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The synchronized clink of two sets of cutlery was only superseded in volume by the rush of air as the office maid swooped over.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.
HOW TO GET GOOD AT THAI
By Andrew Biggs
I have a great story to tell you that will appeal to any non-Thai currently doing battle with learning the Thai language.
My life turned a full circle this week as I began a teaching gig at Ramkhamhaeng University Demonstration School. A gaggle of my best teachers are there in February conducting an extended English camp, and on day one I went to the school to show my face and chat to the students.
It was also very emotional, as it was a return to my Thai language roots.
This school is attached to Ramkhamhaeng University, naturally. What other university would it be attached to? It is named after King Ramkhamhaeng the Great, who 700 years ago ruled the kingdom of Sukhothai and is credited with thinking up the Thai alphabet. His statue can be found right in the middle of a roundabout at the center of the university. It is the one royal image I often finding myself lighting joss sticks in front of to this day— for a reason I am about to explain.
If the cute and well-behaved students of Ramkhamhaeng University Demonstration School find English hard to grasp, they should spare a thought for every non-Thai who has ever considered seriously learning the Thai language. Thanks to its tone rules, lack of spaces between words and my beloved Siamese King’s vast, elongated Thai alphabet — all 44 consonants, and that’s not counting the 32 vowels — the Thai language is daunting, frustrating and elusive.
For my own experience in learning the language, we need to travel back in time to 1995. I had been in Thailand for five years and was at a level of Thai considered acceptable but not brilliant. And so, in my typical style, I decided to go straight for the jugular. I applied to study Thai at university.
I chose Ramkhamhaeng University because there were a lot of graduates at the office, and they seemed to be hard-working people. Ramkhamhaeng at the time was the world’s largest semi-open university with some 300,000 students learning out of textbooks and/or in classrooms. That figure has since gone down thanks to the dwindling number of young Thais and the proliferation of universities over the last decade.
Ramkhamhaeng serves a very useful purpose in Thai society, because anyone with Grade 12 can study there. There is no Entrance test. Every Thai knows the saying: “Ramkhamhaeng University: Easy to enter, difficult to leave.” I know that sounds like a Twilight Zone episode, but what it means is getting a degree from this university requires discipline and time management, something we all lack at times.
I was the first westerner ever to apply to study at Ramkhamhaeng. I was on page one of Thai newspapers on the day I applied to be a student. There I was, pictured receiving my student ID card. It was fun to be the center of attention for once, and I walked out of that university feeling like I was on top of the world.
When I opened the textbooks, I came crashing back to earth.
There is a subject in first year that all Thai students fear. It’s called English 101. It’s all that really interesting stuff in English, like how to conjugate verbs and the 12 tenses of English plus conditional tenses and – I know, I’ve lost you already. Just the thought of that subject scares the living daylights out of every first year Thai student.
Except for me.
I was probably the first student that went into the final exam without ever having opened the textbook. I breezed through the 100 questions, even quietly ignoring the ones that had no correct answers, and left early.
There was another mandatory first-year subject, but the feeling towards that subject was vastly different. Thai students giggled at how easy it was. That subject was Thai 101, or basic Thai grammar stuff they had all learned since they were toddlers.
Except for me.
I will never forget the day I opened the Thai 101 textbook for the first time and saw the myriad rules and regulations governing the Thai language. I felt betrayed.
I’d always been told there were no rules to Thai – no tenses, no plurals, nothing but nice easy one-syllable words. You could put words in any order as long as you smiled or performed a traditional Thai dance as you spoke.
Suddenly I realized this wasn’t true. Suddenly I was confronted with 16 different ways to refer to oneself … another 14 or so to refer to “you” … and the most difficult thing of all, the Royal Language used specifically for the monarch. And I was expected to know all this!
The Royal Language scared me the most. It was difficult enough to remember “walk” as dern. Now I had to know that it was praratchadamnern when referring to royalty. Granted it was lovely to the ear, but like a plate of bad somtam, the knowledge went in one end and out the other. Nothing stuck in my brain.
As examination day drew closer, I got the sinking feeling I wasn’t going to pass Thai 101. What a terrible loss of face. Here I was, the apple of the uni’s eye, their first farang studying there, with all eyes on me … and I was going to fail. I had sleepless nights planning ways of getting out of the test, like stepping in front of a bus on Ramkhamhaeng Road. I didn’t want to kill myself, but I would have been happy to be critically injured.
My idea of studying Thai at university level was crazy. I should have spent my nights doing what every other expat does in this city; sitting in Patpong bars, gyrating on a bar stool at Nana Plaza or even sitting in the audience of the latest Bangkok Community Theatre production. Anything was better than being inside the pages of that Thai 101 textbook!
One week before the exam I got a call from my friend Taweesak who worked at the university.
“So how are you feeling?” he asked.
I couldn’t hold back my feelings. “Terrible!” I ejaculated.
“Why? What’s happened?”
“It’s this subject … TH101. I can’t remember the information. Who could possibly learn 16 different ways of saying “I”? One week to the test and I know I’m gonna fail. And I’m going to look bad, and everybody in the whole country’s going to know the truth that I’m actually pretty stupid and –”
Taweesak was laughing by this stage. There is nothing quite as infuriating as a laughing Thai in a moment of crisis, despite their best of intentions, but before I could berate him he said: “Relax. I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Here at Ramkhamhaeng, we have a special way to ensure you will pass your subject.”
Being a cynical Australian, I immediately jumped to the wrong conclusion. “How much do I put in the envelope? How do I get it to the teacher?”
“Nothing like that,” he said. “I’m going to make you do something I’m sure no foreigner has ever done before. But it will make you pass. Just meet me outside the statue of King Ramkhamhaeng tomorrow at midday.”
And with that, Taweesak hung up.
Ramkhamhaeng University is named after a very famous King of the Sukhothai era from 800 years ago. This monarch is credited with creating the first written Thai alphabet. His austere statue is located right in the middle of the university.
I’ve always felt an affinity with King Ramkhamhaeng, so it was only fitting my friend Taweesak made me meet him at the foot of the statue. “So you’re having problems with TH101?” he asked.
“That’s an understatement,” I replied. TH101 was the first Thai subject I had taken, and the sheer volume of information about the Royal Language and Thai grammar was causing me sleepless nights.
He handed me some joss sticks and a lotus bulb and pointed up to the statue. “Okay. You’re going to bon barn,” he said.
(I have since been through numerous Thai-English dictionaries and almost all convenient omit bon barn … I assume Thais just don’t want we westerners to know about this practise.)
He saw my quizzical expression but continued nevertheless. “Go up to the statue and pray to King Ramkhamhaeng. Tell him what you want. Then come back down.”
What a relief! Was it that simple to pass a subject at this university? “Not quite,” said Taweesak. There is a catch, as there always is. “You also have to tell him exactly what you intend to do if your wish comes true. If you ask King Ramkhamhaeng to pass TH101, and you pass, then you have to kae bon -- or repay the Great King’s kindness by performing an act.”
“Er … what kind of act?” I asked my friend.
“Well, some people give thanks by dancing naked in front of their deity of choice. Most people get friends to hold up sheets so nobody can see you.”
I was wondering who I would choose to perform the dubious task of holding up a bedsheet while I stripped off and performed a traditional Thai dance in front of a deity … and what about those folks in high rise buildings and aircraft?
“Anyway here at Ramkhamhaeng we don’t often do that,” said Taweesak, and boy did that reduce my anxiety tenfold. “Students here will repay the kindness by running around the statue.”
“With my clothes on?” I enquired.
“Of course,” said Taweesak with a laugh. “We’re not sex maniacs you know!”
Of course you’re not, Taweesak. It’s perfectly acceptable behavior to strip off in public and dance in front of a statue.
“Students will promise to run around the King 99 times.”
Ninety-nine times! I would later measure out one time around as being 300 metres. I would have to run 33 kilometres! By now I was weighing up which was worse – the shame of failing a subject, or the fatigue of running almost an entire marathon. Or, of course, the naked thing.
“You don’t have to run it all in one go. You can break it up over a few days. And you can also get your staff to run some of them for you,” explained Taweesak with a deadpan expression suggesting he was being serious.
I had no choice. I was there; I had to go through with this. I took off my shoes and began climbing the steps towards the ominous figure of King Ramkhamhaeng.
“Oh and I nearly forgot!” shouted out Taweesak from below. “You are talking to a King, so remember to use Royal Language!”
Now I wanted to just break down and cry. I was in this ludicrous situation because I couldn’t remember the Royal Language … now I was expected to get OUT of this situation by USING Royal Language!
As panic threatened to rain down upon my central nervous system I got an idea – I would bon in English. I knelt down, clasped my hands together, closed my eyes and began.
“Pleasssse, King Ramkhamhaeng. Help me pass TH101. And if you make me pass, I’ll run around you 99 times. With love, Andrew. Oh, and take care of your health.” I prostrated myself before my beloved King, and soon I was down the bottom again.
Well, a week later and I did the test. I was even more convinced I was going to fail. But life in Thailand is a life of nothing but surprises, and when the test results came out, I got the shock of my life.
I had passed TH101.
It felt like I had won the lottery. I called everybody I knew – and some I didn’t. I called my mother in Australia. “I passed my first Thai subject at university!” I squealed. My mother misunderstood; she thought I came first in the whole of Thailand in the subject of Thai, beating even the Thais. When I found this out I took absolutely no steps in putting everybody straight.
It was Taweesak who put a momentary stop to my self-aggrandisement. “So when are you going to kae bon?” he asked.
Oh never mind about that. I passed. That’s the main thing. This was my initial reaction until this faint voice echoed in the back of my head – from the ancient monarch himself perhaps? – whispering: “Remember. Next semester … TH102.”
I chose midnight on a Monday night. I figured there’d be no one there, and so late that night I dragged out my old running outfit, which was more frayed at the edges than I was on the day of the TH101 test. I drove to the university. I parked outside. I walked in the darkness towards the statue, silhouetted against the moonlit sky. Just the night, King Ramkhamhaeng, and the moon, all witnesses to my extended run of thanks …
… and one hundred Ramkhamhaeng students!
Imagine my surprise to see, in the darkness, 100 students all doing what I was doing that night! How egocentric of me to think I was the only one who had bonned (note the past tense) before the tests! It is testament to my courage that I threw up my hands, thought “What the hell” and began running round and round and round a total of 99 times, stretched over three nights, with nothing but Thai students laughing and ridiculing me.
