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Author: Andrew Biggs

Andrew Biggs (Thai Memories): Returning to Gor Gai (ก ไก่)

Andrew Biggs

This week I completed a circle that has taken me 23 years. I returned to my roots. I returned to GOR GAI (ก ไก่).

That’s the first letter of the Thai alphabet, and if you’re unhappy about all those capital letters jumping out at you on Sunday morning, be thankful you’ve even got that.

I have a great respect for anybody teaching Thai to foreigners, but you can’t speak Thai via the Roman alphabet. There are too many minefields obstructing your path to fluency.

First, the official way of rendering Thai in English has been devised to deliberately confuse any sensible foreigner. The Bangkok district that is written as “Praves” (ประเวศ), for example, should rhyme with “graves” but it fact it’s something like “Bra-wet”. And what person of normal intelligence would ever think “Phuket” (ภูเก็ต) was really “Poo-get”?!

Second, any “karaoke” (คาราโอเกะ) transliteration dispenses with the tone attached to that word, as integral to Thai as tenses are to English. How do you pronounce song when it can mean number two (สอง – rising tone), envelope (ซอง – middle), send (ส่ง – low) — or even a seedy brothel (ซ่อง – falling)?

(What if I wanted to say: “Send these two envelopes to the brothel!” It’d be written like this: “Song song song song pai song” (ส่ง สอง ซอง ส่งไป ซ่อง). Those two envelopes might end up at some karaoke bar!)

Some clever educators get around this by adding little bumps and squiggles on the transliterated words. If you’re going to invest time in learning bumps and squiggles – why not just sit down and learn the real Thai letters for god’s sake?

That was my thinking 23 years ago when I wandered into a Khon Kaen bookshop and asked: “Have you got a book that teaches me Thai letters?”

What transpired was not a happy time. If my life were a Hallmark movie you’d see me seated by an open bedroom window, happily tracing Thai letters, the sounds of traditional Thai music tinkling out of my transistor radio.

Stuff and nonsense. That first year was a nightmare.

The very first letter in the Thai alphabet is that GOR GAI, or the sound of G as in the first letter of the Thai word for “cock” … as in “cock-a-doodle-doo”, dear reader. Where is your mind on this Sabbath?

I traced GOR GAI over and over on page one of that textbook designed for primary school students. Once finished I had this tremendous sense of elation; I knew my very first letter of the Thai alphabet.

I had come out of the linguistic closet — I was bilingual and proud!

I crashed back down to earth when I snuck a look ahead and saw there were 44 letters to learn. Even at three a day, it would take me a little over two weeks to learn them all – an eternity when you’re backpacking in your twenties.

I employed a Thai teacher to help me. I heard from a mutual friend she became a Buddhist nun in 2002. My only surprise was it took so long between teaching me and donning the white cloth.

“Your language has too many letters. I’m only learning the first half,” I pronounced the first time we met. When I came to my senses and learned them all, she then revealed that two of the letters were obsolete. They remain in the Thai alphabet but nobody uses them anymore.

“You … mean … I … wasted … two-thirds of a day … learning letters … I’ll never use!?!?” I asked, as incredulous as I was menacing.

I also hit the roof when I learned there were three ways of writing a “T”; imagine how my teacher must have dreaded revealing there were FIVE ways to write an “S”.

Language reflects culture. At least I was starting to understand why it took seven Robinson staff to ring up my purchase of a pair of socks, or why there are 650 politicians in Parliament when really only 30 are ever attending, let alone doing any work.

When I got to the end of the 44, my ajarn (อาจารย์) dropped another bombshell.

“Now for the vowels.”

“Wait a minute,” I said, throwing down my pen. “In the English alphabet we incorporate the vowels into the alphabet. We don’t separate them!”

“You’re not learning English,” she replied crisply. That shut me up.

Well look on the bright side, I thought. English has five letters that act as vowels. At least there wouldn’t be so many to learn.

Thirty-friggin’-two of ‘em!

My teacher tried to smooth over things by explaining there were actually “only” 18 along with compounds and such. Oh well that makes life easier, doesn’t it? Excuse me while I go rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

I was three months into my Thai experience, and quickly becoming a finalist in the Mr Boring Farang pageant of 1990.

While all my western friends were out gallivanting around Silom, calling me from the phone box outside Pussy Galore, I stayed at home and learnt yet another way of writing the vowel sound of “AH”.

