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The synchronized clink of two sets of cutlery was only superseded in volume by the rush of air as the office maid swooped over.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
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?
OPIATE OF THE MASSES
By Andrew Biggs
This week your correspondent is unable to make any casual observations on Thai life owing to the fact he is 8,823 km away.
Greetings from the Eternal City! As I write this I am sitting at a “ristorante” in Rome, Italy. That’s Italian for “restaurant,” by the way, a fact I gleaned from a slightly snotty waiter when I enquired as to the word’s English equivalent.
I am staying not far from Campo de’ Fiori, the site where Julius Caesar was murdered during the ides of March.
This is my first visit to Italy since 2001 when I drove all the way down the Amalfi Coast to Sicily in a rented Fiat 500. Mount Etna happened to be erupting and I took some molten rock back home, only to be dealt karmic retribution by getting completely lost on the train back to Rome.
(Catching the train from Sicily to Rome, one must cross the Strait of Messina. Trains do not travel over water; it uncouples itself and the carriages line up on a barge that floats over to the mainland. Your correspondent, his sense of direction a little distorted owing to a potent bottle of limoncello, could not locate his cabin during this uncoupling and made a slight idiot of himself as he ran through railway corridors trying to find his seat. Next time I’ll take the plane.)
I write this having just spent four hours in the Vatican. It’s the jewel in the Italian crown when it comes to tourism though writing that is technically incorrect. I have always harbored a grudge against a certain Bangkok deejay who, back in the mid 1990s, asked a question on air that would earn the first correct caller a bottle of Chivas Regal. His question was: “In which country can you find the Vatican?”
Incredibly I was the first one through and answered triumphantly: “Vatican City.”
“Wrong answer,” the deejay replied before hanging up on me unceremoniously, for all of the Bangkok listening public to hear.
The second caller answered “Italy” to which the British deejay ejaculated “That’s correct!” and congratulated the dunce on his knowledge, asking how he felt about winning a bottle of Chivas Regal. His feelings about that are lost forever in my memory, unlike my own feelings of anger and resentment that fester to this day.
We all know I was correct. The Vatican is not in Italy. It’s in Vatican City, the world’s smallest country with a population of 600 citizens of which 75 per cent are clergy. That night I bought a bottle of Chivas Regal just to spite that deejay, who has been rightfully related to obscurity in the Bangkok radio industry — much like the industry itself.
Today I returned to the center of the Catholic Church for a three-hour walking tour. The history and artwork are spectacular. I don’t feel any closer to God after the experience, though it did give me a whole new understanding of how it feels to be an ox, crushed up against other oxen, being jostled and jousted forward relentlessly towards the slaughterhouse, all the while being told to shut up by men in uniforms. It’s hardly conducive to conversion.
This is not an exaggeration. The Vatican gets upwards of 20,000 tourists on a busy day and around six million visitors per year. I believe I saw a good wad of them this morning.
Surprisingly that figure is less than the annual number of visitors to the Grand Palace here in Bangkok, which sits at around 8 million, yet is half the size of the Vatican.
At least at the Grand Palace you can wander around where you like. Not so the Vatican, where you are herded from one chamber to the next, catching quick glimpses of the world’s most exquisite art, but unable to truly appreciate them owing to the production-line nature of the journey.
This morning the queue to get into the place had to have stretched over a kilometer. That’s longer than the line at a new Krispy Kreme outlet in Thailand. It costs 16 Euros to get in, or around 600 Baht, a little more than you pay for the Grand Palace, which is free for Thais.
The Vatican Museum is not free for anybody, and one can understand why the Pope doesn’t want Catholics getting in for nix. Ticket sales generate 80 million Euros >>per day<< and another 20 million in merchandise. Half of that is profit. No matter how close your proximity to God, one does not bite the hand that feeds.
Once inside a visitor must pass security, the ticket counter and a swirling mass of tour group humanity. After that is a staggeringly huge collection of paintings, frescoes, tapestries and sculptures, though it feels like you’re viewing them from Siam BTS platform during peak hour as the train doors open.
While I stood in front of Raphael’s School of Athens fresco, for example, one of the most beautiful paintings I have ever seen, the man next to me fainted. His condition was not so much due to the breathless magnificence of the work. He was breathless owing to a stuffy chamber infested with carbon monoxide from 20,000 creatures being herded through.
The Sistine Chapel is the same. Again, I can understand how it can be life-changing to view Michelangelo’s masterpiece. I am open to anything life-changing but it is hard to feel ethereal and sublime when museum police are hissing “Shhhhhhhhhhhhh!” every minute or two. How ironic that they jettison tens of thousands of people through a church at 16 Euros per head yet expect it to be silent.
Viewing the artwork housed within the Vatican Museum is an exercise in witnessing the talents of the best of humanity. Sanzio’s Expulsion of Helidorus From the Temple, for me, was magnificent. So too was the work of Botticelli and the marble sculptures.
There is a recurring theme in much of the artwork, and it is not the exultation of God. It is more about conquering and controlling. Centuries of artwork reveal the Catholic Church’s need for consolidation of power to the extent that opulence sometimes morphs into obscenity. We are also reminded of the not so regal nature of the place. At one stage we are herded from one chamber of exquisite art into the former residence of the Borgias, where Lucrezia used to wander in between dispensing with her husbands.
Remember that figure of 20 million Euros per day in merchandising? I was relieved to find that at the end of the tour, outside St Peter’s Basilica, there is a gift shop! It is almost as if the Vatican wants to bring you down to earth after all that artistic splendour by sending you into a shop selling you the absolute antithesis of masterpieces. It is here one can buy bottled “holy water” for 2.50 Euros, Pope calendars, plastic rosary beads and little metallic crosses all for a couple of Euros. I swear if I’d have seen a Papal snow dome I wouldn’t have been surprised, not to mention instantly snapping it up.
These days the whole world is travelling. The Vatican, like the Grand Palace and Thailand itself, is a victim of its own success. Thailand will have some 30 million visitors this year. The Vatican shuffles through up to 20,000 visitors per day. When do we say “enough”?
I don’t have the answer to that question on this glorious sunny day in Rome, as I prepare to enjoy my rigatoni and Peroni, not necessarily in that order, far from the Vatican crowd. It’s not important, or, as we say in Italian, >>non ti preoccupare<<. See you in Bangkok next Sunday!
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
By Andrew Biggs
How comforting to see, in the pages of the Bangkok Post, young people using condoms with none of the hang-ups or bashfulness associated with that contraception.
By using them, I don’t mean “using” them. The kids were blowing up condoms like balloons and wearing gaily-colored hats made of condoms in a news story that certainly piqued my interest.
It also sent me hurtling back in time to my early days in Thailand, when there was a scourge across the land and a dynamic politician who tried his best to stop it.
I’m talking about Mechai Viravaidya, the man who brought condoms out from under the table in Thailand. That other table eyesore, the toilet roll, cannot be attributed to him, nor can it be lauded for its role in eradicating any scourges, unless you consider decorum to be a scourge. The toilet roll on the table is a cultural abhorrence that would have Miss Manners turning in her grave if, indeed, she is dead.
Hooray for Mechai! I’ve always been a fan. So good to see him back in the news this week, accepting an award on World Population Day.
He was so ubiquitous when I first arrived in 1989. He was a senator back then, and Thailand was in the deadly throes of AIDS. It had already cut a swathe through the country, particularly the young women of the North and Northeast.
It is almost unthinkable now, but back in those days, any conversation about HIV or AIDS with groups of Thais, particularly men, would almost certainly end up with someone saying: “And you know it’s a disease brought into Thailand by foreigners.”
That comment threw me and there were times, in late-night drinking sessions, where I felt a threatened by it. Was I being blamed for single-handedly bringing it into the country?
Coincidentally … years later I would have a starring role in a Thai movie, a black comedy called Sars Wars and no, there’s no need to go check it out on YouTube. I played a foreigner who single-handedly brings a virulent SARS virus into Thailand and infects the masses, turning them into rabid zombies. Don’t snicker like that … it won a Thai Oscar for Best Special Effects.
Anyway the point is, it reminded me of those early days when drunken Thai men sitting at tables with toilet rolls would point at me and tell me, accusingly, that AIDS was a foreign virus. As if that somehow exonerated the unfortunate Thai men and women who were left with the burden of passing it on.
Despite its international reputation, Thailand is a conservative society, and one of the challenges of the 1980s was getting people to talk about condoms — literally putting them on the table.
That’s where Mechai came into the picture. Like me, he had a brief career as an actor, though he was chosen to play the handsome lead in a soap opera as opposed to introducing a mutated SARS virus.
Prior to the AIDS era he was already famous for his family planning clinics. Thailand’s population was booming in the 1980s. He founded the Population and Community Development Association and did some extraordinary PR stunts to curb the population.
The best one was the travelling vasectomy tents. He set up tents, one at Sanam Luang, and invited men to come along for free vasectomies. This was done as a way of showing loyalty towards King Rama 9, since the vasectomies were performed on December 5, King Rama 9’s birthday.
What a stroke of genius. And it worked, as thousands of men popped into the tents for a quick snip to ensure families no longer had seven children, on average, as they were doing ten years prior. He is cited as the most influential factor in getting the average number of children per Thai family down from seven to just one and a half in 2017.
He had transformed from “family planning man” to “AIDS man” when I first met him, as a journalist, interviewing him on more than one occasion, and then seeing him socially at his restaurant on Sukhumvit Road.
The first time I interviewed him he was the Minister for Tourism, Information and AIDS. Yes, there was such a position and one suspects it was created just for him. After being so instrumental (literally) in getting Thai men to stop reproducing, he now ramped up his condom campaign.
At the World Bank Conference in October 1991 held at the newly-constructed Queen Sirikit Convention Center, Mechai handed out “survival kits” to all the delegates, namely, condoms in key rings. Thailand made the international news more for that than anything that was ever discussed at the conference.
He was always a great interview. He is half British thanks to a Scottish mother, though his Thai genes have definitely won out in his appearance. I am very proud to say he was educated at Geelong Grammar and then the University of Melbourne.
In the early 1990s his restaurant on the grounds of the family planning clinic, called Cabbages and Condoms, was a must-stop for tourists. It’s been around so long now we are used to it but back then it was such a preposterous notion to open a restaurant whose chief décor was condoms. Thousands of ‘em.
I took all my foreign guests there. The food was good and where else in the world would you receive a condom instead of an after-dinner mint? It was in that era that the Thai word for “condom” was “mechai”. I admit to being a little envious of that fact.
There has been talk of late of efforts to boost Thailand’s population in order to increase productivity. This plateau of the population can be put down to Mechai’s tents of 30-plus years ago, and now the Thai government wants to give the country a vasectomy reversal.
I am opposed to this for all sorts of reasons, beginning with the fact that our planet is already overrun by greedy, coal-and-oil-gouging human beings who use on average 20 plastic bags per person per day. Wouldn’t Thailand be a better place to live with half its current population?
This is the ASEAN era, is it not? Aren’t we supposed to be opening our borders and allowing migrants to do those dirty jobs Thais no longer want to perform? Apparently not, with the recent news that the government has just succeeded in sending vast numbers of migrant workers home thanks to strict new laws — again blamed, like AIDS, on foreigners.
Mechai made his appearance on World Population Day which fell last Tuesday, July 11. He won a United Nations award for his work in family planning and HIV and AIDS prevention, and it was during his acceptance speech that Mechai stated the sensible obvious.
There were alternatives to boosting the population, he said. What about boosting sex education in schools? What about raising the retirement age from 60 to 70? What about giving more work to disabled people? How about legitimizing migrant workers? It all makes perfect sense, but we are living in an era where perfect sense is a scarce commodity.
As Mechai accepted his award, his students from Mechai Pattana School were doing the Condom Dance and having competitions to see who could blow up the biggest condom. Hence the pictures in the press. Mechai is doing what he does best; causing a stir and all for a good cause. He has succeeded in the fields of family planning and HIV prevention like no other.
Perhaps now, in his golden years, we can get him to do something about those toilet rolls on tables.
GREAT MOMENTS IN THAI ENGLISH
By Andrew Biggs
This week environmentalists cautiously hailed a victory of sorts, as the government agreed to set zero the proposed Krabi coal-fired power plant.
Don’t worry, dear reader. It is not necessary to understand that first paragraph. I was just testing you. Or rather, I was testing myself.
For the last few days I have been trying to create a grammatically-sound English sentence using the phrase “set zero”. Contrary to what you may be thinking, this activity was not dreamed up to while away the time in an otherwise sluggish work week.
“Set zero” is the current vocabulary de jour in Thailand, or more specifically, the Thai language. This is a common occurrence; many English words have pole-vaulted themselves into Thai such as “okay”, “bye bye”, “discredit” and, weirdly, “hors d’oeuvres”. Thais like short sharp English words (like “hors d’oeuvres”?) and feel much more comfortable saying “happy”, for example, instead of mee khwam suk, a phrase that is an interminable three syllables long.
Now and again an English phrase pops up in Thai and spreads like a road rage clip on Facebook. That is what has happened with “set zero” just this last week with the coal power plant controversy.
