HOW I GOT TO THAILAND
By Andrew Biggs
One of my earliest observances of Bangkok life was made from the second floor of a Khlong Toey guest house, from the window of a room festooned with linoleum and cockroach.
Looking down upon the street, there was a group of Thais sitting on a frayed bamboo mat in a rough circle, and inside that circle were plates of food with forks and spoons sticking out of them. There was an ice bucket and soda water bottles and a bottle of local whiskey, probably Mekhong, in one of those small flat bottles called a baen which is convenient since one can slip it into a trouser pocket while working or driving.
Conversation was animated and top-ups were frequent. A dinky radio cranked out Thai hits. I sat in the darkness, watching them laughing and eating and philosophizing, thinking that perhaps this was the essence of life; good friends, good food, and a frayed old bamboo mat.
It was my second night in Bangkok.
It was on February 14 that I arrived in Thailand for the very first time for what was intended to be a two-day enforced visit before starting work on a London newspaper. That was 30 years ago. I wonder if the position, let alone the paper itself, is still in existence.
I never intended to spend my life here. Back then I was working for a Rupert Murdoch newspaper in Australia. Murdoch then bought The Sun and The Times of London, which meant I could get a job in England easily. Back in those days we had these things called “travel agents” and my agent found the cheapest ticket was Thai Airways International. But there was a catch.
Thai Airways demanded the passenger break his or her journey in Thailand for at least two nights. That didn’t go down well, as I wanted to get to the UK as quickly as possible (and when was the last time you heard an Australian say that?).
And so, on February 14, 1989, at Brisbane airport I bought a novel I intended to read in my hotel room for the duration of my two-day stay in Thailand. That novel was Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as popular at the time as it was pretentious, but in my defence I was going through my Naive Philosophical Phase.
Everything changed upon arrival.
First, I’d never been to an airport before where there were counters selling sex tours right next to the money exchange — in the restricted zone. Also, it was the first place on earth I’d been to where a battered 1980 Toyota Celica qualified as a “Limousine”. I bet even visiting Toyota executives guffawed at that.
The driver was a wizened old guy who reminded me of Munch’s The Scream.
“Pai nai?” he barked at me, as if it were a given every newly-arrived tourist was fluent in Thai. I made an educated guess and said the name of my lodgings and he barked back: “Okay!”
He jettisoned us out of that airport with a g-force only seasoned fighter pilots would relate to. Upon regaining consciousness I reached for my seatbelt; there was none.
He proceeded to chop and change lanes every four to six seconds, as I sat there in the passenger seat mortified, trying to remember some soothing philosophical passage from Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to calm me down, forgetting I was yet to start the damned novel.
Along the way, another shock — as we flew down that highway, a motorcycle came hurtling towards us on the wrong side of the road. I couldn’t believe it! How could such a flagrant violation of international driving laws be tolerated? Where were the police when you needed them? It wasn’t until we got closer that I saw for myself … it was a police motorcycle.
The following day I visited the amazing Grand Palace. Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance would have to wait; I bought the Lonely Planet guide to Bangkok instead. In a sense Joe Cummings dictated the direction of my life for the next three decades, since I was intrigued by the ancient Siamese capitals explained in that book. I decided to extend my stay.
The Bangkok of 1989 was a vastly different place. There were more brothels than fast food restaurants for a start.
I’m not making that up. There was a MacDonald’s at Siam Square and one at Silom. That was the extent of American fast food. The most popular restaurant chain was a local one boasting North-Eastern, or Isan food. Its name was “Isn’t Classic,” since “isn’t” allegedly sounds like “Isan.” No wonder it died out.
KFC would open a year or two later and I remember at the time proclaiming: It’ll never last. Why would Thais patronize an American fried chicken chain when they already have the most delicious grilled chicken on earth? As usual, I was wrong.
Things weren’t quite so cosmopolitan back then. Everybody drank Singha beer, Mekhong whiskey or Johnnie Walker. Nothing else. The most popular toothpaste was called Darkie featuring the grinning face of a black man. Local music flagrantly copied western stuff, which is kind of interesting since today those very same local music labels are cracking down on copyright infringements on those very same tracks.
There was no skytrain. Traffic was gridlocked day and night. You visited one place per day. One of the big sellers at the time was a device called Comfort 100, a container that allowed you to pee into a plastic container whilst in traffic. It came with a special attachment for women; 60 Minutes did a segment about it.
Every street had a brothel. This was towards the end of the era where good Thai girls kept their virginity until their wedding day, while good Thai boys were expected to lose theirs on a weekly basis.
HIV and AIDS were prevalent and new. A trailblazing politician by the name of Mechai Viravaidya was so strident in his campaign to use condoms, for the first few years I was here a condom was referred to as a “meechai”.
Thanks to curiosity and Joe Cummings, my two days in Thailand extended to two weeks, which extended to two years, and now, three decades.
The changes in Bangkok have been creeping but stark. It is now a funkier, sassier metropolis with soaring condominiums where bustling markets used to be. And yet two weeks ago, as I was standing on the fifth floor balcony of one of those market-obliterating condos, I got this amazing sense of deja-vu.
Enjoying a little night air, I looked down onto the street and was transported back in time.
There was a group of people sitting in a rough circle on a frayed bamboo mat. In the middle were plates of food with forks and spoons sticking out of them. There was an ice bucket, a small baen of whiskey and soda bottles.
Seven Thais in a circle. I know because I counted the seven small rectangular screens, lit up in the darkness, in the palms of the seven participants. From where I stood I could make out the green of Line and the blue of Facebook. Not a word was being spoken among them. Not a radio in sight, since three of the four were wearing headphones.
Such a scene begs an insightful philosophical observation but alas, my Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, like the Bangkok of 1989, is lost in time.
THE TOP 40 FARANGS
By Andrew Biggs
I see the Thailand Tatler Top 300 Expat List is out on the streets.
It’s actually called “The 300 List”. It comes out every couple of years and resembles a Billboard Hot 100, with the Bill Heineckes of the world shooting to number one while hapless NIST English teachers hover around the 290’s like a Backstreet Boys comeback single.
It was back in 2007 that I received an email from Thailand Tatler informing me I’d been “selected” as one of Thailand’s leading expats and would be featured on a “list”.
It would be terribly remiss of me to pretend I wasn’t impressed, though had I not been so completely up my own prostate I would have heard the warning bells.
First … an email? Where’s the gold-embossed Issey Miyake-scented letter in the special commemorative Thailand Tatler Top Expat Edition envelope? We’re not talking smelly Khaosan Road Eurotrash here – haven’t you deemed me “leading”? Please … afford me the honor I so truly deserve!
I was too starry-eyed to smell the impending rat; I dutifully dashed off a “short summary” of my “achievements and distinctions”. As I approached the 4,500 word mark I realized perhaps I should respect the 200 word limit and start again.
I quickly dispatched that, along with an airbrushed headshot from 1993, off to Thailand Tatler then sat back in my plush leather chair on the 21st floor of Maleenont Tower. With my head tilted to the window that afforded me a stunning view of the Khlong Toey slum, I reveled in my achievements and distinctions, happy that a prestigious magazine such as Thailand Tatler had finally seen fit to separate the expat sheep from the Nana Plaza goats.
My telephone sprang to life.
“You’ll never guess what I just got asked to be in.”
It was the beaming voice of my dear friend Evil Neil from the 28th floor. Regular readers of this column know Evil Neil, Thailand’s biggest concert promoter … not that that makes him a man of achievement and distinction, unless you’re on stage to announce the award for Atrocious Cell Phone Etiquette.
There was something just a little too smug about his tone of voice, and I didn’t like it.
“I have no idea,” I said. Don’t, whatever you do, say you got a letter from Thailand Tat-
“It’s a letter from Thailand Tatler,” he said, his words glistening and sparkling in the late afternoon sun.
My immediate reaction was; they’re compiling two lists? The Movers and Shakers (my letter) and the Also Rans (Evil Neil’s)? To be honest I don’t doubt Evil Neil’s propensity to dazzle outsiders with his aura of power, but I was a little put out that Thailand Tatler had seen fit to invite two farangs from the very same company to join some exclusive list of Thailand’s Sexiest Expats or whatever the name of it was.
Two? Try three.
“The boss has received one, too,” Evil Neil explained. Now there was a growing apprehension about this exclusive list – I mean, just how exclusive was it going to be?
When the magazine flopped on my desk two months later I was outraged.
“Thailand Tatler’s Exclusive Top 300 Expat List”.
First of all, in a city like Bangkok, what is exclusive about a list of 300 people? I’m surprised my Nepalese gardener didn’t make the list. I’m a bit of a man about town and for all the high-society events I attend, not once did the expat numbers swell to 300.
Billboard calls it their “Hot 100” … I am assuming any expansion of that number turns it into a “Tepid 200”. So what does that make us here in Bangkok – the “Thawed Out 300”? I can just imagine the harried TT staff on the day before deadline coming to the realization they have only mustered up a list of 277 … oh no! 23 movers and shakers short!
“Quick … take this camera and run down to Nana Plaza and see if anybody looks vaguely like leadership material,” the Editor must have said. “On second thoughts, head for Soi Cowboy. Times are tough … even for movers and shakers.”
This is clearly what happened in this latest list, judging by the inclusion of some very dubious faces; movers and shakers in the Pattaya Walking Street girlie bars, perhaps, but certainly not in Bangkok society.
This is borne out by the telltale last question TT asked on the form required to be sent back: “Can you recommend any other names to be included on our list?” Ah-hah! So you did have to pop down to Soi Cowboy after all!
It’s bad enough the list is a morbidly-obese 300. Worse still -- it’s alphabetized!
Thank God my last name’s Biggs, putting me at #18 on the Thawed Out 300. I just think it’s downright unfair Anthony Ainsworth is a perennial #1, while poor old Boaz Zippor, that talented photographer, must be beside himself languishing at #300. What happens if a new expat by the name of, oh, Veronica Zimmerpickle suddenly shoulders her way into Thai expat society? Poor Boaz gets bumped!
It would have been far more exciting – not to mention riveting – to rank the Top 300 expats on a weekly basis.
Perhaps not so great for Anthony Ainsworth, but certainly Bill Heinecke would jump from his current #107 straight to #1 in his first week on the chart – that hasn’t happened since Michael Jackson released “You Are Not Alone”.
TT could tabulate our rises and falls based on bank statements, appearances in the social pages, contributions to the TT Pension Fund, etc. And since we Bangkok expats have a propensity for, er, untoward behavior (a mere 11 out of the 300 are devoid of skeletons in the closet), that too could have an effect on our weekly rankings when and if we get caught. Surely my three months in America earlier this year would have seen me slip from #18 down to the lower regions of the Top 40.
Whenever Rolling Stone publishes their list of the 100 Greatest Songs Of All Time they cop a lot of flak from readers who demand to know why classics like We Built This City or Sunglasses At Night weren’t included. It’s the same with the Thawed Out 300.
Last Wednesday I had dinner with my good friend Andrew Stotz, Thailand’s leading financial analyst, the likes of which the Prime Minister himself consults. Where is he on the list? And what about my dear friend Stuart MacDonnell who runs international sporting events, before which 85 per cent of “The 300 List” telephone him asking for free tickets?
It was Steve Pettifour (#225, art critic extraordinaire) who explained to me this week why there are 300 of us, and not a more manageable 40 or 100. This is what he said:
Recently there was an event at the Renaissance Hotel to announce the Thawed Out 300 and he went. He made the list for the first time, making me wonder who he bumped and whether he should increase security at his moo bahn because of it.
“It’s a conspiracy,” he explained. “They want us all to beef up. They’re going to put us all in armor and make us fight in the name of Sparta!”
Ah, now I get it. And that I would like to see. Anthony Ainsworth and the other 17 in front of me can man the front line.
I’ll be at the back having a beer with Boaz.
THE FARANG ACCENT
By Andrew Biggs
All around my Los Angeles neighborhood are hand-written signs tacked onto lofty palm trees: “ACCENT ELIMINATION”. The two words are followed by a local telephone number, which to my surprise doesn’t begin with 555.
Accent Elimination – how intriguing. A long, long time ago I was here in Southern California as an AFS foreign exchange student. This was pre-Crocodile Dundee, and Americans had next to no knowledge of Australia … but they did love my accent.
These days Aussies are a dime a dozen in America; you can find them trawling the cheap beer in Ralph’s supermarkets, or staggering out of seedy Sunset Boulevard bars singing Khe Sanh at the top of their atonal voices.
In fact here in LA nobody has an American accent. Every little Fatburger or El Polo Loco in every strip mall across LA is a cacophony of voices from Asia, Europe, the Middle East and, most predominantly, Mexico to the point where LA must surely stand for Latin America. “Accent Elimination” promises to knock that accent out of you, and in no time you’ll begin to sound like those prescription-happy people on every American TV ad.
“It’s a service for new Americans who can be a little difficult to understand,” my host brother Marc explained when I finally gathered the courage to ask. “What about in Thailand? Do you have a problem with accents?”
How interesting you should ask.
Something bizarre is going on in Thailand. As a native English speaker spends more and more time in the kingdom, his English starts to mutate into something far removed from what he uses back home.
The next night you have off, quietly pop down to any pub in Soi Cowboy, Nana or Patpong. Find yourself a bar stool, thoroughly disinfect it with anti-fungal spray, sit down upon it and order an orange juice. Now, listen in to your neighbors. As any professor of linguistics will tell you, the deterioration happens in four distinct phases:
Phase One: The Demise of “S”
For some inexplicable reason, many western visitors who fraternize with the locals believe that the more they speak like an idiot, the better they will be understood.
Thus, within days they are dropping the conjugated S at the end of verbs whose subject is third-person singular.
“Your mother, she say she sick?” I heard an Australian in dire need of a course of Jenny Craig frozen dinners ask his new friend Noi. From my eavesdropping position Noi had just informed him, surprise surprise, that her mother has fallen ill. “She go to hospital?” the Aussie asked.
say … go … what happened on the Jetstar flight over here that made you decide these were preferable to says and goes? In a similar way, this linguistic disease starts spreading to the present continuous tense, eradicating it entirely. “I go to ATM,” he tells Noi. “Then we eat rice. OK?” “OK!” Noi nods, with a winsome smile, not because she understands the sentence structure, but because she heard the magic word: ATM.
Phase Two: Bye Bye Verb To Be
This, I suspect, is a communicable disease the western tourist picks up from the likes of Noi.
“You very beautiful!” he say – I beg your pardon – says. “I very happy with you.” The man is effectively speaking like a newspaper headline, dropping the is am are faster than he drops thousand-Baht bills into Noi’s sweaty palms.
He’s not doing anybody any favors talking like this, especially poor Noi, who should be learning that the verb “to be” is fundamental to any good English sentence. In no time she herself will begin speaking like this, with sentences like “He my brother!” when a man, strangely with the same nose and mouth as Noi’s 3-year-old son, appears from upcountry needing a motorbike.
3. Preposterous Pronouns
The first person I ever heard speaking like this was a western woman … and an Australian to boot. It was down on Koh Samui as she ordered a drink from a bewildered Thai waiter.
“Me like water,” she was saying from her buckling deckchair. “Me want water in bottle. Me no like Coke or Pepsi.”
Has this woman seen one too many Tarzan movies? Where does she get off thinking “me” instead of “I” as the subject is good? Some tourists even do it the other way around.
“You come to I tonight at 11 pm. Lek come here. Lek wait for I here, okay?” I heard a Dutchman tell his Thai bargirlfriend (named Lek) on the Pattaya walking street. Poor Lek; she’s going to hit her teens thinking it’s perfectly acceptable to switch “I” and “me” around as frequently as she switches Eurotrash boyfriends.
The final stage is almost fatal, simply because I want to murder the idiots who enter it. By this stage, their accent and English construction is more fraught with holes than a Sukhumvit condominium complex. It’s the stage I call …
Phase Four: The Same-Same Syndrome
Thais love to take English words and give them new meanings far removed from what may appear in your old MacMillan or Oxford dictionary. A “freshy” is a freshman, for example, and if your clothes “fit”, then they are too small for you. I know, quirky and cute, but completely understandable in the adventure of learning a new language.
It does not, however, give native English speakers carte blanche to do it.
“I no butterfly!” I heard a British septuagenarian defending his character to the blank-faced-but-gorgeous girl in a temple-fair bikini sitting on his lap. “I no like you say that.” She’s no doubt just accused him of philandering not because she believes it, but what else is she gonna talk about between now and asking for a TV? But that is beside the point – where in England does one call a philanderer a “butterfly”?
“Mekhong whiskey same-same methylated spirits,” I overheard an Australian telling his Thai bargirl one night in Patpong. The girl raised her eyebrows and laughed, lifting her glass and clinking it with his, pretending ‘methylated spirits’ was a word she indeed knew from her four years’ schooling upcountry.
“Butterfly” … “same-same” … no verb to be … no present continuous tense … “like” suddenly an intransitive verb. These are the symptoms of a strange linguistic disease that engulfs many a western tourist to Thailand. What is it that makes us think speaking like an idiot somehow makes us easier to understand, let alone be of any help to a Thai already grappling with the maddening complexities of the English language? And yet we do it, and often.
It’s a slap in the face to the Thais. Somebody wrestling with a second language doesn’t mean they are stupid. The last thing they need is condescending pidgin English comin’ right at ‘em. So no, Marc, we don’t need Accent Eliminators in Thailand … though mandatory intelligence tests along with visas on arrival may not go astray.
SABAI DEE, SOMTAM
By Andrew Biggs
This week I enjoyed a delicious lunch at Suan Dusit University, my host being none of than the Dean of the Faculty of Education.