To this day I still visit King Ramkhamhaeng when I need things. I do it quietly, and these days my kae bon usually takes the form of a charitable act of some kind. I have never had the audacity to strip down and dance naked by way of thanks. I can imagine the statue’s hands creaking up to the royal eyes to shield the view.
I used to wonder why King Ramkhamhaeng had been so gracious to allow me to pass a subject I had so little knowledge of.
“King Ramkhamhaeng is very benevolent,” Taweesak explained later. “And I guess when he saw a farang coming up those steps, he might have been a little surprised. Plus you were probably the first person ever to bon in English. Perhaps His Majesty didn’t understand you, but took pity on you and decided to help you out. Don’t ever forget his kindness.”
I haven’t. And that, dear reader, is how I got good at Thai.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
GIVING ME THE COOKIE RUNS
By Andrew Biggs
Fern has a new high score on Cookie Run.
Fern has hit 1,042,511 points and is now at Level 20. This is good, since Fern was at Level 19 just the day before and Level 18 last Friday. Her ascension has been astounding.
Two minutes after Fern’s triumphant SMS I receive one from Mr Onn.
Mr Onn has achieved a new high score of 1,868,147, totally eclipsing Fern.
Not ten seconds later I receive an SMS from Peachy who has managed a high score of 840,230, somewhat paltry compared to Mr Onn’s effort but “compare is despair” as my friend Captain Pat says.
This week we had an earthquake in Chiang Rai, bombs in Hat Yai and the Prime Minister got the boot all in the space of 48 hours.
Nobody texted me about any of those three pieces of news. And yet in the same period of time I had a total of 13 people send me the feverishly exciting news that they had hit new highs on Cookie Run.
Why am I telling you all this?
Well for a number of reasons, the most primary being when it comes to the abyss of useless passive-aggressive information constantly springing out of my iPhone, I don’t want to be depressed on my own. I think Captain Pat got it wrong. “Compare” isn’t despair; try “share.”
My phone beeped three times in rapid succession during an important meeting to announce the achievements of Fern, Onn and Peachy. That in itself was irritating enough, and one could put it down to a case of bad timing if one were a little more tolerant of fools than your columnist is.
What the hell is Cookie Run anyway?
I refuse to find out. All I know is it involves a lot of jumping and sliding, neither of which activity your columnist is likely to perform for gravitational, not to mention aesthetic, reasons.
We can blame a little green App from Japan called Line, pronounced Lie in Thailand which is appropriate, since that is what we tell our bosses when they ask what we’ve been doing for the past few hours.
Cookie Run is a game that is downloadable from Line. It’s Pacman for the Vacuum Generation. It’s one of those mindless games one can play to while away an otherwise lazy afternoon at work, and indeed, the workplace is the venue of choice judging from the myriad messages I receive informing me of High Scores and New Levels.
In one single day last week, the assortment of Cookie Run players announcing their achievements was staggering. They ranged from Silom night workers to entertainment company directors to Muslim separatists in the Deep South.
One of those nine cabinet ministers ejected last Wednesday afternoon has a Senior Advisor who recently penetrated Level 16. No wonder that minister got such bad advice, unless he was enquiring as to how one could get past that infernal Level 10.
I’ve been waiting for a report to be finished for a week now from an outside company. The writer is two weeks’ late and it’s messing up a project of mine, but he says he is absolutely flat out hence his tardiness.
And yet in the space of one week he has progressed from Level 14 to Level 18. I know this because Line beeps me at the end of every Level. I’d give my right arm for a beep telling me the damned work is finished.
It worries me that we humans have a desire to broadcast such feats, if a Cookie Run high score can be deemed a “feat”. And I won’t even start on the annoyance of being snapped out of a meeting by the likes of Fern, Onn and Peachy.
Who are Fern, Onn and Peachy anyway?
I’m glad you asked that question, dear reader.
Fern is a sales executive of mine who resigned back in 2014 for reasons not to be detailed here in order to avoid defamation litigation, since truth is no defence in this country. To say she left under a cloud may be understating the intensity of fluffy condensed water vapor.
As for Onn, we worked together 20 years ago on a magazine. We haven’t chatted for a good ten years, when he was in between jobs and asked if there was any work going.
As for Peachy … do you honestly think I would be friends with anyone possessing such a nickname?
I have no idea who Peachy is (certainly not one of my deep south separatist friends – they’d have blown her up based solely on her nickname), but she clearly knows me, since Line syncs you up with people who possess your telephone number, whether you have theirs or not.
So ... an underperforming ex-employee, a work colleague from the mid-1990s, and some anonymous young woman with a sickly nickname … none of these three has any legitimate reason to be contacting me nowadays unless it is to apologize, lodge an application form or announce a name change.
I know what some of my more opinionated readers are thinking. “Why doesn’t he just delete Line and be done with it?” they denounce, spitting morsels of apple-cinnamon muffin onto my byline.
Well believe me I wish I could, opinionated readers, only the entire business world in Thailand now runs from Line user groups.
“There is one way you can stop the notifications,” a staff member told me this week.
“How? Tell me how!” I replied, using both hands to tug at his work-shirt collar.
“You download Cookie Run, then go to the settings and block notifications.”
Someone give those Cookie Run creators a medal! Pure genius! I actually have to download the damned thing to stop it bothering me!
Well I did it.
I downloaded Cookie Run in order to block it.
But just before I did, I figured I may as well play it to see what the fuss is all about.
And this is where I must end this column. I wrote that last paragraph at 7.45 pm. It’s now 3 am and I must be going to bed.
STREET FOOD, STREET CARNAGE
By Andrew Biggs
There are two categories where you can find Thailand sitting at the top of the world charts.
The first is for street food. There isn’t another country in the world that can match the variety and quantity of what is peddled roadside here. CNN has lauded Thailand, in particular Bangkok, for the best street food in the world. So has Conde Nast Traveller, Virtual Tourist, Skyscanner … the secret is out.
The second category where we have clinched pole position is in road fatalities.
For years we languished at number 2. That all changed late 2017 when it was announced we had finally taken over the top spot with a road death rate of 36.2 per 100,000. On that dubious chart, Thailand is followed by Malawi, Liberia, The Congo, Tanzania … hardly the type of countries you would bring home to meet Mother, and we managed to top them all.
There you have it. Two world number ones for Thailand – street food and road fatalities.
A person unfamiliar with the way we do things in Thailand may find it a little curious, perhaps, to learn that the powers-that-be have cracked down on, and taken major steps to eradicate, exactly one of those two categories. And it ain’t road fatalities.
There has been fervor in the way the government has blotted out the lower classes wheeling their street carts onto the footpath. They cite “social order” and “adherence to the law” as the reasons — their words, not mine.
“Social order” and “adherence to the law” are laudable aspirations, but talk about skewed priorities. I wonder how a stout middle-aged woman selling fried noodles is a greater danger to “social order” than, say, a drunken meth-head racing his motorbike home at 140 km an hour after two bottles of rice whiskey.
This column was written last Thursday, at the close of “Seven Dangerous Days” as the police call it. This is the period between December 28 and January 3 where fatalities are at their peak.
Actually there are “Fourteen Dangerous Days” in Thailand. The period over Songkran in April has its own “Seven Dangerous Days” as well. We don’t bundle them together because it’s nearly half a month and that may frighten away some of those 30 million tourists who visit Thailand annually. And anyway … just the fourteen? When you’re number one in the world it’s “365 Dangerous Days,” isn’t it?
Last year almost 500 people were killed in the seven-day New Year period. As I write this the figures are in for Day Six and 375 are dead, which means this year’s toll will end up around the 450 mark. That’s less than last year.
One wonders if the road safety folk will be smiling and patting each other on the back over that. It does remind me of the 2010-2011 “Seven Dangerous Days” when, the week prior to the start, the then-police chief ordered a death toll of “no more than 300.”
Imagine that: “I want to see 300 dead bodies lined up outside my office by the end of the week and no more!” It ended up at 358.
This week the Probation Department hit us with the most telling statistic of all; that drunk-driving cases accounted for 90% of traffic offences over the New Year Holiday period. We can safely say that the one, single, solitary reason we kill each other in such huge numbers is alcohol.
Whatever you do don’t show that above paragraph to the powers that be. They will use it as a tool to continue what has been a litany of misguided campaigns over alcohol in this country. Those campaigns are nothing but half-measures up against an inherent culture of drinking-till-you-drop.
As I drive into the city on the freeway, I see the same tired old billboard that depicts a New Year’s basket with a bottle of alcohol inside. “GIVING ALCOHOL IS AKIN TO CURSING THE RECIPIENT!” it shouts, as if somehow this is going to reduce the road toll. By January each year it disappears so we can all get on with our lives — except for those who were killed over New Year.
Meanwhile police are “cracking down” by seizing the cars of drivers found to be drunk. This is not a crack-down. This is common sense!
The cops are quick to point out that the cars will be returned after the holiday period. Well thank goodness for that. How is a drunkard expected to get around without his vehicle? It must be a relief for the country’s burgeoning drunk-driver population to know that they can quickly get their cars back and continue their behavior in peace.
There are other admirable but futile attempts, such as a law forbidding alcohol to be sold between 2 pm and 5 pm in order to stop people drinking during that time. Or no alcohol to be sold within a radius of 1 km of schools or temples to stop students and Buddhists from drinking. Whoever thought up these laws no doubt still puts their teeth under pillows for the tooth fairy to collect.
Absolutely everything implemented to reduce the death toll in this country has been a failure, because they are really just skirting the big issue: Nobody is afraid to drink and drive.
Towards the top of this column I mentioned Thailand having an inherent culture of drinking-till-you-drop. I, too, come from such a culture. We Australians are big drinkers, and yet our road toll, per head, is way lower than that of Thailand’s.Is it because we are smarter than Thais? Good lord no. It’s because we are afraid.
One of the dubious claims to fame of my state, Queensland, in the 1970s and early 1980s was its high road toll. There was a reluctance to accept the correlation between guzzling bottles of Bundaberg Rum and Fourex beer, often at the same time, then getting behind the wheel and driving home. Queensland is the only state with more rural folk than city dwellers which, like Thailand, is where the majority of drunken accidents occur
Queensland continued along in its alcoholic daze until someone in government looked at the road toll – and health care costs -- and decided something had to be done.
The cops got tough on drink drivers, starting random breath testing and dropping the legal blood alcohol limit to 0.05. Anybody could get pulled over and if they were over the limit, they lost their licence. As simple as that. No giving it back after the holiday. It was gone for at least three months.
Judges lost their licenses. So did politicians. Even the cops! We all knew somebody who fell foul of the law and lost their privilege — not right — to drive. It was only this fear of hitting a random breath testing stop that made us curtail our behavior.
Here in Thailand such a heavy crack-down would be greeted with howls of dissent. Losing your license? Then how on earth are you supposed to make a living? What about the poor rural folk, whose very lives depend on their vehicles?
The answer is: Tough. You drink-drive, you lose your license. Next.
One day – one day – somebody high up in the Thai government will cotton onto this simple fact. The road toll remains high as long as repercussions remain low. Tough cops, tough laws and a strong educational campaign about drink-driving really does work, even on us Queenslanders.
And it’s not as though there is any place to set up roadside breathalyzer stations. Look at all that space on the sidewalks.
ONCE YOU GO WHITE ...
By Andrew Biggs
Deadlines can be merciless things.
I have a weekly deadline for this column to which I strictly adhere, and just writing that sentence makes me peer ominously out the window for fear of a lightning bolt splitting me asunder.
Like all journalists, your favorite columnist must send this column in at a specific time and day, and if I am a little late, then my editor turns into a monster.
I am telling you this because a news story dropped literally hours after I’d sent last week’s well-honed and polished column. It was a story so outrageous I almost prostrated myself before my editor, asking her for another day to churn out another twelve hundred words on it. Alas deadlines, like editors, are merciless.
I am talking about the story that did the rounds of the world media about Thailand becoming the hub for penis lightening.
Yes, the world media. In fact the only two Thai news stories that made CNN and BBC last week were penile bleaching and the Prime Minister telling reporters to ask questions to a cardboard cut-out of himself – two separate cases of white-washing for the world to see.
Before we begin let me get two things off my chest. First, owing to the sexual nature of this topic, I will not bow to cheap journalism and litter this column with double-entendres. I noticed one news agency snuck one in, reporting that social networks had been “aroused” by the story. Good one, ha ha, I get it, but you won’t find any such verbal ejaculations in this column.
Second, there is a strong reason for my bringing up a news story from seven days ago, which in the journalistic world is an eternity.
Back in 2015 I reported on an ad on Thai TV for a roll-on deodorant whose express purpose was to whiten your armpits. I thought I’d seen everything until that ad.
In it, a Thai teenage girl is in a terrible quandary. On the skytrain an allegedly handsome Thai teenage guy walks past her and notices her armpits are dark. She may as well have had buck teeth and a bung eye. The cute guy throws her a disapproving scowl. You can see it in his face: “No sex with her tonight … looks like it’s just me and the smart phone again.”
Then she undergoes a radical transformation. After she has used the roll-on deodorant, we see her raging away at some concert, flinging those arms about, revealing lily-white armpits, proof that indeed all you need is to be light underneath your arms to be beautiful. And look! There’s the cute guy, raging away next to her. Exactly how did he manage to hook up with her at the concert? And since when have Thai girls favored stalker boys with underarm fetishes?
It has always been a personal mission of mine when teaching English to erase the commonly-held notion that light skin is good and black skin is bad. My mission has been an abject failure; I may as well stand on the beach and tell a tsunami to stop.
What is “suncream” in my home country of Australia is touted as skin whitener or lightener in Thailand, despite being the same product. Ads for these products bombard Thai TV sets with the clear message that good things happen in your life when you are “white”.
The ads are akin to Before and After shots for weight loss centers. Dark-skinned pretty girl sits at home alone listening to Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” on endless loop. Thank goodness for Ponds! Praise you, Revlon! The girl is now white and happy, frolicking in Siam Square with Thai guys whose hormones are raging for white.
In 2015 I hypothesized that the armpit was the last nook and cranny left on the body for skin cream companies to exploit. It looks like I was wrong. Again.
Thailand is now the “hub” for men who wish to lighten their penises. At least that is how the world media reported it last week, and it begs the questions — who are these men and what’s gotten into them?
Call me ignorant, but I had absolutely no idea there was an industry devoted to such a thing. The same week, CNN did a report on Venezuela being the new world hub for “butt-lifts”. As ludicrous as that is, I do get that one. Everybody sees your butt. Who sees your white penis?
I did a google search and indeed, “penile bleaching” as it is known is out there. I can’t imagine the pain of rubbing bleach on one’s nether regions. It reminds me of that one time I chopped up chilies before answering the call of nature, and the searing pain of the ensuing hour.
Actually it’s not bleach as in peroxide. It’s a laser treatment. “We use small lasers,” the female doctor who administers the treatment explained in a media interview with AFP. Sorry, lady, small or big, it’s a laser on my private parts, and that still makes me cross my legs while typing this.
How is a dark member a bad thing, especially for the younger guys who are taking advantage of the service? I was told millennials make love in the dark, the only exception being while filming the act on their smartphone for their Twitter followers.
And yet, dark-membered Thais are allegedly rushing to have it done. Or so says the place performing this service, Lelux Hospital, a skin care clinic with three branches in Nonthaburi and Bangkok. The treatment costs 20,000 Baht and requires five trips to the clinic before one starts to really look opaque. The clinic claims 100 men have done it. And this is what we call a “world hub”?
What are the possible positive benefits of a light-colored member?
This question forced me to do some painstaking research on the internet. This being a family newspaper, I will not want to dwell on the details, suffice to say not once, in the hundreds of pages I researched and videos I watched, was there a single mention or desire for a “light penis”. In fact if anything, there seemed an inordinate demand for phalluses of an opposite color, the very color Lelux is trying to eradicate, but we are getting off topic.
This is not the first time the genitalia of Thai men has hit in the media. A Thai doctor friend once regaled a group of us over a pad thai dinner about another curious trend from five years ago that again made me cross my legs under the rickety restaurant table.
Apparently there are quacks who dress in white gowns and visit rural villages offering to enhance the size of men’s organs through the injection of silicone. This has been reported in the media from time to time. The problem is that silicone sets hard, and often not in the desired shape. As he graphically explained over pad thai, he has seen young men with disfigured members as the silicone shifted awkwardly to the right, or ended up like the petals of a flower, rendering the penis unusable.
Still we can’t leave the thing alone. Penis lightening feels like nothing more than a manufactured attempt to strike at the very insecurity of so many men over the size and shape of their members, thanks to marketers and businesses who remind us, out of the blue, of the perils of dark underarms for girls and dark appendages for boys. And we wonder why we’re all screwed up these days. Excuse the cheap, and dark, double-entendre.
A CHOICE OF DRUG, A DRUG OF CHOICE
By Andrew Biggs
Jackie is the grown-up daughter of my dear friend Kelly. Now she’s 21 and wants to take a year off university and travel around South-East Asia.
This is the email I received from her:
“Hi! This is Jackie! I don’t know whether Mom told you, but me and my boyfriend are going backpacking around Asia and want to include Thailand! We were wondering if we could stay with you for a week or so when we get to Bangkok! We’ll arrive in December! Is that alright? Does that put you out?”
Not half as much as your overuse of exclamation marks puts me out — that was my first reaction which I kept to myself, of course, since Jackie is a very pleasant young lady, not unlike her mother was when we first met in the States around the time KC & The Sunshine Band were having hits.
I wrote an email back explaining how she and her boyfriend would always be welcome at my house. I was willing to overlook the three-day House Guests And Fish Rule — though I did worry how long “a week or so” was in the mind of a millennial.
The email she shot back precipitated the quandary we are about to discuss.
“That’s great! Looking forward to it! And just to let you know … me and my boyfriend are into w-double-e-d among other stuff! Can you get some for us? Don’t tell Mom!”
Thus began a moral dilemma which, on the surface, seemed easy enough to answer for sensible folk such as me and you … oh but she’s got me saying it now! You and I.
I may have many roles to play in this life, but one of them is not pushing drugs onto youngsters. On the other hand, how hard would it be to find weed in this city?
I would probably have to disguise myself as a sex tourist and saunter down to any of the bars in Nana Plaza, order a Singha beer then, as I waved the change away to the under-dressed waitress with the sick buffalo, whisper to her: “Say … where can a man get a little w-double-e-d around here?”
Imagine the look of confusion that would cloud her face, as the poor girl tries to put four English letters together. Then there would be the sudden, beautiful, broad smile of realization, and her ear-splitting retort: “Ohhhhhh ... same-same GANJA??” resulting in the heads of everyone in the bar turning to look at me.
Marijuana may not be hard to find, but I did worry about what constituted Jackie’s “among other stuff”.
Did she mean >>ya ba<< (methamphetamines), >>ya k<< (ketamine), >>ya e<< (ectasy) or >>ya i<< (ice)? Or was she referring to the more traditional class-A drugs such as heroin and cocaine?
Was I about to welcome two young people into my home who were going to spend their days shooting up or toking up? Did I have an obligation to tell my American friend of her daughter’s intentions, or did that make me a rat?
Two close friends, both women in their early fifties and both at the top of their fields, gave two opposing opinions when I threw this dilemma at them.
“You absolutely do not buy drugs for her,” said the first. She’s a well-known Australian pediatrician and mother of five. “Not only are you fostering a drug habit, but you are betraying your friend. How is she going to feel knowing you’ve bought drugs for her daughter? And look at where you’re living. South-East Asian countries have strict laws on drugs. If she gets caught with them she’s in jail. How would you explain that to your friend – that her daughter was in jail because of drugs you purchased for her?”
Yeah, but it’s just marijuana, I said, which was like a red rag to a bull.
“I’ve had cases of schizoid behavior from teenagers who have smoked too much marijuana. Imagine having that on your conscience. What if she overdoses on harder stuff? What if she wants heroin or cocaine – imagine confronting your friend after she finds out her daughter died thanks to drugs you bought.”
It wasn’t the breeziest of conversations I’ve ever had with her.
One week later I caught up with the other friend, a New Zealander, who is the dean of a university faculty there, and in Thailand for a holiday.
“Absolutely, yes,” she said over coffee at Kuppa. “Not only do I agree you should buy it, but you have a responsibility to do it.
“I won’t get into the moral aspect of using drugs, suffice to say your agreeing or not agreeing to buy drugs has no effect on her habit. She is going to do drugs regardless. So what’s she going to do if you say no? She will buy them off the street. She immediately risks entrapment or, worse, buying bad stuff and that can be life threatening.
“Isn’t it better to find her a bag of dope and say here, use this, but only at home, not outside? As for the hard stuff, you need to find out exactly what she wants and make a decision on the possibility, or non-possibility, or acquiring it for her.”
So there you have it. Sometimes it’s difficult having both staunch conservatives and bleeding liberals as friends, especially in moral dilemmas with the spectre of December arriving.
