December 5th marks the birthday of Thailand's monarch, His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej. This year His Majesty turned 76 and as per tradition, on the eve of his birthday, he gave his annual address to the people of Thailand. In attendance were the usual government figures, various invited dignitaries and well-wishers. The speeches are carried live on all Thai television channels.
Throughout the year, this column (and my Cambodia column and everything else produced on this website) is comprised predominantly of my thoughts and views and is the reason why many of you come visit this website on a regular basis. However, indulge me this one time (and again come December 2004) as I turn over the first half of this column to the words of His Majesty the King, for he is a man for whom I have infinite respect and I feel his comments on Thailand are far more relevant than mine. Long live His Majesty the King.
Although I've been unable to find complete English-language translations of any of His Majesty's annual birthday messages, selections of this year's speech appeared in translation in both the Nation and the Bangkok Post and are the source for the selections reproduced here:
The war on drugs:
From the Nation:
Government and arrogance:
From the Bangkok Post:
From the Nation (with reference to the Kwai Noy dam project):
From the Nation:
This is impossible. Children are new to the world. How can they teach the teachers? Some teachers do not know how to teach. Some ministers don't know either. Proper teaching can equip students to teach teachers, however: teachers must allow students to ask questions. The question "Ah! What is this?" is how a student teaches the teachers. Teachers are often angry and punish the students because they view the question as questioning their knowledge. Education reform means the encouragement of questioning. One should not misconstrue questioning as casting doubt on teachers, on directors-general, on permanent secretaries, on ministers - excuse me: I of course mean vice ministers - then on deputy ministers and on ministers. Children are entitled to ask questions, and they have the right to be listened to. They ask because they don't know and want to learn. Some have eccentric ideas, and they deserve to be listened to. I speak from my own childhood experience. My foreign teachers answered when I asked: "What is this?" I was encouraged to continue asking and to learn.
Keeping to the ground:
From the Nation:
Website for the Nation: http://www.nationmultimedia.com/
Website for the Bangkok Post: http://www.bangkokpost.net/
A second royal indulgence if I may. The following is a rerun of a piece I tacked onto the end of my August 2002 Cambodia column and I'd like to run it again as it so well exemplifies the culture clashes that can develop when one society (or elements therein) are ill-informed as to what is important in another society.
From Cambodia Update August 2002:
I recently spent a few weeks visiting family back in the States. I grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and it's in those suburbs that my folks still live. Just before my arrival in mid-June, one of the local free weeklies, The City Paper, ran an advertisement from a local nightclub that included a likeness of Thailand's ruling monarch, His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The likeness was taken from a young photo of His Majesty, circa the 1940s. However, certain alterations were made to his hair, glasses, and clothing. To the people of Thailand this was nothing short of criminal. Actually, it is criminal because the country has lese majeste laws that forbid any kind of criticism or disrespect of the royal family.
The Thai community in the States and especially in Philadelphia were rightly outraged. And with good reason.
On the American side there were two schools of thought. On the one hand, there were those who could respect the feelings of the Thai people and see how the advertisement was thoroughly disrespectful and on the other hand, there were those with obvious minimal comprehension of the world outside their own backyard who stuck to the freedom of speech argument.
To the latter, all I can say is what an example of cultural differences and lack of understanding of these differences this is.
Regrettably, most Americans' understanding of royal families is that of the British royal family. To many of us, the British royals are seen almost as comic book figures and this image is all the more perpetuated by the fact that the British royals are openly criticized and even ridiculed in the local press.
Given that precedent, it's understandable then, why many Americans would have trouble realizing that there are cultures who do not see their royal families in this manner. Thailand is such a culture.
I don't need a less majeste law to tell me what I can and can't say about the Thai royal family. I've lived in Bangkok off and on for five years and I can tell you that the adoration and respect the Thais have for His Majesty is well-deserved and isn't because the law tells them to respect him.
I am not Thai and will never be Thai. I could live in Bangkok for my entire life and I will never be able to fully share in the love the Thai people have for His Majesty. And this is solely because I am not Thai and therefore am not included in that special bond between His Majesty and his people.
However, while I will never be able to share directly in that relationship, I can and do appreciate where these feelings originate from, and as a part-time resident of Thailand, I do see the importance of the royal family in the lives of the Thai people and I fully comprehend where their outrage lies in the insensitive portrayal of the likeness of His Majesty that appeared in the Philadelphia City Paper. For when I saw the advertisement, even I, a non-Thai, felt a slight kick in the gut. Imagine how that kick would feel if I was Thai?
Freedom of speech carries responsibilities. The person who created the aforementioned advertisement failed in their responsibilities to the right of free speech. It's not just about expressing whatever you want, it's also about knowing when not to express whatever you want.
Elephants in Bangkok. Only in the zoo, you might assume? And you'd be wrong. You see them walking down the sois of Bangkok and sometimes even on busy streets like Sukhumvit Road, led by their mahouts (the elephant's caretaker who you think would be a caring individual, concerned for the well-being of his elephant), soliciting sympathetic and uncritical tourists to buy a bunch of bananas to feed his hungry elephant.
I think the whole thing is absolutely pathetic and so do most Thais. Elephants belong in the jungle, a real jungle and not the concrete jungle of Bangkok. Elephants fall into holes sometimes suffering serious injury, they are hit by cars, trucks, buses, and motorcyclists. These animals are subjected to pollution and chaos and on rare occasions an elephant loses the plot, going on a rampage with some rather ugly consequences.
By law, it is illegal to bring an elephant into Bangkok, but the police have done a rather poor job in enforcing this law, "how can we enforce the law if we don't see the elephants?" an officer was once quoted as saying. Really now, an elephant walking down Sukhumvit Road is not difficult to miss.
Samak Sundaravej, the governor of Bangkok, apparently in an act of frustration, has decided that to solve the problem, the only answer is to shoot the elephants.
I appreciate the governor's frustration, but I think justice would be better served of they shot the mahouts who brought the elephants into the city in the first place.
The elephant is a national symbol of Thailand and deserves better than to be led about Bangkok by some twat who claims his elephant will starve if he doesn't bring it into Bangkok and get tourists to buy it some food. Nonsense. If he didn't buy the elephant in the first place he wouldn't have to make this inept claim. Please, do not feed these elephants. No matter how cute or hungry or heart-wrenching the elephant may appear, you only exacerbate the problem by paying the mahout money to feed the elephant. If he's so concerned the elephant will starve he can just feed the elephant himself with the fruit he wants you to buy from him.
Apparently one of the new budget carriers has taken to the skies. One, Two, Go, a budget division of Orient Thai Airlines claims it began flying the Chiang Mai - Bangkok route in the beginning of December for the rate of only 999 baht (about $25.60). Seeing as the missus and I are spending the New Year's week in northern Thailand, we decided to see if we couldn't get a ticket for the trip back to Bangkok rather than taking the bus both directions as we had done last year.
So I visited the One, Two, Go website and found the flight schedule. Yes, many flights a day between Chiang Mai and Bangkok. Hmm, on-line reservation form? Nope, no such thing. Okay, here's a phone number. Let's give them a call. And we tried calling at 8:30am when the office is supposed to open. No answer. 8:45am... no answer. 9:00am... no answer. 9:10am... busy signals. 9:45am... busy signals. Let's try the other numbers... busy signals. 10:10am... busy signals. 10:47am... busy signals. 11:03am... busy signals. 11:38am... busy signals.... and so on... and so on... and so on... all afternoon. And the next day? Busy signals. And the day after? Busy signals.
Last month I made the comment that: "It's one thing to fly me to Chiang Mai for little more than the cost of a bus ride but if I can't get on the plane I'd say the bus is still a faster way to go." Well, seeing as we haven't even been able to make contact with the office, let alone get a ticket for a plane that may or may not fly, I'd say that the VIP-24 bus (that would be the VIP-24 bus from Morchit Bus Terminal(!!!!) and not some backpacker scam express from Khao San Road popular with, ahem, intrepid backpackers on Khao San Road who can't be bothered to walk further than the nearest travel agency - what I have to walk 150 meters! - to sort out their transportation... hey man, I did Thailand) and where was I? Yes, not making any progress with One, Two, No, and that I'd be taking the VIP-24 bus, which despite it's nine to ten-hour travel time, would indeed seem, at 625 baht, to remain the better option.
If anybody out there has been able to get a reservation or better yet a ticket, on One, Two, Schmo and even better, actually flies to Chiang Mai, I'd really like to hear about it. Meanwhile... the bus almost always leaves on time.
Okay, I snuck in a few digs at the backpackers, but it needed to be done. So here's my reminder: The only place in Thailand you should ever consider purchasing a bus ticket is at the regular bus stations and only for a ride on a government-contracted bus. Never buy a bus ticket from a travel agency, especially one on Khao San Road for some so-called "VIP'' bus service aka "Very Ignorant Passengers". The moment you step on the bus and see it full of backpackers with not one single local face in sight, all sorts of bells and alarms should start going off in your head. For more details on all the scams and rip-offs associated with these Khao San Road VIP buses do see the July 2003 Thailand Update.
Have you heard about Thailand's new Elite card?
For 1,000,000 Thai baht (presently about $25,640 US) foreigners may apply (purchase) one of these cards and receive all sorts of privileges in return. Or so they tell us.
I checked out the website at http://www.thailandelite.com to see what the real scoop was on one of these cards and would I buy one if I had $25K kicking about and nothing better to do with it?
Privileges include a 24-hour call center (that even gives investment advice!), personal assistance in entering and departing Thailand (define that one, huh?), exemption from entry visa requirements with automatic permission to stay in Thailand for five years without need to exit Thailand to renew a visa (this is actually a good thing, though the website does say that the cardholder will still have to pay the applicable visa application fees), special discounts on Thai Airways, special 'fast track' lanes at immigration and customs (hmm, no baggage checks??? and with such a limited number of cardholders are they going to keep a desk open at the airport all day for the one or two members that might turn up and if so, will these lines be taken over by wealthy Thais who think *they* are the elite?), free transport to and from the airport (well, a taxi comes in at about $7.50 including highway tolls, so I'm not sure the $25K to buy the card is such a good deal here), and special rates for the rental of private aircraft and helicopters (hmm, marked down for $1200 an hour to $1000 an hour...). Also on offer are free green fees at selected golf courses (but you still have to pay the caddy), and a free 90-minute Thai traditional massage (not to be confused with the Thai massage offered by tuk-tuk drivers on Sukhumvit Road).
But quite possibly the one privilege that's raising the most eyebrows is the property privilege. In the name of accuracy I will quote directly from the website:
So, in other words, that land deal isn't much of a land deal after all, especially when you consider at the moment there isn't even a law that supports it. Not quite swampland in Florida, but I'd definitely put on a pair of waders when examining this deal.
Truth is stranger than fiction, or so the cliché goes. Imagine if you will, this storyline: Teenager from a dirt poor background decides to become a Muay Thai boxer. And he's good. And he's gay. And he decides he wants a sex-change operation. So he boxes his way to the top hoping to make enough money not only to take care of his family, but to become a woman as well. Meanwhile his ascendancy to the top of the Thai boxing world becomes marred by his ingestion of estrogen tablets. In the ultimate publicity stunt, he travels to Japan to compete in a comical battle against a Japanese female wrestler. Still, despite the seemingly self-sabotage of his boxing career our young boxer finally gets the operation and becomes the woman he always wanted to be. Stuff that cheap soap operas are made of, huh?
Well, it's a true story.
Parinya Nong Toom Charoenphol came to prominence in early 1998 as a 16-year-old Muay Thai boxer and quite a good one at that. Entering the ring in lipstick and powder, he pummeled his opponents and became a bit of a media sensation. The gay community rallied around him, while others thought it only a publicity stunt, and still more said he was tarnishing the macho image of Thailand's national sport. Nong Toom then disappeared from public view only to quietly emerge later as a woman, undergoing reassignment surgery on December 5, 1999.
The movie "Beautiful Boxer" chronicles Nong Toom's (played by real-life boxer Asanee Suwan) life from his earliest realization that he was somebody different, to his early training as a Muay Thai boxer, his rise through the boxing ranks that ultimately brought him to Bangkok and the famous Lumpini Boxing Stadium and a firestorm of publicity, and finally to his decision to become a woman for good.
Storylines aside, how's the movie? I enjoyed it. There are a few scenes set more on the dramatic than the believable, such as the opening scene where Nong Toom arrives out of nowhere to save a western journalist who's getting his you know what whooped. And the movie does offer some of the typical melodrama found in many sports flicks, from the relationship between athlete and coach, to the classic bit where the underdog rises to victory.
The movie is a straight chronological account of Nong Toom's life and the dramatic is peppered with bits of humor and only in a few spots does the movie bog itself down in melodrama. Nong Toom is treated well and is a hard character not to like and root for. The fight scenes are well-done and the occasional slow-motion shot used for some particularly brutal punches is effective in its conservative use. The internal conflict that Nong Toom experiences in trying to determine who he or she really is, while an essential element to the story, is well-balanced with the practical matters of Nong Toom's life, such as his next boxing match and his need to provide some cash for his poor family. I particularly liked the scene where Nong Toom the woman converses with Nong Toom the man in an exchange that seems to set the demons to rest. It's a sexless story. There is no love interest for Nong Toom and if one message is clearly conveyed it's that homosexuality is not about who you sleep with, but who you are.
The movie is about to disappear from Thai screens, quite possibly for good come December 18th, but will surely be released on DVD and VCD. The movie is in Thai with just a small amount of English dialogue, but the subtitling is done well and is more than sufficient to make the movie readily accessible to foreign audiences.
A few years back there was a commercial in the USA, I think it was for Nike, it was a Michael Jordan gig, and the slogan was "Be Like Mike". Well, if you want to "Be Like Parinya", talesofasia has come through with the websites for you.
There's not a whole lot there, mind you. A brief history of the sport in Thailand that conveniently omits the Khmer origins of the sport, diagrams of all the moves (well over a hundred it would seem), and finally there is a comprehensive listing of Muay Thai schools if you're so inclined to take up the sport.
Now, if pummeling your foes wasn't what you had in mind and you still want to "Be Like Parinya" then you might like this website:
or just Google "Bangkok reassignment surgery" and see what
comes up. There's a lot.
This is the e-mail section. You write it, I print and comment on it. If you have something you'd like to say, send it here.
Too bad nobody sent me anything Thailand-related that's worth sticking in this space this month. Maybe I should insult somebody or something. Anyway, better luck next month.
Laos didn't happen. Long story. We'll try again in May or June or something. Meanwhile, I took the missus over to Cambodia for the holiday week. Always interesting to see how a Thai reacts to Cambodia. She liked it okay, except maybe the men, bunch of (insert preferred adjective here), sort of how a lot of the Khmer girls feel, too.
My tentative New Year's plans are less tentative - we already bought the bus ticket up and have hotel reservations in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Nan. We'll be doing two days in the Golden Triangle area and two days in the Nan area as well as a couple of more days in between all these places. A couple of you sent me some tips last month and anything further is still appreciated. We'll be on a 400cc motorcycle, so off-roading is not an option, but we can otherwise go just about anywhere. And of course, there are no language barriers for us. Tips and advice welcome.
Lastly, the December issue of Farang magazine features a four-page spread from my May visit to Afghanistan. Though written from the ground up, it's still a condensed version of what appears on this website. Still, if you want to see how it all looks in print with photos, grab a copy of the magazine off the newsstand.
And if you are interested in advertising your business anywhere on this website, e-mail me for more details.
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