We ate at the university restaurant, which doubles up as a training ground for hospitality. Despite our lofty stature we chose to eat traditional Thai food. The Dean had pad kraphao while I ate rard nah.
We also shared another dish.
“It’s a specialty of the restaurant,” my host told me. “You’ve got to try it.”
That dish was somtam but with a difference. Rather than being made with papaya and peanuts, the restaurant replaced those ingredients with apple and cashew nuts. A little sweeter, but that was offset by the lemon and chilies so inherent in this variation of Thailand’s national dish.
What a great lunch; who would have thought the Dean and myself had participated in a culinary offence worthy of the wrath of the Culture Minister?
This week the Ministry of Culture got its pa-sin in a knot over Thai fusion food. Something insidious is happening in the culinary world. More and more Thai restaurants especially overseas are experimenting, veering off the straight and narrow.
I never imagined Thai fusion food to be a cultural stinker. I always thought it was kind of interesting and creative and, best of all, delicious.
I was wrong, according to the latest Culture Minister. He is Vira Rojpojchanarat, and his argument is that Thai food is unique, with recipes handed down for generations. That food is now under attack from “foreign influences” which are changing “the look and taste of certain dishes”. They are a threat to authentic Thai cuisine. Ultimately, it could lead to the disappearance of some unique Thai foods.
So worried is he about this, and so free is his appointment diary, he has found time to set up a special governmental committee to tackle the problem.
The committee’s aim is to protect, on a national level, Thai cuisine and the country’s food culture. One wonders if the committee is going to be armed or wear special uniforms as they implement this national crackdown. Will Section 44 be required?
It is heartening to learn such committees exist in the Thai civil service. One wonders what the members would spend their time doing if it were not for examining the pros and cons of Thai barbecue chicken with fruit and wasabi. That was the accompanying photo to the news story, demonstrating the heinous extent to which foreigners take innocent Thai dishes, strip them of their condiments and wantonly rape them with wasabi and fruit.
Thailand has one of the most exciting cuisines in the world, and really, to tamper with the tried and true recipes can be foolish. However we do need to corner Khun Vira — in the nicest way possible — sit him down somewhere quiet, order him a nice cup of traditional Thai tea, and have a little whisper to him.
I would start by reminding him of a controversy that gripped the country 20 years ago. It began when the Laotian Government announced a cultural fair displaying all things Laotian. There would be displays of traditional Laotian dancing, beautiful Laotian silk, and “wonderful opportunities to sample delicious traditional Laotian food such as somtam, which has its origins in Laos.”
What did they just say? You couldn’t kick Thailand between the legs any harder if you’d ask the country to spread its legs.
Somtam comes from Laos? That’s like saying to an American: “Your apple pie is delicious, but you know it originates in Canada.” Or to an Australian: “Lovely dessert, your pavlova, but it’s a New Zealand recipe.”
The outrage was so loud it drowned out Sukhumvit Road traffic for days. Thais were adamant. Their spicy raw-papaya-chilies-nuts-and-shrimp concoction came from 100 per cent North-Eastern Thais who have made it the staple for every Thai, particularly stick-thin office girls who munch on it every lunchtime because glua oo-an (afraid of getting fat). No, that’s not the reason. They eat it for the same reason everybody does; it’s the most delicious dish on earth.
And it comes from Thailand, as was sternly decreed at the time by Thai government ministers, business leaders, high-ranking monks, game show hosts and stars of local soap operas. Even comedians took a break from their hilarious routines of dressing up as women, or parading Downs Syndrome men on stage, to condemn Thailand’s nasty neighbor for daring to say somtam wasn’t Thai.
Then the Thai tide turned.
One Thai academic came out, very sheepishly, saying there was evidence that yes, perhaps, maybe, somtam could have originated from around the, well, Vientiane region of the world and, um, he had old papers to prove it.
I can’t really remember what happened next. I do remember the academic photographed beside some hoary old tomes he cited as source material. Either that or he was dragged onto Silom Road, stripped naked, his arms and legs attached to four tuk-tuks that drove off simultaneously in four separate directions at the shrill blast of a police whistle. Was there anybody else who’d like to join him?
Things got worse. Another academic (via midnight postings of home-made posters around the Surawong neighborhood) pointed out that Thailand’s beloved chilies — a base ingredient of every dish Khun Vira is willing to defend against experimenting foreigners — are not native to Thailand. They are as Thai in origin as I am.
Chilies came to Thailand around the 16th century via the Portuguese, who got them from Central America. You can read all about it in an excellent book I recently finished, entitled The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan, which explains the two-thousand-year history of trade between Europe and China and everywhere in between.
I would then go on to explain to Khun Vira that there was a further king-hit; neither are papaya trees! They first sprouted up as recently as 200 years ago from foreign visitors.
I know, Khun Vira. It’s awful. Those dreaded foreigners introduced the very ingredients you are now trying to protect from dreaded foreigners.
Upon hearing this news, 20 years ago, the Thais knew that they had to do. It’s the same thing we did in Australia when the evidence was overwhelming that our national dish, pavlova, really did come from New Zealand. It hurt, dear reader, but we put our heads down and got on with life.
That’s what the Thais did. Game show hosts took up their microphones and the Downs Syndrome comedian was dusted off and dragged back on stage. The academic’s arms and legs were reattached and he was wheeled back to university.
There is another thing I would gently explain to Khun Vira before asking for the check-bill (and of course, paying it myself). I would remind him, respectfully, that this is the era of Thailand 4.0. It sprang from the realization that only two things will heave Thailand into the 21st century as a strong competitor on the world stage.
Those two things are innovation and technology. Yes, innovation. That extends to the Thai cuisine.
I congratulate the Thai chef over at Suan Dusit University who thought up that magnificent apple and cashew somtam dish. That’s the kind of innovation that keeps Thai culture fresh and alive.
Oh but we have taken up too much of the Minister’s valuable time. Thank you for listening to me, and I would ask you, most humbly, to consider my thoughts and opinions. Perhaps the committee you set up could discuss it over a plate of that Portuguese concoction.
THE CIRCLE OF NAKHON PATHOM
By Andrew Biggs
Greetings from Nakhon Pathom! This week your favorite columnist finds himself in a hotel room for five days in this little town just west of Bangkok.
“Little town” is hardly a good description, though it was certainly that way when I first visited here a quarter-century ago. Bangkok has since extended her tentacles, swallowing up the likes of as Samut Prakan and Nonthaburi and Minburi.
Over to the west is a motley crew of smallish provinces, Nakhon Pathom being one of them, and in the process of being devoured as well. There are two things I associate with Nakhon Pathom, namely the massive historic pagoda smack bang in the middle of town. The other thing I have always associated the province with is unrest, which is kind of weird, until I checked back on my diaries and found out the reason why.
But before we get into that, the pagoda. It is the single most dominant and striking aspect of the night sky through my hotel window.
(The other window looks onto an adjacent apartment block, where I can see into every single apartment and, if I weren’t so deadline-challenged, would spend my evening not unlike Jimmy Stewart in the Alfred Hitchcock movie Rear Window; armed with a lot of curiosity and a discreet telescope. Oh well, there’s always tomorrow night.)
The pagoda at Nakhon Pathom is not your average Buddhist structure. Nor is it technically a pagoda; it is a “stupa.” With a rotund base it resembles a massive upturned burnt-orange bell, shooting 120 metres into the air, making it the tallest stupa in the world.
Original construction began more than 2,000 years ago, but fires and earthquakes and time took their tolls. It has been constantly built upon, the latest incarnation being about 150 years old. It was here that Buddhism first entered the region from India and spread throughout what is now Thailand. The name Nakhon Pathom means “first city” for this reason.
It is 235 metres around the base, which I walked this evening, before returning to my double-windowed hotel room and choosing to open the curtains on the temple side. So why do I also associate this giant stupa with unrest? The answer can be found in my diaries.
At this point I have to confess that as a serial writer I have kept a daily diary for the last 30 years of my life. This may seem unremarkably admirable or obsessive compulsive depending on the way you look at it, but it does serve a purpose. Whenever I need to check back on events, I can pop back into my past. I know exactly when my beloved three-legged dog Kanokwan died (December 6, 2000), or a strange week in 1995 in Koh Samui where my diary entries are nothing but weird drawings of planets and cryptic passages such as NOT MUCH LONGER NOW TILL IT WEARS OFF.
For this reason I know I came to Nakhon Pathom on Friday, May 8, 1992, writing a travel column for The Nation newspaper. I decided to stay the weekend until Sunday lunchtime when I caught a bus back to Bangkok.
No wonder I associate the province with unrest. That was one week before Black May, a series of dark events in modern Thai history which I experienced first-hand.
I had been in Thailand just three years. Only the year before the military had toppled the Chatichai Choonhavan government on the grounds it was corrupt.
Under General Suchinda Kraprayoon, the military set up a government and installed the popular Anand Panyarachun as prime minister. In March, two months before my Nakhon Pathom trip, there were national elections. The winning coalition government appointed General Suchinda as prime minister all over again, despite his not running in a constituency. An unelected prime minister would lead the country.
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
This was at a time when the Thai middle class was starting to get a little savvy. It was still a good two or three years before the internet would arrive, but mobile phones had certainly infiltrated society (albeit in the form of bricks). The general feeling was: Why did we just have elections? What was the point if the politicians go ahead and appoint an outsider to lead the country?
This fueled a groundswell of dissidence. These were not rebel-rousers or insurgents. The average Thai was incensed. A middle-class uprising was in progress. And all they wanted was for Suchinda to stand down and an elected prime minister take his place.
I attended one of the first major rallies in Sanam Luang a few nights after I returned to Bangkok from Nakhon Pathom. It was a night I will never forget; a hundred thousand Thais gathered, riding on the backs of pick-up trucks down Ratchadamnoen Avenue into Sanam Luang. I stayed there well into the early morning hours, buoyed by the frenetic energy of the place.
According to my diary I woke up the next morning with a bad cold, no doubt from rubbing shoulders with the masses the night before. I took the day off work and stayed in bed all day. And it was later that night the military rolled the tanks in and started firing mercilessly at the crowds in and around Sanam Luang.
What followed were three hellish days of shootings and cat-and-mouse chases between unarmed protestors and the well-armed military. Average Thais dodged bullets and some did not, with at least 50 dead from the shootings. It would have been even worse were it not for an intervention by King Bhumibol himself. On the night of May 20 a rally was called at Ramkhamhaeng University and I saw, with my own eyes, trucks of armed men in formation moving towards the university just hours before the protest was due to begin.
At around 9 pm that evening, all channels broadcast an amazing scene. His Majesty was seated as he gave a stern lecture to arched enemies General Suchinda and protest leader Chamlong Srimuang, who both sat meekly on the floor after having prostrated themselves before the King. Stop acting like selfish people, the King instructed, and put the interests of the country first.
Immediately after, TV stations televised those two arched rivals with stony faces seated at a table reading prepared speeches. Chamlong would call off the protests. And unelected General Suchinda would stand down, which he did four days later.
What a time in Thai history!
For me it was a fascinating glimpse into the machinations of Thai politics. So many things happened behind the scenes and I watched many of them unfold.
One of my greatest memories; sitting in the newsroom as a more-than-slightly-eccentric Thai reporter approached me in the newsroom and threw down what I thought was a pebble onto my desk.
“Do you know that that is?” he asked, visibly shaken. “A portion of a cranium of a pro-democracy protester shot dead.” Such were the scenes from those out-of-the-ordinary days.
And now, here I am back in Nakhon Pathom. The pagoda hasn’t changed, though bathed in better lighting now, and I am still writing a daily diary.
\But what a chilling coincidence, isn’t it, that I am here on the day the military government is laying plans for an election in which provisions have been made to allow for an unelected prime minister. I hope … I pray … that there is no circle coming around in that regard.
By Andrew Biggs
It has been a week of addiction and idiocy, as your columnist comes to grips with one of the grossest wastes of time he has experienced since standing in line for Krispy Kreme donuts when they first opened here in 2010.
Pokémon Go has been in Thailand just two weeks and already there have been reports of players crashing cars on Sukhumvit, walking into the path of oncoming semi trailers, and finding themselves under the wheels of Northern-bound buses. Is there any better example of people eliminating themselves for the sake of humanity?
Thailand is no worse than anywhere else. Last week I was in Australia and the whole country has turned into Pokémon Zombies, defined as people who get off on capturing non-existent creatures and putting them into little round balls for future use. It is the modern-day Dungeons and Dragons for the dumb.
Hoards of normal Australians (if you can forgive that oxymoron) now wander the streets with their foreheads pressed against their smart phones. Meanwhile in New Zealand one guy gave up his day job to devote his life to hunting Pokémon monsters. His mother was quoted in the media as saying she supports him whole-heartedly, proving that your parents’ genes have the greater influence upon your intelligence, or in this case lack of it, than your environment.
Before Pokémon Go hit Thailand there were rumblings from authorities that the app might have to be banned, because it could be a threat to the nation’s security. Wrong; it is a threat to the nation’s stupidity.
Idiots, I kept hearing myself say. How could a reasonable person waste time with such insipid nonsense?
“Strangle me if you ever see me download such a thing,” I announced in my best holier-than-thou voice at a meeting.
Skip one week into the future.
Prepare the rope.
Monday, August 15, 2016: Download Day
Put it down to journalistic curiosity. Or a case of keeping up with the Somchais.
At 1.15 pm I downloaded the Pokémon Go. And my world completely changed.
First of all, there are TWO Pokémon Stops right outside my school in Phrakhanong! TWO! It explains why so many people have been wandering towards my school, stopping, looking at their phones, and then walking away. They were stocking up on Pokémon balls! And here I was thinking it was my face on the school sign that was sending them away.
Within five minutes I have caught a Bulbasaur, a fat green monster with a seed on its back. At 3 pm I have an appointment at Exchange Tower, and as I wait a Weedle appears on the reception sofa. It takes me three balls to catch the thing, though a little ill-timed, with the chief executive witnessing the event and being diplomatic enough not to comment on what I was doing.
At 4.30 pm I give a speech at a university; in the carpark I manage to catch a Vulpix, three Pidgeys and a Rattata. The feeling is exhilarating; all those creatures in one single area. I contemplate a return trip to the uni at midnight tonight.
In the auditorium prior to the speech I feign a full bladder and ask to go to the bathroom, where I snare a Sandslash at the urinals.
Tuesday, August 16, 2016: Addiction Is A Disease
My home in Samut Prakan is a wasteland for Pokémon monsters. I set my alarm for 4.30 am so that I can catch a few before the day starts, but I may as well be living in the desert. I contemplate moving into an inner city apartment. I send a message to my secretary to check rent prices.
But oh my goodness, if Samut Prakan is a wilderness, Suvarnabhumi Airport is the opposite!
It’s the Patpong Road of the Pokémon world, full of weird snarling monsters just waiting to inflict their venom onto you. I nab Magikarp along with some more Rattatas and Pigeottos. The thrill of the chase is electrifying. I accidentally slam my suitcase into the heels of a Chinese tour group leader chasing a Nidoqueen.
But the day has some bad moments, too.
At the security checkpoint I am angered when I spot a Paras but a killjoy official tells me to move on. There is clearly a Goldeen in the women’s toilets and I contemplate running in but an obscenity rap would do nothing for my career.
The runway proves to be devoid of creatures, too. Maybe it’s the price I pay for choosing a low-cost airline. I reluctantly switch off my phone upon taxiing, realizing I have paid no attention to the flight attendant explaining how to buckle and unbuckle a seat belt, as well as how to properly tie a life vest around myself in the event the plane goes crashing head-first into the Gulf of Thailand.
“Congratulations! You have caught 10 Pokemons!” I am told upon snaring a Spearow at Big C Srinakharin later that evening. I’m up to Level 4 … one more level and I get to pit my strength against others in the Pokémon Gyms! Just thinking about that gives me a tingle in my loins. Which is when I start to get worried.
Wednesday August 17, 2016: Nothing Matters Anymore
The ghost of Nancy Reagan has been whispering in my ear all morning: “Just say no. Just say no.”
But I can’t.
No matter where I go I need to check for Pokémon Stops because like a serial sex addict I am on a constant quest for balls. The more creatures I catch, the more strong is my desire to capture all 151 creatures.
I stare into the small screen of my cellphone all day, all night. I cannot remember my life before Pokémon Go.
“Congratulations! You have caught 10 flying-type Pokemons!” the game flashes at me tonight, only I get a different feeling from the night before. I hear this faint voice in the back of my head, not unlike Nancy Reagan’s, asking: “So what?”
I skipped lunch today. I refused to take two important calls on my cellphone because they came right when I was snaring a Pikachu and Squirtle. When my secretary calls right in the middle of throwing balls at a Metapod, I scream at her for the first time ever, asking what the hell she wants.
“I have a list of inner-city apartments for you,” she says meekly.
Thursday August 18, 2016: Deleted
I have a moment of clarity upon awakening this morning. It is long enough to realize the folly of the last two days.
I quickly delete Pokémon Go.
As I write this it has been six hours and yes, I admit there is a hole in my life.
I have the urge to download it again but I check myself. There are too many things I need to do in my life that are meaningful. One of them is not being a slave to my smart phone.
Pokémon Go withdrawal is not easy, but I’ll get through it. If only this were something less addictive, like alcohol or narcotics. At least there are support groups for those things.
Alone, as a recovering Pokéholic, I am following the two steps toward freedom from this game; that is, delete, then find something less intoxicating to replace it, like methamphetamines. I’m doing lots of deep breathing, meditation, and reading Buddhist Dharma books and it’s all good.