Actually, it was resurrected. “Set zero” was first used in 2013 when the Yingluck government was mischievously pushing a reconciliation law.
The phrase faded away along with the law and the Yingluck government. But it is back. Last Monday’s announcement of the moratorium in order to assess environmental impact meant the government was going to “set zero” the proposed Krabi power plant.
I have nothing against English words and phrases bleeding into the Thai language, but what about a phrase like “set zero” — that doesn’t exist in the English language? Google the phrase; up comes pages and pages of Thai entries. “Set zero” is technically not an English phrase. It is a Thai one.
Why go to all the trouble of making up a brand new English phrase when we already have “start again”, “reset” and “back to square one”?
When I explained this via the media this week, many Thais were genuinely surprised to hear “set zero” was a figment of any reputable English dictionary’s imagination. I have even added it to my Top 5 list of English Words Invented by Thais, sitting at #5. And the rest?
When Thais want to show support for a friend down on their luck, they pat that friend’s shoulder, crease their brows and say: “Fighting!” Do that to any hard-luck native English speaker and he’ll reply: “Huh?” Do that to any hard-luck Thai and he’s answer: “Thank you.”
“Fighting” is a bastardization of “Keep fighting!” or “Fight on!” or even “Don’t give up” if we want to venture into three-word sentences. This one they didn’t invent; they adopted it from South Korea, land of the soppiest soap operas in human history which get lapped up by Thais. A few years ago I got up on the wrong side of the bed and, in a huff, tweeted that “fighting” was not used by native English speakers and Thais had made the word up themselves. I had a few snippy responses from Thais, saying it was used in South Korea so it had to be right. One wonders about the future of this country if it is gleaning its English knowledge from South Korea. Uppa Gangnam Style to you, too!
#3 Again, please?
We native English speakers speak quickly with accents sometimes impossible to understand. What does a Thai do when he or she cannot understand? The population is evenly divided. Half will nod and smile, pretending to understand, while searching in their peripheral vision for the nearest exit. The other half will say: “Again, please?”
Thais are mortified to learn that this succinct yet quaint phrase doesn’t exist outside the 77 provinces of Thailand. Which is a shame, since “Again please?” is kind of good. It’s certainly easier to say than the clunky “Would you repeat that, please?” and friendlier than the guttural “Huh?”
#2 Hyde Park
Only in Thailand could you take the proper noun of a popular park in London and turn it into an intransitive verb.In the Thai language, the verb “to Hyde Park” means “to say something in public”. For example: “The Prime Minister will Hyde Park about set zeroing the Krabi power plant project.” Again, please?
Here’s the gerund form: “Under martial law, politicians are barred from Hyde Parking until the next elections.” I am assuming the past participle is regular: “I have Hyde Parked since dawn.”
Isn’t that wonderful? But wait. There is an even better one.
I wrote about this once before. Please allow me to summarize it again, as it is priceless.
The Thai phrase ded-sa-molay means “dead”. For example: “The Krabi power plant is ded-sa-molay.” “If you Hyde Park one more time, there will be no set zeroing for you; you’ll be ded-sa-molay.”
“Ded-sa-molay” is not Thai. The phrase comes from English. Say it out loud. Does it sound familiar?
In 1954 Dean Martin scored a #1 hit with a song called “That’s Amore.” It was a big hit in Thailand, too. “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore …”
Thais misheard the word “dead” in the first syllable of “That’s amore” and started to use the song title in place of the word “dead”. To this day, Thai slang for “dead” is actually the title of a hideous old love song whose title means “That’s love.” Now you understand why I love living in Thailand!
As we leave this list, it must be pointed out in fairness that English has been influenced by Thailand.
The idiomatic “white elephant”, for example, comes from the ancient kingdom of Siam. Any albino elephant born became the property of the King immediately. It was considered auspicious to present a baby albino elephant to royalty, while at the same time quietly accepted that this giant animal had no use for the owner on his farm, since it had to be given away. Thus emerged the idiom “white elephant”; something big and bulky that serves no function.
More recently “ladyboy” has entered English dictionaries after hovering like a drone around the official lexicon for years. It’s in Oxford now, though Merriam Webster is still putting up a fight. And finally, for my Australian readers, the legendary horse Phar Lap comes from the Thai word for “lightning”.
Creating new phrases from English words shows enterprise on the part of Thais. And anyway, there are more English-as-a-second-language speakers than there are native speakers in the world today. The lines between what is right and wrong are blurred.
Another thing: it is imagination and innovation that is required in these modern times, as Thailand launches yet another cute little English phrase, “Thailand 4.0”, in an effort to push the country into the digital age. How a coal-fired power plant fits into any plans for a modernized society remains as mysterious as the origins of “set zero” but hey, who am I to rain on Thailand’s parade? Fighting, guys, fighting!
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.
AMWAY, INSURANCE AND CHICKEN
By Andrew Biggs
I was having a solitary lunch last Tuesday with my friend Evil Neil when a phone call came out of the blue.
A phone call on my cellphone, that is. Regular readers know Neil, a helpless victim of corporate cellular phone advertising who changes his phone as often as we eat somtam, and who, with every new device, plasters superglue between it and his ear so that it’s permanently stuck to his head – hence my “solitary” lunch with him last Tuesday.
Anyway it was a surprise to see my phone spring to life, and an even bigger surprise to hear the voice on the other end.
“Andrew! Are you remember my sound? It’s me! Kritchai!”
Kritchai! Oh my goodness.
For the first time that Tuesday my mood changed for the better. One of my very first friends in Thailand, inseparable for the first year. We were both 26 at the time and he had just left the monkhood after 15 years. Imagine spending your adolescent years celibate and, worse, perpetually in saffron when black was all the rage.
Kritchai had disappeared off the face of the earth for 10 years; he was married now with two children.
“I want to see you!” he said in his ever-cheerful voice. Then he dropped the clanger.
“… and I want to sell insurance to you!” he chortled.
At that moment whatever house of cards situated in my general vicinity shuddered, caved in and collapsed. Oh Kritchai, Kritchai. That one little sentence that tumbled from your smiling mouth said it all. I was no longer Kritchai’s old friend. I was his potential customer.
I have had a litany of friends-turned-salesmen, and being a man of few friends, it’s disturbing when I have to cast one off simply because of some corporate sales training that has told him or her it’s okay to fleece your friends in the name of profits. Do you detect a slight bitter and twisted tone in my voice? Pardon me if it’s slight. It should be resounding.
Kritchai is friend #7 who resurfaces after being submerged for ages in order to (1) tell me how much he’s missed me, (2) ask me what I have been doing lately, (3) ask about one particular mutual friend, then (4) explain if I don’t purchase this 20-year life insurance plan off them I am solely responsible for his bankruptcy and the failure of his children to secure an education.
It’s the reason I have four or five thoroughly useless life insurance policies I continue to pay annually before I got wise to it. It’s not about warm friendship. It’s all about commission, because the moment I have paid up, (5) long-lost friend returns to long-lost land as quickly as he appeared.
Ten years ago I had two dear friends called Pornphen and Pornphen. I lost one of them tragically. To disease, perhaps? To an horrific car accident on the Bangkok streets? Worse … to Amway.
“I’ve signed up to Amway,” one of the Pornphens announced one lunch date as the three of us sat down to a plate of khor moo yang. She plonked down a brochure. “From now on you don’t have to waste time going to the supermarket. You can order everything from me.”
“But … I like going to the supermarket,” I tried to explain. How else could I end up with secret stashes of Snickers and Lay’s Sour Cream and Onion chips in the drawer beside my bed?
Pornphen rolled her eyes and dived into an explanation of the products I had the privilege of purchasing off her and her only. In no time lunches with the Pornphens changed from ascerbic gossip sessions to demonstrations of the wonders of Amway’s toothpaste or its incredible dishwashing liquid.
“This is a gift for you,” she said sweetly one time, pushing a tube of toothpaste across the table. Whatever happened to a box of chocolates as a gift, Pornphen? I thanked her and tried to steer the conversation away from corporate sales to something fun, but oh no. We were entrenched in the wonders of Amway products.
A week later Pornphen was calling me. “Is the toothpaste finished? Would you like to order some now? How many tubes? And what about some detergent?”
There was an added problem.
My work colleague Wipa had also signed up to Amway, as did my other work colleague Porntip, and my friend Lek’s wife Gift as well. Soon I was being bombarded with phone calls and visits from Thai women with irresistible smiles clutching Amway brochures … and by god heaven forbid if I chose one product from Wipa and the news got out to Porntip or Gift! I’d have a gaggle of Amway sellers pouting, shouting then flouting order forms demanding I order something from them “because it’s not fair you ordered from her and not me”!
The straw that broke the camel’s back came when close friend Jira called. To supplement his teaching income, he was now selling chicken from a co-op that, like Amway, was demanding he attend monthly pep-up sessions in inner city Bangkok hotels where they held hands, sang hymns and gave thanks to those lordly agents who had surpassed some insurmountable sales target. And all in the name of the slaughter of chickens.
Soon our conversations stopped being full of dirty jokes and news analysis in favor of … chicken?
“Did you know you can get 70 percent of your daily protein from just a small portion of chicken?” he asked me once. I reeled in shock at Jira’s instant foray into the Red Zone of the Boring Meter, as he paraphrased Pornphen: “So how much would you like to order?”
Not long after I instigated a new way of greeting any call from the likes of Jira or Pornphen: “Are you calling me in my capacity as your friend or as your customer? Coz I’m hanging up if it’s the latter.”
Jira’s love affair with all things chicken lasted not a year. Pornphen’s went on much longer, but the level of frenetic hard sell by friends who succumbed to such schemes has died down of late. Or perhaps I just don’t have as many friends as I used to. As for Kritchai, I knew there would be no catch-up dinner with my dear old friend as I anticipated. Holding four or five insurance policies is cute – holding six is bordering on ludicrous.
“Who was that?” Evil Neil asked me as I hung up from Kritchai, in the few brief seconds he had between phone calls during my solitary lunch.
“Oh nobody,” I said. “Just some insurance salesman.”
A SWINE OF A FLU
By Andrew Biggs
It’s been a busy two weeks for your favorite correspondent, who has managed to travel to eight different provinces in ten days.
No, not adjacent provinces either. It was down to Songkhla, then up to Chiang Mai, then across to Nakhon Ratchasima, followed by Nakhon Nayok, Chonburi, Khon Kaen … et cetera.
The result? Today, deadline day for this column, I am sick with the flu. Feeling wretched, sorry for myself, and lacking in wit and wisdom.
It had to happen. One can’t sit in an airplane with 200 strangers and not expect to pick up something other than worthless frequent flier miles.
It is also very bad timing; there have been news reports of a resurgence in swine flu with Livestock officials on guard against the African strain making its to Thailand again. Remind me to pray that doesn’t happen … again.
In 2009 Thailand was hit with swine flu. What a horrible time that was to catch the simple flu. The country locked down as it tried to prevent the flu sweeping across the country. Anyone who caught the dreaded flu was not met with any sympathy or suggestions to drink lots of water and get plenty of rest. You were not considered a patient; you were treated as a leper.
I know; I caught the flu right in the middle of the swine flu outbreak of 2009.
Everybody was paranoid about catching it, because some 44 people succumbed to the disease that year and official figures show just under 5,000 people caught it. That was a mortality rate of just 0.88% but at the time we were all dead scared.
In that climate of fear I came down with the flu.
It was clearly just a regular flu, or at least that’s what my doctor told me, but he was just one opinion. The general population rushed to their sheds at the back of their houses to retrieve their ten-foot barge poles whenever they saw me coming in my regulation mask and pallid complexion.
I remember jumping into the back seat of a taxi and coughing. No, not a thunderous, phlegmy, guttural cough from the depths of my lungs. It was more of an acceptable, almost foppish “a-hem” but the driver – who I might add had just extinguished a cigarette as I got into his nicotine-stained carriage – immediately wound down his window and stuck his nose out into the Bangkok pollution, as if that was somehow going to save him from the dreaded farang in the back seat. Lung cancer, mai pen rai. Farang flu, not on your life.
Anyway I survived, and the odds are clearly in the favor of that taxi driver too. My trip to hospital during those scary times was not the usual happy experience.
Happy? Oh yes. Visiting a hospital in Thailand always reminds me of my youth. Every August in Brisbane, Australia, we had what we called the Exhibition, a gathering of Queensland’s best of all things agricultural, if not cerebral, for one glorious week. It was the one week of the year the state’s farmers donned their best Akubra hats and stood in circles comparing the sizes of their horse studs. Going to the exhibition was an assault on your senses – the smell of beer, sawdust, horse manure, sheep, horse manure, fried foods and horse manure. But this is not why it reminds me of Thai hospitals.
As a kid you had to go to the Exhibition pavilions where you bought what we called “sample bags” full of colorful cheap and nasty games and chocolates. I am reminded of those sample bags every time I go to hospital in Thailand, as I am about to explain.
During swine flu of 2009, it was a different story.
When I arrived at the hospital the usual young man in a suit escorted me over to a nurse who took my blood pressure then placed a thermometer in my mouth.
