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The synchronized clink of two sets of cutlery was only superseded in volume by the rush of air as the office maid swooped over.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?
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.
By Andrew Biggs
It’s not often that your correspondent crosses a road on foot.
This is not because he doesn’t like walking, nor does he possess a private helicopter for short hops to the mini-mart to pick up lemons and tonic water.
It is more because crossing a road is usually done by pedestrian footbridge, of which Bangkok allegedly has the most of any city in the world, thanks to the chaotic nature of the unyielding, frenetic traffic below.
But this week your correspondent found himself witness to a curious Thai custom as he embarked on that hairiest of activities, that is, crossing the road on a zebra crossing.
It all began after I found himself in a Thonglor mall half a kilometre from my desired destination. For that I must apportion part of the blame to Google Maps, which sometimes goes awry and leads me to Fake Destinations, a nephew of Donald Trump’s Fake News.
Being a rainy-free Monday night I decided to walk the distance. It would save time, since it would be faster than driving it, plus I would reach my daily Fitbit goal of 5,000 steps. Yes, I know, everybody else’s daily goal is 10,000 steps. Well if everybody else ran naked down Silom Road, would I have to do the same?
It was on that evening stroll there and back, during which I had to cross the busy Soi Thonglor street, that I notice that curious ritual: Thai pedestrians on a zebra crossing thank the drivers who stop for them, by way of a quick nod as they make it to the other side.
Blink and you’ll miss it. There is a brief smile and a nod of the head. On the surface it is charming, and another feather in the cap of the Thais, the most courteous people on earth.
Alas, I am one who likes to scratch the surface, and that is where it ends in tears. So disturbed was I by this action after deep contemplation that it affected my entire evening, even to the point where I accidentally walked an extra 300 metres past my destination, resulting in my Fitbit having the computer program equivalent of an orgasm.
If you are a relative newcomer to Thailand, you need to know some fundamental do’s and don’ts here. I will not infringe on the territory of Lonely Planet or the Tourism Authority of Thailand. I do have one thing you need to know that will save your life — and I’m not talking about marrying that woman with the sick buffalo. That will result more in deceased retirement savings than your own death.
I’m talking about zebra crossings.
Zebra crossings in Thailand perform a single function; and that is to break up all that boring black you see on the roads.
In the three decades I have been in Thailand, there has been no serious attempt to educate drivers to stop at them. Drivers, thus, ignore them. In the frantic race to get to one’s destination, the need to stop for a pedestrian is counter-productive.
Now and again there is a well-meaning campaign which lasts for a good two or three days. Last year Thammasat University students stood on zebra crossings holding up banners explaining it was illegal to ignore them. It reminded me of tortured souls in front of oncoming trains. I am guessing those students by now have graduated and are getting on with their lives, their campaign nothing more than a fading memory — as it is with drivers.
Back in 2015 it was announced with great fanfare by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration that white squiggly lines would be drawn on roads all over Bangkok. This was because lots of really progressive civilized cities had them, and they made drivers prepare to stop at zebra crossings. Sydney and London, for example, were full of white squiggly lines.
So too were Stockholm and Copenhagen. If Bangkok roads had white squiggly lines, then it proved it was progressive and civilized too.
Sydney. London. Stockholm, Copenhagen. Bangkok.
Can you spot the odd one out? Let me give you a hint; four of them feature drivers who stop at zebra crossings. One of them has drivers who speed up at the mere thought of them.
A squiggly line ain’t gonna stop a Bangkok driver. They don’t stop for anybody. Ambulances … pregnant ladies … the disabled? Not while I’m behind the wheel!
I once wrote a travel guide for Thailand in my first year in the country, gathering information for rookie foreign travelers. When it came to writing about getting around Bangkok, I wrote what I thought to be a succinct yet invaluable and perhaps life-saving paragraph:
“In Bangkok, zebra crossings serve no function other than to break up the blackness of the streets; they are pretty white lines on the road but that is all. Don’t for a minute think anyone will stop if you step onto one.”
What excellent advice for tourists coming from cities such as Sydney, London, Stockholm or Copenhagen. I felt more than a little holier than thou as I sent the story off to my Thai editor, Khun Veerachai, for perusal before being laid out on the page. If I could save just one life, then my article had been well worth the precious time I took to write it. Sanctimony is not one of my recently-developed character traits.
“Khun Veerachai would like to see you in his office kha,” his mousy yet polite secretary came over and said to me not a few hours later. “Now … kha.<<
I was still feeling pious when I entered my Editor’s office where I saw a print-out of my story on his desk, and a look of inclement weather on Khun Veerachai’s face.
“This paragraph about the zebra crossings. Can I delete it?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” I asked dramatically.
“It doesn’t really portray Bangkok in a good light, does it?” he said, choosing his words with the same care a durian aficionado chooses his first fruit of the season.
He went on to explain that my story would portray Bangkok drivers as brazen, wide-eyed sociopaths who’d stop for nothing, let alone a pedestrian.
Piety shrivels up and dies in the face of reputation. I put up a good fight, but in the end there was no way I could win. The lives of pedestrians needed to take second place to Thailand’s image, and the paragraph was deleted.
Twenty-five years have passed, and if Bangkok drivers were brazen wide-eyed sociopaths in 1990, what are they now? Is there a word for “brazen times ten”?
And yet despite being roundly ignored, zebra crossing keep popping up on our streets — often in tourist places. Why is that? Perhaps if we didn’t paint them on our roads, we would look like some under-developed nation and that would make us look bad on the international stage. Perhaps the government is keen on making us a hub for zebra crossings or, more recently, squiggly white lines.
What is the relationship between a zebra crossing and a squiggly line anyway?
It’s a psychological ploy. Apparently when you approach squiggly lines, you are led to believe the road is narrowing and that makes you slow down. At least it works like that in Sydney, London, Stockholm and Copenhagen, so it should work here.
Never assume anything, dear reader. First of all, this trick relies on the expectation that drivers have their eyes on the road. Bangkok drivers gaze intermittently at the road ahead but that is in between Line messaging, checking Facebook pages, watching soapies on the TV screen mounted just to the left of driver’s seat, and painting one’s fingernails.
Second, how can a squiggly line go up against a deep-seeded, ingrained desire to ignore zebra crossings for fear of having to slow down?
I know; I tried it once.
I was driving along Sukhumvit Road where there was a zebra crossing. I would normally have ignored it except that as I approached, a group of school students had already stepped off the kerb and was on the white lines.
I momentarily forgot myself; perhaps I was reminiscing about Sydney, or London, or Abba or Hans Christian Anderson. Whatever the reason, I slowed down. And stopped.
What transpired was a tirade of intimidation as the man in the pick-up truck behind me went ballistic. My actions caused him, too, to have to stop not to mention nearly rear-ending me. He blasted his horn and when I looked into my rear view mirror I could see his lips writhing and contorting, as is necessary when one spits vitriol at a bald-headed farang in the black Teana in front.
In summary; stopping at a Bangkok zebra crossing is as dangerous as a pedestrian thinking he or she can safely cross the road on one.
Wouldn’t it be great if squiggly white lines truly could change the bad habits of an entire city. It would be a lot cheaper than enforcing traffic rules, or mounting a serious campaign to teach Thai drivers what they must do when approaching a zebra crossing (and can we throw in an extra bit about how to properly use a roundabout?)
Perhaps that is why Thais are so nice to the occasional driver who stops for them. It takes a benevolent, educated, caring soul to slow down and allow them to journey across those broken white lines. That requires an acknowledgement of thanks.
I witnessed it twice on Thonglor last Monday. It reminded me of Sophie’s Choice. Amid the barrage of vehicles hurtling down Soi Thonglor, one or two of them made a decision. Do I run them down or do I save them? The three or four pedestrians around me on that crossing smiled and nodded their heads to the drivers who, in their equanimity, had made the ultimate sacrifice.
Bangkok could well be the only city in the world where this behavior takes place. I am wondering if I need to give a nod of thanks to people who stop at red lights. What about those drivers who drive on the left-hand-side of the road? Are they to be singled out, smiled at, and nodded at too?
I asked my Thai staff about this misplaced gratitude.
“We’re just being polite,” my personal assistant replied, somewhat offended by my disdain. “What’s wrong with that?”
“It’s like when you hold the door open for me and I walk through first,” my sales director, a woman, explained. “I say thank you. It’s good manners.”
I listen to their explanations and nod my head, just like a pedestrian does to benign drivers.
I don’t have the heart to tell them they are wrong. One does not need to be polite to a driver who stops at a zebra crossing. It’s the law. He must do it or he is fined 500 Baht — in a perfect world, that is.
Campaigns don’t work unless they hurt. What if we set up cameras that automatically fined any driver who ignored pedestrians on zebra crossings, just like the ones that catch me doing two kilometres over the speed limit on the expressway? I’m funding a mid-level police station somewhere in Isan with the fines I have to pay on a monthly basis. I would feel much more at peace with myself if I knew this money was coming from drivers who ran zebra crossings.
Or perhaps, more sinister-like, the nod of thanks is a metaphor for the entire Thai system of blind deference to one’s elders. We are currently riding the crest of a wave of unprecedented corruption in this country, which has left Thai culture bruised and battered, because the corruption emanates from some of the most respected tenets of Thai society.
Top officials at the Education Ministry have been gouging budgets meant for poor students. Meanwhile a large group of the highest-ranking monks is being arrested on charges of corruption, with some culprits having to flee the country.
The Education Ministry … the monkhood. Two institutions that command the utmost respect. The average Thai paid the deepest deference to these officials, who unknowingly were raping the system. When one is unknowingly prostrating oneself before thieves, what’s a little nod of thanks towards a selfish driver?
By the way, my travel guide story had an unexpected happy ending. Khun Veerachai was “asked to leave” not long after — something about unaccounted for expenses — and in the ensuing kerfuffle the order to delete my offending paragraph never made it to the lay-out guys. The paragraph ended up being published. Editors, like squiggly lines and zebra crossings, are oft times ignored.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
WHAT’S IN A THAI BUSINESS NAME?
By Andrew Biggs
There is a building not far from my home in Samut Prakan that I pass whenever I take a shortcut to Sukhumvit Road. It’s a boring, designless concrete factory or shop or something or other. And out the very front, in very big letters, is the name of the business:
It’s a name that has left me wide awake on starless nights. For the life of me I can’t work out what it means. I mean, it’s got to be a lab or chemical processing plant … but Newish Germs? As opposed to, say, Brand New Germs? Or Second Hand Ones? And what is the market for such germs? Is it one of those BOI factories only allowed to export? Or is it a product solely for the domestic scene?
Yes I know Samut Prakan is the hub of all things dirty and manufactured but even out here I can’t imagine locals fronting up to the counter of this establishment in their plastic flip-flops and Imperial Samrong sarongs asking for a kilo of newish germs. “And don’t give me brand new ones like you did last time! I’m onto you!”
Company names. It’s one of the great mysteries of life in Bangkok, and another example of the way Thais can take innocent, virginal English words and twist them, decapitate them, perform heinous sexual acts upon each and every syllable, then put them back together and bang! There’s a brand new company name that no native English speaker could ever have thought up.
I pass a shop every day with the name “Culminate Airy”. It sells air conditioners of course. See how I said “of course”? While admitting to it being a silly name, doesn’t it actually conjure up the idea of coolness? The managing director probably opened a Thai-English dictionary for the first time in his life, found the verb “to culminate” and liked the idea of it describing his bank account once he opened his air conditioner shop. And we all know air conditioners make the room “airy” so … why not?
Most of these clumped-together names are attempts at describing bank accounts rather than products. Bathrooms in Bangkok are festooned with porcelain from a company called Billion Million, or Billion Billion, or Million Billion, or all of the above. That’s plain ostentatious, but every time I see it on the side of a toilet bowl I figure it’s describing the number of germs in the general vicinity rather than a bank balance.
Once I was at a wedding when a work colleague of mine introduced her husband to me. He instantly handed over his name card. He was Managing Director of his own company which went by the name of … Zenith Profound.
I laughed out loud – it was a reflex action like when the doctor knocks your knees – and instantly regretted it. They immediately wanted to know what was wrong with the name. I quickly changed the topic to how hideous the bride was looking but it didn’t save me. The truth is, there’s nothing funny about it ... except that “zenith” means the very very top, and “profound” means the very very depths, and you’ve clumped them together like a mad scientist grafting an extra head onto a body in some B-movie from the late 1950s so that it could chase big-breasted blondes at night time.
Along Phetchaburi Road there is a little supermarket called “Stable Minimart”. As opposed to … um, all the unstable ones dotted around the city? It’s sandwiched between a divorce lawyer and a shop that rents out S & M leatherware.
You could pass these names off as examples of business owners who lack a general knowledge of English, or who don’t have the resources to consult a native English speaker, but that’s not always the case. Back in 2006 it came out that the then prime minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, had set up a company in the Virgin Islands to facilitate the sale of AIS to Singaporean company Temasek –for the good of the country, of course.
The name of this company? “Ample Rich”.
I don’t know about you, but “Ample Rich” immediately scrapes up against that part of my brain that likes English words to go together peacefully and without any fidgeting. Ample Rich? When could you possibly use those two words in a conversation? “I have ample rich chocolate cupcakes on my plate – is there anything more savory on the petit fours tray?”
Knowing Thaksin, he probably wasn’t talking about the taste of cupcakes. Did he mean >>“Amply Rich”,<< which would have sounded much better, though hardly two words you would have expected to spill out of the good ex-PM’s mouth. “I am amply rich now. From now on, all profits from my investments go straight to the impoverished and underprivileged of Thailand.” Nod of the head. Ethereal look. A momentary beat before he loses it and breaks into uncontrollable laughter. “Just kidding. Another northern Thai sausage, Yingluck?”
All these names are of course approved by the Trademark and Company Names division of the Ministry of Commerce here in Thailand. They all get passed, unlike when I tried to get my name registered as a company in 2005.
The same people who approved Culminate Airy and Zenith Profound rejected me on the grounds that “somebody else had already registered the name ‘Andrew’.”
What?? Like, only one company can use that name? It turned out to be St Andrew’s School, which required me to write a long document explaining that Andrew was a common and boring name, and since when could you copyright a name that half the Commonwealth had after Prince Andrew was born in the 1960’s?
My appeal was accepted. Just as well. I would never have considered sending anthrax in the mail as revenge, but a few newish germs in a postpack may not have gone astray.
UP, UP AND AWAY
By Andrew Biggs
Nong Max was born into a rural Thai family 15 years ago in the far north-eastern province of Nakhon Phanom.
That province is 750 km from Bangkok, which makes Nakhon Phanom about halfway to Macau in China.
It’s not exactly on the tourist track; Ho Chi Minh did hide out there, plotting the Viet Minh independence movement, from 1928 to 1931 in a small under-the-radar village called Ban Nachok. I once visited his home there and while historically significant, it is probably not worth driving all of 750 km to see it — unless you were on the way to Macau and needed a pit stop. But let us get back to Max.
This soft-spoken Thai kid lived in Nakhon Phanom throughout his primary school years. Then life threw him a curveball. His mother met and married an Australian, who took his new family to live in Australia. Suddenly he was a student at Indooroopilly High School in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.
So what happened to this introspective Thai country boy who got thrust into a school of 1,500 boisterous Australian students? Did he sink or swim?
I am writing this column from an inner-city hotel in Brisbane, in the middle of a fascinating week exploring the education scene in Queensland, my home state in Australia.
Readers may be surprised to learn that your sophisticated Bangkok Post columnist actually has his roots in a southern Brisbane suburb of Sunnybank, where the word “chic” was only ever uttered when followed by “-ken coop.” Sunnybank, when I was little, was a semi-rural community, full of British expats making their new homes amid the custard apple, strawberry and avocado farms of the region. And chicken coops, like the farm next door to us.
(While Sunnybank may have been exquisite in its mundanity, we did receive a visit from Queen Elizabeth in 1970. She was taken to a swimming pool and mini-zoo complex full of mangy koalas and rabid kangaroos called The Oasis in Sunnybank. One can only imagine the number of stifled yawns behind royal gloves on that sweltering day.)
