Monthly Archives: June 2005

Going to Bangkok in 1904

These days, it doesn’t seem such a big deal preparing a trip to Thailand. It is no longer the unknown as millions of people join package tours to Thailand every year. But, a hundred years ago things were very different. What I thought I would do tonight is give you some extracts from a guidebook for Bangkok published in 1904. It is interesting to see how much things have changed.

Fishing Boats in Paknam

How to Reach Bangkok

Bangkok, though somewhat “out of the track”. may be reached in a variety of ways. The traveller from the West may come from Singapore direct, or via the West coast of the Gulf of Siam or, should he so desire, may cross the Siamese Malay portion of the peninsular from Penang to singora, over the very excellent road constructed a few years ago. Should he hail from India or Burma he may follow the regular trade route descending along the Me Ping river from Chiangmai, in Northern Siam.

Out of the way it may be, Bangkok is well supplied with steamers and rarely does a day pass without one or two leaving or departing. The general time taken by the direct boats from Singapore is about three and a half days. You can also travel to Bangkok from Hongkong and Saigon. Other routes to Bangkok had best be left to the explorer or professional traveller as they present difficulties which require a great deal of surmounting. As for what to bring with one, the stores of Bangkok can, as one of them proudly boasts, supply you anything from the proverbial needle to the anchor and just an ordinary outfit suited to the tropics is all that is needed.

A Street scene in Paknam

On the River

The first indications of the approach to the mouth of the Menam Chow Phya (literally “Mother of Waters”) to the stranger are usually a distinctly muddy tinge in the otherwise clear waters of the Gulf, followed by the appearance of a group of islands on the starboard bow. These island are the Koh-si-chang group, the highest of which is some 670 feet in height. Then come the Lightship and Bar lighthouse whilst the coast proper presents a rather flat and depressing appearance.

Here it may not be amiss to make a few remarks about “Bangkok’s first line of defence,” the Bar. As may be gathered from the flatness of the surrounding land, there always has been a bar of some kind at the mouth of the river. This bar is a great hindrance to navigation and commerce but the authorities refuse to dredge it for two reasons, first that it affords a protection against enemies in case of war and secondly that, were it removed, the brackish water would go much higher up river than it does during certain seasons.

On entering the river proper a lightship showing a red light at night, will be observed on the left hand side. Here some 45 years ago the Siamese sunk four large junks laden with stones in order to prevent a hostile Cambodian suadron from entering the river, whilst further obstructions were added during the troubles with France in 1893.

The Temple in the Middle of the River

After this is passed the river usually assumes the appearance of a placid lake and three miles further on the first view of what may be termed Siam proper meets the eye, in the shape of the village and island temple of Paknam, the former the customs station where every vessel has to stop, whether bound inwards or outwards, and the latter a rather fine example of Siamese ecclestical architecture.

Paknam itself is a typical Siamese village, or would be but that it boasts a big telegraph office and is the terminus of the little fourteen mile line of railway, the pioneer line in siam, running to Bangkok. The Paknam temple is truly a striking erection of its kind. Although by no means the largest or finest of the temples within Bangkok, its situation renders it picturesque.

There are various forts in this vicinity, the only really conspicious one being that bearing the big flagstaff on the island behind the temple, but in various places, notably at Paklat on the left hand bank, there are the ruins or walls, half decayed and covered with vegetation, of all kinds of various old forts suggestive of the days of bows and arrows rather than those of modern artillery.

The steamer passes on between banks richly clad with tropical vegetation of all kinds, mostly consisting of mangroves and palms. Occasionally the vegetation is broken by a brief gap through which a glimpse of a paddy land or temple spire may be seen. As we proceed further upriver the boat traffic becomes thicker and little gatherings of the three-gabled floating houses more frequent until a swing around a bend brings into view the distant graceful spires of Bangkok.

Source: The 1904 Traveller’s Guide to Bangkok and Siam by J. Antonio

A few notes. Paknam means “river mouth” in Thai. The city is now called Samut Prakan though many people still call it Paknam. The temple in the middle of the river is now on the left bank despite still being called “the temple in the middle of the river”. Paklat is now more commonly called Phra Pradaeng. The conflict with the French took place 112 years ago. The anniversary is next month and I will tell you more about it then. I will also mention the difference between the school book version and what was reported by foreign observers.

“Farang Speak Thai?!”

Want to go to the toilet? Learn to read Thai first!

Well, I shall certainly have to admit to a slight delay there in the writing up of this new blog, had a darned bad head cold for a few days. Probably due to the freaky weather lately that has been changing as often as me daughter does her diapers.

Anyway, after writing to the likes of our nation’s notorious leaders and the bewilderment of Bangkok, I thought, just for today to pick out of the bag a subject that surely even torments even the hardest-hearted of Farang from time to time and that is ….learning the Thai Lingo!

For sure, there are plenty-a funny sites to be seen here in the Land of the Guava and Green Tea. But as for the Thais they find nothing funnier than the site of the Farang trying to speak Thai.

Every Farang in Thailand has probably had to endure the daunting task of attempting to have himself understood, in Thai, in the middle of Nakhorn Nowhere – only to have a whole group of passer-bys stand around looking on in bemusement.

Then we have that other type of Thai, the ones working in shops and restaurants that run-away at the sight of a Farang coming in thinking the frivilous alien doesn’t speak a word of Thai. This escapade happens every day in the land’s shoeshops. Half the salesgirls on seeing a Farang (of course they dont think for a minute he might speak some Thai) enter the shop decide that they need an urgent pee and flee to the toilet thus escaping the embarrassing situation of trying to speak English. If that isnt enough for the pitiful Farang when trying to learn Thai, they are innumerable Thais who on working in the tourist areas deliberately try NOT to understand the Farang speaking Thai. Fair enough, these sorts of folk dont like the prospect of Farangs speaking Thai (ie. Roo mak) as of course they find it difficult to swindle money out of them.

Overall however, most decent Thais appreciate any Farang who makes a go at learning their frustratingly difficult sing-a-song sounding lingo. Even the most basic of three word sentences on being heard by a Thai will be complimented with ‘Farang phoot Thai Keng’ (Hey, this Farang speaks excellent Thai!).

Probably the two most difficult areas of the Thai lingo for the Farang are 1. The pronunciation of the vowel sounds. 2. The tones. And the biggest tonal classic cock-up for the Farang is ‘Suay’ roughly translating as nice-looking/beautiful. Just how many Farang have insulted both their loved ones (and themselves), who on saying ‘Fairn phom suay mak mak’ with the wrong tone have stated (instead of the meant my girlfriend is beautiful) ‘That girlfriend of mine has been darned unlucky to have met the likes of me!’ Then, one of the worst imaginable cock-ups is when the Farang who on needing the directions to a travel agency say ‘Ran Khai Tua’ with the wrong tone. ‘Tua’ as in ticket is in that tricky ‘mai jat-wa’ tone and most Farang end up saying “Excuse me how do I get to the shop sell body?” (instead of shop sell ticket) only for a tuk-tuk driver on hearing this to come rushing over flashing out his brochures of some down-right kinky massage parlour!

Then, for my first couple of years here in Thailand I spent a couple of them down in the south where most of the local Thais can’t even speak Thai themselves but instead a defunct dialect completely incomprehendable to the rest of the country Then, I had this Mr Lek guy have me stay at his house for a couple of months to teach him English for free food and bed. What a headache that was! As his shop-house was the biggest egg-selling one in town I only had to tell the motorbike-taxi drivers ‘Take me to the shop that sells chicken eggs’ translated to Thai that is ‘Ran khai khai kai’. Get yer tongue ‘round that one!

Anyway, after a couple of years in the south I was pretty fluent, what with having studied it before too that I returned to Bangkok with me head in the air and confident to the brim about my ability of Thai. How wrong I could have been! I had instead, became fluent with this hoarse southern accent with some of the south’s mind-boggling lingo mixed in. Probably the worst habit I had picked up down south was saying ‘teen’ for feet instead of ‘thao’. Well, don’t blame me as that’s all they said down south (‘teen’ is an impolite word in ‘proper’ Thai) and Thais are pretty sensitive about such a part of the body. Thinking back, I can imagine the look the Bangkoks shoeshop salesgirl would have had when I said ‘I need a pair of ‘rong teen!” would be just like a vagabound foreigner in our own country rudely telling the asst along the lines of ‘I need a pair of shoes for me ‘friggin feet!’.

Now, after a six month stretch lazing away on the beaches of Krabi (dead quiet in those days) I had learnt loads-a local lingo that if used anywhere else in the country who be understood as much as Double-Dutch. One word I picked up was ‘bia’ as in money. On arriving in Bangkok I used this word there a few times only to have the listener look at me dumb-founded and reply to the likes of “What the heck are you trying to say?’ Our friends down south can’t even be bothered saying the months as if they were too difficult and do instead just say ‘deu-an 1’, ‘deu-an 2’ (month 1, month 2 etc).Then foreigners will be glad that they don’t have to try and pronounce ‘Krungthep’ cause some of the dialects still use ‘Bangkok’ (very old Thai) but pronounced slightly differently ‘Bang-gok’.

During me time here in Thailand I’ve had the chance to travel and work all over the place and having spent a long while in Laos too, has meant that I’ve become pretty proficient in Laotian as well as Thai. I have however refrained myself from speaking this certain lingo/dialect outside of the north-eastern region these days. Wondering as you may, why. Just say for example ‘Bor pen i-yang’ (Mai Pen Rai) in Bangkok and all you’ll hear in return is the likes of ‘Farang mee mia Lao!’ (Farang must have a Lao/Isarn wife). To Farang of course, this is not funny, but to most Thais this is pretty hysterical!

Picking up a phrasebook and learning Thai just that way is fine for starters but not if you wanna be any ‘good’ in the language as many-a phrase/word etc.. just don’t translate properly Thai>English and vice-versa. Now: boyfriend/girlfriend/wife/husband what a darned headache those words just are in Thai! On first learning Thai the Farang believes Fairn = Boyfriend/Girlfriend and Mia = Wife. Of course that’s not always the case and is instead often Fairn = Wife/Husband and Mia = Girlfriend (in the case of the two living together in sin without being married, just like in the west).
Getting back to Fairn = Wife, well that’s a polite way of saying ‘the wife’. As often enough ‘Mia’ is rather impolite (to a lot of folks). Then ‘Phanraya’ (the formal word) sounds far too poshy polite! Not knowing therefore what to actually call ‘her’ resort to ‘Fairn kong phom’ (me girlfriend) as it sounds cute and like they are still in love. Sure, half the country believes that the lovey-dovey stuff stops when you get married, just like the rest of the world I suppose.

Confused? Well, if you aren’t you ought to be!

“I want to go to Cen-tron”

Well, as Thailand has developed an excess amount of English has dissolved into the Thai language which is known as ‘Tap sap’ (words from the tap/faucet). So many of these words are now in daily usage, especially in Bangkok, that you could almost hold a conversation in Thai in English ie. ‘Chan ja charge battery nai hotel’ translated to English means ‘I’m going to charge the battery (phone) in the hotel’. Drink, support, notebook, coupon, cap, basic etc… are just a tiny sample of the English words now being used in spoken Thai. Then, over the past few years two of the new trendy ‘tap sap’ words amongst the brainy Bangkokians have been ‘work’ and ‘get’. If you don’t get what someone is going on about just say ‘Mai get!’ ( I don’t get it) and then polish that off with ‘Mai work’ ( It’s not working ie. in the terms of a plan or relationship etc..)

Currently top of the dastardly corrupt usage of ‘Tap sap’ has got to be ‘take care’ here it’s used for anything similar to this word in sense. Forget even the bothersome ‘of’ just say ‘I take care you’, ‘He take care me’, ‘We take care customer’, ‘The girl take care fish’. Then, as for savage ‘Tap sap’, the stevesuphan award of the week goes to the word ‘dic’ (as in dictionary). Me myself had got well used to using this word with my students, that was until I met my new grade six class this year. Somehow or another the whole darned class had found out before that this word does sound extremely similar, if not the same, as a naughty word from the English language.

You should have seen the complete class roll-up in laughter when I ordered them to ‘Ok, get out your dics’. As for the rest of the other classes, they still haven’t the faintest.

Besides just ‘Tap sap’ there are also plenty of ways to communicate in Thai and that certainly includes non-verbal communication. Most Farang on trying to get their tongue around ‘Gep ngoern duay krap’ (Could I have the bill please?) fail to realise that just a small swirling circley action of the index finger is more than enough to get the message across. As for the smoker-farangs they just needn’t bother having to tongue-twist ‘Thee Khia Buree’ to ask for an ashtray when just a tapping resemblance to ‘flashin the ash’ will be thoroughly understood.

I’ve seen some major misunderstanding though between Thais and Farang and I remember one classic example many years back down there on Koh Samui. While sat at a bar chatting to the cashier in walked this Farang who looked as if he, just five minutes ago arrived in the country. Obviously thinking the cashier didn’t speak a word of English asked (Do you have….? And thinking she wouldn’t understand the word ‘cigarettes’ puts two fingers to his lips making a smoking action. Certainly outraged by this, the cashier walked over to the guy and said right to his face ‘If you want buy ganja you come the wrong place!’

One particular annoyance that I still encounter even to this day is when some Thais just love correcting a tricky word that you have just slightly mispronounced and have a right laugh at your expense. It wouldn’t be too bad if the critic could put together the most basic of sentences in English himself. The worst offending examples of this have to be ‘Central’, ‘Robinson’ or ‘Mc Donalds’ etc.. Of course half the population seemingly don’t realise that these are in fact English words and not Thai at all. Just say one of these words to a Thai and you’ll be getting a telling off along the lines of ‘No, you say not correct, you must say Cen-tarn!’

And finally, being cheesed-off at times with this corrupt usage of English within the Thai language have on occasions given the Thais a bit of their own medicine. I remember on the skytrain when taking me young daughter Candy with me once, I had her stand at the window while I was teaching her the likes of ‘This is Victory Monument’ etc.. with all the onlookers looking on probably thinking ‘Oooh how cute! ’That was until on arriving at Saphan Kwai where I shouted out rather loud ‘And this is Buffalo Bridge’. Of course all the schoolgirls started giggling away to themselves while the elder straight-faced folks pierced their eyebrows giving off one of those ‘What kind of language is that to teach a child!’ looks. Sod them, Saphan Kwai translates as Buffalo Bridge does it not?

On the second occasion however my joke back-fired and all Candy could say in her badly pronounced Thai-English was ‘Hey dad, Buffalo Brit, Buffalo Brit.’ Out of the skytrain I soon gave her a well deserved ‘clip ‘round the ear’ to remind her of some of her origins.

Random Thai Superstitions.

Bang Sai Arts and Craft Center

Here are some more Thai superstitions from the past which directly affect Thai life and culture today.

(1) Do not bend down and look between your legs. You will see a ghost.
(2) Do not sweep dirt out of the front entrance. It will make all your money go away.
(3) Do not sweep at night. It is bad luck.
(4) Do not clean the spider web at night. You will lose all your money.
(5) Do not open an umbrella in the house. It will make you bald.
(6) Do not eat candy that has dropped on the floor. It now belongs to the ghost.
(7) Do not put valuable things away at night. The ghost will see and steal it.
(8) Do not keep broken Buddha images in the house. It will cause your family to be separated.
(9) Do not tell other people about your bad dream when you are eating. If you do it will come true.
(10) Do not rock an empty cradle. Your child will become sick.
(11) Do not throw anything onto the roof of the house. It is bad luck.
(12) Do not tap a kid on his head. It will make him a bed wetter.
(13) Do not enter a house through the window. Bad luck will come to that house.
(14) Do not allow wedding guests break any plates or glasses. It will cause the couple to become separated.
(15) If you have a scratch, do not attend a cremation. It will make your scratch infected.

Source: Translated from “Boran Oo-bai” by Sanom Krutmeuang

Nostalgie, tu es tendre.

There is a beautiful song by Julio Iglesias that runs, “Nostalgie, tu es tendre, moi aussi. Nostalgie is indeed tender and we revisit the places through our memory. I came back to bangkok in 2002 after 1989, and immediately after landing there was a desire to see the old places. Taking a taxi from CAT building in Chaengwattana road , I went to Siam Jusco at Laksi. The shopping complex has an excellent facade with lot of parking space in the front. Over the years it has become crowded inside and the Kroissant tea shop is no more there. On the right, the eye wear shop is also missing. But it still is beautiful.

SuperSized Me

Brandon and I have started somewhat of a tradition of going to the Treasure Pot in Paramount for lunch on Saturday.

We’ve been going there for the usual of Brandon’s favorites–panang beef and pad krapro ground chicken (chicken with garlic and Thai basil)–and my occasional cravings for Kai Palow (stewed eggs with pork and tofu), Kao Ka Mhoo (rice with stewed pork legs), and Kuay Teow Rua (boat noodles).

Back in Thailand, 3 things for 2 people would have just been enough with no leftover. But check out American portion of one bowl of Bahmee Moo Daeng (egg noodles with BBQ pork).

Big bowl of noodles!

We usually order at least 3 entrees and rice. 2 entrees in American portion are already plenty of food. Way more than the two of us could eat. But here’s the beauty of American portion.

Leftover.

Imagine the same size bowl but filled with Kai Palow. That would make 3-4 meals for days to come!

I – Love – it! I don’t have to cook for the next few days, and better yet we could have Thai food everyday for the next few days.

Back home, we don’t seem to be taking leftover home too much. I mean, we either finish everything, or there just wasn’t enough left to be taken home. Occasionally though, we did take things home for our service folks, and even less frequently for ourselves.

Thai portion is a good size. Brandon agrees. He likes the fact that nothing seems to go to waste. He despises restaurants like Claim Jumper here in the U.S. which is famous for serving up gigantic portion of everything. It’s just too darn much.

As for me, I like the fact that you can order all sorts of different things because the plates are small enough. Instead of one bowl of one kind of noodles, you can eat 2 smaller bowls–one “dry” (no soup) and one with soup. You can have your Som Tumm and your grilled chicken too. And yet, you still have room for the little cup of dessert with shaved ice.

Why waste the energy eating a huge portion of something when you can eat a little bit of everything and be full all the same?

Then again, like we’ve mentioned before, Thai people can EAT. Sure, we may not be able to eat a lot in an hour, but give us 2-3 hours and we can really do some damage.

We Thais enjoy our food. And company. The more the merrier! More people, more variety of food, more people to help eat food, more conversation…more SANOOK (fun).

P.S. My apology for the lower post frequency, folks. Been busy at work as well as preparing to leave town for a week. On Friday, Brandon and I are getting on the train heading out to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to spend a week with his parents up in the mountain town of Red River, another 3-4 hour drive from Santa Fe. I probably won’t be spending much time on the internet there. Hope to post one more time before I head out. If not, I’ll see you guys back on July 10!