There is a very thought-provoking book that has made an impact on drug policy in recent times. That book is called Chasing The Scream by Johann Hari, and it gives a history of the century-old war on drugs. It advocates decriminalization of all drugs. While this is shocking on the outset, the arguments are strong that we have lost the war on drugs. Strict enforcement doesn’t work. Criminal gangs control illicit drugs worldwide and with that comes all the associated violence. Users are criminals rather than patients. And in countries where drugs have been decriminalized or at least controlled, there has been a reduction in users as well as lower crime rates.
I finished the book with some reservations but generally in agreement with the author. And yet, no matter how much I believe decriminalization is the answer, the fact is that drugs are illegal and there are harsh fines for users.
What really worried me was that nightmare scenario of Jackie using something that would kill her.
I’d have to call Kelly. I would either have to tell her that her daughter died from drugs I knew nothing about, or she died from drugs I bought for her. Which one was worse?
I had the email even plotted out ready to go:
I regret to inform you that I have been led, kicking and screaming, into my advanced years. Because of this untenable but unavoidable situation I do not indulge in substances other than the ones I can purchase between 11 am and 2 pm and then 5 pm to midnight, a situation I will explain upon your arrival in the Land of Smiles. You are welcome to stay but sorry, no drugs. I do appreciate the fact you felt comfortable enough to confide in me, and to assume I too would be spending my twilight years spaced out on w-double-e-d and other stuff.
Lots of love,
P.S. It’s okay. I won’t tell your Mum.”
That email was plotted out, but never sent. The situation resolved itself.
This incident occurred last October. In November Jackie broke up with her boyfriend. The Asian trip was called off.
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
BROKEN-HEARTED WEED KILLER
By Andrew Biggs
This week I made a mercy dash to Chantaburi after receiving a disturbing phone call Sunday evening.
“Lersak’s tried to kill himself,” Samai breathlessly told me over the phone. “He drank weed killer at your house.”
Not the kind of thing one wants to hear after settling down to one’s first Sunday screwdriver; I was in my car and on the motorway in no time, hurtling towards the eastern province at a speed that would have required 100 Baht firmly attached to my driver’s license had the cops pulled me over.
I have a modest wooden house in the hills of Chantaburi, a province nestled on the Cambodian border. It’s very peaceful except that it’s right near one of Cambodia’s bigger casinos catering solely to Thais, who make the 250-km trek from Bangkok in hundreds of rented vans every weekend.
It’s the casino that regularly harbors Thai politicians when they need to make hasty escapes but besides this attraction, Chantaburi is also a picturesque corner of Thailand with lots of fruit groves and rolling hills.
My Chantaburi village friends are so nice and friendly and accept me for all my faults and eccentricities, especially if I turn up with a bottle of 100 Pipers and a dozen soda waters.
One of my best friends there is Lersak whom I have known for nearly 20 years. Thirteen years ago he fell in love with Hattai, an 18-year-old local girl. They never married; Hattai moved to Bangkok and got her degree, while Lersak stayed in Chantaburi running his rubber plantation.
In retrospect what happened was clear to see, though not for us who were so close to the events. Hattai grew out of Lersak. Recently in the Bangkok office where she worked she met a guy and, well, Lersak got sidelined. Two weeks ago she broke it off with him.
“Lersak’s over at your house … dying,” Samai explained over the phone as I reached the halfway mark of my mercy dash.
Dying at my house? Crazily I’d forgotten to bring my camera along. And besides … what is it with Thais killing themselves to get back at their lovers?
Despite the proliferation of massage parlors on every corner of this country, there seems to be a strong commitment – or perhaps it is a sense of ownership – when it comes to finally meeting up with one’s life partner. The commitment part is good; but thinking you can “own” anyone is dangerous, and this is clear when someone in a relationship here wants out, but the other doesn’t.
Over the years of reporting the news in this country I am baffled by the constant recurrence of one particular news item and it is this: Thai man has girlfriend. Thai man has relationship with other woman. Thai girl kills herself to “get back at” the Thai man.
It’s been my experience that being alive is far more disturbing to an ex- than being dead. I just need to get this idea through to heartbroken young Thais who want to die to revenge an ex. This usually takes the form of jumping from a great height from one of those dreadful suburban apartment blocks.
I once met an American man here who lived in a nice apartment who had a Thai girlfriend who was a university student. They’d been together six months. He met somebody else and decided to call it quits, so the next time his girlfriend was visiting, he told her the news. She nodded and took it in with an ashen face.
He went to the kitchen to get a drink, and when he returned she was gone. There, on the balcony, he spotted her shoes. She had jumped from the 15th floor.
Now if Hercule Poirot or Nancy Drew had spent any time in Thailand they would have spotted the important discrepancy in this story. Any Thai would have left her shoes by the door when she came in to the apartment. Why were they now out at the balcony? Simple; while he was in the kitchen she’d taken them out there before jumping. It was a sign. She was going to show him; teach him a strong lesson. She was going to kill herself and make sure he knew what she’d done!
The poor girl. There’s a match for any old boot, as my mother used to say frequently, but that is beside the point; she left that balcony and hurtled down through the atmosphere thinking “Ha! This’ll show him!” Thwack.
It’s all too tragic to even think about.
If it’s the guy who’s hard done by, he’s more prone to act like Lersak and drink the local version of Drano, or worse, murder his girlfriend for daring to be with another guy. Such is the heart of we humans, especially when we delude ourselves into thinking that we can really “own” somebody else.
I am telling you all this because, after 250 kilometres breaking the speed limit, I arrived in my little home of Chantaburi to a very-much-alive Lersak, sitting under his house with a glass of whiskey in front of him and a forlorn expression.
It turns out he’d trudged up the mountain with his bottle of weed killer into the forest where he couldn’t be found. And then what? Unscrewed the cap and chugged it down, sputtering and choking on the poison as it wrested the very life out of him?
Hardly. He telephoned Hattai.
“I’m up here in the forest … about 20 metres diagonally to the left behind Andrew’s house. Next to the single mango tree amid the rubber trees. You’ll never find me. I’m about to drink weed killer. I’m ending it all because of you, Hattai. Goodbye!”
All he needed was a swelling of violins and a commercial break to complete the picture. Hattai of course quickly called Lersak’s mother, who called his best friend Wan, who happened to be at the rubber plantation, who sped over on his motorbike 30 minutes later with a gaggle of locals to find Lersak sprawled out under my sala with a hardly-touched bottle of weed killer.
I was furious.
“I … drove … three hours … for this?” I snarled. “This isn’t a suicide attempt! It’s not even a cry for help! It’s … pathetic!”
Lersak to his credit didn’t disagree. I actually felt sad for him, having been jilted then having staged a very bad suicide attempt. Haven’t we all felt like him at some stage in this life?
Lersak got over Hattai. In a short while he met a new girl, from Sa Kaew province, and now they have a beautiful daughter, a girl who was but a bottle of weed killer away from never existing.
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
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
GETTING DOWN AT THE DOGGY DISCO
By Andrew Biggs in Hollywood, California
It’s been a nightmarish two days for me here in the States as I have traipsed around the neighborhood trying to find a new beautician.
Not for me. For the dog!
What is it about there Americans? Their economy is up the shute and unemployment is rising fast. I see businesses close on a weekly basis in my neighborhood which, if you haven’t noticed my mentioning it 276 times already in this column, is Hollywood.
Toshi is a little shih tzu, the dog of my American mother. When I am not visiting, my mother pays a woman called Nancy $10 to walk him both morning and night.
Think about that, dear reader, as I did with horror. $20 a day times 30 days equals Nancy $600 a month richer from my mother alone. I’ve seen Nancy pull up with six or seven dogs yapping in her car, which by rights should be a Mercedes Benz judging by the cash in hand she takes home each month.
I put my foot down and told my mother while I was in town I’d be walking the dog for no fee whatsoever. Me and my high horse – the sooner it gets to the glue factory the better. The novelty of walking a dog every day wore off just around the time my jetlag did.
That’s because Toshi, like all dogs, poops at least twice per walk. By law that means I have to scoop up the poop using special gaily-colored plastic bags. Nobody told me about that part of the job before agreeing to do it.
Being a shih tzu and thus having more hair than intelligence, little Toshi regularly needs to go to what my mother calls “the beauty parlor” but sadly the one we normally take Toshi to has gone out of business. It was my job, then, to find a new “groomer” as they are called here.
Yes, that’s right, it’s a profession. God knows what university you go to to become a groomer, but if you can get a degree in hamburger making, which not doggie grooming? That’s how I found myself in my car trawling the streets of Hollywood for … dog groomers.
I almost crashed when I saw the sign on La Brea for the Doggy Disco. With the disco ball above the words, I thought: Surely it’s not a disco for dogs?
“It’s a disco for dogs,” the pleasant young woman behind the counter said. “You can bring your dog along and dance with him!”
Wouldn’t be the first time I danced with a dog.
The Doggy Disco is actually part of a spacious place called the Zoom Room which is, among other things, a “Canine Social Club”.
A social club? Aren’t those for ugly people who can’t get lucky on a Friday night? Dogs never have such problems but according to the Zoom Room literature thrust upon me, they do need help.
“Our special Doggy Disco nights feature laser light shows for your dog to chase!”
It turns out I can rent the disco for “dog birthday parties, adoption anniversaries, pet commitment ceremonies and Bark Mitzvahs.” Bark Mitzvahs!? Barking mad more like it! At $150 for one disco I think I’ll stick to the Viper Room on Santa Monica where drinks are only eight bucks a pop. I wonder if they’ll admit dogs.
The Zoom Room featured a supermarket for all my dog necessities, including a “Dog Casino” which was allegedly a “fun interactive game!” Dogs like to gamble? Then there were the “kosher treats for your pup” stuff in the fridge; I guess they’re to have at your “Bark Mitzvah.”
But no groomers. So I was soon back in my car and further up La Brea chanced upon a pet hospital! Maybe I was in luck!
Silly me for thinking a hospital would have a groomer. Well human hospitals do, don’t they? But I was greeting with an emphatic “no” when I entered the Hollywood Cat And Dog Hospital.
I was kind of attracted to the sign outside the front, which reminded me of something out of the Jetsons. But this was serious stuff; no trifling Doggy Discos around here.
Heading down Fairfax I chanced upon All Natural Pet Food Supplies and quickly pulled over. Inside was a store that ostensibly looked like any normal supermarket only it was all stuff for dogs.
