(Note: Written during the week of His Majesty King Bhumibol’s Royal Cremation, 26 October, 2017)
By Andrew Biggs
The Royal Thai Anthem is known as Pleng Sansern Phra Baramee, or “The Song The Praises the Glory of the King”.
This piece of music is 130 years old. It was the third national anthem of Siam for more than 40 years, from 1888 to 1933 — the one prior to that was the UK’s “God Save The King/Queen” with Thai lyrics.
It is a curious melody in that it almost feels as though you are being guided, musically, along a path that steadily rises, like travelling up a mountain. The jungle clears and gives way to a magnificent view; the sun comes out and finally, as you reach the summit, the cymbals crash and you let out a victorious “Hurrah!”
The melody sounds classically European and there is good reason for that. It was written by 19th century Russian composer Pyotr Schurovsky and it is lucky for him that he did write this piece; although big in his era there is precious little else about the man today other than his contribution, musically, to royal Thai functions.
The melody may be European but the lyrics were written by a well-known Thai music instructor of early-to-mid 1800s. The combination of that melody that sweeps you up the mountain and its profound lyrics makes this a remarkable piece. I like the way it begins with the solemn pomp and circumstance of royalty, before morphing into a love song of concern for the monarch, until one reaches the climax with that grand and final cha-yo which is Thai for “Hurrah!”
(An interesting historical footnote: the original lyrics ended in cha-nee, which can be roughly translated as “like this” or “as it were” or even “so far”. Thai is a tonal language; a slight deviance in the tone and the word sounds like “gibbon”. Apparently this riled King Rama 6, who ruled from 1910, and had the lyrics changed to the final and much more befitting “Hurrah”.)
This piece of work remained the national anthem up until the Siamese revolution of 1932. Luckily the royal anthem remained intact for royal occasions, and it is the same one you hear in movie theatres just prior to the film starting to this day.
In that year of the revolution a new national anthem sprouted up, the second stanza announcing Thailand as a “civil state” which curiously remains to this day. The melody is claimed by some to have been “borrowed” from the Polish national anthem, though having heard both back to back, one could argue the relationship is tenuous. And, by no means coincidental, it ends in a similar but not so effective “Hurrah”.
It is my humble opinion that while the Thai national anthem serves its purpose, when it comes to profundity and richness of music, the original runs royal rings around it.
It is almost impossible for Thais to extricate this melody from the memory of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. It is understandable; a mere 14 years passed between the coup of 1932 and his assuming the throne. It is an anthem which may be 130 years old, but for more than half that time it was used for a single monarch.
This week the song belongs to King Bhumibol when the funeral pyre is lit at 7 pm on Wednesday night in Sanam Luang.
Last Saturday found your columnist in a university classroom, where he is trying to plough through a Master’s Degree in Education. It is a class of 22 Thais aged 25 to 50 years and predominantly school teachers.
Our lecturer came in, sat down and said: “Before we start, let’s watch a video together. It’s of our King.”
Silently we all got to our feet.
For the next ten minutes we watched the TV monitors and quietly sang to the Royal Thai anthem. It is the version that can be found on YouTube; a huge crowd that must number in the hundreds of thousands occupies all of Sanam Luang, with a 100-piece orchestra under the baton of Somtow Sucharitkul. To get a couple of hundred thousand people singing in unison, spread across such a vast area, must have been a logistical challenge of Herculean proportions, but it worked.
It is a piece of film conceived, filmed and edited in just four days by Thailand’s master film director MC Chatrichalerm Yukol, and shot using 50 cameras and a couple of drones.
The melody of the Royal Thai Anthem drifts across the vast space as a drone swoops over the crowd. There is a day and night version, which we watched, together, standing and singing silently to ourselves.
It was filmed on October 22, 2016, just over a week after His Majesty King Bhumibol passed. Your cynical old columnist had a tear in his eye by the end, not just for the magnificence of the performance, but for the sight of such a huge outpouring of grief for the passing of the King.
At the end of the video, as we sat back down, I realized I was in a room full of people sobbing, including our lecturer. Every single one of them. That classroom was a microcosm of Thai society, which grieves for the very heart that stopped beating last October 13, 2016.
It is a common reaction from Thais, especially the likes of politicians and ruling types, to hide behind the shield of Thai culture when trying to explain away misdeeds or villainy. When backed into a corner, officials will blurt out that we foreigners “can’t understand because you are not Thai”. This inevitably means “leave me alone to carry on my mischief in peace” — with the exception of one very clear example we will witness this week.
I believe that if we are not Thai we cannot understand the depth of feeling towards the monarch who was King Rama 9. There is no need to escort the argument over to logic or science. It comes from the depth of humanity’s capacity to feel a great love, and a shining example of what happens when humanity comes together as one. That is what was unique about the country of Thailand for all these decades.
There are foreigners, some vocal in the media, who cynically dismiss this as an example of mass brainwashing, or blind faith owing to a lack of education not unlike the situation in North Korea. Their ignorance is as loud as their allegations. What must be frustrating for these critics is that their arrows just don’t penetrate.
My heart goes out to all my Thai friends and colleagues who are struggling with the realization that as of 7 pm Wednesday, their beloved King is gone forever. I am truly sorry they must endure this grief.
But it is also time to move on.
We have mourned for a year, and no matter how much the kingdom grieves, the mourning must come to an end. Anybody who has lost a loved one knows this. The sadness may never dissipate, but there needs to be a conscious effort to pick oneself back up again. This is Thailand’s challenge for 2018.
And as clichéd as it may sound, King Bhumibol has not really gone away. He’s in the hearts of 68 million Thais, and look; the institution of the monarchy is still there too, along with that touching song that praises the glory of the king, be it the present one or those of the past.
Our remembrance must echo the path of that beautiful song that praises the glory of the king; starting with solemnity, rising with concern, and ending with a rousing “Hurrah”.
Vale His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
TAKE THIS THERMOMETER AND SHOVE IT
By Andrew Biggs
For the first time ever, in the nine years I have written this weekly column, I write to you with a temperature of 38.7 degrees.
Apparently that’s pretty high. I’m not an expert on body temperature, but it was high enough for me to end up in a special waiting room at my hospital, separated from the Samut Prakan masses, and not because I was a VIP.
At my hospital all patients are required to have their height, weight, body temperature and blood pressure measured in an alcove that is just a little too open-air for my liking.
“How exactly does my height correlate to my influenza?” I asked in a curmudgeonly fashion as I stepped off the scales this week. “Am I going to shrink because of it?” If the young man recording my height and weight found my comment funny, he certainly employed all his professionalism not to show it.
It was in that room that my temperature was recorded at 38.5 degrees. They thought I may have been suffering from a contagious disease — of all the nerve! — fearing whatever terrible disease I was harboring might spread throughout the hospital, into Samut Prakan, then out across the country. Finally I was going viral, though for all the wrong reasons.
(Life imitates art. My one foray into feature films here in Thailand was a starring role in ‘Sars Wars’, a black comedy about a mutant SARS virus that spreads throughout Thailand, changing everyone into zombies. I played the carrier of the disease.)
Thus I have not been out and about in my usual travels around town this week. No art openings, fashion events or embassy functions for me. Instead of clutching a wine glass, I have been clutching a digital thermometer purchased by one of my staff and the object of most of my attention these past two days.
“Place the device under your tongue, in your armpit, or in your anal cavity,” the instructions state. “Try alternating cavities for a more accurate reading.” Are they serious? That is not the kind of thing one wants to read when one is feeling queasy.
Monitoring my body temperature has been a little like following share fluctuations on the stock market, or the chart run of the latest hit by Taylor Swift. For a day there it went up, up, up, leveled out and, with a bit of luck, will come crashing down within a day or two as my clutch of colorful antibiotics kick in.
It did mean a trip back to my local hospital with whom I have a love-hate relationship. It started out as love; back in 2010 I extolled the virtues of the place in this column, praising it for its wonderful service at a fraction of the cost of the hospitals in, say, the United States.
That has been true right up until my last bout of flu in 2015 and annual check-up in 2016. Then, earlier this year, I went back to the hospital to get that medical certificate one needs for my work permit.
It was during that visit I received a shock. My local hospital had taken a leaf out of its very own Cosmetic Wellness Centre on the second floor. It had self-medicated and given itself a massive cosmetic overhaul.
You should see it now, dear reader. The front entrance has been transformed into a glittering lobby. I would not be surprised to see it pop up on Agoda’s list of hotels for Samut Prakan — all that’s missing are bell boys and the desk where you sign up for tours to the Crocodile Farm.
It’s all so high-tech now. The hospital has its own App. The doors have been replaced with sliding glass; to get through, one needs to press the button marked PRESS (whatever happened to OPEN?). The lobby is painted grey and duck-egg blue. The staff are all in crisp grey suits.
When I staggered in last Tuesday, I was greeted by the sight of five young women in those sensible grey uniforms standing at a counter marked “Customer Relations”. Not a hair was out of place on any of them; I almost expected them to ask if I wanted chicken or fish.
“Good afternoon, sir, how may I help you?” one asked me in perfect English. “May I ask your symptoms?”
On any other day I’d be fawning over this young woman, extolling her perfect English, marveling at her pronunciation.
Not today. I was hitting 39 degrees.
I felt like gripping her by the shoulders, shaking her violently and saying: “This is Samut Prakan! Nobody speaks that perfectly!”
From there I had to check in, get tested, see the doctor and pick up my medicine. In and out in an hour and a half. It was when I paid the bill that I realized duck-egg paint and grey suits don’t come cheap.
The Thai medical industry has jettisoned itself into the 21st century. They have woken up to how great their service is for the price they offer. That can only mean one thing. At my hospital, the cost of seeing a doctor has doubled.
The bill for seeing a doctor this week, including a blood test, came to 3,500 Baht, roughly twice what it was last time. Seeing a doctor is no longer cheap. It’s not expensive, either, and I can’t fault the service, but it may not bode well for those in power who want Thailand to remain a medical hub.
But hey. There are only a few things I am willing to spend a lot of money on. Good shoes, for one. Nice pillows for another. Everything else – underwear, socks, life partners – can easily be picked up in the bustling aisles of any outdoor Thai market.
When it comes to health I would be crazy to penny-pinch, especially since I am living in a country with affordable health care of generally high quality.
And let’s put that price rise into perspective. It’s just a little over a hundred US dollars. I can’t imagine how much that would have cost me had it happened on a trip to the USA where I had to take out extra medical insurance to cover me for one million baht in case of an emergency – which, apparently, wouldn’t have been enough.
And the system here is sensible. You see a doctor, he gives you medicine.
Back in Australia, you’re lucky to get a strip or two of dull old colorless antibiotics from a wizened chemist who smells like a musty old used teabag. That’s after you’ve made the arduous trek from your doctor over to the drug store, clutching that prescription, since in that modern society they still haven’t found a way to place doctors next to the drugs they prescribe.
Here in Thailand I see the doctor, wait 10 minutes then pick up a bag of pills that resembles a 1970s discotheque -- blue for sleeping, green for pain, yellow for killing germs and purple just for taking the edge off daily life. Wash them all down with a screwdriver and you’re feeling fantastic in no time.
Speaking of which, from that first paragraph to now, my temperature has dropped back down to 38.5 degrees. May it continue its downward trend. I look forward to the day when I dispense with that digital thermometer because let’s face it — being sick is not just more expensive these days. It’s also a pain in the anal cavity.
A CHOICE OF DRUG, A DRUG OF CHOICE
By Andrew Biggs
Jackie is the grown-up daughter of my dear friend Kelly. Now she’s 21 and wants to take a year off university and travel around South-East Asia.
This is the email I received from her:
“Hi! This is Jackie! I don’t know whether Mom told you, but me and my boyfriend are going backpacking around Asia and want to include Thailand! We were wondering if we could stay with you for a week or so when we get to Bangkok! We’ll arrive in December! Is that alright? Does that put you out?”
Not half as much as your overuse of exclamation marks puts me out — that was my first reaction which I kept to myself, of course, since Jackie is a very pleasant young lady, not unlike her mother was when we first met in the States around the time KC & The Sunshine Band were having hits.
I wrote an email back explaining how she and her boyfriend would always be welcome at my house. I was willing to overlook the three-day House Guests And Fish Rule — though I did worry how long “a week or so” was in the mind of a millennial.
The email she shot back precipitated the quandary we are about to discuss.
“That’s great! Looking forward to it! And just to let you know … me and my boyfriend are into w-double-e-d among other stuff! Can you get some for us? Don’t tell Mom!”
Thus began a moral dilemma which, on the surface, seemed easy enough to answer for sensible folk such as me and you … oh but she’s got me saying it now! You and I.
I may have many roles to play in this life, but one of them is not pushing drugs onto youngsters. On the other hand, how hard would it be to find weed in this city?
I would probably have to disguise myself as a sex tourist and saunter down to any of the bars in Nana Plaza, order a Singha beer then, as I waved the change away to the under-dressed waitress with the sick buffalo, whisper to her: “Say … where can a man get a little w-double-e-d around here?”
Imagine the look of confusion that would cloud her face, as the poor girl tries to put four English letters together. Then there would be the sudden, beautiful, broad smile of realization, and her ear-splitting retort: “Ohhhhhh ... same-same GANJA??” resulting in the heads of everyone in the bar turning to look at me.
Marijuana may not be hard to find, but I did worry about what constituted Jackie’s “among other stuff”.
Did she mean >>ya ba<< (methamphetamines), >>ya k<< (ketamine), >>ya e<< (ectasy) or >>ya i<< (ice)? Or was she referring to the more traditional class-A drugs such as heroin and cocaine?
Was I about to welcome two young people into my home who were going to spend their days shooting up or toking up? Did I have an obligation to tell my American friend of her daughter’s intentions, or did that make me a rat?
Two close friends, both women in their early fifties and both at the top of their fields, gave two opposing opinions when I threw this dilemma at them.
“You absolutely do not buy drugs for her,” said the first. She’s a well-known Australian pediatrician and mother of five. “Not only are you fostering a drug habit, but you are betraying your friend. How is she going to feel knowing you’ve bought drugs for her daughter? And look at where you’re living. South-East Asian countries have strict laws on drugs. If she gets caught with them she’s in jail. How would you explain that to your friend – that her daughter was in jail because of drugs you purchased for her?”
Yeah, but it’s just marijuana, I said, which was like a red rag to a bull.
“I’ve had cases of schizoid behavior from teenagers who have smoked too much marijuana. Imagine having that on your conscience. What if she overdoses on harder stuff? What if she wants heroin or cocaine – imagine confronting your friend after she finds out her daughter died thanks to drugs you bought.”
It wasn’t the breeziest of conversations I’ve ever had with her.
One week later I caught up with the other friend, a New Zealander, who is the dean of a university faculty there, and in Thailand for a holiday.
“Absolutely, yes,” she said over coffee at Kuppa. “Not only do I agree you should buy it, but you have a responsibility to do it.
“I won’t get into the moral aspect of using drugs, suffice to say your agreeing or not agreeing to buy drugs has no effect on her habit. She is going to do drugs regardless. So what’s she going to do if you say no? She will buy them off the street. She immediately risks entrapment or, worse, buying bad stuff and that can be life threatening.
“Isn’t it better to find her a bag of dope and say here, use this, but only at home, not outside? As for the hard stuff, you need to find out exactly what she wants and make a decision on the possibility, or non-possibility, or acquiring it for her.”
So there you have it. Sometimes it’s difficult having both staunch conservatives and bleeding liberals as friends, especially in moral dilemmas with the spectre of December arriving.
There is a very thought-provoking book that has made an impact on drug policy in recent times. That book is called Chasing The Scream by Johann Hari, and it gives a history of the century-old war on drugs. It advocates decriminalization of all drugs. While this is shocking on the outset, the arguments are strong that we have lost the war on drugs. Strict enforcement doesn’t work. Criminal gangs control illicit drugs worldwide and with that comes all the associated violence. Users are criminals rather than patients. And in countries where drugs have been decriminalized or at least controlled, there has been a reduction in users as well as lower crime rates.
I finished the book with some reservations but generally in agreement with the author. And yet, no matter how much I believe decriminalization is the answer, the fact is that drugs are illegal and there are harsh fines for users.
What really worried me was that nightmare scenario of Jackie using something that would kill her.
I’d have to call Kelly. I would either have to tell her that her daughter died from drugs I knew nothing about, or she died from drugs I bought for her. Which one was worse?
I had the email even plotted out ready to go:
I regret to inform you that I have been led, kicking and screaming, into my advanced years. Because of this untenable but unavoidable situation I do not indulge in substances other than the ones I can purchase between 11 am and 2 pm and then 5 pm to midnight, a situation I will explain upon your arrival in the Land of Smiles. You are welcome to stay but sorry, no drugs. I do appreciate the fact you felt comfortable enough to confide in me, and to assume I too would be spending my twilight years spaced out on w-double-e-d and other stuff.
Lots of love,
P.S. It’s okay. I won’t tell your Mum.”
That email was plotted out, but never sent. The situation resolved itself.
This incident occurred last October. In November Jackie broke up with her boyfriend. The Asian trip was called off.
By Andrew Biggs
Late Thursday afternoon the silhouette of my driver appeared in the doorway to my office.
“Do you need to be driven anywhere special tomorrow?” he asked.
What kind of question is that? I’m perfectly capable of driving myself anywhere special I care to go. I have a valid Thai driver’s license, which I got after a difficult written test— not because of the information required, but because the translation was so abysmal.
In the past you had to sit a 20-question multiple-choice exam to get a Thai license, which was thoughtfully translated into English for foreign residents.
“Thoughtfully” may not be the best word to describe it. There had been very little thought put into translating that document, as the English was indecipherable.
It was so bad I wanted to ask for a copy of the original Thai test and do that one. The only thing stopping me was the scowling government official supervising the test, who made a point of telling us, with an expression that hovered between Hitler and constipation, that there would be absolutely no talking during the exam. I figured his reaction to my going up and asking for the Thai version would be akin to him turning into a Venus fly trap. I instead drew on one of my major life talents — winging it — and sailed through … until I got to question number 18.
How does one choose A, B, C or D when one doesn’t even understand the question? Clutching the test paper in my two hands, I bravely stood up and walked slowly down the aisle toward the cruel overseer; Oliver Twist clutching his bowl going up and asking for more.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” I stuttered, “but … well I can’t really understand the English in question 18. I was wondering if you could tell me what the question is in Thai and I could –”
“C,” he answered.
I was thrown for a second.
“C,” he repeated. “Choice C.”
That’s when I realized he was giving me the correct answer.
I thanked him and rushed back to my desk before Stockholm Syndrome could rear its ugly head. And I passed.