When I finally memorized all 76 sounds and letters, I looked contented. Not so my ajarn. She had nothing but foreboding on her face, like a villager whose hut is right next to an active volcano.

“And now,” she said. “… the tones.”

We had to return to those 44 consonants. You see in Thai, some of those consonants are high class. Some are the hapless middle class, but the vast majority are dirty low class consonants. These classes govern the tones.

Spotting the class differences in consonants was nowhere near as easy as spotting it in the Thais themselves. There is no khunying hairstyle or “Na Ayutthaya” (ณ.อยุธยา) tacked onto the end of the letter to make it high class. I had to go back and learn ‘em all over again.

On day one, when I learned GOR GAI, I thought I knew it all. At this stage, the more I delved into Thai, the more I realized I was out of my depth. I knew absolutely nothing.

You would think that this overload of information would build until I exploded like some Khaosan Road backpacker trying to get directions from a tuk-tuk (ตุ๊ก ๆ) driver.

No. Incredibly, the opposite happened.

It all started to gel.

I began being able to reading Thai words. I could hear the nuances in the tones as people spoke. Sentences started to poke out of the cacophony of sound.

After six months there was an epiphany, and my hard work started to pay dividends.

It is now 23 years later, and to this day, I still learn a new Thai word every day. I make mistakes and mix up the tones, especially if it’s the morning after a particularly long session chewing the fat with dear Uncle Smirnoff.

That 23-year-old circle closed this week as I started a new TV show on cable (MCOT World, Channel 99) teaching Thai. It’s called Tongue Thai’d, a title I proudly thought up myself until I found out half the Thai restaurants in the world have that name, not to mention Catherine Wentworth’s wonderful website www.womenlearnThai.com which is a mine of linguistic information.

I must say I felt a tingle of nostalgia as I kicked off episode one, explaining the letter GOR GAI, and returning me to where I started off. Only now I was the teacher, not the student.

What a great thing I did all those years ago. And who would have thought a mere 44 consonants and 32 vowels would open up a new world that I remain in to this day. I got through with a little perseverance, plus the knowledge that if 65 million Thais can speak the language, why can’t I?

And you … dear reader?

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Andrew Biggs (Thai Memories): The Boat Sinks in the Mouth of the Bay

Andrew Biggs

There is a billboard that caught my attention this week while sitting in a taxi flitting in and out of four lanes of traffic on the three-lane city expressway.

It depicts a young man and woman sitting back to back desolately on a bed. It was clear they were desolate by the hang-dog expression on the man’s face, and the ankle-clutching stance of the woman.

It’s not often we see desolation on inner-city billboards. I’m far more used to billboards featuring the lily-white happy complexions of Thailand’s young actors and actors pushing collagen drinks or bird nest soups or any other of the myriad charlatan products out there.

What also grabbed my attention was the Thai writing next to the unhappy couple.

Reua lom bahk ao (เรือล่มปากอ่าว).

The boat sinks in the mouth of the bay.

What a curious headline!

“What does that mean?” I asked my taxi driver, a happy middle-aged fellow who had been enjoying practicing his English on me until I feigned a cell phone call to shut him up.

Reua lom bahk ao?” he asked back. He broke into a great middle-aged Thai smile. “Oh! You know? You know?” He paused and flashed me a leering smile. “You know?”

“No, I don’t; that’s why I’m asking you.”

“You and lady same-same but you no good. You go first but you very fart. No good, you know?”

I have been in Thailand too long; I understood exactly what he was talking about.

Premature ejaculation.

If ever there was an example of my theory that language doesn’t get much more vivid and descriptive than Thai, then there it was.

I’ve spent 25 years in this country and here was yet another colorful idiomatic phrase that completely passed me by. Nobody had ever said it to me before. And thank God for that, judging by its meaning.

No wonder the couple on the billboard looked so dejected! No wonder the woman was clutching her sturdy ankles; that’s about the only sturdy thing she was going to be clutching that evening for any satisfactory length of time.

(And if you’re new in town, the taxi driver wasn’t that bad in English. You just have to know that ‘same-same’ has the added meaning of ‘sex’ here, while ‘fart’ is in reality ‘fast’ since Thais have difficulty with consonant clusters consisting of S and T.)

How clever of the Thai language to equate premature ejaculation with the sinking of a boat just as it was to enter a harbor. When I got to my office I googled the phrase and sure enough, there it was, hundreds and thousands of times over on the internet.

I did get it the wrong way around. The boat is leaving the harbor, not entering it, as my School Director and Senior Sales Manager, both females, pointed out to me over lunch that day.

“It sinks before it even sets out on the journey,” my School Director explained as she popped a serendipitous Isarn sausage into her mouth.

“I thought it to be more like the train entering the tunnel,” I said. “It’s the boat entering the mouth of the harbor. You know?” Curse that taxi driver! He’s got me saying it now!

“Or the sparrow,” chimed my mannish Senior Sales Manager. She was enjoying a lunch of fried oysters, as was her wont. “When the sparrow has a drink of water.”

I gazed at her intently, expecting her to continue, but it appeared she was finished with her explanation.

“And?” I asked.

“That’s all,” she said. “The sparrow drinks water. That’s what we say in Thai. Nok krajok jib nam (นกกระจอกจิบน้ำ).”

“Yes,” said my Director, eyeing a second sausage. “The sparrow takes a sip of water.”

I don’t know, dear reader, but perhaps I’m just a little slower than the rest of humanity. How on earth does a drinking sparrow relate to premature ejaculation?

Being the boss, I was able to demand an explanation.

“Have you ever seen a sparrow drink water?” my Sales Manager asked. Before I could answer, she was making mannish pecking movements with her right hand towards her plate of fried oysters, accompanied by a very vocal: “Jib! Jib! Jib! Jib! (จิ๊บ! จิ๊บ! จิ๊บ! จิ๊บ!).”

“It’s the same as the boat in the harbor,” added my Director, winking, and I fell further down into the Stupid Hole.

It took them five minutes to pull me out.

The idea is that the sparrow’s pecking at water is a very short, spasmodic movement, not unlike a man who finishes quickly during sex. I find that metaphor a little tenuous and not as imaginative as the boat one, but still, how great is the Thai language!

The conversation didn’t stop there.

“What about the one about the dove?” asked Director to Sales Manager. “In Thai we say: nok khao mai khan (นกเขาไม่ขัน), or ‘The dove does not sing’.”

“You can use that when you feel excited for sex but there is no change – down there,” said my Sales Manager, motioning towards my crutch. Despite every conceivable attempt not to, I reddened ever so slightly.

“Speaking of birds, what about the idiom ‘washing the face of the chicken’ (ล้างหน้าไก่)?” asked my Director.

“Stop right there,” I said. “I’m eating.”

There was an uncomfortable pause.

“Oh what the hell; tell me,” I said and they explained, in polite Thai, how it referred to the erect state of a male upon awakening, if indeed such things can be explained in polite Thai.

“That one is not considered a negative phrase,” said the Sales Manager. “Nothing is stronger than the boat sinking.”

Later that day I was back on the freeway and noticed that the billboard in question wasn’t on its own. It was part of three big signs, the first being the sad couple. The second explained in large letters that NEARLY ONE IN THREE MEN SUFFER FROM PREMATURE EJACULATION and there was a website to visit.

The last one revealed the boat had been dredged up out of the harbor, because in that one the couple were now smiling in each other’s arms, as if their love would last forever, which is a relief since it appeared to have lasted three seconds at the most in the first one.

I have a very old book of common Thai proverbs and sayings that are so entertaining, and not just of a sexual nature.

In Thai, for example, if you “make a sculpture out of water (ปั้นน้ำเป็นตัว)” you are telling lies, since this phrase dates back to an era before we could freeze water into ice-cubes. Yet you still hear it today.

If you “build a house over a tree stump (ปลูกเรือนคร่อมตอ)”, you are committing bigamy. A jack of all trades is somebody who “knows things like a duck (รู้อย่างเป็ด)” … whatever that means.

If you “find a good tree after your axe is broken”, you fall in love with a beautiful woman after you’re already married. A “jar of pickled garlic on legs (ไหกระเทียม)” is a short fat girl.

When you look at all those, a boat sinking in the mouth of the harbor isn’t so out of place.

I have only one reservation. Why is the man in the billboard a farang (ฝรั่ง) while the woman is Thai? Would it have been too close to the bone to have used a Thai male? Just sayin’.

Our story should end there, but it has an interesting footnote.

Remember my casual google of reua lom bahk ao? That was three days ago.

Ever since, I have been bombarded with ads for every erectile dysfunction clinic in town, and believe me there are lots of them. In these modern times Big Brother is not only watching me — he is waiting for my boat to sink.

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