What really took my breath away were the meat snacks with flavors that were sure to appeal to dogs such as “New Zealand Summer Sausages” and “French Country Café”, as if dogs enjoy such things. I started to feel as though I’d stepped into some canine Twilight Zone when the flavors included “Thanksgiving Day Sausages” – dogs are into giving thanks? – and “Grandma’s Pot Pie”.
Again, no groomers. That afternoon I was starting to grow weary of all things canine. Little did I know of the light on the horizon.
It was the next day and I was speeding back home along 3rd Street having had one too many margeritas at my favorite Tequila bar, when I spotted the oasis in the distance.
“The Doghouse!” the building shouted. It was white and covered in black dalmation spots, which looked very cute especially in my state. What got me the most was its phone number: Call 549-WOOF.
“Yes, we do grooming,” the lovely lady inside told me and I wanted to hug her. “Our groomers start work at 10 am.”
“Just a shave,” I said. “You know, get rid of the excess hair.”
“Bows or ribbons?”
“Hell no!” I roared just a little too loudly for her liking.
“Well we will need you to bring in his vaccination certificates, plus his certificate of neutering or spaying.”
In America you get a certificate for being gelded? What … you frame it and hang it on the wall? And is there circumcision for those Bark Mitzvah dogs too? This was getting beyond crazy.
“Is it just the hair styling? If so you probably don’t have to bring him along for a meet and greet,” she said, smiling.
That afternoon as I walked Toshi there were many thoughts rushing through my head.
How can a country in such a crippled economic state have such a thriving canine industry? And how is it in America dogs like to gamble, profess religion, and yearn for their grandmother’s pot pies?
They don’t in Thailand. I looked at Toshi and couldn’t help wonder what would happen had he possessed the unfortunate karma to be born in oh, Sakon Nakhon in the Northeast of Thailand, where thousands of Toshi’s brethren met a terrible fate recently.
But hey, in a week or so I’m back in Bangkok where soi dogs roam the streets frothing with rabies and the only dog I’ll hear in a disco is the Snoop Doggy variety.
I’ll still be smiling to be back. So will Nancy, all the way to the bank.
by Andrew Biggs
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
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
(Note: Written during the week of His Majesty King Bhumibol’s Royal Cremation, 26 October, 2017)
By Andrew Biggs
The Royal Thai Anthem is known as Pleng Sansern Phra Baramee, or “The Song The Praises the Glory of the King”.
This piece of music is 130 years old. It was the third national anthem of Siam for more than 40 years, from 1888 to 1933 — the one prior to that was the UK’s “God Save The King/Queen” with Thai lyrics.
It is a curious melody in that it almost feels as though you are being guided, musically, along a path that steadily rises, like travelling up a mountain. The jungle clears and gives way to a magnificent view; the sun comes out and finally, as you reach the summit, the cymbals crash and you let out a victorious “Hurrah!”
The melody sounds classically European and there is good reason for that. It was written by 19th century Russian composer Pyotr Schurovsky and it is lucky for him that he did write this piece; although big in his era there is precious little else about the man today other than his contribution, musically, to royal Thai functions.
The melody may be European but the lyrics were written by a well-known Thai music instructor of early-to-mid 1800s. The combination of that melody that sweeps you up the mountain and its profound lyrics makes this a remarkable piece. I like the way it begins with the solemn pomp and circumstance of royalty, before morphing into a love song of concern for the monarch, until one reaches the climax with that grand and final cha-yo which is Thai for “Hurrah!”
(An interesting historical footnote: the original lyrics ended in cha-nee, which can be roughly translated as “like this” or “as it were” or even “so far”. Thai is a tonal language; a slight deviance in the tone and the word sounds like “gibbon”. Apparently this riled King Rama 6, who ruled from 1910, and had the lyrics changed to the final and much more befitting “Hurrah”.)
This piece of work remained the national anthem up until the Siamese revolution of 1932. Luckily the royal anthem remained intact for royal occasions, and it is the same one you hear in movie theatres just prior to the film starting to this day.
In that year of the revolution a new national anthem sprouted up, the second stanza announcing Thailand as a “civil state” which curiously remains to this day. The melody is claimed by some to have been “borrowed” from the Polish national anthem, though having heard both back to back, one could argue the relationship is tenuous. And, by no means coincidental, it ends in a similar but not so effective “Hurrah”.
It is my humble opinion that while the Thai national anthem serves its purpose, when it comes to profundity and richness of music, the original runs royal rings around it.
It is almost impossible for Thais to extricate this melody from the memory of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. It is understandable; a mere 14 years passed between the coup of 1932 and his assuming the throne. It is an anthem which may be 130 years old, but for more than half that time it was used for a single monarch.
This week the song belongs to King Bhumibol when the funeral pyre is lit at 7 pm on Wednesday night in Sanam Luang.
Last Saturday found your columnist in a university classroom, where he is trying to plough through a Master’s Degree in Education. It is a class of 22 Thais aged 25 to 50 years and predominantly school teachers.
Our lecturer came in, sat down and said: “Before we start, let’s watch a video together. It’s of our King.”
Silently we all got to our feet.
For the next ten minutes we watched the TV monitors and quietly sang to the Royal Thai anthem. It is the version that can be found on YouTube; a huge crowd that must number in the hundreds of thousands occupies all of Sanam Luang, with a 100-piece orchestra under the baton of Somtow Sucharitkul. To get a couple of hundred thousand people singing in unison, spread across such a vast area, must have been a logistical challenge of Herculean proportions, but it worked.
It is a piece of film conceived, filmed and edited in just four days by Thailand’s master film director MC Chatrichalerm Yukol, and shot using 50 cameras and a couple of drones.
The melody of the Royal Thai Anthem drifts across the vast space as a drone swoops over the crowd. There is a day and night version, which we watched, together, standing and singing silently to ourselves.
It was filmed on October 22, 2016, just over a week after His Majesty King Bhumibol passed. Your cynical old columnist had a tear in his eye by the end, not just for the magnificence of the performance, but for the sight of such a huge outpouring of grief for the passing of the King.
At the end of the video, as we sat back down, I realized I was in a room full of people sobbing, including our lecturer. Every single one of them. That classroom was a microcosm of Thai society, which grieves for the very heart that stopped beating last October 13, 2016.
It is a common reaction from Thais, especially the likes of politicians and ruling types, to hide behind the shield of Thai culture when trying to explain away misdeeds or villainy. When backed into a corner, officials will blurt out that we foreigners “can’t understand because you are not Thai”. This inevitably means “leave me alone to carry on my mischief in peace” — with the exception of one very clear example we will witness this week.
I believe that if we are not Thai we cannot understand the depth of feeling towards the monarch who was King Rama 9. There is no need to escort the argument over to logic or science. It comes from the depth of humanity’s capacity to feel a great love, and a shining example of what happens when humanity comes together as one. That is what was unique about the country of Thailand for all these decades.
There are foreigners, some vocal in the media, who cynically dismiss this as an example of mass brainwashing, or blind faith owing to a lack of education not unlike the situation in North Korea. Their ignorance is as loud as their allegations. What must be frustrating for these critics is that their arrows just don’t penetrate.
My heart goes out to all my Thai friends and colleagues who are struggling with the realization that as of 7 pm Wednesday, their beloved King is gone forever. I am truly sorry they must endure this grief.
But it is also time to move on.
We have mourned for a year, and no matter how much the kingdom grieves, the mourning must come to an end. Anybody who has lost a loved one knows this. The sadness may never dissipate, but there needs to be a conscious effort to pick oneself back up again. This is Thailand’s challenge for 2018.
And as clichéd as it may sound, King Bhumibol has not really gone away. He’s in the hearts of 68 million Thais, and look; the institution of the monarchy is still there too, along with that touching song that praises the glory of the king, be it the present one or those of the past.
Our remembrance must echo the path of that beautiful song that praises the glory of the king; starting with solemnity, rising with concern, and ending with a rousing “Hurrah”.
Vale His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
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.
SHOUTS AND MOANS
By Andrew Biggs
Two songs threatened to bring down Thai society in just the last seven days. One was about the evils of military rule. The other was about moaning the name of your ex-lover on your wedding night mid-coitus.
Which one do you want to hear about first – the political one or the sexy one? Did I have to even ask!
What if I told you they were remarkably similar in their intent?
We don’t need to spend too much time on the political one, and thank goodness for that. As I write this, it has not been one hundred percent established whether it is a crime to like this song or not.
Even the police had to think about that. Earlier in the week yes, it was shaping up to be a crime, but common sense stepped in and now the probability of being jailed for liking this song has dropped to just 50 percent. One hopes it will drop down to zero by the time you read this over the weekend, but one cannot be sure, so let’s focus on the sexy song in just a few paragraphs.
The saga surrounding the political song, sung by a collective called “Rap Against Dictatorship”, was covered more than adequately by Bangkok Post star columnist Kong Rithdee this time last week, so do go back to last Sunday’s paper and have a read of that article.
The song is called Prathet Ku Mee which means “My Country’s Got That”. It’s a protest song about all that’s wrong in modern day Thailand, starting with the non-arrest of the black panther killers to the inability to make choices in the land of the free.
The music video is powerful, as it draws upon scenes from the October 14, 1973 and October 6, 1976 student uprisings that were brutally oppressed by state forces. It emulates a famous event, where one student was strung up and hanged at Sanam Luang amid a cheering crowd, including children, who then bashed the corpse with broken chairs.
The song references that era and its relationship to what is happening in 2018. It is a familiar scenario here in Thailand which we used to call a broken record back when we listened to songs such as Prathet Ku Mee on vinyl. Now and again a song will pop up that doesn’t curry favor with the ruling government. They are invariably storms in teacups. The more they are attacked, the more popular they become.
Only this time around we are now in the fifth year of military dictatorship, and such musical protests are frowned upon more than usual. The police, one target of the song’s vicious lyrics, made vague assertions a week ago that anybody who liked and shared the video on Facebook might be committing a criminal offence.
Those lyrics were false, they claimed, and spreading false information that may damage national security or cause public panic. That meant the single act of pressing “Like” on the YouTube video could mean a jail sentence of five years or a 100,000 baht fine.
By mid-week the police had softened their approach. National deputy police chief Srivara Ransibrahmanakul, vilified in the song for his handling of the black panther case, said that sharing the song was not illegal.
Pol. Maj. Gen Surachate Hakparn went one step further. As head of the technology crime centre, he said that everybody is entitled to express public opinions.
“Society’s elders must accept that it’s not possible to prohibit or restrict personal opinions, especially among the youth,” he wrote. “Adults should see them as views from another perspective that they should listen to.” Surachate is absolutely correct, and it is refreshing to hear such views from police and the government.
