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Author: Andrew Biggs

Andrew Biggs (Thai Memories): Freshy

Andrew Biggs

A few years ago I caused a minor commotion on TV and online in Pantip Plaza chatrooms when I made an announcement that shook the Thai student world to its very foundations.

In a nutshell, I told everybody to stop referring to any first-year university student as a “freshy” because in the English-speaking world this word didn’t exist. And if a single Thai could find me an international dictionary with the word listed, I would run naked down Silom Road in broad daylight.

The news would have been less shocking had I announced I was moving to Pattaya to get a sex-change and begin my new life as Andrea. This was 2004, pre-instant-messaging, but the reaction was still swift. Surely Andrew couldn’t be serious … but he was.

I was tired of hearing young Thais saying and writing: “I am a freshy at Thammasat University.” How wonderful you got into that esteemed institution, nong (น้อง), but please, if you’re going to speak English, use the proper English word. The word is “freshman” (เฟรช’เมิน), not the Thai made-up “freshy”.

I know, I know. I sound like a nit-picking party-pooper. It’s the kind of topic that curmudgeons who infest the Letters To The Editor pages of the Bangkok Post attack with relish. But I mean, on the grand scheme of things, who cares that Thais say “freshy” while the rest of the world says “freshman”?

I do. I think it’s interesting and curious. “Freshy” is a word derived from English but it just hasn’t been yanked out of the English language and thrown into Thai like other words such as “happy”, “u-turn” and “short-time hotel”. Those words made it across safely; not so poor old “freshman”.

“Freshman” didn’t make the jump intact. Somewhere along the line it got castrated; the “man” was gelded and a prissy little “y” slotted into its place.

How did it happen? I would guess it comes from the fact modern Thais know that we add a “y” to the end of our names to make them less formal. Growing up in Sunnybank I was always called “Biggsy” (when I wasn’t “that strange little boy with the big ears and off-putting facial tic”). When I went to the States I was “Andy”, something the Americans arbitrarily decided without ever asking me … I mean, who in their right mind would choose the dinky-sounding “Andy” over the more distinguished “Andrew” – other than that Gibb brother, of course, and look what happened to him.

Because of this knowledge we now have a nation of young Thais with a “y” at the end of their nicknames. Their parents first dispensed with traditional Thai nicknames such as “moo” (หมู – pig) and ”oo-an” (อ้วน – fat) and started calling themselves such English names as “Gift” (กิฟทฺ), “Bank” (แบงค์) and “Donut” (โดนัต). Can you blame them? Give me “Gift” over “Pig” anyday! But the new generation is calling themselves “Gifty” (กิฟตี้), “Banky” (แบ๊งคี่) and even “Donuty” (โดนัทตี้), as I spotted once in a Sanook.com teen chatroom, which is the punishment I get for trawling such websites.

That’s where it all started. From this the Thais figured a “freshman” could be a “freshy” and the rest is history.

I’m not so black-hearted as to grasp Nong Gifty by her delicate wrist and demand she stop ruining the English language by warping perfectly good English words. Though I have to admit at the time I took the opportunity to expand my crusade against genital mutilation of English vocabulary to other words.

For example, all across Thailand, on graduation day, there are giant CONGRATULATION signs hung up across trees and faded concrete university blocks for young graduates to have their pictures taken. CONGRATULATION is probably freshy’s sibling; it, too, went under the knife during the linguistic leap.

Elisabeth Kubler Ross says there are five stages to dying and I think I went through a similar number with CONGRATULATION. The first was bewilderment that one could accurately write such a long and complicated word, then let the whole team down at the very last letter by omitting the S. Then I went through refusal to believe, as I scoured dictionaries trying to see if indeed, the English language has the word “congratulation” (it does, as in “a letter of congratulation”). The next stage was anger, albeit briefly, until I finally settled on sullen acceptance that this simple Sunnybank boy with the big ears and blinky-bill eyes could never change a nation of 62 million people.

Or could he? Since 2004 I’ve notice the addition of that final S on the graduation signs of some of the better colleges around town, even upcountry. Could it be my constant bleatings had an effect, or do I simply have tabs on myself?

Meanwhile “freshy” continues to run rampant and unabated across campuses. The word no longer means “first year student” and now extends to anybody with a fresh face and youthful demeanor, which suggests this column is even written by a freshy.

What’s interesting is that while Thais have been keen to embrace “freshy”, what about freshy’s under-achieving older brother “sophomore”? Why aren’t myriad Thai students announcing “I am a sophomory” … or even a “juny” or “seny”? In my world those three levels of students have as much right to be castrated as the humble freshman – how did they get off scot free?

Oh look, really, it doesn’t upset me. I kind of like the fact Thais use their creative juices when it comes to the English language — and who says the language is set in stone anyway? If 62 million Thais refer to university students as “freshies”, well that’s three times the population of Australia (and 3,770 times the population of Sunnybank). Majority rules; consider it added to MacMillan’s latest tome. This is what happens with language. Next century some big-eared facial-ticked English teacher’s going to be berating Thais who still use the old-fashioned “freshman”.

It’s already heading that way.

Not long after I threw down my public challenge in the effort to eradicate “freshy”, a young Thai posted a comment on the popular Pantip.com website. Freshy, indeed, could be found in an international dictionary.

The Microsoft Encarta Reference Library 2004 (damn you, Bill Gates!) listed the word as a “shortening and alteration of the word freshwater”. For example, an Australian freshwater crocodile is referred to as a “freshy”.

I was fully justified when I scorned the news, announcing in a huff that crocodiles and university freshmen were non-intersecting Venn diagrams, except when the latter went swimming in north Queensland swamps. But my victory was short-lived.

Another student posted that she had a copy of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, and there was this entry:

“Freshy, (slang): a freshman in a college, university or secondary school.”

Clearly one of the Webster’s editors spends his annual holidays halfway around the world in the Silom area otherwise how would they know? Who told them? How could they find out?

The news led to a feeling of “me and my big mouth” in the pit of my stomach, though naturally I never let on. Suddenly there were lots of posts on Pantip.com from Thai teenagers demanding I fulfill my part of the bargain.

I should be happy. In the twilight of my life, there are vast swathes of Thai youth just dying to see me naked.

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Andrew Biggs (Thai Memories): No – Maybe

Andrew Biggs

Take a look at this week’s American music charts and there are no less than three songs in the Top 20 with the “F” word in the title.

There’s a song by Cee-Lo Green about a guy who’s girlfriend ditches him, appropriately entitled “F*** You”. Meanwhile Enrique Iglesias seems to be at some Patpong establishment, hence the title “Tonight (I’m F***ing You)”.

(The follow-up could be something like “My Buffalo Is Sick (Pay the Vet Or No More F***ing Me)”.)

And finally, Pink has a song where she extols the virtues of her boyfriend, though not in such prosaic terms as I just used. “Extolling the Virtues”? Nah. Try “F***ing Perfect”.

What has happened to the music of today? There I go, sounding like my father who used to bristle when popular songs like “Stayin’ Alive” dropped the “G”. I can’t imagine how bristly my father would get over this week’s Top 20.

Clean versions of the songs I just mentioned are available in order to get played on the radio. “F*** You” has a version called “Forget You”, while Enrique sings “Tonight (I’m Loving You)” in his lame G-rated version. This is the musical equivalent of bashing someone’s knees with a baseball bat; I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had anybody come up to me in a seedy Silom nightclub and announce: “Tonight I’m lovin’ you!” It sounds like an invitation to eat at McDonald’s.

What a pity the Thai language isn’t more universal because the Thai word for “hatch” (ฟัก), as in chickens, sounds the same as that “F” word with all the asterisks. Imagine the Billboard Top 20 this week with songs such as “Hatch You”, “Tonight (I’m Hatching You)” and “Hatching Perfect”. It kinda works, doesn’t it?

I’m telling you all this because like English, Thai has a number of taboo words too. Anybody who is currently learning Thai from Noi whom you first met at Pussy Galore on Patpong will have memorized these words quicker than you can say “bar fine”. It is not my job to list them here, suffice to say Thai just like English has colorful words for things such as fornication in all its forms, especially with someone’s mother or an elephant, as well as the male and female anatomy.

Despite all these rude and disgusting words, there is one word which out-disgusts them all. It is a word that you will never hear a Thai use, simply because within the frame of Thai culture it is frowned upon, more than “hatch”, more than “tui” … even more than a sick buffalo.

That word is “No”.

There. I wrote it. Thais reading my column are going to feel uncomfortable seeing that word on paper but it’s time for the world to know. When it comes to cross-cultural peeks into the minds the Thais, nothing is more valuable than knowing a Thai is simply unable to say “no” to your face.

In Thai there is a popular phrase: ”Kid doo gorn” (คิดดูก่อน). It can be translated roughly as “Let me think about that,” and indeed I have heard it being used by Thais speaking English as “I will think about that and contact you again.”

This translation is far too literal to be of any use. I’ve seen green foreign businessmen walk away from meetings thinking things went well after a Thai used this phrase. How sadly mistaken they are … for the real meaning of ”kid doo gorn” is “no”.