Besides, I’ve just been introduced to League of Legends. It’s fantastic. You see it’s this international war game where you fight in teams against people from all over the world and you get to assume all these identities as you smash and kill and throw bombs and …
BRISBANE: A CITY WITH TICKETS ON ITSELF
By Andrew Biggs
My good friend Tony Preece is going to sing at the Lord Mayor’s Senior Cabaret Concert at Brisbane City Hall this Sunday afternoon.
The concert is billed as featuring “famous Brisbane singing stars of yesteryear.” I had no idea Brisbane had such performers outside of the Bee Gees, and I know they’re not taking the stage.
Nevertheless I am thrilled to have a friend who is a famous singing star of yesteryear. He’s going to perform Lena Horne’s If You Believe, complete with flamboyant scarf, he claims.
The concert starts at 2 pm and finishes at 3.30. Tickets are five bucks each. And by a coincidence I am in Brisbane at the same time as the event!
Tony is thrilled. “You may have to dodge the Zimmer frames and mobility scooters on the way in,” he says via email. “But no need to rush to get there. I’m number 17 on the program.”
And so, at 2.30 pm, I rock up to the deserted Brisbane City Hall foyer with my 84-year-old mother, my sister and Thai friend. There is a young security official sitting just inside city hall wearing a single earphone and uniform.
He looks up at me slowly as I approach.
“I’m here to see the Senior Citizen’s Cabaret,” I say.
“Do you have tickets?”
“The ticket sellers left at 2.25,” he says. “Five minutes ago.”
“So … where can I get tickets now?”
“The ticket sellers left at 2.25,” he repeats, clearly insinuating I am either deaf or an idiot, with an emphasis on the latter.
“Oh — so the concert is full?”
“Oh no,” he quickly answers, as if that suggestion is ludicrous. “No.” “Well can I just pop into the back of the auditorium and sit somewhere there?”
“You need a ticket,” he says, shaking his head.
“But the ticket sellers went home at 2.25,” I say.
Apparently that is the end of the conversation. Either that, or I am in a recurring scene that will stretch on for eternity.
Then, a miracle.
A smart young woman appears in a black suit carrying a clutch of tickets! The security guard calls her over and I explain my situation.
She is very accommodating. She smiles and furrows her brow. “I’m sorry but the ticket sellers left at 2.25,” she says.
“Yes I know that,” I say. “Couldn’t I just give you 20 bucks and you can let me in?”
“I can’t accept any money.”
“But what about all those tickets in your hands?”
She looks at them. “These are reserved tickets.”
I look at my own watch. “But they haven’t turned up.” This is a concert for the elderly, and perhaps some of the ticket holders may have unexpectedly shaken off their mortal coil between reservation and event. I don’t say this, of course; but I do stress the fact it’s now after 2.30 pm.
“Couldn’t you give me some of the reserved tickets of people who haven’t shown up?”
This is clearly not a Brisbane thing to do. She makes a very unhappy face. “But what if they turn up later?”
“The concert apparently is nowhere near full. They could sit anywhere.”
“But they are reserved seats.”
She bites her lip and looks around. “Hold on a minute,” she says, and darts off to another security man standing by the large Brisbane City Hall doors. They carry on a furtive conversation. He looks at his watch then shoots me arrows of disapproval. I want to run over and apologize — perhaps prostate myself at his feet — explaining that where I live, in Thailand, a 2 pm concert start means arriving at 2.45 (and then leaving at 3.10, though he doesn’t need to know that).
I am too far away to hear the conversation between Clutch of Tickets and Security Hitler, but I do hear snippets such as “rules are rules” and “the ticket sellers went home at 2.25” and “breach of security”.
Breach of security?
Brisbane is trying to brand itself as an international city, and with that comes all the accompanying terrorist threats. But come on. I know suicide bombers aren’t the brightest sparks in the Islamic bulb factory, but what jihadist worth his salt would press the button on his vest at a sparsely-attended assembly of geriatric infidels, as opposed to, say, a State of Origin match attended by ten thousand?
Oh but the Clutch of Tickets is back.
“Sorry,” she says.
Then she leans forward conspiratorially. “Look, I’ll tell you what I can do. I’ve got this one ticket here from somebody who tried to cancel at the last minute. I can give it to you, and one of you can go in.”
The situation just crashed and burned.
I came here expecting to enjoy an afternoon of Tony hopefully hitting the notes to a Lena Horne classic, and I end up with a Sophie’s Choice moment! Do I go in to see Tony perform and send my mother and sister to the gas chamber? Even I can’t do that!
It is time for me to pull out the big guns. “Look,” I say. “All I want to do is see my friend Tony sing. Forget Simon Gallaher and the rest. I won’t even sit down. I’ll stand at the back. We’ll stand throughout the whole damned concert if we must, behind all those empty seats. I promise to spend no longer than the entirety of Lena Horne’s If You Believe inside that auditorium. Could we at least do that?”
“Hold on a sec.”
She runs to the main doors of the auditorium to an older gentleman with a beard, another official paid by the local council, no doubt, to perform the exacting task of informing the general public that the ticket sellers went home at 2.25 pm.
While she is away it is my 84-year-old mother who makes the best suggestion of all; why not catch the elevator to the observation tower? On the way down we could get off at balcony level and just duck into the auditorium that way.
Ingenious! Now I know where I get my cunning from! And yet her idea is fraught with difficulties.
There are probably security cameras installed all over Brisbane City Hall. Imagine the four of us being spotted on the security system whilst committing the heinous act of breaking into the Lord Mayor’s Senior Cabaret Concert. Would I be detained and arrested? And what if the news gets out? I don’t think I could live with the shame of illegally trespassing into a geriatric concert. Katy Perry maybe, but a geriatric concert …
The Clutch of Tickets is back.
Again, the prognosis is bleak. There is no last-minute reprieve from the governor. Rules are rules. And the ticket sellers went home at 2.25, she reminds us.
“I’m sorry, but my head would be on the chopping block,” she says.
She is looking devastated, having now tried to negotiate with three security types, not to mention being swallowed up in a system that is as Orwellian as it is Monty Python. I feel as though I am falling in love with her; Stockholm Syndrome no doubt.
I touch her reassuringly on the arm, though only lightly, for fear of being slapped with a sexual harassment charge. Stranger things have happened this afternoon, believe me.
“It’s alright. I understand. You did your best.” And with that, she was gone, as we were too.
Tony calls the next day.
The concert had been a success; despite being sparsely attended, and his being number 17 on the programme, his rendition of Lena Horne’s If You Believe was well received that Sunday afternoon.
“Though the organization was a bit of a shambles,” he says. “The show didn’t start until 3 pm.”
UP, UP AND AWAY
By Andrew Biggs
Nong Max was born into a rural Thai family 15 years ago in the far north-eastern province of Nakhon Phanom.
That province is 750 km from Bangkok, which makes Nakhon Phanom about halfway to Macau in China.
It’s not exactly on the tourist track; Ho Chi Minh did hide out there, plotting the Viet Minh independence movement, from 1928 to 1931 in a small under-the-radar village called Ban Nachok. I once visited his home there and while historically significant, it is probably not worth driving all of 750 km to see it — unless you were on the way to Macau and needed a pit stop. But let us get back to Max.
This soft-spoken Thai kid lived in Nakhon Phanom throughout his primary school years. Then life threw him a curveball. His mother met and married an Australian, who took his new family to live in Australia. Suddenly he was a student at Indooroopilly High School in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.
So what happened to this introspective Thai country boy who got thrust into a school of 1,500 boisterous Australian students? Did he sink or swim?
I am writing this column from an inner-city hotel in Brisbane, in the middle of a fascinating week exploring the education scene in Queensland, my home state in Australia.
Readers may be surprised to learn that your sophisticated Bangkok Post columnist actually has his roots in a southern Brisbane suburb of Sunnybank, where the word “chic” was only ever uttered when followed by “-ken coop.” Sunnybank, when I was little, was a semi-rural community, full of British expats making their new homes amid the custard apple, strawberry and avocado farms of the region. And chicken coops, like the farm next door to us.
(While Sunnybank may have been exquisite in its mundanity, we did receive a visit from Queen Elizabeth in 1970. She was taken to a swimming pool and mini-zoo complex full of mangy koalas and rabid kangaroos called The Oasis in Sunnybank. One can only imagine the number of stifled yawns behind royal gloves on that sweltering day.)
Back then there was one Chinese family living there. Jump forward to today, and Sunnybank is entirely Asian. As I said during a speech at the newly-opened Thai Consulate in Brisbane this week, there is probably only one single white Australian family living in Sunnybank these days. Facetious, I know, but written with love.
Brisbane has to qualify for one of the most culturally diverse places on the planet. What was, just four decades ago, a city of a million white people has doubled in size and now features every single race and color. And yet we still retain our slightly nerdy, hillbilly flavor as Australia’s biggest country town.
Take Cavendish Road State High School, for example. Back in the 70s “Cav Road” was a bit of a rough old place with limited resources and not exactly an honor roll of students.
You should see it now; its 1,500 students come from 60 different countries and a top-notch sporting program.
It is a statistic that repeats itself over and over. Max’s school, Indooroopilly High, now has 60 different native languages on their campus, and it teaches the International Baccalaureate program along with some very unique programs as you are about to discover.
Queensland’s main vocational college, TAFE, used to be the place to go if you weren’t so academically minded but had to study somewhere because your parents forced you to. The coin has completely flipped; this year 125,000 students from 60 countries are enrolled in 180 courses. And you should see the educational resources they have; the Nursing course features a mock-up of a hospital complete with ageing anatomically-correct mannequins. Yes, dear reader, I looked.
Queensland has is now what I believe to be the best place in Australia for a Thai to study. The old system of rote learning is out the window, as the state grapples and experiments with new methodologies that are student-oriented and stress analysis and critical thinking.
Cav Road, for instance, is trialing the new method of teaching known as STEM, incorporating the four subjects of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. It was fascinating sitting in on two STEM classes this week, as Grade 8’s and Grade 11’s sat in groups experimenting with ways to solve gravitational and velocity problems using those subjects.
Every Thai student I spoke to said they preferred the system in Queensland because “the teacher’s aren’t as strict and there isn’t so much testing.” That is interesting, considering that’s the opposite of two fundamental tenets of Thai education and yet without them, you have an educational system far superior to what we have in Thailand.
The emphasis in Australia appears to be moving away from one-size-fits-all-evaluation, too. It doesn’t rely on sub-standard, badly-written national tests like the ones we have in Thailand. Instead education appears to be both centralized and de-centralized at the same time. Under the new system, teachers are required to submit their teaching plans to a central committee for approval — but teachers are able to devise their own curricula based on their local communities.
At this point in my column I must hurry to say that Queensland isn’t perfect. The overhaul of the national curriculum is causing headaches everywhere. Schools are sometimes wracked with internal politics and media scandals, but where isn’t?
The state also has crime and political bickering. It has social problems including race issues; we just re-elected the odious Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party that preaches hate towards Asians and, more recently, Muslims.
Despite all this, it is the face of education that excites me the most.
An example is the main picture on this page. You’re looking at the Grade 11 class for the subject called Aerospace at Indooroopilly State High School. It’s taught by some very dynamic teachers including one former commercial airline pilot (the lady in red at the back).
These students spend most of their time out on the field building rockets and drones. In the classroom they study topics like Aeronautics and Astronautics. Best of all, they have their own flight simulator where they learn to take off, fly and land in any type of airplane in any major airport in the world.
So for all its faults, the Queensland system does recognize diversity in student skill sets, and is willing to invest in it with resources. It is a world away from the Thai education system, where we seem to place greater importance on constructing the most impressive marble school sign out the front of the campus.
Speaking of recognizing diversity, just look at the array of ethnicities of these Aerospace students. This is the new face of Australia.
And if you look very closely, right in the middle of the class pic, wearing the biggest smile, is our very own Max from Nakhon Phanom!
Of course he didn’t sink. He swam for his life, excelling in Aeronautics. He’s a still a little quiet and gangly in a typical teenage Year 11 sort of way, but he’s not far away from his dream of becoming a commercial pilot. Best of all, he has promised to upgrade me if ever I happen to be a passenger on any of his flights.
And indeed, it was with a tremendous sense of pride not just in Max but in his capacity as a Thai student that I sat next to him in the flight simulator, watching as he took off, flew around Brisbane and then crash-landed in a terrible conflagration after missing the runway. Twice. But hey, that’s what flight simulators are for. He made it the third time. That’s all that matters.
KICKING MUSICAL KIDS WHERE IT HURTS
By Andrew Biggs
This week your favorite columnist met up with Somtow Sucharitkul, Thailand’s famed composer, conductor and lapsed horror writer at Emquartier for lunch and a chat.
The last time I saw Somtow was at his inner-city residence where he lent me a book from his formidable collection about life at Eton School. “Be sure to return it,” he said in what remained of an Etonian accent, albeit beaten down by the ravages of time plus a stint in the United States.
I assured him I would return the book, expressing concern that he would even think I would fail to do so, and indeed, within a week I had read it and put it aside for our next luncheon.
That was a year ago.
This week we caught up again, and after exchanging pleasantries along with a book and an apology, I casually remarked that he was looking well.
“You need not say such a thing,” he said. “I have been to hell and back.”
He then proceeded to tell me an extraordinary story.
Somtow heads Opera Siam, its showcase being the youth orchestra known as Siam Sinfonietta. This is an orchestra of 14-to-25 year olds, mainly university students, who are an exciting array of musical talent.
I know this orchestra well, since I emcee their annual New Year’s Concert at the Thai Cultural Center and have on rare occasions even performed with them. They get by on loads of talent, loads of enthusiasm, and budget-wise, the skin of their teeth.
Thailand does have its classical music patrons, and Opera Siam is supported by the likes of Thai Bev, AIS, PTT, the Crown Property and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA).
In August the orchestra did something very special; they went to Germany and the Czech Republic during the European opera season to perform The Silent Prince, Somtow’s opera about the life of Buddha. It was the first of ten operas he is writing about the lives of Buddha called Das Jati (pronounced Tot-sachart).
Thai musicians playing classical music on the European playing field, as opposed to being seen as a cursory exotic curiosity, is remarkable. And if Thailand is serious about having a good reputation overseas, it is worthy of support.
This is a country where face is of utmost importance, and retaining Thailand’s international reputation can be difficult at times when tourists get murdered on Kao Tao, or when human trafficking rears its ugly head, or even when unelected militia take over.
A Thai orchestra performing to standing ovations in the heartland of classical music can only be positive for Thailand. And that is what happened, when the orchestra performed four times — twice at a youth festival in Bayreuth, Germany, on August 10 and 11 and then in Prague and Brno, Czech Republic on August 13 and 17. They even received critical acclaim in the European press.
But while they were over there the whole thing was nearly destroyed, and not by the Europeans either.
The logistics of getting 70 Thais over to Bayreuth, Germany, for two weeks is staggering and expensive. The trip consumed half their annual budget, even with the performers agreeing not to be paid. This was an experience of a lifetime and a labor of love, but despite all that there were airline tickets to be paid for and hotel rooms to be booked.
The one remaining payment of 4.6 million baht, from the BMA, would pay for the day-to-day costs of living in Europe for two weeks. The Bangkok governor, his deputies, and everybody else promised them the payment. A sheath of papers was signed just prior to the troupe hopping a plane to Germany.
Seven days later, one day after The Silent Prince’s first standing ovation, the BMA deputy governor sent a Facebook message to Somtow’s sister. Owing to an administrative bureaucratic technicality, he said, the BMA would not be paying them.
Seventy young Thais were effectively stranded in Germany with no money for food or accommodation or means of getting around.
“It was an uneasy 72 hours,” Somtow told me over lunch.
This was not the first time the BMA had reneged on payments to Siam Sinfonietta. In May the BMA had ordered the opera to stage a performance of the ballet Suriyothai, promising to pay them 2 million baht for the event.
One week out of the performance, the BMA pulled out. “Somebody won’t sign,” was the reason given.
As a way of making it up to Siam Opera, the BMA agreed to pay 4.6 million baht for the daily expenses of the European tour. And once again the BMA reneged, only this time it wasn’t before the event; it was while the kids were performing on the other side of the world. Again, somebody wouldn’t sign.
Worse, the story threatened to hit the European press. One German journalist wanted to run the story of 70 young Thai artists stranded in Europe thanks to a heartless government back home. When that journalist contacted Somtow, our maestro pleaded with him to hold the story.
“Give me a few days,” he said.
Somtow believes he didn’t sleep for the next three nights. He rehearsed during the day and at night he called everybody he knew in Thailand asking for any help whatsoever.
“Many came to the party,” he said. The stories of Thais back home rising to the occasion for the sake of the musicians are heart-warming. One of the parents of a chorus member raised half a million baht among her relatives. The son of a prominent statesman contributed another half a million. Another generous patron wired a two million baht loan to them instantly, adding: “Pay me back whenever he can.” That man should be running the BMA.
Perhaps most surprising; even the German journalist, knowing how desperate they were, went to his ATM and gave Somtow 1,000 Euros, his ATM limit, on a daily basis.
“Within three days I’d raised three and a half million baht from some truly generous people,” said Somtow. “At that moment we knew we would survive the tour.”
Even more extraordinary was the fact Somtow’s iPhone and passport were stolen and he became a victim of identity theft; this all happening as he was trying to drum up financial support. “So you can see, you don’t need to say I look well,” he said over lunch.
Somtow says he doesn’t want to highlight the nightmare of the BMA, because it will take away from the generosity of those people who helped out. “It also detracts from the real story of our trip, which is that Thai classical musicians are being perceived as peers and not just as performing monkeys.”