Back then there was one Chinese family living there. Jump forward to today, and Sunnybank is entirely Asian. As I said during a speech at the newly-opened Thai Consulate in Brisbane this week, there is probably only one single white Australian family living in Sunnybank these days. Facetious, I know, but written with love.
Brisbane has to qualify for one of the most culturally diverse places on the planet. What was, just four decades ago, a city of a million white people has doubled in size and now features every single race and color. And yet we still retain our slightly nerdy, hillbilly flavor as Australia’s biggest country town.
Take Cavendish Road State High School, for example. Back in the 70s “Cav Road” was a bit of a rough old place with limited resources and not exactly an honor roll of students.
You should see it now; its 1,500 students come from 60 different countries and a top-notch sporting program.
It is a statistic that repeats itself over and over. Max’s school, Indooroopilly High, now has 60 different native languages on their campus, and it teaches the International Baccalaureate program along with some very unique programs as you are about to discover.
Queensland’s main vocational college, TAFE, used to be the place to go if you weren’t so academically minded but had to study somewhere because your parents forced you to. The coin has completely flipped; this year 125,000 students from 60 countries are enrolled in 180 courses. And you should see the educational resources they have; the Nursing course features a mock-up of a hospital complete with ageing anatomically-correct mannequins. Yes, dear reader, I looked.
Queensland has is now what I believe to be the best place in Australia for a Thai to study. The old system of rote learning is out the window, as the state grapples and experiments with new methodologies that are student-oriented and stress analysis and critical thinking.
Cav Road, for instance, is trialing the new method of teaching known as STEM, incorporating the four subjects of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. It was fascinating sitting in on two STEM classes this week, as Grade 8’s and Grade 11’s sat in groups experimenting with ways to solve gravitational and velocity problems using those subjects.
Every Thai student I spoke to said they preferred the system in Queensland because “the teacher’s aren’t as strict and there isn’t so much testing.” That is interesting, considering that’s the opposite of two fundamental tenets of Thai education and yet without them, you have an educational system far superior to what we have in Thailand.
The emphasis in Australia appears to be moving away from one-size-fits-all-evaluation, too. It doesn’t rely on sub-standard, badly-written national tests like the ones we have in Thailand. Instead education appears to be both centralized and de-centralized at the same time. Under the new system, teachers are required to submit their teaching plans to a central committee for approval — but teachers are able to devise their own curricula based on their local communities.
At this point in my column I must hurry to say that Queensland isn’t perfect. The overhaul of the national curriculum is causing headaches everywhere. Schools are sometimes wracked with internal politics and media scandals, but where isn’t?
The state also has crime and political bickering. It has social problems including race issues; we just re-elected the odious Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party that preaches hate towards Asians and, more recently, Muslims.
Despite all this, it is the face of education that excites me the most.
An example is the main picture on this page. You’re looking at the Grade 11 class for the subject called Aerospace at Indooroopilly State High School. It’s taught by some very dynamic teachers including one former commercial airline pilot (the lady in red at the back).
These students spend most of their time out on the field building rockets and drones. In the classroom they study topics like Aeronautics and Astronautics. Best of all, they have their own flight simulator where they learn to take off, fly and land in any type of airplane in any major airport in the world.
So for all its faults, the Queensland system does recognize diversity in student skill sets, and is willing to invest in it with resources. It is a world away from the Thai education system, where we seem to place greater importance on constructing the most impressive marble school sign out the front of the campus.
Speaking of recognizing diversity, just look at the array of ethnicities of these Aerospace students. This is the new face of Australia.
And if you look very closely, right in the middle of the class pic, wearing the biggest smile, is our very own Max from Nakhon Phanom!
Of course he didn’t sink. He swam for his life, excelling in Aeronautics. He’s a still a little quiet and gangly in a typical teenage Year 11 sort of way, but he’s not far away from his dream of becoming a commercial pilot. Best of all, he has promised to upgrade me if ever I happen to be a passenger on any of his flights.
And indeed, it was with a tremendous sense of pride not just in Max but in his capacity as a Thai student that I sat next to him in the flight simulator, watching as he took off, flew around Brisbane and then crash-landed in a terrible conflagration after missing the runway. Twice. But hey, that’s what flight simulators are for. He made it the third time. That’s all that matters.
By Andrew Biggs
“Boss, I need to take four days off in the middle of March,” my driver said to me a month ago, breaking a silence I’d been enjoying in the car.
My driver taking four days off is not a catatonic-inducing event. Just between you and me, I relish the solitude of driving myself around for a few days. I get to crank the speaker up loud, and for a short time I’m relieved of having to emit non-committal grunts in acknowledgment of his observations of nearby vehicles.
Still, I had to know why.
“I’m getting married,” he replied.
Well that was a bolt out of the blue.
I was aware my driver shared a room with his girlfriend, who works in the fruit and vegetables section of my local Big C.
I was also aware of the daily arguments my driver has with her, which sometimes seep into drive time. He is forever confiding in my personal assistant about her dim view of his alcohol consumption and suspected philandering, after which my personal assistant passes on a precis to me during coffee break.
“Is this the same girl you wished death upon recently?” I asked, trying to sound as casual as possible. My driver just laughed. And nodded.
“You fight every day with her. Shouldn’t you sort out your differences before you get married?”
“She’s such a nag … always complaining about my drinking. Two beers and she screams at me. And she’s worried I’m going to go off with some other girl.”
“And do you?” I asked.
“No! Not that often!”
There is a forlorn-looking face in the rear vision mirror. “I’m doing it for her parents,” he said.
“No, nothing like that. I just have to do the right thing by her parents.”
This is very confusing.
In such situations I make a beeline for my accountant. She is an older Thai lady who takes care of 14 dogs in her townhouse, so she’s an expert on mating rights. Why was my driver going to marry a girl he didn’t like for the sake of keeping her parents happy?
“It’s called >>pook-khaen<<,” my accountant explained. “It’s a way of showing the village elders that two people are a couple. It’s often the case with the poorer class, since they may not be able to afford a full-on wedding.”
“So it’s a wedding?”
“Not really,” she said. “It’s a ceremony where the elders tie string around the wrists of the two young people, and then it’s settled. There is no shame or anything. They are a couple.”
I am forced to accept that my driver is engaging in a ceremony set in the Twilight Zone, in a place between engagement and betrothal, not for his own sake, or his girlfriend’s, but for the sake of the elders.
“Where is this ceremony taking place?” I asked him later that day.
“There isn’t any ceremony,” he said. “We’re going to her hometown in Surin, and her parents will tie strings around our wrists. That’s all. No registration. No ceremony.”
“And then you’re a couple?”
“But you complain, every day, to my personal assistant that you don’t want to be a couple.” I made a note to remind my personal secretary that I’d snitched on him.
Silence from my driver.
“Answer that question,” I say. “You fight with her every day. Now you’re going to marry her in a ceremony that isn’t a marriage. And this is to make her parents happy.”
“Boss, you are a farang. Maybe you don’t understand how Thais do things.”
So now even my driver is playing his “you don’t understand” card.
But that’s only the half of it. Things go downhill swiftly.
“I need time off next week,” said another one of my male staff two weeks ago.
“Don’t tell me you’re getting married,” I said.
“I’ve got my college graduation ceremony this Sunday.”
This young man has been studying at a college every weekend for the past two years. I knew he was nearing the end of his studies.
Graduation is a big deal in Thailand, much bigger than it is in the West. This is because for many institutions, members of the Royal Family hand out the certificates.
Even where this isn’t the case, such as with my staff’s college, graduation is still a big deal. The school director is dishing out the certificates this Sunday, but that doesn’t stop them having to rehearse.
There is a rehearsal in the morning. He needs to be at a Pattaya hotel at 7 am for that, and it takes three hours. The 400 students then have lunch, and in the afternoon, the ceremony begins. It seems like an awful amount of time for handing out pieces of paper.
Female graduates often pay a make-up lady and hair stylist to come and doll them up, usually at around 4 am. My staff member is required to shave off his straggly beard and moustache, and dispense with all earrings and other pieces of jewelry. They are forbidden in the ceremony.
It’s also compulsory to attend, but you haven’t heard the worst of it, dear reader. Like my driver’s wedding, this is a ceremony that doesn’t exist.
You see, it’s not even the end of the final semester. That’s another month away.
“I still have a report to finish,” said my staff member. “And I have to take my final exams.”
“Wait … you’re graduating ahead of time? How can they give you your graduation certificate? I mean, why not just take the certificate and not do the exams?”
“There’s nothing inside,” he said.
“I don’t understand.”
“There’s nothing inside the casing the director presents to us. It’s just the outer casing of the degree, but there’s no degree itself. They’ll send that to us in another two or three months. After we graduate.”
“But you’re graduating this Sunday.”
“No I’m not. I’m having the ceremony.”
Okay. So call me stupid. Call me an ignorant farang who doesn’t understand the mysterious ways of the ancient Siamese culture. But why is this college having their graduation ceremony mid-March, when the semester doesn’t end until the end of April and scores won’t come out until July? And … why the need for a rehearsal for a ceremony that basically hands over nothing to the students?
My staff member knows the answer: “The hotel didn’t have any free days available for graduation after July. This weekend was the only one. So the college was kind of forced to have it then.”
Well of course. How stupid of me. A hotel ballroom’s availability should be the mitigating factor in staging any graduation ceremony, right? After all, hotels are hard to find in Pattaya.
That has been my week. I have signed off on personal leave for two of my staff to get married and to graduate, neither of which happened, and yet required one to make a round trip journey of 1,000 km, and the other a day trip to Pattaya and a loss of facial hair.
Last Sunday has been and gone. I quietly snooped on both staff’s Facebook pages and there they are — one celebrating wedding bliss, and the other looking very clean-shaven in his graduation gown, clutching flowers and a teddy bear and wearing a “Congratulations” sash.
I’m not saying anything. After all this is Thailand, and when a tree doesn’t fall in the forest, it clearly makes a sound.
By Andrew Biggs
I once had a student who was preparing for a trip to Australia.
He was a 30-year-old engineer from Chiang Mai who’d won a three-month scholarship to Melbourne. His English wasn’t great but he was a fast learner and diligent. Anyway, it wasn’t his English that bothered me.
It was the way he spelt his name: Turdsack.
Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t immediately jump up and slap my knee and look to the heavens as I guffaw over a name worthy of an Asian bus conductor out of a Carry On movie.
Actually I am perfectly at home with a name like Turdsack; the last syllable rhymes with “truck” anyway, and both syllables are stand-alone Thai words with magnificent, almost elegant meanings.
The problem was he was on his way to Australia.
As a native of that country it was my civic duty to inform him such a spelling of his elegant name might render otherwise civil Australians speechless or, at worst, stifling giggles at his first Melbourne function.
“Do you, er, have any other names you go by?” I asked bespectacled Khun Turdsack as he sat opposite.
(This is not such a ridiculous question in this country. My artist is known as Banjerd to his family, Vichien to his work colleages, and Black Ant to his mates. I suspect his plethora of names has more to do with dodging loan sharks than auspicious sounding names, however.)
He didn’t. His name was Turdsack and his nickname was Sack. Neither was going to bode well in Melbourne.
“Look, I don’t normally do this, but I’m going to be frank with you,” I said. “You have to change the spelling of your name.”
“Why, Ajarn Andrew?” young Turdsack enquired, leaning forward, and I told him in no uncertain terms.
At first he tried to remain calm but soon his eyes widened. “A sack is a big bag?” he asked. “And a turd is …?”
“Yes,” I said, adding that colloquially it also meant a nasty person.
I blame Thai linguists, who have decided that a transliterated “a” sounds like the “u” in “truck”, hardly a common way to pronounce it in English.
That aside, the trouble is that Turdsack sounds really nice in Thai. “Turd”, for example, means respect for somebody, while “sack” is power or ability.
One of the joys of learning a language thoroughly is that after a while you begin to hear the nuances; the beauty of words as they tumble out of your mouth.
No better example of this is “Porn”, the popular woman’s name.
There is a richness, a beauty about this word in Thai, and so it should since the word itself means “blessing” or “benediction.”
Tragically we in the West associate those four letters with something on the other side of the linguistic playing field far detached from richness and beauty (unless you find Hustler Magazine a blessing … tell me you don’t).
Every night the sounds of thundering male laughter echo across Patpong as foreign guys learn their new friend’s name is “Porn” or some derivative such as “Porntip” or “Somporn.” Hilarious.
It’s a travesty, I know, that one of the Thai language’s most beautiful words ends up trashy in English.
In my first month in Thailand I stayed for a few nights at “Porn House” in Chiang Rai. Much to my surprise there were no neon flashing lights, windowless walls or Gideon Bibles as you find in more seedy establishments.
It was guest house run by a friendly 30-something teacher named Porn.
On the second day I was there I made a really stupid comment, as Miss Porn was making me a cup of coffee and Vegemite on toast.
“Do you know what your name means in English?” I asked.
The change in Porn’s face was clear. From a sunny morning disposition she juxtaposed into dull resignation, albeit quickly, until she forced herself back into sunny disposition. The only thing missing was her rolling her eyes.
“It means something bad,” she muttered. “Would you like one toast or two?”
At the time I thought she’d been offended by my mentioning a rude word in English, but no, of course not. What really happened was a brief disclosure of her tedium at hearing Farang #5,987 enquiring about her name, and all the titillation that accompanied the enquiry. I wasn’t any different from the rest of them after all, she was no doubt thinking.
Once again the official linguists are at fault.
More than a hundred years ago they decided that a “P” sound in Thai should be rendered as “PH”. We have Russian tourists right now referring to Phuket as “Fooket”, or the already-unpronounceable Ko Phang-ngan as “Ko Fang-nygngygngan”. At least that’s how it sounds to me.
And yet … the one Thai transliteration that SHOULD be spelt with the silly PH rule ends up as Porn. Why isn’t it Phorn, or, even more distantly, Phon? We in the know could still pronounce it correctly, but at least it would wipe the smile off the drunken faces of Nana Plaza sex tourists.
More than a few Thai women bearing this name have sent me emails about this as they travel overseas. Should we write it a different way?
I am torn between two camps. Why attempt to alter something that is so majestic in its mother language?
At the same time, Thai women already undergo brutal treatment at the hands of foreign customs officers, not to mention the pervading overseas reputation of Bangkok as a sex capital. Isn’t having a name like Porn just going to exacerbate things?
I wish the Porn question was more cut and dried, such as my friend Go who spelt his last name in English as Cun-ta-vichai. The two hyphens I put in myself. He dispensed with them, and the result was more than I could remain silent on.
“But it’s spelt like that on my passport!” he protested.
“Change your passport,” I said.
Such are the landmines embedded in our travel across languages, and by the way it is a two-way street. Simple English words we use on an hourly bases (here, he, yet) have vulgar meanings in Thai if spoken with the right — or wrong — intonation.
If your name is John, it means “poor” in Thai. Bob is a scary Thai ghost with a pinprick for a mouth. Tom is a lesbian. Tim means “thrust” or “poke,” while Mark is betelnut.
My own name sounds a little like the Thai word for “cute”, which is all well and good and breaks the ice at parties. But if you switch the syllables around, as Thais like to do for fun, it means: “Show us your … private parts.” Of all the nerve! I’m changing my name to Turdsack!
Speaking of my bespectacled student, the story has a great ending.
Young Turdsack returned for his next English lesson having done all his homework. At the end of his lesson he said to me:
“I took your advice.” About what? Nobody ever takes my advice!
“My name. I changed the way I spell it,” he said.
And he brought out his notebook. On the cover he’d crossed out “Turdsack”.
In its place?
TRIALS OF A THAI TWENTY-YEAR-OLD
By Andrew Biggs
If Hollywood sitcom writers ever feel hard up for new ideas, they may like to pop over to my house for inspiration.
I am sharing my leafy mansion with my 20-year-old Thai niece. Let’s call her Gift, since she would be mortified if I used her real name, though that would require her reading this column, something the average 20-year-old Thai apparently doesn’t care to do on a Sunday.
Gift is living with me now, since my home is situated not too far from her university.
What a breath of fresh air it is to have a youngster in the house. It makes a change from the usual visitors — that is, nobody. Gift has taken over the spare bedroom and looks like she is here to stay for the duration of her degree.