“I don’t have a temperature,” I said rather pathetically as her hand, sensibly ensconced in rubber gloves, guided the mercury under my tongue.
“38-point-five,” she said in a tone of voice used for axe murderers. “You have a temperature.”
She may as well have said: “You’re the weakest link. Goodbye.” The suited young man whipped out a surgical mask and handed it to me. “Wear this,” he said curtly, and then, as if his arm had been twisted: “Khrab.”
He, too, donned a mask as he guided me into the antiseptic depths of despair known as the waiting room. There, dozens of other masked folk sat waiting for their names to be called. After depositing me there he shuffled off in the direction of the bathrooms, no doubt to shed his suit in preparation for a full-body hose and scrub down.
It didn’t take long for the cattle to be herded in, one by one, and soon I was face to face with a doctor who, in my allotted three minutes, told me I had a flu but “probably not swine flu”. That’s because my temperature hadn’t reached 39 degrees. He figured I wasn’t at risk. This was at the tail end of the epidemic, and the doctor explained that being tested for swine flu would cost me 4,000 baht. This was back in the era before private hospitals got greedy, and 4,000 baht in 2009 would be equivalent to about 23,650 baht in today’s climate of fleece-what-you-can-from-the-patient.
“Get plenty of rest and come back if your temperature goes over 39,” he said. I was then led to the cashier and drug dispenser where I received an exciting array of colored pills in little plastic bags.
This is the medical equivalent of the Brisbane exhibition sample bags. And like those bags from my childhood, each little bag promised so much but ultimately delivered so little. “TAKE TWO EVERY SIX HOURS” one little packet sternly read. When I opened it, it was Tylenol. How disappointing — imagine my excitement had it been Diazepam or Cerepax! Now you’re talking, doctor!
I spent four days in bed. Nobody visited. One of my friends, as a (literally) sick joke, told everybody I had swine flu. Ha ha, very funny, you may as well have bricked up the door to my bedroom. I would have gone crazy from the solitude save for one saving grace. I watched Seasons One and Two of the old 1980s prime time soap opera Dynasty. The day I was strong enough to return to work I ordered Season Three from Amazon because I didn’t think my life would be fulfilled if I didn’t find out what happened to Fallon’s baby. Since then I have always associated Krystle and Alexis with lying sick in bed all alone for a week surviving on rice porridge and Tylenol.
The world has changed since 2009. Hospital fees have doubled, and I no longer have to order soap operas off Amazon thanks to Netflix and Pirate Bay. But the flu is still no fun, so I apologize for leaving you early this week to go get some further rest.
Next week when I am feeling better I promise to regale you with hilarity and share with you more pearls of wisdom — pearls before swine in the very truest sense.
Stay healthy, dear reader. Please comment below!
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
by Andrew Biggs
There’s a new condo project being advertised on the side of the road I noticed on my way home from Rama 9 Park. It’s called White Wall and the giant billboard says: “Passionate Living starts at 33 million Baht”.
The figure of 33 million, while steep, is not unusual in this modern frenzy of Bangkok real estate. It does seem an exorbitantly high price to pay for passion — and would surprise Nana Plaza patrons who are used to paying 1,500 baht plus a bar fine.
It has been my experience that those fortunate enough to be passionately living are not defining their passion with a price tag. Passionate living is all about exploring the bounds of experience with energy and zest — and would you look at that, dear reader! Just then I created a sentence that would fit comfortably in any advertorial for a new Bangkok block of flats!
Oh but we don’t call them flats here. We don’t even call them apartments. They are condos, or in the case of White Wall, “home offices”.
The top end targets foreigners. With so many projects going up there is naturally great competition, and not just in advertising budgets. It’s hard enough having English as your second language; to then have to think up new and creative ways to describe those condominiums must be beyond difficult … which is why so many of them are beyond ridiculous.
At present near Ploenchit BTS there is a new project which trumpets from a billboard: “Bangkok’s Newest Shining Beacon.” I didn’t know we had treacherous rocks and crashing waves around Ploenchit but then again, I’m a Samut Prakan boy and don’t get out too much.
Meanwhile Saladaeng One explains, in full capitals, that is is “Invincible in its location, with Bangkok’s financial district on one side and stunning Lumpini Park on the other”. Invincible? Are we under attack? And from what … the kimodo dragons that have overtaken the park?
It’s not the only one that is a portent of impending calamity. Over at The Hyde, things feel a little threatening. “Life will NEVER be the same” it explains in its advertising brochure and website, with an emphasis on the word NEVER. That to me sounds like the catch-line for yet another M. Night Shyamalan disappointment.
The problem is this: it is 2018. We’ve been advertising luxury high rise projects for 30 years. The variations on names and snappy slogans explaining rooms that resemble shoeboxes have run their course.
This explains why we have the weirdest titles for new condo projects. There is one going up in Thonglor called “Eyse”. Is that a typo for “Eyes” or are we just being a little trendy? There is “The Parq” opposite Bejakitti Park. I don’t think “The Parq” is a spelling mistake. The letter Q is on the opposite side to K on the keyboard, so we assume the error is intentional.
Next year Sukhumvit 19 will have a complex called “Shaa Asoke”. I’d read that as “Shah” but hold your horses, dear reader. Have I got news for you.
That word “Shaa” has two acutes. Yes. You heard right. There’s one over the first “A” then one over the second. I’d type it here but I have no idea where to find an acute on my Macbook keyboard. I’ve seen many things in my life, but never have I witnessed such a word and last night this conundrum sent me to the liquor cabinet in my quest for proper pronunciation. Even worse; realizing “Shaa Asoke” is not even on Asoke. It’s on Sukhumvit! That’s when I started mixing my drinks.
Copywriters around the world are would-be novelists and poets. They don’t have the talent for the Great English Novel but they can put together a few sentences to express a notion or, more realistically, the abstract desire of a condo project owner who wants something “big” and “luxurious” and “grand” as he waves his hands around in the air.
They should feel happy about their not being able to write great literature. There’s no money in that. Copywriters can make much more. And so they lock themselves in rooms with cigarettes, whisky bottles and thesauruses, churning out new ways to describe the same old thing.
But the problem in the copywriting world is the same in the modern music world. We have run out of combinations of notes. This is why every new Ariana Grande or Justin Bieber song reminds those of us who are, er, a little older of something that was on the charts from the 70s. It also explains the rise in hip hop music, which relies more on rhythm and drum beats rather than melody, a thing noticeably absent in most songs about homies in bling-bling dissin’ their bitches.
This content overload also affects the condo world, as copywriters push and shove for the best slogan to outdo the competition. We will one day look back and study this era as the time when things got a little out of hand. Catch-phrases have gone beyond over the top. They are now unreadable.
“BE AT LEISURE IN YOUR FASCINATED WAY.” That’s what the massive billboard says at aforesaid Eyse. I had no idea I had to be fascinated when I was at leisure. Or is that sentence like pondering the universe itself — trying to make sense out of catastrophe?
The Hyde — the condo that warned me that my life would NEVER be the same — has this opening paragraph: “Experiece the glamorous residence that blends splendid structure with unrivalled style.”
It’s not the sentence’s superfluous rhetoric that bothers me. My concern is more simple than that. Pay attention to the first word in the sentence. That missing N makes me think twice about parting with 20 million to purchase a condo there. If they cut corners on the copy editing, where else are they slashing?
I’m not complaining. I am in awe of anybody who can think up, and be brave enough to submit, a sentence such as the following that can be found in The Hyde’s advertising: “Luxuriate in spacious privacy equipped with every conceivable comfort, thoughtfully designed to chic sophistication with the best of contemporary elegance.”
I needed to stop and grab a quick power nap in the middle of reading that. It felt like wading through a pool of porridge. And why, later on, after reading “a steep ascension to the summit of residential elegance,” do I immediately think of the elevators at Ikea?
As already mentioned, this absence of anything new, combined with the sometimes dubious way English mutates here, has created all sorts of interesting condo names. The Trendy. The Exclusive. The Resident. The Line. The Cube. There is an alleged luxury condo block called “The Diplomat.” Heaven knows what clandestine, socially unacceptable and alcohol-filled shenanigans go on in that place.
But my very favorite is a block going up right now as we speak. It’s 33 floors and 331 units. How on earth will they fill it up, I wondered, until I saw its name and location.
It’s called “Siamese Exclusive Queens”. Even allowing for the word “exclusive” in its title, being situated on Rama 4 Road, a stone’s throw away from Silom Soi 2, they will never be starved for customers.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
by Andrew Biggs
I have the best neighbors on all four sides of my home in leafy Samut Prakan.
Truly I do. It’s the primary reason I refuse to move to the inner city — that along with the small issue of a mortgage.
My neighbors are polite, friendly and watchful. They call me at work when my dog jumps the fence. We exchange gifts over New Year. And, like so many Thais, they are brutally honest. Like early this morning, which in my world was exactly ten minutes ago.
“Good morning,” chirped Khun Adisak, as he waited outside his home with a tray of food for the monks. “Are you getting fatter?”
Do not be alarmed, dear reader. This is a legitimate form of greeting in Thailand, the Land of Smiles and People Who Constantly Remind You Of Your Growing Waistline.
Khun Adisak is not being malicious. Nor is he speaking out of concern for my health. He has made an observation about me, and, being close, can happily and freely report on my physical state to my face.
It is a small part of Thai cultural mores that differs vastly from those of the West. In the ten minutes since our meeting, I’ve trying to put our conversation into a western context.
This is difficult; bare-footed monks in saffron robes didn’t roam the streets of Sunnybank, Brisbane, where I grew up. You were more likely to see feral cats or Mr Russo the milkman, hungover in his beat-up combie van.
But just say I wandered out onto the Sunnybank streets, as I did here this morning, to get the morning paper. There was Adam, my friendly next door neighbor, sitting quietly outside smoking a cigarette. He smiles, waves, looks up and says with a broad grin: “You’re looking fat.”
Unacceptable behavior, unless Adam is a sociopath. It’s one thing to say something nasty to a neighbour; to smile while saying it is downright Silence Of The Lambs.
Even more interesting is the context in which Khun Adisak’s comment can be found. Here is the short conversation, one hundred per cent small talk, after we waied each other outside our respective homes.
Me: “I can’t see the monks anywhere.”
Khun Adisak: “They’re doing the rounds of the village. They’re not up to our soi yet.”
“They’re usually here by now, though, aren’t they?”
“Yes. They’re a little late. Are you getting fatter?”
You see, dear reader? No context whatsoever. No quiet build up to the verbal sucker punch that resulted in the reflexive tensing of my stomach muscles inward. And yet in the Thai context it was perfectly acceptable. Khun Adisak had shifted the small talk from tardy monks to my physical state.
It is hard for foreigners to wrap our heads around the notion that here in Thailand, commenting on somebody’s descent into adipose hell is a societal norm. It’s okay in this part of the world for a third party to bring to one’s attention one’s packing on the pounds. Not only is it normal; it is rife.
Even more shocking: in most situations there is no malice intended either.
Khun Adisak has never displayed malice. There are times I feel agitated when chatting to him but this is purely neurotic behavior on my part. I am generally a good neighbour — generally — but as I chat I am in constant fear he is going to bring up the issue of my dog suddenly barking at 2 am for no reason, or Kate Bush cranked up to full volume for a song or two, or clandestine cigarette smoke near the back fence. No, my neighbor never brings up such glaring inadequacies in me. He chooses, instead, to comment on my impending obesity.
In the West we are told that when engaging in small talk we should avoid the “big three”, namely, politics, religion and sex. This is especially true in this modern world of Donald Trump and pedophile Catholic priests.
Instead we are taught to comment on the weather, or last night’s soap opera, or the stock market. Here in Thailand, add one more topic to the list; the one Khun Adisak brought up.
There are numerous words for “fat” in Thai. There is the ubiquitous oo-an, by far the most common.
Oo-an is not only an adjective to describe a bulky person. It’s also a common nickname, by god! Think about that, dear reader. Imagining going through life not just being fat, but being named it as well. “Hi Fat, how are you doing?” “Hey Fat, what are your plans this weekend?” “Pass the ketchup, Fat. And shouldn’t you be laying off those french fries?”
Another common nickname is Nui. I bet you have met a Nui or two in your life. Just this week I ran into my former staff member, Nui, a respected producer of children’s television programs.
What do you think Nui means, dear reader? Go look it up on Google Translate and you’ll find three very clear definitions: “fat, plump, chubby.”
Nui is rake thin. People with such names as Oo-an and Nui often are. They get their moniker from their physical state at birth. The puppy fat may melt away, but there is no escaping the name. My TV producer has a name that constantly reminds him of his plumpness as a kid.
This is unthinkable in the West. It’s like me having a daughter named Skye, but choosing to call her Chubs in every social situation for her entire life. Hi, my name is Philip, but please call me Flabby. It just doesn’t work, does it?
So where does it come from? How can it be that my wonderful neighbor can casually throw into an unrelated conversation about monks the fact I’m allegedly becoming a blimp?
The answer probably lies in the fact that oo-an doesn’t sound as nasty and cold-hearted as the English word “fat”. “Fat” carries so much more baggage, whereas oo-an feels a little lighter and more airy.
