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?
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.)
By Andrew Biggs
By the time you read this column, I will have returned from a week away at detox.
Yes, you heard right. Detox. Angelina Jolie’s done it. In fact just about all of Hollywood has done it, so naturally, it’s my turn.
I’ve never really been into detox – it’s something people with too much money, time, and toxins encrusted onto the walls of their intestines do. And yet for the first time in my life, I am giving up all worldly pleasures and disappearing off to a remote southern island, only this time it is to detox.
That means giving up all those things that bring me so much comfort in my frequent hours of despair and self-loathing, such as potato chips, Swenson’s Earthquakes and two-for-one Long Islands every Wednesday at a bar not far from my work place. There’s no alcohol or fatty foods during detox. In fact, I have to give up all food whatsoever. For one week, I will not even be eating.
I know, it’s crazy. But ever since I ran a full-marathon I’ve been looking for new life challenges. I dabbled in religion for a few months but the guilt trips were debilitating. Traditional Thai fruit carving was so dreary I wanted the knife to carve out my own wrist instead of the watermelon.
Then one February morning, a breezy phone call from my friend Andrew.
“I’m going down to Samui to detox this Songkran,” he said in his American drawl. “Wanna come?”
Now there’s something I haven’t ever tried! My friend gave me a quick rundown of what it would entail – no eating for a week, and at the end of it I’d feel fantastic. The idea of getting off on not eating as opposed to the usual suspects was intriguing. I said yes.
February turned to March, which quickly rolled over to April. Suddenly I was two weeks away from leaving when I started getting the emails from Andrew’s PA, Khun Shela.
Since you are only two weeks away from your detox experience, we would ask you to stop eating all meat. Also, no caffeine in any form. Eat plenty of raw vegetables and fruits, and we probably don’t need to remind you not to drink any alcohol as of now.
The reality of what I was doing gripped onto me like toxins in an intestine. To me, Samui is synonymous with food and drink, having fun with Eurotrash, bad tailor shops and overpriced public transport. It’s like a giant glass of vodka-tonic rising out of the Gulf of Thailand. That was all going to change.
I stopped eating meat for two weeks. I stopped all alcohol and to my surprise, that wasn’t a problem. But the killer was coffee. Within three days of giving it up I was experiencing tunnel vision and bad headaches. I became unbearable to my staff, and I lost my smile somewhere on the way to work in those first few days and never regained it.
That wasn’t the worst. One week before detox, Khun Shela was tapping away again:
By now your pre-detox should be well in session. We advise you to do a Liver Flush prior to the cleansing program. I enclose the recipe.
Believe me, dear reader, a liver flush tastes worse than it sounds. It’s olive oil, garlic, ginger, cayenne pepper and orange juice blended to form a bilious sludge one is expected to drink and then, fantastically, keep down. I did it for five nights in a row. It’s supposed to clean out your liver and gall bladder but let me tell you it cleans out your intestines as well.
And speaking of the lower body …
Part of “detox” requires what they call colonic irrigation. Don’t pretend you don’t know, but for the blissful uninformed, it requires getting a “colema tip” and affixing it to the end of a tube. The colema tip is then inserted up one’s rear end, and coffee is pumped into your rectum. Oh all right, not your rectum. Mine.
I have two very major issues with this:
1. I can’t drink coffee, but I can shove it up my backside? An orifice is an orifice is an orifice. I feel betrayed I have foregone my two morning black coffees for two whole weeks only to arrive at a resort where it is pumped up my behind.
Upon disseminating this information to friends, I have come across many fascinating facts. Apparently if you pump vodka up your backside, you get drunker than if you drank it. I can’t imagine doing that … wouldn’t all those ice cubes hurt? Another friend told me the ancient Mayans used to pump peyote, an hallucinogenic derived from the cactus plant, up their backsides in a religious ceremony where they then allegedly “saw the Gods”. I bet they did. I can’t imagine what I will see when that colema tip makes contact with my backside, other than a stoic yet horrified expression from the staff member assisting me.