If there was a national music chart in Thailand, Prathet Ku Mee would be at number one with a bullet, so to speak, despite zero airplay. The military regime couldn’t stop it. The cops couldn’t stop it. And in fact, the more they drew attention to it, the more it gained in popularity, resulting in some 25 million views on Youtube. Could anything detract from its popularity?
Well … yes. It came in the form of a luk thung song about sex.
Thailand’s country music scene is a hotbed of innuendo and lewdness. Just last year this column explained the double-entendre in the title of a hit song by a young male singer. His song, with a chorus lamenting “I Can’t Speak English Well,” when sung quickly sounded curiously like “My Penis Is Not Hard.” There were ripples of discontent over the naughtiness of that song, but nothing compared to the avalanche of disgust of the current hit song — most probably because it is sung by a woman who is clearly, er, enjoying her conjugal rights.
It’s not just that number one political song that’s absent from commercial radio airplay. It’s this one, too, sitting firmly at number two.
The song is called Khrang Cheu Ai Nae which roughly means “Call Out My Name In A Moaning Voice Whilst You’re Having Sex With Your New Husband.” Don’t shoot the messenger, dear reader. I’m only reporting the facts.
Like most country music songs, it’s about a poor upcountry boy who loses his girlfriend to a wealthier Chinese-looking guy from the city. We’re supposed to feel sorry for the guy but I don’t. He may have a good heart but he’s clearly a no-hoper, dressing badly and having a face only his mother would love.
This jilted lover’s name is “Ai”, which is a generic term for “big brother” and a vital cog to the story’s punchline.
Ai’s girlfriend leaves him for the light-skinned guy in the Honda Civic. When she gives Ai the bad news, a despondent Ai asks her to call out his name “in a moaning fashion” on her wedding night, as she and her Chinese husband are performing their conjugal duties for the first time. Ai isn’t just a poor farm hand — he sounds a little kinky to boot, suggesting the woman dodged an Isan bullet. She refuses, claiming her new husband would kill her if she did that.
We now reach the climax.
On their wedding night, we see the woman and husband in their new home. In what has to be a contender for the award of Most Ludicrous Scene In A Popular Song 2018, the woman lies down on the bed. Her naked husband moves towards her … but she remains in full bridal gown, make-up intact, not a strand out of place on her three-cans-of-hairsprayed head. She is, after all, a good Thai girl.
As things get underway the woman starts moaning all the different vowel sounds of the Thai alphabet: “Oh oh oh oh! Ee Ee Ee Ee! Ah ah ah ah!” And yes, dear reader, at the very end, with a slightly mischievous look, she lets out what we’ve all been waiting for, including the jilted boyfriend standing in the shadows outside: “Ai Ai Ai Ai!”
GET IT? SHE DID IT! SHE SAID HIS NAME!
Which just goes to prove my theory of similarity. Against all odds, in the face of imminent personal danger, she said the unspeakable. In that respect, those two songs have more in common than we ever thought.
By Andrew Biggs
Living in Bangkok is like winning the lottery; it’s surprising how many relatives and friends, and children of estranged friends, come out of the woodwork at vacation time.
I have international visitors visiting me regularly, dear reader. This is how I know, despite being allergic to seafood, precisely how long it takes for fish to go off.
It is the small price I pay for living in paradise.
Many guests are happy to fend for themselves and enjoy exploring this city. Like you, I too have had house guests who display character traits of special needs students. My liquor cabinet finds itself depleted more rapidly than usual, and that’s not even taking into account what the visitors are drinking.
On that glorious day when the visitors leave, I find myself driving off to Suvarnabhumi, slightly over the speed limit to ensure the experience is over and done with as quickly as possible.
During that journey I always ask them a simple question: “What did you enjoy the most about Thailand?”
The answer is invariably the same. The Thai people. The friendliness, the politeness and the hospitality afforded to them during their short stay by the locals. Even the special needs visitors admit to that.
I continue to pry. “What else?” I ask, and weirdly, the next answer is always the same as well.
The nice restaurants, yes, but it’s the street food that grabs everyone. Those fried bananas that give you angina just looking at them. Pad thai off the street. Isan sausages. Grilled squid. Somtam and sticky rice. Khanom krok. A thousand different taste sensations amid the swirling cacophony of Bangkok streets.
If this column is being read by any of the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s upper echelons, then this information should evoke pride in the knowledge that people and food are what tourists find impressive here.
But they should also feel revulsion, like I am feeling, that those in power are threatening to eradicate one of those two desirable aspects. And no, it’s not genocide.
There are two terrible events going on in the world at this moment.
The first is the tension building up between the United States and various hotspots such as Syria and North Korea. The second is the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration’s attempt to rid Bangkok of street food.
I’m going to leave the first topic for international media analysts. This is not laziness, but an attempt to spare you from what could evolve into an often repeated philosophy on the cataclysmic effect Donald Trump may have on the extinction of the human species.
So let’s do the other one.
For the BMA to announce it is going to kill all street food must be grounds for the BMA’s removal … yet again.
If Bangkok must eradicate its street food because it’s messy and unhygienic, then let Paris dismantle the Eiffel Tower because it’s old. Make London tear down Big Ben because people don’t read traditional clock faces any longer, and have Istanbul close its spice markets because they smell.
As for Amsterdam, surely those tulip fields would be better off utilized as condominium projects.
There are moments in a country’s history where the general populace feels the need to rise up and demand change and this has to be such a time.
I’m talking about grass-roots battles for change, in an era when those in power are no longer serving the common good, like the French Revolution or the Boston Tea Party in the United States. How quaint that we can bundle the BMA into those events, but we surely can and must.
Thais have experience in such changes. Coincidentally, the swapping of that bronze plaque beside the statue of King Chulalongkorn last week is a reminder of it happening right here.
That memorial plaque commemorated the 1932 revolution in which Siam turned into a constitutional monarchy after 800 years of an absolute monarchy.
Last week staunch royalists dug it up, as if that somehow made the event go away, and replaced it with a plaque with a more feel-good message in support of the monarchy. Oh but we are off the track, as usual.
I believe that we, the people of Bangkok city, like the people of Syria, or North Korea (or the United States) need to rise up against the despots in charge. We do not have an al-Assad or Kim Jong-Un or Donald Trump at our helm. But we do have the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration.
No street food?
Bangkok is in danger of obliterating the very thing that attracts 30 million tourists here annually —a lot of them staying at my place.
In fact, “obliterate” appears to be the word of the year in two very distinct forms.
The first is the systematic destruction of every market, theatre, park, vacant lot, wooden mansion, and any other structure built in the 20th century in order to construct condominium complexes.
Sukhumvit Road is now a corridor of condos with exciting names like Nature Park, The Happy, The Millennium and The Coast. This is progress and the tenets of capitalism at work, and I should be grateful. The frequency of my houseguests will dwindle as they discover the Land of Smiles has turned into the Land of “luxury” 26-square-metre granny flats overlooking a non-existent coast.
The other danger is the BMA’s plan to eradicate Bangkok’s street food in the interests of hygiene and tidiness and safety.
Hygiene? Tidiness? Safety?
Since when have these ever been important issues?
Look at the roads! We just farewelled 390 Thais over Songkran, killed in car accidents. We just nixed a law that would have prevented people from sitting in the backs of pickups — all because it might upset some folk who need to get to and from work.
For more than two decades successive Thai governments have wrestled with the uncomfortable international reputation of Bangkok being the sex capital of the world.
Governments have promoted other areas of Thailand that attract tourists. And come on, let’s face it. If it ain’t sex, it’s gotta be the food.
This has got to be the most exciting cuisine in the world, ranging from the five-star restaurants right down to the street food. The latter can be controlled and tidied up, if need be, but eradicated?
And we are forgetting the greatest group of consumers of street food. These are people far away from the 30 million tourists who visit here each year. They are the 68 million Thais, many of whom slave away on a minimum wage of 300 Baht per day, who have no alternative but to eat off the street.
I have a sneaking suspicion that we perhaps don’t need to stage an uprising, dear readers. The ramifications of this decree are so deadly to the tourism economy that it has to be shot down.
Either way, the street food goes or the BMA goes. And I’m not giving up my pad thai for anybody.
CROSS ABOUT WIRES
By Andrew Biggs
An important high-level meeting this week resulted in my being driven down Sukhumvit Road from the Ploenchit intersection all the way to Asoke.
This was largely due to my driver taking a wrong turn.
How I would dearly love to extrapolate on this minor point, focusing on the shortcomings of the Thai education system that fails to equip some Thais with the necessary knowledge to read maps. How else do I explain my driver, despite Google Maps shouting directions from his phone in clear Thai to “turn left at the off-ramp”, still turning right?
I will not extrapolate on that point because I have a new resolution not to say anything bad about my staff, even when they commit despicable acts of stupidity. Suffice to say, that is where I ended up — sailing down Sukhumvit Soi 3 towards Asoke in furious silence.
That Soi 3 corner used to be dubbed “Soi Kremlin” owing to the large number of heavily-made-up young Russian women who hung around asking passing male strangers for a light.
They are gone; although across the street is the famous and still-thriving Nana Plaza where doctors recommend hepatitis vaccine shots prior, and delousing after, any excursion near the vicinity. Workers included.
It was while I was sitting in the back of my car that I glanced out the window and realized something was amiss.
I haven’t been down that part of Sukhumvit for a while on the street level. But as I looked out, starting at Soi Kremlin, I realized there was something not quite right about the road.
Something was out of place … something, I daresay, a little sinister.
There is a great conspiracy theory out there on the net called the Mandela Effect. It states that our collective memories have been altered owing to glitches in the fabric of the universe.
Some put it down to CERN’s Hadron Collider experiments. We all believe something happened in the past when really it didn’t. Americans, for instance, are convinced they grew up reading books about the “Berenstein Bears” when in fact, it is spelt and pronounced “Berenstain.” The Queen in the Snow White movie says “Magic Mirror on the wall,” not “Mirror Mirror on the wall” as we all remember it to be.
That is the feeling I had on Sukhumvit this week. It was the same old Sukhumvit I’d known and abhorred all these years and yet … and yet …
The tailor shops were still there. So were the souvenir shops and overpriced restaurants. Had this trip been around 2 or 3 in the morning I might even have seen a gaggle of Russian girls hanging out for a cigarette lighter.
I wondered what the slight change had been that made the roadside look a little skew-whiff, a word my astute grandmother often used, especially when describing me.