For ages I believed that when I suggested something at a meeting, their ”kid doo gorn” reply was an indication my words were being keenly considered, or what I suggested was so interesting and deep the recipient needed time to consider its glorious ramifications.

In reality what follows “kid doo gorn” is a deafening silence from your business associate. The phrase means: “No, I don’t want to, but I’m too polite to say it in front of your face for fear of upsetting you. And I don’t want to be around when you find out I mean no.”

Kheu yang nee (คืออย่างนี้) is another way Thais avoid saying “no.” This phrase can be translated as “It’s like this …” and is used to extrapolate or further explain.

Again, I was a slow learner.

Kheu yang nee is actually a linguistic signpost. It means: “The following information will not sit well with you. It is contrary to how you want things to be and this is my feeble excuse why it is indeed that way.” You can see how the Thai language economizes on words nicely.

For example: “The financial report you said you’d send me yesterday still hasn’t arrived. Have you finished it?”

“Kheu yang nee …” You, dear reader, may now insert some unfortunate series of events, not unlike a Channel 7 soap opera, only there is no accompanying soundtrack of cheap muzak downloaded illegally from the net. You will instead develop a slow sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach as you realize the speaker is taking his or her time to say: “No.”

You may indeed be sucked in by the “kheu yang nee” as I have on occasions. It acts as a depressant on a par with heroin; and indeed, after hearing some excuses in my time I have felt like transforming one of my six-for-100-Baht Chatuchak handkerchiefs into a tourniquet. But ultimately, if you ask a question that requires a yes-no answer but receive a “kheu yang nee”then the speaker is simply saying “no.”

A long time ago I introduced you to my former squash partner. I called him Eddie From Hell, for reasons you are about to learn. Eddie was so Thai you could literally hear somtam and kai yang as he spoke. Thus he could never bring himself to say “no”.

Instead, he used what is the most commonly-used word by Thais to evade the profane two-letter word … and no matter much I tried to box his ears, or deliberately whack the squash ball into his crotch during play, he would not stop using it.

That replacement word? “Maybe” (อาจจะ /àatjà/).

This should be in the pamphlets they hand out at Suvarnabhumi Airport. “Welcome to Thailand. Don’t do drugs, always use a condom, and ‘maybe’ means ‘no’.”

I have scoured Thai school textbooks which teach the English language and can’t find the offending text that teaches “maybe” as a way to say “no”, but nevertheless the whole country knows it and doesn’t want you to be let in on the secret.

I have been in Thailand so long now that when I have a business meeting I can gauge whether the other party is interested or not. This is not due to any amazing intelligence nor am I the latest reincarnation of Doris Stokes.

It’s just that the moment the other party utters one of these phrases … kid doo gorn, kheu yang nee, maybe … I am aware the meeting is a failure and it’s time to look at other alternatives.

Is this a bad thing? Not if you can read the signposts. While over in the West we are more direct about letting our partners know, here in Thailand they are just as direct – but in a roundabout way.

Also, the Thais are not deliberately setting out to deceive you, and this is an important point. They are trying to save you from feeling bad.

Yes, I know, ultimately a “no” is a “no” and you’re going to feel doubly bad somewhere down the line for not knowing sooner. But we should know the signposts if we are doing business here. It saves us a lot of tears, and will prevent those jaded foreigners who don’t see the signposts from sitting in Silom bars after work using profanities so common in the Billboard Top 20 to describe the Thais.

That’s my dream; for us to start understanding the ubiquitous undercurrent that flows in our private and work lives in this country, rather than just cursing those mother-hatchin’ Thais and their strange ways. With apologies to my father.

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Andrew Biggs (Thai Memories): Paeng and Jeud

Andrew Biggs

When I was a child one of my favorite literary characters was Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

Dressed in rags and barefoot, he was a 12-year-old vagabond who wandered around St Petersburg smoking cigarettes and getting into all sorts of mischief with his best friend Tom Sawyer.

I never thought I would find common ground with Huck Finn. I’m not a vagabond, and I certainly never wandered around Sunnybank as a child smoking cigarettes – there were far too many broken beer bottles strewn around to do that. But I have to say, on the eve of my departure from Australia back to Bangkok, for the first time I have felt like little Huck. I have also felt like a Thai.

For the past three weeks I’ve been in Australia and how lovely to be back home, despite home now being one of the most expensive countries on earth. A robust economy, a strong dollar coupled with skyhigh labor rates has left me in awe – and as penniless as Huck Finn.

I am not usually one to count my pennies and I must quickly add my spending habits are as bi-polar as a Sunnybank housewife from the late 1970s. Last week in Sydney I purchased a Gant shirt whose price tag would feed a family of five from Mukdahan, down for a red shirt protest in the city, for at least a month.