But back to my driver. The answer is yes, young man, I could drive myself anywhere I liked tomorrow, thanks to a very savvy reverse park and a benevolent cruel overseer 20 years ago. However your job is to ferry me around town as work dictates and indeed, I had a work-related appointment at 9 am the next day.
My driver fell silent.
“I see,” he said. “I was wondering if I could take tomorrow off.”
“What – and drive myself around?” I asked. Of course it was a frivolous remark, made only to make the poor kid feel as though he was a vital cog in the organization, which he isn’t, but then that’s pretty funny coming from the CEO. Like so many organizations, you can take the driver and the CEO out of mine in a single barrage of gunfire and the organization would still run itself smoothly.
He nodded. “Okay,” he said. Pause. “Then I won’t take the day off.”
“Is there something you have to do?”
“Not really.” Pause. “Yes.” Pause. “No.”
“So why do you want the day off?”
“I need to go to my uncle. He’s asked me for help.”
“To do what?”
“To help him.”
This type of vague talking in circles does get maddening. Some people have trouble creating a logical thought process. My driver is one of them. It’s like when I ask in an English class: “What’s your favorite food?” “Somtam!” “Why?” “Because I like it.” Or this: “What is your favorite type of music?” “All music!” “What is your favorite sport?” “I like all sport!” For heaven’s sake, take a stand will you!
My driver is an offshoot of an education system that spits out under-stimulated graduates. It was time to wrap up this meaningless circular conversation.
“Okay then. So you’re not taking the day off.”
“If you say so.”
“Can you help your uncle tonight? I don’t need to be picked up until 9 am tomorrow.”
“He lives in Ayutthaya. I can only help him in the afternoon.”
“Are you helping him move house?”
“No. I need to help him rough somebody up.”
“My uncle needs to punch somebody tomorrow. At his work. He asked me to help him.”
“Your uncle needs to attack somebody at his workplace?”
“He attacked him first. The other guy. He hit him. They work together in the same glass-cutting factory. They had an argument and the other guy hit him. So now my uncle is going to hit him back.”
“Isn’t there a foreman who might have a different view?”
“The foreman is arranging it.”
>>“The foreman is arranging an act of violence in the factory?”<<
My driver nodded. “He says the other guy deserves to be punished, so he’s going to get the guy in a room, lock the door, then send in my uncle to punch him a few times. He needs some help, so he’s asked me to go along too.”
You know that internet click-bait stuff that says things like: “Ten amazing feats of nature! My jaw dropped at number four!” And then you click on it and there’s nothing jaw-dropping about it? Well that wasn’t me. My jaw dropped at that moment and I didn’t need to click on a single damned thing.
“You’re kidding me,” I said. “You’re going to help your uncle punch out another Thai guy because of some petty argument?”
“It’s okay. He’s not Thai. He’s Burmese.”
This is supposed to make me feel better? It reminded me of the guy I saw selling carved ivory products in a mall in Bangna. I told him I was unhappy about him selling this stuff because it was illegal and endangered elephants. “It’s okay,” he replied. “They ivory’s from Burmese elephants.”
“Sounds to me the Thais are ganging up on the Burmese guy,” I said.
“The foreman is Burmese, too. He says the other guy deserves it.”
“So let me get this straight. You want to take a day off work so you can drive up to Ayutthaya to help your uncle attack a Burmese co-worker? And the factory is complicit?”
I admire my driver’s loyalty to his family. I also appreciate his honesty in letting me know what he is doing, if not his ability to discern the difference between justified leave and thuggery.
“What if this factory worker is a descendant of a Burmese warrior?” I asked. “It wouldn’t be good for my image to be ferried around by a driver with a black eye and swollen lip next Monday.”
My driver put his shoulders back. “You don’t have to worry about that. The foreman says he’ll get some guys to hold him down.”
It is moments like these I wonder when, oh when, I am going to understand the psyche of my Thai staff. Will I ever delve deep enough into this culture to fully understand it? Who would have thought that, out of left field on a Thursday afternoon, my borderline-docile driver would ask to take personal leave to help some relative thrash the living daylights out of a Burmese migrant worker being held down in a glass-cutting factory?
The next day he turned up and picked me up as usual. Later in the afternoon, after a refreshing lull in mind-numbing in-car conversation, I asked about his uncle.
“He’s okay. I told him I didn’t think it was the right thing to do on a working day.”
“Good to see you are taking my advice.”
“He’s postponed it to the weekend when I have my day off.”
TRIALS OF A THAI TWENTY-YEAR-OLD
By Andrew Biggs
If Hollywood sitcom writers ever feel hard up for new ideas, they may like to pop over to my house for inspiration.
I am sharing my leafy mansion with my 20-year-old Thai niece. Let’s call her Gift, since she would be mortified if I used her real name, though that would require her reading this column, something the average 20-year-old Thai apparently doesn’t care to do on a Sunday.
Gift is living with me now, since my home is situated not too far from her university.
What a breath of fresh air it is to have a youngster in the house. It makes a change from the usual visitors — that is, nobody. Gift has taken over the spare bedroom and looks like she is here to stay for the duration of her degree.
We get along famously. She is bubbly and full of life, which one friend cruelly observed to be perhaps an example of opposites attract.
Some early mornings, as she flits about making mountains of toast and Nutella (you can eat that sort of thing when you’re 20) and as I reach for coffee and Tiffy, I wonder if we could be the basis for a hilarious sitcom. You know … follow the wacky antics of a trendy 20-year-old uni student who shares a house with a moribund but fabulously wealthy B-list celebrity!
So what have I learned from living with youth? It is my observation that young Thais no longer live their lives. Instead, they document them.
For the first time in my life I know what I have eaten for dinner every night for the past few months. Gift feels a need to photograph every meal we make together.
Not just photographs either.
“Khun Andrew, what are you making tonight?” she asked me one night.
I turned around to answer and there she was, holding up her smart phone, recording me at the stove. Which then turned into a video clip, which then got uploaded. Repeat. Repeat.
Gone are the days of a casual sentence or two on Facebook about how we’re feeling. In fact according to my niece, Facebook is no longer the place to go for the younger crowd. “It’s kind of for old people,” she revealed to me one night, and my heart visibly sank, so she quickly added: “Except for you, Khun Andrew. I don’t mean you.” Digging a hole, Gift.
These days it’s Instagram, where you can post a video and it hangs around for a day.
Gift is constantly uploading.
“Khun Andrew, what are we buying today?” she suddenly shouts at me in the aisles of Foodland. I spin around and yes, I’m being filmed.
I am required to come up with some witty repartee so that Gift can post it to all her friends who can see what a funny clever uncle she has. What happened to the good old days when I could push a trolley through fruit and vegetables with a scowl on my face?
Every day Gift posts a video with topics such as “Shopping with Khun Andrew is fun!” or “What’s he cooking tonight?” Soon will I have to peer around the corner before I raid the liquor cabinet, for fear of a gaggle of Thai uni students finding out the terrible truth about my half-and-half vodka tonics?
And that is the crux of the matter. Somewhere out there in cyberspace are 1,083 young people whose phones make a little beeping noise, whereupon they look down and see Gift and me shopping at Foodland. That’s how many Instagram followers Gift has. It’s not as though we are skiing down the Swiss Alps. We’re grocery shopping. Have I become the Kim Kardashian of Samut Prakarn?
In the meantime Gift, by stealth, has taken control of the music in my house.
I am a man of eclectic musical taste although I do avoid the shallow factory-pop of the likes of Shawn Mendes, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, and those guys from One Direction.
Yes, you guessed it. Gift is obsessed with Shawn Mendes, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, and every friggin’ one of those One Direction guys.
For this reason I know that the biggest hit in Thailand right now is “Panama” by a tattooed balding Italian hipster named Matteo. I hear it every morning. I would make a disparaging comment about it but when I open my mouth to do so, a little neon light spelling out “curmudgeon” starts to blink on my forehead.
I’d also forgotten how life is a constant drama at that age.
“Khun Andrew, I need to talk to you about something,” Gift recently said upon approaching me as I sat on the sofa, tonic in hand, in the middle of Stranger Things 2. Her face was so unsettled I even put down my tonic, something I only ever do in emergencies or unexpected visits from monks. “I have a terrible problem, and I need to ask you what I should do.”
Now she had my attention.
Young people are up against all sorts of pressures. Suicide rates, not to mention schizophrenia and road fatalities, are at their highest in her age bracket. Technology and innovation move forward in leaps and bounds, but they also carry with them ease of access to one’s obscenity of choice.
There are temptations of new and powerful synthetic drugs, too, that have flooded night clubs. Luckily Gift eschews all drugs, even alcohol. Her idea of a night out is meeting up with friends, swapping Instagram pics and chugging down pitchers of “bubble-milk tea”. Not exactly my drink of choice (unless you added a generous dose of Kahlua) but at least she finds drink and drugs abhorrent. I’ve even lectured her on the perils of such addictions, carefully eyeing the skies in case I needed to dodge an errant lightning bolt or two.
And what was her terrible problem?
“I may have to drop one of my university subjects,” she said. “Please don’t be upset with me. It’s just … it’s so difficult, and if I continue, I may get an F, and that would spoil my chances of first-class honors!”
Was that my cue to gasp in horror?
I know, I know. Everything in perspective. Gift is a straight-A student and the possibility of a B was bad enough; failing is akin to abortion or teenage pregnancy in someone else’s world. Still, she is studying accountancy, so I explained that a talent for shifting figures about and shunting ill-gotten revenue to offshore tax havens were skills far more attractive than first-class honors in the eyes of employers. It wasn’t such a big deal.
It didn’t help. For two weeks she was stressed out about it.
Just tonight I sat down with Gift for a little talk over dinner. We bought bammee noodles and pork, so there was no need for a photograph.
We decided she would drop that subject, something I pretended to look concerned about. It didn’t mean a lot in the grand scheme of things. I also slipped in my distaste for Justin Bieber in my house, and how life would be a little easier without so many of those One Direction guys wailing at me — at least in the morning.
What I also wanted to explain was my discomfort about being involved in an ongoing reality show. But as I opened my mouth to say that, blink blink blink went the little neon sign. I held my tongue.
No doubt there will be other dramas in Gift’s life that I will hear about. It’s all grist for a sitcom. And what’s weird is this entire column reads like a Seinfeld episode. I swear it was inadvertent.
By Andrew Biggs
My beloved dog of 15 years is dying.
His descent into canine dotage has been swift. Gone are the days when he bounded down the driveway to greet me at my front gate, tail wagging, jumping for joy, pawing and slobbering over my mid-priced Robinson slacks and Platinum Plaza work shirt.
These days it’s enough for him to lift his head slowly and stare out towards me with milky eyes. The light has left those eyes, and he labours as he breathes. He’s deaf, blind and has lost his balance.
It felt wrong to allow him to suffer any longer. I decided to put my beloved dog down.
Only it didn’t happen.
My dog’s name is Akkradej, a strange name for a dog, since it is a respectable Thai male name for a human. Nearly 20 years ago a stray dog gave birth to a litter of ten. The tenth one out only had three legs. Nobody was keen on raising a three-legged canine. So I took it.
The locals suggested all sorts of nasty names for the dog. Tripod, for example. Triangle was another one. A British friend suggested Clover, which I had to reject since my mind associates clovers with four leaves, not three, and besides it’s a bit of a dicky name isn’t it?
I decided to give that pup a bit of dignity and named it Kanokwan, a very, very beautiful female Thai name. It was a bit like calling a dog Felicity or Millicent. Since then all my dogs have had fancy Thai names.
My dogs have an average life span of about five years which is about the norm in Thailand. Akkradej is an elder statesman in comparison.
For the first time in my life I had to contemplate taking responsibility for putting a beloved pet to sleep.
It was not an easy decision, but when I finally did announce it, it was greeted with uncomfortable silence from my staff.
“You can’t do that,” my accountant finally said.
“No, you can’t,” said the maid.
“Better to let him go to sleep himself,” said my assistant.
“It is a sin to take a life. It is better for Akradej to die naturally,” added my accountant.
“It goes against the tenets of Buddhism,” explained my assistant, batting his eyes, and sounding just a little too holier than thou for a Monday morning.
“That’s ridiculous,” I answered. “He’s in pain. He can’t even walk. Where is the quality of life?”
“That is not for us to decide,” said my accountant.
I wouldn’t expect anything less from my Buddhist staff. What I didn’t expect was the same point of view from veterinarians.
I live in a part of town where it was once almost impossible to find a vet. My original vet from 20 years ago worked out of his shabby shophouse. He was a natural with animals, but sadly he gave up his profession to sell Amway.
Now there are seven veterinarian surgeries within a two-kilometre radius of my home. They range from little shop houses to one that has four floors, a lift, doctors with stethoscopes around their necks, attractive reception staff and entire walls of medicine.
My local vet is very reliable and kind. He works from a little shop house. When I asked his staff about putting him down, I was told: “The vet wouldn’t perform that service.”
But he’s a vet.
I got my assistant to come down off his high horse and call the gaggle of vets that have set up practices around my house to find out who would do it. I cannot attest to the validity of my research, since my assistant was dragged to the task kicking and screaming, but apparently the verdict was this: None of them would do it.
This reminded me of another quirk of Thai vets. Remember Kanokwan? She may have only had three legs but boy, that didn’t affect her love life.
At eight months she was on heat and for three days slinked around my moo bahn like a brazen hussy. Finally I found a vet nearby and called her to have Kanokwan neutered.
“Has your dog had sex with any of the male dogs?” a woman asked when I explained my predicament.
She used the verb pasom pan in Thai – “to mix the genes” – and I foolishly answered: “I’d say she’s been mixing her genes as often she possibly could! It’s a veritable canine orgy out there!”
The joke fell flat. “Then the doctor will not perform the desexing operation,” she said. “She refuses to desex any dog that’s already mixed her genes.”
I put the phone down in shock. Clearly karmic retribution was more fearful that a proliferation of stray dogs.
Speaking of karma, remind me to come back in my next life as a Thai vet. They don’t spay. They don’t put to sleep. So what exactly do they do?
They charge. Like wounded, unspayed bulls.
Poor Akradej took a turn for the worst, and had to spend 10 long days and nights at my local vet’s clinic.
I received a frantic phone call from the vet’s on day eleven.
“Your dog is gasping for breath and the vet is upcountry for the day,” said the nurse. “He needs to go to another vet for the night.”
This meant my sending him to that five-star pet hospital. I had no idea there were such places — the Bumrungrat of the animal world. The next time I have relatives coming to visit I may end up putting them up there.
The very first two questions they asked were a portent of things to come: “What’s wrong with your dog?” followed by “How are you going to pay — cash or credit? We’ll need a down payment of 10,000 Baht.”
Poor Akkradej. Within minutes of our arrival he was surrounded by two doctors and some nurses, all jostling to prod and jab and needle and stroke him. I was told Akkradej would have to stay overnight; if only I’d invested in Bitcoin back when it was $150.
The next day I returned to be told he had “ear infections on both sides and trouble with vertigo and an irregular heartbeat and here is a bill for 10,150 Baht.” Believe me, as I handed over my credit card it wasn’t just Akkradej who was experiencing an irregular heartbeat.
That hospital told me they’d need to operate on Akkradej to relieve the problems, plus he’d need extensive physical therapy and the heart doctor would need to do a series of tests, and this would require my mortgaging my home and getting a short-term loan from my parents.
They got it all wrong.
The real issue was my beloved dog was very, very old, and dying.
I gathered him up in my arms and took him home, where at least he could die with dignity.
That night I thought through my decision to put Akkradej to sleep.
Could I really live with the fact I’d authorized the death of my beloved pet? This is something quite acceptable and normal back home in Australia, where even a dog’s attack on a neighbour, for example, requires the animal to be put down. This cultural more has resulted in an absence of both rabies and stray dogs, one of the rare but pleasant offshoots of a non-Buddhist country.
Not here in the land of smiles, where it is a sin to take even an old and pained animal’s life, be it in the case of a potentially pregnant Kanokwan or an ailing elderly Akkradej.
On this one, Thailand, we shall just have to agree to disagree.
By Andrew Biggs
Tove Lo is a Swedish singer enjoying a hit in the dance clubs at present.
Her song is very catchy and kind of fun. It is called “Disco Tits”, and here are the lyrics to the chorus:
“I’m sweatin’ from head to toe I’m wet through all my clothes, I’m fully charged, nipples are hard Ready to go.”
Needless to say it’s a raunchy little number, in which Tove Lo informs us she loves to go out to clubs where she drinks to excess, gets really high on a number of drugs, then hits the dance floor looking for a man. Her account of that series of events is far more street-cred than mine.
The point is, this song is not just an update of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. It’s also entrapment.
Welcome to these modern times where the issue of allegations of sexual abuse and molestation has spread its tentacles thickly and audaciously over so many industries, most notably the entertainment field, causing monumental social earthquakes.
Big names are dropping like flies as we uncover and are exposed to the lurid behavior of the rich and famous. Harvey Weinstein is the poster boy for rabid predator producers and their casting couches. Kevin Spacey has just set back gay tolerance a good 20 years by mixing up child molestation with his homosexuality. Bill Cosby loves Rohypnol and women, in that order.
The “sexualization” of children is new too. Now there’s a word that will make it into the Oxford Dictionary’s new vocabulary list for 2017. Didn’t we used to call it sexual objectification in 2016? Or just plain old pedophilia? This week some model tweeted that she wanted to “wait four years” so that one of the Stranger Things child actors could mature and she can have her wicked way with her. Boy did she cop an avalanche of cyber-hate over that one.
Suddenly human behavior is under scrutiny thanks to modern technology, and our sexual behavior in particular has become a minefield. It appears the alleged good old days of the last few decades weren’t so good after all, especially if you were a young woman in close proximity to middle-aged men in power.
The rock that is Hollywood has been turned upside down, revealing the most open secret of all about how its starlets have not just been climbing ladders on their way to fame. Allegations of famous Hollywood figures engaging in retroactive sexual assault are almost as frequent as mass shootings in America.
Weinstein, Spacey and Cosby’s careers are over, while others are teetering. Ben Affleck may have dodged the career-ending bullet despite owning up to a couple of groping incidents. Amazon Studios boss Roy Price got fired for sexually harassing an actress. Over 200 women have filed sexual assault complaints against director James Toback. Two hundred! Jewish author and activist Elie Wiesel, who wrote the harrowing holocaust book Night, has been accused of sexual assault. He cannot defend himself; he’s dead.
Versace. Dustin Hoffman. Bill O’Reilly. Even 93-year-old George Bush Senior likes to grope women’s backsides, it has been revealed, cackling: “You wanna know my favorite magician? David Cop-A-Feel!”