He has glowing reviews from European newspapers to prove this. The musicians were lauded for their amalgamation of east and west, and their professional display of contemporary musical performance.
“This is a huge breakthrough in the way Thai creativity is being perceived in Europe,” he said. “Although it nearly killed me.”
What a story. I can’t imagine being left penniless with 70 underlings in Europe, along with having my passport and phone stolen and somebody using my credit cards. But Opera Siam got through it and survived.
And the BMA?
One can’t help but feel a little sad that the BMA was able to find 39 million baht for a Light of Happiness light show over New Year, and another 16.5 million baht to renovate the governor’s office. Everybody signed off on those.
But when it comes to a mere 4.6 million for 70 Thai musicians putting on a glowing performance in Europe — too-hard basket. When are the next gubernatorial elections again?
A MOST IRRESPONSIBLE STUDENT
By Andrew Biggs
The older woman appears at the classroom door five minutes into the lesson, staring blankly at us all.
Her hair is short and held back by a colorless hairband. Her faded clothes compliment her displeasure, and there is a permanent downturn at both ends of her mouth. It is difficult to discern whether the blank look is one of disapproval or disinterest. We are about to find out.
Our lecturer pauses mid-sentence, then glances over to the apparition behind the glass of the door, which is her cue to enter.
“This room hasn’t been booked for a lecture,” she says.
“Our room was locked so we took this room instead,” says our lecturer.
“Yes, but this room hasn’t been booked for a lecture,” the woman repeats.
“We were locked out of our room,” says our lecturer. “Rather than cancelling, we found this room was empty and took it instead.”
Such circular conversations are common in Thailand, but here it is lecturer versus maid, two vastly different points on the Thai class scale, so it is inevitable the circle must break soon.
“Rooms need to be booked,” says the maid. “And this room hasn’t been booked. Somebody has to take responsibility,” and just in case we did not hear, she repeats: “Somebody has to take responsibility.”
It is Saturday afternoon, and your columnist is sitting in a university classroom trying to understand the subject Statistics in Educational Research. I am studying for a Master’s Degree, my latest project that seemed like such a good idea at the time. It requires me to sacrifice two years of weekends, substituting drinking sessions for study groups. If there is any downward fluctuation in Absolut stocks you will know why.
Statistics starts at 1 pm and finishes three hours later. It is a subject that requires extreme concentration, a calculator and a bottle of Tylenol. But last Saturday a crisis occurred; somebody in the upper echelons of the university retired … and that somebody didn’t unlock our lecture room door, leaving all 21 students and our statistics lecturer stranded outside the room.
The upper echelons? Isn’t unlocking lecture rooms the work of the lowly admin staff like the maid at the door right now?
In Thai universities there is a very distinct hierarchy of influence. Those at the very bottom are clerical staff. The next group up are bachelor-degree lecturers, who are trumped by the Master degree lecturers, who are trumped by PhD lecturers. Second from the top is the Dean.
Perched at the very top of this hierarchy are the maids and technical staff. These people are responsible for turning on air conditioners, switching on lights, firing up computers and ensuring the sound system is at proper volume. The Dean can take a sickie and that doesn’t affect me in the slightest. But what about when the guy who unlocks the doors retires?
Thus in the scenario between the lecturer and the maid above, the maid was the upper echelon.
Last Friday 22,959 Thai civil servants collectively packed their bags and left their offices for the very last time. It happens every September 30.
That is a sizeable chunk of Thailand’s 2.19 million civil servants, who turn 60 and celebrate the end of decades of pushing, shoving, needling, cat fighting, bitching, slapping, crawling, back-stabbing, office politicking and sycophanticizing as they work their way up the civil service ladder. Our lecture was thwarted by one official retiring but we are not alone. All over the country it is impossible to get anything signed or approved (or unlocked) at this time thanks to people retiring and not wanting to take responsibility, or those assuming new positions and not wanting to take responsibility for old projects.
The keys are still there; in fact, we can see them. When we ask the chief security guard to unlock the door, he looks mortified and shakes his head. “I cannot be responsible for that,” he says.
Responsible. The word is rup pid chorb in Thai. What an interesting, and maddening, glimpse into the psyche of workers in this country; that responsibility is a dirty word.
In the western word, responsibility is something we aspire to, isn’t it? The more we have, the greater a person we are.
It is not the same here. Rup pid chob is a dirty word; often equated with the dire consequences of something bad, such as having to pay money or being put in the spotlight for a decision you made.
It is this negative aspect of the word that embroils the maid at the top of this story. We have barged into her terrain, switched on the lights, fired up the computers, turned on the air conditioning, and even managed to get the speakers going all by ourselves. She was extraneous and, worse, uninformed.
Our enterprise takes on frightening proportions because it was outside the line of authority. What if a fuse blows in the speaker system? The red tape to get one replaced would be horrendous for that woman, not to mention having to be responsible for it since she tacitly allowed us in. She might even have to pay for it herself.
Outside the original locked room, the security guard cannot rup pid chorb the simple act of unlocking a door. We feel frustrated and infuriated and worse — it is now starting to rain.
There is an adjacent building full of classrooms. Despite three rooms in this building unlocked and unused, the technician there tells us we cannot use a room. We haven’t signed for one in advance. “It is my responsibility if something goes wrong,” the technician tells our lecturer over the phone.
“This is nonsensical,” says our lecturer. “Come on students. We’re going over there.”
And so we all march over in defiance of the upper echelon. Earlier that day we studied Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan in Philosophy; he would have disapproved of our actions, but sometimes you just have to stage an uprising.
We enter the first empty room, switch everything on ourselves, and our lecture begins. Five minutes later the blank woman, who is the maid responsible for that room, has appeared.
“If you stay, and somebody finds out, then I will be the one who is punished,” she tells us, three times in a row, each time finishing with: “It is not my responsibility.”
Then she glances at the lights, and the air conditioning, and the speaker system, and the computer. A look of horror crosses her face.
“Who turned all these things on?” she asks, slowly but chillingly. Now we are in big trouble.
“The lights can only be turned on by the technical staff,” she says. “Or me.”
Despite her threats, it is clear we are not budging. Besides, it has started to rain.
As the only farang in the room I consider assuming the role of bad guy and saying something like: “Listen, lady. Take you and your alternate-universe glad rags out of this room and let us get on with the task in hand. This is an institute of higher learning!” But before I can even mouth the word “Listen” she has turned to leave.
“Well allright, I will go,” she says finally.
Silence from us.
“I’m just saying, I’m the one who will get into trouble, and it’s not my responsibility.”
More silence from us.
“I don’t want to be the one who gets into trouble,” she repeats.
She pauses and gives a shrug of her shoulders.
“I don’t care,” she says, looking at us with mild disgust and yet with a glint of triumph. “I’m 60 years old. I’m retiring this Friday.”
PURGING THE H-WORD
By Andrew Biggs
This week sees the rounding up and hauling away of unsavory animals from the middle of Bangkok and no, that doesn’t mean a coup nor a police raid on Nana Plaza. Lizards, dear reader … lizards.
Lumpini Park’s famed monitor lizards are once again being captured, bagged and sent, so officials claim, to “a wildlife breeding center near Ratchaburi.” That sounds suspiciously like code for “factory that processes meat for Chinese dumplings”, doesn’t it?
The official reason is there are more than 400 Asian monitor lizards in the 60-hectares of Lumpini Park and that’s too many, according to the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration that looks after the park.
These lizards grow up to 3 metres long and resemble mini-dinosaurs. They have been scaring early-morning joggers, weekend families and — the most timid group of all — bicyclists. The BMA claims they have received complaints from cyclists just mortified to find monitor lizards infringing on their bike lanes! The nerve of them!
See this is the problem that arises when we designate areas for parkland rather than condos and shopping centers. Wildlife springs up in the greenery and ponds, including Thailand’s famous giant monitor lizards who propagate like crazy.
I do not frequent Lumpini Park, being in a busy part of the city and besides, there are way too many monitor lizards and timorous cyclists. I am more of a Rama 9 Park man myself.
We too have monitor lizards over there. I have seen the occasional one crawling along the running path in the early morning, though I reacted in a different manner to the Lumpini Park cyclists. Instead of squealing and raising my arms in shock (thus crashing the bike), I merely stepped around the creature and continued my run. Sensible, I know, but it does protect the Rama 9 Park water lizards from ending up in Chinese dumplings.
This is not the first time we’ve had a lizard crackdown.
Five years ago Lumpini Park officials rounded up 50 of the lizards in another highly-publicized event. It occurred as a result of one lizard falling out of a tree, striking a woman in the face and causing her to have stitches. At least somebody got hurt in that one.
Why all the fuss? A visitor to Thailand may be wondering this. Last Tuesday, as officials started capturing their quota of 40 lizards, there was a huge number of Thai media at the event … on a par with any appearance by the prime minister or Miss Thailand. To capture measly lizards?
Well, it’s a little more than that.
You see, here in Thailand this humble reptile, that’s walked the earth for 300 million years, is at the heart of one of the worst things you can call a Thai.
Over in western culture we use all manner of different animals as disparaging remarks, such as “dog”, “ass”, “snake” and “pig”. “Animal” even.
It is testament to the power of the spoken word that we can become furious just by the mention of an animal’s name. Imagine a drunken stranger at Nana Plaza bumping into you then calling you an “animal”, or a “dog”, or …
… a “monitor lizard”.
Did the last one raise your hackles? Probably not, if you were born outside Thailand. Yet for 68 million Thais, being called a “monitor lizard” is enough to have them reaching for their pistol shoved discreetly down their underwear.
How interesting is that? I can see that a monitor lizard isn’t the most attractive animal on the planet, but there are far uglier animals; spiders and scorpions, for example, or those hideous shih tzu dogs you see on leashes.
A monitor lizard is a reptile, and even in the English language being called a reptile isn’t nice. But Thais plucked one animal from that genus and hate it with a vengeance. Calling a Thai a “monitor lizard” can shorten your life to oh, as long as it takes for the bullet to explode in your brain and that gun to go back into the underpants.
The Thai word for “monitor lizard” sounds exactly the same as “here” in English, spoken as if you are stressing the word.
Thus, calling the class roll can make for hilarious antics if Thai students are instructed to shout out “Here” as students do back home. “You are here!” will reduce any schoolboy to hysterics. Get it? “You are a monitor lizard!” Cue canned laughter.
This word … here … is so offensive it is all but banned in the broadcast media.
In fact the Thais have invented a new word for the animal to avoid using the H-word. It’s tua ngern tua tong, translated as a “silver thing, gold thing,” based on the lizard’s color, and taking all the fun out of hurling insults.
In fact bigwigs were so determined to stop Thais using the H-word that one high-ranking official publicly suggested that the H-word should be changed to a polite Thai female name.
The genus for monitor lizard is Varanus Salvator, sounding a little like the beautiful Thai name Voranoot. His flippant comment stuck, and to this day many Thais call the ugly lizard by this name, which is about as ridiculous as changing the name of “monitor lizard” to “Veronica” or “Delilah”.
This is the real reason why Thais want the monitor lizards out of Lumpini Park so desperately, not because of the rapid promulgation of the species.
Please don’t go using this newfound Thai vocabulary on anybody who gets your goat (… goat! Another animal!). It is truly dangerous to call any Thai a monitor lizard.
It is one of the “big three” animals Thais use to chastise others. If you’re stupid, you are a “buffalo” or khwai, which kind of baffled me at first because I never assumed a buffalo to be any more stupid than, say, a goat or a sheep. In fact I like buffalos; they are sturdy hard-working animals who are loyal and taste good in a stir-fry with oyster sauce.
The other big bad one is a dog, or ma spoken with a rising tone. There’s a wonderful Thai idiom where they say they will “perform surgery to remove the dog from your mouth”, meaning you are saying really obnoxious things.
Other animals pop up in the Thai language as insults. You are a “cobra” if you swap allegiances. You’re a “pig” if you weigh more than 60 kg, i.e., morbidly obese in Thailand.
You are an old man with “the head of a snake” if you hang around bars trying to pick up girls a third your age. You’re a “gourami fish” if you’re a man with a great physique but ugly as sin, and you’re a “gibbon” if you’re a woman — a derogatory term used by transgenders for the sex they want so much to resemble.
Readers of this column who frequent Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy may be surprised to learn there is no sign of “butterfly” on this list.
That’s because the Thai language has no such analogy to describe a person who flits from partner to partner. Nor does English, by the way. Three cheers to those Nana Plaza workers who managed to come up with an idiom used exclusively in seedy bars in inner-city Bangkok; the very same girls who fawn over their drunken clientele with broken English.
And what is the Thai word for “drunken clientele”? It’s a sweet “my darling” to your face. You know the reptilian vocabulary they use behind your back.
SQUABBLES AT THE SCHOOL
By Andrew Biggs
Running a language school, where the students on the weekends are predominantly little kids, can be daunting at times. You are forever putting out bushfires.
Like two weekends ago, when Somsak had a long face throughout Saturday.
Something was definitely not right. His happy-go-lucky nature took a definite nose dive to the point where it started to affect everybody else at the school. It was one of those situations where I had to take some course of action, so during a teaching break I called him over to my desk and asked him what was wrong.
“Nothing,” he said with a pout.
“Are you sure?”
\“That’s interesting,” I replied. “Because normally you’re laughing and joking around. Can you tell me what’s wrong?”
I was once told by a very wise Thai that when you need to discipline or reprimand a Thai, one good way is to praise him or her first. It sounds a little juvenile and an integral part of Philosophy 101 but it really does work. Point out something good, then at the very end bring up what needs to be adjusted. It is similar to the old journalistic interview technique; prepare ten questions with the first nine being superfluous fluff the interviewee would love to answer — then hit him with the sensitive one at the very end.
So I tried a different tack.
“Somsak, you know what I like about you? You’re clever. You’re entertaining. You work hard, and your English is great.”
Somsak looked down into his lap. There were no signs of the glacier melting.
“You’re creative and co-operative, and you always do the tasks assigned to you,” I said. By this time I was running out of compliments, and besides, Somsak’s face was not budging.
“How about this,” I said. “Just tell me the truth. What’s upsetting you? Come on. I promise I won’t tell another soul.”
Somsak looked to the left and right, pouted a little more, then finally answered:
Ah, now I was getting somewhere! Progress! What was it Confucius said about the longest journey beginning with a single step? Never mind … I had questions to ask.
“What about Chanphen? You two seem to get along just fine.”
“She said a bad thing about me.”
“She said I took money and didn’t return it.”
“You borrowed money from Chanphen?”
“No! It’s a lie!”
Chanphen, who sits next to Somsak, can be a little naughty, and does like to stir up trouble now and then. But she always seemed to be friends with Somsak. What had gone wrong? What could possibly have happened?
“Have you spoken to Chanphen about this?”
Somsak folded his arms and looked defiantly outside the window into the car park.
Of course he hasn’t. It is very Thai to hold grudges without confronting the enemy. The ill feeling ferments until it finally explodes one way or another. I was trying to diffuse Somsak. I don’t know if I was succeeding. The more he spoke, the more the mountain looked set to blow.
“I’m never going to speak to her ever again,” he said. “Never ever again. Never ever!”
“Never ever again is a long time,” I said, trying to sound kind and wise, but sounding a little trite. “Especially when you have to sit next to her.”
“She’s always trying to hurt me! And she accused me of borrowing money and not returning it! I know because someone else told me.”
I was determined to solve this little school tiff that was threatening to turn into World War 3. It was a little later I ran into Chanphen running down the corridor, and I called her aside into my office. “What’s going on with you and Somsak?” I asked.
Chanphen looked perplexed. She shrugged her shoulders, which is considered an impolite thing to do in Thailand, especially for a girl, but Chanphen is a bit of a tomboy in the western sense of the word. While I like Chanphen, and she has been with us for a while, I am also aware she likes to stir others.
“Do you like Somsak?”
“Sure,” she said, looking down at the textbook in her hand with more than a touch of guilt.
“Tell the truth,” I said.
“Well, he’s a little wishy-washy but he’s okay.”
“Did you accuse him of borrowing money and not returning it?”
A flash of guilt, replaced by a veneer of innocence. “No, I never did that! He’s lying! I wouldn’t say that!”
“Calm down … calm down. I’m just asking.”
“But I never!”
I was dreading it, but I know I had to call them both into my office. I decided to do the farang thing and confront the problem head-on. “Okay Somsak,” I said, “Tell Chanphen why you’re upset.”
Anger flared up immediately. “You said I borrowed money and didn’t return it!”
“I did not!”
“I don’t have to prove it! I know it’s true!”
“It is not!”
“It is too!”
“Okay enough!” I shouted in my best teacher voice. “Who told you about this, Somsak?”
Somsak folded his arms, pouted then pursed his lips. “I’m not saying.”
“You say it!” shouted back Chanphen. “Who said I said it?”
This was going nowhere fast.
“Somsak claims it isn’t true,” I said.
“Okay fine,” said Chanphen.
]“So if that’s the case, is it possible to forget this entire incident?” I asked.
Chanphen shrugged her shoulders. “Sure,” she said.
“I’ll never forget it,” said Somsak.
“Well the two of you have to sit in the same room. Can you at least try to be civil to each other?”
Chanphen said she would. Somsak nodded and said: “But she said I borrowed money.”
“Yes, Somsak, I know, but it’s time for you to look ahead, not backwards. It’s a little like learning the future tense instead of the past tense in English class. Now do you think you could do that?” I added, sheepishly: “For me?”
The ensuing five seconds of silence felt like an eternity. But there was a reward at the end. Somsak nodded.
“Okay, now I want you both to shake hands and make an effort to be friends again.”