But my next stop was Target – glorious, glorious Target, where I can pick up a black T-shirt and boxer shorts for the price of a bus ticket to Mukdahan (oh for goodness sakes look that province up on a map – you should know where it is by now anyway). The beauty of Target is it’s cheap and it has my size – not a Robinson sales girl shaking her head and patting my stomach in sight.

While on vacation I am very adept at closing my eyes as I hand over my Visacard, breathing deeply as I pray to Buddha my card is not declined. I can always pay off the bill sometime later. That has been my attitude every time I have been back to Australia. To hell with the cost. Just enjoy yourself.

Until this trip.

Very early into this visit I made myself stop converting price tags back into Baht for fear of having to take a voyage on the good ship Prozac. Going out to dinner is another surprise, putting it mildly. Drinks and dinner at one seafood restaurant set me back $80, something I’d normally not worry about too much because (a) I’m seeing friends I don’t see that often and (b) after my third Penfold’s I’m up for anything.

But on that particular night I did feel a little put out paying 2,500 Baht for my share of dinner at the seafood restaurant not so much because of the price, but because my dear friends forgot I was allergic to seafood, thus rendering the salad I had the costliest I’d ever eaten.

I have become what I often chastise Thais about.

Thais are terrible overseas travellers. There are two very clear reasons why, and they can be summed up in the two most common words you will hear any Thai say when he or she leaves the country — paeng (แพง) and jeud (จืด).

paeng means “expensive” and I love the way they say it. It’s as if one of those Japanese nuclear reactors has exploded in their mouths.

Thais don’t just casually blurt out paeng like they might say sawat dee (สวัสดี) or kin khao (กินข้าว). Oh no. Sawat dee and kin khao are friendly Thai words that require a gorgeous Thai smile along with an amiable slight tilt of the head to the right.

paeng is a different kettle of pla tu (ปลาตู้). It takes effort, along with a general muscle spasm in your face, to say it right. When a Thai sees something that’s expensive, it’s not just an utterance. It’s an event!

I once went on a Sydney trip with Thai students as they participated in a speech competition. Accompanying us was a very friendly Thai government official, a woman whose chief duties abroad were to pile as much food onto her buffet plate as humanly possible along with complaining as to why there was never any fish sauce on the table.

On the few occasions I was medicated enough to take her shopping, her behaviour was nothing short of a constant stream of ejaculations – those of “Oo-ee!” (อู๊ย) and then the subsequent ”Paeng!” The only respite I got from that was when we chanced to pass one of those hideous “NOTHING UNDER TWO DOLLARS!” shops with stacks of koala ashtrays and kangaroo combs in the dirty windows. She nearly ejaculated herself upon seeing that. For the next hour she was lost in the aisles of that dusty cavern, her shopping basket piled high with gifts for those tortured souls back home who constituted her family.

If paeng is a linguistic favorite, then jeud comes a close second.

Back in 2002 I went on a fantastic trip to Italy, with gorgeous memories of driving down the Amalfi Coast. One of the joys of that trip was the pasta and pizza in all its variations. In Sicily I ran into three Thais on a group tour also having a great time. Upon asking about the food, they simply shook their heads and said jeud. They were existing on instant noodles from Thailand.

I had a bowl of instant noodles once; it was like pouring hot water into a bucket of MSG. I couldn’t help but wondering if the shrivelled-up powder sachets might be an inexpensive alternative to cocaine but never got round to testing out that theory.

Thais will visit the most exciting culinary capitals of the world carrying suitcases of these hideous instant noodles.

That’s because of Thais’ terrible belief that food overseas is jeud or “bland”. Well it’s their own fault, that’s all I can say. Thais have tongues that have been numbed by the three kg of chillies they consume on a daily basis. And name me another country with the variety and taste sensations as we have in the Land of Smiles. Thus the moment a Thai ventures out of the country, everything else tastes secondary. It’s like listening to Abbey Road then changing the disc to Celine Dion Live At Las Vegas.

Alas, the karmic wheel has a wicked sense of humor.

On this journey I heard myself uttering paeng and jeud on a daily basis. And indeed, at Bondi Junction in Sydney I felt adrenaline when I saw a Thai restaurant open in the early morning. As my two Aussie mates chowed down on bacon and eggs, I got a Thai omelette with pork on rice. And it filled me with a sense of elation.

By the time this is published I will be back. Huck’s back! I’m no longer the poor cousin from afar – I’m in my home territory! Mind you I have lots to show for my three weeks in Australia. I have new clothes from “abroad” as I’ll loudly explain. I have visacard bills my children shall inherit. And I have lots of koala ashtrays and kangaroo combs to dish out to friends.