Plus there is the traditional belief here, probably of Chinese origin, that being fat is a sign of prosperity.
This theory is supported by another Thai word for fat — that is somboon and yes, it’s yet another popular Thai name! “You’re looking somboon these days” is a common observation of friends who haven’t seen each other for a while. Western civilization translation: “My, you’ve clearly fallen off the Jenny Craig wagon, haven’t you?”
But wait. There is another more popular translation of the word somboon. It is an adjective that means “complete, perfect, valid.” Out of this all-encompassing translation of completeness, the Thais have managed to create a sub-definition of “fat”. Bless their hearts.
This absence of malice is hard for the West to fathom, and despite all my years in this country, I still feel my hackles — no doubt ensconced somewhere in fatty tissue — rise when I am tormented by the oo-an word. You can take the boy out of the western country, I guess.
And it did result in my dragging out the bathroom scales from the very back of the linen cupboard and weighing myself for the first time since my hospital flu visit two weeks ago.
And look. I’ve dropped nearly two kilograms! I feel like shouting this news over to my next door neighbor, but the monks have been and gone and so has Khun Adisak.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
SONNET IN PLASTIC
by Andrew Biggs
I am sitting in a diner in the Southern town of Surat Thani, staring down at three toothpicks.
Other patrons of this morning restaurant may be looking at me, wondering why this big farang is sitting with his eyes fixed on three little toothpicks swathed in plastic.
It is a transitory moment in an otherwise hectic schedule; the realization that those three little toothpicks somehow sum up our obscene love affair with all things plastic.
Last night I wandered down to the riverside market in Surat, the one next to where the slow boats leave for Koh Samui and Koh Phangnan. I bought three different things from three different stalls; fruit, pork satay and deep-fried spring rolls. I was trying to be good but those spring rolls looked so delicious I could not resist.
Upon returning to my hotel room, I laid all the food out. I realized I had more plastic than I had food:
1. The fruit consisted of pineapple and guava. Each required a separate bag, along with the chili and sugar concoction I didn’t even ask for, but nevertheless received. Those three bags then were thrust into a bag so I could carry them. Total bags: 4
2. The pork satay came with delicious peanut sauce in its own little bag. So, too, did the cucumber in sweet vinegar. And of course, there were the three satays. Oh alright, six. All this into a single bag. Total bags: 4
3. Those deep-fried spring rolls — two of them cut up into pieces then covered in a sticky, spicy sweet sauce. It’s okay, dear reader, I have plans to go for a run tomorrow morning. Interestingly, this cholesterol-packed treat used the least bags. Total bags: “Only” 2
This double-digit plastic bag count is what kind of upset me (as did those deep-fried spring rolls, but that was limited to my stomach). My dinner resulted in 12 plastic bags being thrown into, and filling up, the hotel room trash can which, I was forced to realize, was a trash can with a bin liner. A plastic bin liner.
And now, the next morning, here I am at the Surat Thani diner, having asked the waitress for a mai chim fan so that I can delicately pick my teeth behind a well-mannered hand. I didn’t get the one. I got three. Each wrapped in its own plastic!
Since when did we start wrapping toothpicks in plastic? It was bad enough when straws got the treatment. I thought we were supposed to be concerned about the environment, and yet instead of finding ways to cut down, we instead search for things to further wrap.
Recently I went to Tops Supermarket, the one nearest my suburban mansion in leafy Samut Prakan. It was not a full shop, just some necessities like non-fat milk and leafy green vegetables and Smirnoff. I had about 12 items when I reached the sullen-looking cashier, who was sullen for reasons you are about to discover.
As she ran those dozen items through the register, she tossed them casually to the end of the counter. This in itself was jarring enough; normally she tossed them into Tops regulation plastic bags.
Then the horror; there were no plastic bags!
“What’s going on here?” I enquired.
Nong Sullen (pronounced Sul-LEN if you’re reading this column out loud to nephews and nieces) didn’t look up when she said: “Tops doesn’t use plastic bags anymore.”
To me, hearing that was like hearing some fantastic news, such as: “You just won the lottery” or “Oh look – there’s a full bottle of Absolut at the very back of the liquor cabinet behind the mescaline.”
Tops had stopped using plastic bags? What a triumph. Thailand ranks in the top ten countries in the world that uses plastic bags the most. This single executive decision by Tops surely would be enough to send Thailand tumbling right out of that top ten.
I felt like penning a letter to Tops, forgiving them for all their transgressions in the past, and warmly embracing the supermarket chain with a vow to be a loyal customer to the very end. There was, however, a small problem. The issue of my 12 grocery items being tossed unceremoniously to the other side of the cashier.
“What am I supposed to do with these?” I asked the cashier, pointing at my purchases. She, too, pointed towards a single grey paper bag.
Just the one?
From what I could gather from Nong Sullen, each customer was allowed one grey paper bag to self-pack their groceries. This was somewhat generous of Tops, but what about those of us who didn’t just stop for a Pepsi and packet of fags? That sole paper bag was not going to be enough to house all my leafy green vegetables.
“That’s all you get,” the cashier replied.
Tops had changed its policy somewhat dramatically, with no large posters with big numbers counting down to their new policy day, or instructions on how to make alternative arrangements. No doubt our cashier had been bombarded with angry customers suddenly faced with the prospect of shoving the weekly groceries into a single paper bag.
“Can I buy another one?” I asked.
“No,” she answered, not curtly, but clearly a little tired of life, sounding like she wished my bottle of Smirnoff was passing down her throat rather than through the scanner.
Luckily I had one of my staff with me, who was able to carry the remaining leafy green vegetables that could not fit into the paper bag, so the trip was not entirely a disaster. But it wasn’t a good look for me, wandering through that shopping centre clutching kale and holy basil against my chest.
One day later I had to go into Tops again. To my surprise, the plastic bags were back!
Had Tops caved in to angry customers and relented on the non-plastic bags?
“It’s only no-bags on the 3rd of every month,” the cashier explained. She was a different one from the sullen girl of the day before, but I noticed Nong Sullen was stationed at another check-out and looked far more relaxed with her life.
That night I went on the internet. Tops apparently had a non-plastic bag day back in July that was such a hit, they decided to keep it going one day a month. Slightly disappointing news; I would have been happy to hear the no-bags rule was permanent. It is something we humans have to adapt to, if not sooner then later when the planet finally shakes us off because of our bad behavior.
But get this; Tops said it saved an incredible 500,000 bags on that no-bag day. This is a staggering statistic. It means that in any given month, 15,000,000 Tops bags are taken home and tossed away into the environment, no doubt ending up in land fills or in the stomachs of our sea life.
And so here I am, a single farang sitting in a Surat Thani diner, staring down at the three toothpicks wrapped in plastic on the table. I only asked for one. It’s a little like buying a bottle of water at 7-Eleven and receiving it in a plastic bag along with enough plastic straws wrapped in plastic to feed a poor family of five for a month, if indeed poor families ate straws. I’d retreat to my hotel room, but the cleaning lady hasn’t come yet and I can’t bear the sight of those 12 used plastic bags in the plastic bin lined trash can.
Twelve bags per meal? Let’s say all of us in Thailand are doing the same. That’s 816,000,000 plastic bags for a single solitary meal.
Hold the green leafy vegetables. I need to open that Smirnoff.
Please comment below!
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
JAMMIN’ ABOUT JAMS
By Andrew Biggs
It was a headline worthy of finding scissors, cutting it out, setting it in a mid-priced Big C frame then hanging it on my study wall.
“PM: VIPs must hurry through intersections” was the headline in question.
I wasn’t the only one to gasp. I attended a fashionable dinner party Wednesday night, the day it was published, and it was the talk of the table.
You see it’s a headline that’s open to at least two major interpretations. The prime minister is either defending the police action of blocking we, commoner motorists, whenever a cabinet minister feels the urge to be somewhere on the other side of town during peak hour. Or he is urging VIPs to get a move on when they journey forth across the clogged capital. Don’t dilly-dally at those four-ways, members of cabinet. This is, after all, the lead-up to an alleged election.
This column has tried its hardest to avoid the topic of traffic jams, not just because it is hackneyed, but because the problem is so ubiquitous it is futile to discuss it. In the ten years of this column’s existence, it has been the main topic a grand total of once.
Which is strange. Far be it from me to blow my own horn, but a long time ago I made a positive contribution to alleviating Bangkok’s traffic problem. The fact I have never revealed it in ten years is testament to my modesty or my growing problem of memory loss. So allow me to pick up that horn and take a deep breath.
Back in 2003 I was instrumental in getting two overpasses constructed on Srinakharin Road, thanks to a relentless campaign I mounted on live TV every Saturday and Sunday morning.
Back then I was hosting a news program. I was also living on Srinakharin Road, an arterial road so jammed, it took an hour from the Lasalle intersection to my leafy mansion two kilometres away.
Some of my more hardened critics will pounce on this, claiming I instigated this campaign as a means to get home sooner. To those critics I say you are way off the mark but yes, as usual, your slander contains a skerrick of truth.
There was one night, as I sat in that grid-locked traffic, when I turned my head to the next car. There inside was a father with his three children, all in school uniform, all ashen faced, trapped like I was. Imagine all the things they could be doing if it weren’t for having to sit amid petrol fumes and bumper to bumper cars.
And so I launched my little campaign. It became something of a running joke. Every time there was a news item about Theparak or Lasalle, I would slip in a question as to when the local MPs would build overpasses on both those intersections, freeing up the flow of traffic and making life for we east-siders so much more liveable.
Then I was invited to give a speech at party headquarters of the reigning government. The speech was about learning English and my audience was members of parliament. “Who are the representatives of Samut Prakan, and when are you going to build overpasses at Lasalle and Teparak?” I asked before anything else. Incredibly, at that very event, the MPs put their hands up and announced the budget had already been passed.
Did that make me feel happy? Powerful? Vindicated? None of the above. It took two long years for those two overpasses to be constructed. You thought the traffic was bad before? I looked back nostalgically on the days when it only took an hour to travel those last two kilometres home.
Good things come to those who wait. When the two overpasses finally opened, the difference was incredible. Suddenly those last two kilometres took me five minutes (and, sometimes late at night, just 60 seconds). I was lauded for my media campaign by fellow residents and for a brief moment I felt like a champion of human rights; a bit like the Mother Theresa of the eastern suburbs.
But this is Bangkok. There are no happy endings when it comes to traffic stories, including this one.
Within six months that road became as jammed as it was before the two bridges were installed. The volume of traffic just grew and grew. Such is the nature of the beast. Road space in the average Western city is 20 to 30 per cent. In Bangkok it is just eight.
And now we have promises of new subway, monorail and skytrain lines. They are all being built at the same time. We can only pray they all connect up, for history has shown that city planners here don’t just lack foresight, they lack any semblance of intelligence.
This is why the traffic has been particularly bad the last month. Construction has been compounded with heavy rain … and those infernal cavalcades for alleged political bigwigs.
It has always been the custom for traffic to be halted to ensure smooth travels for the royal family. This is known and accepted by the general populace, but some time not so long ago this courtesy extended to include the prime minister. Then his deputies. And now his cabinet ministers.
Cabinet ministers? Do you have any idea how many members of cabinet there are? The next time you’re at the supermarket, go down the aisle where the eggs are sold and have a glance at three packs of a dozen eggs. That’s how many cabinet ministers we have.
All these ministers are afforded the courtesy of road closures to ensure their smooth journey from parliament house to … where? Certainly not City Planning School.
The Bangkok Post published a story this week about the rising number of complaints from the general public about these cavalcades. Too many B-list cabinet ministers are demanding the police hold back the masses for them to sail through the intersections.
National police chief Chaktip Chaijinda was quoted as saying there would be harsh penalties for officers who complied with these requests. “We do not want to portray the idea that cabinet members are more important than the public,” he said, prompting me to make a mental note to buy Chaktip a drink if I ever see him out and about.
The prime minister was of the same mind. Reporters asked if he would be reducing the number of cavalcades for the cabinet mutton dressed as lamb. He replied that VIPs needed to hurry through intersections, as opposed to the rest of us, who are expected to remain in our vehicles sitting like lemmings lined up on a cliff.
He suggested a maximum of 30 seconds per cabinet minister. One can only pray they don’t decide to all go shopping at the same location at the same time, for that would mean a delay of exactly 18 minutes.
What a pity the cavalcades couldn’t be abolished for all except the royal family. That would mean every politician, cabinet or otherwise, would have to sit in the same infernal jams the rest of us encounter on a daily basis, experiencing that same listless, faraway, ashen-faced resigned look of those three children I saw in that car 15 years ago.
That is all I want to say on the topic. We’ll pick it up again in 2028, when I suspect things will be exactly the same, unless we can curb vehicle and cabinet minister numbers.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
MY BRUSH WITH THE KKK
By Andrew BIggs
Greetings from Hat Yai, Songkhla province, where your columnist is enjoying a foot massage at a place called “KKK Massage”.
Yes, KKK Massage. That’s the name, emblazoned in big letters on a shophouse not so far from the famed, if not slightly over-rated, Kim Yong markets, where they say you can buy absolutely anything — if “anything” to you can be defined as chestnuts, pistachio nuts, dates and cashews.