2. Just look at the bogus information one is fed about this colonic irrigation. “The process removes poisonous layers of waste that is caked to the inner walls of your intestines.” Two years ago I had a colonoscopy. Six hours before the camera-on-a-leash went into me, I had to drink a potion even more disgusting than Liver Flush. But it did the trick, leaving your intestines spotless so that the camera could investigate. And I mean spotless.
After the event I was given a VCD of what the camera had explored and seen deep within me. In the comfort of my home I opened a bottle of South Australian chardonnay, put on my favorite Mozart horn concertos, and watched the VCD as it explored my nether regions.
At the doctor’s the next day I had to ask her. “My intestines were so clean. Where was all the rubbish that’s supposed to be caked to the sides of my intestines, which colonic irrigation is supposed to remove?”
My ever-so-diplomatic doctor simply smiled and said: “Now you know.”
Well, I might have known, but it isn’t stopping me two years down the track giving up food, alcohol, caffeine, meat and my sensibility for one whole week. But who knows? Maybe I’ll come out of it a more stable, likeable human being. Maybe that burst of energy will kick in, or I’ll lose so much weight everybody will think I’ve got a disease.
I just hope for the sake of the resort staff it works. Otherwise the only tip they’re gonna get when I check out is of the used colema variety.
(One week later:)
Upon arrival at the spa, I was presented with my spa pack, including a booklet entitled “Your Cleansing Fast”.
Page one was disheartening: “We here DO NOT PROFESS to be MEDICAL AUTHORITIES or ADVISORS.”
Now they tell us!
Does that mean I can rise up and revolt when you start denying me food? Also included in the pack was a long plastic tube with a hole on the end, like a mini lawn sprinkler. This was our “colema tip”, and it sat ominously next to a new tube of KY Jelly.
This is the heart of detox. All was explained on Day One, when we were invited to the reception area. We sat around as the staff flicked on a 20 minute video explaining the colemic process.
I had imagined a nice ward with friendly smiling attendants who made soothing comments like “Goodness the weather’s hot outside today isn’t it?” as they placed warm white towels over your crotch while slipping the little colema tip surreptitiously into your sphincter. “Now you just relax there for 15 minutes and I’ll be back when it’s over,” one attendant would say from behind her white mask, her head cocked slightly to one side as she winked at you happily.
Reality was far more jarring. There is no “Colon Ward”; you do it alone in your own bungalow bathroom. So that explains the big black ugly meat hook hanging next to the toilet, the type you see in a butcher shop or every sequel of Friday The 13th . We had to fill a bucket up with coffee and warm water, then hang it precariously from the meat hook.
Precariously? I should have saved that word for what I had to do next.
Next to the meat hook is something resembling a surfboard, but the only waves around were those of nausea upon knowing what I had to do. The surfboard was a “colema board” and it had a sizeable hole at the end big enough for a head to pop through. Only my head wasn’t going anywhere near it.
The idea was to lay the surfboard down with the hole over the toilet. Then you lie down on top of it with your backside against the hole. A hose goes between the bucket and the colema tip. You smother the tip with KY Jelly and presto, the colema tip is in your nether regions faster than a Catholic priest celebrating Children’s Day.
For the next half an hour, you lie there as coffee goes up into your intestines. After a few minutes there is a full feeling like you are about to explode. You flush out, then take in, flush out, then take in. All the time I was lying on a plastic board suspended above the ground thinking: “Please God, don’t make a Thai Rath photographer come bursting into my bathroom.”
It was scary, ludicrous, and after a few times, more than a little funny. It did lead to interesting dinner conversation. A chatty Croat-Brit woman spoke non-stop of the spidery monsters coming out of her ample backside, as Andrew and I delicately sipped on our clear broth and carrot juice.
“I released a lot of black sludge this afternoon. Then some of it looked like a mini pine tree. I examined a few of them and wondered how long they had been inside me. What about you guys? What have you been excreting?” Madam, please.
Despite the caffeine rush, I remained in a constant state of weakness and hunger. Energy levels were down; not to the point of despair, but my one motivation was the alleged sparkling, wonderful feeling one got after two days of not eating.
Alas, it didn’t come. I took solace in the myriad New Age experts I could pay 2,000 Baht per hour to tell me about my chakras and energy channels. Honestly, these farangs are onto something. I would be quite happy to open anybody’s chakras for 2,000 Baht an hour. Just find me four or five tourists a day, and I’m earning 280,000 tax-free Baht per month! Who needs a university education?