All of this I managed to get through without paying excess baggage. And why should I? There was a huge space left in my suitcase after finishing off all the instant noodles.

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Andrew Biggs (Thai Memories): Deluxe

Andrew Biggs

Does this happen to you, too?

In Thailand, do you suddenly find yourself in situations where you think – why? Why is this happening to me?

I just ordered a pizza. Actually it was three, and no, it’s not because I’m prepping for that new Thai TV show that started last night called, of all things, “Dance Your Fat Off.”

(Haven’t seen it yet but loved the pre-publicity: “Fat people take to dancing to lose weight. Each week, the person who’s lost the least amount of weight gets booted off.” Looks to me like the bastard, sadly-deformed-at-birth child of “Dancing With The Stars” and “The Biggest Loser.” Expect a column out of it when I do get to see it.)

No, I had my staff over for our annual beginning-of-the-year meeting. I called it our “2013 Vision” meeting, or “Wi-chun” meeting as my graphic artist kept calling it, which is ironic since his name is “Wi-chien”.

Anyway in my generosity I ordered pizza for lunch on the strict proviso all my staff obeyed my every command for the rest of the year.

Ordering a pizza over the phone is something I haven’t done in ages. This is the conversation that took place in the Thai language.

“Hello Khun Suthon, may I take your order?” the sweet voice answered and enquired.

“I’m not Suthon,” I said.

“You’re not Khun Suthon … hmmmm. According to our records, this cellphone number belongs to Khun Suthon.”

Oh my goodness. I remembered.

Some years ago, the very first time I ordered a pizza in this country, I was required to give all my personal details.

The memory is hazy, but I do recall being on the phone for the time it would take to deliver a pizza to Pattaya, answering all manner of personal details such as my marital status, age, weight, favored position, income and body type.

In that way, I was told, every time I called after that my order would be processed far more conveniently. It had nothing to do with the pizza company’s ability to sell that information to some evil telemarketing company. Of course not. In my ignorance I relented.

That day I wasn’t only wallowing in ignorance. My memory was hazy because I was also wallowing in the effects of one too many Absolut Vanilla screwdrivers so I gave a fake name. Suthon Jaidee.

Ah, the hilarious things we do while under the influence.

“Wait!” I replied. “I remember now. I am Suthon. That’s me. Khun Suthon.”


“No, really, I am,” I said quickly changing the subject. “And I want to order three pizzas.”

“Which toppings would you like, Khun Suthon?” she asked in a tone of voice suggesting she didn’t believe in ghosts or UFOs.

“One ham and pineapple, one spicy chicken, and one deluxe.”

“One ham and pineapple, one spicy chicken, and one de-look” (เดอลุกซ์).

“No,” I said. “Not de-look.”

It was at that moment I could feel myself saddling up my high horse. Funny how that equestrian always rears its ugly head in such situations.

“De-LUX.” I added. “It’s de-LUX. Like the soap.”

“So … you want to cancel the de-look?”

Now I was in trouble.

“No! No. I don’t want to cancel it.”

“You said ‘no de-look’.”

“No I didn’t.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t understand you, Khun Suthon. You want three pizzas, and the last one is a de-look.”

“The last one is a deluxe,” I replied. “We don’t call it a de-look. You Thais made that pronunciation up yourself.”

“Oh … you are not a Thai, Khun Suthon?”

Man, was I digging myself a hole.

“Well no, but my name is Thai. I, er, grew up overseas. I’m a displaced orphan from the Vietnam war era.”


“That was a joke,” I said.

“Repeating your order: one ham and pineapple, one spicy chicken, and one de-look.”

She paused.

“Correct?” she asked, saying it as if she was plunging a spear into my chest.

Correct? Correct? How could I say yes to that, dear reader? I’m a linguist, dammit … how can I say that the word “deluxe”, when pronounced de-look, is correct?

There was something definitely evil, almost dominatrix-like, going on here. That pizza operator was playing head games with me, I know. (And of course, by using the name Suthon, I wasn’t playing head games with her, was I?).

I have asked this question before in this column but I will ask it again — Why is it that perfectly good English words get ripped to shreds when pronounced in Thai, especially on days when I haven’t had a good night’s sleep?

I can handle the omission of that final “s” because the Thai language doesn’t have such words. But why do we change a perfectly good vowel sound like “u” as in “but” or “cut” into the more flimsy pathetic “oo” sound of “look” or “cook”?

Isn’t it funny how we all have our pet peeves? I can’t stand any shop assistant who announces: “No have.” My friend Stuart nearly pees his pants if somebody says “Same same.”