Then it hit me.
The power lines.
They were gone.
Like most Thai streets Sukhumvit Road is normally a cacophony of inter-dispersed overlapping cables just above head level, though drooping dangerously close to the crowns of those of us exceeding a height of 180cm. The very top of the electricity poles are electricity lines; moving on down are telephone wires and, at the very bottom of the wire hierarchy, internet cables. The bottom ones are the ones that resemble dusty black spaghetti.
The actual poles belong to the Metropolitan Electricity Authority which rents out the space on them to the likes of TOT, Dtac, AIS and True to hang their wires.
Along Sukhumvit those poles are bare now. In fact they are completely gone! There is a renegade wire strung across the entrance to Soi 11 but to be honest, the change is quite staggering. Clearly they have been sent underground.
That was yesterday. As I write this column I am again in the back of my high-end sedan, my driver blazing forth down Srinakharin, confident he will make no mistake in navigation thanks to an absence of any turns whatsoever.
Srinakharin Road is another major roadway clogged with cars and three-tiered dusty black spaghetti. As we approached the Pattanakarn intersection there was one pole so overburdened with wires it was edging close to collapse.
This wire chaos is very Thai. It is almost an inherent part of any Bangkok street’s persona. This was confirmed back in June, 2016, when Bill Gates made a lightning visit to Bangkok.
In his short time in the capital he could have snapped any number of delightful vistas, such as the view from his Penthouse suite over the bustling Chao Phraya River as colorful long-tailed boats plied the waves.
Perhaps he could have snapped glorious Wat Arun, or the regal splendor of the Grand Palace.
No. He snapped the dusty black spaghetti instead.
He posted a pic on Facebook of our notorious wires. But Gates made a blunder – a lesser-sophisticated columnist might say he got his wires crossed — and said despite so many electricity lines there were still lots of blackouts.
First of all, they weren’t electricity lines he’d snapped. And second, Bangkok didn’t have a problem with blackouts.
These were facts the incompetent upper echelons of civil service responsible for power were quick to point out and jump up and down and high-five one-another with glee, the most energy they’d exuded since receiving their acceptance letter into the Thai civil service all those decades ago.
Nevertheless the damage had been done; the world had seen what we Bangkokians see on a daily basis.
How coincidental is this; despite decades of inaction getting these cables underground, not one month after the Gates pic, the government announced a 50-billion baht plan to put all cables underground on 40 roads in and around Bangkok. I am in the process of sending Bill Gates a list of other things to photograph next time he hits Suvarnabhumi in order to get those things done.
The fruits of Bill Gates’ trip have manifested themselves along Sukhumvit Road. The wires have gone. There is an expansiveness about the road; all the way from Nana to Asoke, you can look up and see a sky no longer marred by black wires —shame about the big concrete BTS up there but hey, it’s still an improvement.
For old expats, the change is uncomfortable. We’re so used to seeing disarray. There was a light at the end of the tunnel, literally, as we reached the Asoke intersection. Asoke still hasn’t been cleaned up, and dare I say it; there was a sense of warm familiarity as we were greeted with the twisting black eyesores suspended above the heads of scurrying pedestrians. Back to the Bangkok we know and love — how I missed you for a minute there!
Sukhumvit is a far cry from what it was even a year or so ago. The sidewalks are cleaner and wider and easier to traverse. It is orderly and open, at least on the outbound side.
It’s not just Soi Kremlin that’s gone, either.
Gone are the back-to-back street stalls selling exhaustive arrays of colorful trinkets and clothes amid makeshift stalls lit by stark light bulbs. Gone are the hagglers, the tricksters, the Burmese touts, the deaf vendors, the tourists in African garb, the calculators into which inflated opening prices are punched.
All that scrambling humanity pushing and shoving for attention. Gone.
And in its place?
Well, look at it now. It’s all tidied up thanks to government initiatives and Bill Gates.
It is cleaner and much easier to access.
In fact it is now a normal-looking street like you’d find anywhere else in the world.
And that, dear reader, is the big big problem.
CEASEFIRE ON SUKHUMVIT
By Andrew Biggs
It’s a jungle out there on the streets of Bangkok.
Behind the wheel we curse, cut in front, blast our horns, tailgate, angrily flash our lights, and do whatever we can to ensure we get to our destination quicker than any of those other despicable drivers.
We create lanes out of the shoulder. We ignore all notions of fairness; if there is a line of 20 cars lined up to get off the main road, that won’t stop some buffoon in a dirty white pick-up or dinky Vios brazenly driving up beside the line and cutting in right up front.
We begrudgingly allow cars in front of us despite not using indicators. They change lanes every 10 seconds, or whenever a tiny space opens up between two cars in the adjacent lane which could lessen the duration of their trip by a good 10 milliseconds.
Each and every car is the enemy. How we loathe one other. It is chaos; pure, unadulterated chaos.
Thailand … the Land of Smiles? Only when you’ve succeeded in forcing that dirty white pick-up or dinky Vios off the road into the shoulder, with a bit of luck overturning it in the process. Ha! That’ll teach ‘em.
Thus it was a cheerful respite this week when I took time out from my hectic schedule to renew my Thai Driver’s License.
I am an extremely law abiding citizen if you don’t count occasional indiscretions, all of which have gone undetected by the constabulary (and boy oh boy, you should see the mighty slab of wood I am knocking as I write that).
When I realized my license had expired whilst gallivanting on my recent European tour, the first thing I did upon returning to Thailand was renew it for another five years.
I did it at the Department of Land Transportation on Sukhumvit Road, Bangchak. I arrived at 12.35 pm, only to be greeted and swallowed up by a crowd of people on the same mission.
If you are expecting this to be a horror story about the abysmal service of bullying government officials, then I suggest you make your way over to another website immediately, because you are going to be disappointed.
“One of our testing machines has broken,” a DLT official announced. “We’re really sorry, but this is going to take some time.” She handed me a purple card with number 162 on it.
The DLT staff were friendly and apologetic to us all. There was a feeling of Buddhist resignation permeating the atmosphere; perhaps it rubbed off on me. We all knew we were in for a long wait, so we made the best of it.
I met an affable Indian man with whom I shared a common friend. There was another Indian who, for a couple of hours, was my new best friend. He worked in IT at Suvarnabhumi and he even bought me a bottle of water.
But the crowd was almost exclusively Thai.
There was the gaggle of motorcycle taxi riders, still sporting their orange vests, sharing hilarious stories about their passengers. A young guy kept flitting from his seat next to me to his wife and newborn baby, waiting for him at the other end of the cavernous place. I learned about his wife’s difficult pregnancy and the miracle of his son’s birth.
At one stage I dropped my pen; a Thai lady retrieved it and handed it over to me with a lovely smile. I accidentally left my cellphone on my chair as the queue started moving; one of the motorcycle guys tapped me on the shoulder to return it.
It wasn’t all rosy, though.
We were forced to sit through a 50-minute movie, ostensibly to teach us road rules but I think we all left with a better understanding of how truly dreadful instructional videos can be.
It’s a soap opera that follows two Thai kids. The girl, Noodee, lives happily with her flawless mother and friendly father who sports the biggest ears I’ve ever seen on a soap opera star.
The father plays the benevolent road-safety-conscious character who dispenses insightful tips on safe driving every 45 seconds. He’s the type of guy I get put next to at embassy parties. If I’d been writing the script I’d have had him under the wheel of a 16-wheel truck at the bottom of page one but alas, he made it through to the end.
Noodee’s best friend is Shogun, a sullen boy which stems from the fact his mother has flown the coop and his father’s a speeding maniac who fails to buckle his seatbelt and likes to run red lights; to call him two dimensional is being extremely generous to his quota of dimensions.
I was suffering from jetlag and I admit I fell asleep for ten minutes in the middle of the video, but it didn’t matter because it was plainly obvious Shogun’s father was going crash his car with Shogun in it, of course, rendering the kid a vegetable with limited chance of recovery, not unlike how those of us watching were feeling.
The end was as pathetic as it was obvious. Shogun’s father sees the error of his ways, and in the final scene, Noodee’s jug-eared father ratchets up the pedantic meter as he gives him a lecture on the benefits of safe driving.
This causes Shogun’s father to give up smoking and dedicate his life to the full recovery of his son. He has transformed into a foppish doctrinaire just like Noodee’s Dad. I liked him better when he was a rebel.
At the end of the movie we were invited to wait outside again. This we did, and our conversations continued. When our names were called, in groups of 20, we all stood in a very orderly line that snaked back and forth in the testing room. Nobody thought to cut in as we moved slowly towards the machines that tested our reflexes and vision.
There was one simulator where one has to brake as quickly as possible upon seeing a red light. We were all in this together, cheering when any of us braked quickly, encouraging those who weren’t so quick.
“I’m sorry I’m taking so long,” one flustered woman announced. She was having trouble with the brake and accelerator.
“Don’t worry about it!” came a chorus of ten people waiting their turn, flashing their killer Thai smiles. Even the testing lady was egging her along – “just relax; I’ll give you another chance.” On the third attempt she got it; the room erupted in cheers.
From there we did three other tests, patiently waiting and chatting and passing the time.
Finally, after four tests, we were finished. At 4.30 pm I walked out with my brand new Thai license, good for another five years.
Walking back to my car, that is when it dawned on me.
The carpark was full of dirty white pick-up trucks and dinky Vios cars.
That friendly crowd in there was exactly the same people I encountered on the Bangkok roads every day of my life.
It was but a fleeting insight. Soon I re-entered the cacophony that is Sukhumvit Road.
Behind the wheel I seamlessly re-entered the world of cursing, cutting in front, blasting horns, tailgating, angrily flashing lights, and doing whatever else one can to beat those other despicable drivers.
By Andrew Biggs
It’s 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
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
CHAOS AND HERMES HANDBAGS
By Andrew Biggs
This is the story of a Hermes handbag, an ageing academic and an overzealous police force. It is a story that one hopes will end in common sense, but then again I hope to win the lottery on the first of next month.
Let’s begin with the cops. Here in Thailand we have a special division of police officers whose task it is to crack down on cyber crime. What constitutes cyber crime is laid out in the shadowy Thailand Computer Crime Act of 11 years ago, but it doesn’t just encompass clear-cut cases such as forgery and theft.
This is the law that can wind you up in jail for liking the wrong Facebook post. In other words, you can go to prison for thinking you agree with something.