(And yet others don’t seem to get tarnished by their lewd behavior at all. Remember Donald Trump’s brazen conversation about his strategy for foisting his bulk on women, caught on tape and released just prior to him winning the 2016 US presidential election? Didn’t stop hordes of women voting for him.)
The genie is out of the bottle when it comes to sexual harassment. This is healthy for those women who had been molested but couldn’t speak out. But that is not the whole picture. There are too many variables, or offshoots, that are threatening to turn perceived justice into ludicrousness. The sexual harassment bandwagon is now making all sorts of stops where it should not go.
Bob Weinstein, Harvey’s brother and guilty by fraternal association, has been accused of predatory behavior after asking a female executive out to dinner. She said no, and he asked again and again. The man sounds annoyingly persistent, but is persistent annoying behavior now tantamount to sexual harassment?
After the Spacey revelations, a BBC news story revealed all sorts of men had come out of the woodwork claiming to have been sexually molested by the actor. One was a filmmaker in his thirties whose crotch was grabbed by Spacey. Another was a bartender in his twenties who, after refusing Spacey’s advances, was given a 5,000 pound watch by Spacey.
This columnist would never, ever, stand up for what Spacey has done. One does have to weigh up, however, just how traumatized a 30-something filmmaker can be when an actor hits on him, or how much one man’s life was ruined by accepting a 5,000 pound watch — and whether the perpetrator should go to court over such incidences.
The same can be said for women’s empowerment. The battle for equal rights and respect has been a long and tortuous one for women. France may soon join Portugal and Belgium in banning wolf whistles, for example, as part of an ongoing program to make men learn to respect women.
Sometimes I wonder if that long and tortuous road to respect is actually circular, and we are about to overstep that empowerment and end up right back where we started from, as Tove Lo has demonstrated.
Tove is not an island on the pop charts. Artists like Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Beyonce, Fifth Harmony and a host of other singers strip down to their underwear on stage as they sing about empowering women.
What is empowering about Tove Lo’s public proclamation of sexually-stimulated breasts? Surely that is more demeaning that empowering. How would her mother react to this? Even the song title references an undignified description of women’s breasts. Is the empowerment fight a circular one which, once empowered, sees us take the extra step of liberalization and return us right back to where we started from, with women being perceived as sexual objects, because when Miley struts on stage in her underwear, or Tove starts singing about her colloquial breasts, how else can they be expected to be perceived?
And what if some guy, listening to Tove, dares to put his hands on those hard nipples of hers? Does he get arrested for groping? If he does, he is not allowed to say she was “asking for it”, as was the catch-cry from our misogynist past, because that is blaming the victim. It is okay for Tove to publicize her physical heightened response to sexual stimulation, but god help the man who responds to her invitation.
This is the topsy-turvy world of today. When do we say “okay, this has gone a little too far”? France, for example, may be congratulated for banning wolf whistles, but it is also considering making it a crime to ask for a woman’s telephone number. Of course we must respect women, and we have to include those who exercise their right to sell themselves via sex. That does not mean they want sex, as any male responding to their proclamations will find out. See? Told you it was complicated.
The definition of what constitutes sexual harassment and molestation needs to be redefined and honed, to ensure more extreme or dubious definitions are excluded. Tove Lo throws up a conundrum about modern life that can only get more intense and dangerous if not roped in.
And the worst part about it? I really like the song.
BETTER LATE THAN AUSTRALIAN
By Andrew Biggs
On my recent trip home to Australia, my mother took me aside on the last day.
“I can really see Thai culture has had an effect on you,” she said as we ate our last meal together. “In three ways.”
I waited, quiche perched mid-air on fork, for the impending triad.
“First, you are so much more relaxed and even-tempered. Gone is the hot-headed Andrew from before.
“Second, you smile so much more. That’s got to be a direct result from living in Thailand.”
“And third?” I asked.
“You are never, ever on time.”
I knew there’d be a sucker punch. But it really did come out of the blue and I praise my mother for her perfect timing and delivery. I know where I inherited my wit, as well as unrelenting sarcasm.
It was nice of her to mention the first two. I suspect anybody, when compared to their persona of three decades ago, is a little more relaxed and even-tempered. The smiling bit is nice, and I attribute it directly to rubbing shoulders with Thais. As for the last one?
My mother was reacting to two mornings in a row where I said I’d drop in “around 10” and arrived sometime around 11. This is so normal for me now that I forget it’s a no-no in the west. What’s an hour among friends and relatives? And anyway, isn’t time a man-made concept?
I was never like this before. I used to be a journalist, having done my journalism cadetship in my homestate of Queensland on a newspaper that absolutely held to deadlines. You missed a deadline in filing a story and you were smitten from the newsroom. Either that or put on horse-racing results for three months, not dissimilar to law-breaking Thai government officers who get shuffled off to inactive posts instead of jail. In short, back then there was absolutely no thought of >>not<< missing a deadline.
I also did a stint reading radio news and that was even more precise. A 5 pm news bulletin meant starting exactly one second after 4.59.59, primarily because sister stations were taking the feed.
I may have been less relaxed and less level-headed back then, but I sure knew how to do things on time.
When I first came to Thailand I got a job at a newspaper. A big difference between the Aussie newsroom and the Thai one soon became clear: A deadline of 5 pm in Australia meant 5 pm on the dot. In Thailand, a deadline of 5 pm meant 5 pm on the dot … or a little after 5 … maybe even 5.30 but it would be good to have it sent to the editors by, say, 6 pm.
It took a long time to wrap my head around that concept. One would think it would be a relief not to be so tied to deadlines, but as any procrastinator knows, the only thing ensuring you get that essay, short story, test paper or in my case news story sent off on time is a deadline.
It was the same in radio here. My last regular live radio gig was at a news talk station, on a show starting at 8.30 pm. It never started at that time. TV stations are the same. Look at TV schedules here and be amused by the prime-time shows that start at 8.40 pm or 9.10 pm. They really go on air at 8.43 and 9.17.
I have emceed big events here in the Land of Smiles. Some of them are run by organizers who thrust time schedules into my hand saying “We must run exactly to schedule.” They have entries such as “8.17: Emcee welcome guests. 8.21 Emcee invites Minister on stage for opening address. 8.31: Video plays.”
I read this every time and nod earnestly at the organizers. Inside I’m promising to run naked down Silom Road if the real event even vaguely follows this time sheet because it never, ever does.
(And the most common variable that mucks it up is the Minister himself. VIP guests, particularly government ones, are never on time. My favorite was the permanent secretary who arrived one hour and five minutes late for the closing ceremony of a seminar with a red face. It wasn’t for feeling embarrassed; he’d come straight from the traditional Thai massage parlor in the hotel basement. The 300 educators waiting for him all that time didn’t find it the happiest of seminar endings.)
Thai culture has chipped away at my inherent Germanic approach to time, to the point where yes, mother, I am not a person who comes on time. Sometimes I make an effort, such as my weekly office meeting which is supposed to start at 1 pm, but invariably starts at 2 pm. Getting 10 people to meet in a room at a designated time in Thailand is about as feasible as a national election next February. It just ain’t gonna happen.
This week the most curious of events occurred and it rose like a beacon shining in a sea of tardiness.
It was at Fight Night, the annual charity event at the Marriot Marquis Hotel, featuring four boxing bouts by expat amateur pugilists. It raises funds for Operation Smile, which provides free operations to Thai kids suffering from cleft palates.
Your favorite columnist was emcee for the night. It’s run by expat A-lister Therese Beauvais, her husband Kevin and an amazing team with so much dedication and vitality they make me exhausted just watching them.
But get this: Fight Night’s timing is down to the >>second<<. As in, I am required to make an announcement at 7.15, 7.30, 7.45 and we start at 8 pm. No, not 8.15 or even 8.03. Eight pm on the dot.
“Okay let’s go,” I said at 7.59 pm.
“No, wait!” cried Don the light and sound guy. “You’ve got another 48 seconds.”
I had to catch myself. Another 48 seconds? What is this — Greenwich?
It did indeed run like clockwork. I felt exhilarated after the event, and not just because of the fighting. How wonderful to be part of a team like that, working in precision and to a schedule.
My mother would have been proud.
Sitting on the plane home to Bangkok, I did think a lot about what my mother had said.
I’m not on time like I used to be but you know what? I kind of like it that way. I like the way time is more fluid in this part of the world.
This can be maddening to newly-arrived expats who, upon coming face to face with the tardiness of Thais, may just want to assume the pugilist role like that of the Fight Night boxers and slam a few heads.
But who says being on time is so great? Look at the traffic out there, people. Look at our frenetic lifestyle. To be so precise about time that one cannot be a minute late is not my idea of a happy life. If being a little lackadaisical time-wise goes hand-in-hand with smiling more and being a more level-headed person, then I say be late and be damned.
Even that crack team of precision-time keepers on Fight Night is prone to the realities of life. We followed a schedule that ran like clockwork — until, in the third bout, there was an unexpected TKO in the first round.
That didn’t just send the other boxer reeling; so too, did it send the time schedule.
“We’re ten minutes ahead of schedule,” Dyan, one of the organizers, fretted after it. Who’d have thought you’d ever hear that line in Thailand?
By Andrew Biggs
Congratulations to the little boy on page two of the Bangkok Post last Wednesday, throwing his hands up with joy at being selected to attend Chulalongkorn University Demonstration Elementary School.
Actually, the six-year-old wasn’t “selected” per se. He passed the exam required to enter grade one. He was among only 100 who got in out of more than 2,000 students who sat it.
I wish the kid well … really, I do. He has learned a life lesson about hard work and success. But once father and child are safely out of hearing distance, I do have to shake my head at an early childhood education system that is outmoded and relentless in its pressure.
The school in question is one of the most sought-after government primary schools in all of Thailand. Attached to the prestigious Chulalongkorn University, it does what so many popular government schools must do in order to select the very best students. It makes the students sit an exam.
Only the very top students get in, which perpetuates the exclusivity of these schools. But that is not the burning issue for this Sunday.
The little boy in the photo is not the only one to have learned a life lesson. In another 1,900 households across Bangkok, there are children wallowing in their failure, in their feelings of insecurity and stupidity, recovering from the double-whammy of having to undergo a grueling exam at the age of six – and their subsequent failure. One can only hope they are not being berated by parents for not making them proud, though I suspect a small percentage may just be indulging in that practice, too.
There are positive steps being made in the Education Ministry towards more equality in education, not to mention weeding out those high-ranking officials skimming tens of millions from funds for poor students.
Despite these steps, we are still in a system where we deem it necessary to give five- and six-year-olds exams to get into schools. The probability of securing a seat is minimal owing to sheer numbers. It also perpetuates the myth of the “better schools” which post much higher grades in national tests and competitions. Of course they do — they have the brainiest kids.
I am a popular man when it comes to friends and relatives trying to get their offspring into such schools. I have a bottle of Opus One in my liquor cupboard, still unopened for reasons unbeknown to myself, whose acquisition is the direct result of helping the son of a close Thai friend get accepted into a prestigious school.
No, I didn’t call the principal and ask for special dispensation. That poor child had to undergo an English interview of 5-10 minutes duration before being accepted into the school.
Five to ten minutes! That’s longer than the average English job interview in this country!
My friend called the week before the test. Could I pop over and tutor his child? Perhaps unsurprising to my regular readers, I was very vocal in my displeasure. Not because of the tutoring … as you already know, my friend has a well-stocked wine collection and so I’m assured ample refreshment, along with a drive home via the back streets.
My displeasure was over the fact a six-year-old, fresh out of kindergarten, needed to be stressed out by an English test to get into a school.
The kid himself wasn’t stressed. He was kind of bemused by it all, unlike his parents, who were biting their nails. And you know the result, as evidenced by that solitary Opus One.
While my friend’s son was not stressed, he is in the minority. There are psychological studies that reveal there is nothing like failing a test at an early age to reinforce feelings of insecurity and futility.
I saw this for myself. I once accompanied a niece of mine to her exam to get into Grade One at a popular Bangkok school on the east side. For two weeks prior to the test her mother prepped her, since this was not just a test of Thai. It was also a test of Mathematics and English. Her mother thought that my presence might somehow help in the selection process of getting. My presence made no effect whatsoever, but it was nice to get out of the house that sunny Saturday morning.
There were four classrooms of children. My heart went out to all those gorgeous little kids, clearly perturbed, as they were then herded into the classrooms on the second floor.
About 20 minutes later one child came screaming out onto the balcony. “I can’t do it!” she kept screaming in between sobs.
That poor child. I don’t blame her, and thank god there was just the one. It’s no fun conjugating verbs at the age of six.
Is there a better way to get children into government schools, ensuring equality for all? Yes, there is, but before we examine that, we need to do away with one particular traditional Thai custom.
In Thailand we don’t just get into good schools via our intelligence. With all the corruption news of late, it may not surprise my readers to know there is a dark side to getting into good schools, and that is via shady donations under the table.
Last year this came to light when a disgruntled parent filmed officials at the popular Samsen Wittayalai School demanding a donation. The methods for such payments can be found throughout the continuum from “latent” to “blatant”. At the school where my niece applied, for example, the very last question on the application form asked: “How much would you be prepared to donate to the school if your child was accepted?”
It is interesting to note that in the Thai academic world, much as been said about the Finland model of education.
As stated previously in this column, Finland is perceived to have the best education system in the world. Every week, a Thai Airways flight takes off for Helsinki, catapulting yet another delegation of Thai academics into the small European country on fact-finding missions. The idea is to learn from the best and apply it to here.
And it’s true. Their education system yields the best results and is often spoken about in education conferences here. But this is the irony; Finland is an education system that is fast doing away with examinations. They are not into competition; rather they are into identifying the lower-performing students and closing the gap between them and the high-performing ones. There is no test to get into schools, and no tests throughout your school life! Even more radical is that they are tossing up the idea of doing away with subjects altogether, and employing a more holistic approach to learning.
They stress fun and games for primary school kids, challenging them through social interaction and identifying their own personal skill sets. It’s incredible; with no formal national testing, Finland has churned out a collective student who is smarter than the rest of the world.
They are not just smart; they are happier, too.
And speaking of happiness, congratulations again to that child resting in the crook of his father’s arm, who got into Chula.
It is not just the other 1,900 kids I worry about. Sitting there at number 1,901 on the list of failures, or perhaps more rightly at number one, is the system itself.
By Andrew Biggs
Chai grew up on a small plot of farmland 30 km outside of the town of Kalasin.
His childhood was that of waking up, planting rice and vegetables, going to school, coming home, planting rice and vegetables again. Rinse and repeat.
It was a circle. That’s how Chai himself described it, drawing one with his hands.
“A circle every day,” he said. “The circle made me really tired. I wanted to leave.”
He said this circle happened from birth up until the age of 16. When it was off-season for rice harvesting his parents left Chai with his grandmother and went to Bangkok looking for itinerant work. One year, when he was 10, they didn’t come back for three years. What little money they made from selling rice and vegetables went to paying off debts incurred by his absent parents to local loan sharks.
I know all this from one afternoon, when Chai sat with me as I corrected 200 test papers. He worked with us for two weeks, a friend of a full-time staffer. Chai came to my attention when I told him to go to the coffee stand and get me a cup of tea. He came back with a mug of hot coffee with a tea bag in it.
“What are your goals in life?” I asked him, more to alleviate the tedium of correcting test paper number ninety-seven than a curiosity as to what kind of dreams a young man would have from such a background (particularly one who doesn’t understand what constitutes a cup of tea).
“I want to go to Korea,” he shot back. “It’s been my dream since I was a child. I don’t know how it will happen, but that is my dream.”
Why travel so far? One can escape mundane rural life by moving to a city like, say, Bangkok.
“No,” he said. “I want to live in Korea.”
Chai, like so many Thai millennials, grew up with Korean soap operas and mini-series on Thai TV.
The country is in the iron grip of a 15-year Korean fad. I have been here long enough to see Thailand go through many such phases.
When I first arrived in 1989 it was in its farang craze, that is, loving all thing western. This morphed into the luk-khreung craze, where all the models and movie stars were half Thai and half-something else.
This was a cultural about-face since before that, half-Thais were looked down upon. They were lower class; the unwanted children of north-eastern prostitutes and American soldiers. Boy did that perception turn around quickly, until they were eclipsed by the Japanese craze of the 1990s and early noughties. Then Korea stepped in.
Korean soap operas are produced with a much higher budget and quality than local soapies. They are often period pieces set in ancient palaces with all the associated scandals amid regal splendor.
The very first Korean TV series that captured the heart of the nation was the story of Dae Jum Geung, a woman in a Korean palace of a few hundred years ago. It was on Channel 3 every night at 6 pm and the whole nation was glued to it.
That had to be around 2005 because I was doing a morning TV show at the time. It went to air at 6 am on Channel 3. I remember going to give a speech at a school where the teacher had teased the kids the day before saying at morning assembly: “Tomorrow we are going to have a visitor whom you all know, because this person appears on Channel 3 every day at 6 o’clock.” The children were frenzied with excitement upon hearing this — until I turned up. They thought they were getting the actress who played Dae Jung Keung, who went to air at the “other” 6 o’clock.
Chai remembers that series very well. “It made me fall in love with Korea. And now I want to live there,” he said.
“What do you want to do there?”
That threw him a little. “Work.”
“But what work do you want to do?”
“You need to learn a trade,” I said, wise older person that I was. “Then you can find work over there.”
Chai smiled. “Not necessary. I will just Robin Hood.”
That sentence may confuse non-Thais, but in fact everybody in Thailand knows what it means. No, it’s not the guy who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. In Thailand, “Robin Hood” is a verb. It means “to go to another country on a holiday visa but upon getting there find work and stay for as long as you possibly can without getting caught by authorities.”
There are Robin-Hooding Thais in America who have been there for decades. “Robin Hood” also explains why Thais get what they perceive to be a rough deal by immigration authorities in countries such as the United States … and Korea. Chai’s decision to “Robin Hood” to Korea may be grammatically abhorrent, but it’s a very common behavior.
Two weeks after our conversation Chai collected his pay and left us. He kept in contact via his friend who was my staff member for a while. He got a job at a call center in Huai Khwang. A month later he was waiting tables at a Central World restaurant. Three weeks later he was at a car sales office in Ramkhamhaeng.
Six months passed, as did Chai from my life.
It was exactly one week ago that I was sitting with my staff when I asked: “Whatever happened to your friend Chai?”
“He’s living in Korea,” he said.
“How on earth did he manage that?” I asked.
My staff member rolled his eyes. “He says he saved up the money himself,” he said. “But I know the truth. He got his mother to sell a plot of land in Kalasin for 100,000 baht.”
It was clear my staff member wasn’t happy with Chai’s decision.
