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Extracts from my book. “A Thailand diary”


Extracts from A Thailand Diary

9 January

Murder most foul.

Our soi (lane) is single track, so we could not get the car out when the police vehicle parked outside our neighbour’s house. And you don’t ask armed police officers, anywhere in the world, to move their car for you. They park where they want to park.

A crowd had started to gather outside the house. The locals wanted to know what was going on, and they were waiting around to gather whatever snippets of information or gossip were available.

Ratchanee told me that one of the brothers in the house was dead. There had been some heavy drinking the night before and the men’s mother had heard some shouting downstairs. She had thought nothing of it. In the morning, the mother found her son lying in a pool of blood.

The police were now investigating a murder. They will start searching for two Burmese.

The brothers drank regularly with the same group of friends from neighbouring sois, all Thai nationals. Not my type, but friendly enough. I’d never seen any Burmese, legal or illegal, in the area, and neither had anyone else.

The police didn’t stay long and the family immediately started to clean the house and tidy the garden. Monks come round quickly after a death in Thailand in order to start the funeral rites, and it’s best that everything is spotless before they arrive.

We may learn more about what happened in the coming days. More likely, we will not.

15 February

It is a nice touch that members of the Thai royal family give out degree certificates to graduates at the universities. Very few countries do that.

Dao invited us to the rehearsal.

She had got up at 5am to get her hair styled and her face made up. Thais are always careful about their appearance and Dao is an attractive young lady. Today she looked like a film star. She had called the dummy run “the walking” and I could see why. All the students lined up and walked up to the stage where a stand-in handed out the certificates. This was repeated until they got it absolutely right. Yes, it was a day of much walking.

On the day that the degree is conferred, the students’ families and friends join in the celebrations, flowers and gifts are showered on the new graduates, and many photographs are taken with fellow students and teachers.

16 March

Picked five large bunches of bananas this morning and gave three to my neighbours. I have more than enough for the next few weeks. Sharing what you have is very much a Thai way. It shows nam jai (generous giving). Everyone in the soi is forever giving fruit, plants, and vegetables to one another. If there’s no one at home, they’ll put a bag of goodies on your gatepost.

27 April

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I have forgotten to fasten my seatbelt. Even if it was not a legal requirement in Thailand, I would “clunk, click, every trip” as I would if I was driving in my home country.

I’m going to have to give you a ticket. I saw you put your seatbelt on after you came round the corner.

Pom jai ngern hai khun dio nee. Taorai na kap. (Can I pay you now? How much?)

My wallet was 400 baht lighter, but I was not given a ticket. I had my licence back. The police officer halted the traffic to allow me to pull out, gave an even smarter salute than before, and I was on my way.

Collecting minor fines in this way is common practice. The money is shared out later at the station. It’s regarded as a perk of the job and really forms part of officers’ salaries.

4 May

Kawp krua gawn; peuan gawn.

Family first; friends first.

Had to get some passport photos taken today. Took my queue ticket and sat down to wait, and wait, and wait.

Goong, one of my neighbours, was the cashier on duty and when she saw me, she called me over to her colleague on the photo booth. Four minutes later and everything was finished.

I do not like this pulling of rank that goes on so much here; but there was little I could do. Would have been insulting to refuse the fast tracking. Goong would have lost face in front of her colleagues. The main point, however, is that no one minded; it was seen as quite normal and acceptable for family and friends not to have to wait in line.

23 June

I suggested that Tong ask for a meeting with her boss about the delays to her vacation approval and more importantly her job evaluation.

That would seem like a challenge to my boss’s position, Matt. Everyone has a place in the office hierarchy. I will get some colleagues to drop a few well-chosen comments about my work and how it compares with the performance of others; but I can do no more than that. Thais like to use an intermediary to resolve a problem rather than going direct. I know that sounds strange to Westerners, Matt.

15 July

Watched police checking for illegals on a building site. One elderly woman worker did not have her Thai ID card with her. By law, you must carry these cards with you at all times. Rules are rules.

Law enforcement is flexible in Thailand. It was obvious from her appearance that she was Thai. And, out of respect for an older person, the police were not going to make a fuss. She was asked to sing the Thai national song to prove her nationality.

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12 September

Saw Tim for lunch today. Work is proceeding well on his house build. They have started making the concrete base and building up the outside walls. The men are doing the heavy work but the women are busy pulling the carts containing the made-up cement to where most of it is needed. The supervisor is watching and making sure the block work is being laid straight and level. One of the workers had started on the second course without cutting the first block in half. The result was that the second course was not being staggered. The join should never be above another join as that takes away the strength of the wall.