We get along famously. She is bubbly and full of life, which one friend cruelly observed to be perhaps an example of opposites attract.
Some early mornings, as she flits about making mountains of toast and Nutella (you can eat that sort of thing when you’re 20) and as I reach for coffee and Tiffy, I wonder if we could be the basis for a hilarious sitcom. You know … follow the wacky antics of a trendy 20-year-old uni student who shares a house with a moribund but fabulously wealthy B-list celebrity!
So what have I learned from living with youth? It is my observation that young Thais no longer live their lives. Instead, they document them.
For the first time in my life I know what I have eaten for dinner every night for the past few months. Gift feels a need to photograph every meal we make together.
Not just photographs either.
“Khun Andrew, what are you making tonight?” she asked me one night.
I turned around to answer and there she was, holding up her smart phone, recording me at the stove. Which then turned into a video clip, which then got uploaded. Repeat. Repeat.
Gone are the days of a casual sentence or two on Facebook about how we’re feeling. In fact according to my niece, Facebook is no longer the place to go for the younger crowd. “It’s kind of for old people,” she revealed to me one night, and my heart visibly sank, so she quickly added: “Except for you, Khun Andrew. I don’t mean you.” Digging a hole, Gift.
These days it’s Instagram, where you can post a video and it hangs around for a day.
Gift is constantly uploading.
“Khun Andrew, what are we buying today?” she suddenly shouts at me in the aisles of Foodland. I spin around and yes, I’m being filmed.
I am required to come up with some witty repartee so that Gift can post it to all her friends who can see what a funny clever uncle she has. What happened to the good old days when I could push a trolley through fruit and vegetables with a scowl on my face?
Every day Gift posts a video with topics such as “Shopping with Khun Andrew is fun!” or “What’s he cooking tonight?” Soon will I have to peer around the corner before I raid the liquor cabinet, for fear of a gaggle of Thai uni students finding out the terrible truth about my half-and-half vodka tonics?
And that is the crux of the matter. Somewhere out there in cyberspace are 1,083 young people whose phones make a little beeping noise, whereupon they look down and see Gift and me shopping at Foodland. That’s how many Instagram followers Gift has. It’s not as though we are skiing down the Swiss Alps. We’re grocery shopping. Have I become the Kim Kardashian of Samut Prakarn?
In the meantime Gift, by stealth, has taken control of the music in my house.
I am a man of eclectic musical taste although I do avoid the shallow factory-pop of the likes of Shawn Mendes, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, and those guys from One Direction.
Yes, you guessed it. Gift is obsessed with Shawn Mendes, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, and every friggin’ one of those One Direction guys.
For this reason I know that the biggest hit in Thailand right now is “Panama” by a tattooed balding Italian hipster named Matteo. I hear it every morning. I would make a disparaging comment about it but when I open my mouth to do so, a little neon light spelling out “curmudgeon” starts to blink on my forehead.
I’d also forgotten how life is a constant drama at that age.
“Khun Andrew, I need to talk to you about something,” Gift recently said upon approaching me as I sat on the sofa, tonic in hand, in the middle of Stranger Things 2. Her face was so unsettled I even put down my tonic, something I only ever do in emergencies or unexpected visits from monks. “I have a terrible problem, and I need to ask you what I should do.”
Now she had my attention.
Young people are up against all sorts of pressures. Suicide rates, not to mention schizophrenia and road fatalities, are at their highest in her age bracket. Technology and innovation move forward in leaps and bounds, but they also carry with them ease of access to one’s obscenity of choice.
There are temptations of new and powerful synthetic drugs, too, that have flooded night clubs. Luckily Gift eschews all drugs, even alcohol. Her idea of a night out is meeting up with friends, swapping Instagram pics and chugging down pitchers of “bubble-milk tea”. Not exactly my drink of choice (unless you added a generous dose of Kahlua) but at least she finds drink and drugs abhorrent. I’ve even lectured her on the perils of such addictions, carefully eyeing the skies in case I needed to dodge an errant lightning bolt or two.
And what was her terrible problem?
“I may have to drop one of my university subjects,” she said. “Please don’t be upset with me. It’s just … it’s so difficult, and if I continue, I may get an F, and that would spoil my chances of first-class honors!”
Was that my cue to gasp in horror?
I know, I know. Everything in perspective. Gift is a straight-A student and the possibility of a B was bad enough; failing is akin to abortion or teenage pregnancy in someone else’s world. Still, she is studying accountancy, so I explained that a talent for shifting figures about and shunting ill-gotten revenue to offshore tax havens were skills far more attractive than first-class honors in the eyes of employers. It wasn’t such a big deal.
It didn’t help. For two weeks she was stressed out about it.
Just tonight I sat down with Gift for a little talk over dinner. We bought bammee noodles and pork, so there was no need for a photograph.
We decided she would drop that subject, something I pretended to look concerned about. It didn’t mean a lot in the grand scheme of things. I also slipped in my distaste for Justin Bieber in my house, and how life would be a little easier without so many of those One Direction guys wailing at me — at least in the morning.
What I also wanted to explain was my discomfort about being involved in an ongoing reality show. But as I opened my mouth to say that, blink blink blink went the little neon sign. I held my tongue.
No doubt there will be other dramas in Gift’s life that I will hear about. It’s all grist for a sitcom. And what’s weird is this entire column reads like a Seinfeld episode. I swear it was inadvertent.
By Andrew Biggs
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.)
THRUST INTO THE LIMELIGHT
By Andrew Biggs
Back in January, 1956, a young unknown American singer named Elvis Presley released his first single called Heartbreak Hotel.
While appearing on the Milton Berle Show, Presley started rhythmically gyrating his pelvis as he sang. Half the country screamed in delight. The other half gasped in horror. What was this base, barbaric, sexual abomination of a dance that stirred the collective loins of America?
The Catholic Church, always one to pounce on anything loin-stirring, claimed the pelvic thrusts “roused the sexual passions of teenaged youth.” This enraged the church because, as we would later find out, that was the mission of their priests.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is too young to remember this controversy. He was just two years old when Elvis started thrusting his pelvis in public, and who knows if the news reached his family home in Nakhon Ratchasima. This week public thrusts returned to the spotlight, proving that in six decades we may have moved forward technologically in leaps and bounds, but when it comes to sex, we’re still fumbling in the dark.
Elvis was not just the King of Rock And Roll … he’s also the father of “twerking”, the act of thrusting one’s pelvis back and forward rapidly to music. Twerking is provocative and sexually stimulating, apparently.
(I write “apparently” because just then I tried doing it in my living room. I put on my Missy Elliot’s Greatest Hits and started thrusting my pelvis back and forth to the music in front of some unexpected dinner guests. Nobody admitted to arousal, although one of my dogs did start barking, but that was probably because of the music.)
Over the last few months a musical phenomenon has gripped Thailand in the form of Lamyai, an attractive 18-year-old country music singer with a pleasant enough voice. She released a song called Phu Sao Kha Lor which means “Girl Who Likes To Have Fun”.
The song is innocent enough. “I’m not very studious or diligent – I just wanna go out!” Lamyai sings. It’s very catchy. As this column is being written, it has notched up 250 million views on YouTube — almost four views per Thai citizen!
Do you want to hear something even more incredible? There’s not even a music video for the song. It’s just one of those lyric videos where the words flash up on the screen. No lip-synching, no bells and whistles, and definitely no twerking.
Lamyai’s concert and TV appearances are a different story. Dressed in the skimpiest gold shorty-shorts, when it comes to the chorus, she does her own style of Thai twerking, thrusting back and forth, back and forth, a total of nine times.
(How does she get nine? The song is in 4-4 time so she should have gone for eight thrusts or 12, though I fear 12 may have had the Cultural Ministry Police blowing their whistles.)
Thrusting one’s pelvis nine times contravenes Thai decency. At least that’s what the PM thought. One wonders where he got that arbitrary number from, but let us not wade into those cultural waters.
I am not offended by the prime minister’s comments. Society needs to have elders pull the youngsters in tow, or at least offer an alternative, more conservative opinion to keep their behavior within accepted norms. A healthy society should be made up of pelvis-thrusting liberals and staid cross-legged conservatives, with the general population hopefully making value judgments that put them somewhere in between those extremes without being persecuted for their choices.
One such conservative is Rabiabrat Pongpanich, a well-known campaigner for women’s rights and a former senator. Ten years ago, when singer Tata Young released her number one song “Sexy, Naughty, Bitchy Me”, it was Rabiabrat who came out claiming Tata was a bad example to young girls. At the time Thailand was grappling with a new fashion trend – spaghetti strap tops, and she was very down on those too.
When Lamyai became front-page news this week, the media immediately ran to Rabiabrat, knowing she would give some great sound bites on the pelvic thrusts that aroused the prime minister enough to make him speak about her (on three separate occasions in the one week).
There is nothing wrong with this. Free speech is free speech, and a little moral controversy doesn’t harm any of us. It’s when things start bordering on the ridiculous, such as calling police in to arrest singers on stage, or ordering the Cultural Ministry to issue bands on songs, that we need to start scratching our heads.
Does an 18-year-old’s pelvic thrusts really warrant prime ministerial, and the media’s, interest? And does twerking really pose a threat to Thai culture as the PM intimated? He says it’s inappropriate for Thailand. Has the prime minister been to Patpong lately? Has he seen the glittering brothels that dot Ratchadaphisek or any other main road in the country?
Of course he has. But that is not the point.
The prime minister is right to say there are bounds to public decency, and young people need to understand what is morally acceptable and what is not. In this regard, the prime minister and Rabiabrat have every right to air their opinions, and young people should listen. They don’t have to follow the advice, but at least listen and evaluate the situation for themselves.
Unfortunately such storms in teacups also bring out the crazies.
One government spokesperson blamed the twerking on farangs. We apparently like to gyrate our pelvises more than Thais do. “Thais don’t need to follow foreigners in everything,” said one general, seemingly ignorant to the fact that Thais, too, require pelvic thrusting to propagate the species.
Another spokesperson insinuated that such sexy dancing leads to women getting raped, a truly abhorrent line of argument that exonerates the male from his insatiable urges. So it’s okay for me to murder a person for wearing a Mariah Carey t-shirt and claim he egged me on?
At least Lamyai didn’t get banned.
In 2005 Sinjai Hongthai came out “I Love Her Husband” while Chai Muangsing brought out “My Wife Has A Lover”. A disturbing trend to say the least; the Ministry of Culture banned both from the radio.
They were seen as going against Thai culture, the ministry announced, since no decent Thai woman would ever secretly love another woman’s hubby. Worse, listening to the songs could promote “marital infidelity”. And just to prove they weren’t joking, they banned a third hit, “One Woman, Two Men”. One suspects that a song entitled “One Man, Two Women” wouldn’t have garnered an eyelid bat from the Culture Ministry.
Sadly for the media, this storm in a twerking teacup ended peacefully and, gasp, sensibly. Lamyai agreed to tone down her act for the sake of decency. The Prime Minister thanked her as she announced a reduction in the number of pelvic thrusts in the chorus from nine to just three.
In Thailand that’s a compromise; in the West, that’s a quickie.
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.
THE TOP 40 FARANGS
By Andrew Biggs
I see the Thailand Tatler Top 300 Expat List is out on the streets.
It’s actually called “The 300 List”. It comes out every couple of years and resembles a Billboard Hot 100, with the Bill Heineckes of the world shooting to number one while hapless NIST English teachers hover around the 290’s like a Backstreet Boys comeback single.
It was back in 2007 that I received an email from Thailand Tatler informing me I’d been “selected” as one of Thailand’s leading expats and would be featured on a “list”.
It would be terribly remiss of me to pretend I wasn’t impressed, though had I not been so completely up my own prostate I would have heard the warning bells.
First … an email? Where’s the gold-embossed Issey Miyake-scented letter in the special commemorative Thailand Tatler Top Expat Edition envelope? We’re not talking smelly Khaosan Road Eurotrash here – haven’t you deemed me “leading”? Please … afford me the honor I so truly deserve!
I was too starry-eyed to smell the impending rat; I dutifully dashed off a “short summary” of my “achievements and distinctions”. As I approached the 4,500 word mark I realized perhaps I should respect the 200 word limit and start again.
I quickly dispatched that, along with an airbrushed headshot from 1993, off to Thailand Tatler then sat back in my plush leather chair on the 21st floor of Maleenont Tower. With my head tilted to the window that afforded me a stunning view of the Khlong Toey slum, I reveled in my achievements and distinctions, happy that a prestigious magazine such as Thailand Tatler had finally seen fit to separate the expat sheep from the Nana Plaza goats.
My telephone sprang to life.
“You’ll never guess what I just got asked to be in.”
It was the beaming voice of my dear friend Evil Neil from the 28th floor. Regular readers of this column know Evil Neil, Thailand’s biggest concert promoter … not that that makes him a man of achievement and distinction, unless you’re on stage to announce the award for Atrocious Cell Phone Etiquette.
There was something just a little too smug about his tone of voice, and I didn’t like it.
“I have no idea,” I said. Don’t, whatever you do, say you got a letter from Thailand Tat-
“It’s a letter from Thailand Tatler,” he said, his words glistening and sparkling in the late afternoon sun.
My immediate reaction was; they’re compiling two lists? The Movers and Shakers (my letter) and the Also Rans (Evil Neil’s)? To be honest I don’t doubt Evil Neil’s propensity to dazzle outsiders with his aura of power, but I was a little put out that Thailand Tatler had seen fit to invite two farangs from the very same company to join some exclusive list of Thailand’s Sexiest Expats or whatever the name of it was.
Two? Try three.
“The boss has received one, too,” Evil Neil explained. Now there was a growing apprehension about this exclusive list – I mean, just how exclusive was it going to be?
When the magazine flopped on my desk two months later I was outraged.
“Thailand Tatler’s Exclusive Top 300 Expat List”.
First of all, in a city like Bangkok, what is exclusive about a list of 300 people? I’m surprised my Nepalese gardener didn’t make the list. I’m a bit of a man about town and for all the high-society events I attend, not once did the expat numbers swell to 300.
Billboard calls it their “Hot 100” … I am assuming any expansion of that number turns it into a “Tepid 200”. So what does that make us here in Bangkok – the “Thawed Out 300”? I can just imagine the harried TT staff on the day before deadline coming to the realization they have only mustered up a list of 277 … oh no! 23 movers and shakers short!
“Quick … take this camera and run down to Nana Plaza and see if anybody looks vaguely like leadership material,” the Editor must have said. “On second thoughts, head for Soi Cowboy. Times are tough … even for movers and shakers.”
This is clearly what happened in this latest list, judging by the inclusion of some very dubious faces; movers and shakers in the Pattaya Walking Street girlie bars, perhaps, but certainly not in Bangkok society.
This is borne out by the telltale last question TT asked on the form required to be sent back: “Can you recommend any other names to be included on our list?” Ah-hah! So you did have to pop down to Soi Cowboy after all!
It’s bad enough the list is a morbidly-obese 300. Worse still -- it’s alphabetized!
Thank God my last name’s Biggs, putting me at #18 on the Thawed Out 300. I just think it’s downright unfair Anthony Ainsworth is a perennial #1, while poor old Boaz Zippor, that talented photographer, must be beside himself languishing at #300. What happens if a new expat by the name of, oh, Veronica Zimmerpickle suddenly shoulders her way into Thai expat society? Poor Boaz gets bumped!
It would have been far more exciting – not to mention riveting – to rank the Top 300 expats on a weekly basis.
Perhaps not so great for Anthony Ainsworth, but certainly Bill Heinecke would jump from his current #107 straight to #1 in his first week on the chart – that hasn’t happened since Michael Jackson released “You Are Not Alone”.
TT could tabulate our rises and falls based on bank statements, appearances in the social pages, contributions to the TT Pension Fund, etc. And since we Bangkok expats have a propensity for, er, untoward behavior (a mere 11 out of the 300 are devoid of skeletons in the closet), that too could have an effect on our weekly rankings when and if we get caught. Surely my three months in America earlier this year would have seen me slip from #18 down to the lower regions of the Top 40.
Whenever Rolling Stone publishes their list of the 100 Greatest Songs Of All Time they cop a lot of flak from readers who demand to know why classics like We Built This City or Sunglasses At Night weren’t included. It’s the same with the Thawed Out 300.
Last Wednesday I had dinner with my good friend Andrew Stotz, Thailand’s leading financial analyst, the likes of which the Prime Minister himself consults. Where is he on the list? And what about my dear friend Stuart MacDonnell who runs international sporting events, before which 85 per cent of “The 300 List” telephone him asking for free tickets?
It was Steve Pettifour (#225, art critic extraordinaire) who explained to me this week why there are 300 of us, and not a more manageable 40 or 100. This is what he said:
Recently there was an event at the Renaissance Hotel to announce the Thawed Out 300 and he went. He made the list for the first time, making me wonder who he bumped and whether he should increase security at his moo bahn because of it.
“It’s a conspiracy,” he explained. “They want us all to beef up. They’re going to put us all in armor and make us fight in the name of Sparta!”
Ah, now I get it. And that I would like to see. Anthony Ainsworth and the other 17 in front of me can man the front line.
I’ll be at the back having a beer with Boaz.
THE SOUTH’S BIGGEST JUSTIN BIEBER FAN
By Andrew Biggs
Her name is Arena and she accosts me on the front lawn of the Songkhla resort.
“You’re Andrew Biggs!” she cries. “I used to watch you on TV when I was a little girl!”
Yes, dear reader, I am blessed to be greeted with such a comment, though it is very much a double-edged sword.
While it is nice to elicit a reminiscent smile, that sword is also rusty and painful as it plunges deep into my ego, reminding myself that this woman is all grown-up now, and if she enjoyed me as a “little girl”, then indeed I am not the spring chicken I used to be.
Sheepishly Arena asks if it is possible to get a photo with me. I wonder if my “yes of course” was way too fast, as is usually the case with ageing delusional spring chickens accosted by the real thing.
She is with the young hotel PR manager who will take the pic. Arena stands next to me, smoothing down her dress and trying to stand as tall as she can.
“I know, I’m too short,” she says.
“No you’re not,” I say. “It’s just that I’m 186 cm tall. Anybody next to me resembles a dwarf.”
“Yes, that’s right. I am a dwarf.”
“No that’s not what I meant to –“
“Okay, the both of you, smile!” says the resort manager as she holds up her tablet and snaps a picture of Arena and me.
“I’ll be uploading that to Facebook right away!” Arena says with the eagerness found only in an 18-year-old. “My friends will be so jealous!”
She rushes over to look at the picture. The winning smile turns upside. “Oh no, no, that will never do. I look so fat!” Delete.
“You’re not fat,” I say as Arena resumes her place next to me.
“Yes I am,” she says. “And that pic made me look even fatter. One more time … please!”
“One … two … Go!” says the resort manager, a joke that Thais used to make often when taking photographs (a reference to the airline One Two Go, a joke you don’t hear that often these days owing to a One Two Go plane crash at Phuket airport in 2007, rendering the airline non-existent).
Arena is short with eyes that resemble acorns, a round face and a gorgeous smile. People in the South of Thailand are a little darker than their compatriots to the North.
She is pleased with that latest picture, as pleased as an 18-year-old can be about a picture of herself when she is bombarded with TV advertisements telling her only tall light-skinned thin people are beautiful. She is none of those things, but she exudes beauty and the seeds of poise already at the age of 18, more so than any skeleton I’ve seen on a Sunsilk ad.
Arena is at the hotel as an intern. She’s in her final year of a hospitality degree and this requires three months’ slave labor at a hotel. Excuse me, work experience at a hotel. Arena’s into her third month and loving it.
“So you’d like to work in a hotel after you graduate?” I ask, warming to Arena’s smile, not to mention her enthusiasm and innocence.
She nods. “Well yes, but I don’t think it will happen. I have to look after my mother. She’s all alone when I’m here. I could never leave her alone for a long period of time.” This is said without the slightest hint of regret.
I enquire as to siblings, but they have all married and moved away having started their own families. Arena is the last child, and the onus is on her to be a constant companion to her sick mother, who lives 150 km away. I have no idea where her father has gone.
“So how does your mother manage without you while you’re here?” I ask.
“I go home every weekend,” she says proudly, and I imagine little Arena sitting on those rickety old inter-provincial buses chugging 300 km up and down the highway each weekend.
I launch into my spiel about the necessity for her to explain to her mother that she needs to gain a career and experience, so that she can provide for her mother comfortably in the future. Arena nods, but like so many others before her, I suspect my sage words of advice are falling on deaf ears.
“I think I’d miss her, too,” says this little Songkhla pearl. Her cellphone springs to life; her ringtone a Justin Bieber song. When I later ask her if she likes Justin Bieber, her face gets even more excited than when she spotted me on the lawn, which is probably healthy.
“I LOVE Justin Bieber!” she squeals. When I explain that he’s coming to Bangkok next month for a concert, she gasps and those acorn eyes turn to paste. I promise that if she can get herself to Bangkok, 960 kilometres away, I’d buy her a ticket, which is not on the cards since 150 kilometres is already a long distance for her.
It is time for Arena and her manager to move on. I say goodbye, and I am aware she has put me in a good mood.
Later on in the day I run into Arena again and she asks for another photo since the one on the lawn had her squinting and she “still looked a little fat”. Lightening creams have a lot to answer for in this country.
“Did you mean it about the free ticket to Justin Bieber?” she whispers in between photos.
“Absolutely,” I say. “Just make sure your mother approves.”
And Arena was gone.
That is where we have to leave her, dear reader.
Short, dark-skinned Arena, radiating beauty, worried about her weight and height and skin, obsessed with Justin Bieber, and at one with her smart phone. She could be a teenager from anywhere in the world, and with her ailing mother’s best interests at heart, she is the kind of daughter any parent would be proud of.
And with the exception of her round face and almond eyes, she was covered from head to toe in her hijab.
Little Arena comes from the heart of Yala, one of three provinces where Thais, both Muslim and Buddhist alike, rip each other apart on a daily basis with bullets and bombs, decimating families and rendering them fatherless, motherless, or even obliterated altogether. In the name of religion. In the name of politics. In the name of a separatist state.
Whatever. I can only pray Arena’s rickety old bus sticks to the main roads.
And while we consider the situation in those three southern provinces somewhat distant and alien, this week I came face to face with the goodness, the aspirations and even the fan-crazed devotion of a typical teenager who could have come from anywhere in the world, save for the clothing.
She reminded me of the goodness in people wherever they may be. So let’s pray for peace in the South, while I quietly pray Justin Bieber gets to see Arena at Impact Arena.
By Andrew Biggs
My heart goes out to the jilted bride who made the news this week, left standing in her wedding dress in front of a crowd of well-wishers, having to explain that her future significant other had chosen insignificance.
My heart also goes out to the groom. I have my nephew Neung to thank for that.
The 24-year-old bride had been stood up by her 18-year-old groom. They’d met in April and had allegedly fallen in love in the three short months since.
So what happened? He had another girlfriend, but the real deal-breaker was his inability to pay a bride price of 300,000 baht.
Does this surprise any of us? The average 18-year-old Thai man in this country is lucky to have 300 baht in his bank account. Only the 18-year-old sons of wealthy pork-ball factory owners could afford anything greater. And besides, did she seriously believe her ideal life partner would come in the form of an 18-year-old philanderer whom she’d met 90 days previous?
“Bride price” is a direct translation from Thai, where it doesn’t quite sound as cold and clinical as in English. The Thai word is sin sot, which translates as … well, bride price.
This is a payment that men must make to a bride’s family for the right to marry their daughter. I was first introduced to it 25 years ago when my friend Vichien wanted to marry his girlfriend at the time. Before anything, he needed to find the bride price.
“You’re buying her?” I asked, incredulously.
“No. I’m offering money for her.”
“Isn’t that the same? How much?”
“I don’t know. 50,000 Baht.”
“You don’t have 50,000 Baht,” I began, as Vichien looked to me and opened his mouth but I cut him off.
“Don’t even ask!”
“It’s just a loan.”
“I can pay you back right after the wedding ceremony.”
“Naiyana’s mother will return it to us immediately. We hand over the money during the ceremony for everybody to see then she gives it back to us.”
“What if she keeps it?”
“Then she’s stingy.”
“And I’m broke.”
I had so many questions. Could I bargain down the price? You know, knock 10 per cent off the bride price and Vichien will throw in five years of absolutely no mistresses or minor wives?
Nearly two decades have passed since that fateful night, and yes, Naiyana’s mother returned the money days after the wedding. But what a cultural eye-opener.
You see ever since I was a little boy, I was told the woman paid for the wedding, not the man. I remember my mother talking about “glory boxes”; suitcases unwed girls would use to collect stuff for married life. Though I never clapped eyes on such a box, I imagined them to be full of Wiltshire stay-sharp knives, bell-bottom tracksuits and K-Tel Record Selectors.
Over the years I have grown to understand the role of the bride price. Like so many things in this country, it is just a show.
Watch when a Thai star or some high-society offspring get married. The one thing you can depend on (other than a divorce soon after) is the mountain of cash and gold bars piled up in front of the happy couple. Sometimes these bride prices can run into the tens of millions.
Back in 2011 a big story erupted when the permanent secretary of the Transport Ministry was burgled while he attended his daughter’s wedding.
Thieves made away with as much as 200 million baht … in cash. The permanent secretary had a plausible excuse for having the equivalent of a small African country’s cash reserves in his hallways. His daughter was getting married, remember? That cash was the bride price, he said.
Why else, he asked, would he have such a huge amount of cash blowing through the halls of his Lardphrao mansion? Yes, he was arrested soon after.
Which brings us to Neung.
Neung is the son of an old Thai friend of mine who died when Neung was just 15. Neung was in Bangkok studying high school at the time. His father’s death meant he inherited a small durian and mangosteen plantation in Chantaburi.
Neung continued his education to Year 12. Before returning to the farm he had found himself a girlfriend, Natt. Once a month he would come to Samut Prakan to visit her for a few days.
Neung is now 36 years old. Incredibly to this day he still drives his pick-up once a month to spend time with Natt, staying at her parents’ home.
Neung drops in to see me on some visits, out of habit, and often when funds are a little low and there is fertilizer to be purchased. Yes, your favorite correspondent helps out in such circumstances, and thus has a constant supply of his very favorite fruit, mangosteen — as for his absolutely reviled fruit, Neung has known for years not to bring durian anywhere near my house.
It was just one month ago — three weeks before the jilted bride story broke — that I finally had it out with Neung.
“When are you going to marry Natt?” I asked.
“Mai roo,” he replied.
“What do you mean you don’t know? You’ve been together for more than 20 years!”
“Yung mai prom,” he said. I’m not ready yet.
“Since when has being ready ever stopped people from marrying?” I asked, as if I were an expert on the topic. But I did have a point. “Do you want to marry Natt?”
“Kor dai,” he said. I guess so. Pinning Neung down on anything was a little like pinning down a tent in a hurricane. It was clear I’d have to take some affirmative action if children of Neung and Natt were ever going to see the light of day.
“Now listen to me,” I said. “You’re going to get married right here at home to save money.”
“What about the bride price?” he asked.
I tried to hide my surprise. “Bride price?” I asked. “You’ve been going out with Natt for 21 years. Surely you don’t need a bride price? Have you asked her parents?”
“No,” said Neung.
I figured Natt’s parents would ask for 50,000 baht at most, which would be returned. Incredibly Neung, never one to commit himself to anything — Natt included — agreed to talk to Natt’s parents the following day.
Two days later, bad news.
“I spoke to Natt’s parents,” said Neung. “They want 300,000 baht … which they won’t return.”
They want … what?
“They’re happy with the idea of us marrying. They said their neighbors were starting to wonder when we were going to tie the knot.”
“And that wonder shall not stop anytime soon if they continue to set that kind of benchmark. What on earth are they thinking? Have you bargained them down? And why aren’t they paying it back?”
I suggested explaining to Natt’s parents that their request would never facilitate a wedding. It may instead facilitate Neung’s moving on, finding another girl whose parents weren’t quite so out of touch with the bride prices of suburban Samut Prakan.
That’s why I wrote, at the top of this column, that my heart also goes out to the groom in that news story. What a shame there are just too many over-enthusiastic brides, lackadaisical grooms, and greedy parents-in-law to ensure a “happily never after” scenario for couples.
Neung and Natt continue to see each other once a month; I daresay they will continue their monthly trysts for eternity, or when Natt’s parents pass, whichever comes first.
As for that couple in the news — things aren’t going to settle down so easily, for the real issue is not a lack of bride price. It is a mutual lack of common sense.
THE PIED PIPER OF BRIEFCASES AND WASHING MACHINES
By Andrew Biggs
It was a dark and stormy night.
I’d been beating away for a couple of hours — on my Macbook — when I felt the need for a break. So I casually flicked on Facebook.
Scrolling down my Timeline, catching joyous glimpses of the wildly interesting lives of Facebook Friends living life to the fullest (as opposed to me, still working at 9.30 pm on his own), I happened to notice an ad for a leather belted briefcase.
It was a briefcase in sienna brown with good stitching and faux straps. That is, it looked like they were buckled straps but in reality those straps hid button snaps, which meant there was no need to open and close the belt straps. I liked that. My more pretentious friends would sniff at that but it was functional and reeked of hipster chic.
I clicked on the ad.
I spent five minutes exploring the ins and outs of this leather bag. My current briefcase, which I’ve had for two years, has served me well but like its owner it is starting to fray around the edges and sag in undesirable places.
This new one would be an ideal replacement. And it was a bargain, the website alleged, at 8,900 baht. I am not one to shy away from impulse buying — I have a bookshelf and wardrobe as evidence — but on that particular dark and stormy night the voice of reason stepped in.
Reminding myself of my upcoming house renovations, for which the painters were demanding I surrender an arm and a leg, I clicked on the little red button at the top of the screen. Bang. It was gone. One minute later I was back at work, and that is where the story should end.
This incident took place a week ago.
It was probably by Friday or Saturday that I started to notice something curious. More and more frequently, I was being bombarded by advertisements for leather briefcases.
They would pop up in google ads. The original one I saw on Facebook? It was now the single most common ad that wedged itself between all those joyous posts from my wildly interesting Facebook friends living life to the fullest.
But here’s the weird part; I started to feel as though leather suitcases were stalking me. I do not have a history of paranoid behavior – not while sober, anyway – but was it a mere coincidence that a leather briefcase ad popped up on CNN?
Upon checking out the Billboard website this week, there, at the very top of the page, was an ad for — a leather wallet! Good lord! The leather briefcase is extending its tentacles to include its closest relatives!
That made me uneasy. It was as if the internet, born of academics wanting to exchange knowledge between universities, was now a living breathing identity with the express purpose of sucking me into a vortex. It was a black hole drawing me round and round, down, down towards its very core, in which an 8,900 baht leather hipster briefcase was situated.
Have you ever cleared out your junk folder in Gmail? I have. Thanks to Google filters I am spared daily emails from fleeing Nigerian princes and ads for penis enlargement pills. Are these spam mails hitting my inbox purely by accident?
Or is something more sinister going on? Does the internet know I am going through difficult financial times owing to greedy painters, and would just love a wealthy Nigerian prince to park his millions in my bank account? As for the latter ads, we’ll not cross that bridge in the interests of Bangkok Post being a family newspaper.
And how perverse is Google. It blocks such spam, yet allows spam of an altogether different form to bombard me via ads. Google’s motto is Don’t Be Evil, except for leather briefcase companies wanting to pay Google lots of money.
And of course the biggest worry of all: I clicked on that ad in the privacy of my office, all alone, on a dark and stormy night, remember? Now the whole internet seems to know I’m just dying to buy a leather briefcase.
My curiosity got the better of me. I decided to face the fear … and perform a little experiment.
Yesterday I went online. I took a deep breath and summoned up as much Dutch courage as I could muster. In a brazen moment, which required three glasses of Asahi with vodka chasers, I typed the following into Google:
I want to buy a washing machine.
I don’t need a washing machine. I just wanted to see what would transpire.
What came up was your expected list of washing machine dealers. There were ads as well as regular websites. Powerbuy was at the very top.
Just to make sure the message was understood, I went one step further:
Where can I buy a washing machine in Thailand?
Again, Powerbuy was the first to be listed. So I clicked on Powerbuy. I was mildly interested; who would have thought there are 167 different washing machines to choose from? My favorite speaker company, Bosch, even makes one, though for 29,900 Baht I closed that window quicker than you could say Guess Whose Mum’s Got A Whirlpool. I ended up at Sharp’s bottom-end machine at 4,990 baht.
Then I went to Facebook and typed in the same thing. Then I hashtagged #Iwanttobuyawashingmachine on Twitter.
I felt alive, dear reader. Face the monster! I felt like Max van Sydow in The Exorcist. Adrenaline pulsed through my veins; not exactly the usual reaction on my fourth Asahi and chaser.
Then I sat back and waited.
Sure enough, the creeping terror began.
Ads for leather briefcases gave way to ads for washing machines.
On Facebook, I saw nothing but Powerbuy ads — and incredibly, as you can see in the accompanying picture, the ad featured that overpriced Bosch machine!
Interestingly the wallet ad is still at Billboard, but I suspect it is only a matter of time before that, too, is swallowed up by the overpowering presence of washing machines.
A month or so ago, when the Cambridge Analytica scandal erupted, I wondered if any company had “scraped my details” off Facebook. My conclusion was I was probably not in any particularly desirous demographic to warrant any interest.
This week I discovered differently. It was good to be reminded that anywhere I travel on the net, I am being followed, even if it is only by marketing company bots. We have crossed the line from the internet of things, to the internet of things for sale.
And what a force it is; when used wrongly, at best it persuades me to buy things I hardly want. At worst it can sway vast numbers of gun-toting Americans to vote for a misogynist conman for president.
And how long will this washing machine barrage last? Will I be harangued by Powerbuy for eternity?
As I write this, the war is still relentless. That was my Songkran, dear reader. Five days of greedy painters, leather suitcases, washing machines — and a sinister dark force that watches everything we click on in our travels around the internet. It makes 1984 look utopian.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
(First published October 20, 2016, the week after HM King Bhumibol passed away)
By Andrew Biggs
I received the royal pendant almost 10 years ago; a small, metallic pin shaped in the insignia of His Majesty the King.
It was presented upon completion of my services for the 60th Anniversary Celebrations of His Majesty King Bhumibol’s Accession to the Throne. The brooch is small and elegant in its triangular form with an emerald green background.
The pendant came with a commemorative backpack featuring the royal insignia. I used that backpack until it wore out, not just because of its insignia, but for its functionality. I was forever being asked where I got it from. I was even offered money for it once and yes, dear reader, I refused.
If the backpack was used into the ground, then the opposite could be said of that precious little royal pendant.
I am not a collector of jewelry; a thief upon breaking into my home would be sorely disappointed in what he would not discover. But I do treasure objects that have personal value, such as my royal pendant, earned for my services to His Majesty. That is something to me far more valuable than gold or jewelry. It came directly from the palace; a tenuous but concrete connection between myself and the King. I put it away in that top drawer in 2006 figuring I would bring it out on special occasions.
Last week I finally did bring it out, though not for circumstances I would have ever wished for prior to October 13, 2016. In the shock of those first few days I remembered I had the pendant, so I searched for it, found it, and pinned it to my blackish shirt one morning a few days after His Majesty’s passing.
“You know you’re not allowed to wear that,” the pleasant young teacher told me.
It was the same morning, a few hours later, at a seminar we were attending.
I looked down at my chest. I thought she was referring to my blackish shirt; I got ready to apologize for it not being jet black, but there was a limit to jet black shirts in my wardrobe (that is, two) and today was day three.
Then I realized the pleasant young teacher was not talking about my blackish shirt. She was talking about my royal pendant.
“Apparently it’s been announced that pendants are not allowed to be worn,” she said. “You have to wear black but you can’t wear any commemorative pendants.”
My first reaction was one of surprise. Then I started to smell a rat.
There had been a number of incidents after the passing of His Majesty involving subjects who had been vilified for not displaying the “proper” grieving process. Feelings had been running extremely high and low since October 13, so it was not beyond the realms that for some inexplicable reason, pendants might have been banned.
“Really?” I asked, and the young teacher nodded.
“That’s what I’ve heard,” she said.
Not long after I went to the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror. It was the perfect opportunity to remove the allegedly offensive pendant. I didn’t. I find words like “apparently” and “they say” and “what I’ve heard” not the strongest of anonymous sources.
The next morning I wore it again … and it happened again.
“Excuse me,” came a voice from beside me. It was one of the hotel staff.
“I’m sorry to tell you this, but they say you can’t wear a royal pendant like that,” he said, motioning to my breast pocket. “It’s not allowed.”
“Who told you this?” I asked.
“That’s what I’ve heard,” he answered. “It’s been online. No royal pendants. Black shirts, yes. Black bows, yes. But no royal brooches.”
Later that day I found myself on Sukhumvit Road. On the street another friendly stranger accosted me and pointed to my broach and said, albeit with a grin: “No! No!”
That was three people in two days.
That night I went online.
There was a staggering amount of information about the proper way to mourn. I always assumed the proper way to mourn was to wail and feel hopeless and flail one’s arms about, but apparently there is much more to it than that. I found a diagram in Siam Rath newspaper under the headline FIVE WAYS TO DRESS IN MOURNING WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE A BLACK SHIRT. It explained, elaborately, what is in and out when it comes to dress in this critical period. Not elaborately enough, though — there was no reference to royal pendants. There were many other web pages devoted to explaining the right method of wearing a black bow, as if anyone needed that to be explained. I was reminded of flight attendants telling me how to buckle and unbuckle a seatbelt.
Finally, a light at the end of the tunnel.
The Office of The Prime Minister announced guidelines for proper mourning. There were a total of 11 points and numerous sub-points. I have to admit I was a little hesitant at first when I scanned the list. Was it going to tell me how to look sad? At what times of the day I could cry? No, of course not. In the end there was nothing sinister about the suggestions, and in fact it was all common-sensical.
It was not until I got way down to point number 10 that I found the answer to my question, which I repeat here:
10. It is permissible to wear royal brooches.
Three days of anxiety were over.
Back around the time I received that royal pendant, civil servants in this country wore yellow to work every Monday as a way of showing their faith and devotion to His Majesty the King. This wasn’t an edict; it was a nation showing their devotion to their King.
At that time, in 2006, I had one student in my adult English class who was a staunch royalist. She was a female government officer in her late 40’s. She was very personable, though precise and rigid, while at the same time demonstrating unflinching loyalty to the King.
And yet she never wore yellow on a Monday.
Her explanation was as stoic and unmalleable as her personality.
“I don’t need to wear a yellow shirt to show my loyalty and devotion for His Majesty,” she said, back upright, lips pursed, eyes momentarily closed. “My loyalty to His Majesty is in my heart, not in the way I dress.”
I admired her for that stance, for it is much more difficult to put loyalty in a heart than it is to don a shirt. I always hoped she wasn’t penalized for her stance in her workplace. She is probably retired now, but I did think of her this week, after fretting for three days. Is she wearing black now? Probably. On the other hand maybe she is not. Either mode of dress is irrelevant to her unflinching loyalty.
This is a time for us to remember His Majesty’s words on Thais living in harmony and mutual kindness, as we traverse through this sad and difficult year of mourning. We all have our own ways to grieve. Mine is by wearing a pendant. Whatever yours is, I’ll accept it.
THE PART-TIME TEETOTALLER
By Andrew Biggs
Buddhist Lent is upon us.
I’m going to refer to it by its Thai name, Khao Phansa, not to be a show-off but more because I’ve never felt comfortable with “Lent.”
It conjures up too many childhood memories of sanctimonious religious friends broadcasting their hunger pangs in the lead-up to Easter, not to mention that dreadful “Forty Days and Forty Nights” hymn we were forced to sing.
Khao Phansa on the other hand is light and breezy and free of religious connotations and neurological disorders. And it’s timely; it began just two days ago, when Thais all over the country lit candles and walked three times around their local temples to mark the start of this auspicious three-month period of the year.
(The only setback was it fell right next to Asarnha Bucha this year, a double whammy when it came to the ban on the sale of alcohol but that, dear reader, is why God invented pre-stocked liquor cabinets.)
For me, Khao Phansa is a time I take time out to drink an annual toast to my old friend Ongart.
I first met Ongart 20 years ago as he sat on a bamboo mat outside his Chantaburi home. Little did I know then that Ongart was the poster boy for rural men addicted to the local rice whiskey known as lao khao, or “white alcohol”.
He was surrounded by a few friends on the mat and I was invited to join them. In Thai this is known as “creating a circle”, or sitting down with your mates solving the problems of the world over a clear liquid that I foolishly thought was vodka.
Lao khao is not vodka. It is a foul, raw substance that must be responsible for 90 per cent of this country’s liver ailments. It could substitute for petrol in an empty gas tank on a lonely highway.
It gets a rural boy drunk in seconds, and he remains that way – drunk and raucous on a bamboo mat – for a good four hours until he finally gets on his motorbike and speeds off home.
Ongart’s face was ruddy and jowly. His skin was a map of creases and crevices, interspersed with blotchy burst blood vessels that would rival a septuagenarian’s.
Imagine my surprise when I found out he was my age and not of my father’s generation; 25 years of age going on 50, with grey unkempt hair that was spiky, not as a fashion statement, but from an absence of shampoo and water.
His clothes hadn’t ever seen an iron or washing machine. He was skinny as a rake with skin as dark as the Chantaburi night (see what happens when I go without a drink for 48 hours thanks to liquor bans? I get poetic).
The second time I saw him was at his wedding.
It was an attempt by village elders to get Ongart’s mind off alcohol and onto something more constructive. He arrived at his own wedding drunk, took one look at me and dragged me up to stand beside him as his best man.
I don’t remember much else about the wedding except it was the first time I tried sartor, a sweeter rice whiskey which, once I got past the awful taste of the first three glasses, didn’t taste so bad on the fourth, and rendered me unconscious on the fifth.
I saw less of him after that as he moved five kilometres away to live with his in-laws. Whenever I did see him we’d end the conversation with my handing over a hundred baht. He’d hug me, call me his brother, and stagger onto his motorbike. Within minutes he’d be at the local shack that sold rice whiskey.
Why am I tell you all this? Every year when Khao Phansa came around, something very weird happened to Ongarj.
This hopeless alcoholic quit alcohol.
He’s not the only one. All over Thailand, otherwise incurable drunks quit liquor for three whole months to mark Khao Phansa.
I tried it once, back in 1996, when I was a lot younger and naive and trying to blend in with the locals. I think I lasted about a month before my close friend, Common Sense, paid me a visit and bashed me about the head with a blunt object.
Every year, without fail, Ongart went from full-on inebriation to teetotality for 40 days and 40 nights, times two, plus ten.
I didn’t know this until way after he got married. One night I drove to my Chantaburi home to be greeted by the usual suspects “creating a circle” on my balcony. Only this time they brought along a total stranger.
He was a good-looking young man with jet black hair neatly parted on the side. It is difficult to tell the age of Thais at the best of times, since the country has clearly made a collective pact with the Devil on ageing, but this guy had to have been in his mid-twenties.
He sat quietly, cradling a Sprite in his hands. It wasn’t until I got much closer than I got the shock of my life. It was Ongart.
His face had lost ten years. His skin was clear, and god knows where his jowls had disappeared to.
He did it every year. He stopped singing hideous Thai folk songs late at night when we were all trying to get some sleep, and his hour-long rants about the government and corruption and poor people turned into welcome silence while his mates carried the gregarious baton.
How can one be a hardened alcoholic for nine months of the year, then completely stop for the remaining three?
Ongart’s transformation lasted all the way through to Ork Phansa, or the last day of the 90 days. That falls in early November as the rainy season dries up.
You can imagine the nationwide celebrations on that night. It’s a bit like those iconic pictures you see of World War Two servicemen returning home to their girlfriends on the docks, only these Thai guys are not sucking face. They’re sucking lao khao for the first time in three months, and boy it must feel good.
In a matter of weeks, the grey flecks returned to Ongart’s hair. Once back in his life, that white whiskey unwrapped its bag of tools and started etching those cracks and crevices back into Ongart’s face, while his jowls dusted themselves off and resumed their places around his jawline.
I once asked him why he didn’t just stop drinking altogether. His wife stopped whatever she was doing in the background and shot a helpless glance at me, then a resentful one at her other half, but Ongart just slapped my back and laughed and asked for a hundred baht.
I don’t see Ongart these days. One night, five years ago, after a day on the white whiskey he got on his motorbike and drove it into a ditch. He lay in a coma for four months before he passed away. Perhaps it was that extra month off the booze that did him in; too much for his soul to bear.
His two sons are now 15 and 13 and the spitting image of their father, except neither is remotely interested in alcohol or any other drug. They have memories. They have seen what white whiskey can render them, other than fatherless.
I dedicate this normally-sanook column to my old friend on the anniversary of his annual giving up of alcohol. At least he did it. For that feat, he was a greater man than I ever have been.
THE GLORY OF GUNSARAY
By Andrew Biggs
Ten-year-old Gunsaray stepped on a mine earlier this year, blowing his left leg off.
Such are the hazards of living in rural Cambodia, the most heavily mined country in the world. It is estimated there are still up to five million mines buried in the fertile plains of our eastern neighbor, which works out to one mine every 3 Cambodians.
Gunsaray spared two other Cambodians of their quota. I can’t imagine the grief of losing a leg at that age, but my lack of imagination could be because for the brief time I met him, he didn’t stop smiling.
I met little Gunsaray just last week when I was in Siem Reap participating in a running race. No need to look so surprised; this very column began thanks to a story I wrote when I ran the Bangkok Marathon back in 2008.
It appears that as we humans hit the age of 40 we branch off in one of two different directions.
One group gives up the booze and drugs and sex and turns to fitness centers and jogging tracks in an effort to remain youthful and exuberant. The other group finds youth and exuberance in the continued use of alcohol and other stimulants, propping up bar counters and making the acquaintance of Nigerians.
Me? I moved to a Buddhist country where one of the principal tenets is “walking the middle path”. Notice the Lord Buddha did not say “running” or “jogging” that path, and thus I choose to do a little of both; I enjoy running, but I also enjoy running a tab at my local establishment.
Anyway that is how I got to the annual Angkor Wat Half Marathon. I made a last minute decision to switch to the 10 km race since one of the other runners in my four-person party, a woman, was running that shorter distance. I was afraid some desperate Cambodian might jump out from behind the hundred-year-old giant teak trees lining the race course and molest her. Thus I did the only chivalrous thing an overweight under-prepared man would do; I asked to switch to the smaller run to keep her company.
“I’m sorry, the 10 km race is all full up,” a pleasant Cambodian official informed me the day before the run at the venue. “There are no bibs left.”
“Are you sure?”
“Oh yes. Quite sure.”
Any normal person would have left it at that, but I have spent 25 years in this part of the world and know the true meaning of “quite sure”.
I lowered my head. “What a terrible shame, because my female friend is going to run the 10 km alone, and her parents were just killed in a terrible boating accident off a Laotian beach, and I fear if I’m not there beside her, she may break down and cry halfway through the course — or worse.”
“Maybe I have just one left,” she replied.
Maybe you do, I wanted to answer, but thought better of it.
In two minutes I had my 10 km bib in hand and I did thank the official profusely, although my cover was almost blown when my female friend fronted up beside gaily chortling: “Did you manage to change your race?”
“Shut up and look gutted,” I whispered.
Anyway that is how I ended up at the Angkor Wat before sunrise last Sunday.
The race itself was well-organized and this being Cambodia, there was a special category of runner; that is, people missing limbs.
Everything was well-oiled with the exception of a bubbly local male celebrity who, over loudspeakers, kept urging runners to “MOVE TO THE SIDE! MOVE TO THE SIDE!” Since the organizers had thoughtfully encircled the venue with loudspeakers, and the bubbly local male celebrity was nowhere to be seen, runners had no idea which side he meant.
“Is he saying ‘site’? Do we have to move to the ‘site’?”
“Aren’t we at the site already?”
“Maybe he’s saying ‘sign’ with a Cambodian accent.”
Perhaps the bubbly local male celebrity could sense the confusion, since he attempted to clarify himself by saying: “TO THE SIDE OF ME! TO THE SIDE OF ME!” Fat lot of good that was.
The 10km race began at 6.20 am and what a magnificent course it was, through the stunning ruins of Angkor Wat.
My aim was to maintain a pace of 9 km an hour; a goal I proudly kept up for the first three kilometres. And it was during those three kilometres I was introduced to Gunsaray – when he overtook me.
Gunsaray shot ahead of me around kilometer number one; a skinny little kid on a single wooden crutch. Look closely at the photograph on this page and you will see Gunsaray’s single flip-flop.
And yet this little kid with the one leg tore past me, then kept up with me for those first three kilometres. Imagine running three kilometres at a rate of 9 km per hour, dear reader – now imagine doing it on one leg.
Gunsaray was the centre of much cheering and egging on by fellow runners from all around the world. He was the star of the race, with a look of determination that broke into a smile the size of the Angkor Wat itself every time somebody patted him on the back.
At kilometer number three I lost him. He fell back, just as my female companion — whose fabricated tragedy enabled me to run the race — ran ahead of me. She would finish the run in 1 hour and 12 minutes. I finished in one hour and 14 minutes.
He came in at one hour thirty minutes. What a feat; that gorgeous little kid on a single leg did, in an hour and a half, what I did with two legs a mere 15 minutes faster.
It took me half an hour to seek out Gunsaray and ask to take his picture. In that time the half-marathon runners started coming in, including one man who, at the finish line, got down on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend.
I found Gunsaray among about a dozen other disabled kids his own age who ran the race, all of whom belonged to a charity fighting for Cambodia to ratify an international treaty that seeks to ban cluster bombs. Those are the bombs which contain sub-munitions which do so much more damage than the regular mines.
I just hope Gunsaray and his friends have a wonderful New Year. The Angkor Wat run was memorable, but he and his friends made it truly unforgettable.
THE FARANG ACCENT
By Andrew Biggs
All around my Los Angeles neighborhood are hand-written signs tacked onto lofty palm trees: “ACCENT ELIMINATION”. The two words are followed by a local telephone number, which to my surprise doesn’t begin with 555.
Accent Elimination – how intriguing. A long, long time ago I was here in Southern California as an AFS foreign exchange student. This was pre-Crocodile Dundee, and Americans had next to no knowledge of Australia … but they did love my accent.
These days Aussies are a dime a dozen in America; you can find them trawling the cheap beer in Ralph’s supermarkets, or staggering out of seedy Sunset Boulevard bars singing Khe Sanh at the top of their atonal voices.
In fact here in LA nobody has an American accent. Every little Fatburger or El Polo Loco in every strip mall across LA is a cacophony of voices from Asia, Europe, the Middle East and, most predominantly, Mexico to the point where LA must surely stand for Latin America. “Accent Elimination” promises to knock that accent out of you, and in no time you’ll begin to sound like those prescription-happy people on every American TV ad.
“It’s a service for new Americans who can be a little difficult to understand,” my host brother Marc explained when I finally gathered the courage to ask. “What about in Thailand? Do you have a problem with accents?”
How interesting you should ask.
Something bizarre is going on in Thailand. As a native English speaker spends more and more time in the kingdom, his English starts to mutate into something far removed from what he uses back home.
The next night you have off, quietly pop down to any pub in Soi Cowboy, Nana or Patpong. Find yourself a bar stool, thoroughly disinfect it with anti-fungal spray, sit down upon it and order an orange juice. Now, listen in to your neighbors. As any professor of linguistics will tell you, the deterioration happens in four distinct phases:
Phase One: The Demise of “S”
For some inexplicable reason, many western visitors who fraternize with the locals believe that the more they speak like an idiot, the better they will be understood.
Thus, within days they are dropping the conjugated S at the end of verbs whose subject is third-person singular.
“Your mother, she say she sick?” I heard an Australian in dire need of a course of Jenny Craig frozen dinners ask his new friend Noi. From my eavesdropping position Noi had just informed him, surprise surprise, that her mother has fallen ill. “She go to hospital?” the Aussie asked.
say … go … what happened on the Jetstar flight over here that made you decide these were preferable to says and goes? In a similar way, this linguistic disease starts spreading to the present continuous tense, eradicating it entirely. “I go to ATM,” he tells Noi. “Then we eat rice. OK?” “OK!” Noi nods, with a winsome smile, not because she understands the sentence structure, but because she heard the magic word: ATM.
Phase Two: Bye Bye Verb To Be
This, I suspect, is a communicable disease the western tourist picks up from the likes of Noi.
“You very beautiful!” he say – I beg your pardon – says. “I very happy with you.” The man is effectively speaking like a newspaper headline, dropping the is am are faster than he drops thousand-Baht bills into Noi’s sweaty palms.
He’s not doing anybody any favors talking like this, especially poor Noi, who should be learning that the verb “to be” is fundamental to any good English sentence. In no time she herself will begin speaking like this, with sentences like “He my brother!” when a man, strangely with the same nose and mouth as Noi’s 3-year-old son, appears from upcountry needing a motorbike.
3. Preposterous Pronouns
The first person I ever heard speaking like this was a western woman … and an Australian to boot. It was down on Koh Samui as she ordered a drink from a bewildered Thai waiter.
“Me like water,” she was saying from her buckling deckchair. “Me want water in bottle. Me no like Coke or Pepsi.”
Has this woman seen one too many Tarzan movies? Where does she get off thinking “me” instead of “I” as the subject is good? Some tourists even do it the other way around.
“You come to I tonight at 11 pm. Lek come here. Lek wait for I here, okay?” I heard a Dutchman tell his Thai bargirlfriend (named Lek) on the Pattaya walking street. Poor Lek; she’s going to hit her teens thinking it’s perfectly acceptable to switch “I” and “me” around as frequently as she switches Eurotrash boyfriends.
The final stage is almost fatal, simply because I want to murder the idiots who enter it. By this stage, their accent and English construction is more fraught with holes than a Sukhumvit condominium complex. It’s the stage I call …
Phase Four: The Same-Same Syndrome
Thais love to take English words and give them new meanings far removed from what may appear in your old MacMillan or Oxford dictionary. A “freshy” is a freshman, for example, and if your clothes “fit”, then they are too small for you. I know, quirky and cute, but completely understandable in the adventure of learning a new language.
It does not, however, give native English speakers carte blanche to do it.
“I no butterfly!” I heard a British septuagenarian defending his character to the blank-faced-but-gorgeous girl in a temple-fair bikini sitting on his lap. “I no like you say that.” She’s no doubt just accused him of philandering not because she believes it, but what else is she gonna talk about between now and asking for a TV? But that is beside the point – where in England does one call a philanderer a “butterfly”?
“Mekhong whiskey same-same methylated spirits,” I overheard an Australian telling his Thai bargirl one night in Patpong. The girl raised her eyebrows and laughed, lifting her glass and clinking it with his, pretending ‘methylated spirits’ was a word she indeed knew from her four years’ schooling upcountry.
“Butterfly” … “same-same” … no verb to be … no present continuous tense … “like” suddenly an intransitive verb. These are the symptoms of a strange linguistic disease that engulfs many a western tourist to Thailand. What is it that makes us think speaking like an idiot somehow makes us easier to understand, let alone be of any help to a Thai already grappling with the maddening complexities of the English language? And yet we do it, and often.
It’s a slap in the face to the Thais. Somebody wrestling with a second language doesn’t mean they are stupid. The last thing they need is condescending pidgin English comin’ right at ‘em. So no, Marc, we don’t need Accent Eliminators in Thailand … though mandatory intelligence tests along with visas on arrival may not go astray.
THE CIRCLE OF NAKHON PATHOM
By Andrew Biggs
Greetings from Nakhon Pathom! This week your favorite columnist finds himself in a hotel room for five days in this little town just west of Bangkok.
“Little town” is hardly a good description, though it was certainly that way when I first visited here a quarter-century ago. Bangkok has since extended her tentacles, swallowing up the likes of as Samut Prakan and Nonthaburi and Minburi.
Over to the west is a motley crew of smallish provinces, Nakhon Pathom being one of them, and in the process of being devoured as well. There are two things I associate with Nakhon Pathom, namely the massive historic pagoda smack bang in the middle of town. The other thing I have always associated the province with is unrest, which is kind of weird, until I checked back on my diaries and found out the reason why.
But before we get into that, the pagoda. It is the single most dominant and striking aspect of the night sky through my hotel window.
(The other window looks onto an adjacent apartment block, where I can see into every single apartment and, if I weren’t so deadline-challenged, would spend my evening not unlike Jimmy Stewart in the Alfred Hitchcock movie Rear Window; armed with a lot of curiosity and a discreet telescope. Oh well, there’s always tomorrow night.)
The pagoda at Nakhon Pathom is not your average Buddhist structure. Nor is it technically a pagoda; it is a “stupa.” With a rotund base it resembles a massive upturned burnt-orange bell, shooting 120 metres into the air, making it the tallest stupa in the world.
Original construction began more than 2,000 years ago, but fires and earthquakes and time took their tolls. It has been constantly built upon, the latest incarnation being about 150 years old. It was here that Buddhism first entered the region from India and spread throughout what is now Thailand. The name Nakhon Pathom means “first city” for this reason.
It is 235 metres around the base, which I walked this evening, before returning to my double-windowed hotel room and choosing to open the curtains on the temple side. So why do I also associate this giant stupa with unrest? The answer can be found in my diaries.
At this point I have to confess that as a serial writer I have kept a daily diary for the last 30 years of my life. This may seem unremarkably admirable or obsessive compulsive depending on the way you look at it, but it does serve a purpose. Whenever I need to check back on events, I can pop back into my past. I know exactly when my beloved three-legged dog Kanokwan died (December 6, 2000), or a strange week in 1995 in Koh Samui where my diary entries are nothing but weird drawings of planets and cryptic passages such as NOT MUCH LONGER NOW TILL IT WEARS OFF.
For this reason I know I came to Nakhon Pathom on Friday, May 8, 1992, writing a travel column for The Nation newspaper. I decided to stay the weekend until Sunday lunchtime when I caught a bus back to Bangkok.
No wonder I associate the province with unrest. That was one week before Black May, a series of dark events in modern Thai history which I experienced first-hand.
I had been in Thailand just three years. Only the year before the military had toppled the Chatichai Choonhavan government on the grounds it was corrupt.
Under General Suchinda Kraprayoon, the military set up a government and installed the popular Anand Panyarachun as prime minister. In March, two months before my Nakhon Pathom trip, there were national elections. The winning coalition government appointed General Suchinda as prime minister all over again, despite his not running in a constituency. An unelected prime minister would lead the country.
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
This was at a time when the Thai middle class was starting to get a little savvy. It was still a good two or three years before the internet would arrive, but mobile phones had certainly infiltrated society (albeit in the form of bricks). The general feeling was: Why did we just have elections? What was the point if the politicians go ahead and appoint an outsider to lead the country?
This fueled a groundswell of dissidence. These were not rebel-rousers or insurgents. The average Thai was incensed. A middle-class uprising was in progress. And all they wanted was for Suchinda to stand down and an elected prime minister take his place.
I attended one of the first major rallies in Sanam Luang a few nights after I returned to Bangkok from Nakhon Pathom. It was a night I will never forget; a hundred thousand Thais gathered, riding on the backs of pick-up trucks down Ratchadamnoen Avenue into Sanam Luang. I stayed there well into the early morning hours, buoyed by the frenetic energy of the place.
According to my diary I woke up the next morning with a bad cold, no doubt from rubbing shoulders with the masses the night before. I took the day off work and stayed in bed all day. And it was later that night the military rolled the tanks in and started firing mercilessly at the crowds in and around Sanam Luang.
What followed were three hellish days of shootings and cat-and-mouse chases between unarmed protestors and the well-armed military. Average Thais dodged bullets and some did not, with at least 50 dead from the shootings. It would have been even worse were it not for an intervention by King Bhumibol himself. On the night of May 20 a rally was called at Ramkhamhaeng University and I saw, with my own eyes, trucks of armed men in formation moving towards the university just hours before the protest was due to begin.
At around 9 pm that evening, all channels broadcast an amazing scene. His Majesty was seated as he gave a stern lecture to arched enemies General Suchinda and protest leader Chamlong Srimuang, who both sat meekly on the floor after having prostrated themselves before the King. Stop acting like selfish people, the King instructed, and put the interests of the country first.
Immediately after, TV stations televised those two arched rivals with stony faces seated at a table reading prepared speeches. Chamlong would call off the protests. And unelected General Suchinda would stand down, which he did four days later.
What a time in Thai history!
For me it was a fascinating glimpse into the machinations of Thai politics. So many things happened behind the scenes and I watched many of them unfold.
One of my greatest memories; sitting in the newsroom as a more-than-slightly-eccentric Thai reporter approached me in the newsroom and threw down what I thought was a pebble onto my desk.
“Do you know that that is?” he asked, visibly shaken. “A portion of a cranium of a pro-democracy protester shot dead.” Such were the scenes from those out-of-the-ordinary days.
And now, here I am back in Nakhon Pathom. The pagoda hasn’t changed, though bathed in better lighting now, and I am still writing a daily diary.
\But what a chilling coincidence, isn’t it, that I am here on the day the military government is laying plans for an election in which provisions have been made to allow for an unelected prime minister. I hope … I pray … that there is no circle coming around in that regard.
THE CAVE BOYS IN THREE ACTS
by Andrew Biggs
ACT ONE: Lessons Learned
I will never forget the moment man first landed on the moon.
I won’t ever forget the morning the Shuttle exploded, or the night the jets crashed into the twin towers in New York.
And now this week. I will never forget the moment, at 10.41 pm last Monday night, I discovered the boys in the cave were found alive.
To see footage of them sitting on that rock, all alive and well, made this crusty, curmudgeonly, hard-hearted columnist break down and cry. Twice.
There are so many lessons to be learned from the boys in the cave. Just off the top of my head I can think of five.
1. In times of difficulty, Thais are wonderful.
I know. We can all be wonderful in difficult times, not just the Thais. But this happened on Thai soil, and the workers and volunteers in the mountains of Chiang Rai were simply superb. I know colleagues and students who were there, and the spirit of unity in the face of adversity was magnificent.
One Navy seal, via Twitter, commented on how the women who volunteered in the makeshift mess hall smiled so beautifully when they served the food “and kept smiling afterwards”. Another expressed great surprise at finding an espresso machine smack bang in the middle of the jungle. “Thailand, I salute you!” he said.
We westerners often gripe about the Thais and their myriad faults and shortcomings and devious tricks and selfishness and ruthlessness and inhumanity. I will never, ever be part of that clique, and I always wonder, when I hear such complaints, which perfect country the bellyacher comes from. I do not require an answer; I simply hold a fervent hope for the bellyacher to return to it quickly.
2. It’s time we taught Thai youth how to swim.
This is not a bellyache.
It sounds like one but it’s not. This is a cry for common sense, even if it does reek of locking the stable after the horse has bolted.
It’s time swimming is incorporated into the national curriculum. I was once told by a high-ranking official that students in Bangkok would benefit from this, but rural kids don’t get that much of a chance to enjoy swimming pools and thus it would be a waste of budgetary funds to provide lessons at a national level.
You wanna talk waste of budget money, Mr High Ranking Official? It’s kind of difficult to know where to start. Perhaps we could begin with the 88 million baht embezzled by high-ranking officials from the Education Ministry’s poor students fund. Or perhaps we could alert him to the fact that water isn’t found just in swimming pools, but also in reservoirs, ponds, dams, rivers and khlongs.
He does have a point, though. Such an addition to the physical education curriculum would require additional funds. So here’s a radical idea: How about a moratorium on Education Ministry officials skimming the usual 20-30 per cent of budgets. I’m not advocating ceasing their behavior entirely — that would be like asking the tides to stop coming in and out.
Rather, just for one year, they should allow education budgets to be used fully for educational purposes. It may mean sacrificing the purchase of Mercedes Benz vehicles and Fendi handbags for a short while, but think of the benefits. Those kids would be out now, for a start.
3. Thai kids can speak English!
I’m so happy I just want to put on my boogie shoes and dance.
Did you hear those kids when the British diver first spoke to them? They answered him straight back in English! I’m so damned proud of them!
There is this unsubstantiated notion that Thai kids, especially rural types, are ignorant when it comes to English. The 12 boys in that football team proved them wrong.
The Japanese media highlighted this part of the story. Apparently in Japan they believe that like themselves, Thais are bad at English. The trapped cave boys were able to converse with the driver and give him information. Of course they used vocabulary like “eat” and “hungry” and even asked if they were leaving today. God bless you, kids. You made us ESL nerds proud of you.
4. Decent, good-hearted governors never die. They just get shunted off.
It is a generally accepted fact that the higher the position of government civil servants, the sparser the talent.
The further out of Bangkok, too, the more propensity for provincial governors to engage in untoward practices that make those Education Ministry embezzlers look like kindergarten students.
Not our Narongsak from Chiang Rai.
Governor Narongsak Osotthanakorn’s got five bachelor degrees, for crying out loud! They run the gamut from geology to engineering to law. Not only is he smart, he’s a straight-shooter who scrutinizes projects and building proposals, especially those submitted by dark forces driving Mercedes Benz cars clutching Fendi handbags, and rejects those that appear untoward. He recently rejected a major tourism project and waste-processing plant because something was fishy.
He’s not only honest. Look at the way he coordinated the campaign with these boys.
There is a great clip of him, filmed clandestinely a week ago, of Narongsak addressing divers before going into the cave.
“You go in there imagining those boys are your own children,” he is seen saying. “And you pull out all stops to make sure they come back. If you can’t do that, then leave right now. It’s okay. I won’t report you to your superiors if you choose to leave. This is your one opportunity. But if you stay, rescue those kids like you’re rescuing your own children.”
It’s powerful and heart-warming.
Such a person should be held up as a role model, but he’s not. He has been shunted off to the smaller province of Phayao. Make no mistake; it’s a demotion. In a system riddled with corruption and dark feudal lords with claws in rural provinces, a man like Narongsak has to go.
How ironic it is to have a system that allows corrupt government civil servants to be moved to inactive posts when they do something wrong, with the same fate dealt out to those who do something right.
5. Over in the Royal Thai Police, when do they say “enough already”?
The appearance of that high-ranking cop at the cave site, and his threatening conversations with the tireless people frantically trying to locate the missing boys, was like pulling back a bandage to reveal a festering wound that absolutely refuses to heal.
Surely there must be a level to which human decency can no longer be breached, resulting in a need to act to rectify a bad situation. The reform of the police system is so long overdue, it is surprising police officers themselves are not marching in the streets.
So much of Thai culture is based on maintaining dignity, and thus so much violence results from people losing face. Police officers are human beings, and their contribution to the rescue effort was magnanimous. How they can stand by and allow one man to send their reputation crashing down like a house of cards is baffling.
We must remain positive. We can only hope the cave incident is the catalyst that shows how important it is to reform the police force and to enable new, cleaner blood to rise towards the top. It also serves as a reminder that, following the national park incident earlier this year that to this day remains unmediated, a leopard may be able to be shot dead, but it cannot change its spots.
ACT TWO: Coach Ake
The dust is settling on Tham Luang, the Chiang Rai cave that stopped the world for two weeks.
Now that the emergency is over, it is time for the world’s armchair critics to cast sage analysis on the situation. Notice the word “sage” isn’t capitalized. There is no reason for it to be, for it adorns that sentence only to add an element of sarcasm.
This column was written last Wednesday. No doubt since then many details have emerged about the incident, such as the fact the boys were sedated on their way out, or that three of the boys aren’t even Thai. They are stateless, and the one that spoke English so well when first discovered is in fact Burmese, living in a church in Mae Sai while his parents work in Myanmar.
It isn’t just the boys, either. Another stateless individual is the coach, which brings us to the pivot of our story.
It is easy for us to waggle fingers as we sit in our easy chairs, as opposed to a dank pitch-black oxygen-starved cave filling up with fetid water. The surge of collective humanity that was evidenced worldwide, as we prayed for the safety of the boys, was a rare and uplifting phenomenon.
At the same time there was an undertow of blame being apportioned to that stateless coach, whose name is Ekkapol Chantawong, or Coach Ake.
For many he was to be saddled with blame. Would he face criminal charges, it was asked? He flew in the face of warnings against entering the cave, after all. Just this morning in the Bangkok Post, Letters to the Editor featured one breathless, indignant correspondent: “Had his team stayed out of the cave, none of this would have happened.”
It is such sentiment that evokes in me an immediate pang of regret towards those beautiful trees that are felled and turned into newspaper for the purpose of printing such diatribe. I am reminded of my youth when, late at night, TV channels would wind down their broadcast and the screen would flick to discordant static that begged to be promptly switched off. Nobody likes loud, incessant clamor that serves no useful purpose.
While it may be a nice use of time for more idle types, playing the “what if” game is one that is as pathetic as it is futile.
It is also very self-serving. It is a venture into self-aggrandizing analysis of the past, not to learn lessons or formulate steps to prevent such situations re-occurring, but to apportion blame and throw lightning bolts.
It feels good to see somebody else slip up. For many it feels good to throw stones, too. Scour social media and you’ll find Coach Ake being described as careless, foolhardy, and a “bloody idiot” for leading those boys into the cave. Some suggest a committee be set up to examine his actions, perhaps the foolhardiest suggestion of all, not just because it is a waste of taxpayer’s money, but also because the whole world already knows of his actions. Never in recent history has a man’s actions been more examined on a global scale!
Maybe it was remiss to venture into a cave one week before the rainy season started. Goodness. These are adventurous boys looking for fun. They want to explore. Isn’t that what boys are supposed to do? It reminds me of when my mother would send my brothers and I outside at 9 am and “don’t come back until dinner time”. As kids we had the whole nearby forest to explore. Granted there were no caves, but there were poisonous snakes and spiders and weird forest hermits lurking.
These are pastimes that boys enjoy, and sometimes out there in the big wide world, unexpected things happen. A snake bites. Flood waters cut off entrances.
And anyway, the alternative to adventure — lounging on a pillow in your bedroom, eyes staring blankly at a tiny screen, thumb endlessly flicking through friends’ Instagram accounts — may be a much safer and much more common alternative, but it sure as hell isn’t my idea of youthful exuberance.
And how easy it is to be wise after an event. Recently I purchased a pair of second-hand shoes at the Train Market on Srinakharin Road. They fell apart two weeks later. if only I’d stayed away from the Train Market that evening, none of that would have happened.
I once wrote a book that was a dismal failure. It sold a good 300 copies despite a print run of 5,000. The extra copies made great New Year and birthday gifts for a long time, until I ran out of friends to give them to, and indeed, my friend list diminished from the outrage some of them felt towards receiving such a parsimonious gift. I lost a lot of money on that, and the fallout prevented me from writing another book for two years. If only I’d not written that book, none of that would have happened.
You can play this game too, can’t you, dear reader? Our lives are littered with “if onlys” if we expend enough energy on that topic. We do foolish things all the time. We take risks. We ride the shoulder on the expressway, cross roads where we shouldn’t, drink and drug ourselves stupid. We are human beings on a life adventure.
And if sometimes we stuff things up, as the Wild Boar Team and its coach did, it is much more constructive to look forward and take positive steps to remedy the situation.
This is why we need to embrace Coach Ake and his actions, for it is his actions that ensured those 12 frightened boys didn’t perish in that cave within a few days.
Coach Ake, besides being stateless, is also an orphan. There is a photograph of him and his family doing the rounds of the media. It shows a young Ake, aged about 5 or 6, with his mother and father and little brother. By the age of 10 years, his entire family would be dead from disease. Left as an orphan, he spent eight years as a novice monk in a temple, as many poor children in rural areas do when there is nobody else to look after them. He left the monkhood to help take care of his ailing grandmother.
That experience, as a meditation monk, would ultimately save the lives of the 12 children, as he taught them how to meditate in that temple to save energy. While he was at it, he taught them how to find clean water, he gave his rations to the kids, and generally acted far and above the call of duty.
Imagine how wracked with guilt the guy was. Look at the early video clips, and Coach Ake is keeping way out of the limelight. In his first correspondence to the boys’ families, he asks for forgiveness. Now he is out, he also must cope with knowing a retired Navy Seal died during the rescue.
But you know what? You wanna play “what if”? What if he’d never gone in? What if he’d turned back after football practice, saying you guys go ahead, I’m going home. The outcome would have been very different, and far more tragic.
Make no mistake. He saved those boys. What a hero, and he sits there alongside those amazing Thai and foreign divers whom we take our collective hats off to.
Coach Ake, the stateless orphan who lives for football and gives his all to those kids, must now, even with all those setbacks, try to reassemble his life. This is no time for vociferous scribes to crucify. Show some humanity. Afford him some congratulations.
ACT THREE: Aftermath
The good times are over.
Last Wednesday’s press conference with the Wild Boar Team should have been a fitting curtain call. The world finally got to meet those kids for whom we collectively held our breath, and we weren’t disappointed.
For a little over an hour they related their experiences, apologized, expressed remorse, and paid homage to Saman Gunan who lost his life trying to rescue them. Dressed in football gear, the 13 boys looked fit and healthy and spoke with twinges of innocence and humor.
It was a reminder of the feel-good aura that accompanied the entire news story, when humanity dropped its tools and rushed to that cave in Chiang Rai to help get them out.
At that press conference the boys were accompanied by Navy Seals in dark glasses and caps, and Lt Col. Park Loharachun, who stayed with the boys in the cave and clearly had a good rapport with the kids.
Missing on the stage was the Chiang Rai governor, Narongsak Osotthanakorn, who on the same day of the press conference began duties in his new downgraded post of Phayao governor. In his place, in his stiff civil service uniform, was the brand new Chiang Rai governor, sitting like a proud father next to the boys, basking in the Wild Boar limelight, contributing nothing but a reminder of the hoary old cogs of the Thai civil service, which we will address in exactly five paragraphs’ time.
If only the press conference last Wednesday were the end. Now that the boys have been rescued, hospitalized, treated and paraded before the media in brand new football outfits, the next step is the most important and long lasting of all — normalcy.
These kids need to get back to soccer practise, school, homework and family life. Their brief glimpse of fame should, at their age, be just that. The media should leave them alone, but here in Thailand, like most of the world, the media is not going to go down without a fight. They are circling them like hawks right now.
It also means the good times are over. For a brief few weeks there, humanity was a uniting force that forgot about our foibles and shortcomings. We showed our very best side. It was a glorious time to be alive and to be human, albeit excruciatingly nerve-wracking.
Now that the story is over, however, our foibles and shortcomings are seeping back again.
The news that three of the wild boars, including Coach Ake and the star kid, Adul, are stateless highlighted the plight of so many stateless people in this country, unable to gain citizenship owing to archaic and cruel laws and the denizens in office who bask in their impossible intricacy. For any stateless person, poor and under-educated, the required proof and documents to become a Thai citizen fall far beyond their reach.
Ake and Adul charmed us all at last Wednesday’s press conference. What a perfect opportunity it would have been to have announced the instant approval of Thai citizenship. Let’s face it; Thailand’s image in the world received a healthy boost from this incident. Their being granted citizenship would have been an extra feather in the country’s cap.
It took one civil servant, high up, and one politician, also high up, to douse all that. There would be no special dispensation for the three Wild Boar boys.
This announcement came from Arthit Boonyasophat, who ushered in the end of the touchy-feely time, and brought us back crashing down to earth.
Arthit is director-general of the Department of Provincial Administration. His announcement was akin to a violent electrical storm breaking over your open-air beach wedding at a five-star Phuket resort, where you skimped on the umbrellas to save on the budget.
There would be no privileges. Arthit would act strictly according to the Nationality Act. Someone needs to find this man and quietly whisper “Section 44” into his ear. He went on to explain that it wasn’t his responsibility anyway — that belonged to the Interior Minister — but he had to “supervise the issue”.
Can’t you feel it, dear reader? The shackles of red tape slowly closing around those three boys? If rising cave waters couldn’t squeeze the life out of them, just watch government red tape finish off the job.
We then had deputy prime minister Prawit Wongsuwan reiterate that their cases would adhere strictly according to the law. Again, where is Section 44 when you need it?
There is a precedent for these three boys, unfortunately. Remember Nong Mong, the paper plane hero of Thailand? He featured in this column last September. Here was a boy who charmed the country with his paper plane prowess.
Mong was big news in September, 2009, when as a 12-year-old Northern boy he won the national paper airplane flying competition. He was born in Chiang Mai, but his parents were itinerant Burmese.
The irony was Mong, having won the national competition, was expected to go on to represent Thailand in the international championships in Japan. Being stateless, he couldn’t get a passport. Mong’s application to travel outside the country had to be processed by those hoary old grinding cogs of Thai bureaucracy for which Arthit and Prawit are responsible for giving grease and oil changes. The Interior Ministry said no.
Mong burst into tears on live television. In a rare show of sensibility the government stepped in and did the right thing. They didn’t do what Arthit espoused this week – they didn’t follow the strict letter of the law, because this is Thailand and thankfully, every law can be adjusted for the situation. It issued papers for Mong to travel.
Mong jetted off to Japan where he won bronze in the world championships. Upon his return he was greeted by every politician and civil servant of the day. Mong returned to Chiang Mai to continue his education.
It is now 2018, and Mong is 21 years old — and still stateless. If he couldn’t get an ID card, what chance do the Wild Boars have?
So we have moved from man’s humanity towards his fellow man to back to our regular state; that of man’s indifference to fellow man, especially those whose parents were born outside the country.
I’m not just talking about Thai bureaucracy either – what possessed Elon Musk to destroy his international reputation with that “pedo” comment? His allegation of pedophilia against a key member of the rescue was not just a slur on a local hero. It was a slur on Thailand.
Musk’s inference — that any western man living in Thailand was only there for to play with little boys — is a slur on Thailand more than western men. This is a situation that Thailand famously bristles at every time this dubious reputation arises.
And yet the government was quite happy to let that one pass by without a whisper. Musk’s little spat was wrong on all sorts of levels, and may we be reminded of it in the not too distant future, when electric cars replace gasoline ones, for my money will be going straight to Tesla’s immediate competitor.
So the feel-good era of those few weeks is over. May we reminisce about the time fondly, when for a moment we were decent human beings working and praying as one.
It’s over now. We are back to reality, which means school for the kids, bureaucracy for all, statehood for none, and immoral juvenile stabs by the likes of Elon Musk. I’m willing to tolerate it all — just leave those kids alone and let them get on with growing up.
NOTE: In September, 2018, Mong finally received his Thai citizenship papers.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
THE BUBBLE THAT BURST (July, 2017)
By Andrew Biggs
What a jolt to my senses — and mortality — to learn that 20 years have passed since the tom yam kung economic crisis of Thailand. Man that went quickly.
I was right here when it happened. I was witness to the bloated, ostentatious years leading up to it, the crisis itself, and the slow crawl out of the economic recession that followed.
And I can read about it too, day by day, as it unfolded.
I can’t remember who gave it to me, but it was 27 years ago that I received a diary as a New Year’s present. I’m sure that, after committing the cultural faux pas of ripping open the gift wrapping, I cooed and brayed and thanked the giver, all the while thinking how and when I could toss it in the trash.
Nevertheless I began writing in that diary on January 1st, 1990, figuring I’d lose interest in it by mid-January. I didn’t. I kept writing … every day until I got to December 31, 1990, when I bought another one. And another.
Yesterday I found a sturdy stool and climbed upon it to open my very top cupboard doors. I reached inside and found my diary of 1997 and opened it up. Two hours later, I emerged from my time machine bubble with some new insights into the ravages of time.
For example: I had no idea I could put away so much alcohol, sleep so little hours, then get up and go to work. Exactly when did I lose that ability? When did “leaving to go out on the town at 9 pm” get replaced by “happy to be in bed with a good book at 9 pm”?
Got home. Got changed. Went out and met the gang for two bottles of Johnnie Walker at Saxophone Pub. Didn’t pay. Everybody’s talking about Thailand going down the drain. Sounds like a load of rubbish to me.
-- Diary entry of June 1st, 1997.
I was never great at predicting impending doom.
Twenty years ago I was a journalist at the Bangkok Post’s main competitor, editing two of their youth magazines as well as hosting two TV programs and a radio show. And all the time, the Thai government was propping up the Thai baht against evil foreign forces.
You can read about what caused the crash elsewhere; by July foreign currency reserves were severely depleted as the government tried to ward off speculative attacks by hedge funds.
George Soros was the villain at that time; boy did the country hate him back then for doing what every investor and stock exchange player yearns to do; swoop in, make a killing, swoop out, regardless of the debris left behind..
There’s this guy called Soros who’s copping a lot of the blame for what’s going on. Wrote a backgrounder on him for the paper this afternoon. Got drunk on Ratchadapisek; home at 1 am. Wrote some scripts.
-- November 6, 1997 (Wrote some scripts? While drunk? Shame on me!)
Soros would try to make an appearance in Thailand a few years later for a seminar, but the scars of 1997 ran deep and was forced to cancel.
What dominates my diary at that time is the plummeting baht. It had always sat around 25 to 27 Baht to the American dollar. Then, on July 2, 1997, the government announced that the baht would be floated. It didn’t float. It sank.
This morning they floated the dollar. It’s the end of the good times for Thailand. 60 Minutes is in town wanting info from me on the crisis. Went to see Note Udom tonight; saw him after the show.
-- July 2, 1997.
It’s good to see I was more interested in seeing the comedian Note than worrying about my economic future. Or this one:
Princess Di died a few hours ago. How terribly, terribly tragic. Such a vibrant person, full of life, so human compared to the rest of that family. Everything’s topsy turvy in the world; all these formerly rich people are selling stuff out of their car boots in the Makro carpark on Srinakharin.
-- August 8, 1997.
A princess dying and gold necklaces being sold in supermarket carparks; truly a sign of the apocalypse.
Meanwhile the roads emptied out. By October the Bangkok traffic was the best I’d ever seen it, because of the massive number of vehicles being repossessed on a daily basis.
In meetings all day to determine how much money we must lose. We could be out of business within six months. The baht has fallen to 38 Baht and the crooks in power refuse to relinquish their seats. I’m so depressed about work. Got drunk on Sukhumvit tonight. Ended up at Thermae at 3 am.
-- September 4, 1997.
Thermae. I haven’t thought of that place in years. It was a downstairs bar on Sukhumvit between sois 13 and 15 that was allowed to open way past legal opening hours. I was a regular there for a while, though I can’t really remember much about it.
In October I had a 15 per cent pay cut. At least I still had a job. I was forced to lay off all staff on probation in my department. Then I had to lay off regular staff. There were tears as we had to close one of the publications. Then one of my TV shows got the axe. The radio show, too.
I made a keen observation in November:
When I first came here everybody was using the word “NIC” or Newly Industrialized Country. Then it was “globalization.” Now the new word is “IMF”. It’s bailing Thailand out, and Thais are feeling sore about it.
-- November 7, 1999
The IMF (the International Monetary Fund) may have come to Thailand’s rescue but it forced the country to make fundamental changes to fiscal and economic policy. And of course, there was that debt that needed to be paid back.
A few years later IMF would become a very dirty word; a foreign entity that Thailand had to pay huge amounts of money to. Nobody thought to blame the financiers who got us into this mess in the first place. It’s easier to blame the foreigners.
The human toll was the worst. I got to know Siriwat Woravetwuthikun, the real estate mogul who lost a fortune and ended up standing on the streets selling sandwiches. He became a cultural icon of the crisis. “I used to be rich,” he would say. “I used to be broke, too.”
A father of one of my students went temporarily crazy, holing himself up on a high-rise window ledge with a gun threatening to kill himself because of his debts. The friendly man who owned the gas station near my house did top himself. The luxury condos near our office, a grand 30-storey building, halted construction and remains that way to this day.
Things got scary when the Baht plunged to 56 Baht to the US dollar.
This afternoon for the first time in my life I went to the ATM, withdrew as much as I could (50,000 Baht), then wrapped up the money in tin foil and hid it under my bed. Just in case I need to leave the country quickly.
-- December 12, 1997.
How dramatic of me. And how utterly foolish. Imagine me jostling for a position on the slow boat out of Bangkok, amid thousands of fleeing foreigners, clutching wads of worthless Thai Baht wrapped in tin foil.Oh but hey it was a weird and wacky time, dear reader.
And anyway we all survived. I’m still here. Thailand is still here. Even Thermae still exists. Now if I could just find a way to slow the next 20 years down …
THE BOY WITH HALF AN ALPHABET IN HIS SUITCASE
By Andrew Biggs
Little Potae came to stay with me over the school holidays. His parents went to the South to work on a construction site. Could he stay at my place while they were down there?
That, dear reader, is how I ended up with an 8-year-old in my house for a fortnight.
In the West we have a saying that fish and house guests go off after three days, but this truism does not work in Thailand since rotten fish, i.e. >>pla ra<<, is an essential ingredient to any Northeastern dish. Thus there is no compunction for a house guest to feel the need to move on after 72 hours, or, in Potae’s case, 336 hours.
Ah but I risk sounding like a curmudgeon. It was delightful having Potae ensconced on my sofa, killing aliens and the walking dead all day long in between Ben Ten episodes on TV.
He comes from Nakhon Phanom, 600 km from Bangkok in the remote Northeast. Having just turned 8, he has already been in the Thai education system for four years if you count the three years of kindergarten before Grade One.
I’ve seen his school. It is a collection of wooden buildings which, if not requiring a good paint job, may instead benefit from a good bulldozing. Education budgets rarely make it out that far. They tend to sputter and burn out in provinces a little closer to the capital, leaving Potae and his schoolmates with the dregs.
“In this house, we speak English all the time,” I told Potae on Night One,as we sat eating dinner. My brazen lie caused one or two family members to choke on their steamed rice. Nevertheless I continued: “Can you speak English, Potae?”
Potae chose not to reply. He continued spooning Thai omelette into his mouth.
So I asked him again.
Still not a word. Not even a shake of the head.
It stayed that way for three days. No response. Potae chose instead to engross himself in his smart phone (where the aliens and walking dead met their untimely deaths) and Ben Ten.
It was on Day Four that I managed to get some words out of the kid.
“Do they teach you English in your school?”
Potae didn’t look up from his smart phone. Clearly in rural Nakhon Phanom one is allowed to continue zapping aliens without having to answer questions from elders. But I wasn’t an alien. I wasn’t going to be zapped.
The second time I asked, he nodded his head quickly. A thaw in the relationship!
On Day Five I took him to KFC. By this stage I was beginning to realize that eight-year-olds never stopped eating. When breakfast was over it was time to bring out the Lays. After that it was Pocky chocolate sticks, sliced mango, then some sugary fake chocolate crispy things in the shape of smiling faces which I suspect will render Potae a diabetic in a decade or two. And all this prior to 9 am.
At KFC I asked Potae about his English again.
“Can you count to ten?”
He finished chewing on his chicken nugget, swallowed it, then shook his head. I wanted to explain that it was okay to multi-task; he could eat and shake his head at the same time, but our relationship hadn’t advanced to that level.
“You can’t count to ten?” I asked again, but alas, Potae had already picked up another nugget.
“What about the alphabet?” I asked in the meantime.
Potae nodded with an ever-so-slight smile!
“Well thank god for that,” I said. Clearly those chicken nuggets were doing the trick, so I asked: “Can you recite it for me?”
He held up another nugget. Without any eye contact, staring out towards the KFC menu above the counter (was he going to order more?), he said: “A-B-C-D-E-F-G.” Chomp.
It was good to hear Potae’s voice after four days of silence. But nothing after G was forthcoming.
“There’s a little bit more to it than that,” I said. “What comes after G?”
Potae stared up at the ceiling. Anywhere but directly at me. He reached for the french fries. I took that as an “I don’t know”.
(Potae’s nickname is actually the first two syllables of the English word “potato”, not that Potae would know that, since the word consists almost entirely of letters beyond G.)
By this stage I was starting to feel frustrated. I am aware of shyness in children, but we were into Day Five and really, there should have been a crack in the glacier by now.
Or could it be that Potae was just a product of his environment? If it was true that he’d only learned up to the letter G, what hope was there he’d have been taught anything else, such as good manners?
I took it upon myself to change all that. I decided I would send Potae home not only with a few extra kilograms around his waist, but also with some knowledge. I would take it upon myself to teach him a little English. What an altruistic person I am!
One of the things I quickly discovered about being altruism is that it requires time and effort, both of which I had very little.
And yet in the remaining week I managed to teach him the rest of the alphabet. It cost me a few boxes of Pockys but I did it. I overheard him reciting it in his bedroom on the last night. He got all the way to Z, skipping over R and S but that was okay.
I also taught him “stand up”, “sit down” “turn around” and “jump”. I taught him “good morning”, “good night” and “thank you”, not that he once volunteered any of that information unless I dangled a cylinder of Lays or packet of diabetes in front of him.
Potae left my home last Sunday.
A relative came to pick him up. When the pick-up truck pulled up outside Potae ran out with his little suitcase and scrambled into the car. He didn’t stop to say goodbye.
I hear from his family in Nakhon Phanom that he had a wonderful time in my home. How he managed to transmit this information to his next of kin is beyond me, and I suspect his satisfaction stemmed more from Ben Ten and his constant eating than from any time with me.
I did ask his parents about his education, and they said Potae’s teacher was a mathematics instructor, choosing to teach math over English. That explained his inability to recite the entire alphabet, though one would think a math teacher, when forced to teach English, would at least start by instructing his students on how to count.
Just before writing this column I consulted the Thailand Basic Education Core Curriculum, the standard for all Thai schools. For each school grade there are “Grade Level Indicators” which explain the basic information a child must know upon completion of that year.
For grade one, those indicators include the ability to “act in compliance with simple orders heard”, “specify the alphabet and sounds”, and “choose the pictures corresponding to the meaning of words and groups of words heard”. Note that I fulfilled two of those three indicators in Potae’s short stay with us.
And what of the other 40 kids in his class who didn’t get to go to Bangkok for two weeks over the school holidays? They are still stuck at the letter G. And Potae, as cute as he is, is a silent example of an education system that is beyond broken.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
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?
THE BEST LAID PLANS OF CRABS AND MEN
By Andrew Biggs
Recently I found myself in Surat Thani at the early morning wet market.
“Let’s buy some crabs,” my School Director had said the night before. “We can release them into the river to make merit.”
My School Director is regular in her efforts to tam boon, or “make merit” as the vague English translation happens to be. Making merit is a bit like selfless service; doing something good without expecting a return. That is perhaps not entirely true; by performing the selfless act, there is an understanding that the good karma will find its way back to the purveyor; if not immediately, then sometime in this life or, if you’re unlucky, the next.
My School Director regularly releases fish to make merit, so it was no surprise upon arriving in Surat Thani that she suggested releasing the crabs. “It will be very good karma for us, not to mention good business,” she added with a nod and a smile. Thais are as ethereal as they are pragmatic; I wish I could balance the two so well.
Very early the next morning we found ourselves in the middle of the bustling morning market in the narrow sois off Talat Mai Road, near where the slow boats set sail for the islands of Samui and Phang-gnan. We soon found a crab seller. We bought six live crabs and put them in a bucket.
There is a popular Thai idiom that says “like putting crabs in a crab pot”. It’s used for situations concerning young children, especially any effort to get them to sit still. I had no idea how difficult it was to keep a crab in a crab pot, or in my case a bucket, even in the 50 metres from the crab shop to the jetty.
New knowledge for me; crabs don’t like to sit peacefully in a bucket. They scramble and jostle for freedom. One actually made it, spilling out onto the road. This caused a commotion as shoppers, vendors, a security guard and even a passing female school teacher attempted to scoop up the errant scurrying crab without getting fingers sliced off by furious pincers. With some deft handwork from the school teacher of all people, we got it back into the bucket and we hurried across the road to the jetty.
“Normally we would bring our hands together and pray now,” my School Director said. “But that may not be a good idea with these crabs in the bucket. Let’s do it afterwards.”
And with that we both tipped the bucket into the brownish waters of Surat Thani River. Six black crabs disappearing into the brownness: plop, plop, plop, plop, plop and plop.
I didn’t have a good feeling about the incident.
For a start, the water in the river around that market was hardly pristine. Not one of those crabs upon hitting the water made any effort to snap their pincers with glee or start joyously frolicking around. They fell like stones into the murkiness, gone forever.
Nor did we think to enquire as to whether they were fresh-water crabs or, in the case of the Surat Thani River, brackish-water crabs, if indeed such crabs exist. Had I just spared the life of six crabs … or had I sent them all to a grave much quicker than any Surat Thai crockpot could have?
Sometimes we humans, along with mice, have best laid plans and intentions, but all we do is end up causing more suffering. Just ask that tortoise in Chonburi.
Thailand hits the front page of CNN and BBC regularly, but who would have thought we would do it with that poor tortoise that swallowed nearly a thousand baht in coins and ended up dying last Tuesday.
The number of coins found in the belly was closer to 900. With every single one of those tossed coins was a fervent wish, an ardent hope, or some form of celestial bargaining. I imagine there were wishes for love, wealth and health. Some probably asked for their houses to sell quickly, or for a sharp upturn in sales at their noodle store. Others may have just been making merit. Nine hundred different wishes with the toss of 900 coins – one by one straight into the mouth of that poor turtle.
Turtles are considered auspicious animals in this part of the world. They represent luck, strength longevity. Hence they can be found swimming around temple pools.
This week we received a rude awakening about that. The hopes and dreams of 900 people culminated in the painful life, and slow death, of that tortoise, who had been named omm sinn, or “piggy bank”. It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.
If those 900 people knew they were contributing to the painful death of a tortoise, would they cease and desist? I’m sure they would. Experience is education; now that we know about that tortoise many Thais will think twice before tossing a coin into a tortoise-filled pool. After all, we have had precedents in the shape of birds and elephants.
There was a time back in the noughties when there was a concerted effort by many Buddhists not to patronize old ladies standing outside temples with birds in little wooden cages. “Release a bird and make merit!” they would shout, shoving their rickety cages into your face at temple entrances. “Good luck for you!”
Good luck for me, but hell for the bird. It does sound like a nice thing to do, especially to the ears of foreign tourists. How Buddhist and karmically aesthetic; until one learns that the birds have had their wings clipped, and their glorious ascent into the heavens lasts about as long as a crab lives after being released into brown sludge – back into the wooden box they go.
We learned to stop patronizing elephants, too, who once came to Bangkok in large numbers. It is considered lucky to run under the belly of an elephant, until we learned how tortuous and stressful it was for a pachyderm to plod down Sukhumvit Road with all the automobile commotion and pollution.
Then there are the “rescued” buffalo.
On a trip to Hua Hin I visited Wat Takiab on the southern cliffs, where a buffalo was tied to a fence. Above him was a big sign: MAKE MERIT! SPARE THIS BUFFALO’S LIFE!
This ruse involves a buffalo or cow whose destiny is the slaughterhouse. By making a donation to the temple, collectively around 10,000 baht, its life is spared and it gets to roam free.
That’s just weird. If you care enough for the life of animals, then for god’s sake put down that Big Mac or grilled pork on a stick this instant. Surely by becoming a vegetarian you would spare more than the life of a single buffalo. And just exactly where are all these spared buffalo roaming? Certainly not at Wat Takiab; all I can see are monkeys. One suspects the buffalo is led off to another temple for another chance of being spared, with another 10,000 baht to be split between the owner and the monks.
But back to Surat Thani.
That evening, of the day we released the crabs, we ended up dining at a popular restaurant by the side of the Surat Thani River with great views of the city. Six of us enjoyed a seafood feast — including one dish of curried crabs still in their shells.
My School Director knew exactly what I was thinking.
“It’s okay,” she whispered. “They’re not the same ones. These crabs are much bigger. And anyway … they’re delicious.”