Jennifer the Iridology lady was lovely, though my friend Andrew was a little disheartened when she gazed into his eyes and pronounced: “You have impacted fecal matter.”
“That’s the first woman who’s gazed into my eyes and said that,” he said despondently.
My favorite was Abigail, a beautiful British psychic with 89 angels who accompany her on a sublime cleansing mission. For an hour they weaved their magic as she held my hand and filled me with light. And why not? I certainly wasn’t getting any sustenance from the spa … why not try it with angels?
When it finally came time to break the fast, the spa told us to do it slowly and carefully.
“On the first day of breaking the fast eat RAW FOODS – all fruits and salads” the Detox manual ordered me in capital letters which shook my chakras to the core. To hell with that. At the airport Andrew and I ordered a coffee “for the mouth”. On the plane back I felt I was in heaven as I placed a cooked carrot into my mouth and chewed on it. Later that day I would eat half a sausage and some mushrooms.
My system literally rejoiced. My mood changed abruptly, and I transformed from sluggish curmudgeon to affable raconteur. The first morning back I ran 5 km around Rama 9 Park and it felt fantastic to have the energy to be able to exercise. I could feel my stomach enzymes breaking down food with wide grins on their acidic faces; my intestines gaily twisting and dancing as they sent fecal matter down, down, down.
My detox experience was not wasted. I had a week off; I read lots of books about positive thinking and setting goals. But was it life changing? Some of the other guests were ecstatic over it all. I wasn’t. Maybe it’s because after so many years in Thailand, my diet does already include lots of fruit and vegetables. I eat a lot more raw stuff than if I was living in, say, Sydney, on a diet of pizza, and meat pies.
And maybe, just maybe, it is a little presumptuous and arrogant of us to think that the fantastic machinations of our human body require a “break” from food now and then. Such were my thoughts nearly a week after getting back from detox as I enjoyed the lively company of friends while snacking on moderate portions of Oriental Bakery items.
Let’s face it. Detox is good. Pastry is better.
BORDERING ON INSANITY
By Andrew Biggs
On the road to Phnom Kulen I spot the sign; a turn-off to Preah Vihear.
“Oh look,” I say out loud. “There’s the road to Khao Pra Viharn.”
“That’s not the way you pronounce it,” says my guide. “It’s Preah Vi-here.”
“The Thais pronounce it Khao Pra Viharn.”
“The Thais don’t own it,” says my guide.
I am in the North of Cambodia not far from Siem Reap, home of the Angkor Wat and a town which, by its very name, reflects a troubled relationship.
“Siem Reap” means “The Defeat Of The Siamese.” The word “reap” either means “to fight” or “to flatten” in Cambodian depending on whom you talk to, but it signifies a Khmer victory over the Siamese somewhere in antiquity. It also signifies how closely intertwined the two cultures are; it has the same meaning in Thai. Talk about feuding siblings.
Preah Vihear is the temple perched on a 600-metre sheer cliff overlooking Cambodia. The temple is 1,200 years old. It’s in Si Sa Ket province in the country of Cambodia, and if you have been following the story of this temple you will understand that.
It was an important temple of the vast Khmer Empire that controlled the region a thousand years ago. For a while Siam conquered the area that is now Cambodia but in the end lost it to French Indochina around the turn of the 20th century. The French got a big crayon and drew a border between Siam and Cambodia; a border that is as blurred as the two cultures themselves.
One of the casualties of that big crayon was Preah Vihear. It’s technically on Thai soil but belongs to Cambodia. There was a dispute over maps that went to the International Court of Justice in 1962 which ruled in Cambodia’s favor and the Thais have been seething ever since.
I am simplifying an extremely complicated story; suffice to say the Thais felt aggrieved and that is probably why the temple was difficult to visit for a long time –the only way to get there was via Thailand, which meant sometimes the gates were open and sometimes the gates were closed.