Tim saw it and quietly told the worker’s boss. He was right not to get angry and make a big fuss about it, and it was better that he told the boss and not the worker. The supervisor would not have liked that. He is in charge and only he gives the orders. Status is all-important in Thailand and no one must lose face. Tim emigrated from America two months ago and is learning fast that interacting with people in Thailand is not the same as in the West.

9 October

Imitate the humour style of your host country. Break the ice first and watch the body language of those you are with. You may still get it wrong but it won’t be disastrous.

“Pai nai kap” (where are you going?), I shouted as Geng got up from the table where we were all sitting and drinking cold pints of the local brew. Thais tend to just get up and go without any explanation. I found it strange at first.

We all knew where he was going when he walked towards some bushes in the garden. We were having a reasonably heavy drinking session, so it was not difficult to guess. He turned round, laughed, and went on to water the shrubbery.

That sort of joke would go down well in France. Other countries may be more serious. It would not even raise a snigger in Russia, but your attempts at another type of humour would bring the house down. The rule holds true: be careful telling a joke if you are unaware of the culture of your listeners and their reactions to humour.

14 November

Not to everyone’s liking, but northern Thai food can become an acquired taste. Dishes are served with an extensive range of different spices and herbs. Variety is in; blandness is out.

You select the food you want and put a little on your own plate. Or, more typically, someone on your table will serve you, particularly if you are older than the others are.

Sticky rice is the staple food of choice in the north. You roll some up in a ball with your hand and then envelop it around whatever food you wish to eat. Your right hand is always used, never the left, which is reserved for toiletry purposes in eastern countries.

(Sticky rice is called kao niaokao, rice; niao, sticky. And not to be confused with kee niao, which is Thai slang for stingy or mean, literally sticky shit).

28 November

The snake sunning itself beside the pond was not a cobra but it was about two metres long nevertheless. I was not going to go near it and tried to get the dogs to move away.

Unless cornered, snakes will normally keep out of your way. Just be careful if walking in long grass that you don’t accidentally disturb them.

Some snakes have keen eyesight; others do not. This is why you often see them moving their heads from side to side to get better focus. They sense movement from any ground vibration when you try to walk away. The best advice is to stand still, hold your breath, and not make any sharp change of direction.

If you don’t pose a threat to a snake, it may slide away.

Make a mental note of its colour and other distinguishing features. If you are bitten or sprayed with venom, it would become important information for the hospital in its choice of serum.

If their young are threatened, you could be in a dangerous and tight spot. Snakes have been known to chase a car that has driven over a snake’s batch of eggs.

Having said that, you are more likely to encounter snakes in their professional capacity in lawyers’ offices than anywhere else.

5 December

Today is a national holiday as it is the King’s birthday. It is also Father’s Day in Thailand. Tens of thousands of people, many having camped out overnight, have gathered in SanamLuangPark in Bangkok to cheer the monarch as he passes. All one could hear was the crowd crying out “Long live our King. Long live our King.” Many with tears in their eyes. King Bhumibol is much loved by his people; having reigned since 1946, he is the only king most Thais have ever known.

Of course, in the West there would be singing, dancing, and drinking. Any excuse for a party. What is striking in Thailand, and what sets it apart from many other countries, is the passionate and patriotic fervour that goes with it.

You would party in America to celebrate Independence Day; the monarch’s jubilees are fun events in the UK. But you would not hear “God Bless America” and “God Save the Queen” at private parties.

Thailand is different. Workers on the construction site opposite are still partying. The sounds of Sawng Phra Ja Rern, Sawng Phra Ja Rern (Long live our King) is ringing out constantly from every house in the village. And it’s well past midnight.

28 December

My name is Waterfall, call me Water.

Thais only use surnames for official documents. Even the Thai prime minister is called by her first name. Your boss may be called wanna (boss) or pee (a word meaning elder), followed by the first name, never the surname.

To confuse even more, Thais have two first names – an official name and a nickname.

A nickname is selected at birth by the parents. A small baby may be called Goong, (shrimp) or Lek (tiny).

Thais can be very superstitious. Nicknaming your child Oun (fat) or Moo (pig) is supposed to discourage and frighten ghosts and evil spirits, and dissuade them from any association with the newly born child.

The official name is registered some days later at the local district office, usually after a monk has been consulted over the choice of name. The parents simply give the monk (the proper word is actually Bikkhu in Thai) the time and day of his birth and he will decide a name. His suggestion will invariably be accepted.

So, from now on, I will call Waterfall by his nickname, nam, water.

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