The law states it is illegal to post anything on the net that disrupts society. I get that. We want Thailand to be stable and prosperous, but pray tell — how does one define social disruption? Seriously. Taylor Swift’s last album was positively awful — every time that hideous lead single hit the airwaves it disrupted my life, and others I’m sure. Does she get arrested on her next world tour?
The key words are “disruption” and “panic”, and how those words are defined and subsequently acted upon is the task of the cyber cops over at the Technology Crime Suppression Division.
These are not police officers busting wife beaters and bank robbers. In the hierarchy of desired departments I bet they’re right up the top. It can’t be too taxing trawling Facebook all day for those heinous “likes”, in between a few rounds of RoV and Candy Crush.
They have a website where the home page boldly welcomes you to the “TECHNOLOGY CRIME SUPPRESS DIVISION”. You would think being so close to Google they could investigated correct English grammar.
It features a cute cartoon of a young man photoshopping the face of another guy onto the head of a dog. The door to his bedroom flies open and there’s the Thought Police – I beg your pardon … a Technology Crime ‘Suppress’ Division officer standing in the door frame, casting a long and stark dark brown shadow. To me the crime is not as big a deal as the fact a cop can get to his house so quickly. The last time I dialed 911 I had time to make myself a sandwich – and toast it in the pie iron.
On the website there are other short cartoons. Check them out; it’s at tcsd.go.th and in each of them, a young man at a computer is slandering, cut-and-pasting, or bullying on his computer anonymously. Ah but there is nothing anonymous about the internet thanks to the aforesaid law. I know that from frequenting Starbucks. By the time I’ve filled in my personal details to enable free wifi, my Toffee Nut Iced Latte With Extra Whipped Cream has gone lukewarm.
As the cartoons show, no matter what evil you may be up to, a TCPD officer is just around the corner ready to slap handcuffs on you.
(And for some inexplicable reason, those perpetrators are depicted as the nerdiest of guys. Every single one of them wears glasses, has unkempt brown hair and is noticeably pudgy, as opposed to the slender cartoon men in figure-hugging brown arresting them.)
Cyber crime is a massive problem all around the world. Heck, the Russians elected Donald Trump! Tracking down cyber criminals engaging in larceny and fraud should be the number two priority of the TCPD. They need to fix up that grammatical error in their name first.
The trouble is that’s not happening. That cyber law has morphed into a political tool. Who decides what constitutes a threat of panic and disorder? Is there a committee for that? As was suggested in this column last week, democracy-eschewing army generals are a little like party politicians. They need all the help they can get, especially when a hostile population starts growing tired of their shenanigans.
And this is where the handbag and the ageing academic enter our story.
As you probably know, the government is currently playing a waiting game with the general public over the scandal of deputy prime minister Pravit Wongsuwan’s two dozen very expensive wristwatches. It was right after that controversy erupted back in early January that a 77-year-old retired academic posted a picture of the Prime Minister and his wife, the latter holding a Hermes handbag. “Thai leaders must look expensive, not cheap,” he wrote in both Thai and English.
The comment immediately drew dozens of “likes”. It also drew the attention of the TCPD. Sudden end to Candy Crush. Cut to sirens wailing as they raced out to the home of the academic and arrested him on the spot.
Those seven words, according to the TCPD, constituted false information that sowed panic and disorder in society. Those are their words, not mine.
False information? The academic was hardly telling a lie. Since when has a Thai leader ever looked cheap? Certainly we’ve had some frugal ones — Chuan Leekpai and Chamlong Srimuang come to mind — but you could hardly describe them as “cheap”.
More surprising was the allegation that his comment “sowed panic and disorder in society.”
I remember the day our academic posted that comment. It was January 11, 2018. According to my diary I spent the afternoon in an office with a glass wall overlooking Phrakhanong BTS. I was also there the following day, too, and being on Sukhumvit Road, I was in an excellent position to be an eyewitness to any panic or disorder permeating Thai society.
And yet to me, those days were as chaotic as any other normal day on Sukhumvit Road. About the only panic and disorder that went on was in my mind, trying to fathom how a handbag could bring down Thai society. In my panicked state I can only be thankful Taylor Swift didn’t suddenly waft through the speakers. It does conjure up a bizarre scenario of innocent Thais screaming as they run up and down narrow sois, knocking over somtam carts, panicking uncontrollably, owing to a Hermes handbag.
Is it just a little too easy for a police officer to slap a charge of panic and disorder on an ageing academic, not unlike the way they slap cartoon handcuffs on pudgy nerds photoshopping faces of nemeses onto dogs? One cannot clearly measure and define such things as disorder, making the crime a value judgment.
The academic’s original comment garnered more than 80 “likes” from followers before being taken down. They have all technically broken the law, too, but nobody was arrested. Was it a shortage of staff that prevented 80 cop cars speeding out in all directions on January 11? Or is justice being selective in its punishment?
“It’s a weird experience to be a suspect at nearly 80,” Charnvit Kasetsiri told reporters later.
Actually he is Dr Charnvit, former Thammasat University rector, an esteemed academic who obtained his PhD from Cornell University no less. In other words he’s a smart man who doesn’t like ostentatious displays of wealth — and apparently that is against the law.
Dr Charnvit did do a little backtracking after the initial fiasco, for which he cannot be blamed. But has Thai society come to this? To perceive handbags and retired academics as harbingers of panic and disorder can only be viewed as Orwellian … or worse, Pythonesque.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
By Andrew Biggs
Late Saturday night something happened to me that has never occurred before in the quarter-century I have spent here in Thailand.
I got breathalyzed.
It was an experience that filled me with a number of emotions. Thankfully one of them wasn’t remorse for downing a Smirnoff Ice four-pack in the hour preceding, since I am a responsible upstanding member of society who doesn’t mix alcohol and driving — that and the fact I was battling a severe cold.
Instead I felt surprise, revulsion, elation and finally irony, and it is those four emotions we will examine in this column this week.
First of all, surprise.
How is it I can manage to live 25 years of my life in a country that figures prominently in the Top Five Road Deaths Per Capita In The World without ever getting breathalyzed?
Figures are unreliable but conservative estimates show that every year, 12,000 to 15,000 Thais die on the roads. Another 70,000 are maimed. Most are due to alcohol and speeding. I don’t know about you but that sounds to me like a national disaster. An annual national disaster.
I was here back in the 1990s when the police announced breathalyzers had been purchased from overseas and they would start to be implemented in this country.
For a very short time the cops even announced where they would be setting up their roadside breathalyzer stops, providing drivers with an extensive education on alternative, albeit circuitous, routes home.
The fact is, they have been in place for at least 20 years and not once have I ever been stopped.
I am not exactly a hermit, either. I have lurked in the trendiest bars and restaurants around the Thonglor-Ekamai area for more than two decades. I’ve danced, maybe not until dawn, but at least until 11 p.m. at RCA, Saphan Khwai and Ratchadapisek shoulder to shoulder with the country’s best known actors, singers, society figures and yes, even children of politicians when scraping the barrel. Each time I did this I had to get myself home. Never once did I get pulled over.
Well that is not entirely true. I’ve been stopped at police breathalyzer points before, but I’d always been waved through.
Never once has a machine been thrust in my face. Until last Saturday night, that is, and that’s when the second emotion, revulsion, set in.
I must quickly add that it was not revulsion towards the police, who were doing their job. The revulsion was directed towards what was in their hands.
I got stopped on Srinakharin Road. The police often set up there late Friday and Saturday nights, but it has been a source of curiosity to me in that they set up on only one side of that road – the side going into the city, not out of it.
In other words, they are breath-testing those already showered, dressed and ready to have a night out on the town. This is convenient for all those drunken revelers making their ways home after numerous rounds of vodka shots at Ekamai nightspots.
That all changed this week. The police set up on the left side of the road, or rather the right as in “correct” side, catching those coming home, including me.
This time I was waved over and upon winding down my window, a friendly police officer shoved a long thin box at my head.
“Please blow into this,” he said.
It was a rectangular-shaped four-sided metal box, probably half the size of a Chivas container but of the same length. At the end of it, barely centimetres from my face, was a round hole. No rim; no tubing. Just a round hold cut into the metal.
And I have to blow into that?
No disposable plastic attachment, no protective tissue paper. I assumed this box was travelling from car to car, each driver thrusting his mouth against it as if kissing some unresponsive fellow patron at closing time.
You don’t get to my age without having had some pretty strange things pass your lips. I will not traverse any deeper along that particular path.
It has to be said, though, that I draw the line at having to put my mouth against something perhaps a hundred of my Samut Prakan brethren have just kissed. We Samut Prakanians are hardly the crème de la crème of Thai society; we have sweat shops and garbage dumps and the Crocodile Farm. I ain’t getting up close and personal with all that! Wasn’t there some way we could do it and avoid oral herpes at the same time?
In the end I found a way to blow into the hole without my lips ever touching metal, and within a minute I was on my way.
I waited 25 years for that?
The third emotion was elation.
Finally the Thai police are getting serious about drunk driving. Those road toll figures are nothing short of a tragedy and it appears the police are taking their first steps towards controlling that deadly toll.
As stated too many times in this column, I come from a country where driving and alcohol used to be rampant too. Our death toll was horrendous, until the Australian cops realized how much money they could make out of fining people for drink-driving.
How cynical of me for writing that, but you know what? Let them make money from it. Their crackdown drastically reduced the Australian road toll and exactly the same thing can happen here, too. There is only one way to stop people drink-driving on a mass scale and that is to scare them into not using their cars. The ramifications have to be worse than the risk.
That’s why I was elated to see the cops last Saturday night. I don’t care if the decision to set up breathalyzer stops is a financial one. Well done, boys in tight brown!
We have arrived at the final emotion; that of irony.
My very first foray into alcohol breath-testing in Thailand occurred the same month two high-profile news events took place on the same topic.
In the first, a local actress while driving home late at night ploughed her Mercedes Benz into a parked police car, killing a 44-year-old Suphan Buri police inspector.
The circumstances are dubious, thanks to that actress’s absolute refusal to be arrested, be breath-tested or even go to the police station, and instead going home to bed.
What a great example of how the media has a role in educating the general public; it is good to know that in Thailand one has such choices. I know if I committed a heinous crime, my warm bed would be far more desirous than any dirty police cell.
The second incident is more intriguing.
The city police bureau chief got stopped not once like I did, but twice, at roadside breathalyzer stops. On both occasions the chief lashed out at his subordinates for doing their job … on him of all people.
He refused to blow into the box and, this being Thailand, his subordinates sent him on his way.
An actress, a police chief, and your humble columnist. Only one obeyed the law and blew sober. Ah, the irony.