Meanwhile Eilat has Siamese kittens when she hears “I no like,” and Craig goes ape-fecal over the pronunciation of “buffet” as “boof-fay” (บุฟเฟ่ต์).

And me? I’m a “de-look” kinda guy.

“Can I just say something here?” I said by way of answering this clearly manipulative, but clever, pizza operator.

“I just want to say that in English, it’s pronounced de-LUX, not de-look as you say it. Remember that. And tell your friends.”

“But we’re not speaking English, Khun Suthon.”

Oh my god.

She got me.

She’s right.

The word “deluxe” has its origins in French, meaning “of luxury”. And, of course, the French pronounce it similar to the way the Thais do, only a little more condescendingly.

Since when has it been stated that when speaking Thai, all foreign words must be pronounced as they are in English?

Was I just smarting because the Thais have favored the French over the English pronunciation?

I have nothing against the French, though they clearly have something against the British. When last in Paris the most valuable sentence I learned was “Je suis un Australien” so they would at least be nice to me – despite, at that time, Australia’s very vocal damning of French nuclear testing in the Pacific.

There are all sorts of words used in Thai that take the French pronunciation. Little nibblies are or-derf (ออเดิฟ), coffee is gar-fair (กาแฟ) and the word for France itself is farang-set (ฝรั่งเศส) which sounds to me like it comes from the French way of saying France with an emphasis on the last sound.

None of these bother me. So why be bothered with de-look? Or boo-fay for that matter, Craig?

Face it, Andrew. You just lost a linguistic battle to a pizza operator.

“Yes all right,” I said, feeling sick. “The … de-look … pizza.”

Kha” (ค่ะ), she answered. I could hear her troops’ hoots of victory from the front line as she spoke.

Two days later I was checking into a hotel in Suphan Buri to give a speech. As the bell boy carried my bag to the room, I was told: “You have been upgraded. To a hong soot” (ห้องชุด).

Oh god.

That’s another one.

A suite is a soot (ชุด) in Thai, rhyming with “suit”, another bastardization that gets my goat.

We can’t even blame the French for that one – where did that one come from? And why does that immediately incur my wrath?

“Air conditioning is here, and the light switch is over there,” the friendly hotel staffer told me once inside the room. “Would you like to order room service?”

“Certainly not a pizza,” I said.

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Andrew Biggs (Thai Memories): Fetmot

Andrew Biggs

Too much fetmot and you’re det-sa-mole-ay

I am munching on a delicious fetmot as I write this column, and –

I’m sorry, what was that? You don’t know what a ‘fetmot’ is? Come on. How long have you been in this country?

I was reminded of fetmot this week as I made one of my infrequent visits to Emporium, where I used to work. Ah, Emporium. Wasn’t that an exciting place to work for a while? Anytime you had a dull patch at work you could catch the lift down to the airy, khunying (คุณหญิง) infested walkways and escalators and pop into shops like Giorgio Armani to check out the latest overpriced shirts from Italy, making a mental note of their designs in order to pick up an identical one for one-twentieth the price at Chatuchak that coming weekend.

And the food! Cuisines from around the world, including my favorite, fetmot, which I purchased whenever I was in a rush and had no time to assume my faux hi-so persona.

Yes I will get to its meaning in a moment, but isn’t Thai a wonderful language? Since its inception – if a language can indeed incept – it has borrowed liberally from other sources, such as Chinese, Cambodian, Portuguese, Hindi and English. One simple Thai sentence these days is like falling into an atlas. But for me, one of the more interesting aspects of the language is how English words get picked up and used within the context of Thai.

We farangs often get hot under our western collars at the way Thais mispronounce even the simplest of English words, but there is often a good reason. Some sounds in English simply don’t exist in Thai, and vice versa. For this reason, English words get moulded into a new form within the context of Thai.

And English words enter and leave the Thai language quicker than smelly English teachers restamping their tourist visas in Hat Yai. Ten years ago the country fell into crisis and suddenly every Thai knew what “IM-Ebb” was. (It was IMF, but Thais don’t have an F sound at the end of their words.) I remember being a little surprised by the first Thai who shoved a plate of food in front of me and said: “Or Derb” (ออเดิป). Of course, he was saying “hors d’oeuvres” which has sneaked its way into the Thai language. Of course he was. But before you snigger at the crazy pronunciation, peer into the gaping chasm that lies between the way we westerners pronounce this word and the ludicrous way it is spelt, thanks to its shameful French origins.

In more recent times a verb has entered the Thai language which means “to stand up and make a speech in public”. This verb is to “hye-bark” (ไฮป๊าร์ค). Can you guess where this verb comes from? A hint: It’s not even a verb in English. It’s a place.

The answer is “Hyde Park”. In Thai, “to Hyde Park” means to get on your soapbox and make a protest speech. If you asked 100 Thais where Hyde Park is situated, you’d have a handful who could tell you. But they’d all know the verb. For example: “He will Hyde Park tonight at Sanam Luang.” “Do you know who will be Hyde Parking today?”

(I figure the past tense would not be an irregular verb … or would it? “Last night I Hyde Pack outside Parliament.” “I’ve Hyde Puck so many times I’ve lost my voice.”)

If you think that’s ludicrous, I have an even better one for you.

One slang word for “dead” in Thai sounds like this: “Det-sa-mole-ay.” For example: “I think Somchai will be det-sa-mole-ay if he doesn’t pay his debts.” “If that fat guy with the Jatukarm Ramatep amulet around his bulbous neck doesn’t stop hogging the karaoke microphone, he’ll be det-sa-mole-ay before midnight.”

I would like you now to put down your copy of Brunch and say that word out loud. “Det-sa-mole-ay” (เด็ดสะมอเร่). Sound familiar?

It should. It’s an English word. Or rather, the name of an English song. In Italian. Back in 1954 Dean Martin scored a #1 hit with a song called “That’s Amore.” “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore …”

How … the … hell … does … a cheesy English song … from 50 years ago … become a Thai adjective …. for “dead”?? Somewhere along the line, a Thai decided “dead” sounded like “That’s amore” and used the title of this song in its place. As crazy as it sounds, he or she was right – with the first syllable anyway. That’s why the title of a hideous old love song by a det-sa-mole-ay singer means “deceased” in Thai.

Sometimes I wonder why. I remember when the first taxi hit the Bangkok traffic with the plastic TAXI METER sign screaming for attention from the roof. Was it so difficult not to have written METERED TAXI? The same goes for those ubiquitous BAR BEERS in places like Chiang Mai and Pattaya, where westerners way past their use-by dates empty their hearts along with, ultimately, the contents of their fake leather wallets to girls one-third their age. It wouldn’t have taken much to have called them BEER BARS like the rest of the world does. Or am I just being bitter and twisted?

I love the Thai language and the way English words enter it. But pity the intrepid English word that ventures its way into the labyrinth that is the Thai language. By the time it has passed through all the twists and turns, it emerges a shadow of its former self.

Like “fetmot” (เฟดมาด). And what, pray tell, did it start out as? Why, “Fresh Mozzarella Tomatoes And Pesto Sandwich”, a popular choice at any Au Bon Pain shop. Only it’s shortened by the delightful Thai staff to “Fresh Mozarella,” then “Fresh Mot”, then “Fetmot”, then …

… Fot? Only time, dear reader. Only time.

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Andrew Biggs (Thai Memories): Expensive

Andrew Biggs

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.

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Andrew Biggs (Thai Memories): Adjectives

Andrew Biggs

Wendy’s gaze was steely and determined.

“You need to cut down on your use of adjectives,” she said, looking in this direction with eyebrows arched. “It’s lazy writing.”

Surely, she’s not referring to …? Oh God. She is.

Last weekend your columnist attended a writer’s workshop in Bangkok where my overuse of adjectives was laid bare before a group of aspiring writers. Now it’s understood how it feels to walk naked down Silom Road.

“Not only that, when you write in first person as you do, Andrew, try writing without using the words ‘I’ and ‘me’,” Wendy continued, unabashed. “It makes you a much better writer.”

A much better writer? The humiliation of it all.

Such criticism may be a little hard for you to believe, considering the grammatically-faultless second-to-none writing style found here on an unrelenting weekly basis. But the fact so many adjectives and adjectival phrases can be crammed into a single sentence like the one you just read – “grammatically-faultless”, “second-to-none”, “unrelenting” – does show my writing is in desperate need of a tune-up.

Thus your faithful and diligent correspondent spent an enjoyable weekend at the chic inner-city Siam@Siam Hotel … no, no, wait a minute, stop right there. Can I start that again without all the adjectives?

Thus your correspondent spent a weekend at a hotel being told he needed to cut down on his flagrant use of adjectives. Not completely annihilate them, mind you (an occasional “flagrant” is fine) but cut them down all the same.

Such were the sage words from Wendy, a New York Times bestselling author, whose advice was as valuable as it was cutting — at least when it came to adjectives. It was an exhilarating weekend, in which ten aspiring writers undertook various writing exercises. All the while, Wendy hovered like the Angel of Semantic Death, ready to cut a swathe through any adjectives that thought to cluster in her path.

How dare she! Imagine a world without adjectives … but indeed, this is the world where the best writers exist.

There was a time, a few decades ago, when my writing was indeed slim and dry. Over the years something changed, and the blame must be placed squarely on Thailand’s shoulders.

Like so many other elite Bangkok Post columnists, (“Ditch the ‘elite’!” Wendy would surely chastise upon hearing that) it was assumed my writing was perfect with no possible room for improvement. Hemingway, Salinger, Biggs … these names roll off the tongue with frightening ease.

Just kidding … there’s no delusional thought going on here. It’s like mentioning Gershwin, Bacharach and Billy Ray Cyrus in the same breath. The writing in this column is far removed from Ernest or J.D. since they knew the magic rule of “showing” rather than “telling”.

That was common knowledge to a former newspaper reporter like myself. So what happened? Where did those wheelbarrows of descriptive words that litter the construction site of my literary output come from?

There was never an opportunity to explain to Wendy that it’s a cultural thing, a direct result of living in the Land Of Smiles for two decades.

The Thai language is far more ingratiating than English. Translation work falls onto my desk regularly, such as invitations to events or advertising copy. Take this gold-embossed invitation card that had to be translated into English exactly three days before going to Wendy’s writer’s retreat, which in Thai went something like this:

“It would be the greatest honor bestowed upon us, and indeed would increase the dignity of our prestigious event, if you could graciously sacrifice your precious time to attend the auspicious grand opening of our new branch on Asoke Road this Monday, January 30th, 2011, the Year of the Rabbit. If you assent, which would be our greatest happiness, please inform Khun Art on the following telephone number (cell phone)” 08-xxx-xxxx.”

Tears well up in both eyes just reading this. It works beautifully in Thai; it is majestic and deferential and gives the recipient a warm tingle in his loins. This is the way the Thai language is; over-polite and unashamedly setting out to flatter the recipient.

The Thai culture, too, is all about prostrating yourself before those in a higher place than you, whether it be because of age, knowledge, or in the case of politicians, how much public money they’ve siphoned off into their private bank accounts to fund their gold Mercedes and Khao Yai holiday home.

The language reflects this. And adjectives are like strong kneecaps – helping you get into the prostrate position with ease.

This is evident in newspaper ads for condo complexes, the likes of which we discussed last week in this column. “Experience the pristine tranquility of idyllic living beside a peaceful sky-blue lake as you awaken joyously in your glamorous, fashionable condo.” It works fine in the Thai translation but in English that sentence needs to go on Atkins, and fast.

Back when Siam Paragon first opened its doors this shopping mall described itself on ubiquitous billboards as “The Glorious Phenomenon!” Besides being a great lesson in tautology, describing a shopping mall in such a way is just a leeeetle over the top, wouldn’t you say? It is indeed a lovely place, and phenomena do exist there from time to time, like the idiots who stood in line for hours to buy doughnuts.

My first visit there ended up with getting lost and having to ask a toothy security guard for the exit; he flashed those teeth with his Isan smile, shrugged his shoulders and said “Mai roo” (ไม่รู้). There’s nothing glorious about that situation (unless you’re a dentist looking for new patients) and the only phenomenon was the absence of exit signs.

Despite all this, “The Glorious Phenomenon!” does work within the context of Thai. It’s beyond imagining how many kittens Wendy would give birth to if she were fluent in the language, but she is right. Good writing in English requires adjectival sacrifice. Thus when faced with a paragraph so plump with padding it reminds me of seating at a Weight Watchers Anonymous meeting, out comes the axe.

“You are invited to attend the grand opening of our new branch on Asoke Road this Monday, January 30th. RSVP 08-xxx-xxxx.” Such was the translation sent back to Khun Art.

Khun Art’s mouth dropped to the floor. “This is a joke, right?” she said, letting out a nervous giggle over the phone. “You can’t write like that in Thailand!” It took 15 minutes to explain that it wasn’t a joke, and that while in Thai such language as in the original is fine, in English it was richer than a slice of banoffi pie at Anna’s Café.

So you can see that the “kill the adjective” stance taken by Wendy is still inherent and deep down within your columnist. But Wendy … dear, dear Wendy … this is Thailand! We love adjectives! Local copy writers are not aspiring to literary greatness – they just want to sell condos!

Oh, nearly forgot … this first person narrative business.

Wendy claims that dispensing with “I” and “me” in first-person narratives such as this column makes the reader feel closer to the action, and closer to the writer himself.

It’s not evident how close you wish to get, dear reader, but did you notice? For the first time ever, this entire column was written without my using a single “I” or “me”.

I am very proud of myself. Damn! Foiled by this final paragraph!

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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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