Friday, April 25, 2014

The Mighty Chao Phraya

You might enquire – why does the Chao Phraya River feature in a blog about Thailand’s culture code? What possible impact has Chao Phraya had in shaping and defining the values and attitudes of Thai people? These are questions I am still struggling to answer but what I do know is the Chao Phraya River has played a critical and influential role throughout much of Thailand’s history – hence the reason for its inclusion in this blog on the country’s culture code. Visitors taking the river cruise are given a flimsy and superficial commentary on its significance – but can you really expect more in twenty minutes? To understand more you have to spend time digging into history.
The Chao Phraya River starts life as three northern streams snaking 220 miles down to the Gulf of Thailand. It waters the broad Central Plains creating as it does one of the most fertile rice-growing areas in the world. It is also the access route for international shipping and commerce and the historical basis for the founding of three capital cities on its banks – Ayutthaya, Thonburi and finally Bangkok. Floating houses, two and three deep, used to line its banks. Today it still provides easy access to the major landmarks such as the Grand Palace and countless important Buddhist temples. For locals it provides an efficient transport system to work or school. Large scale residential developments on its banks are now home to the rich and the very best hotels have panoramic views over the bustling maritime activity below.
Every time I visit Bangkok a trip on the river is a must – either on the relative luxury of the dedicated tourist boat, on the overcrowded ferry, an exhilarating ride in a long-tail boat or as a guest on one of the dining cruises. There is always something to fascinate. If you are lucky, you may witness one of the grand ceremonial occasions featuring the Royal Barges or Dragon Boat races. Surprisingly, when you consider the blackness of the water and discarded rubbish, it is teeming with fish.
Making the connection between the Chao Phraya and Thai people is still a ‘work in progress’ so anyone with thoughts and opinions would be most welcome.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

A Word in English if I may

Who am I to talk about language proficiency? A spattering of French and Thai still leaves me hugely humbled when I teach my international students in Bangkok. Students from Germany, France, China, Nepal, Sweden, Thailand and many other nations master the nuances of my northern English accent to produce stunning marketing presentations – equal to the best I have seen in over 30 years in academia. To do the final part of an undergraduate programme or an MBA in your second language is an immense achievement – these students deserve to go places! However not all is well with the teaching of English in Thailand and the Government [once they get one] is keen to do something about it. Thailand, along with other South East Asian economies, will form a huge trading bloc in 2015 [ASEAN] and English will be the language of commerce. But Thailand is ranked the lowest in English competence amongst ASEAN countries. Why is this? A friend who teaches English as a foreign language to Thai school children reckons it is down to two main reasons. Firstly, and this is something common to all disciplines, children aren’t taught to think for themselves. Linked to this is the emphasis on memorisation as opposed to reasoning. The second is, children are expected to sit quiet and absorb knowledge – those that ask questions are penalised in subtle ways. It is not surprising that this teacher/student relationship stays with Thai students throughout their life. It was brought home to me very forcibly in my first year teaching Thai MBA students in Surat Thani. Groups of students were making presentations and where they used an unattributed statistic I would try to seek an explanation of its origin or the basis of their calculation. The students became alarmed at ‘my aggressive line of questioning’. To me I wasn’t being aggressive at all – on reflection I thought I was a paragon of patience and understanding. Oh to understand the culture code!!!! From that day forth I realised it was down to me adjust my behaviour. ASEAN, Thai parents increasingly aware of the importance of English and dissatisfaction with state-run education suggests a huge opportunity in Thailand.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Street Food - Still a Growth Market