Incredibly they shook hands. Sure they were sheepish, and I did see Chanphen wiping her hand on her dress after. But it was a start.
Did my intervention help things?
Who knows. Having taught, and worked, with Thais for more than two decades, I realize that classrooms and workplaces can be minefields. Faces get lost easier than erasers and rulers do.
In the case of Somsak and Chanphen, the important thing is to try to get them to look forward. Half the battle is trying to get each side to stop apportioning blame. But grudges can be very tough in the Land of Smiles.
And yet things appear to be okay at my little school.
]Last weekend was fine. Students were happy, teachers were on time, parents waited patiently. There were no major mishaps in class. In fact none of our students has ever had any major personality clashes like the one between Chanphen and Somsak.
That’s right. Somsak and Chanphen are my staff, not my students. Chanphen is 45 years old; Somsak is 52.
(First published October 20, 2016, the week after HM King Bhumibol passed away)
By Andrew Biggs
I received the royal pendant almost 10 years ago; a small, metallic pin shaped in the insignia of His Majesty the King.
It was presented upon completion of my services for the 60th Anniversary Celebrations of His Majesty King Bhumibol’s Accession to the Throne. The brooch is small and elegant in its triangular form with an emerald green background.
The pendant came with a commemorative backpack featuring the royal insignia. I used that backpack until it wore out, not just because of its insignia, but for its functionality. I was forever being asked where I got it from. I was even offered money for it once and yes, dear reader, I refused.
If the backpack was used into the ground, then the opposite could be said of that precious little royal pendant.
I am not a collector of jewelry; a thief upon breaking into my home would be sorely disappointed in what he would not discover. But I do treasure objects that have personal value, such as my royal pendant, earned for my services to His Majesty. That is something to me far more valuable than gold or jewelry. It came directly from the palace; a tenuous but concrete connection between myself and the King. I put it away in that top drawer in 2006 figuring I would bring it out on special occasions.
Last week I finally did bring it out, though not for circumstances I would have ever wished for prior to October 13, 2016. In the shock of those first few days I remembered I had the pendant, so I searched for it, found it, and pinned it to my blackish shirt one morning a few days after His Majesty’s passing.
“You know you’re not allowed to wear that,” the pleasant young teacher told me.
It was the same morning, a few hours later, at a seminar we were attending.
I looked down at my chest. I thought she was referring to my blackish shirt; I got ready to apologize for it not being jet black, but there was a limit to jet black shirts in my wardrobe (that is, two) and today was day three.
Then I realized the pleasant young teacher was not talking about my blackish shirt. She was talking about my royal pendant.
“Apparently it’s been announced that pendants are not allowed to be worn,” she said. “You have to wear black but you can’t wear any commemorative pendants.”
My first reaction was one of surprise. Then I started to smell a rat.
There had been a number of incidents after the passing of His Majesty involving subjects who had been vilified for not displaying the “proper” grieving process. Feelings had been running extremely high and low since October 13, so it was not beyond the realms that for some inexplicable reason, pendants might have been banned.
“Really?” I asked, and the young teacher nodded.
“That’s what I’ve heard,” she said.
Not long after I went to the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror. It was the perfect opportunity to remove the allegedly offensive pendant. I didn’t. I find words like “apparently” and “they say” and “what I’ve heard” not the strongest of anonymous sources.
The next morning I wore it again … and it happened again.
“Excuse me,” came a voice from beside me. It was one of the hotel staff.
“I’m sorry to tell you this, but they say you can’t wear a royal pendant like that,” he said, motioning to my breast pocket. “It’s not allowed.”
“Who told you this?” I asked.
“That’s what I’ve heard,” he answered. “It’s been online. No royal pendants. Black shirts, yes. Black bows, yes. But no royal brooches.”
Later that day I found myself on Sukhumvit Road. On the street another friendly stranger accosted me and pointed to my broach and said, albeit with a grin: “No! No!”
That was three people in two days.
That night I went online.
There was a staggering amount of information about the proper way to mourn. I always assumed the proper way to mourn was to wail and feel hopeless and flail one’s arms about, but apparently there is much more to it than that. I found a diagram in Siam Rath newspaper under the headline FIVE WAYS TO DRESS IN MOURNING WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE A BLACK SHIRT. It explained, elaborately, what is in and out when it comes to dress in this critical period. Not elaborately enough, though — there was no reference to royal pendants. There were many other web pages devoted to explaining the right method of wearing a black bow, as if anyone needed that to be explained. I was reminded of flight attendants telling me how to buckle and unbuckle a seatbelt.
Finally, a light at the end of the tunnel.
The Office of The Prime Minister announced guidelines for proper mourning. There were a total of 11 points and numerous sub-points. I have to admit I was a little hesitant at first when I scanned the list. Was it going to tell me how to look sad? At what times of the day I could cry? No, of course not. In the end there was nothing sinister about the suggestions, and in fact it was all common-sensical.
It was not until I got way down to point number 10 that I found the answer to my question, which I repeat here:
10. It is permissible to wear royal brooches.
Three days of anxiety were over.
Back around the time I received that royal pendant, civil servants in this country wore yellow to work every Monday as a way of showing their faith and devotion to His Majesty the King. This wasn’t an edict; it was a nation showing their devotion to their King.
At that time, in 2006, I had one student in my adult English class who was a staunch royalist. She was a female government officer in her late 40’s. She was very personable, though precise and rigid, while at the same time demonstrating unflinching loyalty to the King.
And yet she never wore yellow on a Monday.
Her explanation was as stoic and unmalleable as her personality.
“I don’t need to wear a yellow shirt to show my loyalty and devotion for His Majesty,” she said, back upright, lips pursed, eyes momentarily closed. “My loyalty to His Majesty is in my heart, not in the way I dress.”
I admired her for that stance, for it is much more difficult to put loyalty in a heart than it is to don a shirt. I always hoped she wasn’t penalized for her stance in her workplace. She is probably retired now, but I did think of her this week, after fretting for three days. Is she wearing black now? Probably. On the other hand maybe she is not. Either mode of dress is irrelevant to her unflinching loyalty.
This is a time for us to remember His Majesty’s words on Thais living in harmony and mutual kindness, as we traverse through this sad and difficult year of mourning. We all have our own ways to grieve. Mine is by wearing a pendant. Whatever yours is, I’ll accept it.
AN ENGLISH LESSON ON WOMANISING
By Andrew Biggs
I am at the end of my little English lesson. Are there any questions?
“What does ‘womaniser’ mean in English?” tweets one young lady.
Well that certainly came out of the blue. On this overcast Tuesday afternoon I was expecting something a little easier to answer such as the difference between “house” and “home”, or how to translate kreng jai into English.
(The kreng jai question is actually not easy at all to answer succinctly. However I am at an advantage because I once wrote a 16-page essay on it, and keep that essay close by so when asked, I just click on a link, saving me time and making me look as though I know what I’m talking about.)
The “womanizer” question is the fault of the Bangkok Post recently published a page-one story revealing that Thai men are nothing but wanton philanderers.
It needs to be explained, before delving into that sexual can of worms, that my “little English lesson” took place on Twitter, the social media platform that allows you to say anything providing it doesn’t exceed 140 letters.
I am proud to say that while size may not be everything when it comes to womanising, it certainly is in the world of Twitter.
I have a Twitter following of 2.4 million. That puts me right up there at the top of Thailand’s Highest-Ranking Twits — is that what you call them? — in terms of followers. I am wedged between stick-thin Thai soapie actresses tweeting about their appearances at trendy Thonglor nightclubs, and Korean-looking male actors extolling the virtues of some whitening face cream. In any other country it’d be the other way around.
And yet there I am, right up there amongst the stars. I have more followers than Aerosmith and KC & The Sunshine Band combined. I am even more stellar in Australia; while researching my Twitter fame last week it turns out I rub shoulders with Hugh Jackman and Miranda Kerr in terms of “Fastest Growing Australian Celebrities”. Did you ever think, dear reader, that your favorite Sunday columnist would have anything in common with a Victoria’s Secret model?
Donald Trump seems to have resurrected Twitter’s relevance, and he may have invented a new colloquial phrase — “twitter rant” — to describe unbridled fury unleashed through this social platform. Recently it concerned his vice-president Mike Pence, a conservative who finds electro-conversion gay therapy more of a turn-on than gay marriage (don’t you just know he has shares in a cattle-prod company?). Pence went to see a Broadway musical performed by some very talented gays, after which those performers asked him to help unify the country. Trump hated that, demanding the cast of Hamilton offer Pence an apology. One hopes Trump doesn’t jump up and down and stamp his feet in the same way when he gets his tiny hands on the nuclear codes.
Trump uses Twitter to rant. I use it to teach.
The reason I am on the Twitter A-list is not for my private life. It is because I teach English on it. It is one of my daily tasks I look forward to, just for the connection with so many Thai people of all ages. None of my followers cares which trendy nightclub I went to, or whitening facial cream I use. You won’t find me ever tweeting my whereabouts. Those tweets wouldn’t befit a fast-growing Australian celebrity anyway: “All alone on my fourth vodka tonic watching internet porn #pathetic #alcoholnumbsthepain”, etc.
Thus my “little English lesson” I referred to in the first paragraph is actually Thailand’s largest English class as I sit down and, for 30 minutes, explain the vocabulary of the day based on news stories. After which I ask: “Any questions?” and the queries flow in.
Trust the Bangkok Post to throw a spanner into the works.
“70% of Thai men womanise” it blasted across a page-one column last Tuesday. The Thai Health Promotion Foundation revealed findings from a survey of Thai men aged 20 to 35 years, the prime target market of aforesaid whitening face cream.
It appears 72 per cent of Thai men have cheated on their partners. Be careful of taking statistical research on face value: Does this really reveal that 72 per cent of men are womanisers, or does it simply reveal that Thai men are honest? Another survey claimed Thai men cheated on women more than any other country in the world, but I would argue the sample populations of those other countries were just better at lying on survey questionnaires. Perhaps we shouldn’t be admonishing the 72 per cent for being womanisers; we should be reprimanding the remaining 28 per cent for not telling the truth.
Even if it is true, doesn’t it take two to tango? One can assume they are philandering with other women, who have husbands and boyfriends too. Why single out just the men?
But let us return to the question of English, since it is English that has propelled me into the Twitter stratosphere, remember?
It wasn’t difficult to explain “womaniser”; I skirted (to excuse the pun) around more colloquial translations and went for formal words like “philanderer” and “having multiple sexual partners”.
But I didn’t get to the top of the Twitter heap on formalities. Soon I was having to explain “snake in the grass” and “skirt-chaser,” which is why I briefly joined the ranks of Hugh and Amanda in terms of new followers. Second-language learners love vocabulary about sex. It sticks in our brains long after grammar and syntax have faded into neuron oblivion.
“Can we use this word ‘womaniser’ with women?” another follower asked.
What an interesting question. Even in these modern times we refer to men as womanisers but the word can be used both negatively and positively. In fact it is almost neutral with a racy element.
But it does raise the “bachelor-spinster” issue of lexical inequality — no, we cannot use the word with a heterosexual woman, but why is it that the only vocab I can think of for a woman who has multiple sexual partners has but negative connotations?
“Flirt” may be okay but it doesn’t have the same raciness as a “womaniser”. A “cougar” brings age into the equation. A “seductress” sounds like something out of Nana Plaza wearing a black mask and clutching a whip. I suggested “man-eater” but this is still a little too slangy when up against “womaniser”.
The answer may be the same as the one for the question about kreng jai — we don’t have one, but we should.
Actually the Bangkok Post committed one of the fundamental no-no’s of journalism with this story; it buried the lead.
Technically it gets let off with just a warning, since it did select the raciest part of the story to put at the top, but there is a more sinister statistic lurking towards the end of the news story. That is, that one-third of Thai men believe married women are “owned” by their husbands.
This is the single most dangerous way of thinking that leads to violence and murder, especially among the less-educated, and needs to be addressed and prioritized way ahead of the frequency of spousal cheating, or the search for a neutral definition of a female womaniser. Even more outrageous: Where do they get off “owning” someone they’re cheating on?
But we are wading into serious waters here.
My “little English lesson” got spiced up thanks to the Bangkok Post and a curious female follower of mine on Twitter. It pushed me into the realms of Hugh Jackman and Miranda Kerr. For that, I have a lot to thank the Bangkok Post, not to mention Thailand’s burgeoning mass of philandering males.
IDIOTS IN UNIFORM
By Andrew Biggs
I was witness to a seething mass of white shirts while sitting in Ekamai traffic this week.
Yes, white shirts. They can be more dangerous and violent than any pack of red shirts at Ratchaprasong or yellow shirts at the airport, especially if you happen to be on a bus on Sukhumvit Road minding your own business.
They are students. Male students, running down Sukhumvit Road not unlike stampeding buffalo.
Those at the front they were carrying sticks and rocks, weapons of choice for 17-year-olds who haven’t saved up enough for a gun.
The rest? They moved along with blank faces. From the looks on their faces not much was sparking and synapsing up top, save for the logistics of getting their legs to run, right left, right left, right left.
I didn’t catch a glimpse of which school they were from, nor did I see their enemy, but I knew the story. The students were waging a war against an identical institution.
The story repeats itself everywhere. Somtam Vocational College (SVC) is situated close to Kaiyang Vocational College (KVC). Both offer the same curriculum; the college classrooms are in the same-looking faded concrete buildings.
Students even dress the same. Man, at least the red and yellow shirts can tell each other apart!
Standard uniform for colleges and high schools in Thailand is a white shirt and dark trousers. Not very imaginative, I know, but the white shirt is clean and the dark trousers can be flattering if you’re bordering on obese.
Despite this uniformity, if one SVG student as much as gives one KVC student the wrong look, rocks, stones and sometimes gunshots shatter the windows of public buses as all hell breaks loose.
And all this in the name of preserving the “integrity” and “dignity” of the school.
Student rivalry is universal. I went to an Anglican private school across the creek from a Catholic School.
I was taught from the word go that those Catholics were a weird bunch. They weren’t allowed to use condoms and they had to confess their sins every Sunday – this is information I learned from the age of 10, way before I even knew what a condom was used for, let alone what a real sin was.
“Cattle ticks!” we used to shout from our safe vantage point on one side of the creek.
“Dirty Anglicans!” Catholics kids would shout back.
There was even rivalry at university level, though we didn’t have the luxury of a uniform to know who our enemies were. I used to go dressed in board shorts and T-shirt while the girls wore leggings and crucifix jewelry thanks to some singer who’d just put out a song called “Holiday”.
Here in Thailand, college and university students are compelled to wear uniforms. You’d think this would blur the rivalry between institutions but it’s the opposite.
There are two inner city Bangkok colleges. One is called Uthen Thawai (actually a campus of Ratchamangkhala University of Technology), and the other is Pathumwan Institute of Technology.
See? Both Institutes of Technology. With the same name, they should get on famously … not.
These are two colleges where students even have the one very clear goal, and it has nothing to do with education. That goal is to kill students from the other institution.
Perhaps more than just one goal. Students are also urged to dismember, maim and injure.
It’s been going on for more than seven decades, and I tried finding out mortality figures on this.
“Call Uthen Thawai and Patumwan and find out how many students have been killed or injured over the past ten years,” I told one of my staff members this week. My staff member quickly feigned illness and was gone for the rest of the day.
There is no reason for these two colleges to hate each other, other than “tradition”. It is like the court case in Dicken’s Bleak House that has gone on for so long, nobody remembers why each party is suing the other.
Earlier this month a Pathumwan student was jailed for the murder of an Uthen Thawai student he didn’t even know – the kid was just wearing the rival belt buckle on a public bus.
(The verdict was handed down the same week Uthen Thawai celebrated its 78th anniversary with the help of 300 police dispatched to keep the peace. What a fun celebration that must have been.)
During a hazing ceremony not so long ago, one Uthen Thawai freshman was killed by the seniors holding the event – because he was suspected of having been a Pathumwan spy.
I can’t tell an Uthen Thawai and Patumwan student apart. Both wear practically the same uniform, are of the same age, have the same build and moronic expression, and come from the same country.
So who teaches these guys to loathe?
It starts with the orientation ceremony known as hazing. Any new student to a college or university here is subjected to all sorts of crazy antics in the name of “building team spirit” and “getting to know one another.” These include stripping down naked, singing the college song for six hours on end, and performing humiliating acts for the purpose of building team spirit.
Freshman die regularly at such events. Only last month we had the family of a first-year student on television demanding to know why their son came back from a two-day orientation camp in a coffin.
It is at these orientations that the new Uthen Thawai students are taught by their seniors how evil the Pathumwan students are. Meanwhile, the Pathumwan seniors are explaining how evil the Uthen Thawai students are to their freshmen.
Such information is often reiterated by the institutions themselves. Nothing, but nothing is more important than the “dignity” of the school, whatever that means; I don’t understand it in Thai or in English.
Those poor freshmen. Being taught blind devotion to an institution against their will.
But I am wrong in thinking that.
It turns out freshman are active participants in these rituals. They like them! They like to be humiliated, tortured and beaten by seniors. They like to sing the institution song for hours, and in the end they like to be part of a collective pack that can rise up and destroy the “enemy” … whichever interchangeable enemy that may be.
That to me was a bit of a depressing revelation, and one I thought about this week as the white shirts criss-crossed the stalled Sukhumvit traffic.
Run on, young children. Hurtle yourselves down Sukhumvit Road in your quest to preserve the dignity of your institution by throwing rocks and stones.
Just don’t look so blank-faced while carrying out your violence. That kind of scares me the most.
PAYING THE PRICE OF FITNESS
By Andrew Biggs
This week I did something as perennial as tulips blooming in the Dutch spring. I decided to head back to the gym.
I need to get all buff for my flight home to Australia in late December. That’s pathetic, I know, but allow me to have my dreams! I am a fitness center’s dream member; I pay an obscene amount of money annually then hit the gym for exactly two and a half months, only to peter out and disappear, freeing up valuable locker-room space for the next temporary gym junkie. Twelve months later the gymnasium calls asking if I want to renew. Nine and a half months away is long enough to realize love handles and man boobs are as unsightly as they are prominent, and there I go again; another obscene payment for another two-and-a-half-month spurt.
I have a friend who used to be a fitness executive and he told me my behavior is exactly what fitness chains desire of their members. And here I was thinking they wanted us to get fit!
“Imagine if all our members kept on coming,” he explained. “There’d be no room to swing a cat. We’d go bust!” An interesting choice of words because indeed, not long after, that chain did go bust. But we are off the track.
This time it’s going to be different.
For the last five years I’ve belonged to a gymnasium that has a lot in common with Nana Plaza bar beer staff; well-decked out but frayed at the edges owing to overuse. But it’s close and convenient, and at 18,000 baht a year it’s a good deal, especially since they throw in an extra three months for extending your annual membership.
I dredged up my membership card and after wiping off the cobwebs, gave the club a call.
My gym has an attractive young lady at the front counter who is paid to do just two things; swipe gym membership cards and watch Thai soap operas from her cell phone. She performs both these tasks without having to even look up at anything superfluous, like a gym member.
She is clearly in the middle of multitasking when I call, for I can hear the soft strains of bad violins in the background.
“We haven’t seen you here for a while kha,” she says.
“Yes well you don’t have to say that. I’m calling about my membership. Has it expired yet?”
“Just a moment kha,” and she is gone for a good 30 seconds. “Your membership expired 31 days ago kha. You can renew it for 19,500 baht kha. Our annual fee just went up.”
“But don’t I get a special rate? I am, after all, —”
“That is the special rate, kha.”
“But I still get my extra three months, right?”
“No, kha. You only get that when you renew kha.”
“I am renewing.”
“Not immediately kha. Thirty-one days have lapsed.”
I am consumed with the fires of instant indignation. I’m like a social justice warrior having just discovered a flimsy example of cultural appropriation. How dare they take those three months away — aren’t sales staff supposed to track down lapsed members? I am Doctor Livingstone, surely — and she should be Stanley.
“Listen, you didn’t call to tell me my membership was expiring. How was I to know?”
“I’m sorry kha.”
“Well I’m sorry too! Go tell your manager that I, Khun Andrew Biggs, want my extra three months … or … or …”
I pause for dramatic effect.
“… or I’ll go to another gym!”
By a clever coincidence a crash of cymbals can be heard in the background; the soapie cliffhanger has aligned with my own earth-shattering revelation.
Well I certainly showed that gym a thing or two! You don’t mess with Khun Andrew Biggs and get away with it! The adrenaline was racing throughout me that morning. I even thumped the steering wheel as I drove into town. How dare they! Well they’d soon be groveling when they lose their only B-list celebrity member, even if he does only show up for two and a half months a year!
I needed to find a new gym. Fast.
Luckily a new one just opened in nearby Soi Lasalle; a boxing camp with a sparkling new gym attached.
“We’re open from 6 am to 11 pm,” a friendly voice explained when I called.
Perfect! I am already imagining my old gym getting back to me, only to hear me saying: “Young lady, you’re too late. I’ve already moved to your competition.”
But back to reality. “Great,” I say over the phone. “I’ll start next week. And the price?”
“28,000 Baht per year,” he says, and my fantasy shatters into little pieces.
“Do you have any discounts for — people who live in the area?” I ask. How I wanted to say “B-list celebrities” instead of “people who live in the area” but even I have my limits.
“Maybe. I’ll get our sales staff to call you,” he says.
What follows, dear reader, is silence.
Not a brief silence. A week of it.
My old gym doesn’t call back. The new place doesn’t call. I’d burnt my bridges at the first one, and the second one requires my becoming a Nana Plaza bar beer worker to pay off the membership fee.
The next day I carpet-bombed all the major fitness centers in and around my office, starting with Fitness First.
“The sales girl has gone to lunch,” I was told. “I’ll get her to call you the minute she comes back.”
WE Fitness at Ekamai was next. Again, a sales person would call me back “in no more than 10 minutes.”
Half an hour later, and nothing.
There I was, loved-handled and moobed (that’s the adjectival, contracted form of “man-boobs”), having contacted no less than FOUR gyms — and none of them wanted my business.
But as I was wallowing in my self pity, the phone rang.
It was WE Fitness, albeit 40 minutes after my original call, but better late than never!
“It’s 28,000 baht a year,” the sales staff said, and my heart sank. “But we have a discount. You only pay 27,000 baht and you get an extra month!”
Now I was really feeling sorry for myself. I’d been obnoxious to my regular gym, who had the gall to raise their prices to 19,500 but were still cheaper than anywhere else. The boxing gym had not called me back. Fitness First clearly has a policy of allowing its sales staff to segue lunch into dinner.
And then, later in the afternoon — a miracle. A phone call from my original gym!
The moment I heard the receptionist’s voice (and the background violins) I wanted to break down and cry, telling her I’d been an arrogant fool and would she ever forgive me. I wanted to tell her my indignation was a residual effect of living in Thailand for so long, where one cannot lose one’s face no matter if one is right or wrong. If I’d acted more like a westerner I’d have cut my losses from the beginning, but oh no.
She was already speaking before I could get an apologetic word in.
“I’ve spoken to the manager and he says he’ll give you one extra month free kha.”
The amount of time between that final kha and my answer of “done” could be measured in milliseconds.
That is where I leave you, dear reader, back in my clunky but cosy gym, trying to get buff for Brisbane. I still lament my lost two months but sometimes in life you just have to bite the bullet and move on or, in my case, bench press.
The brand new boxing gym never did return my call. And at precisely 5 pm, the Fitness First sales person finally called me back — a four hour lunch? That salesperson really ought to think about going to a gym.
BUDDHIST HOT AIR By Andrew Biggs
The billboard rises, like a Buddhist temple, up ahead on the right-hand side of the airport highway.
“BUDDHA IS NOT FOR DECORATION,” it shouts at me alongside a decoration of a Buddha’s head with an ugly red cross on top of it. Why desecrate a Buddha’s head with an ugly red cross on a billboard that tells us not to desecrate Buddhas?
“That billboard is on the wrong side of the highway,” I announce to my Thai colleagues. “Surely if they want to warn foreigners about Thai culture, the billboard should be inbound, not outbound.” I like it when I make astute observations like this; it means yet again I have warded off Mr Alzheimer, who keeps hanging around outside the corridors of my mind these recent years.
The billboard belongs to a foundation dedicated to the preservation of Buddhism. From experience I have found such religious foundations to be very well meaning on the outset. Unfortunately, over time they descend into gatherings of ethereal folk who, if not dressed in white, dress as 1950’s schoolmasters, and who dedicate their lives to telling me how I should be leading my own, as if somehow over the decades I haven’t worked that out for myself. Buddhist Preservation Foundation suddenly turns into Association of Thought Police (ATP) or, worse, Witch Hunt And Moral High Road Collective — WHAM-HRC for short.
Don’t get me wrong. I agree that we should be respectful towards other people’s religions. Stick-thin models draping themselves over Buddha statues in the name of selling perfume or brand name clothes are offensive. It’s almost as offensive as Thai school kids dressing up in Gestapo uniforms and funny little moustaches while goose-stepping in school parades — not that I can spot a single billboard warning us against that.
And yet this billboard is not asking us to be respectful towards religion. It is in fact pushing a private point of view and cleverly using foreign ignorance of Thai social mores to pass it off as law.
Take that picture of the dirty red cross slapped over the Buddha statue head, for example. I have no idea how it relates to being disrespectful to the Lord Buddha. What is disrespectful about the Buddha’s head that warrants a red cross across it? The billboard is reducing the Lord Buddha to the level of a cigarette, or purchasing a beer between the hours of 2 pm and 5 pm.
“No, Khun Andrew, you don’t understand,” says one of my colleagues, in the cab with me, for the 3,675th time this year. “It’s about foreigners who get tattoos in the wrong places. Like legs or feet.”
“I saw one on a foreigner’s lower back once – part of it went down to his backside!” added my assistant, Waen.
“I won’t even ask how you managed to see that,” I said, and Waen blushed as I continued by quoting one of my favorite sayings: “Idiot is as idiot does. Anyone with half a brain should know not to slap a tattoo of a deity on one’s backside or lower leg. And besides, they’re temporary visitors — they’ll return to their home country soon enough and we won’t see their offensive tattoo. Can’t we just accept some people are stupid and to hell with them?”
Clearly not, if the billboards on both sides of the airport expressway are anything to go by.
The next day the three of us were heading back home from the airport when we spotted a similar billboard on the other side. Ha! Out, damned Alzheimer spot!
If the outbound one was ambiguous, though, the inbound one reminded me of goose-stepping Thai schoolkids in Gestapo uniforms.
“STOP DISRESPECTING BUDDHA,” it screamed. “DO NOT TATTOO, BUY, SELL AS FURNITURE OR MERCHANDISE.” Nothing like being screamed at in bad English grammar in the first five kilometres of your holiday to the Land of Smiles.
Let’s start with furniture. When was the last time you sat in a Buddha bean bag? I’ve been to homes of the rich and famous. I’ve seen it all; from the fabulously stylish to million-dollar gold ducks on the bathroom wall. But I’ve never ever lounged upon a Buddhist sofa, or put my feet upon a Buddhist pouf.
What is more intriguing is the billboard warns us not to buy and sell, as if that is an illegal act.
Aren’t their laws against false advertising? I can’t imagine Sunsilk getting away with a billboard claiming their soap can cure cancer. Why allow a Buddhist foundation to perpetrate misleading information about Thai law?
There is a multi-billion dollar industry here centred around the buying and selling of Buddhist amulets. At any given time half the nation is engaging in collecting and exchanging them. When I visit a temple I buy an amulet as small gifts for my Buddhist friends. It’s a great thing to have and a wonderful souvenir of Thailand.
Technically you cannot “buy” the Lord Buddha. How can one purchase a sage? To get around this, Thais have erased the words “buy” and “sell” from the act of exchanging Buddha images for money. Instead, you “rent” one.
That Buddhist foundation with the penchant for freeway billboards should be instructing tourists not to RENT Buddhist images — but why do that when it isn’t illegal?
The truth is, the foundation is simply presenting a very personal and conservative opinion. I respect anybody who believes that Buddhist amulets should not be bought or sold, just as I respect anybody who believes that 7 is a lucky number and 13 is not. Just don’t force your personal belief onto me, or worse, disguise it as national law on a billboard.
About the only tenuous legal link is that Thailand has strict unenforced laws governing the taking of Buddha images out of the country. Yes, that’s right, we have “strict unenforced laws” here.
I once bought a beautiful Buddha statue for friends who were getting married in Sydney. I checked out the Thai law and discovered I needed to take pictures of the statue, both front and back and side, then have them endorsed by a shady government department over on Samsen Road. A hassle, but I did it. Armed with the statue and my papers, I checked my bags in at Suvarnabhumi Airport and awaited the bells and sirens signaling my contraband.
It never happened. The next time I gave a Buddhist image as a gift I simply put it in bubble wrap and placed it, mindfully, inside my travel case. Again, no bells and sirens, and no requirement for a shady trip to Samsen.
Thailand has a relatively relaxed attitude towards religion. I am not including the three Southern provinces in that broad generalization. But it’s true; we don’t have mass hangings because people don’t follow a particular deity. We don’t build divisive walls. We don’t announce travel bans on countries professing religions that aren’t ours.
We are more civilized than that.
Instead, we do some pretty crazy things in the name of religion.
We pray to Buddha for lucky lottery numbers, showing our spiritual loyalty for the express purpose of winning 6 million baht. We hang Buddhist amulets around our necks to protect us from retribution for the bad things we do.
We hand over paychecks to charismatic monks who aren’t supposed to touch money who then ride in Lear jets. We buy Buddhist statues because the temple guarantees us a place in Buddhist heaven, not that such a heaven exists in the religion’s purest form.
So leave the tourists alone. Tear down those billboards, translate them into Thai, and slap ’em up around the country. Better still … just tear ’em down.
By Andrew Biggs
There was a time when, upon returning to Thailand after a trip home to Australia, I would dole out small assorted gifts and souvenirs to my staff.
This is an established tradition in Thailand and one any expat working here, legally or illegally, should abide by. Gifts do not have to be expensive unless the recipient is especially endearing … or willing to continue to ensure your dark secrets remain safe. Other than those key staff, a little token of appreciation from your homeland is enough.
That’s why my Australian journeys finished with a return suitcase full of koala bear key rings and kangaroo-shaped ashtrays. “Who buys this rubbish?” I remember asking myself back in the 1980s as I passed such souvenir shops on the streets of Brisbane, way before I ventured overseas. The answer, it turned out, was myself.
But these are new times.
Almost all my staff have given up cigarettes, and one can only dole out koala bear key rings for so long. In this modern era there is only one thing I need to bring back, according to my female staff.
Sheep Placenta Cream.
I should be more horrified, but I have already survived myriad cream phases in this country, beginning with the David Jones craze of the 1990s and noughties.
David Jones, an Australian upmarket department store chain, has a perfumery on the ground floor where one can purchase vials of assorted scents and creams at a cost that would feed a Rohingya family of seven for six months. For those less endowed in the pocket, there is the David Jones generic brand range of face cream.
It was the generic stuff that won a loyal following in Thai women, resulting in many a trip where I had to cart back boxes of the stuff.
We are now in 2016, the internet era, and the fad of the day is sheep placenta.
“Please bring us back some sheep placenta cream,” my senior sales staff requested, after unexpectedly making me a cup of coffee.
“You mean lamb placenta?” I asked and she frowned.
“I only know sheep placenta.”
I argued that shouldn’t it be lamb placenta, since it belonged to the lamb? I was told the placenta belonged to the mother, not the baby. They nodded between themselves, then back at me, signaling that this was something I, as a man, would not know. The pedantic side of me wanted to argue there would be no placenta without the lamb, and thus surely it claimed ownership, but my staff, faced with the choice of arguing word definition or gifts from abroad, went for the jugular.
“You really want sheep placenta cream?” I asked.
“Kha,” chimed my female, and, sadly, male staff, in perfect unison.
“It makes our skin krachub.”
“You should try it. Your face will look krachub just like a baby!”
After answering that the train had well left the station in that regard, I excused myself and consulted my dictionary. Krachub: adjective: Tightened. Compact. Fastened firmly.
I have to admit I was a little nervous when I found myself in Queen Street, Brisbane city, not long after that.
On my list of things to buy I had scrawled “sheep placenta cream” and, gathering all the courage I could muster, wandered into a chemist. I slunk around the men’s cosmetic section for a while, fingering Gillette shaving gel and caressing tubes of Durex Play, but nobody came over to ask if I needed any help.
Finally I took a deep breath and walked over to the single staffer at the cashier. I could feel my face redden as I asked: “I know it’s weird but, do you, like, have any cream that’s got lamb placenta in it?”
I may as well have asked for toothpaste.
“You mean sheep placenta? Oh yes, follow me please.”
I was guided to a shelf with more sheep placentas than I could poke a stick at; four different brands! There was a whole industry out there employing manual labor to scrape up sheep placenta. What do they call such people — placentists?
That was early last year, and I am now far more educated about life. I know that in Australia they are wise to the sheep placenta fad. Boxes are displayed prominently out the front of drug stores, for it appears Thailand isn’t the only Asian country where it is popular.
Does it work? I googled “sheep placenta’s effect on skin.” Google returned with: Did you mean “placenta” as opposed to “placenta’s”? No, Google, I did not, my grammar was perfectly correct and for crying out loud find me the effects of sheep placenta on skin godammit!
Google retaliated with pages of websites with vested interests, namely, companies that sell sheep placenta cream. When exactly was it that Google turned into the Yellow Pages? There was one single page that claimed there was no scientific basis to the claims, but since when did science dictate the cosmetic and beauty industry?
It is ironic that sheep end up on the faces of my Thai staff. The same staff would turn up their noses at any dish of roast lamb, a meat considered by Thais to “smell bad”.
Yet no matter how popular sheep may be, the animal does not hold a candle to the little crustacean captivating and intoxicating the burgeoning Thai beauty industry — the humble snail.
I can just barely get my head around wanting to smear sheep placenta on your face. But when it comes to smearing snails I have to put my foot down, and hopefully not crushing a snail as I do so.
The ads are everywhere. Snail Cream. Snail Gel. Snail White.
Have you ever seen a white snail, dear reader? Where I come from they are brownish things with scales. Their color is more like phlegm. In whose world is that white?
Crazily, my “phlegm” description is not that far off. The cosmetic industry has extracted the mucus slime off snails and put it into a cream. Ewwwww …. but it allegedly stimulates the formation of collagen and elastins.
I needed to test this hypothesis. I told two of my female staff (recipients of the sheep placenta) to find me a few snails outside. My aim was rip off the shells, crush them into a pulp in the office blender and put it into a bottle.
“So cruel!” my staff replied. I suggested that cruelty was never distant from the cosmetic industry; indeed, vivisection is its middle name. And how did they think they got the mucus out of the snail — by coaxing it out gently?
This story does not end with just sheep and snails.
