am set upon like office girls attacking a plate of lunchtime somtam.
The relationship I have with Thai clothing staff is similar to the relationship western fly-by-night tourists have with their temporary Thai, er, friends. Everything starts out fantastic but soon degenerates as the local realizes there’s no money in them there hills.
”You like this one sirrrr? Very nice sirrrrr, new fashion sirrrrr”
Before I know it I am being shown five shirts in five appalling colors but the sheer velocity of her verbal barrage muffles out those little voices in my head screaming: “I’ve seen better shirts on Thai Parliamentarians!” In no time I am selecting one of them, a dull-grey workshirt to try on. How did I get here? Why is there an Arrow shirt in my hand? Her sheer charisma has blinded me, and I am reminded of Jim Jones and purple Kool-Aid.
I mumble that it looks too small but size, to a Thai clothing shop assistant, isn’t everything.
“I have big size for you sirrrrr, please just a moment sirrrrrr.”
Now she has disappeared out the back. The crazy thing is, it’s my perfect chance to duck out and make my getaway, tearing through the mall, knocking over hapless shoppers on my way, jumping over shopping carts, until I am safely at least three moo bahns and two towns whose names end in buri away from her.
But I don’t. Move over, Stockholm Syndrome. Here is the Bangkok Syndrome in full force –the inability to walk away from buying something you have absolutely no need for.
Now she’s back with a bigger size wrapped in cellophane. Now she’s unwrapping it with that “make an honest woman out of me” smile.
“You can try sirrrr, over there sirrrr, follow me sirrrrr”
Suddenly I’m in a tiny room with a stark mirror and bright neon lights. As soon as I undo the first button of my shirt she’s at it again:
“Good sirrrr? Look good? Okay sirrrr you buy? I wrap for you sirrrr”
The shirt is way too small for me; just doing up the front buttons is a chore. I bulge and billow like a water-filled balloon and wonder if it wouldn’t be easier just to set fire to that 2,000 Baht I pay every month for my Fitness First membership.
Not that Super Sales Lady thinks so.
I exit the changing room. Her eyebrows rise, she clasps her hands in front of her chest and breaks into an irresistible Thai smile.
“Oh sirrrrrr … SIRRRRR … so handsome! Number one sirrrr!! NUMBER ONE NA!”
I would like to grab her and shake her by the shoulders screaming: “Wake up girl! It’s four sizes too small!” But alas, I can neither raise my arms out in front to grab her nor can I say a word, since the material is so tight it is restricting my inhalation.
I’m not buying the damn thing.
The moment she realizes that, a mammoth change engulfs her. In a split second I am no longer her soul mate. With a jerky finger movement she points to the changing rooms, ordering me to return the shirt while she moodily picks at her fingernails. Crazily, I feel as though I have to make excuses. Any attempt at that is met with a curt ”kha” and soon she is muttering in Thai. I hear the occasional ”farang khi nok” and ”oo-an” and ”kin maak gern pai”.
So you can see I gave up buying clothes in Thailand a long time ago. It was never a happy experience, even with a quick sedative and vodka and tonic before setting off. Sabrina’s terse judgments on my clothes sense are far more welcome than over-exuberance clashing head on with a lack of product.
And I’m not making fun of that sales lady’s English either. How could anybody speak well when her alphabet lacks two important letters – XL?
GESTAPO CAR PARK
By Andrew Biggs
The Don Mueang car park is absolutely full but there is a tiny, tiny sliver of space right at the entrance — and the security guard has agree to let me park there.
For this reason I will neither be condescending nor critical of him. Little do I know at this point, however, my father’s declaration throughout my childhood that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” is about to ring true.
I admit that when it was clear there were no parks I did wind down my window (and am I the only person still “winding down” my window in this day and age?), hoping the security guard in question may remember my face.
This is a plus for any of us who have graced televisions screens, and especially those of us who, in the halls of the FCCT, have been described as “a face well-suited for radio.” They tend to remember you better.
Drastic circumstances require drastic measures. I swallow my pride, throw on my Maserati sunglasses, and ask him for help since I’m “rushing upcountry to take part in an, er, televised charity event for disabled orphans.” My karma will catch up with me one day.
It works. The security guard’s face lights up.
“Oh-ho! Ajarn Stephen from TV! Hello!”
Ajarn Stephen?! Who the hell is Ajarn Stephen? There is a quick jostle in my head between wanting to resuscitate my wounded pride and wanting to park my car — the latter wins.
Car park security guards in Thailand are men with extreme power, and they wield it in ways ranging from benevolent dictators to little Hitlers.
We falsely believe that the cruelty of the Gestapo in World War II was limited to that period of time and location.
Wrong. I have seen people who would gladly perform heinous acts just as the Gestapo did, and they tend to wear blue uniforms and blow whistles — or take up positions in the civil service, but that’s another column.
This guard is not a little Hitler. He’s got a tough job. Being a regular to this crowded car park right below the departure terminal, I see these guys running up and down tiny alleys of space between cramped parked cars, pushing, pulling and jostling them for space.
(There is, I must quickly add before someone in a high place does, another less-crowded car park at the airport. It requires a walk to the departure terminal that takes the same time as a Nok Air flight to Phitsanuloke. Honestly … who designs these places?)
“Where you go?” the guard asks me.
“Surat Thani,” I answer.
“How long will you stay in Surat, Ajarn Stephen?”
“I’m back tonight.”
His face lights up. “Okaaaaaaay!” he declares. “Park here!” and he points to the tiny space blocked off by a single traffic cone.
What a nice man! He’s just saved me 15 minutes; for that reason alone he can call me anything.
In one deft turn I maneuver my trendy black Teana into the crawlspace between a Mercedes Benz and a BMW, instantly rendering me the poor cousin.
But as I go to switch off the engine, a commotion erupts outside.
The security guard is blowing his whistle in short bolts of aural lightning. I glance out at him and he is shaking his head even more violently than when he was talking about the murdered tourists.
I wind down … er, lower the window once again.
“No!” he is crying repeatedly, causing a hunched-over PCS trash collector nearby to raise his head. “Wrong way!”
Oh dear. I have committed the cardinal sin of parking in Thailand. I have parked with my nose in.
The guard is now motioning for me to back out.
“Never mind!” I shout through the window. I am actually well parked, but the security guard is not having a bar of it.
One of the joys of this country is its wanton disregard for traffic rules. It’s why ex-POWs end up retiring here in their thousands. All rules and regulations and courtesies are thrown to the wind … with the exception of one.
In Thailand it is mandatory to reverse into a car park space. When I say “mandatory”, I don’t mean law. I mean it is a traditional Thai custom handed down through generations, a little like performing a wai or singing sepa or acting in a likae show. You can be as manic as you like on the roads, but once you come to the end of your journey, don’t for a minute think you can barge in head-first to that car park space.
Do I really have to reverse out again? Isn’t that just going to kill another minute of my valuable time?
It actually kills SEVEN minutes of my valuable time. I timed the whole procedure.
That’s how long it takes me to slowly drive out of the park, then reverse back in without brushing against that Merc or Beamer or any of the other 12 vehicles in that crowded space around me.
All the while my guard is blowing his whistle, then I have to wait as he tries to push another car, parked in neutral, out of the way, so that I can inch forward another ten centimetres.
Seven long arduous minutes, dear reader. My arms are sore from the constant back and forth of the steering wheel while my attitude morphs from empathy to revenge.
Finally my car is parked exactly the same as it had been seven minutes previous, only I have my back to the wall. In more ways than one.
Now, in front of my car, the guard is doing something weird with his arms, pushing them forward in a parallel scissor action, not unlike a chorus girl in a Busby Berkley number.
“Your wheels!” he is shouting. “Straighten your wheels!”
My wheels aren’t straight? Is that traditionally Thai as well? Am I on Candid Camera? Is it okay to get away with murdering foreign tourists, but a crime to park one’s car with the wheels slightly skew whiff?
I am tempted to squeeze out of my car, slam the door shut and shout: “To hell with my wheels! I’ll park just the way I like! And my name’s not Stephen!”
But then I am reminded of the guard’s metallic whistle, and what a lasting impression it would make dug deep into the contours of my Teana whilst I was oblivious in Surat Thani.
With a heavy heart (and steering wheel – the power steering, like the engine, was off) I pull my wheels into straight position, a defeated, broken man against a thousand-year-old culture.
Later that evening the guard is nowhere to be seen when I return from my day trip to Surat. A supervisor nearby does reveal something interesting.
“You’re lucky to get this car park,” she says. “This area is reserved for V.I.P.’s and celebrities.”
Her comment puts a smile on my face during the drive home. Not because the guard thought I was a celebrity. I was imagining the constant stream of V.I.P.’s and starlets being bossed about and cajoled by that man and his whistle.
THE ULTIMATE GARDEN PARTY
By Andrew Biggs
Yesterday the Ploenchit Fair completed a full circle. The quintessential British event returned to its mother’s breast, the British Embassy, as a swansong for the grounds themselves.
There are not that many annual events on the Expat calendar that have stood the test of time. There are the various embassy balls, of course, and this year Fight Night made a successful return after its alleged demise in 2016.
But nothing comes close to the prestige and quaintness of the Ploenchit Fair, an event that is well-documented in its altruism, having raised some 70 million baht for charities within Thailand.
What perhaps is less known publicly is that the event is as resilient as its charismatic chief organizer, the famous Carolyn Tarrant, MBE, who can be seen swanning around the event keeping a watchful, if not at times dictatorial, eye on things.
Carolyn would agree that Ploenchit Fair has weathered just about every major disaster one could imagine including torrential rain, a massive fire, floods and a bomb threat. And a chain-smoking orangutan driving a tractor around in circles, but more about that in a minute.
There are so many things going for the Ploenchit Fair. It starts with the chimes of Big Ben and then a parade of Scottish bagpipers. It ends around the beer garden stage in a pool of plastic beer containers and sweat.
You can get all your Christmas shopping done in an hour providing your family is into scented candles and hand-woven scarves. Clown Eckie is there. Nancy Chandler’s coloring classes for kids are popular while her arch rival, Groovy Map, runs the bingo stand. It’s a day you can swap your Singha for Old Speckled Hen while listening to ageing expats performing earnest Springsteen to a younger, slightly perplexed audience in that beer garden.
This year was especially nostalgic. For the first time in 17 years, and the very last time ever, the fair came home.
The very first fair was held on the British Embassy grounds in 1957, back in the days when embassies were places where educated folk spent their days engaged in cultured discussion and slow inebriation, the latter of which survives to this day at the fair.
The annual event slowly became the premier date on the Bangkok expat social calendar. In 1978, just about the time disco was taking off, an attractive young lass from Hampstead Heath agreed to take it over.
That was our Carolyn, and from that moment she became synonymous with the event. Thailand Tatler describes her as the “brains behind the Ploenchit Fair” but that is calling it short. She is also the eyes and ears, and without any dissent from her dedicated team, the mouth. But then that is the only way one can run such a major event.
I remember the Ploenchit Fair in the British grounds throughout the 1990s as an event where you spent half the day catching up with friends, and the other half darting into bushes to avoid those you eschewed. Everybody was there. Last Sunday in this newspaper, Roger Crutchley reminisced about 1992 when he sat at the fair trying to sell his book Postscript to little success. It’s a small world: He doesn’t remember it, but I bought a book off him that day.
The crowning glory of the British Embassy is, or was, its greenery and it really was spectacular. One of its major features was the statue of Queen Victoria which Thai women, for decades, prayed to in the belief she would help them get pregnant.
The fair at the embassy had little drama for 45 years with the exception of 1995, when Central Chidlom, right next door, burnt to the ground. Staff had to hose down the adjoining walls — and probably pray to Queen Victoria — to stop the fire spreading to the embassy grounds, where 18,000 people were attending the British fair.
In 2001, two months after 9/11, the Ploenchit Fair was told it could no longer be held within the grounds.
The terrorist era had begun and the British embassy grounds had to be locked up. The grounds went from Botanical Gardens to Fort Knox.
So Carolyn packed up the fair and moved it to Sanam Seua Pa near Thai Parliament.
The following year, ten days before the fair, the Bali Bombing took place killing 202 people, mainly foreign tourists. Embassies including my own issued warnings not to go to any public gatherings where foreigners would be.
That wasn’t all. Early Friday evening on the eve of the fair, the heavens opened. And they didn’t close again, properly, for another 24 hours.
Worse, Sanam Seua Pa had no drainage. The place flooded. This meant all volunteers were handed pairs of wellingtons. Your favorite columnist was the fair’s announcer and said a little prayer himself, maybe even to Queen Victoria, not to be electrocuted every time he made a public announcement.
Most memorable from that event were the cute animals from the Lopburi Zoo that kids could pet. The biggest was an orangutan that was addicted to cigarettes. His trick was to drive a tractor. This is the most vivid picture of the Ploenchit Fair that year: an orangutan, chain smoking, driving a tractor round and around in the pouring rain. As Carolyn did her reconnaissance, cigarette dangling out of her mouth, the orangutan immediately made a beeline for her, probably more enthused by the fag than Carolyn, and she beat a hasty retreat to the bathrooms.
There have been other emergencies. The fair ended up on the grounds of Shrewsbury School by the river. During the 2011 Bangkok floods the school informed Carolyn less than a week out of the event that it could not be staged there. It is testament to her organizational abilities that she managed to move the entire fair over to higher ground, namely, Bangkok Patana School, where it has been ever since.
For me, I am still the fair announcer, which has its perks. I get to play the music for the fair, which consists of popular British hits from the last 50 years, especially ones that I like. This means I could satisfy my morbid obsession for Kate Bush on loudspeakers. I have also acquired skills such as how to pacify lost children, as well as how to track down the owners of missing wallets and phones. My weirdest memory is of two years ago when I dashed out to do my final Master degree exam at Ramkhamhaeng University. The juxtaposition from raucous fair, to the stifled silence of writing independent sample t-tests while stinking of beer and cigarettes, then returning to the fair was a day I will never forget.
Yesterday was a real dose of nostalgia but the atmosphere was perhaps not like the lazy days of the 1950s and 1960s. It was a full-on security event yesterday with a maximum of only 2,000 visitors allowed in at any time, and a clear police presence.
Prepaid tickets snapped up quickly, sold out way before the event, as people came to cast a final look over those beautiful gardens. The days of Ploenchit Fairs on the British Embassy grounds were now over for good. The grounds themselves were over for good.
Next year it’s back at Bangkok Patana. Now the residence is empty, and those trees and bushes and flowers stand silently … although there are rumors Queen Victoria is going to stay where she is, perhaps for the sake of the country’s future children.
By Andrew Biggs
Back when I was working at Channel 3, one of Thailand’s two major free-to-air commercial TV stations, there was a unique department consisting of three very refined, elegant ladies.
They were older women who dressed immaculately, often in colorful Thai silk dresses. Their hair was perfectly coiffed; softly-spoken and friendly, they always greeted me with a smile and kind words. Once they gave me a book on how to transliterate Thai words, which was very generous of them.
When Channel 3 was at the Emporium these ladies had an office directly across the hall from mine, which was probably why I got to see so much of them. Our relationship was a casual and courteous one; we would chat about the weather and our health as we passed one another in the hall, me off to my raucous crowded office, them returning to a dark room where they sat in front of TV monitors.
Their appearance belied their role at the channel — the censors. Their job was to vet TV shows to ensure wanton violence, gratuitous sex, foul language and as much as a whiff of intoxicants would be deleted before being foisted upon the general public. Otherwise mass anarchy could ensue.
What an irony; that these ladies who exuded poise and prim sobriety should be subject to viewing the myriad depravities of humanity. How ironic, also, that the difference between civility and anarchy was just three discreet unassuming ladies in Thai silk.
Each major channel had such a department; self-censorship so that whatever government was in power didn’t have to do it for them. Self-censorship is bad enough; imagine the government doing it for you.
(Only once in 20 years of making TV shows here was one of my programs censored, thanks to Kylie Minogue’s almost non-existent hot pants in her music video for Spinning Around. The Channel 9 censors felt her dancing was too raunchy for Thai youth, encouraging them to have sex, something that apparently goes against Thai culture. We covered her bottom with a graphic.)
TV stations censor themselves. Unfortunately for the Thai film industry, the government does it for them.
When the issue of movie censorship intermittently rears its head, I immediately think of those lovely ladies from Channel 3. This is probably an erroneous association on my part because the Channel 3 ladies’ task was functional and time-saving. The movie censorship board is a little more insidious.
The Bangkok Post’s film guru Kong Rithdee once wrote an excellent piece, explaining the state of Thailand’s movie censorship board in light of a scandal involving a film called Arpat.
His article provided convincing arguments against the board’s decisions, but Mr Rithdee failed to address the single most damning piece of evidence that supports abolishing the board forever, and that is the fact that there are 42 fine upstanding members of Thai society who are certifiably sane. I haven’t gone completely mad; I am about to explain what I mean.
Thailand has a censorship board called the National Film Board. It’s under the Culture Ministry and is actually six revolving committees. Each committee comprises four government officials and three members of the private sector. Sometimes the board is just five members but let’s not get bogged down in the details.
A movie called Arpat was held up by the board. The movie, whose title means “Misdemeanor” — the kind only committed by monks — is all about a novice monk who displays human tendencies. There are scenes of a monk kissing a girl while in another scene, a monk drinks alcohol. The board banned the movie claiming these scenes “could destroy Buddhism”.
This news came out the week the movie was going to cinemas; within a few days cuts were made and the film finally hit the cinemas at 8.30 pm Friday week ago. It was the kind of publicity money could not buy, and indeed, some industry people believed the controversy was manufactured to put more Kylie Minogue hot pants on seats. And suspiciously, the movie was cut and passed within days of it being released; as anybody who has done business with the civil service here knows, nothing moves that quickly.
Censorship is a very delicate issue, especially in a country like Thailand where face and perceived reality take precedence over the truth. For the film board, their task is to ensure no movie “disrupts national security,” as Section 29 of the Film Code states.
A movie disrupting national security? What a broad, scarily open-to-interpretation little phrase that one is. Has there ever been a movie in the history of mankind that has brought down a government? Disrupted national security? Destroyed a religion? If Kylie’s hot pants had been shown on my TV show that Saturday afternoon 15 years ago, would there now be, say, 69 million people in Thailand as opposed to the current 68 million?
There is a fundamental flaw in having a film censorship board. Here is the logic: That board has six rotating committees of seven members whose task is to view movies and delete anything that may cause Thais to become divided and unruly, destroy religion or, apparently, have sex.
But wait – those board members are Thais themselves. If indeed their work is legitimate, then they themselves must be adversely affected by the scenes they have watched.
Perhaps somebody who has been to the film board could enlighten us on this, because I never have. What are the 42 members that make up those six boards like? Do they have nervous tics? Do they display homicidal tendencies? Are they intent on bringing down the government? If they are like this, then good; their work is justified and they are providing a service to Thai society. Better to have 42 miscreants than 68 million.
But what if they are not? What if they are normal?
The fact the film board members remain upstanding members of society means they are doing a job that does not need to be done.
This presents me with no comfort. I would never, ever presume to curtail the livelihood of my three favorite ladies at Channel 3, although I still feel the need to shield their well-bred eyes from the scenes they are vetting. And yet strangely those scenes seem to have had the opposite effect on them; the more they see, the more well-rounded and philosophical in their approach to life.
Could it be … could it just be … that exposing the masses to such allegedly-divisive scenes could start the masses thinking? Scrutinizing? Critically analyzing? Methodically examining and coming to one’s own conclusions? Perish the thought.
SPEAKING IN TONGUES
By Andrew Biggs
Thailand is reeling with another monk-in-sheep’s-clothing scandal.
A monk is flying on a private jet to Europe for a shopping spree. That was after he made a TV ad for an air purifier. Not bad for a guy who’s taken a vow of poverty and whose wardrobe consists of three saffron robes; why go all the way to Paris to buy those?
This is what happens when we worship men more than religion.
I’m very familiar with religious charlatans, growing up in the southern suburbs of Brisbane, Australia, where travelling preachers would ride into town, or rather fly in on TAA or Ansett business class.
When I was little, my siblings and I used to love it when our parents would head off into the night for some swish Sunnybank dinner party where Devils-On-Horseback were the hors d’oevres and flummery the dessert.
It meant our beloved baby sitter would look after us for a few hours.
Her name was Mrs Spence, a really old lady of 35 or so (I was 13 at the time) with a bob of grey hair and warm and friendly manner.
Mrs Spence was a devout Christian. This was in direct contrast to my own family, whose idea of a “Holy Trinity” was a hat trick of English batsmen out during the Ashes.
One time she mentioned a travelling preacher was coming to Sunnybank for “charismatic renewal” and would I like to come along? I was on the tail end of my Suzi Quatro obsession and was looking for something new so I said yes.
Thus one Saturday afternoon, Mrs Spence and I went to a charismatic renewal service at the local Methodist Church.
The church was packed. I remember it being a carnival atmosphere, with the focus on a slick, handsome man in a heavy suit who told us, flashing a killer smile, how he’d once lived a life of crime stealing cars and indeed, ever since I have never been able to separate men who steal cars from those who sell them.
This preacher exuded charisma as he told us how he found God in jail.
“Do you have any troubles in your life?” he shouted. “Let Jesus resolve them!”
He invited the congregation to move to the front where he would place one hand on people’s foreheads, after which they fell to the ground and proceeded to “speak in tongues”.
“What are they saying?” I asked Mrs Spence.
“The ancient language of the Lord,” she replied, clutching a sensible handbag in her lap.
“I’m going up there,” I told Mrs Spence.
I made my way out of the pew and up to the altar. The preacher man was shouting “He is risen!” and “Hosanna In the Highest!”
One by one the Sunnybank folk fell back, caught by his henchmen staff, as he got closer and closer to me. There were two more ahead.
“The Lord will protect you!”
I held my arms up, copying the others. The preacher laid his right palm on my forehead.
A strange tingling feeling instantly emanated from his palm. It seemed to fan out throughout my skull and down my spine. I fell backwards.
As I was laid on the ground, I began to speak in tongues.
“Mashimmina shimmina takka-dakka-mashimmina”
After a while I stopped. Walking back to the pew I was a changed boy. I had found God.
Mrs Spence was thrilled. She set up a meeting with Father John at St Barnabus, where he invited me to be an altar boy. This was the Anglican Church so being an altar boy wasn’t the shadowy, regret-for-the-rest-of-your-life position found in other places.
For a good few weeks I floated around school holier than thou, thinking a lot about Jesus and being in heaven where I’d be able to say “mishimmina” for eternity far away from the fires of Hades. Why he had chosen to “Out Lucifer!” me, as opposed to the more positive “Praise Jesus!” he bestowed on others, remains a mystery.
Not long after, something went wrong with my Super 8 projector. I removed the back of the projector and discovered a piece of film was stuck. I reached in to pull it out … and got the electric shock of my life.
The same feeling I got from the preacher man.
It didn’t take long for me to put two and two together.
No wonder he was wearing long sleeves on that hot Queensland day. No wonder he kept his palm closed as he placed it on our foreheads before pushing us back. I hadn’t found God … but I was definitely a little closer to Benjamin Franklin.
And so began my healthy distrust of all people religious, especially those who demand payment. Poor Mrs Spence, a widow surviving on a pension, gave an extraordinary amount of money to that preacher’s henchmen as we walked out.
This week Thailand is grappling with a monk by the name of Nane-Kham who has an amazing following out in Si Sa Ket.
He’s the guy who flew to Europe in a private jet because there just isn’t enough room in Thai Airways economy class. For that I don’t disagree; the only difference between him and me is I didn’t take a vow of poverty.
This is a monk who once built a giant Buddha image at his temple in this impoverished North-eastern province.
“I need some gold to make clothing for the Buddha,” he announced to his faithful clan, made up predominantly of women above the age of 35.
How much gold do you think his ardent followers managed to toss his way? Ten kilograms? A hundred kilograms?
Try nine thousand kilograms.
For the last few weeks he was back in the news, as this charismatic monk flew to France in a private jet.
If that wasn’t enough, a couple of days ago he made an advertisement for an air purifier! Honestly, it was straight out of the shopping channel.
“We monks have hectic lives, getting up early and collecting alms, then seeing followers, which can make us sick,” says Nane-Kham, as he sits in a gold embossed chair.
Beside him is a black plastic thing with FRESH AIR written next to it. In the bottom left hand corner of the screen the brand name VOLLARA comes up.
“When I’m feeling a bit run down, I turn to this machine, Fress Air.” Fress … his pronunciation, not mine.
We cut to shots of monks in hospitals.
“Thailand has 300,000 to 400,000 monks and they get sick often. Why not make merit by purchasing a Fress Air air purifier? I’ve been given many different brands but this one is the best.”
With cheesy music in the background we see that sea of mature ladies in white, doting on his every word. They are smiling, but not as much as the CEO of Vollara must be.
Nobody knows where the Buddha is buried, though fragments of his bones can be found in temples scattered across the region.
Authentic? I have no idea. But I do know all those little fragments must be turning in their graves. It’s enough to make you want to speak in tongues.
(Note: Nane Kham ended up being defrocked and is now serving a jail sentence.)