With a fast expanding middle class of consumers and rising levels of discretionary spending power you would expect there to be some impact on everyday eating habits of the indigenous population. International fast food outlets are growing by a whopping 12/15 per cent per annum. Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, French and many other fast food chains are beginning to swamp and marginalise the old American standards of MacDonald’s, KFC and Burger King.
Though the latter still have a critical role to play in the educational market providing the venue for student homework and remedial sessions! That’s something you don’t see in Europe or America. But the point I want to make here is that you would expect this internationalisation of eating habits to have a detrimental knock-on effect on traditional food sectors such as ‘street food’. But no – this sector is also growing at a healthy 5 per cent per annum. For those not familiar with Thailand, ‘street food’ is a collective term for mainly individual entrepreneurs carving out a life for themselves selling ready to eat food from mobile catering units stationed along busy roads – in fact they can crop up anywhere there is a reasonable level of pedestrian footfall.
It doesn’t come without risk. Ignoring the everyday risks posed by mad motorists there is also a potential health problem. Street stalls selling skewered pork are a risk both to those selling it and those consuming it – according to the Pollution Control Department. The risks include eye irritation, respiratory problems and even cancer. The smoke from hot grills contains volatile organic compounds – but, apparently, not as high as that given off by burning incense sticks. Danger lurks everywhere!
Armed with this statistical evidence I set out to try and explain this phenomenon. An ABAC Poll in 2009 found that 70 per cent of Bangkok residents regularly eat ‘street food’. They do so because of: busy lifestyle 66%, cheapness 51%, convenience to home/place of work 46% and friendliness of stall holders 41%. A straw poll amongst my independent female students in Bangkok revealed they are fast losing traditional food preparation skills with most eating every night. This is also influenced by the fact most new condominiums come without kitchens. So now you know!
Click the page title for more information about street food

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Songkran - Time to Splash Out*

Songkran is to the Thais what New Year’s Eve is to us in the West. It is their traditional New Year. In terms of the astrological timetable, it is when the sun passes from Aries into Taurus. It is celebrated every year on April 13th or 14th. These days the Festival of Songkran is spread over the three days 13th to 15th April. It is also has another significance – it is the time that marks the end of rice harvesting. Once completed, it frees up time for young men and women to start their courtship. There is a strong romantic feeling in the air around Songkran. Songkran Day begins with early morning merit-making mainly by offering food to monks and visiting elderly relatives. Tradition has it that younger members of the family pour scented water over the hands of relatives wishing them health and well-being. Songkran is associated with water. It is the time to start spring-cleaning which includes washing household Buddha images with scented water. This association with water extends to washing anyone and everyone within range – whether they need it or not. Unsuspecting Western tourist better look out as they will be targeted for a soaking – even if they are dressed to kill. And it is not just a cup-full or a water pistol spray – it is a full bucket! Songkran will never catch on in Liverpool!!!!! My Austrian traditional pizza making friend closes his business down during the festival. One year his customers, as well as himself, wife and wood burning pizza oven were so drenched he had to ‘shut up shop’. So be warned. The one downside to celebrating Songkran is the apparent increase in drink driving and related accidents. There has been talk of banning alcohol sales during Songkran. *Click on the page title above to see statistics about road accidents during Festival of Songkran.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Wai - More Than Meets the Eye

One of the defining and memorable features for the visitor to Thailand is the Wai or the ‘Thai Traditional Salutation’. It is the Thai equivalent of our handshake. It is the accepted way of greeting both friend and stranger. It is to me however more meaningful, engaging and charming than our Western handshake. To start with it requires more effort – both hands are raised, palms are joined and lightly touching the body somewhere between the chest and forehead. But this simple action can convey so much more meaning. The higher the hands are raised the greater the respect is being conveyed. It is also expected that the more junior of the two, whether it be rank or age, should be the first to give the Wai. The senior person returning the Wai would do so no higher than the chest. There is also a very close link between the position of the head and the Wai – the junior’s head must never be above that of his senior or superior. I recall a time when the wife and I were returning from Hat Yai having narrowly avoided a terrorist bombing. Our plane was delayed because the Royal Prince, who had been visiting injured soldiers, took priority over all commercial flights. Hat Yai airport was teeming with top military brass forming some guard of honour and it was fascinating to watch how the lower ranks behaved towards their superiors. If a senior officer was seated the lower ranks would virtually crawl past to maintain the appropriate head position. There is a lot more to the Wai with deeper gestures of respect and I again refer those interested in acquiring more in-depth understanding to Denis Segaller’s books on traditional Thai customs.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Who Ever is Teaching Them to Drive Should Stop!