This week the older sister of a sales staff is coming home from study abroad. In her suitcase is an exciting new product she is desperate to try out. It’s Botox Cream from Europe. You don’t have to inject cow poison into the face any longer; you can just rub it into your skin in a cream. And at around 600 Baht a container, it’s a lot more affordable than a trip to the clinic.
My staff is having kittens as they wait.
If you ever happen to meet any of my sales staff, take a close look at her face. My sales executives are of varying ages, and they are all wonderful people. I would like to put this down to my policy of employing only pleasant people with good attitudes, good education, good smiles and a willingness to work with others.
Dream on. Put it down to all the lambs, snails and cows that went onto their faces.
SICK TO DEATH
By Andrew Biggs
It was a perfect storm of diseased relatives and lovers.
The first phone call came at 5.30 am, a time my consciousness was battling the effects of sleep and three quick chardonnays prior to bedtime.
It was Chai, my driver.
“I have to take the day off. Banana is sick. She’s nearly dead … she’s got a temperature and she’s shaking! I must take her to hospital.”
“Okay,” I said, as I went back to sleep.
Two hours later I awoke. It wasn’t until I washed my face and downed the first of two Panadols that it occurred to me — did somebody call me in the middle of the night? And why was I conjuring up the mental image of a dead banana?
Then it clicked. Chai had called. He wasn’t coming to work. I’d have to drive my car all by myself.
My driver was my school’s idea. Last year I fell asleep at the wheel driving back from my Rayong branch, albeit only for one second, but it was enough to give me a shock which I relayed to my staff.
Me and my big mouth.
The following Monday a skinny little kid with a buzz haircut and khaki trousers sat in the school reception area.
“He’s your new driver, boss,” my HR lady explained. “We decided to hire him just in case.”
“Just in case what?”
“You kill yourself in a car accident. Not good for business.
His name is Chai and he’s just out of the army.”
What followed was an uneasy week or two as Chai and I came to terms with sharing my car. Chai seemed to settle in nicely. And me?
First of all, having to sit in the back seat of my car for the first time was a huge upheaval. I had to move all my paraphernalia — hip flask, bottle opener, Carabao Daeng bottles — from the glove box to the back seat pockets.
Second, my glorious solitude was shattered.
Chai has conversation topics he is happy to instigate, with or without backseat contribution. He points out European sports cars with relish along with collisions on the side of the road.
This is in conflict with my antisocial personality. Each morning when he picks me up and asks: “Where to?” I am tempted to reply: “Anywhere in silence.”
Well I got my silence the day Banana knocked on death’s door. But who was Banana anyway? A pit bull terrier? A fighting cock?
“His girlfriend,” my HR lady told me when I got to school, driving myself, relishing the solitude so much so that I sat in my car for 15 minutes upon arrival.
“I didn’t know Chai had a girlfriend,” I said. I’d spent months with the guy and never thought to ask such questions — for fear it would lead to conversation, probably.
“Her nickname’s ‘Banana’,” she continued.
“Isn’t that a bit weird?”
“Not really, boss. Lots of Thais have that nickname.”
“I mean taking the day off because his girlfriend is sick!”
My HR lady had to pause to think about that one.
“Maybe nobody can take her to hospital,” she said.
“It seems strange. I mean, in my country we don’t take days off work because our girlfriends get sick.”
“He said she was nearly dead,” volunteered my HR lady. Maybe she was right. Maybe it was mean of me to demand my driver come to work on a day his girlfriend was shuffling off her mortal coil, or peel as Banana’s case would be.
At that moment my personal assistant Waen appeared. He performed a perfunctory wai then shot us a sullen look.
“My grandfather is sick,” he announced.
His name’s not Banana by any chance, I so wanted to ask, but didn’t.
“He’s been peeing blood since last night. I must visit him in Buriram.”
My heart sank. “Look, he’s kind of … old,” I said. “It’s normal for old people to pee blood.”
“I’m his only grandchild.”
“Can’t he get himself to hospital?”
“He’s already there. I have to be with him. I want to catch the bus at lunchtime.”
“When will you be back?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe two days.”
That wasn’t the end of it.
In the afternoon I received a phone call from Nid from our Rayong branch.
“It’s my grandmother,” Nid said. “She’s dying. I’m on a bus to Nakhon Sawan now.”
Nid’s grandmother is 97 years old. How could I say it nicely? Let’s face it, 97 is a pretty good innings, but the timing was terrible. We had new classes starting in Rayong — was there any way Nid’s grandmother could postpone her impending demise?
“I’ll come back after the funeral,” said Nid, as I prayed in the direction of the spirit house that it wouldn’t be a 100-day ceremony.
Chai. Waen. Nid. And then, at 3 pm, my accountant, Nuan.
“Nuan’s left early, boss. Her mother got food poisoning,” said HR lady.
“Sit down,” I said to her, and she duly sat, sheepishly.
“By law, how many days’ holiday is each staff member allowed annually?”
“Ten, boss,” she answered.
“What about sick leave?”
“But you need a doctor’s certificate,” she added, as if that made it okay.
“Sick leave means you yourself are sick, right? Not your parents or spouse?”
“So what about Chai, Waen, Nid and Nuan?” They sounded like the name of a Scandinavian folk group. “All robustly health yet all taking sick leave?”
My HR lady smiled, shook her head and threw me her “you farangs never understand” glance. “They’re taking personal leave, boss. You’re allowed an extra 10 days per year for that.”
I sat in stunned silence. That’s 50 working days a year my staff are legally allowed to take off — or the equivalent of nearly two and a half months’ work. I’m probably employing dozens of people who haven’t set foot in the office since Loy Krathong.
“There’s more, boss. There’s maternity leave. That’s one month by law. And monk leave. That’s up to the company, but usually they will allow 15 days. Is there something wrong, boss? You’re staring at me funny.”
The next morning Chai was there to pick me up.
For the first 20 minutes we engaged in stony yet welcome silence. He wasn’t forthcoming with any news about Banana, and why should he be? Illness doesn’t fall within the parameters of European sports cars and roadside carnage.
“So how’s Banana?” I asked finally.
“Much better. She doesn’t have a temperature any more. She ate some food last night.”
What a waste of a day off, that’s all I could think. And it wasn’t just her who made a remarkable recovery, either.
Waen’s grandfather bounced back in no time. Nuan’s mother received a saline solution and was sent home.
And Nid’s 97-year-old grandmother staged a miraculous, if unnecessary, recovery, despite the cremation tent being set up outside her home by an over-zealous funeral director. After five days, Nid decided he should get back to work.
A combined ten working days wasted and not a single cadaver to show for it.
Should I stamp my feet?
Should I stick an announcement on the notice board saying no unnecessary leave can be taken from now on?
I could. But it might be more productive if I thought less of my staff’s shortcomings, and more on how loyal, trustworthy, caring and even diligent every single one of them is. I have the best staff in the world.
If only I could say the same about their resilient relatives and partners.
A SPIRITUAL NEW YEAR
By Andrew Biggs
I had a special New Year’s celebration. I did something I never thought I would ever do.
It all began with a drunken question from an equally-drunken friend back in early December at an Ekamai establishment.
“So what are you planning for this New Year’s Eve?”
I paused before answering. I was onto my fourth vodka-tonic so I was ready to drop a bombshell. Only I couldn’t think of any bombshell to drop.
“What am I doing this New Year’s Eve?” I answered by way of a question — a good dialogue technique which works well in Hollywood movies and newspaper columns, but in real life sounds contrived. “I’ve decided I’m going to see in the New Year meditating at a temple.”
It was the vodka talking, dear reader. I have no alternative explanation as to where it came from.
My answer received the guffaws of disbelief it had been fishing for, except for the one Thai in the group, who didn’t get the joke, and instead leaned forward and said genuinely: “Anu-mothana-boon:” May you be blessed.
Here in Thailand the concept of meditating at Buddhist temples for New Year has been growing in popularity for many years. Looking at the holiday road toll, one hopes it continues to gain popularity, as nothing else, it seems, is able to stop the locals speeding, drinking and dying over New Year.
This meditation is known as suad kham kheun. You arrive anytime after sundown on December 31, and sit and meditate with monks chanting until the clock strikes 12 midnight. Then you may go home.
It’s not exactly my idea of a crazy time seeing in the New Year. And yet after my drunken announcement, and the sincere comment from that solitary Thai, I decided to go through with it. I was going to see in the New Year in a way I had never seen it in before — sober.
I chose Wat Phrathat Phanom as my destination. This is one of the most beautiful temples in the Northeast. It’s about 500 years old and allegedly contains a breast bone of the Lord Buddha. It is a tall, slim structure of white and gold. To pray, you walk three times around the cloister. As you walk, there are paintings depicting dire warnings about falling off the rails of life. One that stood out was a painting of three down-and-out shirtless men in a prison cell, with bottles of alcohol and drug paraphernalia strewn about them. “Alcohol, marijuana and drugs are evil things” booms the caption above the painting. Be that as it may, if I ever have the unfortunate necessity to be jailed, may I end up in that prison.
This temple is not only attractive; it’s remote. It is 725 km from Bangkok in the province of Nakhon Phanom; Hanoi is closer to it than Bangkok.
I have a friend who lives in Nakhon Phanom, so I called him to inform him of my imminent arrival.
“Great,” he said. “There’s a new pub that’s opened in town plus a street fair they’re going to hold by the river.”
I explained that on this trip I wouldn’t be visiting any newly-opened pub or street fair. I wanted to spend New Year’s Eve meditating at Wat Phrathat Phanom. My friend shot back with a number of questions, such as my date of birth and middle name and mother’s maiden name, to ascertain I was indeed the man he knew, and not some imposter.
That is how I came to board a low-cost flight bound for Nakhon Phanom on December 30, pick up an overpriced rental car, and ferry myself towards a three-star hotel in Nakhon Phanom city: What it lacked in amenities, it surely made up for in photoshopped pictures on Agoda.
Nakhon Phanom city hugs the Mekhong River with parkland and public space. If you are into gorgeous sunrises across the twisting Mekong, then this is the place to go. You’ll also find sensational grilled chicken, somtam and sticky rice. The local rice whisky is called lao hai, sold and served in an earthen jug. It’s very potent, not that I’d know. I was on another mission.
My hotel’s balcony terrace bar was a great spot to watch the sun disappear for the last time that year, made even more special when the bartender asked which musical artists I wanted to hear over the sound system. It was the only hotel in Thailand playing Kate Bush, Visage and S-Express early on New Year’s Eve.
We arrived at the temple by 10 pm. The temperature was around 15 degrees. My first reaction was shock. The place was crowded with people dressed in white and seated on bamboo mats.
“You never told me I had to wear white,” I hissed to my Nakhon Phanom friend, forced to come along with me.
“You never asked,” he said.
Oh what the hell. Without white clothes or even a bamboo mat, I sat down on the cold concrete in the open space of the temple with a few thousand others, and closed my eyes to meditate as monks chanted over a loudspeaker. Above us was an elaborate web of white string, some two metres off the ground. From it you could tie a piece of string and clutch the other end as you meditated, so that we were all connected in our prayers.
I must be honest with you; Nirvana was nowhere to be found in that first 30 minutes. My mind was jumping all about the place. The concrete was cold. My hands, raised in prayer position and clutching that cotton string, were starting to ache. So was my back. It took all my willpower not to throw up my hands, ask my friend the name of that new pub, and head back into town.
But then, some time after 11 pm, I kind of got into the groove.
Listening to the monks chanting was a little like swallowing a Xanax. I started to feel calm and collected. I started praying for everybody I knew, wishing them well in the New Year. Once I got through everybody I knew personally, both domestically and abroad, I prayed for Kate Bush and the surviving members of Visage (I forgot about a prayer for S-Express). I even prayed for you, dear reader. By midnight I was relaxed, contemplative and peaceful, as well as happy to be one member of such a large gathering. When midnight struck, it was kind of sad to leave.
The next morning I caught a low-cost flight back to Bangkok. I felt strong and thankful. And the weirdest thing is I’m already planning my next one. Maybe there is hope for me spiritually.
Or maybe not.
That was last Sunday. That afternoon I floated down to the supermarket. I decided to eat more clean food this year – another offshoot of the New Year’s Eve experience.
My trolley somehow entered the liquor aisle. I remembered I was out of vodka, and there were all the Absolut flavors peering out at me, so I reached out my hand and –
Wait a minute.
You’re going clean this year remember.
Come on. One can’t be an angel all year, can one?
Fine. Go ahead and grab it. Spoil all the good deeds.
It’s not spoiling them! I’m just covering my bases.
Falling off the wagon more like it.
I was never on it!
That is how my year started. A little torn, but a little ethereal at the same time. Relaxed. Full of positive energy. Well-stocked in the liquor cabinet. I’m full of spirits, in more ways than one.
DADDY, NO SUGAR
By Andrew Biggs
My heart goes out to Anusawn Chirapongse, the high-ranking government official who inflicted grievous bodily harm upon a Greyhound Café waiter.
“Grievous bodily harm” may be a little over the top. He slapped him after he summoned the waiter, who came over, gave Anusawn a deferential wai, bent down and said: “Yes, Pa?”
“Don’t call me that!” Anusawn snapped back.
Anger is a short madness, and we are all guilty of it. Only this week I, too, snapped at Khun Noi, the maid, after the internet connection at my school dropped out, right at a critical moment during a League of Legends stand-off, causing me to lose the game.
Khun Noi had “refaced” the internet, as she does from time to time, but normally she announces the fact beforehand so we can take precautionary steps. Only this time she didn’t, and by the time it was being “refaced” I was a goner.
How I wanted to “reface” Khun Noi. I would have if she had been standing a little closer.
(And I have taught her already that, in English we “reset” the internet, but she seems to have forgotten that. My maid is constantly picking up new English words, and for that I am impressed, though her pronunciation can be a little off. This is the same woman who, just prior to “refacing”, told me a student needed to “pot-porn” her class. Well at least she didn’t “can-cern.”)
So letting off steam to me is not a capital offence. But there is a curious aspect to this story that should interest non-Thais, for we must examine that terrible word the waiter uttered to his customer. Just what did it mean?
I have had staff call me Pa for more than two decades. Before this incident I never thought to ask anybody what it meant, for I naturally assumed it was an abbreviation of “Papa”, or father, which is in the Thai language as well. Surely Pa, while denoting a person of older age, also displayed a level of intimacy or familiarity that was not undesirable.
I admit that when staff started calling me this 20 years ago, I was a little perturbed about the age part. Was I truly old enough to be called a “father” by staff members not five or ten years younger than myself? That self-delusion has long since dissipated. Now I find it kind of nice that my staff can call me Pa without it being dependent on an end-of-year bonus.
So what on earth is this government official doing slapping a waiter who would call him this?
We foreigners know khun as a way of addressing another person in Thai, but the terrible truth is there are dozens of other words that can be used in its place. Knowing how and when to use them in the right settings and scenarios is an art that takes great time and practise. Not knowing how to use them properly can earn you a slap.
From my experience there are the “Big Three” ways of addressing an older person in Thai, all of which take into account a certain degree of familiarity.
The first one is sia (pronounced like “seer”), a Chinese word that refers to an older man with power and wealth. This can have both positive and negative connotations. The meaning can also extend to a wealthy man who keeps young girls as mistresses, or a sugar daddy, though not in every situation.
The second is hia (pronounced like “here”) and is of Chinese origin as well. It means “older brother” or phi chai in Thai. This extends to a boss, and is considered polite and okay to use. The problem for non-native Thai speakers is that hia, when pronounced using the wrong tone, becomes an insulting Thai term which would not so much earn you a slap as it would a bullet to the temple. Such is the complexity of the language; you intend to politely call the attention of that older man and you end up calling him a dirty lizard.
And finally there is Pa. This is the least offensive of the three, used for an older man who is generous or friendly. It even extends to a fashionable older man and yes, it does come from “Papa”. Here in Thailand children refer to their fathers using this word.
Does it have a negative connotation? This week another news agency unfairly reported that the waiter had referred to the official as a “sugar daddy.” That is stretching the bounds of accuracy. Yes, a Pa can mean a sugar daddy but it is not its primary definition, and certainly not in a restaurant. A waiter who comes over and calls you Pa is not expecting you to put him up in a Phrakhanong apartment and send him to hairdressing school.
So what was the problem? The official, who apparently knows the waiter, was possibly unhappy with the familiarity of the moniker.
Khun Anusawn is a member of the 200-strong National Reform Steering Assembly, set up in October 2015, which oversees the formulation of new laws during this crossover period. The NRSA was the body that last year announced it was pushing the death penalty for officials convicted of corruption (but not restaurant assault, clearly). More recently they have promoted a bill regulating the media, or “gagging” it as the media claims it to be.
Being a member of such an esteemed body requires others to treat you with respect and, if you are of the lower classes, extreme deference. A waiter calling you Pa is not displaying enough humble submission … and thus deserves a slap.
Is this true in the Anusawn Chirapongse case?
He was quoted as saying he would have preferred to be called pee (big brother) or loong (uncle) — titles used for men much younger than a Pa — a sentiment I myself was quietly brooding about 20 years ago, remember?
A little over a month ago, Anusawn celebrated his 60th birthday. This might not be a case of familiarity breeding contempt; it may be about a man coming to terms with his mortality.
As I write this column, an NRSA ethics committee is meeting to discuss this incident. The deputy Speaker of the NRSA issued this statement: “Society does not need to worry; an offender, no matter what his standing may be, must face the justice system.” Feel free to press the canned laughter button at your leisure, dear reader.
This incident is a storm in a teacup, but it does give us a glimpse into the machinations of Thai society, where deference is golden. Like I said, I understand where Anusawn stands. He is not a bad person. Perhaps he just had a difficult day. But we are responsible for our actions, and when one slaps, one must pay the consequences.
Well, sort of.
The waiter did file charges and our official was charged with assault. But it was reported in the Bangkok Post last Wednesday that the waiter later realized Anusawn did not have bad intentions.
“I would like to apologize to him if I addressed him impolitely,” the waiter said.
And that is where we must leave this little storm, with a bruised waiter apologizing to his attacker. In Thailand one must know not just how to control one’s temper; one must also know one’s place.
AUSTCHAM AND ADS
By Andrew Biggs
That unexpected fire at the Thai Belgian Bridge caused havoc with the inner-city traffic last Wednesday.
That was the evening of Sundowners, the monthly meeting of Austcham (the Australian chamber of commerce) at the Grand Hyatt Erawan. It was also the evening Austcham was having its presidential elections but how to get there?
The short journey from my office at Phrakhanong to the Hyatt by car would have taken more than an hour. I decided to catch the BTS.
What a swirling cacophony of idiotic messages and aural turbulence. What an uncivilized assault on my ears. Not Austcham, dear reader! The BTS!
Something radical has happened to the BTS in a few short years. When it first opened in 1999 it was considered an oasis in the maelstrom of Bangkok noise. You could escape the madness by walking up that flight of stairs to the platform or, had you performed some meritous task in your previous lifetime, you might even be lucky to use an escalator.
The platform offered respite from the streets. And once inside the trains it was even more tranquil, with minimal white noise other than Khun Sarocha telling me to please mind the gap between train and platform at every friggin’ stop.
Those were the olden days.
First of all, those ads blaring on the platforms.
I am a man who has successfully avoided watching television now for more than ten years. Now and again, if I’ve had a little too much to drink, I will flick on local TV but strictly for anthropological reasons. It is a pity Karl Marx never had a holiday in the Land of Smiles, for he would have relegated Thai game shows alongside religion as the opiate of the masses. One does not watch Thai game shows for any cerebral enhancement; in fact the opposite is the case. As I watch such programs I can literally hear my neurons fizzing and popping before they sputter out forever.
They are exercises in extreme idiocy. They have more bells and whistles than a gathering of Thai security guards. But it works and they rate very highly. The whole country, it appears, loves to watch local celebrities engage in inane activities. It is proof that to be a celebrity on Thai TV, you don’t only have to be stick-thin and good-looking; you must also possess an element of retardation.
So it was more than a little upsetting for me to arrive at the Phrakhanong BTS platform only to have such a program screaming out at me.
The king of Thai game shows is Panya Nirunkul, the owner of Workpoint, which churns out game shows at a frightening and successful rate. Panya not only owns the company — he also hosts many of the shows himself.
His classic modus operandi is to ask a question of a game show contestant, usually either an anorexic starlet or male comedian with some physical defect such as a giant mole or, even more hilariously, Downs syndrome. I am not making this up. Then, when it is time to reveal whether the answer is correct or not, Panya says: “And your answer is …”
There is a five-second pause as the camera zooms in on the participant.
“And your answer is …”
A roll of drums. The tension allegedly builds.
“And your answer is …”
By now the viewing audience is collectively wetting its pants. If the prize in question is particularly high, he will add, one more time:
“And your answer is …”
The music swells. More drum rolls. Anticipation floods the face of the starlet or Downs syndrome comedian. Pants-wetting turns into impeding orgasm.
“We’ll take a break and when we come back we’ll reveal the answer!” Cut to five minutes of advertising.
Game show fans are a little like goldfish; they have limited short-term memory. Five minutes is an eternity for anybody who finds hilarity in anorexia, and so after the ad break, there needs to be a short recap. At that point I mentally make a choice between the remote or a firearm, and to this day the remote has always won.
You can imagine my displeasure, then, when upon reaching the platform on my journey to Austcham, there he was, Khun Panya, onto his second “And your answer is” blaring out over the platform.
I turned in the direction of Erawan Square to make a quick prayer to the Lord Buddha, asking Him to send a sudden power surge to the Phrakhanong electrical system, shorting out the TV set, but it occurred to me that might also short out the train system, so I ceased and desisted immediately. Anyway, Panya was gone after an interminable 30 seconds, and in his place was a joyous teenager with ghost-white skin from the lightening cream she had just applied. That was when the train arrived so I did my best mainland Chinese tourist impression and pushed myself forward, stampeding over locals and jumping onto the train to escape this awful, awful noise.
Nothing got any better inside.
First, the good news. Khun Sarocha is no longer reminding me to mind her gap. The bad news; in her place are television sets inside the carriages. Inside, dear reader! Now it is Panya and the lightening cream lass within one metre of where I am standing.
In an effort to escape the TV monitor I glanced at the walls. They are now plastered in weird red ads for some company promoting something called “11st”.
What on earth is “11st”? Shouldn’t it be “11th”? The only thing worse than a blaring ad is a grammatically challenged blaring ad! The advertisement features a young Thai man who, if he isn’t transitioning then someone needs to have a good talk to him. He is holding up two fingers about five inches apart.
It looks more like a Tinder profile than an ad. I thought Thai authorities clamped down on obscenity in advertising; and besides, at five inches, why on earth is he boasting?
(It turns out the product is “Eleven Street,” not “Eleventh.” The graphic designer for that logo forgoes his bonus this year.)
Why are we still paying for the BTS? The purpose of ads is to support the cost of a product or service, such as in the hoary old past when advertising paid for newspapers and TV shows. I am being sandblasted by ads while using a service I have paid for — try using that business model for a paid internet service or App.
Back home after my experience I trawled the net and discovered there is a group of concerned citizens in Bangkok actively campaigning for a reduction in BTS advertising. This only happened two weeks ago. I realize there are far more pressing problems in Thai society but I’m signing up.
In the meantime, our prime minister should seriously consider taking time out from wielding Section 44 to catch that elusive embezzling monk over at Thammakai Temple, and turn it towards the BTS. It’s time for a public burning of ads in public places. It is abhorrent and anyway, anything that makes Austcham look peaceful needs to go right now.
GREAT MOMENTS IN THAI ENGLISH
By Andrew Biggs
This week environmentalists cautiously hailed a victory of sorts, as the government agreed to set zero the proposed Krabi coal-fired power plant.
Don’t worry, dear reader. It is not necessary to understand that first paragraph. I was just testing you. Or rather, I was testing myself.
For the last few days I have been trying to create a grammatically-sound English sentence using the phrase “set zero”. Contrary to what you may be thinking, this activity was not dreamed up to while away the time in an otherwise sluggish work week.
“Set zero” is the current vocabulary de jour in Thailand, or more specifically, the Thai language. This is a common occurrence; many English words have pole-vaulted themselves into Thai such as “okay”, “bye bye”, “discredit” and, weirdly, “hors d’oeuvres”. Thais like short sharp English words (like “hors d’oeuvres”?) and feel much more comfortable saying “happy”, for example, instead of mee khwam suk, a phrase that is an interminable three syllables long.
Now and again an English phrase pops up in Thai and spreads like a road rage clip on Facebook. That is what has happened with “set zero” just this last week with the coal power plant controversy.
Actually, it was resurrected. “Set zero” was first used in 2013 when the Yingluck government was mischievously pushing a reconciliation law.
The phrase faded away along with the law and the Yingluck government. But it is back. Last Monday’s announcement of the moratorium in order to assess environmental impact meant the government was going to “set zero” the proposed Krabi power plant.
I have nothing against English words and phrases bleeding into the Thai language, but what about a phrase like “set zero” — that doesn’t exist in the English language? Google the phrase; up comes pages and pages of Thai entries. “Set zero” is technically not an English phrase. It is a Thai one.
Why go to all the trouble of making up a brand new English phrase when we already have “start again”, “reset” and “back to square one”?
When I explained this via the media this week, many Thais were genuinely surprised to hear “set zero” was a figment of any reputable English dictionary’s imagination. I have even added it to my Top 5 list of English Words Invented by Thais, sitting at #5. And the rest?
When Thais want to show support for a friend down on their luck, they pat that friend’s shoulder, crease their brows and say: “Fighting!” Do that to any hard-luck native English speaker and he’ll reply: “Huh?” Do that to any hard-luck Thai and he’s answer: “Thank you.”
“Fighting” is a bastardization of “Keep fighting!” or “Fight on!” or even “Don’t give up” if we want to venture into three-word sentences. This one they didn’t invent; they adopted it from South Korea, land of the soppiest soap operas in human history which get lapped up by Thais. A few years ago I got up on the wrong side of the bed and, in a huff, tweeted that “fighting” was not used by native English speakers and Thais had made the word up themselves. I had a few snippy responses from Thais, saying it was used in South Korea so it had to be right. One wonders about the future of this country if it is gleaning its English knowledge from South Korea. Uppa Gangnam Style to you, too!
#3 Again, please?
We native English speakers speak quickly with accents sometimes impossible to understand. What does a Thai do when he or she cannot understand? The population is evenly divided. Half will nod and smile, pretending to understand, while searching in their peripheral vision for the nearest exit. The other half will say: “Again, please?”
Thais are mortified to learn that this succinct yet quaint phrase doesn’t exist outside the 77 provinces of Thailand. Which is a shame, since “Again please?” is kind of good. It’s certainly easier to say than the clunky “Would you repeat that, please?” and friendlier than the guttural “Huh?”
#2 Hyde Park
Only in Thailand could you take the proper noun of a popular park in London and turn it into an intransitive verb.In the Thai language, the verb “to Hyde Park” means “to say something in public”. For example: “The Prime Minister will Hyde Park about set zeroing the Krabi power plant project.” Again, please?
Here’s the gerund form: “Under martial law, politicians are barred from Hyde Parking until the next elections.” I am assuming the past participle is regular: “I have Hyde Parked since dawn.”
Isn’t that wonderful? But wait. There is an even better one.
I wrote about this once before. Please allow me to summarize it again, as it is priceless.
The Thai phrase ded-sa-molay means “dead”. For example: “The Krabi power plant is ded-sa-molay.” “If you Hyde Park one more time, there will be no set zeroing for you; you’ll be ded-sa-molay.”
“Ded-sa-molay” is not Thai. The phrase comes from English. Say it out loud. Does it sound familiar?
In 1954 Dean Martin scored a #1 hit with a song called “That’s Amore.” It was a big hit in Thailand, too. “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore …”
Thais misheard the word “dead” in the first syllable of “That’s amore” and started to use the song title in place of the word “dead”. To this day, Thai slang for “dead” is actually the title of a hideous old love song whose title means “That’s love.” Now you understand why I love living in Thailand!
As we leave this list, it must be pointed out in fairness that English has been influenced by Thailand.
The idiomatic “white elephant”, for example, comes from the ancient kingdom of Siam. Any albino elephant born became the property of the King immediately. It was considered auspicious to present a baby albino elephant to royalty, while at the same time quietly accepted that this giant animal had no use for the owner on his farm, since it had to be given away. Thus emerged the idiom “white elephant”; something big and bulky that serves no function.
More recently “ladyboy” has entered English dictionaries after hovering like a drone around the official lexicon for years. It’s in Oxford now, though Merriam Webster is still putting up a fight. And finally, for my Australian readers, the legendary horse Phar Lap comes from the Thai word for “lightning”.
Creating new phrases from English words shows enterprise on the part of Thais. And anyway, there are more English-as-a-second-language speakers than there are native speakers in the world today. The lines between what is right and wrong are blurred.
Another thing: it is imagination and innovation that is required in these modern times, as Thailand launches yet another cute little English phrase, “Thailand 4.0”, in an effort to push the country into the digital age. How a coal-fired power plant fits into any plans for a modernized society remains as mysterious as the origins of “set zero” but hey, who am I to rain on Thailand’s parade? Fighting, guys, fighting!
BEAUTIFUL AND DEADLY
By Andrew Biggs
Anubal Narathiwat is one of the largest primary schools in the provincial capital of Narathiwat, the southernmost province of Thailand right on the Malaysian border.
Every morning at 8 am assembly, the 1,437 school children in Years 1 to 6 line up in front of the flagpole and sing the national anthem.
A Year 6 girl takes the microphone and recites a Buddhist prayer. Half the students place their hands together in prayer; the other half cross their arms.
When she is finished, a Year 6 boy takes the microphone and recites an Islamic prayer. There is a collective switch in pose; half the students place their hands together in prayer, while the other half cross their arms.
Finally, all the students place their hands together. The religious boundaries come down; the students are united in meditation. Assembly over. Off to classes.
There was something very consoling and logical about the entire process, which I witnessed last Wednesday, since I spent most of last week in this province. What do you do when half the school is Muslim and the other half Buddhist? Simple. You stand in lines, and you take it in turns to pray. Then you go off and study together. One can’t help but wonder how it is that the primary school kids get it, but the adults don’t.
Despite the civility of the morning ritual, these kids live in the most dangerous part of Thailand, where more than 6,000 people have been killed via bombs and guns and another 10,000 injured over the past decade.
Narathiwat, along with Pattani and Yala, are the three southernmost provinces wracked by conflicts over separatism and religion. The violence is as mysterious as it is relentless, but life has to go on. Even the terrorists have families, with children, and those children need to be educated.
And here are those children, standing in perfect lines in front of the Thai flag, the Muslims and the Buddhists all mixed up, getting on with their lives.
What happens to these kids? Where does it all fall apart? At what age do the barriers go up? When do they get suspicious? When does it start to be not okay to live side by side with your Buddhist or Muslim brethren? Who feeds them the information that turns some of them into terrorists?
Foreign embassies are unanimous: Stay away from Narathiwat, unless you have business there, and if you do, get in and get out as quick as you can. Bombs can and do go off, and while foreigners may not be the targets, car bombs don’t discriminate.
When Anubal Narathiwat School first contacted me, to ask if I would be willing to run an English camp for the Year 1 and 2 students, their first question was: “Would you be brave enough to travel down here?” I told them I risk my life on a daily basis in the terrifyingly lawless and dangerous Bangkok traffic. Surely the probability of being killed and maimed is much higher on Sukhumvit Road. What’s a short trip to the South between friends?
The tragedy of Narathiwat is that it is such a beautiful city. It is a tourist town without tourists.
It’s right on the beach, and those beaches are pristine, white and wide. The town is tiny and everything is within walking distance. Sea breezes rush down the corridors of the main streets. Palm trees dot the city. There is a bustling morning market and an equally frenetic night market.
The food is sensational; arguably the best authentic Muslim food you’ll find in the country. There are restaurants where you can sit overlooking the Bang Nara River. Alternatively you can sit at a Muslim coffee shop and stuff yourself with rotis and matabas and >>khao yam.<< That was my last Tuesday night; sitting on a street corner, amid yellow and green two-storey buildings, at a roti shop where half of Narathiwat’s residents stopped to buy dinner. At the table next to ours, the local council was meeting informally over tea and rotis. It would be easy to fall in love with this atmosphere — but how dangerous it would be to do so.
Strolling back from the roti shop to our hotel, there are concrete barricades found outside many of the shophouses. We passed another coffee shop that was bombed in 2009, one of nine places that were bombed in a single night. It never recovered, and remains a shell to this day, with a group of four very young soldiers holding four very big rifles at a make-shift check point in the shadows outside.
Directly across the road is closed-down cinema, now home to swiftlets, whose saliva is used to make birds nest soup.
Even our hotel was a target, back in 2005, when a bomb went off in an adjacent restaurant.
During the day soldiers stand, backs to the road, along the main roads of the town. In the afternoon as students stream out of schools they cluster around school gates, since the terrorists target teachers.
Economically, this picturesque town is hurting. Narathiwat has no major businesses, factories or industries. Tourism would give the place a much-needed boost, but the only foreigners you find here are shady Russians. No native English teachers dare live in the town, which has a direct effect on the education of Narathiwat schoolchildren.
My Narathiwat experience was memorable, but my heart does go out to the beautiful young children, still blind to the divisions of religions, who are living in violent times. I could grow to really like this town.
One incident did give me a jolt of reality, however.
As I was about to leave, a Channel 5 reporter interviewed me about my visit. Santhiti Khojidmet, a Narathiwat native, asked me if I was afraid to be there.
“Not in the slightest,” I said. “You can’t live your life in fear of terrorists. I’d be happy to come down here again. I’d even think about taking a holiday here.”
Fine words, fit for media sound bites, and words I even convinced myself were admirable – until I turned the question around.
“What about you?” I casually asked. “Have you ever seen any violence?”
“Well, yes,” she replied casually. “Five times. Hospitalized, too.”
It turns out this female reporter has been the subject of national media more than once.
On January 16, 2007, she was covering news in Ban Bue Jo district when a second bomb exploded right where she was standing.
“Second bombs” as they are called are the bombs terrorists let off a short time after the first one. The aim is to inflict as much death and destruction upon the people who have rushed to help the victims of the first one.
In that incident, the bomb ripped apart the man standing next to her, killing him instantly. Santhiti was thrown three metres into the air and landed on concrete. She was wearing a yellow shirt in honor of the King at the time; her picture went around the country. She spent the next month in hospital.
She has been caught in bomb blasts another four times since then.
Her editor in chief has offered her a position in Chiang Mai, but she isn’t taking it. “Narathiwat is my hometown,” she says. “Like most people, we were born here. We can’t live anywhere else. Why would I move?”
Why would you move? What a question.
By Wednesday night I was back in Bangkok, a thousand kilometres from those gorgeous Anubal Narathiwat schoolkids, missing them greatly. But Santhithi made me realize my rose-tinted view of this tourist ghost town needs an attitude adjustment. As beautiful as it is, it is a town that needs to be treated with the utmost caution.
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.