There are dozens of foot massage places around this bustling Southern market, but just the name of this establishment is enough to pique my interest and patronage. This is not for any reasons of racial bias, but more for its sheer audacity.
There is nothing inside KKK Massage that suggests it despises black people, although I do inadvertently start humming Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” upon entering. The décor is faded blue wallpaper with sofa chairs which recline to an almost horizontal position.
I’m here with one of my office staff and as the masseuses wash our feet, I remark that the place has a nerve to name itself after the KKK.
“Why?” my staff member asks in all innocence.
His question is a fair one, and certainly answers the underlying concern of why such an establishment would want to name itself after the Ku Klux Klan.
The average Thai has no idea of what the Ku Klux Klan is, and thus would have no compunction in naming a massage parlor (foot massage parlor, dear reader) using those three letters. As odious as the name is, in the minds of Thais it is no different a trio of letters as, say, LLL or MMM. This explains why offensive racist organization names can be used in retail shops here, such as KKK Massage, Hitler Youth Barber or MAGA somtam stall.
When I first came to Thailand there was a toothpaste called Darkie, complete with a black man in a top hat grinning back at you on the tube. At the time it was one of Thailand’s best-selling toothpastes.
Five years ago I was in a large retail outlet here when I noticed a sale on cleaning utensils. There, on a sign above the discounted goods in gigantic lettering were two words: BLACK MAN.
Not just words; a picture as well.
Black Man products featured a logo of a black man in a suit and bow tie, thrilled to bits he’s got all these cleaning objects on hand. And what a range it is; mops, brooms, sponges, dustpans and brooms, window cleaners – all ironically white but sporting the proud Black Man image. THINK OF CLEANLINESS, THINK OF BLACK MAN screamed the company slogan, clearly ripped off from the Foodland ad.
We can send a man to the moon. Information spanning the entire globe fits right inside my cell phone. Yet still we had Black Man mops and Darkie toothpaste?
I craned my neck towards the Black Man window wipers. There on the back of the packaging were the proud words: MADE IN THAILAND. Worse -- the Black Man logo had an R in a circle. Black Man was a registered trademark!
That really got my blood boiling. The Thailand trademark office and I are not the greatest of friends, and it dates back to when I was registering my business here, a business name that included my own name. I submitted my application. It was rejected.
The official reply was I couldn’t register the name “Andrew” in my company name because >>another company was already using it<<. That company happened to be St Andrew’s, a school down the road from where I lived.
Well I wasn’t going to take that lying down.
I stormed down to the trademark office where I explained that Andrew was as common a name as Somchai or Somsri. He was even a saint, albeit a B-list one. If only I’d registered my company name as something really offensive like Black Man or Darkie or KKK Massage. Those would have been passed in a flash.
The Black Man logo bugged me so much I even called the company.
“I’ve just purchased one of your products and noticed the brand name when I got home,” I said when the Black Man operator answered. “I’m wondering if it might be a little ... offensive?”
The operator laughed and put me through to a pleasant gentleman who informed me that the Black Man brand name is 50 years old and a bestseller in Thailand for cleaning equipment.
“It’s interesting, because before you we’ve never had a Thai call to complain about the name,” he said. I was torn between deep disappointment in Thais for not finding such a brand offensive, and selfish pride in being able to pass myself off as a Thai over the phone.
What about foreigners?
“Oh yes, now and again we get foreign suppliers asking why we use such a name,” he said. “Foreigners are the only ones who ask about it.”
Ah, those pesky foreigners. I could just hear this company the day they tried to market Black Man overseas. It’d be like a Scooby Doo episode: “We’d have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddlesome farangs!”
It is all the more interesting when you consider that Thais themselves have a very short fuse when we foreigners demean their culture. Tourists are regularly berated, and arrested, for draping themselves over Buddha images. Last November two American idiots were arrested for baring their backsides at Wat Arun, because that’s a really hilarious thing to do.
Buddha is not to be tattooed nor is he a decoration, scream hypocritical billboards directed towards foreigners to and from Suvarnabhumi international airport. These billboards are ignoring the millions of Thais who adorn themselves with Buddha images of the ink and amulet kind. But you get the message.
Before you shake your head and scoff too much, dear reader, I must hasten to say this story has a happy ending, in that education truly is the savior of our society. Like my staff member in Hat Yai who asked “Why?”, somewhere down the line Darkie and Black Man executives asked the same question.
Often such naming transgressions are the result of a lack of knowledge rather than determined racism.
Darkie toothpaste? In the early 1990s it had morphed into Darlie, and the smiling man in the top hat had been white-washed. It remains a toothpaste still popular in Thailand to this day.
Black Man too! Clearly a few more meddlesome foreigners called after me. Sometime in the last five years, it too quietly changed its name.
It’s now Mop-BM in English, and the slightly weird “Be+ Man” in Thai. The black-faced logo is gone too, replaced by a white face; yes, Mop-BM execs, we white folk do household chores as well.
This is all good … but what of KKK Massage?
I told my staff member I assumed the KKK had nothing to do with lynching. I guessed that it stood for something that began with the letter kor kai in Thai, rendered as a K in English. Maybe it was named after the founding three siblings — Karun, Korkiat and Kanokwan perhaps?
Our massage finished and after generously tipping my masseuse ten baht, I went to pay. The shop owner sat at the cashier’s table.
“I gotta ask you,” I said. “Why is this place called KKK?”
He blushed. “I like to play poker,” he said.
That’s it? Only that? He should have called it Flush Massage; beats three kings every time.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
RATE YOUR LIFE, er, FLIGHT
By Andrew Biggs
“Thank you for flying AirAsia. Please rate your flight.”
This message popped up on my mobile phone after my latest return trip to Chiang Mai last Sunday night.
I was the first one off the plane, and it was the first thing that bleeped at me upon leaving my Hot Seat and hitting the Don Mueang people mover that assists passengers traversing the 15.4 km distance to the luggage carousel.
Rate my flight? It’s not enough for me to “like” my friend’s pics of Starbucks coffee or videos of baby’s first steps, is it? We have progressed past that. I cannot simply experience a life experience any longer.
My cellphone now knows, without prompting, when I have gotten off the plane. That is worrisome enough. More sinister is it asking me to “rate” the experience.
Like you, dear reader, I get bombarded with cellphone messages from companies. Grab is ceaseless in its promotion of its food delivery service. Line keeps sending e-coupons for spa treatments. Me in a spa? The closest I got to one of those was the KKK Foot Massage place I wrote about last week — and that was 200 baht for an hour-long massage. At that price who needs coupons?
And now AirAsia is asking me to “rate” their flight — on a scale of one to ten.
How does one “rate” a flight? I don’t rate my experience buying somtam from the lady halfway down my soi. Nor do I rate my experience in public toilets when the need arises.
This extends to flights. I mean I went online, purchased a ticket, quietly chose the more expensive Hot Seat without telling my accountant and put it on the company account. In return I received a service, namely, being jettisoned through the air at 600 km an hour from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, and then back again. End of story.
I fulfilled all that was required of me within that process. I checked in, resisted the temptation to carry anything elicit on board, and even gave cursory attention as the flight attendant explained how to buckle and unbuckle a belt as if I were a retarded child.
I turned my cellphone onto flight mode. Throughout the flight I didn’t make too much noise, which can’t be said for the Chinese tour group seated three rows down in the Cold Seats.
I didn’t smoke in the toilets. I admit I didn’t purchase any of the embarrassing merchandise peddled halfway through the journey by unenthusiastic flight attendants. I don’t blame them. If I had to spend my life explaining belt-buckles and holding up lackluster purses, I too would not be engaged.
I did not steal the life vest, since an on-board announcement told me such behavior was “a serious offence”. I’d never thought to steal the life vest before; that announcement has now got me thinking.
(That voice, by the way, is that of my friend Patcharee Raksawong, who has one of the most beautiful English accents. It is music to my ears following the last one, who pronounced “masks” as “macks” and “whistle” as a “vizzle”.)
When the plane landed I didn’t use my new-found knowledge about how to unbuckle a belt and jump up before the plane had come to a complete halt. I waited patiently for the seatbelt sign to go off then gathered my belongings and disembarked, which is the proper term for what Americans have bastardized into “deplaning”.
In summary: I was a model passenger. I didn’t see any AirAsia staff taking the time to rate my behavior. Why, then, should I rate theirs?
Like you, dear reader, I lead a busy life. I am tied to my cellphone for all manner of communication, with the exception of the face-to-face verbal kind, but who does that anymore. It is a never-ending process of sending and receiving data, including correspondence via Line, Whatsapp and Messenger and updates to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Myspace. I threw that last one in just to wake you up.
On top of all that I am now being asked to rate my flight.
Look, the flight was fine. It got me safely to my destination and for this I am grateful. Is this the criteria for rating a flight? If so, why bother with increments of one to ten? There can only be a rating of 10 (that is, safely arriving at one’s destination) and the more catastrophic alternative — zero — and how on earth would I be in a condition to make that value judgment?
Or is this a rating for service on board? If so it opens up a whole new hornet’s nest.
You see, I didn’t receive any service. This was not for any mistake on the behalf of the friendly AirAsia Flight Attendants. It’s just that I had no need for them, and I am sure the feeling was mutual.
How do I rate that? A ten for doing absolutely nothing? Or a zero, since there was no opportunity for me to experience their service? I can’t give them a five, as that suggests their service was not up to standard, and that would be unfair.
In my eyes, my flight to Chiang Mai and back last weekend was a transaction. I paid money and I got a service. I’m sure AirAsia was happy about that, as I was. Can’t we just leave it at that? Why ruin the experience by having me rate it?
It’s not the first time. Last week — just days before my Chiang Mai flight— I went to Soi Thonglor to drop off some documents. The recipient was at a restaurant call Art Sabai and I was there for all of five minutes.
Upon leaving the establishment I received a similar SMS to the one AirAsia sent me. “Please take time to rate your experience at Art Sabai. Click here!”
I grabbed my cellphone by its neck and threatened to throttle it: “How did you even know I was there?” I screamed at it.
My experience at Art Sabai? It was awful. Literally as I walked in, clutching documents under my arm, I got a call from the bank because my accountant had forgotten to pay my credit card — again — and when would I be making a payment?
On top of that I was late in sending those documents. It was all my fault. The recipient was unimpressed with this tardiness.
So how was my experience? I felt belittled, and frustrated, and revengeful. My experience at that restaurant was a one or two out of ten. No, I didn’t order a thing, but hey, you asked!
I have one further issue that needs to be brought up. If, on the off chance, I did choose to spend my valuable time rating my flight experience, just who would read my review?
Nobody. That’s who. My rating gets thrown in with the other tens of thousands of figures, to be instantly collated and analyzed deep inside the inner machinations of the AirAsia computers. A rating of ten elicits no praise from grateful AirAsia execs. Nor does a zero result in fawning public relations officers knocking on the front door of my mansion in leafy Samut Prakan.
So why should I feel bad about pressing that little x in the top right-hand corner and dispatching that unsolicited request to trash oblivion?
I didn’t do that. I rated the flight a ten. I didn’t want the computer to feel bad.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
BYE BYE BRUNCH
By Andrew BIggs
This week marks the end of an era at the Bangkok Post, as we bid farewell to the part of the paper known as Brunch.
It has been my home for almost ten years, since I began writing this weekly column in the first week of 2009. But do not despair (or rejoice); neither I nor the Bangkok Post is going anywhere.
It is just a cosmetic change. Compare it to your getting a new haircut, or changing your predominant clothing color, or emblazoning a new tattoo of fire that licks up the side of your neck to your chin, rendering you unemployable at least anywhere around me.
It was the Lord Buddha himself who called on his followers to embrace change. He called it anicca. Things are constantly in a state of flux, the Lord Buddha explained, and thus one cannot tether oneself to anything in this world, including Sunday magazines with the name Brunch attached to them.
Unfortunately, to describe anything like this as merely cosmetic is not entirely telling the truth.
The media on the whole is being turned upside down by this current massive technological tidal wave, and it’s not just Shelley Winters and Gene Hackman who are feeling the brunt of it.
Every single one of us is witnessing changes at a rate never before experienced in the history of man. I just finished reading Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, a fascinating account of we humans from 200,000 years ago to the year 2018. There are events that dramatically changed humanity’s course, such as the cultivation of wheat, or the taming of electricity, or the invention of the printing press, or embarking on voyages of new world discovery.
These changes were at a snail’s pace when compared to how our lives have rapidly altered by the internet which, incredibly, had only been with us extensively for a little over a decade before this column began in Brunch.
The internet has changed us technologically, economically and behaviorally. Of the last category, in academic circles there is concern about how to educate Generation Alpha, children born after the year 2010, who no longer view tablets and cell phones as objects separate from themselves. They are perceived as appendages like arms and legs. Nor can they concentrate on anything for longer than ten minutes. Why do these children need to learn anything, when the collective knowledge of mankind is available to them at the tap of a finger?
But we are talking about changes to the media. Now that we are all connected, we have an insatiable appetite for news. And yet the traditional and authoritative news sources we have relied on for decades, or even centuries, now feel the heat.
