If prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, then gambling must be its oldest obsession. In Thailand gambling is illegal but this ban is a classic example of no meaning yes. Go to many places around the country and it doesn’t take long to hear by word of mouth or innuendo that a lot of card games and other games of chance are taking place.
This probably applies more to Chinese/Thais. As has been well documented the Chinese have an almost genetic disposition to gambling. Across the river from Chinatown in Bangkok where my sister-in-law and her family lives, card games abound. It has often been pointed out to me that a lot of the men loitering around the narrow sois are in reality lookouts in case the police turn up.
The only sanctioned gambling in Thailand is the state lottery. Go anywhere in Thailand and you will be confronted in markets and streets by lottery ticket salesman and women. Many of these people have a physical disability and the commissions from ticket sales are their only source of income. Quite often they will congregate at places such as the Erewan Shrine, which are considered to be lucky.
In years past the most interesting thing about the State lottery was its illegal sibling. Until recently when the Government wised up and made the official lottery more attractive with better prizes, a considerable number of Thais would wager their money on the illegal version of the lottery. The results were based on the legal bi-monthly draw. With perceived better odds and prizes, the illegal lottery was probably as large or even larger than the official version. There existed a spider’s web of middlemen taking the bets and probably a cabal of Mr. Bigs or possibly even a Mr. Big. I often visualized that there could have been a master criminal running the whole show – at times lighting up a Cuban with a thousand baht note (I probably watch to much television)
But it was the tension-laden atmosphere leading up to the lottery draw that was most noteworthy. Everybody seemed to be involved – Farmers, Teachers, housewives, even Buddhist Monks – many wagering more money than they could afford. In rural areas before every man, women and child possessed a mobile phone; people would queue up at village shops to use the phone. They would call friends and family around the country to confer about lucky numbers. Sometimes these calls would be made to Monks renowned for picking propitious numbers.
The tension comes to a head on the day the lottery draw is televised. A hush seems to fall across the country. Thais are a pretty tolerant lot when it comes to noise and high spirits, but anybody making a noise during the draw is quickly told to zip their mouth. The only time I have seen people looking at a television with a rapt expression like this was when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. The televised lottery draw to is also different to other countries.
In Australia where I live the lottery draw is all sound and light and takes less than 5 minutes. The presenter is usually a male television star with a fading career – kitted out in an Italian suit and a bouffant hairstyle. He is usually partnered with a female sidekick with a big bosom and a vacuous smile (oooh!!!! I know I’m going to hell for saying that). The whole point of the exercise is to sell a dream with as much exaggeration as possible.
The official draw in Thailand in contrast is all seriousness. The long series of draws that seem to take an excruciating long time to complete take place in a large room filled with uniformed officials (At first glance it looks like a war room at the Pentagon).In the room is a long row of clear plastic tumblers filled with numbered balls with each tumbler overseen by a po-faced female official yet again in uniform. Each official manually rotates their tumbler and then reaches into the tumbler to pull out and then hold up a numbered ball for all and sundry to see. The whole point of the exercise and the vast number of officials is to make everything appear transparent and above board. However the more earnest the process has become, the more it seems like there is a level of fiddling going on.
If ever gambling in general became legal in Thailand (a mixed blessing I feel) it makes me wonder how stuffy Thai bureaucracy would deal with it.