“No need to be jealous,” I said. “He is living his dream, and you should admire him for that.”
“Admire him?” My staffer was incredulous.
“Yes, admire him. Let me tell you something. In this life, you have to follow your dreams. Chai had a dream to leave the toil and suffering of his life in Kalasin, and that’s what he did.”
My staff shot me a “that’s what you think” look, and brought out his smart phone.
He showed me Chai’s Facebook page. He flicked through selfies of his arrival at Suvarnabhumi, checking in, going through security, sitting on the plane. How young people can think such pictures are of any interest to others is beyond me.
There was a Facebook Live video of his arrival at Seoul airport. It went for 35 long minutes.
“And now, look at this,” said my staffer.
The most recent post is Chai wearing a balaclava and clutching a hoe. He stands in a field of cabbages along with a raggedly bunch of other workers.
The caption reads: “Freezing here! Going to work in the fields at nearly zero degrees! I don’t know if I’m going to make it. How about giving me some encouragement?”
Chai has fulfilled his dream. He broke the circle just as he wished.
He replaced back-breaking tedious farmwork in the stifling heat of Kalasin with back-breaking tedious farmwork in the freezing cold of Korea. Chai didn’t break the circle … he completed it.
NOT DEAF, VERY DUMB
By Andrew Biggs
There has been a commotion this past week in the media over the appearance of two attractive young westerners begging for money at a Khlong Toey intersection.
Just four days ago The Bangkok Post published a photograph of one of them, a woman, clutching a bunch of Thai flags and trying to flog them off car window to car window. There was a man as well.
Why were they begging? Why were they so attractive? And most importantly to the authorities — did they have work permits?
It wasn’t just the Bangkok Post that spotted these two. Your favorite columnist came face to face with them almost a whole week before they hit the media!
It was Friday morning, December 1, and I was on Kasemrat Road waiting for the lights to turn red at the Rama 4 Road T-junction.
I was sitting in the back of my stately automobile while my driver and personal assistant sat in the front. My PA was playing a popular luk thung song over the car stereo system. Normally I would never allow the likes of hired help to control my own car’s playlist, but he was playing one particular song because he “thought I might be interested in it from a language point of view.”
It’s a song sung by a young Thai country singer who bemoans the fact he cannot speak English and thus cannot pick up western girls. To rub salt into the wound, all the pretty Thai girls he knows aren’t interested in him on account of their desire to hook up with foreign men.
(A terrible cop-out; this singer, even dressed up in his glittery rhinestone-studded jacket and posing to a camera with gauze stretched over its lens, has a face only his mother would love. A little less kabuki make-up along with a jar or two of protein powder may yield better results than an English conversation course.)
The name of the song is Ai Khui Bor Khaeng which is truly ingenious, revealing the Thai people’s wicked sense of humor. It means “I Don’t Speak English Well,” but really it is a lewd play on words. When sung quickly, it sounds very much like “My Penis Isn’t Erect”. To date it has racked up nearly a million hits on YouTube proving that toilet humor is universal.
That is how I remember the sudden appearance of the western beggar.
“I Don’t Speak English Well” was blaring out of the speakers, my PA explaining how one particular Thai vowel turns the linguistic lament into a paean to erectile dysfunction, when I was aware of the appearance of a street beggar clutching paper Thai flags.
He was in his early twenties, looking healthy, and much better-looking than the runt singing that double-entendre country song. He looked as though he’d hopped a bus from Khaosan Road to Khlong Toei.
And he stopped at each car lined up at the red light, handing over a Thai flag with a small slip of paper.
“Wind down the window!” I bellowed at my driver. “And turn down that godawful song!”
Both orders bore instant fruit. As my driver wound down his window, the smiling young >>farang<< passed a Thai flag to my driver along with the slip of paper before walking off.
In perfect Thai, the printed message read:
“Hello. I’m a deaf man. I’m selling this flag for 100 Baht so I can save up enough money to buy a hearing aid. Can you help me?”
A deaf guy? Saving up to buy an earphone?
Yeah right. And I’m a Saudi prince.
“He doesn’t look deaf,” said my PA immediately. “He’s too handsome to be deaf.”
There was no time to berate my PA for his un-PC views on the disabled, even if he did have a point. I was more offended by anyone, regardless of aural affliction, flogging a 20 baht Thai flag for five times its price.
Within 30 seconds the allegedly hearing-impaired beggar was back.
“Hand it back,” I barked to my driver, to which he wound down the window and obeyed. The man took it back and was gone.
I do regret that last order; had my stinginess and outrage over the inflated flag not marred my judgment, I would have purchased it then and there to use as evidence for this column.
But that wasn’t the end of it.
As the lights changed and we moved forward onto Rama 4 Road, I realized the guy wasn’t alone. There was another foreigner peddling the overpriced flags — a very attractive blonde woman.
“Look at her!” my PC exclaimed as we whizzed past. “So many attractive deaf people today!”
It really was a jarring experience on so many levels.
We foreigners do behave badly over here so often. Didn’t we just have two gay guys baring their buttocks at a temple? Now even the deaf ones are playing up.
It’s certainly not the first time I’ve spotted westerners standing on the streets of Khlong Toei doing things that people of sane mind would never think to perform.
Now and again there are religious types, foreigners who stand on the side of the road with a loud speaker attached to a long pole, blaring out messages about how we should repent our sins and turn to Jesus because he is the Lord.
It takes a special kind of nutcase to stand in the blazing heat amid petrol fumes, holding a pole with a speaker extolling the virtues of Jesus — or rather, the peril of not doing so. These poor souls have nothing going for them; being religious types, they naturally don’t possess the physical beauty we saw in those two faux deaf backpackers. Anyone lacking sexual appeal needs something to clutch onto in life, hence the religious poles.
They may be wacky, but the fresh-faced youngsters clutching flags are worse.
They are taking advantage of the kind nature of Thais. Here in this Buddhist country there is the notion of “making merit”, or doing something altruistic in order to create good karma.
My next door neighbour, for instance, is a very elegant lady with never a hair out of place and always immaculately dressed.
I just found out she spends one morning each weekend cleaning out the toilets of the local temple. It’s something she does for no other reason than to perform a good deed. Buddhism promotes this kindness and self-sacrifice.
So when young people get it into their heads that it would be great to play on the generosity of the locals by faking a disability, I get a little angry. I’d take it one step further; even if they are deaf, what right do they have milking motorists of 100 baht in exchange for a cheap flag?
How upside-down is this modern world! Thais are convinced westerners are rich and Thais are poor. But did you notice the cute juxtaposition in the news this week?
On the day these two impoverished foreigners were out plying the streets, deputy prime minister Pravit Wongsuwan was being held to task for being photographed wearing a Richard Mille wristwatch. It retails for up to 10 million baht.
These two deaf foreigners want hearing aids? They should quit their street side antics right this minute and join the Thai army.
By Andrew Biggs
This week’s tale of pretentiousness and warped social mores begins in the sleepy seaside town of Hua Hin.
Sleepy seaside town? Such was the description of Hua Hin when I first made a stop there a quarter of a century ago, but now?
There’s nothing “sleepy” or even “seaside” about the place.
It’s a beach town where you can’t see the beach. The main road doesn’t run parallel to it; I have no idea where a family who decides “I say! Let’s go to the seaside!” would park their car and unpack their pails and spades. That last sentence sounds like I’m living in an Enid Blyton alternative universe, but you get what I mean.
For many years the two major seaside towns were Pattaya and Hua Hin. The former was the racy older sister who flirted with all the boys as she sat on the beach in a thong listening to EDM.
Hua Hin was the pudgy little sister with pigtails and coke-bottle glasses who sat, in her sensible floral one-piece with the bright orange and brown frills, reading Nancy Drew and Black Beauty.
That all changed. Pattaya is still the same, though at her age she should be thinking about settling down, while Hua Hin? She has turned positively metrosexual, giving up the semi-rural beach atmosphere for colossal condo projects, five-star resorts and high-class malls.
My sister arrived for New Year with her family, including two children who are going through their angst-ridden teen years. I thought perhaps that having a hipster uncle in Bangkok, Thailand, might score points for me on the cool scale. Nope. Bottomless computer screen more preferable.
My sister berated me for taking her to Hua Hin because I sold it to her as a “nice quiet holiday”. It didn’t help that my niece had just returned from Florida, USA. “This place looks like Miami,” she said as I took them for a leisurely drive.
“Hardly a seaside town,” replied my nephew, 14, in a tone so dry I reached for my water bottle containing liquid far more spirited than my nephew and niece would ever be.
On that cloudy day we ended up in a brand new upmarket shopping center, just down from Market Village, another shopping center. Yes, Hua Hin requires two mega-malls, otherwise what is one to do in a beach city without access to a beach?
Driving into the car park, the first thing I came across was a partitioned area, with an absence of cars, and a sign: SUPERCAR PARKING.
Supercars … in Hua Hin?
“Does Superman shop here?” my sister asked, sitting with me in the front.
I came to a stop right in front of the sign. A security guard saw me slow down and immediately rushed over, blowing his whistle and pointing off stage somewhere. The message was clear; move on, riff-raff.
I drive a Teana, dear reader. Yes, that’s right, a luxury car … sort of. It’s a Teana from 2008 so yes, there are a few scratches and nicks, the tyres are bald, and that strange rattle in the engine refuses to go away.
Nevertheless it is still a Teana. It’s good enough for the security guards at the entrance to my housing village to salute it. Upon entering and leaving they stand to attention, click their heels and salute. This became a bone of contention a while back when my car was being serviced and I happened to walk out of the housing village, past those security guards. Both young men looked up at me as I passed. Not a salute. Not a stand to attention. Not a click of heels. It gave me the uneasy revelation that they are not saluting me on any given day — they are saluting my car.
But there we were, my family in my banged-up Teana, with a security guard blowing a whistle at me.
This provoked the worst reaction of all — my nephew and niece looked up from their smart phones.
“He doesn’t want you to park there,” said my niece.
“Not necessarily,” I snapped back.
“Then why is he blowing that whistle and pointing?” asked my nephew.
The truth is, I was never intent on parking in the SUPERCAR zone. I merely wanted to take a picture of the sign. Foolish me. Now I had people, both inside and out, clutching whistles and smart phones, assuming I wanted to park there.
“I thought you said you were famous here,” my nephew muttered, in droll teenaged tone.
“I never said anything of the sort. And what’s that got to do with anything?”
“A famous person would be allowed to park there.”
“Not if he was in a Vios. Isn’t there a Candy Crush or Angry Bird you have to get back to?”
Then I realized; the security guard wasn’t blowing his whistle and pointing me away. He was pointing me into a vacant car space, directly opposite the SUPERCAR PARKING sign. Of all the embarrassment; not only am I not allowed to park there … I have the humiliating vista of looking at the empty spaces, like some beggar standing outside a palace!
What has happened to Thailand? One of the big news stories doing the rounds at present is about our deputy prime minister, Prawit Wongsuwan. Now remember this government is not in power via an election. It stormed its way in, screaming about the rampant corruption of the prior administration and swearing to eradicate all corruption in a zero-tolerance campaign.
Therefore it doesn’t look good when General Prawit is the owner of 24 extremely expensive watches, all of which he claims were given to him by friends. Where on earth can I find friends like that?
You just know that, somewhere in his dressing parlour, General Prawit has a small sign attached to a gilt-handled drawer that reads SUPERWATCHES.
It’s not just the anti-corruption crusaders who are basking in luxury. It was revealed, in 2016, that one of the strongest contenders for the position of Supreme Patriarch in this country was an avid collector of high-end cars. He had a Mercedes W186, one of 6,757 cars investigated by DSI police that year on suspicion of tax evasion.
Monks in Supercars — sounds like a Russ Meyer movie. If ever the monk has a sermon to deliver in Hua Hin, I know just the place where he can park.
Our values are all upside down. When I build my first strip mall, I’m going to make a sign that says SUPERINTELLIGENT PARKING. Don’t laugh, dear reader. Surely a mall full of smart people discussing things rationally and scientifically is a more desirable shopping experience than one full of rich luddites in fancy cars.
And wannabes. This week I was at the Emporium when, as I entered the place, I noticed that they, too, have a stretch of car park devoted to SUPERCAR PARKING. There was not a single space available, and as I walked past I counted two Bentleys in a row, two top-of-the-range Mercedes Benz cars, then finally one Lexus.
One … what?
I swear to god. There was a Lexus parked right there in the SUPERCAR parking amidst the Bentleys and Mercedes Benz.
I was filled with uncontrollable rage. A Lexus?! And some security guard with a whistle in his mouth was telling me in my Teana to move on?
My beloved Thailand … where corruption hunters sport one of two-dozen million-baht watches. Where ethereal abbots hord the finest of material possessions. Where supercar slots are filled with Lexus cars, if filled at all.
I absolutely love it.
STREET FOOD, STREET CARNAGE
By Andrew Biggs
There are two categories where you can find Thailand sitting at the top of the world charts.
The first is for street food. There isn’t another country in the world that can match the variety and quantity of what is peddled roadside here. CNN has lauded Thailand, in particular Bangkok, for the best street food in the world. So has Conde Nast Traveller, Virtual Tourist, Skyscanner … the secret is out.
The second category where we have clinched pole position is in road fatalities.
For years we languished at number 2. That all changed late 2017 when it was announced we had finally taken over the top spot with a road death rate of 36.2 per 100,000. On that dubious chart, Thailand is followed by Malawi, Liberia, The Congo, Tanzania … hardly the type of countries you would bring home to meet Mother, and we managed to top them all.
There you have it. Two world number ones for Thailand – street food and road fatalities.
A person unfamiliar with the way we do things in Thailand may find it a little curious, perhaps, to learn that the powers-that-be have cracked down on, and taken major steps to eradicate, exactly one of those two categories. And it ain’t road fatalities.
There has been fervor in the way the government has blotted out the lower classes wheeling their street carts onto the footpath. They cite “social order” and “adherence to the law” as the reasons — their words, not mine.
“Social order” and “adherence to the law” are laudable aspirations, but talk about skewed priorities. I wonder how a stout middle-aged woman selling fried noodles is a greater danger to “social order” than, say, a drunken meth-head racing his motorbike home at 140 km an hour after two bottles of rice whiskey.
This column was written last Thursday, at the close of “Seven Dangerous Days” as the police call it. This is the period between December 28 and January 3 where fatalities are at their peak.
Actually there are “Fourteen Dangerous Days” in Thailand. The period over Songkran in April has its own “Seven Dangerous Days” as well. We don’t bundle them together because it’s nearly half a month and that may frighten away some of those 30 million tourists who visit Thailand annually. And anyway … just the fourteen? When you’re number one in the world it’s “365 Dangerous Days,” isn’t it?
Last year almost 500 people were killed in the seven-day New Year period. As I write this the figures are in for Day Six and 375 are dead, which means this year’s toll will end up around the 450 mark. That’s less than last year.
One wonders if the road safety folk will be smiling and patting each other on the back over that. It does remind me of the 2010-2011 “Seven Dangerous Days” when, the week prior to the start, the then-police chief ordered a death toll of “no more than 300.”
Imagine that: “I want to see 300 dead bodies lined up outside my office by the end of the week and no more!” It ended up at 358.
This week the Probation Department hit us with the most telling statistic of all; that drunk-driving cases accounted for 90% of traffic offences over the New Year Holiday period. We can safely say that the one, single, solitary reason we kill each other in such huge numbers is alcohol.
Whatever you do don’t show that above paragraph to the powers that be. They will use it as a tool to continue what has been a litany of misguided campaigns over alcohol in this country. Those campaigns are nothing but half-measures up against an inherent culture of drinking-till-you-drop.
As I drive into the city on the freeway, I see the same tired old billboard that depicts a New Year’s basket with a bottle of alcohol inside. “GIVING ALCOHOL IS AKIN TO CURSING THE RECIPIENT!” it shouts, as if somehow this is going to reduce the road toll. By January each year it disappears so we can all get on with our lives — except for those who were killed over New Year.
Meanwhile police are “cracking down” by seizing the cars of drivers found to be drunk. This is not a crack-down. This is common sense!
The cops are quick to point out that the cars will be returned after the holiday period. Well thank goodness for that. How is a drunkard expected to get around without his vehicle? It must be a relief for the country’s burgeoning drunk-driver population to know that they can quickly get their cars back and continue their behavior in peace.
There are other admirable but futile attempts, such as a law forbidding alcohol to be sold between 2 pm and 5 pm in order to stop people drinking during that time. Or no alcohol to be sold within a radius of 1 km of schools or temples to stop students and Buddhists from drinking. Whoever thought up these laws no doubt still puts their teeth under pillows for the tooth fairy to collect.
Absolutely everything implemented to reduce the death toll in this country has been a failure, because they are really just skirting the big issue: Nobody is afraid to drink and drive.
Towards the top of this column I mentioned Thailand having an inherent culture of drinking-till-you-drop. I, too, come from such a culture. We Australians are big drinkers, and yet our road toll, per head, is way lower than that of Thailand’s.Is it because we are smarter than Thais? Good lord no. It’s because we are afraid.
One of the dubious claims to fame of my state, Queensland, in the 1970s and early 1980s was its high road toll. There was a reluctance to accept the correlation between guzzling bottles of Bundaberg Rum and Fourex beer, often at the same time, then getting behind the wheel and driving home. Queensland is the only state with more rural folk than city dwellers which, like Thailand, is where the majority of drunken accidents occur
Queensland continued along in its alcoholic daze until someone in government looked at the road toll – and health care costs -- and decided something had to be done.
The cops got tough on drink drivers, starting random breath testing and dropping the legal blood alcohol limit to 0.05. Anybody could get pulled over and if they were over the limit, they lost their licence. As simple as that. No giving it back after the holiday. It was gone for at least three months.
Judges lost their licenses. So did politicians. Even the cops! We all knew somebody who fell foul of the law and lost their privilege — not right — to drive. It was only this fear of hitting a random breath testing stop that made us curtail our behavior.
Here in Thailand such a heavy crack-down would be greeted with howls of dissent. Losing your license? Then how on earth are you supposed to make a living? What about the poor rural folk, whose very lives depend on their vehicles?
The answer is: Tough. You drink-drive, you lose your license. Next.
One day – one day – somebody high up in the Thai government will cotton onto this simple fact. The road toll remains high as long as repercussions remain low. Tough cops, tough laws and a strong educational campaign about drink-driving really does work, even on us Queenslanders.
And it’s not as though there is any place to set up roadside breathalyzer stations. Look at all that space on the sidewalks.
ONCE YOU GO WHITE ...
By Andrew Biggs
Deadlines can be merciless things.
