I needed a new door for my bathroom, so I walked down to the end of my soi where there is a giant wood factory.
Yes, I know; I choose the most salubrious of neighborhoods. Making my way through piles of woodchips and sleeping underpaid Cambodian labor, I met the owner who showed me a catalogue. I picked one door at a price of 2,500 Baht.
This is where the story should have ended, only to be filed away for eternity in that folder of life’s forgotten chores, except for one thing.
I opened my big mouth.
When I returned home, waiting outside my house was my old friend Daeng and his sour-faced wife.
“How much are you paying for the door?” he asked when I told him where I’d just been.
“2,500 Baht,” I answered.
Daeng’s eyes widened, then darkened. His face contorted.
“Paenggggggg!” (แพง) he exclaimed.
“Kha” (ค่ะ), his wife reiterated. “Paenggggggg.”
Thailand is one of the cheapest countries on earth. Food is cheap. Cabs are cheap.
Dental work? Cosmetic surgery? We’re a hub. On any given day the wards of Bamrungrat are littered with the world’s foreign princes and princesses desperate to reverse the onslaught of inbreeding.
We had a slight economic blip recently when the basic wage for Bangkok workers rose — rose — to the equivalent of just under 10 American dollars per 12 hours of work.
Despite all this, the locals remain convinced that every purchase they ever make is expensive.
Nothing gets a lower-middle class Thai more excited than hearing that something is expensive, and Daeng is definitely lower-middle class. I suspect that by marrying what’s-her-name, he managed to drag her up to that social rung as well.
The word for “expensive” in Thai is paeng, which rhymes with gang (or bang, come of think of it). Normally a Thai is very polite when speaking. The Chinese may spit and talk at decibel levels found around Suvarnabhumi, but the Thais are way more civilized.
Put a price tag in front of them, however, and watch them gasp. Wide-eyed. Open mouthed.
Daeng doesn’t get very excited over much, nor his wife whose mouth is a permanent upside-down U shape, except when hubby asks the price of something.
Daeng leant forward and tapped my knee. “My cousin has a wood factory,” he said. “He can sell you a cheaper door. We can go visit him. Just have a look. You don’t have to buy.”
“No really, it’s –“
“I’ll be around at 10 am tomorrow,” he said.
The next day he was on time, arriving at 11 am with his wife in sullen tow.
“We’ll take your car,” he announced, as if he had a say in it. Out on Srinakharin Road, Daeng said: “Take the expressway.”
“To … where?”
“It’s Saturday. The traffic won’t be that bad.”
Daeng’s life has been a series of serious miscalculations, starting with his betrothal, and passing through numerous odd jobs. He fixed air conditioners; then he had his own van for hire business. Each new enterprise lasted no more than a year – was it because his wife kept answering the phones?
Another of his serious miscalculations was the traffic to Nonthaburi that Saturday morning.
With half my gas tank spent we arrived at Bang Khu Rat, Nonthaburi, around 1 pm. Lunchtime, as Daeng’s wife kept reminding us, repeating “hew” (หิว) throughout the journey.
I foolishly asked what she wanted to eat, and she replied duck, so another half an hour was spent circling Nonthaburi looking for a duck restaurant.
Amazingly we found one, where Daeng’s wife ordered the most expensive duck on the menu while Daeng ordered a few bottles of Heineken. I was driving, I announced, so I ordered an orange juice, resting the glass on the chair beside me and my hip flask.
Not even a spiked orange juice could quell the resentment of having to spend an hour at Nonthaburi’s Most Expensive Duck Restaurant, the cuisine not even being able to upend the upside-down U on the wife’s face.
When the bill came, I paid for it, as a show of thanks for Daeng going out of his way to take me out of my way.
Then, in the restaurant carpark, an unforeseen event.
Blame it on the idiot carpark attendant with the whistle. Blame it on my short temper for being on the wrong side of Bangkok without dark glasses and a fake beard. As I reversed out of my space, I clipped the side of a pick-up truck parked next door.
“Oo-ee!” (โอ๊ย) cried Daeng’s wife from the back seat, as the upended U morphed into an O.
The dent was tiny and almost unrecognizable, and would probably cost about 2,000 Baht to fix according to the vehicle’s owner. I handed over 2,000 Baht to end it right there.
What a mistake that was.
“Paeng,” hissed Daeng as we got back in the car.
“Kha!” his wife added. “Paenggggggg!”
It was a small price to pay for the dent but I was howled down by Daeng while his wife gave me the evil eye. What hope did I have against a millennium-old culture that screeches paeng at the mere sight of a price tag?
Soon we arrived at Daeng’s cousin’s wood factory, way smaller than the one at the end of my soi.
Daeng’s cousin, Ko, showed me his scant collection of wooden doors – they were hideous, dear reader, all woodchip and plastic.
I stood there, flanked by eager Ko and Daeng, nodding and praising the beauty of a pink fake-wooden door resting in cobwebs against the back of his mini-factory, in some godforsaken soi in the backstreets of Nonthaburi.
“Special price for you,” Ko announced. “2,300 Baht!”
“How about a discount?” Daeng asked. “Andrew’s been my good friend for five years, ever since I got out of Bang Kwang.”
Ko rubbed his chin. “Okay! Two thousand baht!”
“Can you install it for me too?” I asked, and Ko said of course he could, for a small fee.
I said okay. There was no other way to answer without all of us losing face.
The next day some worker who spoke broken Thai turned up with a door, the type one would normally see in brothels and gas station bathrooms. He managed to get the door on some hinges and, if you lifted it slightly as you slammed it shut, it stayed closed.
Ko added an extra 300 Baht for the installation and travel costs. When I calculated everything, including my own gas and toll fees (300 Baht), the duck lunch (1,200 Baht) and the crash (2,000), that door cost me 5,800 Baht.
Daeng disappeared after that, as lower-middle class friends do, and turned up the following year with a new business transporting Japanese tourists to golf courses.
He had ditched his wife, too. He had a new one now; a younger hairdresser who was much prettier than the first, though just as dour and perhaps more demanding.
“I remember that door,” said Daeng proudly as he settled into his second Heineken. He turned to his new wife. “I saved Andrew a lot of money on that door. At first he was going to buy one for way too much – three thousand? Four thousand?“
The new wife gasped.
“Paenggggg,” she announced.
“But in the end I helped him out. Took him to my cousin who only charged him one or two thousand. Right Andrew?”
“Right,” I said.
Daeng peered at the door a little more closely. “It looks different. Did you paint it?”
“Paenggggg,” repeated his wife, in case I didn’t hear her the first time.
I never told Daeng the truth; that the week after we visited Ko I walked down to the end of my soi and ordered a teak door from the local factory. It cost me 3,000 Baht, including installation, which means in the space of a month I’d outlayed 8,800 for a door.
But that is the price I paid for opening my big mouth.
I did learn a valuable lesson about living in Thailand; when a Thai asks you how much you paid for something, just halve what you really paid and tell them that.
It doesn’t have any effect. It’s still paengggg.