You might question is this a legitimate topic to incorporate into a blog about Thailand’s culture code? Well I think it is. I am very familiar with the taxi fraternity and from this experience conclude that they must undergo some devilish transformation once they get behind the wheel. They drive like maniacs, they weave in and out of congested traffic queues to gain a meter or two but here is the rub, they don’t get angry.
Road rage is not part of their psyche. They hardly ever use their horns. When I first arrived in Thailand I thought their horns were burned out and there was a national shortage of spare parts. The upshot of this madness is that in 2012/13 there were 26,000 road deaths. Thailand is the sixth most dangerous country in the world for traffic related deaths. Now how do you explain that? For an outwardly gentle and caring race this is a horrendous statistic. Each week about 500 families can expect to be devastated by the news of the death of a loved one. 60% of these deaths are motorcyclists or their passengers. Many are not wearing crash helmets. You frequently see three or even four people on a motor cycle – whole families including very young children and none of them wearing crash helmets or protective leathers. You see young ladies hitch their short skirts even higher and sit side-saddle clutching only their handbags. Are they not aware of the risks they run? What explanation lay behind this casual attitude to road safety? Do they put their trust in luck?
There are times when ones sympathy for motorcyclists wears paper thin. In rainy weather, to avoid puddles or hidden potholes, they will join pedestrians on walkways and it is the pedestrian who has to jump. When crossing a road, extreme caution is needed, because even when cars are jammed solid, motor cyclists continue on their merry way oblivious to the plight of those on foot. Never trust a pedestrian crossing in Bangkok – only 50% of drivers and riders seem to connect a red light with ‘stop’. It is hard to comprehend what is going through their mind when they see school children on a crossing but carry on seemingly totally oblivious to the law and the safety of others.
Taxi drivers do seek Godly help with their daily toil. Their cars are decorated with miniature Buddha’s and strings of Jasmine flowers – all links to their guardian spirits I presume. I do quite enjoy a tuc-tuc ride. There is something exhilarating being driven at breakneck speed in a flimsy open-sided vehicle. But the drivers of these velocipedes are just as mad as the rest. I remember vividly, when lecturing in Chiang Mai, taking a tuc-tuc to the university campus.
We travelled at warp speed but arrived safely. The students were horrified. They were genuinely concerned about my welfare and from that day on insisted on picking me up from my hotel. I don’t know to this day whether their concern was because of the lady driver or the manner of my arrival? Another of Thailand’s many mysteries!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Engaging the Spirits of the Land

You can’t go very far in Thailand without encountering one. Lavish ones are located at the front of five star hotels, exclusive shopping malls and skyscraper office blocks. They decrease in size, opulence and grandeur seemingly in direct proportion to the size of the building plot on which they are sited.
They can look like miniature temples, with tiered roofs and stately gilt ‘prangs’ or spires or simple wooden replicas of a traditional Thai dwelling.
Their exact location must be determined by an expert. They serve as shrines for the spirit of the land on which the building stands – The ‘Phraphum Chaotee’ which translates into ‘the guardian spirit inhabiting the homestead’. [The Legend of Phraphum Chaotee, which is one of the Thai folklore tales in a book called ‘The Life of Brahma’, is described by Denis Segaller in his book ‘More Thai Ways.] It is too complicated to describe here but the tale ends with the rider “Learned persons please judge it according to your own opinion”. Building a house in Thailand is a very serious matter – not only the expense but also not offending the ‘spirit of the land’ on which it is to be built. Thai people will always consult an astrologer to decide when is the best time to build a house and get ‘the maximum protection from ill-fortune and live in serenity, happiness and prosperity’. For example never start building a house on a Sunday, Tuesday or Saturday [most definitely not a Saturday!!!]. This will lead to a heap of trouble. There is also a popular belief that construction should be started in an even-numbered month, or else in the ninth month. Nine is a lucky number in Thailand – you will see this number crop up time and again throughout the items in the blog.
You might ask, is there a link between spirits and Buddhism? Belief in spirits is far older than Buddhism. Not only do spirits guard individual pieces of land but also villages, cities and trees. To avoid problems and ensure harmony and prosperity they must be placated with specially prepared offerings. These beliefs coexist with Buddhism and sometimes overlap in ways we Westerners find difficult to understand. To promote ‘harmony and prosperity’ the guardian spirit is placated with daily offerings by household members. The most basic being fragrant incense sticks, candles and flowers. Spiritual abodes in wealthier compounds are lavishly supplied with a variety of offerings: small dolls to symbolise attendants, floral displays, fresh fruits and carefully prepared and presented full meals. As you travel through Thailand you will pass compounds containing hundreds of different ‘spirit houses’. Somehow seeing them displayed in this way they lose a bit of their mystique. But then again they have not been fully activated! They are 'spiritless'.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Thailand's LGBT Community

The short answer is it is getting easier to be open about your sexual orientation in Thailand. Like in many countries, life was not easy for homosexuals. Banned from joining the army, limited employment opportunities, excluded from certain schools and generally regarded as second class citizens was the norm before a more tolerant attitude started to take hold in the 1990’s. LGBT-pride festivals were openly promoted from 1999 onwards. However legislative support for gay marriage still remains a divisive issue. Buddhism, the majority religion in Thailand, seems quite relaxed about it. There is no social or moral code specifically relating to the issue and Buddhist monks can and do bless gay relationships. However such relationships are not legally recognised. Adoption and inheritance are clearly big challenges and not everyone is in favour of a change in the law. But change is afoot! There are some interesting statistics about how big the LGBT community is in Thailand. Numbers from the Mahadol Population Gazette/Rainbow Sky Association of Thailand estimates that there are over 10m LGBT people out of a total population of 64m. Out of the 10m, 6.8m are gays, 1.1m are lesbians and 2.1m are ‘unclassified’. There has also been a big growth in revenue from LGBT tourism. Apparently Thailand is the second most popular wedding destination for gay couples even though it is not legally recognised. [Couples will still have to have the legality confirmed in their home country. Sauna’s, Massage/Spa’s, Bars and discos specifically for Gays have increased steadily since 2000 again demonstrating Thailand’s tolerant attitude to the LGBT community.

Thai proverbs - a cultural insight

Proverbs are an important source of insights into Thailand’s rich cultural heritage. Many have been used for centuries reflecting a time when Thais lived a rural life facing daily dangers from tigers and crocodiles. Proverbs can serve several purposes in all cultures – they can help us reflect on the nature of reality or they can exhort us to lead a more purposeful life. Some Thai proverbs have direct comparisons in English proving there are many similarities between cultures just as there are differences. This selection of proverbs is designed to demonstrate how Thai people interpret the world around them. It is one more piece in the make-up of Thailand’s culture code. It is another ‘window’ into what makes us the people we are. The one thing you will notice is how easy it is to interpret and understand the intended meaning of these proverbs prompting the view that once you scratch the surface is there really much difference between cultures? Some of these proverbs are centuries old when there was absolutely no communication between East and West but yet we codified our daily lives in very similar ways These are just a few examples – note their connection with food, nature and wild animals demonstrating their origin when Thailand [or Siam as it was called then] was very much a rural and agrarian economy. ‘Garnished with coriander’ - a saying about people who do things to cover up a less attractive reality or to the Thais it is someone who sprinkles coriander on top of a dish they are preparing to hide the fact they have not put much effort in! ‘The snake charmer can die from his own snake’ - means don’t get carried away with your own self- importance. ‘Receding water reveals the tree stumps’- when times are good all kinds of problems can be hidden but when times turn bad things previously hidden come to the surface. ‘A dog guarding his fish bones’ - an exhortation to share your wealth or good fortune. ‘A tiger does not change his stripes’ – same as our leopard one! ‘When entering the land of the Cyclops, be a Cyclops too’ – same as our ‘When in Rome …’! ‘Better a lump of shit than a fart’ – same as our ‘Bird in the hand …’! ‘Those who love you can fit on a leather hide – those who hate you can fit on a rush mat’ – seems we make more enemies than friends wherever we are in the world. ‘Applying gold leaf to the back of the Buddha image’ – A Buddha image is the principal object of worship in the temple. To gain increased merit, Buddhists often apply squares of gold leaf to the statue. Most stick on the forehead for all to see. The point of this proverb is that if a good deed is done with a pure heart does it matter if the act is seen or not. ‘A strand of hair can hide a mountain’ – means we can all suffer from clouded vision and cannot see the obvious. For more examples and insights about Thai proverbs there is an excellent book by Tulaya Pornpiriyakulchai and Jane Vejjajiva – Thai Folk Wisdom – Contemporary takes on Traditional Proverbs.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The iconic Erawan Shrine - Bangkok

One of the most frequented visitor sites in Bangkok is the Erawan Shrine. The story behind the shrine dates back to fairly recent times - the 1950's. During the construction of the Erawan Hotel a series of mysterious and unexplained accidents occurred. Several people labouring on the site were killed. The authorities decided to erect a shrine near the site to prevent these mishaps occurring. I have no evidence to offer on whether it worked or not!
Today, visitors to the Erawan Shrine present gifts of small carved wooden elephants, garlands of flowers and other offerings in the hope of having their wishes granted. Those whose wishes have been granted hire resident dancers to perform in the courtyard to show their gratitude. Unfortunately the shrine has not put a stop to all accidents. Outside, on the busy roads, the area has become a traffic accident blackspot. Drivers, distracted by the goings-on or through taking their hands off the wheel to perform a Wai, have the habit of running into the back of the car in front.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Garrett's 'Must Have' Popcorn!

One of the many things that amazes me about Thailand is their reaction to anything new. Take Garrett's Popcorn for example - a Chicago based quality popcorn manufacturer and retailer.
It opened its first shop in Thailand in Siam Centre - right slap bang in the midst of a political protest site - on 29th January 2014. Within hours queues were stretching for hundreds of yards - so big were the queues they had to be marshalled outside the building and customers marched in under escort, fifteen at a time. I've never witnessed anything like it. Garrett's popcorn is good but it is not going to prolong your life or change your lifestyle, so why the explosion of interest? The answer lies in the Thais reaction to innovation from the West. The same happened when Krispy Kreem doughnuts opened their first shop a couple of years ago. They react with unbridled enthusiasm to anything new. Social media must have been red hot to generate this kind of interest. I'll keep you posted!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Poipet - Wild West type town on Cambodian border

I’d heard from locals and students about Poipet – a seedy Cambodian border town. No one had anything good to say about it. The girls heading towards Angkor Wat were scared witless. My interest in the place was also fuelled by an article by David Eimer in the Sunday Telegraph, April 2013. He placed it as the hub of the massive illegal betting industry and behind a match-fixing pandemic. The place is crowded out with casinos, illegal betting shops and brothels.
Poipet is one of the few places in Cambodia where casino betting is legal. This wealth of gambling opportunities attracts hundreds of thousands of punters every year, some Cambodian and some from Thailand, where betting is also illegal. Many take advantage of free buses from Bangkok laid on by the casinos, which will give each passenger a few complimentary gambling chips. Despite the immense profits generated by the gambling industry, Poipet is lacking in Vegas-style glitz. Separated from Thailand by a rubbish strewn river, its dirty streets coat everyone and everything in yellow dust. Barefoot children beg and prostitutes prowl for customers. The motorbike drivers who act as taxis also sell drugs. ‘It’s a lawless place and scary because of that’ said a local bar owner. ‘There aren’t many police here, so if you have a problem you can’t count on them to solve it.’ It seemed the perfect setting for a chapter in my book The Ekkamai Conspiracy – but I had to see for myself. One Wednesday morning I joined the crowd on platform 6 at Hua Lamphong, Bangkok’s main intercity and international railway station, waiting for the 05:55, third class carriages only, diesel train to Aranyaprathet - a town six miles from the border with Cambodia. All the carriages were full with an eclectic mix of backpackers, smartly dressed western tourists, Thais, Khmers and Malays. The Khmers were heading back home with pay packets to support their families. The Thais were heading for Poipet and the casinos, brothels and plentiful supplies of methamphetamine tablets. What happened next? You’ll have to read the book.

Friday, February 28, 2014

The most feared fruit in the world

When you travel to Thailand, the chances are you will encounter a fruit that is so feared by hotels and offices they have designed a sign, much like a ‘no smoking’ notice, banning it from their premises.
Rumour has it that unsuspecting handlers of the thing have been rendered close to unconsciousness or vomiting. But the Thais just love it - they can’t get enough of them. For them it is a supreme delicacy. They will travel miles to buy one.
Specialist stalls sell nothing but the thing. It is of course the Durian. A dark green rugby shaped object with spikes - perhaps more like a miniature WWII mine with a stalk. The reason for the hostility towards the Durian is its smell. It has been likened to rotting fish, dog shit and over ripe Camembert. The smell lingers, giving rise to suspicious glances. If you can get past the smell and into your mouth it has a buttery almond taste. I, personally, wouldn’t define it like that but then I can neither stand the taste or its texture. You have to try it, if only to say you have encountered and survived the most feared fruit in the world!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Traditional Thai Massage

Like most Westerner’s I struggled to get my mind round this part of Thailand’s cultural code. Why is it that there are thousands of massage parlours throughout the country? Just what is the point of all this bodily manipulation? What went wrong that so many people need straightening out? My first suspicions were way off the mark! My own straightening out process started with Denis Segaller’s excellent books on Thai customs and traditions. Traditional Thai massage is closely linked with traditional Thai medicine. Like many Thai traditions and customs they can be traced back over twenty-five hundred years to India. They predate Buddha. Quoting Denis Segaller, ‘At the Indian town of Taxila a great academy of learning was founded by Rokha Marutin. Kings and rich men sent their sons to learn all kinds of skills such as the martial and fine arts, and medicine which included as two of its branches herbal medicine and massage.’ So there you have it, it was the Indians who started it. Over the centuries these two branches of medicine survived through individual teachers. The first Buddhist monks to reach Thailand brought these skills with them – they are known collectively as ya samunphrai. Slowly, this knowledge spread and both of them became very popular as cures for all kinds of aches and pains. It was the fore-runner of a national health service. Now King Nangklao (Rama III) knew a thing or too and he became concerned this knowledge could die along with its practitioners. He gathered them all together and had this collective store of knowledge inscribed on marble tablets. And this is where I take over the story. I set out to try and find these tablets. Rumour had it they were at Wat Pho – the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. In 36 degrees of searing heat this was no easy task but after two hours searching, the wife discovered them. No signs, none of the guides we asked seemed to be aware of them [but that may have more to do with my pigeon Thai] and only by accident did we locate them in a distant pavilion. I would have thought they deserved better. Take a look.
The whole point of traditional Thai massage is to stimulate blood circulation by the application of hand pressure at certain key points of the body – it can eliminate stiffness, backache, tension and some sickness (and probably a lot more besides). The marble tablets illustrate where the key pressure points are.
Now you know. The one remaining problem with all these massage spas is who trains the staff? It is largely an unregulated business. The genuine practitioners spend up to three years learning the art. It is hard to believe all practitioners devote this amount of time to acquiring the genuine skills – so be warned.

Bangkok Riots - Update 21st February 2014

Politically, Thailand is in a mess. It is a country without a functioning Government. They have a care-taker Prime Minister in Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. Anti-government protesters have been rallying (or rioting as some would call it) since November 2013 trying to force Yingluck to resign. They think her departure will pave the way for a People’s Council that will implement reforms of public interest. High up the agenda is the issue of corruption. Yingluck’s administration has refused point blank to step down arguing the need to protect the democratic process. Instead it has imposed a state of emergency and went ahead with an election on 2nd February 2014.
This election was boycotted by many so the stalemate is set to continue. To the Western observer it is hard to make sense of it all. There is almost a festival atmosphere in the protesters camps but this turned nasty on 18th February when the police tried to clear them from the streets. Five were killed and many more injured.
The problem is you are either a democracy or not – there is no half-way house. And this is what Suthep Thanugsuban and his People’s Democratic Reform Committee wants. Somehow he wants a non-political body to engineer change. The photograph below is the place where a hand grenade exploded and killed two children.