I have a weekly deadline for this column to which I strictly adhere, and just writing that sentence makes me peer ominously out the window for fear of a lightning bolt splitting me asunder.
Like all journalists, your favorite columnist must send this column in at a specific time and day, and if I am a little late, then my editor turns into a monster.
I am telling you this because a news story dropped literally hours after I’d sent last week’s well-honed and polished column. It was a story so outrageous I almost prostrated myself before my editor, asking her for another day to churn out another twelve hundred words on it. Alas deadlines, like editors, are merciless.
I am talking about the story that did the rounds of the world media about Thailand becoming the hub for penis lightening.
Yes, the world media. In fact the only two Thai news stories that made CNN and BBC last week were penile bleaching and the Prime Minister telling reporters to ask questions to a cardboard cut-out of himself – two separate cases of white-washing for the world to see.
Before we begin let me get two things off my chest. First, owing to the sexual nature of this topic, I will not bow to cheap journalism and litter this column with double-entendres. I noticed one news agency snuck one in, reporting that social networks had been “aroused” by the story. Good one, ha ha, I get it, but you won’t find any such verbal ejaculations in this column.
Second, there is a strong reason for my bringing up a news story from seven days ago, which in the journalistic world is an eternity.
Back in 2015 I reported on an ad on Thai TV for a roll-on deodorant whose express purpose was to whiten your armpits. I thought I’d seen everything until that ad.
In it, a Thai teenage girl is in a terrible quandary. On the skytrain an allegedly handsome Thai teenage guy walks past her and notices her armpits are dark. She may as well have had buck teeth and a bung eye. The cute guy throws her a disapproving scowl. You can see it in his face: “No sex with her tonight … looks like it’s just me and the smart phone again.”
Then she undergoes a radical transformation. After she has used the roll-on deodorant, we see her raging away at some concert, flinging those arms about, revealing lily-white armpits, proof that indeed all you need is to be light underneath your arms to be beautiful. And look! There’s the cute guy, raging away next to her. Exactly how did he manage to hook up with her at the concert? And since when have Thai girls favored stalker boys with underarm fetishes?
It has always been a personal mission of mine when teaching English to erase the commonly-held notion that light skin is good and black skin is bad. My mission has been an abject failure; I may as well stand on the beach and tell a tsunami to stop.
What is “suncream” in my home country of Australia is touted as skin whitener or lightener in Thailand, despite being the same product. Ads for these products bombard Thai TV sets with the clear message that good things happen in your life when you are “white”.
The ads are akin to Before and After shots for weight loss centers. Dark-skinned pretty girl sits at home alone listening to Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” on endless loop. Thank goodness for Ponds! Praise you, Revlon! The girl is now white and happy, frolicking in Siam Square with Thai guys whose hormones are raging for white.
In 2015 I hypothesized that the armpit was the last nook and cranny left on the body for skin cream companies to exploit. It looks like I was wrong. Again.
Thailand is now the “hub” for men who wish to lighten their penises. At least that is how the world media reported it last week, and it begs the questions — who are these men and what’s gotten into them?
Call me ignorant, but I had absolutely no idea there was an industry devoted to such a thing. The same week, CNN did a report on Venezuela being the new world hub for “butt-lifts”. As ludicrous as that is, I do get that one. Everybody sees your butt. Who sees your white penis?
I did a google search and indeed, “penile bleaching” as it is known is out there. I can’t imagine the pain of rubbing bleach on one’s nether regions. It reminds me of that one time I chopped up chilies before answering the call of nature, and the searing pain of the ensuing hour.
Actually it’s not bleach as in peroxide. It’s a laser treatment. “We use small lasers,” the female doctor who administers the treatment explained in a media interview with AFP. Sorry, lady, small or big, it’s a laser on my private parts, and that still makes me cross my legs while typing this.
How is a dark member a bad thing, especially for the younger guys who are taking advantage of the service? I was told millennials make love in the dark, the only exception being while filming the act on their smartphone for their Twitter followers.
And yet, dark-membered Thais are allegedly rushing to have it done. Or so says the place performing this service, Lelux Hospital, a skin care clinic with three branches in Nonthaburi and Bangkok. The treatment costs 20,000 Baht and requires five trips to the clinic before one starts to really look opaque. The clinic claims 100 men have done it. And this is what we call a “world hub”?
What are the possible positive benefits of a light-colored member?
This question forced me to do some painstaking research on the internet. This being a family newspaper, I will not want to dwell on the details, suffice to say not once, in the hundreds of pages I researched and videos I watched, was there a single mention or desire for a “light penis”. In fact if anything, there seemed an inordinate demand for phalluses of an opposite color, the very color Lelux is trying to eradicate, but we are getting off topic.
This is not the first time the genitalia of Thai men has hit in the media. A Thai doctor friend once regaled a group of us over a pad thai dinner about another curious trend from five years ago that again made me cross my legs under the rickety restaurant table.
Apparently there are quacks who dress in white gowns and visit rural villages offering to enhance the size of men’s organs through the injection of silicone. This has been reported in the media from time to time. The problem is that silicone sets hard, and often not in the desired shape. As he graphically explained over pad thai, he has seen young men with disfigured members as the silicone shifted awkwardly to the right, or ended up like the petals of a flower, rendering the penis unusable.
Still we can’t leave the thing alone. Penis lightening feels like nothing more than a manufactured attempt to strike at the very insecurity of so many men over the size and shape of their members, thanks to marketers and businesses who remind us, out of the blue, of the perils of dark underarms for girls and dark appendages for boys. And we wonder why we’re all screwed up these days. Excuse the cheap, and dark, double-entendre.
CROSS ABOUT WIRES
By Andrew Biggs
An important high-level meeting this week resulted in my being driven down Sukhumvit Road from the Ploenchit intersection all the way to Asoke.
This was largely due to my driver taking a wrong turn.
How I would dearly love to extrapolate on this minor point, focusing on the shortcomings of the Thai education system that fails to equip some Thais with the necessary knowledge to read maps. How else do I explain my driver, despite Google Maps shouting directions from his phone in clear Thai to “turn left at the off-ramp”, still turning right?
I will not extrapolate on that point because I have a new resolution not to say anything bad about my staff, even when they commit despicable acts of stupidity. Suffice to say, that is where I ended up — sailing down Sukhumvit Soi 3 towards Asoke in furious silence.
That Soi 3 corner used to be dubbed “Soi Kremlin” owing to the large number of heavily-made-up young Russian women who hung around asking passing male strangers for a light.
They are gone; although across the street is the famous and still-thriving Nana Plaza where doctors recommend hepatitis vaccine shots prior, and delousing after, any excursion near the vicinity. Workers included.
It was while I was sitting in the back of my car that I glanced out the window and realized something was amiss.
I haven’t been down that part of Sukhumvit for a while on the street level. But as I looked out, starting at Soi Kremlin, I realized there was something not quite right about the road.
Something was out of place … something, I daresay, a little sinister.
There is a great conspiracy theory out there on the net called the Mandela Effect. It states that our collective memories have been altered owing to glitches in the fabric of the universe.
Some put it down to CERN’s Hadron Collider experiments. We all believe something happened in the past when really it didn’t. Americans, for instance, are convinced they grew up reading books about the “Berenstein Bears” when in fact, it is spelt and pronounced “Berenstain.” The Queen in the Snow White movie says “Magic Mirror on the wall,” not “Mirror Mirror on the wall” as we all remember it to be.
That is the feeling I had on Sukhumvit this week. It was the same old Sukhumvit I’d known and abhorred all these years and yet … and yet …
The tailor shops were still there. So were the souvenir shops and overpriced restaurants. Had this trip been around 2 or 3 in the morning I might even have seen a gaggle of Russian girls hanging out for a cigarette lighter.
I wondered what the slight change had been that made the roadside look a little skew-whiff, a word my astute grandmother often used, especially when describing me.
Then it hit me.
The power lines.
They were gone.
Like most Thai streets Sukhumvit Road is normally a cacophony of inter-dispersed overlapping cables just above head level, though drooping dangerously close to the crowns of those of us exceeding a height of 180cm. The very top of the electricity poles are electricity lines; moving on down are telephone wires and, at the very bottom of the wire hierarchy, internet cables. The bottom ones are the ones that resemble dusty black spaghetti.
The actual poles belong to the Metropolitan Electricity Authority which rents out the space on them to the likes of TOT, Dtac, AIS and True to hang their wires.
Along Sukhumvit those poles are bare now. In fact they are completely gone! There is a renegade wire strung across the entrance to Soi 11 but to be honest, the change is quite staggering. Clearly they have been sent underground.
That was yesterday. As I write this column I am again in the back of my high-end sedan, my driver blazing forth down Srinakharin, confident he will make no mistake in navigation thanks to an absence of any turns whatsoever.
Srinakharin Road is another major roadway clogged with cars and three-tiered dusty black spaghetti. As we approached the Pattanakarn intersection there was one pole so overburdened with wires it was edging close to collapse.
This wire chaos is very Thai. It is almost an inherent part of any Bangkok street’s persona. This was confirmed back in June, 2016, when Bill Gates made a lightning visit to Bangkok.
In his short time in the capital he could have snapped any number of delightful vistas, such as the view from his Penthouse suite over the bustling Chao Phraya River as colorful long-tailed boats plied the waves.
Perhaps he could have snapped glorious Wat Arun, or the regal splendor of the Grand Palace.
No. He snapped the dusty black spaghetti instead.
He posted a pic on Facebook of our notorious wires. But Gates made a blunder – a lesser-sophisticated columnist might say he got his wires crossed — and said despite so many electricity lines there were still lots of blackouts.
First of all, they weren’t electricity lines he’d snapped. And second, Bangkok didn’t have a problem with blackouts.
These were facts the incompetent upper echelons of civil service responsible for power were quick to point out and jump up and down and high-five one-another with glee, the most energy they’d exuded since receiving their acceptance letter into the Thai civil service all those decades ago.
Nevertheless the damage had been done; the world had seen what we Bangkokians see on a daily basis.
How coincidental is this; despite decades of inaction getting these cables underground, not one month after the Gates pic, the government announced a 50-billion baht plan to put all cables underground on 40 roads in and around Bangkok. I am in the process of sending Bill Gates a list of other things to photograph next time he hits Suvarnabhumi in order to get those things done.
The fruits of Bill Gates’ trip have manifested themselves along Sukhumvit Road. The wires have gone. There is an expansiveness about the road; all the way from Nana to Asoke, you can look up and see a sky no longer marred by black wires —shame about the big concrete BTS up there but hey, it’s still an improvement.
For old expats, the change is uncomfortable. We’re so used to seeing disarray. There was a light at the end of the tunnel, literally, as we reached the Asoke intersection. Asoke still hasn’t been cleaned up, and dare I say it; there was a sense of warm familiarity as we were greeted with the twisting black eyesores suspended above the heads of scurrying pedestrians. Back to the Bangkok we know and love — how I missed you for a minute there!
Sukhumvit is a far cry from what it was even a year or so ago. The sidewalks are cleaner and wider and easier to traverse. It is orderly and open, at least on the outbound side.
It’s not just Soi Kremlin that’s gone, either.
Gone are the back-to-back street stalls selling exhaustive arrays of colorful trinkets and clothes amid makeshift stalls lit by stark light bulbs. Gone are the hagglers, the tricksters, the Burmese touts, the deaf vendors, the tourists in African garb, the calculators into which inflated opening prices are punched.
All that scrambling humanity pushing and shoving for attention. Gone.
And in its place?
Well, look at it now. It’s all tidied up thanks to government initiatives and Bill Gates.
It is cleaner and much easier to access.
In fact it is now a normal-looking street like you’d find anywhere else in the world.
And that, dear reader, is the big big problem.
CHAOS AND HERMES HANDBAGS
By Andrew Biggs
This is the story of a Hermes handbag, an ageing academic and an overzealous police force. It is a story that one hopes will end in common sense, but then again I hope to win the lottery on the first of next month.
Let’s begin with the cops. Here in Thailand we have a special division of police officers whose task it is to crack down on cyber crime. What constitutes cyber crime is laid out in the shadowy Thailand Computer Crime Act of 11 years ago, but it doesn’t just encompass clear-cut cases such as forgery and theft.
This is the law that can wind you up in jail for liking the wrong Facebook post. In other words, you can go to prison for thinking you agree with something.
The law states it is illegal to post anything on the net that disrupts society. I get that. We want Thailand to be stable and prosperous, but pray tell — how does one define social disruption? Seriously. Taylor Swift’s last album was positively awful — every time that hideous lead single hit the airwaves it disrupted my life, and others I’m sure. Does she get arrested on her next world tour?
The key words are “disruption” and “panic”, and how those words are defined and subsequently acted upon is the task of the cyber cops over at the Technology Crime Suppression Division.
These are not police officers busting wife beaters and bank robbers. In the hierarchy of desired departments I bet they’re right up the top. It can’t be too taxing trawling Facebook all day for those heinous “likes”, in between a few rounds of RoV and Candy Crush.
They have a website where the home page boldly welcomes you to the “TECHNOLOGY CRIME SUPPRESS DIVISION”. You would think being so close to Google they could investigated correct English grammar.
It features a cute cartoon of a young man photoshopping the face of another guy onto the head of a dog. The door to his bedroom flies open and there’s the Thought Police – I beg your pardon … a Technology Crime ‘Suppress’ Division officer standing in the door frame, casting a long and stark dark brown shadow. To me the crime is not as big a deal as the fact a cop can get to his house so quickly. The last time I dialed 911 I had time to make myself a sandwich – and toast it in the pie iron.
On the website there are other short cartoons. Check them out; it’s at tcsd.go.th and in each of them, a young man at a computer is slandering, cut-and-pasting, or bullying on his computer anonymously. Ah but there is nothing anonymous about the internet thanks to the aforesaid law. I know that from frequenting Starbucks. By the time I’ve filled in my personal details to enable free wifi, my Toffee Nut Iced Latte With Extra Whipped Cream has gone lukewarm.
As the cartoons show, no matter what evil you may be up to, a TCPD officer is just around the corner ready to slap handcuffs on you.
(And for some inexplicable reason, those perpetrators are depicted as the nerdiest of guys. Every single one of them wears glasses, has unkempt brown hair and is noticeably pudgy, as opposed to the slender cartoon men in figure-hugging brown arresting them.)
Cyber crime is a massive problem all around the world. Heck, the Russians elected Donald Trump! Tracking down cyber criminals engaging in larceny and fraud should be the number two priority of the TCPD. They need to fix up that grammatical error in their name first.
The trouble is that’s not happening. That cyber law has morphed into a political tool. Who decides what constitutes a threat of panic and disorder? Is there a committee for that? As was suggested in this column last week, democracy-eschewing army generals are a little like party politicians. They need all the help they can get, especially when a hostile population starts growing tired of their shenanigans.
And this is where the handbag and the ageing academic enter our story.
As you probably know, the government is currently playing a waiting game with the general public over the scandal of deputy prime minister Pravit Wongsuwan’s two dozen very expensive wristwatches. It was right after that controversy erupted back in early January that a 77-year-old retired academic posted a picture of the Prime Minister and his wife, the latter holding a Hermes handbag. “Thai leaders must look expensive, not cheap,” he wrote in both Thai and English.
The comment immediately drew dozens of “likes”. It also drew the attention of the TCPD. Sudden end to Candy Crush. Cut to sirens wailing as they raced out to the home of the academic and arrested him on the spot.
Those seven words, according to the TCPD, constituted false information that sowed panic and disorder in society. Those are their words, not mine.
False information? The academic was hardly telling a lie. Since when has a Thai leader ever looked cheap? Certainly we’ve had some frugal ones — Chuan Leekpai and Chamlong Srimuang come to mind — but you could hardly describe them as “cheap”.
More surprising was the allegation that his comment “sowed panic and disorder in society.”
I remember the day our academic posted that comment. It was January 11, 2018. According to my diary I spent the afternoon in an office with a glass wall overlooking Phrakhanong BTS. I was also there the following day, too, and being on Sukhumvit Road, I was in an excellent position to be an eyewitness to any panic or disorder permeating Thai society.
And yet to me, those days were as chaotic as any other normal day on Sukhumvit Road. About the only panic and disorder that went on was in my mind, trying to fathom how a handbag could bring down Thai society. In my panicked state I can only be thankful Taylor Swift didn’t suddenly waft through the speakers. It does conjure up a bizarre scenario of innocent Thais screaming as they run up and down narrow sois, knocking over somtam carts, panicking uncontrollably, owing to a Hermes handbag.
Is it just a little too easy for a police officer to slap a charge of panic and disorder on an ageing academic, not unlike the way they slap cartoon handcuffs on pudgy nerds photoshopping faces of nemeses onto dogs? One cannot clearly measure and define such things as disorder, making the crime a value judgment.
The academic’s original comment garnered more than 80 “likes” from followers before being taken down. They have all technically broken the law, too, but nobody was arrested. Was it a shortage of staff that prevented 80 cop cars speeding out in all directions on January 11? Or is justice being selective in its punishment?
“It’s a weird experience to be a suspect at nearly 80,” Charnvit Kasetsiri told reporters later.
Actually he is Dr Charnvit, former Thammasat University rector, an esteemed academic who obtained his PhD from Cornell University no less. In other words he’s a smart man who doesn’t like ostentatious displays of wealth — and apparently that is against the law.
Dr Charnvit did do a little backtracking after the initial fiasco, for which he cannot be blamed. But has Thai society come to this? To perceive handbags and retired academics as harbingers of panic and disorder can only be viewed as Orwellian … or worse, Pythonesque.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
HOARY OLD COGS
By Andrew Biggs
The truth and the military make strange bedfellows.
This is not, necessarily, a savage indictment on Thailand’s current military regime. It’s true of any military. When ranked from most important to least, qualities like courage, fortitude, strategy, strength and unity are considered characteristics way, way more important to the military than trifling, annoying tenets such as truth and honesty and, let’s be frank, democracy.
There are two particular characteristics of any military that are on opposite sides of the boxing ring to truth and honesty, and they are power and face. Over in the West we know all about power. We don’t treasure saving face as much as it is treasured in the East, though that’s not to say we are devoid of it. Look at the foot-stomping, dummy-spitting imbecile ruling the White House; any hint of an attack on his character and by god he’s hittin’ that Twitter keypad with all the fury of a woman scorned.
This power and face-saving permeates not only the military but also Thai society, even in these modern, technology-driven times. Any foreigner trying to understand the Thai psyche needs a crash course in Siamese history, plus both an understanding and acceptance that no matter how much the Thai government may bleat about Thailand 4.0, the social psyche remains entrenched in Ayuthaya 2.5.
This was borne out in the last seven days with two big stories.
