By Andrew Biggs
It’s always fun catching up with Ronnachai, though the most recent time I saw him it nearly didn’t happen thanks to an incident along the way.
“I got pulled over for drink driving just outside Buriram,” he said. “I blew 82, whatever that means.”
Next to him his best buddy Tam burst into laughter and slapped his knee, while Ronnachai rolled his eyes and broke into a smile.
We were sitting at a roadside café on a mountain not far from his and my home in northern Chantaburi. Ronnachai is my next door neighbor and I’ve known him for more than 25 years, from his free-wheeling twenties to his more settled-down thirties to his now-turbulent forties.
Things haven’t been going well for my old friend. A failed marriage, a downturn in chicken manure and rubber prices (two industries that helped pay off his first vehicle only to allow his second to be repossessed), and not being elected at the last local village poll have all resulted in Ronnachai going through a rough patch.
Despite this he still smiles and tells great stories with a perpetual cigarette in his hand. If you ask him about corruption, he can talk for at least half an hour non-stop about Thailand’s ills thanks to the scourge of under-the-table payments and vote buying at local government levels he has experienced first-hand. Nothing animates him more than corruption.
At least he has given up alcohol. That happened in the beginning of 2016 and he only drinks when his best friend since childhood, Tam, comes to his village for a visit.
Like right now.
I arrived in Chantaburi this morning and by chance Ronnachai had just arrived back from a weekend trip to Buriram with Tam in tow.
We were sitting watching the sun go down over the mountains on Khao Pansaa, the first day of the Buddhist Lent. The sale of alcohol was strictly prohibited, which meant beer bottles were placed under the tables out of eyesight.
“It happened at lunchtime today,” Ronnachai said, as Tam cackled beside him in a drunken stupor. “We’d just set off from my cousin’s house in Buriram when we were pulled over by the cops.”
“Were you drunk?” I asked.
My question sent my two old friends into more gales of laughter.
“Of course we were!” shouted Ronnachai. “We’d been drinking since the night before. I’d had a few hours sleep, that’s all. Tam here was worse than I was. He could hardly stand up.”
Tam appeared proud of this fact and sat up a little straighter, though not too much straighter otherwise he would be out of reach of the surreptitious beer bottle under his seat.
“Anyway we’d only been driving for 15 minutes or so and we get pulled over by the cops just outside Buriram city.”
Ronnachai paused to light a cigarette and take another swig of his beer.
“The cop turned out to be a really nice guy. He asked me to blow into his device. I asked if I could sit and wait a while until I sobered up but he just laughed and said no.”
“Yoghurt,” interjected Tam out of the blue.
“Huh?” asked Ronnachai.
“They say if you eat yoghurt before blowing in the bag it will reduce the alcohol reading,” he said, nodding sagely.
“Who the hell is ‘they’? That’s nonsense. Anyway so I blew in the bag and the reading was 82 – over the limit!” said Ronnachai. “The cop took my license immediately.”
He pointed at Tam. “He was useless! Was hardly coherent enough to even register what was going on. I had to do all the talking.”
“How did you get here then?” I asked.
Ronnachai seemed not to understand the question.
“If you blew 82, then how did you manage to get here?”
Ronnachai put down his beer. He threw the stub of his cigarette away into nearby bushes and leaned forward, inches away from my face. He was about to make an important point.
“Two … thousand … baht!” he said, full of fire. “I had to pay 2,000 baht!”
“I said at the time it was way too much,” babbled Tam.
“You did not! You were so drunk you didn’t know what was going on!” admonished Ronnachai.
“You paid a 2,000 baht fine?” I asked, and Ronnachai shook his head vigorously.
“The cop said if I was to be arrested and go to court I’d end up paying 8,000 Baht, or maybe even 15,000 Baht, for drunk driving. So he asked for 4,000 – half of what I would pay if it got processed.”
“Paeng!” hissed Tam but we both ignored him.
“I told him 4,000 was too much, and after a while he agreed to 3,000 baht but nothing below that. It was unfair. He had four or five of his friends there – what chance did I have against five cops? I didn’t have that sort of money on me, so he made me go to the nearest ATM.”
“I hope he did the driving,” I said.
“Yeah. On his motorbike. So we get there and by this stage I’m thinking: Three thousand baht! That’s way too much. So I withdraw three grand and come back to the cop and I say to him: Listen, brother: I have a wife and two kids. I can’t afford three thousand baht. Here’s two thousand, and I’ll keep the other one thousand for myself.”
“And you know what?”
Another pause for effect.
“He agrees!” said Ronnachai, sitting back, smiling while shaking his head at the sunset in front of us. “It got me thinking. I should have said I had a minor wife as well! I should have offered that cop one thousand baht. He probably would’ve agreed to that.”
Ronnachai drank some more beer. There was a momentary silence; he had come to the end of his story.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “What happened then?”
“End of story. He got his money, and I got my license back.”
“And what – you continued on your journey?” I asked.
“Sure. What else was I gonna do?! He couldn’t drive,” he said, pointing to his friend. “He’d drunk twice as much as me!”
“Didn’t the police stop you?”
“The cop told me I should wait a while before I sobered up, but I had to get back here by sundown. I had a customer coming to buy chicken manure and nobody else could help him shovel it into bags. All my Cambodian workers left after the public holiday and still haven’t come back.”
“Weren’t you worried about being pulled over again?”
“Well that’s the thing,” said Ronnachai. “I demanded a receipt from the cop in case I was pulled over by another police stop further along, but he said he couldn’t do that. That pissed me off. So I demanded he call the next police stop ahead to tell him not to arrest me a second time, which’d be totally unfair but typical of Thai cops. There’s no way I was gonna shell out another two grand!”
“We … didn’t … get … shtopped … again,” slurred Tam, falling asleep as he spoke.
It was time for Ronnachai to take him home. We got the bill and walked to our respective cars.
“Are you okay to drive?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said Ronnachai. “I know all the cops around here anyway.” He sighed. “Two thousand Baht … gone like that!”
And he was gone, too, in more ways than one, his pick-up wobbling somewhat within its lane down the mountain towards his home. With a bit of luck he would make it home.