THE BEST LAID PLANS OF CRABS AND MEN
By Andrew Biggs
Recently I found myself in Surat Thani at the early morning wet market.
“Let’s buy some crabs,” my School Director had said the night before. “We can release them into the river to make merit.”
My School Director is regular in her efforts to tam boon, or “make merit” as the vague English translation happens to be. Making merit is a bit like selfless service; doing something good without expecting a return. That is perhaps not entirely true; by performing the selfless act, there is an understanding that the good karma will find its way back to the purveyor; if not immediately, then sometime in this life or, if you’re unlucky, the next.
My School Director regularly releases fish to make merit, so it was no surprise upon arriving in Surat Thani that she suggested releasing the crabs. “It will be very good karma for us, not to mention good business,” she added with a nod and a smile. Thais are as ethereal as they are pragmatic; I wish I could balance the two so well.
Very early the next morning we found ourselves in the middle of the bustling morning market in the narrow sois off Talat Mai Road, near where the slow boats set sail for the islands of Samui and Phang-gnan. We soon found a crab seller. We bought six live crabs and put them in a bucket.
There is a popular Thai idiom that says “like putting crabs in a crab pot”. It’s used for situations concerning young children, especially any effort to get them to sit still. I had no idea how difficult it was to keep a crab in a crab pot, or in my case a bucket, even in the 50 metres from the crab shop to the jetty.
New knowledge for me; crabs don’t like to sit peacefully in a bucket. They scramble and jostle for freedom. One actually made it, spilling out onto the road. This caused a commotion as shoppers, vendors, a security guard and even a passing female school teacher attempted to scoop up the errant scurrying crab without getting fingers sliced off by furious pincers. With some deft handwork from the school teacher of all people, we got it back into the bucket and we hurried across the road to the jetty.
“Normally we would bring our hands together and pray now,” my School Director said. “But that may not be a good idea with these crabs in the bucket. Let’s do it afterwards.”
And with that we both tipped the bucket into the brownish waters of Surat Thani River. Six black crabs disappearing into the brownness: plop, plop, plop, plop, plop and plop.
I didn’t have a good feeling about the incident.
For a start, the water in the river around that market was hardly pristine. Not one of those crabs upon hitting the water made any effort to snap their pincers with glee or start joyously frolicking around. They fell like stones into the murkiness, gone forever.
Nor did we think to enquire as to whether they were fresh-water crabs or, in the case of the Surat Thani River, brackish-water crabs, if indeed such crabs exist. Had I just spared the life of six crabs … or had I sent them all to a grave much quicker than any Surat Thai crockpot could have?
Sometimes we humans, along with mice, have best laid plans and intentions, but all we do is end up causing more suffering. Just ask that tortoise in Chonburi.
Thailand hits the front page of CNN and BBC regularly, but who would have thought we would do it with that poor tortoise that swallowed nearly a thousand baht in coins and ended up dying last Tuesday.
The number of coins found in the belly was closer to 900. With every single one of those tossed coins was a fervent wish, an ardent hope, or some form of celestial bargaining. I imagine there were wishes for love, wealth and health. Some probably asked for their houses to sell quickly, or for a sharp upturn in sales at their noodle store. Others may have just been making merit. Nine hundred different wishes with the toss of 900 coins – one by one straight into the mouth of that poor turtle.
Turtles are considered auspicious animals in this part of the world. They represent luck, strength longevity. Hence they can be found swimming around temple pools.
This week we received a rude awakening about that. The hopes and dreams of 900 people culminated in the painful life, and slow death, of that tortoise, who had been named omm sinn, or “piggy bank”. It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.
If those 900 people knew they were contributing to the painful death of a tortoise, would they cease and desist? I’m sure they would. Experience is education; now that we know about that tortoise many Thais will think twice before tossing a coin into a tortoise-filled pool. After all, we have had precedents in the shape of birds and elephants.
There was a time back in the noughties when there was a concerted effort by many Buddhists not to patronize old ladies standing outside temples with birds in little wooden cages. “Release a bird and make merit!” they would shout, shoving their rickety cages into your face at temple entrances. “Good luck for you!”
Good luck for me, but hell for the bird. It does sound like a nice thing to do, especially to the ears of foreign tourists. How Buddhist and karmically aesthetic; until one learns that the birds have had their wings clipped, and their glorious ascent into the heavens lasts about as long as a crab lives after being released into brown sludge – back into the wooden box they go.
We learned to stop patronizing elephants, too, who once came to Bangkok in large numbers. It is considered lucky to run under the belly of an elephant, until we learned how tortuous and stressful it was for a pachyderm to plod down Sukhumvit Road with all the automobile commotion and pollution.
Then there are the “rescued” buffalo.
On a trip to Hua Hin I visited Wat Takiab on the southern cliffs, where a buffalo was tied to a fence. Above him was a big sign: MAKE MERIT! SPARE THIS BUFFALO’S LIFE!
This ruse involves a buffalo or cow whose destiny is the slaughterhouse. By making a donation to the temple, collectively around 10,000 baht, its life is spared and it gets to roam free.
That’s just weird. If you care enough for the life of animals, then for god’s sake put down that Big Mac or grilled pork on a stick this instant. Surely by becoming a vegetarian you would spare more than the life of a single buffalo. And just exactly where are all these spared buffalo roaming? Certainly not at Wat Takiab; all I can see are monkeys. One suspects the buffalo is led off to another temple for another chance of being spared, with another 10,000 baht to be split between the owner and the monks.
But back to Surat Thani.
That evening, of the day we released the crabs, we ended up dining at a popular restaurant by the side of the Surat Thani River with great views of the city. Six of us enjoyed a seafood feast — including one dish of curried crabs still in their shells.
My School Director knew exactly what I was thinking.
“It’s okay,” she whispered. “They’re not the same ones. These crabs are much bigger. And anyway … they’re delicious.”