The thirst for news has moved online. Circulation figures for newspapers in their traditional form — that is, printed on paper — is a shadow of figures from 25 years ago. When I first came to Thailand, Bangkok had 16 daily newspapers. I counted them one morning. Sixteen! The majority have gone … and yet the number of people reading news may indeed have tripled or quadrupled since that time.
I am a child of the printed medium. I was part of an intake of cadet journalists who were also on the cutting edge of technology; the paper I worked for had just been computerized. Gone were the hot metal racks of letters being lined up to print the daily paper. How modern and technologically forward we were!
Back in those days, we cadet journalists were lectured on the importance of objectivity. We tried our hardest to distance ourselves from the facts and present something that was as objective as possible.
This was fraught with difficulties. The fact we had to choose the most important part of the story to make the lead paragraph meant we had to suspend objectivity for a moment. And of course, we were all racing to get the best, most sensational story and there were many times we didn’t let facts get in the way of a good story. But at least we had that ideology. At least we had that goal.
Another important difference was this; what we wrote was passed to a chief of staff and editors for editing and to choose what should go on page one, where the most important stories were found. Such was the gate-keeping role within the media organization.
That era is long gone. The whole notion of objectivity and news selection has flown out the window. Nobody wants to wait until the morning to check up on the news when it is available, live and streaming, read by breathless raconteurs, 24 hours a day on websites.
Gone, too, is the middle man; the gate-keeping component of journalism since anybody, and I mean anybody, can set up a news website these days.
This new era of journalism is about opinions and stand-points, as odious as they may be. Fox News has cleverly tapped into the fears and bigotry within the hearts of a large swathe of the under-educated American population. Meanwhile over at CNN they are making celebrities out of their anchors and reporters, rather than focusing on their jobs of relating the news in an objective manner.
Then we have despot leaders like Donald Trump who shout “fake news” at any news organization that prints the facts about him, demeaning the traditional press, confusing the general public even further. And with such freedom in shouting opinions to millions, the insidious element creeps in; Russia appears to have infiltrated the American election via news boards and news sites, swaying opinions and leading constituents to vote in a particular way. This could never have happened in the olden days, when alcoholic chiefs of staff cast a blurry eye over the day’s copy and decided what was good for publication and what was not.
I am not against what the Buddha said. I am happy to embrace change. But I do regret some social change, and not just the move from paper to online for our news sources.
We are no longer coagulated as a society. We have stopped passing around the same newspaper to read at the breakfast table, after which we could discuss more contentious news items. We have stopped sitting down as a family to watch the same TV shows at night time, to discuss the next morning at the water cooler, choosing instead our own personal Netflix to go sit in our rooms and watch on our own. We have stopped flicking on the radio, collectively getting excited when some ear-worm jumps to number one, choosing to make our personal playlists instead.
Try as I might, I can’t find anything social about social media at all.
Last Sunday I found myself sitting in the brand spanking new Da Nang international airport in Vietnam, waiting for a flight home to Bangkok. I had an hour to kill, but luckily I had a book in my bag. Half an hour into reading it, I looked up.
I realized of those many dozens of people waiting with me in the lounge, every single one of us had our head down staring at things in our hands. Every one of us. There was absolutely no verbal interaction going on. And it was me, only me, among those dozens of people clutching a book.
Yes, Lord Buddha, all things must change. But at this rate? See you next week, dear reader, which may come a little quicker than you think!
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
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
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.
BIGGS, BUDDHISTS, BRISBANE
By Andrew Biggs
There’s nothing like a challenge from a cynical sibling to plunge yourself into a new adventure.
Greetings from sunny Brisbane, capital city of Queensland, Australia, and hometown of your favorite columnist. I have been here for a week; a quick family visit that coincided with Khao Pansa, the beginning of the three-month Buddhist Lent.
It’s also a time when often the most hopeless of alcoholics stops drinking for a whole quarter of a year.
One of my Thai friends is such a person, whose breakfast consists of a cigarette and a shot of rice whiskey. Come to think of it, it’s also his lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and late-night snack.
Well, come Khao Pansa he just stops and the transformation is remarkable. His gray hair turns black, his wrinkled face loses a good 10 years, and he is lucid in his conversation. Three months later he’s back to being a drunk, which means technically he is not only a functioning alcoholic, but a part-time one as well.
It was last Saturday, the eve of Khao Pansa, as I sat enjoying my second or perhaps third Bundaberg Rum and Coke at a trendy bar overlooking the Brisbane River, that I started to regale family members of the traditions of Buddhist Lent. It was during my anecdote about Thais going dry that a cynical sibling of mine asked how I would be celebrating the Buddhist tradition. Would I, too, be venturing into the stark reality of three-month teetotal-dom?
“Certainly not,” I exclaimed. “I’ll be going to a temple.”
“What … here in Brisbane?” my cynical sibling asked with an Australian guffaw — the worst kind.
It never occurred to me that my hometown might actually have a Buddhist temple or two. A few phone calls later and I was buzzing with excitement, nothing to do with that Bundaberg Rum either.
There is a thriving Buddhist community in Brisbane. Not only that — there’s a temple a mere 15-minute drive from my birthplace!
This would have been unheard of in my childhood. I grew up in Sunnybank, and yes, the community was as Twin Peaks as its name implies. It was completely Caucasian, an offshoot of the White Australia policy that controlled, or rather strangled, Australian immigration for decades right up until the 1970s.
When I was growing up Sunnybank had one Chinese family. Skip 40 years into the future and Sunnybank is the Asian hub of Brisbane.
It is a vibrant, culturally diverse, exciting part of town. Every race and color is represented, and best of all, by the second generation they greet you with “g’day”, shout “strewth!” when they’re surprised, and follow Australia’s national religion — the Holy Order of Australian Rules.
It is here in the southern suburbs of Brisbane where the newest Thai temple in the country is being constructed.
Buddhism is the fastest growing religion in Australia. In the last 20 years it has seen an 80 per cent growth in followers with just over half a million Australians claiming to be Buddhist, or about 2.5 per cent of the population.
The first Thai temple in Brisbane was on the second floor of a shophouse. It progressed to a home and then a temple, but had to be knocked down when the land was repossessed to build a motorway. In 1995 they purchased 10 acres of a former stud farm in bushland not far from my old stomping ground.
They named it Wat Thai Buddharam. To get there, you drive through semi-rural roads past the warehouses of supermarket chain Woolies. At a T-junction there is the sign, both in English and in Thai. I admit I got a warm feeling seeing Thai script in the Brisbane boondocks.
But the place is not exactly your cookie-cutter Thai temple. The first thing that strikes you is — where are all the trimmings? The yellow-and-brown building almost resembles a Christian church without the cross. It’s not ugly, but there are no ornamental roof tiers; no gables; no bejeweled snakes, giants, Garudas or swans; no dangly golden bits that tinkle in the southerly winds.
“The local community,” says the abbot, “wasn’t exactly happy with us setting up here.”
Cholatish Chanhorm, 47, is a Thai monk who has spent the last 18 years in Brisbane. Now a naturalized Australian, he speaks as diplomatically as possible when asked about the early opposition.
“Locals objected to the original architectural plans,” Abbot Cholatish explained. “They said the character of the area would be eroded by building a temple.”
One wonders how exactly the character of industrial bushland could be eroded by a beautiful Thai temple, but do not be too harsh on the locals. They know not what they do.
This area is not that far away from Pauline Hanson’s base. Back then the locals were probably very well-meaning but maybe not possessing a world view. Just this week while I was here, there was a protest not far from the temple over the relocation of a bank branch, requiring locals to use internet banking services instead. “Many of us here don’t know how to use the internet,” one lady with short cropped hair in a sunfrock told news cameras: “I mean, I know how to read my emails, but I gotta get someone to show me how to reply!”
The issue went before the Planning and Environment court in 2003. “It was the old attitude of – you’re in Australia now. Act like an Australian!” said one Australian temple official. “the plans were un-Thaied.”
It has taken almost two decades but the temple, and its four monks, and the Thai followers, have won the hearts of the locals. We are often frightened of what we do not understand, while at the same time, thankfully, the Australian character diversified to embrace foreign things like Thai temples.
There are now plans to build a very ornate ubosoth or ordination hall on the grounds in a deep bronze color. It is modernistic Thai temple in design and quite stunning — best of all, the plans have been passed with the support of the local community. They even blend in to the rustic surroundings! That gives me another warm and fuzzy feeling inside.
“We get on well with the local community now,” the abbot says. Then after a pause: “Well, there’s still one woman who perhaps opposes it, but as for the rest …”
Sunday morning at Wat Thai Buddharam was a wonderful experience. A large proportion of Brisbane’s 5,000-plus Thai community came out to celebrate Khao Pansa. I took my mother and siblings along, including the cynical one.
The majority of that Thai community are women. “They either own Thai restaurants or work in them,” explained one member. Indeed, on Khao Pansa day, there was a clear shortage of men to haul the giant candles used in the ceremony.
But how nice to see a community of Thais, and their Australian spouses, engaging on this happy occasion.As for the new ordination hall, it will be completed some time in the next five years. It costs 5 million Australian dollars to build, of which the temple has raised around 10 per cent. “Any donations are very welcome,” says the abbot in what must have been the understatement of the morning.
I wish them luck in their endeavors. I left the temple happy knowing that Buddhism has spread its saffron robes even to the outer suburbs of Brisbane, encompassing as well as fitting into the local community.
And incredibly, one week later, I have not had a single alcoholic drink. Who knows if I’ll last the full three months. Whatever you do, just don’t tell my siblings. They’ll just get all cynical on me.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE
By Andrew Biggs
The email came out of nowhere and hit me like a truck.
In the address field was written: “ABiggs Sunnybank78”. Just that was enough to set my heart beating and adrenaline pumping.
The email came from a Romy Marotta and this is what he wrote:
“It is just so unfortunate. I do know Sunnybank78 is your pass word. Most importantly, I know your secret and I've proof of your secret. You don't know me personally and nobody paid me to investigate you.”
My heart sank from my chest down to my feet. Romy was right. Sunnybank78 was a secret password I used extensively ten years ago. It’s a combination of my place of birth and my birth year. Oh all right it’s not my birth year — it’s the year Kate Bush had her debut hit, “Wuthering Heights”, a song that changed my life — but don’t beat on me for telling a little lie. I’m under extreme stress as you are about to discover.
That was just the opening paragraph from Mr Marotta. I assumed Romy was a man, as I’ve never come across a person touting such a first name. Later I discovered it is a male name, and one that is “a popular baby name for hipsters” if the internet is to be believed. I suspect Mr Marotta is neither a hipster nor a baby. He’s certainly not a native English speaker, as evidenced by his next paragraph:
“I installed a malware on the adult vids (porn material) and you visited this site to have fun (you know what I mean). While you were busy watching video clips, your browser began working as a Rdp (Remote control desktop) that has a keylogger which provided me access to your display screen as well as web camera. Immediately after that, my software obtained your complete contacts from your messenger, facebook, and mailbox.”
I had to read that paragraph a good three or four times before it sunk in.
My first reaction was that Romy needed a good editor. How I wanted to take to that paragraph and clean it up! But this was not the time for semantics nor grammarian pedantry. Romy had taken control of my PC. He’d raided my contacts. What on earth was he going to do next?
“Next, I made a double-screen video. 1st part shows the video you had been viewing and second part displays the recording of your web cam (it’s you doing inappropriate things). “
A shiver went down my spine.
Evil Romy hadn’t just taken over my virtual world, like some Mini Me or Riddler. He’d been filming me while I visited websites!
“I will, no doubt send your video recording to all of your contacts including close relatives, co-workers, and many others. It won't protect you from the humiliation yourself will feel when friends and family learn where you have visited.”
Too late, Romy. I already felt sick. Physically sick.
You see, of late I’ve visited some internet places which, well, I don’t want anyone to know about.
Just recently, for example, I visited Mariah Carey’s official website. It was research, dear reader! Ya gotta believe me! I was trying to establish her age and birthplace, but while I was there, I did happen to click on her music video “Emotions”, one of her very early hits from the 1990s before she morphed into a space creature from an intergalactic video game.
Yes, I admit I sang along to it, bobbing my head back and forth, lip-syncing, rolling my eyes happily as she sang the chorus.
Romy had caught all that on film.
That wasn’t the only shameful act I’d performed.
Recently I went on YouTube and watched the scene from Sound of Music when Rolf and Liesl sing “You Are Sixteen Going On Seventeen” in the rotunda. Look, it had been a stressful day and I needed a break. I’m not proud of what I did but to err is human, to forgive divine.
And yes, I danced around while watching it. It is utterly shameful and embarrassing. Imagine if it got out. If my mother saw me in the midst of performing that act by myself, I’d never be able to look her in the eye again.
How could I stop Romy’s dastardly deeds? Luckily there was an ensuing paragraph that held the answer:
“Option One is to ignore this e-mail. If you do I will send your clips to your family and friends. Option 2 is to pay me $8,000. I'll erase the recording immediately.”
Eight thousand dollars! That’s 266,000 baht! Where am I going to come up with such a figure in so short a time?
That was when I thought: “I know. I’ll just go to the cops.”
“At this point you must be thinking, ‘I’ll just go to the cops’,” continued Romy, as if reading my mind. “Let me tell you, I have covered my steps to ensure this email cannot be traced time for me plus it won't steer clear of the evidence from destroying your lifetime. You will make the payment by Bitcoin (if you don't know this, search ‘how to buy bitcoins’ on google).”
Thanks, Romy, for that piece of advice at the end. I’d have never thought of that. And while you’re at it, quit hitting me with rambling stream of consciousness sentences. You’re a blackmailer not William Faulkner for god’s sake.
He concluded with a “Receiving Bitcoin address”, a long list of letters and numbers not dissimilar to when a cat runs across my keyboard. And a threat that if I didn’t act within 24 hours, those incriminating videos would soon be sent out to all my contacts.
You can imagine how distressed I was. I was tempted to bash out an email to all my contacts: “Please … if you receive a video from me with a Mariah Carey soundtrack, just DELETE IT.”
But as with all things adrenaline-induced, after a while I started to settle down. And smelled a rat.
First of all, I hadn’t used that password in ages. But the real revelation came exactly four days later.
I received another email with “ABiggs Sunnybank78” in the header! This time it was from Brooks Russ. Again, what sex is that? Or is Russ simply dyslexic?
“I won't beat around the bush,” Brooks, or Russ, began. “I do know Sunnybank78 is your pass word. More to the point, I know your secret and I've evidence of this. You do not know me and nobody paid me to check out you.”
Deja-vu big time. Brooks and Romy share a number of things in common, and not just the inability to spell password as a single word.
Brooks wasn’t as greedy. He wanted a mere $7,050 to stop my embarrassing videos cutting a swathe through my contact list, or a more manageable 230,000 baht. I assumed by paying Brooks, Romy would get off my back. I dared not entertain the thought I’d have to pay out a combined 496,000 baht.
A quick google of these email contents and I learned that this was a common scam perpetrated worldwide. With so many websites hacked these days, it is not so uncommon for evil types to get long lists of passwords and user names and do the rounds. If just one-half a per cent of recipients cough up the 8,000 bucks, he’s made a killing.
This is a great weight off my shoulders. My visits to Mariah Carey’s official website and other clandestine URLs remain private.
As for Tabitha Tilley, whose email just dropped in a moment ago, with the header “ABiggs Sunnybank78” — you can just go to hell.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
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
By Andrew Biggs
The triangular yellow flags first began fluttering in my neighborhood two weeks ago.
A few at the end of my soi. In the windows at the supermarket. Propped up on food carts.
They began as a trickle. By last Monday they had permeated every nook and cranny of my otherwise carnivorous community in leafy Samut Prakan. Farewell, beef noodle vendor — may you enjoy the next ten days’ rest and recreation. The Jaysters have taken over the nation!
Those triangular yellow flags are signposts that the Vegetarian Festival has arrived.
Every year it feels like those flags with the big red letters spelling JAY creep up from behind and surprise me. They evoke two reactions: the first being a feeling that time is rushing forward at an ever-increasing rate. Is it October already? It goes Jay, Loy Krathong and then Phi Mai. In rapid succession.
The other feeling is that of foreboding. Unease. They may have the appearance of yellow, but they are red flags for me. For ten days they do their best to obliterate the culinary choices of the meat-eating majority, including me, though I don’t go down without a fight.
Thailand’s Vegetarian Festival began last Monday and finishes next Wednesday. Ten days of cleansing. Ten days of meditation. Ten days of rest and repose, which seemingly applies to your taste buds as well.
If you’re reading this Sunday morning then it means there are 5,160 minutes left before it ends and yes, I am counting down the minutes. I’m not anti-Jay. I just have trouble finding a good meal.
Newcomers to Thailand need to understand that while it’s touted as the Vegetarian Festival, technically it’s not. It’s a “Jay” festival, as the word is pronounced in Thai. “Jay” does not mean “vegetarian” — there is another word for that, which is mangsavirat meaning “without meat”.
Jay is an offshoot of vegetarianism; a child perhaps, and the Wednesday child if ever there was one. You know how every large family has the one kid who’s a little unlike the others? Dresses in dark clothes, holes herself up in her room for hours, listens to morose entertainers like Lorde and Sinead O’Connor?
That’s Jay in the vegetarian family. It’s non-meat-eating with some unusual exclusions. It also forbids dairy products, making it a full-blood sibling to dull old veganism. But wait. It’s goes even further than that.
Jay also forbids such innocent players as onions. That’s the onion in all its forms; spring onions also get the boot. One wonders where the meat can be found in a spring onion, or is it just because of its ability to make us cry?
Oh well, at least there’s garlic to spice it all up.
Well no, garlic isn’t allowed either. When I start being denied my onions and garlic, I start fighting back. What have onions done to deserve exclusion? If these were humans we’d be screaming racism. But they’re vegetables, and excluding onions and garlic is one of the most blatant examples of vegetablism I have witnessed.
Then there are the grey areas.
I’m reading a fascinating book at the moment about the history of the Roman Empire, in particular Constantinople. In 325 A.D. a group of bishops got together in Nicaea in modern-day Turkey to create what Christians know as the Nicene Creed. Their aim was to bash out the story of Christ so that everyone could agree on the details, which got hotly debated to the point of absurdity, such as how to define God the father, the son and the holy ghost, and whether Jesus was a deity of not owing to his flesh and blood status.
It is coincidental that I read this in the prelude to the Jay Festival. There is a general need for a Nicaean-like council to discuss whether or not honey should be included in the Jay menu.
There are strong advocates for both sides. Some die-hards say absolutely not, while others say it’s a liquid, thus a drink, and thus okay.
Apparently there is a reason for these exclusions. Traditionally, eating Jay ruled out all pungent and exciting ingredients because the diet did not want to evoke any sexual feelings within monks, since it is a festival intertwined with cleansing and good karma. On this point I must defer and accept, not because I’ve ever gotten off on an onion, but because I respect long-standing customs and culture, even if I do prefer to channel my culinary beliefs in diametrically opposite directions.
It is imperative to keep theologically-inclined folk away from temptations of the flesh, and so all the fun stuff is ruled out. If garlic helps in that quest, then so be it. What does that leave?
Beans and fruit, basically, which means Jay must rely on the mother of all dull foods – tofu. You can’t kill onions, but it’s okay to slaughter soybeans. Tofu doesn’t invoke any feelings of lust and desire, a point upon which you will receive no dissension from yours truly.
The end of my soi is a magnet for the Jaysters, as I call them semi-affectionately. All the usual stalls selling chicken, pork, beef balls, prawns, oysters and fish fillets pack up and disappear.
They are replaced by new stalls selling jay chicken, jay pork, jay beef balls, jay prawns, jay oysters and jay fish fillets. This is food made from protein and beans and flavoring.
That is curious. The Jaysters eschew meat and yet fill up on almost identical replicas of meat at twice the price. Things have become so refined it is now difficult to tell the difference between a real chicken and a jay one.
I am wondering if soon we will have jay spring onions and jay garlic. And am I allowed to serve such fake food to monks? Surely that’s a red rag to a bull if ever there was one.
But the centre of all things Jay is not the end of my soi. It is Phuket, where the theatrics of Jay-ism run wild. This is where self-professed shamans claiming to be possessed by ancient spirits wander the streets of Phuket in all sorts of trance-like states. Some of them have bulging eyes and speak in tongues so eloquently, it would put Christian televangelists to shame.
Others clutch giant cleavers and perform nasty acts upon themselves, such as incessantly slicing their tongues, or shoving spikes through their cheeks. Clearly the absence of spring onion and garlic in one’s diet doesn’t extinguish all aspects of exotic behavior.
Back in the 1990s, a local TV station known as iTV did an expose on these rituals. They followed a few of these religious shamen down to the market where they purchased ox tongues. They would later secretly put them in their mouths and slice them to pieces, pretending the tongue was their own. They also featured shamen who revealed their pre-pierced cheeks, so that the process wouldn’t be quite so painful when faced with an audience.
There was a terrible uproar after that program — not because the shamen were exposed for what they were, but because iTV had dared to reveal the truth.
Here in Thailand, diet is weaved into belief and custom, and for this reason we cannot bulldoze over it like a shamen running across pre-cooled hot coals. We must tread a little carefully and afford followers of Jay some respect.
For ten long days I too must tread carefully around those little yellow flags, being tolerant of those who choose to follow it. I remind myself that I live in a country with one of the best cuisines in the world. If that means having to sacrifice 14,400 minutes, when tofu and soy sauce reign supreme, then so be it.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
ALL BETS ARE OFF (WORLD CUP 2018)
By Andrew Biggs
Even before that very first match in which Russia trounced Saudi Arabia, the Thai government was threatening to do its own trouncing. This time around, it would get real tough on World Cup gamblers.
There would be a three-pronged effort between the Central Investigation Bureau, the Immigration Bureau, and the Anti-Money Laundering Office (AMLO).
Police submitted a list of 300 online football betting websites, mostly from abroad, hoping to block them in Thailand. From May 1 to June 13, 722 suspects were arrested. Things were off to a good start.
And when the World Cup began on June 14, the message was clear: Gamble on the World Cup, and the authorities would come down on you like a ton of bricks.
Thais are avid gamblers — nearly as crazy about it as Australians — and will gamble on absolutely everything.
The problem is, gambling is illegal in Thailand.
Thai newspapers Khao Sod and Matichon have launched a fantastic competition. All you have to do is buy a newspaper and predict who will be the champion team for the World Cup.
This is exciting. For a bet of just 20 baht, the price of the newspaper, I have the chance to win a brand new Mazda pick-up worth over 750,000 baht.
Tomorrow my home country Australia is playing France. They haven’t a snowflake’s chance in Isan of becoming champions, but didn’t we say the same thing about Donald Trump prior to the 2016 presidential elections?
I place my bet. I buy the newspaper, fill out the form, writing “AUSTRALIA” as my guess for the winning team.
That afternoon I light a special joss stick and place it inside the spirit house outside my home.
“Even if I don’t win the pick-up truck,” I whisper magnanimously to the shrine, “Please make Australia be the champions.”
The deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Bureau says cops are losing the battle against both online and offline football gambling.
“You can catch physical gambling pools or arrest gamblers in the den. But it is almost impossible to track down those masterminds, both Thais and foreigners, behind online football gambling rings,” Deputy Commissioner Phanurat Lakboon explains.
One of the problems is that Thailand’s neighbour, Cambodia, allows gambling. Against their will, Thais are lured over the border to glittering casinos in places like Poi Pet, which is Cambodian for Boondocks. While there they seize the opportunity to gamble on the World Cup.
The other problem is that Thai law is not very harsh when it comes to punishments.
Gamblers, it appears, get the same lenient treatment as pedophile school directors and embezzling permanent secretaries. They cop a small fine and get transferred to inactive posts. The maximum fine is 1,000 Baht, which is nothing when you could win, say, 20 million baht.
Shattered by Australia’s defeat to France, my depression is alleviated by a giant ad in the Daily News. The popular newspaper is giving away prizes worth over 20 million baht for those who correctly guess who will win the World Cup!
I quickly make the purchase of the newspaper and cut out the four coupons required, then write down my bet as to which team will be the champions.
Brazil had a rocky start, with a tie against Switzerland, but I’ve got a good feeling about them. Besides, their national colors are similar to Australia’s. With this in mind, I put my money on Brazil.
I send it off. It’s a sure gamble. I am now in the running to win gold, a Mitsubishi Pajero, a Honda motorbike or free air tickets.
My personal assistant warns me not to get my hopes up. I’m up against millions of Thais who will also enter the sweepstakes, but I figure you’ve gotta be in it to win it.
The Bangkok Post is reporting that AMLO is working closely with banks to monitor suspicious financial transactions. This is in a move to impound assets of people involved in gambling during the World Cup.
Up to 36 banks and financial institutions have teamed up to form a countrywide operation to help AMLO. Phone network service operators are also on board to beef up the crackdown.
My Thai staff admonish me for sending in my predictions so quickly.
“You should do what the Thais do,” my personal assistant says. “Wait until the very last day of the competition. There will be only four teams left. Then send in a thousand entries for each team.”
My interest is piqued. “Isn’t sending 4,000 entries a little expensive?”
“Think about it,” he says. “Supposing you send in a thousand postcards at 5 baht each. That’s 5,000 baht times four, which is 20,000 baht. It’s still a good bet if you win.”
Today I notice one phone service network is running a great competition. If I sign up, I can win 30 million baht in prizes just for predicting the winner of the World Cup.
Thirty million Baht!
I get what my personal assistant is saying. For an initial outlay of 20,000 baht, I can win a first prize of 10 million baht. I’m starting to get the hang of this gambling thing. It’s fun!
But who to choose? I have gone off Brazil. I am edging more towards Russia, since they are the hosts and we all know Russia never plays by the rules. Putin is sure to be barking orders to secure the cup.
I decide to gamble on Russia, but I hold off placing my bet. When in Rome …
Surat Thani cops raided a football gambling den and detained 12 gamblers and two employees. That doesn’t sound a lot to me.
Meanwhile police raided four more locations in Hua Hin, arresting 20 suspects. That’s a grand total of 32 gamblers. Where could all the rest be hiding?
Nevertheless, police around the country, including Nakhon Keystone, are running around doing their best to stamp out all forms of World Cup gambling.
Speaking of stamps …
At my office’s weekly meeting, all the talk is about the World Cup. Since Australia is no longer in the running I am no longer interested. But then my personal assistant shoves a print ad in my face.
Thailand Post in association with Thai Rath newspaper is giving away 32 million baht in prizes! It is the mother of all betting campaigns and it’s brought to you by the government’s own post office.
For the cost of a postcard, I can win cash prizes of up to ten million baht.
“I might have to bet on that one,” I say.
“It’s not betting,” says my PA. “We call it loon choke in Thai.”
That translates as “performing an act in order to hope for good luck to come one’s way”. I consult my Merriam-Webster and it defines gambling as “to bet on an uncertain outcome” and “to play a game for money or property.” That definition fits what the post office is doing like a glove.
Sounds a lot like loon choke as well.
And that is where we are up to now. I’ve entered so many competitions I have lost count. It’s going to get busy at my office when it’s down to the final four teams; my staff will be begrudgingly filling out a lot of postcards.
This is what’s great about living in Thailand during the World Cup. It’s so exciting, especially when the sport can win you 10 million baht for the price of a newspaper!
Meanwhile the government is still trying to locate elusive gamblers. Or perhaps they just can’t see the forest for the postcards.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
by Andrew Biggs
I once was special guest on a kids TV show where my task was to explain the story of Father Christmas.
My audience, on the set, was a dozen six-year-old Thai kids. I did a good job. I built up the story well, starting with Santa’s factory in the North Pole, and climaxing with him coming down the chimney and leaving gifts under the tree.
That bunch of kids was transfixed. Especially one little boy, who kept drawing closer and closer. By the time I got to the chimney part, he was standing right next to me, wide-eyed, staring at my mouth.
“And that’s the story of Santa Claus,” I concluded. “Do you have any questions?”
The little boy next to me shot up his hand.
“Why are your teeth so yellow?” he asked.
Never work with children or animals goes the old adage in the TV industry. I can see what they mean, but I don’t agree with it. I can’t imagine anything more fun than working with kids on TV.
It is not often your favorite columnist is ripped out of his daily hectic Bangkok life and hurled towards a forest temple in the middle of nowhere.
But that is what happened to me this week. And as I write this column, I am sitting in a dense forest just outside a structure known as the “Pavilion of Knowledge”, having just completed my evening task of mentoring.
It is here a group of 12 boys aged 8-11 years have come from all over the world to be novice monks for the month of July. Their ordination service is today, but I am writing this on Wednesday night, sitting outside, trying to to remain in a meditative state, but being tested by a swarm of menacing oversized mosquitoes. Buddhist Precept Number One states it is a sin to kill. The mosquitoes are thus spared. Begrudgingly.
It’s not just me and the kids who are here. There is the small matter of 20 cameras and 200 staff surrounding us.
You see, it’s a reality show, live and being beamed across the country and the globe.
Like you, I have only seen reality shows consisting of young people, whose gene pool has sacrificed wisdom for physical attraction, wander around pools in skimpy outfits, either back-stabbing or fornicating, or both at the same time. In hundreds of years, when they study the downfall of human society, they will find a correlation between these shows and social decay in the early 21st century.
It took Thailand to cut a swathe through the detritus of the reality show industry and come up with an ingenious idea. And in many ways, it was an idea that was staring them in the face.
Take 12 kids, have them ordain as novice monks in a temple, and follow their spiritual journey.
That has been the idea for an annual reality show called True Little Monks on the True cable channels 60 and 99. It has been a big hit locally for seven years now and has picked up numerous awards.
Then this year, they decided the children would not be Thais. They would be foreigners, and the show would be in English.
Thus 12 amazing little boys were selected from a field of 500 candidates. There is a British boy as well as Australian, Kenyan, French, New Zealander, Nepalese, Portuguese and Chinese representatives.
Last week they were bundled off to a temple called Wat Pa Sai Ngam in Ubon Ratchathani, 613 km to the northeast, not far from where Thailand, Laos and Cambodia converge, which is where I am sitting now swatting the mosquitos.
It’s a meditation temple surrounded by giant boulders stacked on top of one another. As a result, there is almost a Jurassic Park feel to the place.
Right in the middle is the very serene Pavilion of Learning, bathed in foliage, and it is here the 12 boys gathered, starting last Monday, on their spiritual journey.
For one week they learn how to be a monk. Then today, they shave their heads, don saffron robes, and become monks throughout July.
I am on the show as well. My official title is spiritual mentor, and by god if you spit out your coffee like that one more I swear I’ll end this column right here and now.
My task is to guide these young people along the correct path. Each night I spend an hour with them asking about what they learned. It is very intimate; just me and the kids … and 20 cameras, glaring studio lights, and 200 staff running around holding up whiteboards reading WRAP IT UP – FIVE MINUTES.
For the past week the boys have learned about the Five Buddhist Precepts, the Four Noble Truths, the Eight-fold Path to Happiness. They have learned how to “wai” to monks and Buddha images. They have been taught how to walk while meditating.
It goes without saying that their so-called mentor is as much a student as they are. And yet for all that spirituality, they are still little boys full of energy and often forgetting they should be well-behaved. But that is what is refreshing about this experience. They may end up little monks, but for now they are little monkeys.
When I first get to meet them, they are excited to tell me, live on camera, that my name is “Werdna”. I thought it was Pali Sanskrit. Wrong.
They have decided to call each other by their names spelt backwards. Thus, little “Bin Bin” is now “Nib Nib”, and I seize on that opportunity to teach them that a “nib” is a tip of a pen.
Attempting to pull the conversation back to more ethereal matters, I ask them: “So tell me, children, how do you feel about being here in this temple, about to embark on a wondrous journey?”
In unison: “HUNGRY!!!!!”
They are unable to eat after 12 noon, and my session is at 8 pm. This aspect of being a monk, along with daily waking at 4 am, is the mostchallenging.
“What do you think you’ll do after you leave the temple?” I ask. I want them to talk about spreading the word, but instead one of them shoot his hand up and says: “I’m gonna sleep in till 10 am, and eat as much as I possibly can whenever I like!”
There are problems, too, with sitting in the lotus position for extended times, and early meditation efforts result in occasional yawns and lapses into sleep. I’m talking about myself, dear reader. Sometimes the kids.
Meanwhile Jaydet from Australia is breaking out in a heat rash and requires a clandestine hospital visit. Ar-tee, one of the quieter boys, is feeling homesick. Little Put, 11 years old, reads fantasy novels for fun. When the other boys have their nap time at midday, he reads. This latest one, a Magnus Chase fantasy novel at 520 pages, is the third in a series. He explains in great detail the synopsis, and I nod my head sagely as mentors are supposed to do, hoping he doesn’t notice the story goes over my head. But how refreshing to see kids engrossed in books.
Tonight’s mentoring session ends by my asking each of them: “Tell me the one important thing you learned today.” The first answer is: “I learned that a nib is the end of a pen.” Not exactly the answer I was looking for.
Wrapping it up, I ask the all-important question: “Children. You’ve learned so much these past few. Are you ready to become little monks?”
I fully expect a joyous affirmation drowned out by the title music and final credits of that day’s broadcast.
Instead they blurt out in unison: “Nooooooooooo!”
Never work with kids or animals? Getouttahere!
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
By Andrew Biggs
How wonderful to be back in the Land of Smiles after my week-long sojourn to Italy, as documented in this column last week.
Despite my best efforts, on the way back home I did not get an upgrade to business class, nor could I even secure an emergency exit. Thankfully it was an overnighter, so with the help of a little limoncello and half a Xanax the trip was swift.
There is no rest for the wicked, as your correspondent had to embark on a quick turnaround and head straight for the western province of Kanchanaburi for a week-long English boot camp.
Rome and Kanchanaburi are such polar opposites. This is a captivating jungle province on the Burmese border with tourist attractions such as the Erawan waterfall and a meandering river whose serenity is broken each night by floating disco restaurants. There’s nothing like “Ring My Bell” to shatter the serenity of an evening in the jungle, but your correspondent is far from that river.
The big attraction here is the Bridge on the River Kwai. The river is pronounced kwair in Thai but apparently this was too difficult for western POWs to say, hence the bastardization.
I have been here so many times, and incredible as it may seem, there is a tenuous link between my recent trip to Italy and this visit to Kanchanaburi. In Italy I went to visit the Vatican. The first time I visited Kanchanaburi, I went to visit a nun.
The year was 1989; I was a wide-eyed and optimistic backpacker with a desire for adventure off the beaten track. I bought the Lonely Planet Guide to Thailand which ensured everywhere I went was very much on a track well-beaten by tourists.
Thais have a special word for backpackers. They call them farang khee no, or literally “bird shit westerners.” The notion is that of a traveler who ends up all over the place, not dissimilar to a bird whose droppings do the same. And while Thais will tell you that the definition is affectionate, let me be the one to shatter that illusion – it’s cruel and probably right on target.
I was a proud “farang khee nok” staying in guest houses populated by eager young Americans, Europeans and Aussies taking gap years to see the world. Everybody was reading “The Incredible Lightness Of Being” and “Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance” except for me – I was into Agatha Christie. Those same guest houses were home to hipsters who sat around smoking dope and strumming guitars. I found them tedious; there are only so many times one can listen to Neil Young’s “Comes A Time” without contemplating suicide.
One night there was a group of hipsters next to me enjoying their fruit shakes while a Thai guide was explaining to them: “While you’re here, you must see the Floating Nun. She is number one!”
I immediately looked up from my copy of Murder on the Orient Express.
“She’s a very old Buddhist nun who has been floating on water for a long, long time,” he said. “Every day at 11 am and 3 pm she goes down to the water. She prays and meditates. It’s truly unique, and she reaches a deep state of meditation by doing it. And she floats! She doesn’t sink! It’s incredible!”
Now I’d heard everything.
I have to admit I am attracted to such attractions. It is probably how I ended up at the Dwarf Restaurant in Manila a number of years ago, or how I am a regular patron of an eatery not far from my Bangkok home called the Flying Chicken Restaurant. Order a chicken and before they serve it to you they set it on fire, ring a bell, turn on disco lights then catapult the flaming chicken through the air onto a spike on a helmet worn by a man riding a unicycle.
A floating nun trumps all that.
In all my life I had only ever heard of the Flying Nun, my favorite TV show as a kid in which Sally Field played a nun who, whenever the wind blew, managed to tilt her headwear and was able to fly through the air. It’s the kind of idea one can only think up after limoncello and Xanax.
That night I consulted the Lonely Planet and was happy to see the Floating Nun mentioned briefly. She performed her ethereal aquatics at a temple called Wat Tham Mangkorn Thong.
The temple was a tourist attraction with sparkling Buddha images but I wasn’t there for those. I’d seen so many temples backpacking I was templed out. I spotted a handwritten sign at the entrance: “THIS WAY TO THE FLAOTING (sic) NUN” accompanied by an outrageous arrow. I followed the sign.
I was led by a temple boy to a stark concrete pool, probably about three or four metres across and about one metre deep. There were another two or three Thais standing around smoking cigarettes. I was the only representative of the western world.
I should have known something was up by the fact the wizened Thai woman dressed in white arrived at 11 am on the dot – no Thai ever comes on time. She climbed into the pool and lay on her back. I leant forward for a better view.
She clasped her hands together, then using her feet pushed herself off from one side and floated across, like a lackadaisical torpedo, to the other side. Then back again. Then out of the pool. Then she was gone.
The temple boy drew out a plastic bag from his trousers and walked around collecting donations.
What … that was it? I was obliged to throw 10 baht into the plastic bag but I did it with a very heavy heart. I quickly made my way back into town, realizing I had witnessed something even blander than “Comes A Time”.
Somewhere in the back of my photo cupboard I still have a picture or two of that famous Floating Nun. It was my first introduction to sham tourist attractions in this country, though certainly not the first in my life.
I grew up not so far away from the Big Pineapple, a monstrosity along the Queensland North Coast highway where you can actually go up inside and witness, via a photographic exhibition, the amazing process of growing and harvesting pineapples – that is providing you can stay awake. On a trip to Brussels I felt underwhelmed at the statue of the urinating little boy – I had travelled halfway across the world to see that? And now here I was in the jungles of South-East Asia, having paid money to see an old lady stay afloat in a concrete play pool …
Not long after that initial trip to Kanchanaburi there was a story in the local papers here about the Floating Nun. She may have been able to escape the rigors of regular day job, but she wasn’t able to escape her mortal coil. She died in 1990.
But the resourceful Wat Tham Mongkol Tong didn’t miss a beat. A week later there was a new Floating Nun in the concrete pool unimpressing tourists.
And, as I have just discovered on YouTube, there is one still there to this day. Only these days you are required to throw money into the concrete pool as she prays. Whoah, this old world keeps spinning round, it’s a wonder tall trees aren’t laying down …
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs