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How To Get Good At Thai

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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.




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