The first involved Thailand’s Education Minister, Teerakiat Jareonsettasin, or Dr T as we will refer to him today. He’s a real doctor, not an academic, and a psychiatrist no less. He has a platform of educational reform particularly in the field of English language teaching. The man is up against the plodding, slow cogs of the oversized Education Ministry machine, hindering his progress in the many reforms he has instigated, and indeed, a lot of teachers don’t like him for the changes he wishes to implement. The important thing is this: the man is smart. He’s not a military man despite his position … but he is also Thai.
Thus this week, when he was in London, while speaking to a small group of Thai students and businesspeople, he let down his guard and spoke frankly about Thai society. His comments were hardly original or ground-breaking. In fact he was just speaking the truth; saying that unlike England, Thailand was a society where the bigwigs were brazen. If accused of any wrongdoing they didn’t stand down like they do in the West. He referred to the case of the House of Lords member, Michael Bates, who turned up late for Parliament a few minutes late and was unable to answer a question directed to him from the Opposition. He offered his resignation for that, which was turned down by the prime minister.
“But in Thailand, having 25 watches is okay,” he said, referring to Prawit Wongsuwan’s dubious stockpile of top-end timepieces.
Dr T’s comments were spot on. Only a foot-stomping imbecile, the likes of which were referred to above, would think otherwise. And yet this honesty hit the cold metallic wall of the military government, not to mention the well-padded pink walls of Thai culture.
Upon his arrival back at Suvarnabhumi, Dr T probably didn’t bother about trivialities such as Customs and Immigration. Once the wheels hit the tarmac he whisked himself off to Parliament House to prostrate himself before the very man who refuses to budge from his position thanks to his 25 watches.
In a perfect world it would be the other way around, wouldn’t it? “Dr T, forgive me for my transgressions and for not standing down when it was revealed I had not been very complicit in the government’s policy of zero corruption! Let me step down immediately!”
There was even talk of Dr T having to step down for his comments, which didn’t happen, probably because even our military government might have had the wisdom to foresee the loss of face over an Education Minister resigning for telling the truth. He took business leave instead.
As clever as he is, Dr T is still part of a culture — and as minister, part of a regime — that places face and power over truth and honesty. What he did back in Thailand was expected of him and unsurprising.
That meeting, with the Prime Minister and Prawit Wongsuwan, was held right before the weekly Tuesday Cabinet meeting. Dr T didn’t make an appearance at that Cabinet meeting. Nor would I; imagine the glares and muted mutterings as he entered the Cabinet meeting office. Unsurprisingly the Minister for Timepieces was there and probably was welcomed with ingratiating >>wais<< from all and sundry as he swept into the room.
The other example of this curious value system has been running for two weeks now.
It is the case of super-billionaire Premchai Karnasuta being caught red-handed by a struggling parks official from an impoverished family.
Premchai hunted, shot, killed and skinned protected and endangered animals in Thung Yai Naresuan Sanctuary, Karnchanaburi. These included the Black Indochinese Leopard which was skinned. Thanks to park official Wichien Chinnawong’s diligence and — here come those words again — truth and honesty, he managed to get Premchai to a police station.
That in itself is a magnanimous feat in Thailand, where a wealthy person has any number of ways to get himself out of a sticky criminal situation before the cops even get involved.
(Premchai has denied the charges. He’s done nothing wrong by hauling arms, ammunitions and a huge bag of salt into a national park, he says.)
Wichien was lauded by Thais as a national hero. How interesting to see the reaction from the police, though, clearly a little uncomfortable with having to book a powerful billionaire. Nowhere at police academy do they teach them how to do that.
First, the investigation would take 45 days. That seems an inordinate amount of time for a clear cut-and-dried case of poaching.
More sinister were the comments from Sirivala Ransibhramanakul, Thailand’s deputy police chief, who intimated the cops would be pressing charges against Wichien himself, for the crime of waiving a 100 baht entry fee when Premchai entered the park.
(It is even more sinister when considering it within the framework of Thailand’s >>phu yai<< patronage system that he had to do that. Any order from the top down, such as waiving of fees, must be followed without any consideration of its legality. As head of the police force, Srivala is more than aware of that.)
Srivala’s comments offer non-Thais a glimpse of the shadowy undercurrent of Thai culture, or what happens when power and saving face are threatened by truth and honesty. It is much easier to exonerate a powerful construction mogul by discrediting the evidence of a disgraced sanctuary worker, as opposed to an heroic one.
So it is not just Premchai who is on the hunt. The system is intent on hunting down those who dare to question or prosecute the powerful ones. Just this week the Prime Minister vowed to crack down on those protesters demanding democracy, saying these protestors had to “follow the law” — a curious remark from a man who ripped up the constitution in 2014.
The Black Leopard. Dr T. Wichien Chinnawong. Three separate hunts. It is up to the growing numbers of thinking, educated Thais, armed with technology and knowledge, to ensure those hunts don’t all end the same way.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
HOW TO GET GOOD AT THAI
By Andrew Biggs
I have a great story to tell you that will appeal to any non-Thai currently doing battle with learning the Thai language.
My life turned a full circle this week as I began a teaching gig at Ramkhamhaeng University Demonstration School. A gaggle of my best teachers are there in February conducting an extended English camp, and on day one I went to the school to show my face and chat to the students.
It was also very emotional, as it was a return to my Thai language roots.
This school is attached to Ramkhamhaeng University, naturally. What other university would it be attached to? It is named after King Ramkhamhaeng the Great, who 700 years ago ruled the kingdom of Sukhothai and is credited with thinking up the Thai alphabet. His statue can be found right in the middle of a roundabout at the center of the university. It is the one royal image I often finding myself lighting joss sticks in front of to this day— for a reason I am about to explain.
If the cute and well-behaved students of Ramkhamhaeng University Demonstration School find English hard to grasp, they should spare a thought for every non-Thai who has ever considered seriously learning the Thai language. Thanks to its tone rules, lack of spaces between words and my beloved Siamese King’s vast, elongated Thai alphabet — all 44 consonants, and that’s not counting the 32 vowels — the Thai language is daunting, frustrating and elusive.
For my own experience in learning the language, we need to travel back in time to 1995. I had been in Thailand for five years and was at a level of Thai considered acceptable but not brilliant. And so, in my typical style, I decided to go straight for the jugular. I applied to study Thai at university.
I chose Ramkhamhaeng University because there were a lot of graduates at the office, and they seemed to be hard-working people. Ramkhamhaeng at the time was the world’s largest semi-open university with some 300,000 students learning out of textbooks and/or in classrooms. That figure has since gone down thanks to the dwindling number of young Thais and the proliferation of universities over the last decade.
Ramkhamhaeng serves a very useful purpose in Thai society, because anyone with Grade 12 can study there. There is no Entrance test. Every Thai knows the saying: “Ramkhamhaeng University: Easy to enter, difficult to leave.” I know that sounds like a Twilight Zone episode, but what it means is getting a degree from this university requires discipline and time management, something we all lack at times.
I was the first westerner ever to apply to study at Ramkhamhaeng. I was on page one of Thai newspapers on the day I applied to be a student. There I was, pictured receiving my student ID card. It was fun to be the center of attention for once, and I walked out of that university feeling like I was on top of the world.
When I opened the textbooks, I came crashing back to earth.
There is a subject in first year that all Thai students fear. It’s called English 101. It’s all that really interesting stuff in English, like how to conjugate verbs and the 12 tenses of English plus conditional tenses and – I know, I’ve lost you already. Just the thought of that subject scares the living daylights out of every first year Thai student.
Except for me.
I was probably the first student that went into the final exam without ever having opened the textbook. I breezed through the 100 questions, even quietly ignoring the ones that had no correct answers, and left early.
There was another mandatory first-year subject, but the feeling towards that subject was vastly different. Thai students giggled at how easy it was. That subject was Thai 101, or basic Thai grammar stuff they had all learned since they were toddlers.
Except for me.
I will never forget the day I opened the Thai 101 textbook for the first time and saw the myriad rules and regulations governing the Thai language. I felt betrayed.
I’d always been told there were no rules to Thai – no tenses, no plurals, nothing but nice easy one-syllable words. You could put words in any order as long as you smiled or performed a traditional Thai dance as you spoke.
Suddenly I realized this wasn’t true. Suddenly I was confronted with 16 different ways to refer to oneself … another 14 or so to refer to “you” … and the most difficult thing of all, the Royal Language used specifically for the monarch. And I was expected to know all this!
The Royal Language scared me the most. It was difficult enough to remember “walk” as dern. Now I had to know that it was praratchadamnern when referring to royalty. Granted it was lovely to the ear, but like a plate of bad somtam, the knowledge went in one end and out the other. Nothing stuck in my brain.
As examination day drew closer, I got the sinking feeling I wasn’t going to pass Thai 101. What a terrible loss of face. Here I was, the apple of the uni’s eye, their first farang studying there, with all eyes on me … and I was going to fail. I had sleepless nights planning ways of getting out of the test, like stepping in front of a bus on Ramkhamhaeng Road. I didn’t want to kill myself, but I would have been happy to be critically injured.
My idea of studying Thai at university level was crazy. I should have spent my nights doing what every other expat does in this city; sitting in Patpong bars, gyrating on a bar stool at Nana Plaza or even sitting in the audience of the latest Bangkok Community Theatre production. Anything was better than being inside the pages of that Thai 101 textbook!
One week before the exam I got a call from my friend Taweesak who worked at the university.
“So how are you feeling?” he asked.
I couldn’t hold back my feelings. “Terrible!” I ejaculated.
“Why? What’s happened?”
“It’s this subject … TH101. I can’t remember the information. Who could possibly learn 16 different ways of saying “I”? One week to the test and I know I’m gonna fail. And I’m going to look bad, and everybody in the whole country’s going to know the truth that I’m actually pretty stupid and –”
Taweesak was laughing by this stage. There is nothing quite as infuriating as a laughing Thai in a moment of crisis, despite their best of intentions, but before I could berate him he said: “Relax. I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Here at Ramkhamhaeng, we have a special way to ensure you will pass your subject.”
Being a cynical Australian, I immediately jumped to the wrong conclusion. “How much do I put in the envelope? How do I get it to the teacher?”
“Nothing like that,” he said. “I’m going to make you do something I’m sure no foreigner has ever done before. But it will make you pass. Just meet me outside the statue of King Ramkhamhaeng tomorrow at midday.”
And with that, Taweesak hung up.
Ramkhamhaeng University is named after a very famous King of the Sukhothai era from 800 years ago. This monarch is credited with creating the first written Thai alphabet. His austere statue is located right in the middle of the university.
I’ve always felt an affinity with King Ramkhamhaeng, so it was only fitting my friend Taweesak made me meet him at the foot of the statue. “So you’re having problems with TH101?” he asked.
“That’s an understatement,” I replied. TH101 was the first Thai subject I had taken, and the sheer volume of information about the Royal Language and Thai grammar was causing me sleepless nights.
He handed me some joss sticks and a lotus bulb and pointed up to the statue. “Okay. You’re going to bon barn,” he said.
(I have since been through numerous Thai-English dictionaries and almost all convenient omit bon barn … I assume Thais just don’t want we westerners to know about this practise.)
He saw my quizzical expression but continued nevertheless. “Go up to the statue and pray to King Ramkhamhaeng. Tell him what you want. Then come back down.”
What a relief! Was it that simple to pass a subject at this university? “Not quite,” said Taweesak. There is a catch, as there always is. “You also have to tell him exactly what you intend to do if your wish comes true. If you ask King Ramkhamhaeng to pass TH101, and you pass, then you have to kae bon -- or repay the Great King’s kindness by performing an act.”
“Er … what kind of act?” I asked my friend.
“Well, some people give thanks by dancing naked in front of their deity of choice. Most people get friends to hold up sheets so nobody can see you.”
I was wondering who I would choose to perform the dubious task of holding up a bedsheet while I stripped off and performed a traditional Thai dance in front of a deity … and what about those folks in high rise buildings and aircraft?
“Anyway here at Ramkhamhaeng we don’t often do that,” said Taweesak, and boy did that reduce my anxiety tenfold. “Students here will repay the kindness by running around the statue.”
“With my clothes on?” I enquired.
“Of course,” said Taweesak with a laugh. “We’re not sex maniacs you know!”
Of course you’re not, Taweesak. It’s perfectly acceptable behavior to strip off in public and dance in front of a statue.
“Students will promise to run around the King 99 times.”
Ninety-nine times! I would later measure out one time around as being 300 metres. I would have to run 33 kilometres! By now I was weighing up which was worse – the shame of failing a subject, or the fatigue of running almost an entire marathon. Or, of course, the naked thing.
“You don’t have to run it all in one go. You can break it up over a few days. And you can also get your staff to run some of them for you,” explained Taweesak with a deadpan expression suggesting he was being serious.
I had no choice. I was there; I had to go through with this. I took off my shoes and began climbing the steps towards the ominous figure of King Ramkhamhaeng.
“Oh and I nearly forgot!” shouted out Taweesak from below. “You are talking to a King, so remember to use Royal Language!”
Now I wanted to just break down and cry. I was in this ludicrous situation because I couldn’t remember the Royal Language … now I was expected to get OUT of this situation by USING Royal Language!
As panic threatened to rain down upon my central nervous system I got an idea – I would bon in English. I knelt down, clasped my hands together, closed my eyes and began.
“Pleasssse, King Ramkhamhaeng. Help me pass TH101. And if you make me pass, I’ll run around you 99 times. With love, Andrew. Oh, and take care of your health.” I prostrated myself before my beloved King, and soon I was down the bottom again.
Well, a week later and I did the test. I was even more convinced I was going to fail. But life in Thailand is a life of nothing but surprises, and when the test results came out, I got the shock of my life.
I had passed TH101.
It felt like I had won the lottery. I called everybody I knew – and some I didn’t. I called my mother in Australia. “I passed my first Thai subject at university!” I squealed. My mother misunderstood; she thought I came first in the whole of Thailand in the subject of Thai, beating even the Thais. When I found this out I took absolutely no steps in putting everybody straight.
It was Taweesak who put a momentary stop to my self-aggrandisement. “So when are you going to kae bon?” he asked.
Oh never mind about that. I passed. That’s the main thing. This was my initial reaction until this faint voice echoed in the back of my head – from the ancient monarch himself perhaps? – whispering: “Remember. Next semester … TH102.”
I chose midnight on a Monday night. I figured there’d be no one there, and so late that night I dragged out my old running outfit, which was more frayed at the edges than I was on the day of the TH101 test. I drove to the university. I parked outside. I walked in the darkness towards the statue, silhouetted against the moonlit sky. Just the night, King Ramkhamhaeng, and the moon, all witnesses to my extended run of thanks …
… and one hundred Ramkhamhaeng students!
Imagine my surprise to see, in the darkness, 100 students all doing what I was doing that night! How egocentric of me to think I was the only one who had bonned (note the past tense) before the tests! It is testament to my courage that I threw up my hands, thought “What the hell” and began running round and round and round a total of 99 times, stretched over three nights, with nothing but Thai students laughing and ridiculing me.
To this day I still visit King Ramkhamhaeng when I need things. I do it quietly, and these days my kae bon usually takes the form of a charitable act of some kind. I have never had the audacity to strip down and dance naked by way of thanks. I can imagine the statue’s hands creaking up to the royal eyes to shield the view.
I used to wonder why King Ramkhamhaeng had been so gracious to allow me to pass a subject I had so little knowledge of.
“King Ramkhamhaeng is very benevolent,” Taweesak explained later. “And I guess when he saw a farang coming up those steps, he might have been a little surprised. Plus you were probably the first person ever to bon in English. Perhaps His Majesty didn’t understand you, but took pity on you and decided to help you out. Don’t ever forget his kindness.”
I haven’t. And that, dear reader, is how I got good at Thai.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
By Andrew Biggs
There is nothing particularly outstanding about the tiny rural school of Wat Ban Pathong Tha Noen Samakee, 360 kilometres north-east of Bangkok.
It is just off the main highway that runs all the way up through the North-East of Thailand. While it is located in Nakhon Ratchasima province, on a map it appears closer to Khon Kaen. This is the heart of rural Thailand.
The school is a collection of wooden and concrete classrooms. The front boasts a faded pink concrete wall, behind which is an equally faded playground of slides and swings.
It has only 83 students. That is a tiny handful by Thai school standards, where schools can carry as many as 3,000 students. It is hardly on the A-list of choices for school directors, that top position in every government school that all administrators aspire to. Thus when the school director of Wat Ban Pathong Tha Noen Samakee retired in September last year, nobody was clamoring to fill his shoes.
The civil servants, whose job it is to find such a school director in this educational zone, work for what is known as Primary Education Area 6. For the sake of brevity, we’ll call it Primary Education 6.
It is probably not far from the truth to say they were scraping the barrel when it came to candidates. But that is no excuse for what they did, which ultimately propelled them, and this little rural school, into the national media spotlight this week.
In November last year a new school director arrived by the name of Nathapop Boonthongtho, 51, an overweight fellow with a ruddy face. But he didn’t just start a new job three months ago — he also started a not-so-clandestine affair with a Year 8 girl in his very own school.
The two apparently hung out together in public places. They sent each other cute Line text messages, which went viral this week. Nathapop promised to marry her on February 14, Valentine’s Day, something I am guessing every Year 7 girl wishes to hear a man say. But let us not skirt the issue. This was not love. This was textbook pedophilia.
It all blew up this week and both director Nathapop and the girl have done a runner, apparently in different directions. Primary Office 6 has announced that Nathapop may – just may – have criminal charges leveled against him. Worse, he may be sacked from the civil service. One normally has to bludgeon an entire village to death before one is sacked from the Thai civil service. The normal punishment for pedophilia, corruption, rape and murder while on civil service duty is to be shunted to what they call an “inactive post”. Heaven forbid otherwise; they may lose their social and retirement benefits.
All this covers up the real story. It’s not just Nathapop who should be jailed. Every single one of those Primary Office 6 civil servants should be locked up with him and, in a perfect world, have the key thrown away.
That’s because Nathapop only made it to this tiny rural school because he was booted out of his old one, thanks to a clandestine affair he was having with a student there. The only difference was this wasn’t a Year 8 girl – the last one was in Year 6.
He only escaped conviction because he transferred 200,000 baht to the family of the girl in question then quickly left the school.
His old school is just 28 km from the new one. I would hazard a guess that news travels fast, and when the school committee and locals heard that a known pedophile was about to be their school director, they protested.
They wrote a letter to Primary Office 6, which chose to ignore it. They were, after all, the ones who decided to send him there. Nathapop came, so to speak, and the rest is history.
It is difficult to remain cool, calm and collected when faced with such facts. One doesn’t know quite how to act when government officials responsible for the education of youth shunt a pedophile from school to school, hoping his raging sexual perversity will somehow go away. On the contrary. Nothing is better for a pedophile than new territory.
Few books in recent years have moved me as much as Betrayal did. It is a book about the Boston Globe newspaper’s investigation into the network of pedophile priests within the Catholic Church in the USA at the turn of the millennium. You may know it as the movie Spotlight, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2016. While the movie is very good, nothing prepares you for the book’s detailed accounts of systematic molestation that was swept under the table for decades by the Catholic Church.
Its message was that the only thing worse than pedophilia is a system that protects it. The Catholic Church knowingly took steps to cover up its rampant pedophilia, the very worst being the Vatican itself, recalling cardinals who oversaw the suppression of child molestation back to the fold to be given obscure roles in Vatican City. The church was effectively closing its wings around these wrongdoers. If only the church had done the same to its child victims.
Well-known pedophile priests were shunted from diocese to diocese, while victims who dared to make waves had the full weight of the church hover precariously over their heads. Some priests were sent to special centers set up to “cure” them of their desires, and the fact the church had such centers tells you enough about how rampant the problem was.
The Catholic Church is not such a main player here in Thailand, where Buddhism is the preferred choice of spiritual comfort. But look at the similarities in the two events. I read the story from Nakhon Ratchasima this week and the ghosts of that Betrayal book start hovering around me.
If you have a moment, go take a look at Natthapop’s Facebook page. There are pictures of him dressed in his full civil service regalia. It makes you want to raise your hands and >>wai<< him out of respect. His main picture has the words: “Nattapop Loves the King.” In another picture, he professes his love for his mother. This is a man who ticks all the boxes of Thai respectability which, ironically, opens the door for him to satiate his lust for schoolgirls.
This column does not set out to attack Nathapop himself. He’s a sick man who requires punishment along with some form of medical or psychiatric attention. I think we can all agree he needs to be kept as far away from children as possible, right?
Well, maybe not everybody. Primary Office 6 knew about the scandal at the old school. It seems having an affair with a Year 6 girl, who would be aged around 12 years, is not enough to warrant your sacking. What they did, instead, was move him from one school to another.
We can at least be thankful a committee has been set up to examine all this. And who is investigating this gross miscarriage of justice and dereliction of duty?
It’s the Primary Office 6 itself. And boy have they taken some really strong punitive steps.
They have “moved him to an inactive post within the Primary Education Service.” As of tomorrow he must rock up to Primary Education 6 to continue his career working with children.
(Writer’s Note: In August, 2018, eight months after this story was published, Nattapop was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years’ jail. He was sacked from the civil service with no benefits. Photo courtesy of The Nation)
By Andrew Biggs
Happy Songkran, dear reader! This is the traditional time I close the windows, draw the blinds, and remain ensconced in either my bedroom or, when I’m feeling adventurous, the living room for three whole days.
I’ve been through all the Songkran stages. I’ve stood on the back of a pick-up with 18 others, splashing water from giant barrels while zipping through the streets of Chiang Mai. I’ve sat on bamboo mats pretending to enjoy local rice whiskey as wizened drunks relate interesting anecdotes with no clear endings three times over.
I’ve also sat in horrendous traffic jams extending all the way from Bangkok up through Saraburi in Nakhon Ratchasima.
I have reported live on TV from Sukhothai one year; another year from Nakhon Ratchasima dressed in traditional Thai garb.
I’ve danced in the middle of Silom back in the days when Songkran was fun there. I’ve even been an emcee, five years running, at the Khaosan Road Songkran Festival, standing on a stage as drunken crowds of western tourists shot streams of water from their water guns directed straight into my crotch.
There are limits to how many times one can be soaked by total strangers for three relentless days. Participating in Songkran festivities for the first time is a little like losing one’s virginity; it’s sloppy and exciting and life-changing. After that, well, there are only so many positions and variations one can explore before the thrill wears off.
Every year in the lead-up to Songkran, the government implements campaigns to get Thais to stop chucking buckets of water over strangers like they’re on fire.
This may come as a surprise, and disappointment, to new arrivals, but the culture of dousing strangers with jets of water from high-powered water guns is a relatively new one.
The proper way to dispense water is a soft and delicate process, pouring water from a small cup over hands or a shoulder, at the same time giving a blessing to that person.
This year the government campaign is stressing being respectful and having “greng jai” in your behavior over Songkran.
“Greng jai”? Now we’ve opened a can of worms.
Thais are very proud of their feeling of “greng jai”. It is inherent to the Thai psyche. And because there is no exact English translation, they have got it into their heads that foreigners, namely Europeans, don’t possess the feeling of “greng jai”.
“Greng jai” is a feeling of not wanting to put another person out or hurt another person’s feelings. It’s a feeling of consideration for others. It’s not performing a certain act because somebody else might feel not good about your doing it. It’s, it’s …
See, dear reader? As I try to explain this feeling, I am sucked into the quicksand of English vocabulary. The closest word to it is “consideration”, but even that seems a little flaccid – another dreaded adjective for anybody who’s been here three decades.
I once wrote an entire book entitled “What Does Greng Jai Mean In English?” which sold nearly 100,000 copies. It paid off a significant part of my mortgage. It’s still in book stores to this day, though these days it is more like to pay off a single bottle of Uncle Smirnoff over the Songkran break.
“Greng jai” is a nice thing, but it has its dark side. “Greng jai” turns you into a caring, thoughtful human being – it can also transform you into a directionless jellyfish.
I used to play squash with a colleague whose nickname was “Eddie From Hell.” One Wednesday I was sitting at my desk and saw him running down the corridor on his way home when I said: “See you tomorrow at 9 am for squash.”
Eddie From Hell stopped. Looked at me. Opened his mouth. “Maybe,” he said. And ran off.
“Eddie!” I screamed and he stopped in his tracks. He came back. “Siddown,” I said in my best John Wayne accent, and Eddie from Hell sat down reluctantly.
“You’re not coming tomorrow, are you?” I said.
He ummed and ahhed and spoke in every tangent other than direct. Finally he said: “My mother is arriving from upcountry tonight, and I have to take her to the hospital tomorrow morning.”
“So,” I began, realizing the futility of even asking, “Why didn’t you tell me you wouldn’t be able to make it?”
Eddie From Hell looked at me and, true to his name, replied: “Greng jai.”
Greng jai. He didn’t want to say: “I can’t come tomorrow morning,” because he was considerate of my feelings. He didn’t want to upset me, so it was easier just to leave me like a shag on a rock at the squash court the next morning.
This incident happened many, many years ago but it always stuck with me. As did this one:
We had a new show on TV. The process was simple – we filmed the show, edited it, sent it to me to check the English graphics, changes would be made, then we sent it to the TV station. I told my assistant producer the new process and he understood clearly.
We filmed the first episode. My assistant producer, whose nickname was Chicken, went away and edited it. He sent a copy to me to check, and sure enough, there were 10 mistakes.
Chicken sat down with a pen and paper and jotted down the mistakes as I went through the tape with him. Spelling mistakes, graphics in the wrong color, extra words to be added – the usual stuff. He nodded wisely and wrote furiously.
At the end I asked him the fatal question: “How quickly can you get these changes done so we can send this to the TV station?”
“Well, um, actually … it’s like this … I sent it to the TV station already,” he said.
You did what? The fact he had sent it already was bad enough. But the guy had sat there for half an hour writing down the changes he knew all along he wouldn’t have to make. “Why didn’t you tell me in the beginning before we wasted all this time telling you to make the changes? Why, Chicken? Why?”
“Greng jai,” Chicken replied.
So that’s the conundrum. Yes, “greng jai” is an admirable quality because it shows your concern for others, not to mention being brought up correctly. But it also can be a hindrance to progress, or a shield to hide reluctance or even cowardice.
And while Thais pride themselves on their “greng jai”-ness, I sometimes wonder if they are navel-gazing with rose-tinted glasses. There ain’t much “greng jai” during peak hour traffic on Bangna-Trat highway, I can tell you. And look at all our high-ranking military, civil servants and politicians bleeding the public coffers of government budgets at figures of up to 30 per cent. There is no “greng jai” when it comes to corruption. Nor, as it appears from the recent campaign, are we very “greng jai” around Songkran.
But you know, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
These days when I won’t arrive for another hour I tell my workmate I’m “10 minutes away”. This is the key to living harmoniously in Thailand. You don’t have to be responsible for your actions. You don’t even have to act! You just have to be “greng jai” of everybody — except for those drunken idiots splashing you with water. Happy Songkran, dear reader!
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
SMASHING THE GLASS
By Andrew Biggs
Anybody doing business in Thailand has horror stories about red tape.
Not a day goes by where I am responsible for felling at least one tree from somewhere deep within a national park. Page after page, I sign the bottom of useless photocopied pages, in triplicate, one after the other, all the time either contemplating life or how to end it all and put myself out of this bureaucratic misery.
A recent under-the-wire news story revealed Thailand has officially some 700,000 different government forms in order to do business here. A law reform panel wants to reduce that amount to about 1,000. They also want to merge agencies so people who will no longer need to seek approval to run their businesses from a multitude of state agencies.
What admirable goals, but don’t hold your breath. “Red Tape” must be filed right next to the “Stamping Out Corruption” folder in the drawer marked “Governmental Pie In The Sky” — an action which probably can only be accomplished by filling out a necessary form.
There are just too many government agencies who stand to lose if they merge with other agencies. Plus there is the argument that if one takes away a civil servants’ duty to supervise filling out forms — exactly what is left for that servant to do all day, other than await retirement?
This week the extent of this country’s obsession with official forms rose to the surface. It happened last Sunday night and it involved Manit Intharaphim, a wheelchair-bound commuter who got arrested for smashing the glass door of the BTS at Asoke train station.
Manit, like you and me, uses the BTS to get around town. Last Sunday night he was at Asoke when he was confronted by a BTS official who demanded he “fill in a form” to say he was disabled.
This is a little weird since no other BTS station requires a form to be filled out to use the service. Disabled people do get to use the skytrain for free, but this was not the point.
Manit refused. Did able-bodied people have to sign a form to get to the platform? If not, then why should he?
The BTS manager, dressed in his red tie, came over. “If you don’t sign this form, you cannot use the service,” he said.
Is that so, said Manit. He went and purchased a 26 baht ticket to Chidlom from the machines. “Now I’m not using it for free. I’m just like anybody else,” he said. He then wheeled himself over to the lift to take him up to the platform. It was locked. Nobody came to help; ticket or no ticket, that form had to be signed.
In hindsight he admits he lost his cool and started shouting: “I bought a ticket but I cannot use the service!” He started smashing the glass door repeatedly using his bare fist until it broke. A foreign family stood nearby. “I think they thought I was a little crazy,” he said later.
Manit’s actions got him hauled off to Ploenchit police station, but no charges were laid. If justice was indeed an upheld tenet, the men in figure-hugging brown instead would be throwing the BTS executives in jail along with that officious manager last Sunday night — not just for implementing a system that reduces disabled people to second-class citizens, but for violating the orders of the highest court in this country.
Regular readers of this column should remember Manit. It reinforces my long-held view that anybody who reads this column is not just fashionable and chic, but stays ahead of the news. You see, Manit is a friend of mine, and was featured in this very column last year as Thailand’s “Wheelchair Warrior”, demanding equality for Thailand’s 1.6 million disabled.
Manit has been all over the TV news media this week, and in every interview his first comment was the same: Violence is wrong. Don’t do what I did. While that may be true, his smashing of a door is nothing compared to the despicable behavior of the BTS in its treatment of the disabled.
The BTS provides the service, but the owner of the system is the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration. The BMA was ordered by the Supreme Court to install elevators in all 23 BTS stations in 2015. They were given a year to carry out the order.
Three years later and the BMA has not complied with the ruling. I can’t imagine the commotion that would ensue at my front door if I were to ignore a Supreme Court order for three years, just prior to my being hauled off to the Bangkok Hilton in handcuffs. And yet for the BMA it is business as usual.
Even more astounding is the idea of making a disabled person sign a form in order to use the service. Last Sunday a BTS officer appeared with a clipboard and explained that to use the BTS, Manit needed to “fill in a form” to show he was disabled.
Thus lies the madness. A man in a wheelchair, clearly disabled, must sign a form in order to verify he is disabled.
“Oh, but what if he’s a regular able-bodied person pretending to be disabled in order to use the lift?” I hear a BTS executive saying somewhere in my imagination.
I would like to meet any able-bodied person who would go to the trouble of purchasing, then hauling around, a wheelchair in order to fake a disability so as to avoid two flights of stairs. Some people really do have too much time on their hands.
“We need documentation in order to run the free service,” that same executive replies, by now starting to look a little sheepish.
Well, no. You don’t. There is something more important than documentation. And that is the rights of the disabled, as enshrined in Thai law which forbids you to discriminate against them. (At this stage I would land a forceful blow upon that make-believe official’s head, not unlike the one Manit delivered to that sheet of glass last Sunday.)
I sympathize with Manit, but at the same time I am a little lost for words when it comes to any organization that makes a conscious decision to force wheelchair-bound people to fill out a form … to prove they are wheel-chair bound.
Who proposed this idea? Was it someone in middle-management trying to climb the BTS corporate ladder? Perhaps it one of those less-cerebral executives who rose up the BTS ranks via currying favor, or a cash-strapped relative of the boss. And was there anybody, a single person who, as this idea rose up through the organization and meetings and implementation, put up their hand and say: “I don’t want to make waves, nor do I want to affect my annual bonus, but isn’t this just a little … um, wrong?”
It does need to be said that the BTS was aware it made a blunder. Rather than send the glass door bill to Manit, they offered a sheepish apology mid-week. They would not be pressing charges, and that insidious form would be going the way of bureaucratic reform – straight into the trash can.
For Manit, the fight goes on. He’s given the government seven days to ensure equality for the disabled, which happens to expire today.
“I’m not proud of what I did,” Manit told me this week. “But Thailand needs to look at the big picture. My rights are not the same of yours. This is round one of our battle to change that. There is more to come.”
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
AUNTIES MAD AS HELL
By Andrew Biggs
You may have noticed it’s been difficult to get your Thai friends to go out on a Wednesday or Thursday night.
That’s because the country is in the grip of a soap opera on Channel 3 called Buppha Sanniwat. Everyone is watching.
Thai soapies usually feature violence, betrayal, corruption, fabulous wealth and injustice. Interestingly, Buppha Sanniwat features none of these, but that doesn’t matter. Thais are getting those ingredients in real life thanks to two axe-wielding aunties on Srinakharin Road.
Everyone is watching that one, too. Their story is one of violence, betrayal, corruption, fabulous wealth and injustice. No wonder the whole country is riveted.
It was so audacious it even pushed Premchai and the black panther off the front pages which, if I were more of a conspiracist, would believe it had been planned that way.
And here is the exciting addition to the raging aunties story — I know the area like the back of my hand.
Yes, dear reader, for the past 10 years I have walked right past the now-famous gates outside their home. I have been a constant patron of the vibrant, bustling markets that encompass the aunties’ house like a marauding army.
For 20 years I have exercised regularly at Rama 9 Park off Srinakharin Road. In fact this column, now in its tenth year, started off because of my running the 5-km track around that park while I trained for the Bangkok Marathon.
My subsequent account of that 42-km run was published in this publication under the ego-shattering headline “Run, Fatboy, Run.” It came from the name of a popular movie at the time — can’t think of any other reason the editors would want to call it that.
The same dishonorable editors who thought that title up then asked me to write a weekly column about life in Thailand, and look, ten years later I’m still here. But we are off on a tangent. This is not about Thailand’s most famous Australian idiot savant. It’s about mad-as-hell aunties acting like a scene out of a soap opera.
The road between Srinakharin and the main entrance to Rama 9 Park is a straight one that cuts right through a housing estate called Seri Villa.
Saturday and Sunday mornings at the park are alive with joggers, tai-chi adherents, bicyclists and families on brisk walks. Once the exercise is over they wander out those main gates and into colorful, bustling markets on either side of the road.
There are buskers and parades of monks receiving alms. One market is devoted to herbal remedies.
The choice of local food is cheap and astounding. There is a coffee bar where an amiable elderly gentleman explains his meticulous drip method. It is a community of vendors catering for absolutely everybody …
… with the exception of one mansion right in the middle of it.
A tall concrete wall surrounds it, not unlike the type of wall an embassy would construct to keep out jihadists. The main iron gates are elaborate and ornate but even those you can’t really see.
They are plastered with signs exuding plaintive calls for help. They detail court orders demanding the markets be shut down. Court appearances. Calls for justice. Demands that absolutely nobody can park in front of their house. It isn’t enough their neighborhood is defiled. They have to go and defile their own front gates as well.
For years my feeling was this: You have bought a house right in the middle of a prime tourist destination. Here is a community of thousands of small vendors eking out a living. Sure, it’s probably a bit of a hassle on a Saturday and Sunday morning, when half of eastern Bangkok comes to visit. But isn’t that like a resident next to the Eiffel Tower complaining of the crowds and disruption? If you don’t like it — and you are clearly not screaming for a quid — why not find another place to live?
That’s how I saw it. How unfair would it be to evict an entire community for the sake of one single, solitary house — >>mansion<< — right in the middle of it all. Where is the justice in that?
When the home-owners, two ageing aunties, finally appeared in the media two weeks ago — to take an axe to a pick-up parked illegally in front of their home — it was like welcoming an old friend. So these are the residents of the mysterious mansion I’d trudged past all those years!
Two things immediately rose up in my heart.
The first was schadenfreude. We all harbor a secret desire to smash illegally-parked pick-up trucks; at least I do. That is probably something I need to work on with my therapist, but in this country, drivers of pick-up trucks have on average a lower intelligence quotient than the general population, which explains their lack of road rule knowledge. That sounds cruel, I know, but sometimes in life you just gotta take an axe to idiots.
The second feeling was compassion. For the aunties, not the pick-up owner.
The subsequent media attention these two received revealed how wrong I’d been in my thinking.
Those markets were illegal. They were set up in residential zones. One seeks peace and quiet in one’s choice of residence; one does not purchase a mansion smack bang in the middle of markets.
And as it turns out, this is not a case of which came first. The chicken came way before the egg, and those two women sure as hell aren’t eggs.
With all the money they have (they own the land upon which Paradise Park is built), they have been unable to ensure the relevant city officials carry out their job of ensuring a residential zone stays that way.
I sympathize with them and understand their frustration. I used to live in a townhouse; overnight my next-door neighbors turned their townhouse into a late night karaoke bar. Nobody dared do anything because the owner was a cop. The only solution, friends told me, was to move house.
I didn’t; the place closed down after a few weeks thanks to some diplomatic meetings between myself and the cop. But it does show what happens when law enforcers do the wrong thing. One feels helpless and frustrated, and those are the feelings that precipitate picking up an axe.
The BMA’s Public Works Department along with Prawet district are responsible for allowing a quiet street turn into a cacophony of street markets.
It began in 2008, coincidentally the same time I started running around the park. Six officials have been in charge of the bureau in that time, one current and five retired.
If proponents of justice have any extra time on their hands — highly unlikely in between following the cases of the Red Bull heir, Pravit Wongsuwan, Premchai and the black panther — they should add those six to the list to watch. For Thai society to really develop, the population needs to be closely watching more than just Buppha Santiwat.
What possesses BMA officials to ignore five huge markets?
A lack of manpower? That is out of the question. Look at the voracity and enthusiasm they displayed in shutting down other markets around town. One would suspect the task of killing a market could well relieve them of the tedium of otherwise docile civil service life. At least they get out of the office.
So what is it, dear reader? Why would BMA officials turn a blind eye? I can’t think of a single, glaring, reason. Can you?
A STORY OF GAMBIAN PROPORTIONS By Andrew Biggs
I wonder how many of my readers could pinpoint the country of Gambia on a map.
No, no reaching for Google Maps. What does it border? What is it famous for?
Such questions need not bother you too much, especially if you are feeling like I am this morning following a prolonged visit from Uncle Smirnoff and his delightful travelling companion, Ms Absolut, just last night.
I couldn’t pinpoint Gambia either. It’s in West Africa, a tiny country sandwiched between Senegal and Guinea-Bissau which probably doesn’t help you that much. It has a population of just 2 million and looking at the map, it’s as far away from Thailand as you can go before starting to come back round the other way.
And yet this remote little speck on the African expanse has incurred the wrath of our volatile Prime Minister and his government here in Thailand.
Gambia is one of the poorest countries in the world. It is a destination for sex tourism, primarily older female Europeans looking for younger beach boy types. While prostitution is illegal, it is widespread and encompasses child prostitution.
The Gambian government has launched a campaign to clean up sex tourism. The Tourism and Culture Minister of Gambia, Hamat Bah, kicked it off this week by announcing: “We are not a sex destination. If you want a sex destination, go to Thailand.”
Well, didn’t that set the bells ringing over at Wat Rakhang?
There are not that many words that instantly engage the fury of a Thai military junta. “Democracy” and “elections” spring to mind, but they are trumped by anybody describing Thailand as an A-list destination for international sex tourists.
This is a news story that never stops coming. For more than two decades the Tourism Authority of Thailand has pushed the beaches, mountains, temples, food, festivals, culture and smiles of the local populace. And yet, ask the average foreigner to think of Bangkok, and what’s the first thing that springs to mind?
Is this reputation justified? Absolutely not, but in defiance of the Jackson 5, one bad apple does spoil the whole bunch, girl.
And this very issue got your favorite columnist into a whole lot of trouble back in July, 1993. It presents some food for thought for our Prime Minister, who this week, amid official diplomatic protests over the Gambian comments, announced that Thailand had to change its international reputation as a sex tourism destination. Now. Or else.
Back in July, 1993, a scandal of unforeseen proportions erupted in Thailand that threatened to escalate into an international incident.
British publisher Longman put out a new English dictionary, — “A Dictionary of Language and Culture” — defining words in a more relaxed tone.
It defined Bangkok as a city known for “its Buddhist temples and a place where there are a lot of prostitutes.”
You could have heard the collective shriek of discontent from as far away as Gambia. Academics threatened Longman book burning events. Police officially banned the publication, marking the first and last time in Thai history that the local constabulary took an interest in English dictionaries.
A spokesman for the then government, a handsome young man fresh out of Oxford by the name of Abhisit Vejajiva, said that defining Bangkok by its prostitutes was a bit like defining English by its soccer hooligans.
A weekly political magazine asked me to write a column, in Thai, about my take on the whole thing. It was my first attempt at a column in Thailand, and talk about starting off with a bang if you’ll excuse the pun.
In that short column I argued that Longman was wrong to define Bangkok as it did … but could you blame them?
The truth was, any male arriving in this country was bombarded with Thais offering them sex. I used my own experience as an example.
At Don Muang International Airport, there used to be a counter where you could sign up for a Bangkok By Night Tour (ie. brothel trip) before you even left the restricted zone. Once past that counter, you’d get into a cab where the driver would ask you if you needed a woman for the night.
At your hotel there were prostitutes working the bars and lobby sofas, as well as glossy brochures advertising massage services in your room.
Strolling down Silom, young men thrust cards in front of your face advertising trumpets, razor blades and ping pong balls, none of which were for sale.
Tuk tuk drivers asked if you “want lady”. Thai guys dressed as used car salesmen shouldered up next to you: “You want lady?” Pause. “Man?” Longer pause. “Boy? Girl?”
Can you see where I am going, dear reader? Bangkok may not have been a city full of prostitutes – but the locals sure as hell made you think that way.
This is what I wrote in that column of mine. Where else in the world could I arrive and in the space of 24 hours be asked if I wanted sex by an airport official, taxi driver, tuk-tuk driver, hotel attendant, casual passer-by and every single bar worker in the Silom area?
That’s what I wrote, and boy did the >>pla ra<< hit the fan when it was published.
There were howls of discontent from conservative elements of Thai society, calling for my immediate ejection from the Land of Smiles. There were also people who begrudgingly agreed. As one reluctant supporter wrote, supposing everywhere I went in Thailand somebody offered me chocolate. Was the country going to jump up and down when I went home and told everybody that Thailand was the land of chocolate?
And that was just for the tourists.
There used to be brothels on every corner of this city catering for the local Thai males. They went by names such as “massage parlors” and “coffee shops”, the latter of which never had coffee on the menu. Even “barber shops” were fronts for brothels.
The remnants of that era are the giant massage parlors along Ratchadapisek and environs, such as Victoria’s Secret which was recently embroiled in that human trafficking scandal.
I visited one of those giant brothels once. It was one of the most demeaning sights I’d ever seen.
You chose girls from behind a glass window. There they sat, on tiers, with numbers attached to their bikinis. They were divided into three groups. To the left the girls sat under a sign saying “AVERAGE”. The middle girls sat under a sign saying “BEAUTIFUL”, while the far right were the “FIVE STAR” girls. I was just waiting for somebody to come up and ask how I’d like my steak cooked.
You chose a number. An attendant repeated the number into a speakerphone. The girl in question gathered up her handbag, got up, and left the room. If you looked closely you’d see a quick roll of the eyes to her friends as she left.
I pray that those days are far behind us. Like every big city in the world Bangkok has a thriving sex industry, but is this a city where sex is more rampant and abundant than anywhere else?
Probably not. The prime minister says Thailand must change its image, but that does not happen from the outside in.
It’s like the Burmese getting angry at the outside world when they slaughter a couple of hundred thousand Rohingyas. Before shooting the Gambians, we should be aiming our gun towards the navel first.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
HAIR TODAY, GONE TOMORROW
By Andrew Biggs
The news about the burgeoning fake cosmetics industry — and the celebrities risking arrest for being presenters — reminds me of an incident last year in my own office.
I have changed the names of the people concerned to protect them from instant arrest; my staffer Piyapong shall be henceforth known as “Pek”, while Benchawan shall be called “Miss Lek”.
This is what happened.
I was aware of a change in the office air; over a short time Pek’s interest in his cellphone increased three-fold, while Miss Lek was scurrying over to Pek’s desk to carry on conversations at a decibel level that only those two, along with elephants and whales, could pick up.
Every lunchtime Pek disappeared out the door clutching small boxes. “Pai toora,” he would say, which translated directly means “I’m off to do some business.” The inherent meaning: “I’m off to do something shameful and/or illegal.”
Was something untoward operating out of my educational establishment? I was determined to find out, not to stamp it out, but to demand a 30 per cent cut. If senior Education Ministry officials can skim 88 million baht off government coffers without anyone noticing, why can’t I?
I finally confronted him.
I asked Pek what was going on, and to his credit he didn’t skirt the issue. He was running an online side business. He never meant to infringe on office time, but his business had grown rapidly.
And what was this online business that was doing so well?
“I’m selling say-rum,” he said.
It took me a few different trial intonations in my head to realize he was taking about serum. In Thai they string out that first syllable, and what should be the second unstressed syllable comes out sounding like an ad for Captain Morgan.
“It’s hair growth serum,” he said. “You know, for moustaches and beards.”
Pek explained he was surfing the net and came across an ad for hair growth serum. Then another. Then another. There were five brands. He bought one and applied it to his top lip and (somewhat stringy) beard. The hair follicles grew stronger, he claimed.
“You should try it,” he said.
“I have no need for hair growth stimulants,” I said. I caught Pek’s quick glance to the top of my head, so I added: “Around my mouth and chin.”
After seeing there were five different serums out there, Pek got to thinking: Why not sell it himself?
He discovered a factory in Samut Prakan that makes and bottles hair growth serum. But get this: this factory caters for every one of those different hair growth serums out there on the net. Pek claims there are at least five big names in Thailand for hair growth serum. They all come from the same place.
As Big Name Number Six, Pek could order a unique scent such as chocolate or fruit or rose (he chose vanilla). The factory would design his logo for him to put on the little bottles, which explains why all those hair growth serums have labels that are sinister in their similarity.
Never one for wildly original thoughts, Pek chose the name “Pek Serum”.
Pek had to order a minimum of 100 bottles. For the smaller size, the factory asked for 50 baht per bottle. Pek then sold them online for 270 baht. The bigger bottle cost 100 baht per piece and he sold them for 400 baht.
“And that’s how you started selling them online,” I said.
“I still had one more thing to do,” he said.
Products need presenters, and there are different presenters for each of those hair growth serums … or is it seri? Sera? In my life I have never had the need to pluralize that word in conversation.
Ads pop up online featuring young men with bushy moustaches and beards clutching bottles. Some are winking, some are giving a thumbs-up, while others stare at the camera like deer in the headlights.
Pek trawled Facebook looking for guys with good moustaches. He found six. He sent off emails asking them to be presenters. Four of them agreed! Within one week they had sent back pictures of each of them holding up Pek Serum with a big smile and thumbs-up. One, sadly, was deer in the headlights and had to be discarded. There was no talk of a fee. The guys were paid with a bottle of Pek Serum each, so far untried, yet garnering the thumbs up of some of the bushiest moustaches in Thailand.
Pek advertised on Facebook at 300 baht a day.
Like hair sprouting out of a newly post-pubescent motorcycle racer, things started to really rumble. Within a month Pek was a regular face at the private postal delivery service near my office. He was clearing 1,000 to 3,000 baht per day in profit, which meant he was earning more selling Pek Serum than he was helping to educate Thailand in English.
This explained his brand new SLR camera, his iPhone 8 and clothes from H&M and Uni Qlo. He’d been cutting out ads for new cars. And to think I put it down to drug dealing. “What’s in it?” I asked.
That question stopped Pek in his tracks. He looked quizzically to the top of my head again.
“It’s hair growth,” he said.
“I know, but what’s the active ingredient?”
Pek’s face clouded over. “It makes your hair grow.”
“You’re not answering my question.”
“It’s certified by the Food and Drug Administration. It’s legal.” Silence. Pek grinned. “I don’t know.”
“So you’re the owner of a hair growth serum, a business so successful it’s eating into your regular office time, but you don’t even know what’s in it? And why all the constant secret conversations with Miss Lek?”
“She’s going to launch a vitamin supplement,” he said. “It helps to relieve heart attacks and cancer and makes your skin clear.”
Who would have thought? I’m surprised it doesn’t mop my floors as well.
And yes, dear reader, Miss Lek did launch that vitamin supplement, which while a steady seller, never reached the dizzy heights of Pek Serum. Her advertising costs were higher than her revenue, and Miss Lek’s magic pill fizzled. I guess consumers aren’t ready for a pill that can cure cancer and lighten your skin at the same time.
Pek’s story does not have a happy ending either. Pek Serum was a hit for six months. In that time hair growth serum number seven came along, as did eight and nine. That Samut Prakan factory must be making a fortune.
By the time number ten popped up, the market was saturated. Thank goodness Pek didn’t give up his day job.
So you can see that when the scandal about fake cosmetics broke last week, I wasn’t so surprised. Across Thailand, in bedrooms and studio apartments, regular Thais are flogging every conceivable cosmetic, lotion and health supplement man can think up. They are free of the constraints of market regulation, shop rental, consumer laws and, of course, tax. Nor must they tell the truth.
My only surprise was the bevy of local celebs who lined up to promote those fake cosmetics. They got paid to do it, as opposed to Pek’s mustachioed supporters whose payments were as elusive as Pek Serum’s active ingredient
Pek is now experimenting with diet pills. He told me there are a lot of fat people out there just wanting to lose weight.
“There’s this factory in Minburi that makes pills that make you lose one kilogram per day,” Pek, rake thin, explains.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs
THE BOY WITH HALF AN ALPHABET IN HIS SUITCASE
By Andrew Biggs
Little Potae came to stay with me over the school holidays. His parents went to the South to work on a construction site. Could he stay at my place while they were down there?
That, dear reader, is how I ended up with an 8-year-old in my house for a fortnight.
In the West we have a saying that fish and house guests go off after three days, but this truism does not work in Thailand since rotten fish, i.e. >>pla ra<<, is an essential ingredient to any Northeastern dish. Thus there is no compunction for a house guest to feel the need to move on after 72 hours, or, in Potae’s case, 336 hours.
Ah but I risk sounding like a curmudgeon. It was delightful having Potae ensconced on my sofa, killing aliens and the walking dead all day long in between Ben Ten episodes on TV.
He comes from Nakhon Phanom, 600 km from Bangkok in the remote Northeast. Having just turned 8, he has already been in the Thai education system for four years if you count the three years of kindergarten before Grade One.
I’ve seen his school. It is a collection of wooden buildings which, if not requiring a good paint job, may instead benefit from a good bulldozing. Education budgets rarely make it out that far. They tend to sputter and burn out in provinces a little closer to the capital, leaving Potae and his schoolmates with the dregs.
“In this house, we speak English all the time,” I told Potae on Night One,as we sat eating dinner. My brazen lie caused one or two family members to choke on their steamed rice. Nevertheless I continued: “Can you speak English, Potae?”
Potae chose not to reply. He continued spooning Thai omelette into his mouth.
So I asked him again.
Still not a word. Not even a shake of the head.
It stayed that way for three days. No response. Potae chose instead to engross himself in his smart phone (where the aliens and walking dead met their untimely deaths) and Ben Ten.
It was on Day Four that I managed to get some words out of the kid.
“Do they teach you English in your school?”
Potae didn’t look up from his smart phone. Clearly in rural Nakhon Phanom one is allowed to continue zapping aliens without having to answer questions from elders. But I wasn’t an alien. I wasn’t going to be zapped.
The second time I asked, he nodded his head quickly. A thaw in the relationship!
On Day Five I took him to KFC. By this stage I was beginning to realize that eight-year-olds never stopped eating. When breakfast was over it was time to bring out the Lays. After that it was Pocky chocolate sticks, sliced mango, then some sugary fake chocolate crispy things in the shape of smiling faces which I suspect will render Potae a diabetic in a decade or two. And all this prior to 9 am.
At KFC I asked Potae about his English again.
“Can you count to ten?”
He finished chewing on his chicken nugget, swallowed it, then shook his head. I wanted to explain that it was okay to multi-task; he could eat and shake his head at the same time, but our relationship hadn’t advanced to that level.
“You can’t count to ten?” I asked again, but alas, Potae had already picked up another nugget.
“What about the alphabet?” I asked in the meantime.
Potae nodded with an ever-so-slight smile!
“Well thank god for that,” I said. Clearly those chicken nuggets were doing the trick, so I asked: “Can you recite it for me?”
He held up another nugget. Without any eye contact, staring out towards the KFC menu above the counter (was he going to order more?), he said: “A-B-C-D-E-F-G.” Chomp.
It was good to hear Potae’s voice after four days of silence. But nothing after G was forthcoming.
“There’s a little bit more to it than that,” I said. “What comes after G?”
Potae stared up at the ceiling. Anywhere but directly at me. He reached for the french fries. I took that as an “I don’t know”.
(Potae’s nickname is actually the first two syllables of the English word “potato”, not that Potae would know that, since the word consists almost entirely of letters beyond G.)
By this stage I was starting to feel frustrated. I am aware of shyness in children, but we were into Day Five and really, there should have been a crack in the glacier by now.
Or could it be that Potae was just a product of his environment? If it was true that he’d only learned up to the letter G, what hope was there he’d have been taught anything else, such as good manners?
I took it upon myself to change all that. I decided I would send Potae home not only with a few extra kilograms around his waist, but also with some knowledge. I would take it upon myself to teach him a little English. What an altruistic person I am!
One of the things I quickly discovered about being altruism is that it requires time and effort, both of which I had very little.
And yet in the remaining week I managed to teach him the rest of the alphabet. It cost me a few boxes of Pockys but I did it. I overheard him reciting it in his bedroom on the last night. He got all the way to Z, skipping over R and S but that was okay.
I also taught him “stand up”, “sit down” “turn around” and “jump”. I taught him “good morning”, “good night” and “thank you”, not that he once volunteered any of that information unless I dangled a cylinder of Lays or packet of diabetes in front of him.
Potae left my home last Sunday.
A relative came to pick him up. When the pick-up truck pulled up outside Potae ran out with his little suitcase and scrambled into the car. He didn’t stop to say goodbye.
I hear from his family in Nakhon Phanom that he had a wonderful time in my home. How he managed to transmit this information to his next of kin is beyond me, and I suspect his satisfaction stemmed more from Ben Ten and his constant eating than from any time with me.
I did ask his parents about his education, and they said Potae’s teacher was a mathematics instructor, choosing to teach math over English. That explained his inability to recite the entire alphabet, though one would think a math teacher, when forced to teach English, would at least start by instructing his students on how to count.
Just before writing this column I consulted the Thailand Basic Education Core Curriculum, the standard for all Thai schools. For each school grade there are “Grade Level Indicators” which explain the basic information a child must know upon completion of that year.
For grade one, those indicators include the ability to “act in compliance with simple orders heard”, “specify the alphabet and sounds”, and “choose the pictures corresponding to the meaning of words and groups of words heard”. Note that I fulfilled two of those three indicators in Potae’s short stay with us.
And what of the other 40 kids in his class who didn’t get to go to Bangkok for two weeks over the school holidays? They are still stuck at the letter G. And Potae, as cute as he is, is a silent example of an education system that is beyond broken.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs