A fluent Thai speaker and long time resident, his columns explore the sometimes humorous and subtle traits of the Thai people.
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Beware of the Karaoke Crooners : 02-08-2009
Once upon a time I was a trendy young expat living in a townhouse in urban-chic Samut Prakan. The townhouse was situated in a moo ban that may have had its faults _ no trees, cracked concrete, frayed electricity wires that danced and dangled down like something out of a Stephen King short story _ but it did have one thing going for it _ relative quiet.
On one side of me was a pleasant family; the other side was vacant. Then a family with a young baby moved in.
One week later some blinking fairy lights were strung up outside their house, along with some dreadful bamboo chairs and tables. And then a big sign was erected from the second floor of their townhouse: ``DRUNK MAN'S PALACE.''
I didn't need witches babbling about the Ides of March to tell me something ill was afoot. Every night their house turned into a bar frequented by men who'd park their motorcycles and cars in front of my house, rendering me a prisoner in my own home.
This may have been bad enough, but then the killer punch.
One night, as I was sitting in my bedroom reading a tome on Buddhist dhamma, a noise emanated from the paper thin walls separating my bedroom from ``DRUNK MAN'S PALACE''. A bass line, deep and rhythmic, slinking and thumping and slinking and thumping like a dangerous undercurrent coming in from the Great Barrier Reef.
My next door neighbours had installed a karaoke machine.
Now I don't possess the gene that finds the karaoke experience enjoyable. There is nothing more hideous for me than sitting in a dark fairy-lit karaoke bar somewhere deep in the Bangkok suburbs listening to somebody castrating More Than I Can Say or flaying alive I Don't Like to Sleep Alone. The girl in the short dress and strangling tank top sitting next to him smiles blankly and bats her eyes, which are sloppily encircled with Pratunam mascara, and wonders how much longer she has to put up with this aural obscenity before she can collect her tip and go home on the back of her boyfriend's motorcycle.
I'm thinking along the same long lines as her, but nobody's paying me. I'm the \\\ ///// paying to listen. It's in such moments that I sit wondering, yet again, if I have finally scraped the rusty bottom of life's barrel.
For the next five nights I was subjected not only to the sounds of that ubiquitous bass, but of men and women attempting to sing along.
How do I explain to you the pain of being forced to listen to them? Perhaps you could take a cat and tie some fishing line around its tail in a slipknot. Now slowly pull on that slipknot _ that sound, I swear, is what I had to put up with every night for five nights.
(Children who are reading this column, do not perform this experiment on your own. Ensure that at least one of your parents is helping you hold down the feline.)
The worst thing about living next door to a karaoke bar is that the music isn't non-stop. Worse, the song stops _ you settle into a moment's sleep _ and then BOOM-BUDDA-BOOM-BOOM-BUDDA-BOOM, as somebody else takes his or her turn to emulate the tortured cat, and you are left treading water in a sea of resentment, fatigue, anger and frustration. From 6pm to 2am.
This karaoke bar is not on, I told some of my other neighbours I saw on the street that week, but they couldn't do anything. The husband was a police officer at an inner city police station, they told me. As for zoning laws _ what's a zoning law in urban-chic Samut Prakan?
When I went to see them the next day they weren't at all the evil monsters my neighbours made them out to be. We'll turn the karaoke machine off Monday to Friday for you, the policeman said with a smile.
Actually, I want you to turn it off forever, I said, also with a smile. The next two nights were quiet, but on the third night, the machine was back on again. The drunkards were out. The booze was flowing under the ``DRUNK MAN'S PALACE'' sign, whose blinking fairy lights were starting to fade, probably in protest. A drunken woman was singing so off key, even the wallpaper in my bedroom was peeling in a bid to escape. And I lay in bed, thinking: ``Now what do I do?''
What I did was inadvertently very Thai and not at all farang.
I got out of bed, put on some clothes and went outside. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. The policeman was sitting with some men, drinking beer. I sat down with them and ordered a beer. We all chatted for more than an hour, getting on famously, without a word said about our neighbourly noise problem.
At midnight I excused myself. The policeman wouldn't accept payment and I gave him a wai in thanks. And the very last sentence he said as I left, apropos of nothing, was: ``Actually I'm looking for a new place to move to.''
One week later, the karaoke stopped. Two weeks later, the family moved out.
To this day I have no idea where they went, but I was very impressed with the way we solved this problem. There was no confrontation, no screaming, and in fact nothing was said at all. Each side had their guns to play _ he was a cop, I was a print and TV journalist. But in our friendly silence, we resolved our situation.
I use this method as often as I can to settle disputes in Thailand, and I find more often than not that it works. Except in karaoke bars. No amount of Buddhist dhamma books can save me from the excruciating pain of listening to a drunken man singing Hotel California.
Oh, speaking of excruciating pain, you can release that cat now, kids.
Originally appeared: 7/02/2010
It's a Nice Day for a white Wedding
Anybody who has lived in Thailand long enough soon discovers he or she is spending an inordinate amount of time attending funerals of people you never met, and weddings of people you did meet but fleetingly. Let's not talk about the former; it's a beautiful Sunday morning so please, offer any opinions about funerals to the person in bed next to you assuming that person has enough English skills to carry on such a conversation. Sometimes it's hard to discuss anything when the extent of your lover's English is "You buy me TV, okay?"
A wedding in Thailand means you get to visit a five-star hotel and eat food the likes of which you normally see at shops with signs saying "ALL YOU CAN EAT FOR JUST 99 BAHT!" If you are invited to a wedding, just block off two and a half hours of your life for a night of forced gaiety and smiling tedium - and if the invitation says "Chinese Table", pop a Valium. I find a Thai wedding slightly mechanical. You can almost tick off the things that have to happen in order to complete the ceremony. Straying from this list is almost grounds for annulment - right up there alongside "He's already got a wife!" and "He could only get it up while watching the Muscle Channel!"
A traditional Thai wedding, the way it was done before the arrival of IFA (Insidious Farang Era), was full of colour and fun. Then Thais caught a glimpse of the Western wedding with the flowing virginal bridal gown, the smart rented suit of the groom, and the reception full of speeches, the cutting of the cake, the dancing and finally, with the fatal mixture of alcohol and bloodline, the fisticuffs and tears.
The Thais adapted all that, or rather, squeezed all the fun out of it, leaving the bare-bones of a Western wedding. Yes, the Thai bride wears white in a dress almost as thick as the make-up on her face, and the groom looks sheepish and awkward in his dinner-jacket, just like a farang bloke. But there the similarities end.
I grew up being taught it was extremely bad manners to bring a gift along to a wedding. Stuffing money into an envelope by way of a wedding gift was outrageously poor taste - so imagine coming face to face with a whole country that brought gifts to receptions and left envelopes of money! In the past when I heard such things I would go tearing off to the stable, drag out my favourite High Horse and climb frantically upon him, decrying the bastardisation of Western culture. But in hindsight I realise that the Thai way is actually a more practical and easier way of doing things. And besides, upon presenting the gift you receive a lovely souvenir of the happy event, a gift whose only requirement is that it is utterly, utterly functionless in your daily life.
The Thai way of doing a Western wedding lacks spontaneity and fun. The couple hires out an expensive five-star hotel; when I was a kid the smelly reception hall of the Sunnybank Hotel was more than sufficient. Those dwelling on the wrong side of the Sunnybank tracks made do with fairy lights strung from the washing line in the back garden, which always ended up looking romantic with the help of a few slabs of Fourex beer.
At the aforesaid five-star hotel ballroom the happy couple must shove surfboards down the back of their outfits and stand stiffly outside as gaggle after gaggle of guests is herded through, pausing for photographs.
Once inside you are seated at a round table of well-dressed guests. It reminds me of the lifeboats of the Titanic right after it sunk. Despite having the most exciting cuisine on the planet, Thais have decided that bland Chinese food is a better choice to celebrate a wedding. I find that offensive - I can't imagine the carnage after any Australian wedding that fed its guests New Zealand lamb and kiwi fruit.
But positively the worst thing about Thai weddings is what happens on stage. Some friend, wildly talented in a previous life, or a roped-in celeb who happens to be the brother of the groom's best friend, is emcee. At this point we have to congratulate the Thais for not adopting the drunken speeches from the best man or parents, the bane of any Australian wedding and the part where I always nip out for a cigarette, despite having given up 15 years ago. But the Thais have replaced this awful part with an equally dreadful routine they made up themselves - inviting the happy couple up on stage for an "hilarious" interview.
"So, Somsri which part of the groom's body do you like the most - come on, you can tell us - which part?" The audience guffaws knowingly as the bride attempts to smile underneath three metres of foundation and mascara.
"Gor all of him," is the usual feeble response, but can you blame her? If it were me up there in that dress I'd have said "Around here," while kneeing the emcee in the groin. A couple of older respected people are invited on stage, ostensibly to toast the happy couple, but more ostentatiously to show us guests that look, we know a former cabinet minister and you don't.
But the part that gets me the most is where the happy couple have to horm gaem, the most peculiar display of affection ever invented by man, and one you can witness at any Thai wedding.
Horm is a verb meaning "to sniff". Gaem means your cheeks. Thais have decided it is not in their culture to have public displays of affection - public displays of massive neon signs along Phetchaburi Road heralding mega-brothels are okay, but affection? Get out of here! Not being acceptable to kiss in public, the resourceful Thais thus invented the act of "sniffing one's cheek". In no time horm gaem has become an intimate act among Thais, and sanctioned by the shadowy Ministry of Culture as an acceptable display of affection.
At any Australian wedding there is the table of yobbos who, when it is time for the groom to kiss the bride, start yelling out such Australianisms as "Slip the tongue in! Feel her up!", phrases that long ago sent me packing. Here in Thailand the groom's friends can't do that. So they shout out lustily: "Sniff her cheek! Sniff her cheek!" I don't know about you, but isn't that about as titillating as "Bite her fingernails! Pick the green salad from between her teeth!"
But look, our two-and-a-half hours are up. It's okay for us to leave, and as I left last week's wedding I wished Thais would turn back to the beauty of their own customs and culture, particularly when it comes to weddings, and celebrate in a more traditional way.
It reminds me of the night I was late for the wedding of my friend Geoffrey who married his girlfriend Cartoon. I walked into the wrong hotel ballroom and found myself smack bang in the middle of a wedding between two young Thais. She was in the white dress and he was in the dinner-jacket, looking stiff and uncomfortable. I quickly retreated and found Geoffrey and Cartoon in the beautiful gardens behind the hotel. They had opted for a traditional Thai wedding and both looked happy and relaxed in their Thai silk, as did all the guests who were asked to dress the same.
Thais dressed as farang, farang dressed as Thais. No wonder the Ministry of Culture has kittens on a regular basis.
Originally published 28/02/2010 added on 21/04/2012
No sex please, We're Thai
As I write this, a Thai soap opera is on in the background on my non-flat television. A handsome man in a dirtied shirt is staggering and holding a gun. He is clearly distressed - not through any acting talents, god forbid, but his shirt isn't tucked in and that's a dead giveaway in any Thai soap. His hair remains perfectly combed, and facial features remain as rigid as those of a khunying shuffling out of an Emporium botox clinic.
I can no longer concentrate on my writing, because now he's pointing the gun at some man, slightly older, who has a frown. The distressed man is pleading with the handsome guy, talking about losing everything except his dignity. As the thought crosses my mind that dignity is an emotion well beyond his acting capabilities, I slowly start to get sucked into the vacuum that is this soapie.
The music swells. Now he's offering the gunman money and a stake in his business. The gunman doesn't flinch. He points the gun higher. Surely he's not ... no, surely he's not going to - BANG!
The older guy gets it, though miraculously, despite the gun being pointed at his head, a gaping wound opens up in the guy's chest. The music is going haywire now. The older guy clutches his chest, stares at the gunman with creased eyebrows, then falls to the floor. A beautiful young lady dressed in Fly Now, who looks like she hasn't eaten a thing since Loy Krathong, rushes over and hugs the gunman.
The music shifts to a major key, a musical "Ta-Da!". Oh, so the gunman is the good guy, is he? Now I get it. I wonder what the bad guy did to warrant a bullet in his - but listen to me!
The scene has upset me, and not for the juvenile acting. It's a strange anomaly that in this part of the world, gross violence on prime time television is fine, but when it comes to sex, the Thais suddenly turn into my old maiden Aunt Jess and refuse even the slightest hint of lewdness, not even after a sherry.
Thus you can't show a man making love to his wife on Thai TV, but it's quite okay for him to take out a gun and blow her brains out. The camera will even do you the favour of focusing right in on her little brain cells splattered on the wall, just in case you didn't get the idea that she's dead. But love making? Nahhh.
I once watched a soap where the lead actor and actress, in the final episode, decided to consummate their relationship. They'd been in love for weeks and weeks before this, and finally, in that last episode, they had it off. Well, that's what we assume they did. This can't be shown, since having sex, according to high-ranking officials, is not part of Thai culture, so instead we had a shot of the woman looking deep and meaningful.
Then a shot of the man looking the same. Then a fade-out and when we came back, the woman was on a bed. The man was shirtless the music rose romantically he moved forward, and - cut to a candle. A lit candle! If it had been a champagne bottle popping or a train rushing into a tunnel, or even a slow-motion pestle thump-thump-thumping the ingredients of somtam together in a mortar, I would have understood, but a candle?
Finally we came back to a shot of the man with tears streaming down his cheeks and that was the end. What happened? Why was he crying? He couldn't perform? The candle was burning his backside?
To even think in real life two attractive young Thais would have gone that long without at least a grope was stretching the imagination, but here we are in the world of Thai film and TV, where the stories are so completely out-of-this-world it's kind of fun to follow them.
You know, rich gorgeous heiress dresses up as maid to exact revenge on former lover. The actors and actresses in these dramas are in real life a dreadfully unhappy group. The actresses are stick-thin and forever scrubbing fingers after frequent restroom trips, while the actors are all jaundiced Korean-looking Thai guys hoping the gossip rags never reveal their homosexuality.
In Thai they have a verb called blum - and it's an integral part of many soaps. If you "blum" somebody, then you forcibly have sex with them. I know, I know, that's "rape", but the Thai language has a separate word for "rape" as well. This is "blum", the idea being that you rape a woman in order for her to become your girlfriend, or in order for her company to do business with you.
Now that's bizarre! The message here? Ladies, when a man rapes you, instead of going to the police and having him arrested and locked up, ya gotta either marry him or do business with his company. Worse, in the scene where an actor "blums" an actress, we see the violent part. She screams and tries to wrest herself free, while he slaps and grabs her and throws her onto the bed. That's okay to watch - a good education for any young man wanting to force himself on a girl - but when it comes to the sex, we suddenly cross to an advertisement or it's back to that bloody candle again.
Why is violence okay, but sex not? There are days when the Thai Rath newspaper publishes pictures of dead bodies on the front page alongside semi-naked women whose nipples have been "starred out". That is, some wide-eyed heavy-breathing intern in the art department has been ordered to place little stars over the nipples so that we can't see them. The mangled murdered body in the ditch is okay for us to examine, but nipples?
Perhaps we shouldn't be so shocked when fans of the Thai Port Football Club do a great rendition of British football hooliganism like last weekend at the Supachalasai Stadium. After all, these are young Thais who have grown up with death and mangled bodies on page one, and violence on the night time soapies and movies.
For any young person the messages are clear: It's wrong to have sex. Kissing is bad. Murdering is good. Exploding heads and spurting blood is good, too. And if you must have sex, for god's sake force yourself on the woman and in that way you get to make money out of it - and next time you're at the market pick up a dozen candles.
Originally published 07/03/2010 posted 23/04/2012
A testing time for students
Many years ago I ran an English public speaking contest for Thai high schoolers. Students wishing to compete had to send in cassette tapes of their three-minute speeches to the magazine where I was editor, so we could choose the best 10 for competition day. Dozens and dozens of tapes came rolling in, and so one Monday we set aside the entire day to listen to them.
It was just before midday when I slipped yet another cassette into the player and pressed play.
"Hello," came the warm, sweet voice of a Thai girl. "My name is Somsri Prathanapermpoonsap, and I am a year 10 student at St Mary's School in Bang Na."
The force of Somsri's scream jolted even the most alcoholic of sub-editors clustered not so far away to sit up and take notice. But Somsri hadn't finished.
"CAN'T YOU HEAR MY SCREAMS? FOR I AM AN UNBORN FOETUS BEING ABORTED! ARGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!" Then a sudden return to her normal sweet voice. "Ladies and gentlemen, today I would like to talk on the topic of something terrible: Abortion, and why it should be banned."
What an entrance! We were wide-eyed with a tape that blew all the other dullards, with their three minutes of dirge about traditional Thai dancing, right out of the water. At the same time we were saddened that somewhere in a good Catholic school in Bangkok (I made up St Mary's of Bang Na), young Thai girls were being schooled in the philosophy of crucifying any girl who gets pregnant, let alone has an abortion.
Despite Somsri's unforgettable intro - if it weren't so damned Third Reich she would have been in the Top 10 faster than you could perform a traditional Thai wai - the rest was a by-the-numbers speech on the unforgivable depravity of Thai girls who gave up their hallowed virginity, and how if she decided to abort, the girl was nothing more than a "cold blood murderer" who deserved to die.
Even I, A-List English Teacher (the A stands for "anal"), didn't have the energy nor desire to educate Somsri on why she needed an "-ed" at the end of blood.
I still have Somsri's tape somewhere, and I would have probably forgotten about it forever if not for the controversy that erupted.
It's university entrance test time for Thai seniors, who have to take the O-Net exam, proudly written by the National Institute of Educational Testing Service, or NUTS - I beg your pardon, NIETS. Part of it is in the box on this page, which I translated into English for you. Please take a moment to read the saga of Nid, a girl who starts off beautiful and ends up dead from vaginal bleeding, then answer the accompanying five questions.
Finished? Good. Do you feel like I do after reading this? Do you want to go take a shower? This is not a test. It's an academic shouting at you in the same tone of voice as Somsri's: DON'T HAVE SEX, the only difference being they decided to omit the ARGHHHHHHHHHH. Ignore the fact Question 36 has four correct answers, or the lack of any evidence in the passage to support any of the choices for Question 37. Do you get a dull feeling in your stomach that in 2010, this is the best academics can do in deciding who gets into uni and who doesn't? More to the point, aren't the academics afraid of lightning bolts?
My favourite is Question 38. NUTS, I'm sorry, NIETS, wants you to answer "Her parents", but if Nid lives in a Klong Toey shelter because her father is a methamphetamine addict and her mother is in a perpetual state of drunkenness ... then what?
NIETS copped the most flak from Question 39, especially after announcing the correct answer is (4). Since abortion is a crime in Thailand, the only course is to go to the police to make the father culpable. But what if Nid comes from Saraburi? In that province a few years ago, local cops were drunk at a karaoke bar and tried to fondle a girl. When she escaped on a motorbike, the cops gave chase with a machete in hand - and sliced off her left arm at the shoulder. NIETS doesn't care. A machete is probably what you deserve if you give up your virginity anyway.
Are these people living in Dreamworld? This test paper reeks of something withered nuns from a Catholic School in my hometown of Brisbane would have made up in the 1970s - but what's it doing here in laid-back, anything-goes Thailand?
Well for a start, this country is not laid-back nor anything-goes - thank goodness. This is a country where teenagers do need to be educated on the dangers of premarital sex, such as Aids or unwanted pregnancies. But questions on test papers which ignore measuring a student's capacity for knowledge and focus instead on the sanctity of virginity fuel the scorn poured on girls who succumb to the temporary charms of testosteroned males, then get blamed when the inevitable happens. An under-age pregnant girl doesn't need this type of postulating from the evil eye of academics - she needs care and support, and most of all, ironically, education.
As I travel down Sukhumvit Road this week there are brand new posters showing Bangkok city police officers standing smartly to attention and the words: "If you spot any student misbehaving, dial 1555!" Good. But with test questions such as these, where's the hotline to call when their teachers start behaving slightly, well, NUTS?
Originally Published: 28/03/2010
The dark side of Thailand
There is an ad on Thai TV for a product that whitens your armpits. That's right. Your armpits. That's all; nothing else. You think I'm joking, but I'm not. It's an ad for a roll-on deodorant, but the main thing is not that you smell nice. Rather, your underarms will be white.
The TV ad begins with a stick-thin Thai teenager in a terrible quandary. An allegedly handsome Thai teenage guy has walked past and noticed her armpits. He makes a face. The girl is perplexed; why should a man find her unattractive? She's skinny, Chinese-looking and clearly brainless - all the qualities a Thai guy looks for in a girl. Then she realises - her armpits - they're dark.
I could devote a whole column to young women who desire men who judge their self-worth by the colour of their armpits. Far be it from me to look down on a fetish; there was a time when I experimented with feet until I accidentally licked a bunion.
But in the ad, what is this woman to do? I guess that's what she gets for ignoring the recommendations of the Thai Ministry of Culture and choosing to wear a spaghetti-strap tank top on the BTS. If only she'd been wearing an ankle-length long-sleeved traditional Thai dance costume, the guy would never have noticed her shadowy, black-hole-of-Calcutta underarms.
Whatever. Her armpits are dark, that's all that matters. She may as well have buck teeth and a bung eye. But, thanks to some new roll-on deodorant, her armpits are now white and her life immediately changes for the better.
In which situation is a Thai going to show off her armpits? Remember this is the country where playing Spot The Thai On The Beach is no fun - she's the one dressed up to the nines in jeans and long-sleeved top complete with hat, scarf and overcoat as she gaily frolics in the waves. If there'd been a traditional Thai costume ///// around the beach she'd have thrown that on as well.
In the ad the first situation is on the skytrain, where Rake Girl sullenly stands holding the plastic strap, thus revealing her swarthy armpit, as the cute guy throws her a disapproving scowl as if to say: "No sex with you tonight - you've got BLACK ARMPITS." Then, after she has used the product, we see her raging away at some concert by a Korean Ken Doll, throwing those arms about like there's no tomorrow, revealing now-lily-white armpits, proof that indeed all you need is to be white and light to be beautiful in Thailand, even if it's just your armpits.
Forget the red shirt business. If ever there was evidence Thai society is degenerating into complete madness, then here is your proof.
How did we get here? When was it that skin care company executives held a meeting and discussed the next body part to exploit our insecurities? Between the legs? No, that may go against Thai culture, which forbids acknowledging the existence of procreation. What about the armpits? Now there's a natural progression!
For every Thai who says "We are all Thais" there lurks feelings that people from the North-east, by far the more colourful and fun part of Thailand, are inferior to the rest because of their "black skin". Thai guys prefer Northern ladies because they have "white skin", armpits probably included. There is a universal confusion among Thais about why western men love Isan girls - how could they? Their skin is black!
The answer lies at Surfers Paradise, of all places, where I grew up. It was there, back in the 1970s when we were more interested in KC & The Sunshine Band than melanomas, we stupid white folk stretched out on the beach for hours in the vain attempt to get a suntan, or as the Thais would put it, black skin.
Because of this, one in three Queenslanders have a form of skin cancer, but hey, a small price to pay for being beautiful. We whities prefer darker skin. Meanwhile, the darker Thais apply over-priced skin creams to be light. Thais and farangs - we are both as crazy as each other.
I have to admit I received a bit of a shock about skin colour beliefs in this country when I first arrived. I guess the Thais were vocalising what so many bigoted westerners prefer not to reveal. The popular Thai word for a person of African American heritage used to be nigg-ro, which you still hear sometimes, an appalling amalgamation of a word which I still correct whenever I hear it, whether it be from the mouth of a tuk-tuk driver or a khunying.
Back in 1989 when I first arrived here, one of the leading brands of toothpaste was DARKIE. And just in case you didn't get it, there was a picture of a smiling black face straight out of the Black And White Minstrel Show. I was so flabbergasted I immediately snapped up a dozen and sent 'em home as Christmas presents.
(Sometime in the early '90s the company must have discovered that this was not politically correct, and the name changed to DARLIE, as one can find in shops to this day - the smiling black dude remains on the packaging.)
We skip to more recent times and what is sunscreen overseas 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 it's good to be "white".
A dark-skinned pretty girl has a life of parental rape and brotherly incest - then along comes Ponds, or Revlon, or 12 Plus. The girl is now white and happy, frolicking in Siam Square with Thai guys whose hormones are simply raging for white, while the black girls sit at home in their bedrooms with the lights off, drowning in Janis Ian depression.
If this is truly real life, and what we want our young to believe, then give me bunions any day.
Originally appeared 15/08/2010 added 14/05/12
Rejection can be shattering
This week I made a mercy dash to Chanthaburi after receiving a disturbing phone call on Sunday evening. ''Lersak's tried to kill himself,'' Samai breathlessly told me over the phone. ''He drank weed killer at your house.''
Not the kind of thing one wants to hear after settling down to one's first Sunday screwdriver; I was in my car and on the motorway in no time, hurtling towards the eastern province at a speed that would have required 100 baht firmly attached to my driver's licence had the cops pulled me over.
I have a modest wooden house in the hills of Chanthaburi, a province nestled on the Cambodian border.
Twelve years ago I achieved the distinction of having the number one best-selling book in Thailand for a couple of weeks. The follow-up proved to be a best-seller as well, dispelling any personal fears that I was some kind of literary Sigue Sigue Sputnik who would disappear without a trace after only one effort. With my new-found wealth I built a wooden house as a kind of weekend getaway from the Bangkok rat race, somewhere I could disappear to and continue to write my runaway bestsellers.
One of my best friends there is Lersak, whom I have known for nearly 20 years. Thirteen years ago he fell in love with Hattai, an 18-year-old local girl. They never married; Hattai moved to Bangkok and gained her degree, while Lersak generally stayed in Chanthaburi running his rubber plantation.
In retrospect what happened was clear to see, though not for us who were so close to the events. Hattai grew out of Lersak. Recently in the Bangkok office where she worked she met a guy and, well, Lersak was sidelined. Two weeks ago she broke it off with him.
''He's over at your house ... dying,'' Samai explained over the phone as I reached the halfway mark of my mercy dash.
Dying at my house? Crazily I'd forgotten to bring my camera along. And besides ... what is it with Thais killing themselves to get back at their lovers?
Despite the proliferation of massage parlors on every corner of this country, there seems to be a strong commitment _ or perhaps it is a sense of ownership _ when it comes to finally meeting up with one's life partner. The commitment part is good; but thinking you can ''own'' anyone is dangerous, and this is clear when someone in a relationship here wants out, but the other doesn't.
Over the years of reporting the news in this country I am baffled by the constant recurrence of one particular news item, and it is this: Thai man has girlfriend. Thai man has relationship with other woman. Thai girl kills herself to ''get back at'' the Thai man.
It's been my experience that being alive is far more disturbing to an ex- than being dead. I just need to get this idea through to heartbroken young Thais who want to die to revenge an ex. This usually takes the form of jumping from a great height from one of those dreadful suburban apartment blocks _ you know the kind, all concrete and linoleum.
I once met an American man here who lived in a nice apartment who had a Thai girlfriend who was a university student. They'd been together six months. He met somebody else and decided to call it quits, so the next time his girlfriend was visiting, he told her the news. She nodded and took it in with an ashen face.
He went to the kitchen to get a drink, and when he returned she was gone. There, on the balcony, he spotted her shoes. She had jumped from the 15th floor.
Now if Hercule Poirot or Nancy Drew had spent any time in Thailand they would have spotted the important discrepancy in this story. Any Thai would have left her shoes by the door when she came in to the apartment. Why were they now out at the balcony? Simple; while he was in the kitchen she'd taken them out there before jumping. It was a sign. She was going to show him; teach him a strong lesson. She was going to kill herself and make sure he knew what she'd done!
The poor girl. There's a match for any old boot, as my mother used to say frequently, but that is beside the point; she left that balcony and hurtled down through the atmosphere thinking: ''Ha! This'll show him!'' Thwack.
It's all too tragic to even think about.
If it's the guy who's hard done by, he's more prone to do like Lersak and drink the local version of Drano, or worse, murder his girlfriend for daring to be with another guy. Such is the heart of we humans, especially when we delude ourselves into thinking that we can really ''own'' somebody else.
I am telling you all this because, after 250 kilometres breaking the speed limit, I arrived in my little home of Chanthaburi to a very-much-alive Lersak, sitting under his house with a glass of whiskey in front of him and a forlorn expression.
It turns out he'd trudged up the mountain with his bottle of weed killer into the forest where he couldn't be found. And then what? Unscrewed the cap and chugged it down, sputtering and choking on the poison as it wrested the very life out of him?
Hardly. He telephoned Hattai.
''I'm up here in the forest ... about 20 metres diagonally to the left behind Andrew's house. You'll never find me. I'm about to drink weed killer. I'm ending it all because of you, Hattai. Goodbye!''
All he needed was a swelling of violins and a commercial break to complete the picture. Hattai, of course, quickly called Lersak's mother, who called his best friend Wan, who happened to be at the rubber plantation, who sped over on his motorbike 30 minutes later with a gaggle of locals to find Lersak sprawled out under my sala with a hardly-touched bottle of weed killer.
I was furious.
''I drove three hours for this?'' I snarled. ''This isn't a suicide attempt! It's not even a cry for help! It's just pathetic!''
Lersak to his credit didn't disagree. I actually felt sad for him, having been jilted then having staged a very bad suicide attempt. Haven't we all felt like him at some stage in this life?
I certainly have. I couldn't show my face the week my book didn't enter the top 40 bestselling books. But there's always a new book, or a new girlfriend, for Lersak and me to look forward to. Despite our faults, both of us have managed to survive life's punches and pitfalls far longer than Sigue Sigue Sputnik ever did.
Originally appeared on 22/08/2010 added 21/05/2012
Beauties and the Beast
We live in a country where beauty pageants still pop up as single-digit percentage points in surveys of religious beliefs. The rest of the civilised world is shying away from the beauty pageant concept; the UK stopped televising their national competition back in the 1990s.
In Australia we only get excited about them when we win internationally, which isn't that often ever since we became the second most obese nation on the planet. An episode of the Biggest Loser garners better ratings than the sad Miss Australia Quest, proving that in Australia fat outweighs beauty ... literally.
In Thailand it's the opposite. The new generation of Thais may be characterised by pre-pubescent Chinese blimps, but when it comes to beauty competitions, Thais simply can't get enough of slender Thai-Chinese women characterised by long hair, perfect smiles, and frequent trips to the vomitorium _ I beg your pardon, the bathroom.
Go to any upcountry temple fair, and by nightfall the prettiest girls in the village, along with the village headman's cross-eyed, club-footed daughter, are trotted out on stage in traditional Thai outfits caked in seven inches of white make-up. The same is true at any festival such as Songkran or Loy Krathong.
Once in Phetchaburi I stumbled across a pork festival. The organisers were thrilled to see such a celebrity as myself (I rub shoulders with Miss Thailand World, remember) and thus introduced me to all sorts of important figures _ the deputy governor, a high-ranking police officer ... and Miss Pork. That's right, some hapless local lass who wasn't even cross-eyed with a sash around her disappointing chest had been crowned Miss Pork, or Miss Pig, whichever way you translated it. What an honour. They may as well have just crowned her Miss Fat and be done with it.
The obsession with beauty pageants here is borne out by the fact there are no less than six national pageants held. The big three are Miss Thailand, Miss Thailand World and Miss Thailand Universe, the last one I've always found hardly fair, for what chance do Martian protozoa have against leggy beauties like Jennifer Hawkins and Natalie Glebova?
I'm going to skip over details of the other three _ Miss Thailand Earth, Miss Teen Thailand and Miss Thailand Chinese _ because let's face it, six national competitions is ludicrous. These winners trot off to international quests where they often make the top 10 but crash out at the end, more often than not because the Thai perception of beauty is not in sync with international trends.
The more appealing types that would probably stand a chance are often pushed aside in the Thai competition for someone who wais better than the others, or who answers a question in a more conservative, traditional Thai way. Thus we lose out to countries like Venezuela, who churn out beauty pageant winners in the same quantities Thailand exports sacks of jasmine rice.
Which leads us to a great irony. No matter which of the six competitions you tune in to _ like Frankie Goes To Hollywood hits, the winners are interchangeable _ the emphasis is on somebody who reflects the beauty of Thai women and the Thai culture. An admirable goal _ so what is it with these Miss Thailands who can't even speak the language?
I'm trying to imagine a Miss Australia who can't speak English, yet that's the situation we have had in this country, as girls born of Thai parents in the USA are shipped out to the mother country six times a year. For a brief moment in time these cheeseburger-raised beauties throw on a traditional Thai outfit and attempt a wai. They invariably become runners-up ... but sometimes they win.
It was not that long ago that a good Aussie girl won Miss Thailand _ I was involved in the competition back then, as I offered free English lessons to the winner. The night she won, one of the organisers asked me: "Can we change your offer to free Thai lessons?"
Before the class could start, scandal struck. A day or so after the event it became clear to this girl that she'd have to give up her life as a free-wheeling model to assume the role of a prim, proper, chaste Thai girl, travelling around the country in a crown and high heels smiling with every leering phuyai bahn in every Nakhon Hideous. Jail would have seemed a more attractive prospect.
Then, a godsend ... the girl had taken semi-naked fashion shots the year before. Using this as an excuse, she was relieved of her crown and the runner-up stepped in, and life went back to normal in Thailand, only to be disrupted at a similar level some years later in 2010 when the red shirts burned down Bangkok.
Thais conveniently overlooked this linguistic shortcoming when Porntip Nakhirunkanok, the non-Thai-speaking American who was crowned Miss Thailand in 1988, went on to win Miss Universe. The fact she stumbled through the language didn't detract from the "prestige" she brought Thailand for winning the competition.
Yet if winning Miss Thailand is such an honour and prestige, how can we explain the curious case of the medical student who won a few years back? Suddenly there were doctors expressing concern that a doctor winning a beauty pageant might somehow detract from the prestige of the medical profession. As I said at the time, it was the first time we'd discovered that ugliness was an important prerequisite for any student wishing to pursue a career as a medical practitioner.
My favourite scandal occurred the year I arrived here. I believe it was the 1990 competition, and I saw it for myself on TV. In that year a girl picked up the crown amid rumours she, like the cross-eyed club-footed thing in Nakhon Hideous, only won it because she had connections. That didn't go down well with one of the runners-up, a group of girls who despite their smiles have a collective lean and hungry look.
Right there during the pageant, one of them walked straight up to the smiling, crying, waving winner in her sash _ and wrenched the crown off her head!
By the turn of the century things had gone off the boil. Organisers started thinking up silly ideas like "beauty with a purpose" or "beauty with a mission" when really guys only want to see pretty girls in skimpy swimsuits. In one year the Miss Tiffany transvestite competition was held the night before the Miss Thailand quest, and even the newspapers admitted the boy was far prettier than the winning girl.
These days the six competitions click over with a level of interest nothing like days of yore. Maybe it's because today women in Thailand have far greater goals in life than just looking good for guys.
Originally appeared 26/09/2010 added 02/07/2012
Hey you, Farang!
These words use to drive me crazy.
'Hey you. You." The voice comes from behind, and I turn around to see a young man leaning lackadaisically against his taxi. "Where you go? I take you!" he adds, and he now breaks into a grin, revealing an even shade of yellow on his nicotine-stained teeth.
Bottles of Leo on a daily basis are starting to show around his paunch. He seems affable enough and this is why he doesn't incur my wrath for employing the dreaded Thai greeting that to this day still raises my hackles.
Hey you. You'd have thought I'd have gotten used to it by now. It's the very last of a great swag of words and phrases used by Thais that used to drive me up the wall. The others have fallen by the wayside. Besides, aren't there more important things to worry about, such as the red shirts threatening to regroup or the fact we'll get 3G just in time for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics?
Yet even today, when a Thai wants to draw my attention and shouts the dreaded Hey you, I can't help but get flustered despite all my deep breathing techniques and books like Reiki For Dummies by my bed.
My 20-year stay in Thailand has been a progression of what I call "phrase phases".
It all started with the "f word", which despite my liberalist views upset me no end in my first year here. I'm not diametrically opposed to bad language, but the overuse of the "f word" turned otherwise attractive Thais ugly every time they opened their mouths.
I'm talking about the word farang, the all-encompassing term for blue-eyed blonde-haired westerners which, coincidentally, happens to be the same word they use for "guava". (When a hungry Thai wants to eat a guava, the Thai sentence for that throws up interpretations you'll never find in your Easy Thai For Tourists CD).
Farang. It was the first Thai word I became accustomed to because I heard it so often. I thought it meant "hello" at first, since wherever I went I'd be greeted by that great Thai smile then that single word from their lips. I felt obliged to say "farang" back at them, though a slightly more bitter and twisted Andrew would, a year or two later, answer with khon Thai (Thai person) as a somewhat pathetic means of revolt against the word. It didn't do any good.
If I once thought farang was bad, how did I feel when I learned about the special derogatory term for a backpacker? Farang khee nok translated literally means "a westerner who resembles bird poo", but before you fumble for your Wiltshire Stay-Sharps and take to the Silom streets, I must hasten to add that's a literal translation. It's actually a type of guava, but thanks to a play on words it can be used to describe a wandering backpacker who has seen neither homeland nor deodorant for many a month.
Knowing the language a little deeper these days, I realise there isn't anything very derogatory about farang (though call me a farang khee nok and I'll club you with my Mennen Speed Stick). No sooner had I gotten over the "F word" that I fell deeply into a new "phrase phase" which took my hackles to heights never before attained.
What was it about those two words that almost made me want to burn down shopping centers if one more Thai dared to use same same in an English sentence?
"I take you everywhere," the taxi driver says to me. "I same same guide for you."
What he said would have upset me 15 years ago. I would have had to have stopped him right there and explained that despite what 62 million people residing around the Gulf of Siam may think, there is no such word in the English language, and not only that it sounds a little silly, so would you please ditch it and try something a little more civilised like "the same as".
Thank goodness I got over that phase; it was as pedantic as that last paragraph. But I did try my hardest in my capacity as benevolent English teacher to erase it. I wrote columns in Thai about alternatives to same same. I made TV shows, instructional videos and even stood on stages trying to explain why the phrase is so very, very wrong.
I may as well have just danced the hokey-pokey. I was like the vegetarian dressed in a chicken suit holding placards outside KFC; cute, but ultimately futile. In the end the Thais will always turn to "same same" the same way I always turn to a Chicky Burger when I'm hung over.
There have been other "phrase phases". Some of them I wonder why on earth I bothered - like when I used to care about "Where you go?" It's hard to believe I bought Corey Hart's Sunglasses At Night in 1984; in a similar vein, it's hard to imagine why "Where you go?" could jettison my hackles through the roof of my Samut Prakan home, but it did, dear reader. It did.
"Where you go?" and "same same" and "hey you" are so ubiquitous it's almost as if somebody is officially teaching them to young Thais. Is there a set of primary school English textbooks divided into chapters about greetings ("Hey you!"), questions ("Where you go") and adjectives ("same same")?
I suspect it is more word of mouth. A long time ago I caught a packed train from Korat to Bangkok; the man wedged in next to me was holding his son of no more than a year old. As soon as he saw me he smiled.
"Look," he said to his son in Thai. "A foreigner! And do you know what you say when you see a foreigner? You say: Hey you! Say it after me: Hey you! Hey you! Hey you!"
It was bad enough standing like sardines in the oppressive heat of a crowded train carriage.
"Hey you! Hey you! Come on. Say it. Say it."
But to have a barrage of hey you's slapping me in the face every second was icing on the Neurotic Cake. My hackles were hovering up around the Thaicom satellite by this stage. I almost jumped out of the carriage, rolling down the embankment and ending up next to a bewildered buffalo chewing on Saraburi grass, just to escape.
The thing about "Hey you" is - what's the alternative? "Excuse me?" That phrase is one of the most difficult to say if you've been brought up on a language that eschews the "s" sound, as Thai does. Thais end up saying something like "Accuse me!" ("Okay! You did it! Are you happy now?") or "A-Kiss me!" ("With those nicotine-stained lips? Ya gotta be kidding.") or even "A-Kill me!" ("One more 'same same' and your wish may come true!").
I hope that soon I will move out of this long, long "Hey you" phrase phase and come to terms with the fact it is here to stay. After 20 years I've learned that it's easier to change myself than 62 million Thais who grapple daily with English.
Hey, at least they are grappling. And I am always happy to help them out, even if it means keeping a firm rein on my hackles, wherever and, come to think of it, whatever they may be.
originally appeared 03/10/2010 added 23/07/2012
Dying to get in
I was greeted by a gorgeous woman. She waied me and escorted me to the emergency room, where another three nurses sat me down.
When I limped into my local hospital on Srinakarin Road last Tuesday, I was greeted by a gorgeous woman in a sensible blue pantsuit. She waied me and escorted me to the emergency room, where another three nurses sat me down.
From there a friendly young man took my elbow and lay me down on a hospital bed in emergency, while the head nurse introduced her attractive subordinate who would dress my wound after the doctor examined it. A good-looking young man far too old to have braces on his teeth then hovered beside me, explaining he was the Customer Relations Officer for Emergency which was why he was in a suit and tie and asking me questions like could I eat spicy food and had I visited Wat Phra Kaeo yet.
Are you counting, dear reader? Eight people looked after me from go to woe, not counting the doctor. And look at all those adjectives I used _ gorgeous, friendly, attractive, etc _ without even once resorting to my thesaurus. Plus they were all young and friendly. If only my leg wasn't hurting like hell from toe to lymphatic gland I could have resorted to my usual shallow self and truly appreciated the well-proportioned, nice-looking people around me who appeared as though they genuinely wanted to help.
Honestly, you are not going to get better service at hospitals anywhere else in the world. Where are the best places to stay in Bangkok? The Top 10 would surely include The Oriental, Sukhothai, InterContinental, Shangri-La, Bumrungrad, BNH and Samitivej. You can't tell the difference between the hotels and the hospitals; recently I was, er, visiting a friend in the Botox clinic at Samitivej and contemplated stealing the cutlery until I reminded myself I wasn't in a five-star hotel.
In fact staying in a hospital might be a better deal than staying in a five-star hotel. Visitors can stay the night without leaving their IDs at the front counter, for example. All the stuff in the minibar is free, though I've heard in hospitals it's called a "fridge" and you do have to send somebody down to 7-Eleven for your cans of Singha. And none of this pedantic "non-smoking room" business you see in hotels. In a hospital, all you do is walk out onto the balcony, flick the butt over the side and nobody's ever the wiser.
Even the non-five star hospitals are excellent value for money. Like this week. After those eight staff, the doctor's operation on my foot, a tetanus injection and a suitcase of pills, the whole bill came to 2,000 baht. That's $US65. I can't imagine how much that would have cost me had it happened on my recent trip to the US, where I had to take out extra medical insurance to cover me for one million baht had an emergency occurred _ which, apparently, wouldn't have been enough.
And every day since, I've been back in the morning where more than half a dozen staff escort me to my bed, wash and dress the wound, and the guy with the braces then walks me over to the cashier where I am charged the princely sum of less than 10 American dollars. If the doctor sees me it goes up to nearly $30. Goodness me.
No, I don't get this special treatment because I'm a well-known face nudging his way into the khunying set, appearing once and a while in Thai society pages whenever the stuffed envelope makes it into the hands of the page editor. (Though once, when dropping my Nautica trousers for a tetanus injection, the nurse confessed she was "so nervous to be giving an injection to Andrew Biggs!" "Then hand the needle over to somebody less impressed," I said through gritted teeth from my bent-over position.)
Having a work permit or permanent residency does get you discounts, though. At the Police Hospital, for example, my work permit immediately dropped the cost of a visit from 1,000 baht to 150 baht but hey _ even 1,000 baht is still damn cheap compared to where we come from. And at Rutnin Hospital, the best eye hospital in Thailand and perhaps the entire region, they charge 150 baht for a consultation. I feel like tipping the cashier.
Finally, the pills.
Back in Australia, you're lucky to get a strip or two of dull old colourless antibiotics from a wizened chemist who smells like a musty old used teabag.
Not over here. I come home with 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!
I am truly grateful I live in a country where a good hospital is a godsend. I am aware of the system's faults but I'm not complaining. We westerners sometimes find it easy to condemn, complain, scream, rant and get all screwy about Thailand. But is there anything more important than a good Botox Clinic? Oh God, where did that come from? I meant to say "good health".
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