Worse, it is estimated that hundreds or even thousands of soldiers from both sides have been killed in skirmishes in and around Preah Vihear over the past 50 years. In 1979 there was a truly horrific event; thousands of Cambodian refugees were sent to Preah Vihear and literally pushed over the edge of the cliff by the Thai military government, under the helm of General Kriangsak Chomanan, who was tired of shouldering the burden of them.
More recently there was a dispute on adjacent land to the east and west of the temple, which went to the International Court of Justice in 2013 and again, the Hague found in favor of the Cambodians.
In these flag-waving, make-the-Thai-people-happy times, the issue of Preah Vihear remains a bitter pill for the Thais. It cuts very deeply into the Thai psyche — imagine Australia being forced (by foreigners, no less) to hand over part of its land to New Zealand, or England handing the white cliffs of Dover over to the French.
Only a month ago there were further clashes and deaths on the Thai-Cambodian border as two Cambodians were captured and allegedly burnt to a crisp by men in Thai military uniforms.
As a resident of Thailand I have only ever been subjected to the Thai side of the argument and, of course, the Thai culture. Having just spent a week in Northern Cambodia, I begin to wonder what the fuss is about.
“Preah Vihear is part of our heritage,” the Cambodian tour guide is saying solemnly.
He has been silent for about as long as it took you to read all those explanatory paragraphs; I myself have zoned out, gazing at the paddy fields and roadside stalls on this chilly January morning, a vista so evocative of North-East Thailand and why shouldn’t it be? We are 150 kilometres away from where Northern Cambodia segues into Thailand’s Isan.
“Yes, you guys definitely own it,” I say, trying to be nice.
“We have a rich culture that goes back many centuries,” he continues, now sounding a little like a Cambodian Ministry of Tourism advertisement. I suspect he learnt that line off by heart a while ago.
“Take our New Year, for example. Did you know the Cambodian New Year does not happen in December?” he asks.
“Yes, really. It happens in April, and it is celebrated over three days. We think of it as a time for us to return home, and for the family to be close together. The Cambodian culture values the family highly. We are a very close family unit.”
The tour guide is on a roll.
“Yes, we pay respects to our elders, then we celebrate the New Year. It is our custom.”
As we approach the mountain known as Phnom Koulen I ask him about the language. Cambodia, has its own system of counting; I try to compare them to the Thai numbers but my guide is not having any of that. He would rather go from English to Cambodian.
“One … moo-y … two … bee … three … bai … four … boon … five … brumm.”
When we get to ten, something interesting happens. Cambodia has separate numbers for multiples of ten – and they are the same as the Thai numbers. I would like to tell the tour guide that but I fear it would go down like a lead balloon.
As we progress up the mountain, we discover the Cambodian and Thai languages have many words in common. Despite being surrounded by countries with tonal languages – Laos, Vietnam and Thailand — the Cambodian language itself is not tonal. And yet even without the tones there are similar words; in Thai a school is a rong rien while in Cambodian it is sala rien. The word sala can also be found in Thai – meaning rong.
There are hundreds of words like this. If you can read Thai, you can almost read Khmer since the letters are very similar.
(The Guinness Book of Records claims the Khmer alphabet is the longest in the world with 74 letters. Thailand has a mere 59.)
Soon we are onto spirits and unique Cambodian ghosts.
“We have a ghost here,” my guide explains with pride. “She is a woman … a beautiful woman with a head and no body. Instead, she just has entrails and they hang down beneath her. She flies around at night time preying on young men in villages.”
I nod my head with interest. I dare not tell him that Thailand has a ghost, too, who is a woman; a beautiful woman with a head and no body. Instead, she just has entrails which hang down beneath her and yes, she flies around at night time preying on young men in villages.
On the return trip to Siem Reap my guide regales me with other stories of the unique Cambodian culture, and all the while I see the ghost of unique Thai culture hovering behind him.
By the time I reach my hotel I feel sorry for all those soldiers, both Thai and Cambodian, as well as all those refugees who have lost their lives over the cliffs of Preah Vihear. If there is one thing more tragic than burning an enemy to a crisp over our differences, it is killing them over our similarities.
SLOW BOAT TO OBLIVION
By Andrew Biggs
As any long-term expat knows, Christmas and New Year is the time of year when relatives and friends of yore suddenly pop up on our doorsteps.
I’ve seen decades lapse between last seeing a face and the unheralded Facebook-friending back in August, followed by, a few messages down the track, casually mentioning he will be “passing through Bangkok” with his wife and child from a previous marriage.
I must have been asleep the day my primary school teacher explained the definition of “passing through” as being “spending four nights in your guest bedroom and may we borrow some towels oh and my wife is lactose intolerant.”
My younger brother does not belong in this group, though he is the first out-of-towner on my doorstep this season, arriving last Sunday and disappearing exactly two and a half days later to avoid being equated with fish.
Like most of my house guests he is not over here to specifically see me; he’s off to Cambodia to help out a charity in Siem Riep that is building a school for a local community.
“I’m thinking of spending a couple of days in Phnom Penh then going up to Siem Riep,” he wrote to me in a cyber conversation we had earlier this year. “I understand there’s a boat you can take that goes up across the picturesque Tonle Sap to Siem Riep.”
The sentence froze me in my tracks.
“Fly,” I replied.
“But I wanna see the countryside along the way and –“
“Listen. I know that I’ve done some terrible things to you over the years, such as when I bullied you into getting a mullet back in 1983.”
“Not as bad as dragging me along to that Limahl concert.”
“You’re totally making that up.”
“No I’m not. You claimed Kajagoogoo were the new Beatles.”
“Yeah right. And keep that story to yourself, okay? Anyway the point is this: despite all those terrible things, you have GOT to believe me on this one. Fly to Siem Riep. Whatever you do, don’t take the boat.”
One of the very worst days of my life was the day I took the slow boat to Siem Riep.
This was back in 1995 when the United Nations was still a presence in Cambodia as the country dragged itself out of the post-Pol Pot era on all fours.
My friend Catherine and I decided Cambodia might be an interesting place to visit. That’s how we ended up spending four fascinating days exploring the Cambodian capital.
Then we wanted to see the Angkor Wat, and Catherine mentioned there was a daily flight up to Siem Riep from Phnom Penh.
A domestic flight? In Cambodia?
There was no way I was getting on a domestic flight in Cambodia. That’s the sort of thing that made all of three paragraphs on page 16 of any Australian newspaper buried below the story about Fiji’s National Day: PLANE CRASHES IN RURAL CAMBODIA: NO SURVIVORS.
I had a fear of flying back in the nineties. As a result when the Internet spread its tentacles around the time of my Cambodian trip, I was already a regular visitor to airdisaster.com, scaring myself with black box audio of ill-fated plane crashes that inevitably occurred in such countries as Cambodia.
To make matters worse Cambodia’s national carrier had the dubious name of Royal Air Cambodge, which sounded way too much like it rhymed with “dodgy” or “botched take-off” for me ever to book a ticket on them.
“Oh no,” I said to Catherine one day outside Toul Sleng. “It’s the boat for us!”
That is how we ended up at a travel agent who showed us a picture of a sleek speed boat with a handful of happy western-looking people waving on board as it cut a swathe through the tranquil Tonle Sap on its way to Siem Riep.
“SEATS 20!” The caption roared in happy italics.
“Tomorrow morning at 9 am boat go! You go to jetty at 8 am!” a friendly man claiming to be a travel agent shouted at us, despite being only 50 centimetres away.
That following morning was cursed from the minute I woke up.
I had the worst stomach. Who knows what precipitated it; I blamed a plate of vegetarian fried rice I’d eaten the night before, though Catherine meekly suggested it may have had something to do with the 10 cans of Angkor beer washed down with a cleansing bottle of traditional rice whiskey that seemed such a good idea at three in the morning.
The jetty had no public bathrooms, and so from 8 am until 11 am I was on a tour of substandard bathrooms in shanty houses beside the jetty.
That’s right. Three hours. How foolish of me to even think the boat would leave on time.
And while indeed our boat may have seated 20, I guess they weren’t counting the extra 30 they could fit on the roof; which was where Catherine and I ended up.
It was a creaking rickety old boat nothing like in the picture, without a single happy waving western person in sight, at least not in the vicinity of the hot roof we were forced to sit upon.
The two-dozen Cambodian passengers crammed themselves, their chickens and their rice sacks into the compartment below deck.
Me? I sat with my arms wrapped around my legs, dehydrated, throbbing head down my lap, trying to remember any meditation techniques that would aid in shoring up the onslaught of dysentery.
For 15 minutes we chugged down the river.
“At least it can’t get any worse,” Catherine whispered to me as we left Phnom Penh.
There should be a rule against friends saying such things.
crack crack crack crack
The sound of gunfire.
It was at that precise moment we started being fired upon.
I looked up and saw smoke coming from a man standing on the banks, pointing in our direction. With the smoke rising, he clearly wasn’t just pointing his finger.
“Oh god,” I whispered. “We’re gonna die in the Cambodian countryside. That doesn’t even warrant page 16!” Catherine had no idea what I was talking about.
The engines were cut. The entire boat, especially the roof where we were sitting ducks, went eerily silent. Time seemed to stand still.
Soon after the boat started up again and we continued to move along.
To this day I have no idea who was firing at us or for what reason. What I do know is this. I learned more meditative mind-over-body control tricks in that eight-hour boat ride than I ever have in any new-age incense-filled alternative therapy center, and believe me I’ve been to a few.
Yes, eight hours.
We broke down in the middle of Tonle Sap and floated for a good hour or two in the unrelenting heat.
By the time we reached Siem Riep I was a shell of my former self. My face was drawn, shoulders slumped, and gluteus maximus muscles well and truly fused.
It goes without saying the first stop in Siem Riep was not the Angkor Wat. It was Royal Air Cambodge, where I booked two seats back to Phnom Penh in three days’ time. Seats close to the bathrooms.
As Murphy’s Law would have it, Royal Air Cambodge had a brand new fleet of airplanes thanks to Malaysia Airlines having bought it out not so long before. The flight lasted 30 minutes, up and down, with a delicious dinner and a journey smoother than any Thai silk.
“Are you sure I should fly?” my brother asked me again via email. “Aren’t I missing out on the boat experience?”
“Do you miss Limahl?” I asked, and the online booking was quickly made.
Merry Christmas, dear reader!
TALK OF THE OLD TOWN
I have a houseguest this week in the form of Captain Pat, back in Thailand for a brief holiday after 10 years away.
He’s been with me two days now and it’s interesting to see the reaction on the faces of some Thais he runs into, one of whom literally melted upon seeing him.
“I grew up with you,” she gushed, clutching her chest. “You were a part of my morning when I was ten years old!”
It’s true. A little more than ten years ago, Captain Pat was probably the most well-known farang face here in Thailand.
Had you stood him next to Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis and Michael Jackson, the average Thai would have immediately pointed at him, broken into a smile and exclaimed: “Talk Of The Town!”
Back in 1997 Patrick was an ad executive in Bangkok working for Brian Marcar, of BEC-Tero Entertainment fame.
Patrick and Brian came up with an idea for a TV show that taught English for Thais who had just returned from overseas.
“What can we call it? It needs to be a show that will become the talk of the town,” Patrick said.
“You just named it,” said Brian.
Channel 3 gave Talk Of The Town the (then) graveyard timeslot of 6 am. It’s hard to believe that 20 years ago nobody wanted that time; it’s morning prime time today.
Patrick’s background was in advertising and comedy, and with a local beauty queen presenter he entertained an audience of one and a half million Thais each morning with slapstick routines in English.
In the first year they went through TV hosts as often as the country was experiencing coup d’etats. Then a bit of market research discovered that Thais returning from overseas weren’t paying the slightest interest in Talk of The Town.
But look at the student numbers!
English teachers across the country were setting homework, which was to watch Talk Of The Town and write down all the idioms and phrases that were being used. The show did a sudden about-face, ditched the recently-returned Thai audience, and turned to students.
They also needed a new host. Tall, bald, Australian Patrick contacted tall, bald, Australian Andrew Biggs. Thais loved us both, and to this day I suspect it was because nobody could tell us apart.
I always thought Patrick chose me to replace the beauty queens because of my good looks and talent.
“Nothing of the sort,” Patrick told me only this week. “It was because the beauty queens took too long in make-up, sometimes up to two hours. You took ten minutes.”
That was 1998. For the next eight years I was the host, playing Abbot to Patrick’s Costello.
The show became something of a morning TV institution. Schools started inviting us to film there, and in Captain Pat’s eyes, the more remote and inaccessible the better. We travelled from Surin to Mukdahan, from a remote hill tribe village in Chiang Mai to the coast of Ranong.
“Come and visit! Our village is about to have its annual Eel Festival!” one teacher, Ajarn Yaowapa from Chumpolburi in Surin, wrote to us once. Soon we were all in her tiny village, staying at Ajarn Yaowapa’s house because there was no hotel, trying to keep down curried eel over rice we’d been served just before filming.
We had a lot of fun with our celebrity status. Captain Pat and I were stopped on the street by Thais telling we were the very first faces they saw upon waking. What a thought.
One night I was in Patpong and caused a minor commotion on the street when a group of katoey performers screamed upon seeing me.
“We watch you every day!” they chortled.
“First thing in the morning?” I asked.
“No – last thing before bed!” the leader of the group announced.
Fan mail flowed in from Laos and Malaysia. Once, a group of 80 monks in two age-old buses from the monk university came to visit the studios. They caused a massive traffic jam on Sukhumvit Road as they attempted to manoeuver an illegal U-turn in the middle of peak hour to get to us.
When they finally arrived, the chief monk shrugged it off. “We can do anything in the monk bus,” he said with an ethereal smile.
(Even more bizarre was the fact I wore an orange silk shirt with no collar the day they came. In the photo I took with them, you simply cannot locate me.)
One time I was singled out of a very long line waiting to go through customs at Don Meuang International airport. The immigration officer had a look of thunder as he motioned for me to a small interrogation room. Everybody looked at me as if I were a drug dealer as he led me away and demanded to see my passport.
He took my passport, stamped it, handed it back and said with a cheeky grin: “I watch Talk of The Town every morning.” I had just jumped the queue in the cutest way possible.
But we knew we had made it when counterfeit Talk Of The Town merchandise went on sale around town. One day one of Captain Pat’s staff rushed into his office with some terrible news.
“On Sukhumvit Soi 101 there’s a street stall selling Talk of The Town embroided logos for 50 Baht each!” he gasped.
“Buy a hundred of ‘em,” ordered Captain Pat. The counterfeiter was 30 percent cheaper than the supplier he was using at the time.
Australia Day each year became a big event for Talk of The Town, as we took the opportunity to teach such important phrases as “G’day” and “Stone The Crows!” and “I’m Off Like A Bucket Of Prawns In The Queensland Sun.”
It led one columnist to lament that “Andrew Biggs and Captain Pat are teaching the entire country to speak English with an Australian accent” — as if that was a bad thing!
Sadly in 2002 Patrick said goodbye to Thailand. We recycled Patrick’s sections for a long time, without him ever knowing nor receiving residuals.
In 2008 the show finally came to an end. Nine years on Thai TV is like dog years, and the idiom “Talk of the Town” is still used by Thais to describe anything that is enjoying popularity.
Recently BEC-Tero got time on Burmese television to make TV shows. And what was the very first show they resurrected? Patrick is now a celeb in Myanmar, as reruns of his segments have been on prime time TV there for three years.
Last December I gave a speech in Chiang Rai and afterwards a lady in her forties approached me clutching a big bag. “My name is Ratchada,” she said in perfect English. “And I have something to show you.”
She dug deep into her bag and drew out a dozen or so big writing pads, full of her scribble.
“Thirteen years ago I was a physical education teacher. I wanted to be an English teacher, but didn’t have the qualifications or the experience.
“Then I started watching your show every morning, writing down everything you and Captain Pat taught me. See?” I gasped at hundreds of hand-written pages of former Talk of The Town scripts.
“Now I am the head teacher for the foreign language department at my school. And it’s all because of you two!”
Both you, dear reader, and I know it wasn’t because of Patrick and me at all. It was her hard work and motivation. But it does give you a glimpse as to why we have a unique perspective on Thailand. The show is gone and we have both moved on, but the legacy remains.
I do miss the immigration fast track, though.