Category Archives: Country Life

Lottery Madness

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.

lottery salesman

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.

lottery officials

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.


Related Links: – the latest winning numbers
Related Links: – how to find your lucky number

Isaan Eyes Are Smiling

In this Blog I’m going to get downright subjective and possibly a bit sloppy and sentimental. One of the most seductive aspects of Thai culture I believe would have to be the Thai smile. Although incredibly over hyped in tourist promotions and Thai airways advertisements – it is nonetheless still an important part of the Thai image.

But is the Thai smile homogenous? Is a smile in Mae Sai similar to a smile in Had Yai? I confess to being biased. Whilst the Thai smile might wrap you in its arms right round the country, its in Northeast Thailand that it truly warms you. During our earlier trips to Thailand. We used to catch a bus from the Northern Bus terminal in Bangkok to travel to Phimai in Khorat province. The bus now travels non-stop to Phimai but a few years back you had to change buses in Nakhonratchasima (Khorat) and then get on a Phimai bus.

Phimai Bus

Stepping out at the Khorat bus terminal you felt straight away that you were in a different part of Thailand. But why? The bus station was just as noisy, smelly, and frenetic as other parts of the country. The commerce at the station was in your face and close your eyes – the fermenting smell from the pay toilet as bad as anywhere in the country. But of course it’s the smiles that seemed to make the difference together with the laid back ambience of the place.

The Thai smile in Isaan I feel is bigger and warmer than other parts of the country. Bigger, not in the sense that bigger is better or even trying to work out its size with a tape measure. Just intrinsically bigger. Everywhere you come across the “smile” in Isaan – school kids, people at the market, even Monks on village binderbaht sneaking or at times barely hiding a smile with family and friends on their alms round. Smiles from people in a part of the country that often endures heavy economic and social hardships.

cheerful drink

This now leads me to express a theory that is totally unsubstantiated, nonresearched and I expect to be blown out of the water for saying it. The theory relates to what is the underlying influence of Isaan on foreign perceptions on Thailand. The imagery of Thailand that springs to a foreigners mind will more often or not be shopping in Bangkok, southern beach resorts and the mountains in the north with areas such as Isaan barely recording on mental registers.

One of the enduring memories that people take away from a holiday in Thailand is the friendliness of the Thai people. These memories can be kicked off by little things such as a particularly happy Taxi driver, a cheerful food seller out on the streets or a helpful maid in a hotel. This is where my Isaan theory kicks in – so many of the aforementioned people that tourists come across come from Isaan. This has resulted of course by poverty in rural Isaan which over the past decades has seen a large number of its inhabitants seek work outside of Isaan – a large percentage end up working in the service industry. The natural friendliness of Isaan people working in heavily touristed areas has I believe unconsciously contributed to Thailand’s image abroad.


In the end I think more visitors will remember the smiles of these people more than say as example the smiles of Thai Airways cabin staff or an overly polite hotel concierge.

Of everything I have written in this Blog I can no more prove than I can prove that Singha beer tastes better than Heineken. It’s basically a feeling that I hold to be true in my gut.


Isaan Golf

Isaan does not have the posh golf courses you find in Phuket, Pattaya or Bangkok, nor does it have the prices of those places.

Okay, so there are only two eighteen hole golf courses in Isaan. There is Victory Park, south of Nong Khai and the is the EGAT course at the Ubol Rattana Dam, north of Khon Kaen. Both courses have all the facilities you could want, are inexpensive and well maintained.

There are plenty of nine hole courses spread throughout the region and the range in qauality from brilliant to, well, best of luck.

Now there are plenty of books available that threaten to include the definitive list of golf courses in Thailand, but only one that I have found that comes anywhere close. “The Golf Book” Thailand 2005 published by Bangkok Book House Co., Ltd. is the only one I would spend my money on. It has only missed two coures I am aware of, one a six hole course in Mukdahan and one in amphor Sahatsakan in Kalasin, that may well be closed.

If you are interested in playing golf in Isaan I suggest you play on weekdays and tee-off early. There’s a couple reasons for the early start. First it’s cooler, but still bring your water with in case the refreshment shacks aren’t open yet. Next Thais do not generally start early. Now why is that important, you might ask. Well for some reason Thais like to play in herds of six or so. No if you’re familiar with golf in the west you’ll know this is not on, but it is allowed at many courses on Thailand. I have never found out why sixsomes are poplular here. I think it’s one of two reasons. One they are afraid of the golf phii. And second and I know this is hard to belive but there might be gambling going on out there.

Another thing about Thai golfers is that they must all have drivers with heads, well, as big as a head.

The Thais that play early are usually older guys and quick to let faster players play through, while later in the day it seems more difficult to find anyone who is aware of the rule that allows faster players to play through.

One of my favorite 9 hole courses is the one at the army base, next to the airport in Khon Kaen. Mornings it’s not rare for a Thai player to ask if you want to play along. They are the most friendly plaayers I have met in all of Isaan.

Anyhow if you do play golf don’t rule out Isaan.

Turn The Music Down I Can’t Hear The Noise

It would be the understatement of the year to say that Thailand is a noisy country. As soon as you step out of the air-conditioning after arriving at Dom Muang you are immediately confronted with the heat and noise of Bangkok. Of course in this regard Bangkok and the rest of Thailand is no different to many other countries. But its human noise and the attitudes towards such noise that I want to talk about in this blog.

I live in Australia, which like most “advanced” countries, has a well-developed raft of noise ordinances. Example, in the suburbs you can’t start a lawnmower before a certain time or play music over a determined decibel count etc etc. On New Years Eve Australian police probably spend more time knocking on people’s front doors and telling them to turn the music down than they spend quenching alcohol fueled exuberance. That’s one reason that Farangs like myself who travel to Thailand regularly find it very liberating – you can be noisy, as you like.

stereo speakers

Thais in general have a propensity to noise, which seems to increase the further you move into rural areas. From the moment the roosters begin to crow in the pre-dawn, the clatter of domestic chores, the movement of trucks /motorcycles and the chatter of villagers fills the air. I spend a fair part of my annual visit in the Isaan village of Ban Phutsa where being noisy is an art form learnt from childhood. For instance, I’ve heard my sister-in-law Porntip sitting in the middle of the family home having an animated conversation with another neighbour who is also sitting in the middle of their own house (who needs text messaging). Get a few neighbours together and noise levels rise markedly especially with the consumption of beer/whisky and the general exuberance of the people involved.


Of course modern technology has played a big part in Thai noise making. Thai sound systems especially those built in the country are a sight to be seen – mounds of speakers are linked by cables and wires to other pieces of sound apparatus, which can punch out sound at frightening levels. It has become almost mandatory that at any wedding, funeral, house blessing that a sound system be acquired. Even village temples now have sound systems together with loudspeaker towers. Not that long ago in the village of Banphutsa you would be woken before dawn to the sound of music, important announcements from the village headman and the occasional sermon from the Abbot. Ban Phutsa now has a new Abbot who is more of a traditionalist and has subtly put the mockers on much of the blather from the temple loud speakers (more power to him)

The one instrument of torture that terrifies me most in Thailand is the common old microphone. In my view giving a microphone to the average Thai is a bit like reintroducing a reformed alcoholic to brandy. Put a microphone in the hands of a Thai and he/she thinks that they have become either:
· Thailand’s new pop sensation
· A Ronald Reagan communicator
· Or just simply turned on by the fact that together with a village loud speaker system their voice can be heard three miles away

Does noise of this nature have a downside? Not really. My experience over the years is that the inclusive nature of Thai culture deals effectively with minor disagreements over noise – In a sense it both reflects and moulds the tolerant nature of Thais in general.

As a Farang what is my reaction. In the main I don’t have a problem with the noise (the only noise problem – I find at times music played full blast for 48 hours during Thai funerals can be a bit tiring) but hey, that’s at worst a minor irritation. Coming from a country where local authorities have more power than the prime minister, I have always found noise making in Thailand to be liberating. On a hot night having friends and neighbours visit for beer and conversation and at the same time being able to turn the stereo right up is wonderful. Of course with this freedom comes the responsibility of reciprocation (tomorrow night the neighbours might also decide to have an all night party) who cares, perhaps I might get invited to.

I’ll finish this blog on noise on something that has intrigued me for a while. Over the years I have met many Farang’s visiting Thailand from Europe who all have the same complaint. Coming from large urban centres, they have no problems with loud traffic, music etc but when staying in Thai villages they find the sound of rooster calls to be very distracting and disturbing. On the other hand a city boy like myself has always found that a rooster crow in the pre dawn in Thailand to be particularly melodic. Who can figure.


It’s about Isaan

Before I go any further in Thai Blogdom I ought to explain a few things.
I’ve been here for more than 10 years and although I live in the political borders of the Kingdom of Thailand I have spent 99% of my life here in an area known as Isaan

rice planting

Geographically Isaan begins at Korat, east to the Mekong, north to the Mekong, with Loei as its western border. It consists of 19 provinces. The southeastern provinces (Korat, Buriram, Surin, Sisaket and Ubon) have a mixed Khmer and Lao influence, while the rest of Isaan is Lao. For practical purposes while Korat is geographically part of Isaan the modern province has little in common with the remainder of the area.

The daily lives of the majority of the people in the reqion revolves around the village, the wat and the village school. All rites of passing from birth to death including graduations, marriages and anything else of any significance are celebrated with a baci (pronounced “basee”). More about the baci in a future blog.

The village wat or wats are still a major part of life and where the young men go to spend their time in robes before adulthood.

Everyone has a child, or niece or nephew or some type of relative in the village school, and school events bring the whole village out.

Isaan festivals reflect their Lao sources and show a people comfortable in ther own skins. I am always amazed to watch central Thais at events such as candle festivals, or even at That Phanom for Magha Puja. They generally wear clothes that cost more than many Isaan people earn in months, but walk around looking terribly uncomfortable and unsure of what to do or how to do it. For Isaan folk all these events no matter how auspicious are simply part of the cycle of life that they are part of every day.

women in pa sin at the wat

Most meals at home include khao ngiao (sticky rice) and are eaten family style on a mat on the floor. As a matter of fact most old style homes contain little furniture at all.

The pa sin (Lao full length wrap around skirt) is still seen regularly on women and with great frequency at functions and festivals.

The language of the day is Lao. Amongst themselves and at home it is the way people talk to each other. Thai is taught in schools and is used at formal times, but is most heard when Thai television is playing.
More about Isaan coming…

To see more of Isaan