Bombay recently changed its name to Mumbai, so did Bangalore to Bengaluru, and cricket commentators fell over themselves to use the new names as quickly as possible. On the news these days they say Beijing not Peking, Canton is vanishing as a name for Guangzhou though admittedly drunken Dutch still call New York ‘New Amsterdam’.
So here’s my question, why doesn’t this world recognition of correct naming apply to South East Asia. Most people still seem to refer to Myanmar as Burma. Ho Chi Minh city is universally called Saigon, the country of Laos still has the ‘s’ added to its name by everyone in the world, despite the fact there’s not even a final ‘s’ in the Lao language and few in the country could even pronounce the word ‘Laos’. Bangkok of course is not only not called Bangkok it’s never been called Bangkok, though we can somewhat blame the Thais themselves for this one, not promoting the real name and even using the word Bangkok themselves, when speaking English.
Getting real names wrong also has its perils, I had an experience myself, I hesitate to tell as you will probably think me think me a really awful person, but here goes anyway……….
I forget the year, it was either 2001 or 2002, the company I was working for had flown me up to Khon Kaen for a month and that day I was flying back. Hubris was rife in the air, I was the kind of person who was flown not bussed around the country by his company. However the day before my bubble was burst as the company asked me to come into work the evening when I arrived in Bangkok. As my flight was early afternoon and I was arriving at Don Muang around 3:30pm I could start work at 6pm.
To get to Chit Lom where I worked from Don Muang would take minutes on the Sky Train, I didn’t really want to arrive at work at 4pm and hang around 2 hours. Going home first wasn’t an option as by the time I got to Nontaburi I’d have to turn straight around and go back, so I decided I’d go down to the bus stop outside the airport and take the first aircon bus directly there with vacant seats and have a relaxing journey looking out the window for an hour or so killing plenty of time.
The scene was pretty typical I sat in the bus shelter, there was a woman next to me, a couple of guys standing either end, taxis waited beside the road in a line for us to get bored, buses sporadically stopped and an old women tried to sell us green mango. I had a backpack with me with a month of supplies for my time in Khon Kaen but as I was going into work I was wearing my work clothes so looked pretty smart and clearly wasn’t a tourist.
After about 5 mins at the bus stop an American guy late twenties/early 30′s appeared dressed in an expensive business suit. He walked up the line of taxis one by one speaking to the drivers who shook their heads a lot. After trying all the taxis he tried a bus driver who just happened to have stopped, also to no avail. My curiosity was sparked. He appeared to have a piece of paper in his hand and then showed it to the two guys standing at the bus stop who also shook their heads. Finally he headed in my direction and spoke to the woman sitting next to me, she spoke good English and I eaves dropped the problem.
The man who was red faced by now and looking really panicked handed her the paper and asked if she knew this address, repeating the words “Wireless Road”, she promptly told him there was definitely no Wireless Road in Bangkok. The now almost crying businessman explained to her that he had flown all the way from the US for an important business meeting, had tried everywhere but no-one knew where Wireless Road was and now was down here out of desperation, the meeting started in 20 minutes.
Sitting listening to this I knew immediately what the trouble was. US companies and even the US Embassy stubbornly still insisted on calling the road in question Wireless Road, addressing all correspondence to Wireless Road and telling all Americans who enquire for business information it’s called Wireless Road, without even deeming to mention like Bombay to Mumbai the Thais for decades had returned it to the original name Wittayu.
Sitting there I thought this is your lucky day mate, not only do I know where you’re going, I know how to get you there in 20 mins, I’m going to Chit Lom, Ok you pay, we’ll jump in a taxi, I’ll tell the driver where you’re going, to take the tollway, at 4pm it’s unlikely to be jammed and you’ll most probably make your meeting bang on time. I’ll be at work early, which is what I wanted to avoid, but hell I’m a nice guy and if it helps you…….
So as I mooted over my good Samaritan act, the businessman got up from sitting next to the woman next to me walked straight past me not even turning to acknowledge me and returned to the two standing guys and asked them a second time. He then over the next 10 mins hailed a few cabs, asked a few passers by and stopped the odd bus, not even once coming over to me.
I sat there thinking, now I don’t exactly look like a tourist, anyone with half a brain could see I lived and worked here. Also he was a businessman, expensive suit and this company had rather than video conferenced or phoned chosen to fly him halfway around the world for a face to face. Obviously a very important meeting, so you would think the company would send a top guy. Business I thought was about initiative, it’s a sink or swim world, a Darwinist scramble where those with initiative prosper and those without are evolved into extinction. Being a top guy, this guy should have had the initiative to ask me, he didn’t, the only person who could have helped him, he asked everyone else, even the green mango seller. It’s not really my responsibility to go up to him and sort his life out. I mean he works for a company; the company presumably makes a product. Imagine I desperately needed this product but had no money, would his company give it to me free? Of course not. so am I really obliged to help this company out, free of charge? Give my product away, a reasonably comprehensive knowledge of Bangkok.
Later, I got on my bus and that was the last I ever saw of the guy, 20 minutes had passed, his meeting had started, his panic and desperation had subsided, he now had a sort of resigned look, I guess he had come to Thailand and found a sort of inner peace in his own way………. I still remember the chided puppy dog expression fading out of sight as the bus drove away, sometimes I wonder what happened to him, did he lose his job and stay in Thailand. Perhaps he’s here now and is now a fire dancer on Ko Pen Ngan or preaching Darma in Lumpini Park on a Sunday afternoon after finding Nivana at the bottle of a bottle of 7/11 Lao Khao, saved from an empty life of corperate futility. Me I found inner peace too, I had the one chance in my life to sabotage global corporate capitalism and took it. I slept well that night.
Anyway back to my point, I wonder what it is specifically about SE Asia that it’s ok to be so wrong about place names compared to the rest of the world? Should we even try to use correct names. With Lao for instance it’s not difficult as the word Laos is completely unheard of in the region and within days of setting foot in the country even the most ill-informed tourist clutching their copy of Lonely Planet with Laos written boldly across the cover will have abandoned the ‘s’ realising its total non-existence in speech or writing in the country. With Bangkok it is more difficult, over the 15 years or so when talking to Thais I have endeavoured to say Groong Tep all the time, but find nine times out of ten they still say Bangkok back to me. I recently bought a bus ticket to Groong Tep from Isan, walked up to the Chaiyaphum Air ticket counter and asked when the next bus to Groong Tep was, the lady behind the counter replied the next bus to Bangkok was at 11.am. The real absurdity of the situation was apart from the word Groong Tep I asked in English and apart from the word Bangkok she replied in Thai.
US Emabssy Website Contact Address.