slice-of-thai.com Journal 3/13/2003-4/8/2003: Favors and Culture

This is an entry from my travel journals about Thailand and Laos.

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14 Mar 2003 - 16 Mar 2003

I spent the next days getting ready to return a favor I had owed for more than 3 years. At the very end of my second Thai trip (a short trip with no journals), I rented a motorbike from the owner of the Honey Inn in Nang Rong, which I also had visited on 2/25/99 as part of my first trip. When I returned the bike, I forgot to take back my passport, which was the collateral. I blithely continued on to Bangkok, ready to take my non-refundable non-changeable flight back home to the USA the next day. Then I realized. I called the owner, Kun Panna, and asked her to give my passport to a bus driver headed from Nang Rong to Bangkok. "Oh no no, can not do that," she said, insisting that the drivers could not be trusted. Instead, she got on the night bus to Bangkok herself and met me in Bangkok at about 3am, just to give me my passport. She then got on the redeye bus to return to her guests in Nang Rong. Thai people can be truly amazing sometimes. At the time, I was at a loss to figure out how I could repay her and I asked if she wanted a website. It wasn't until this trip that I honored that offer.

I purchased a laptop before coming to Thailand for the purpose of making this website (and possibly also working on my own things when I was done being a full-time tourist), and stored the laptop in Bangkok with my Thai friend Tom. Now that I was back in Bangkok I purchased a digital camera to go with the computer. Turns out that basically all computer hardware and cameras cost more in Thailand than they do on websites that ship to the US. Thanks to a tip from Tom, I found a new Canon PowerShot S30 being sold by a Chulalunkorn University student on the eBay-like thaisecondhand.com for $380, which is only a little over the US rate. The seller had purchased several cameras on his last business trip to Japan; apparently there you really can get them cheaper than the US.

17 Mar 2003 - 8 Apr 2003

Honey Inn Marketing

Set off for Nang Rong and the Honey Inn. I was rather shocked to find that Kun Panna already had a website. A Dutch guest, who strangely enough had also forgotten something which Panna had then delivered (in this case by mail), had made a site for her only a month or two prior. It's a nice fast-loading site but not so pretty and with an un-rememberable URL (now dead): http://www32.brinkster.com/honeyinn.

No problem though, Kun Panna also needed a new brochure, name cards, and some posters for a new package tour. I spent this entire period photographing the guesthouse and the local tourist attractions, and putting those together in Photoshop and PageMaker. I enjoyed using Photoshop to remove the ugly lightning cable from the 23m tall main prang of Phanom Rung temple :) Since I was having so much fun I also registered the more rememberable domain honeyinn.com and made an all-new website using the same images, style, and colors as the brochure: check out http://honeyinn.com (since 2012, Kun Panna's son has taken over the site and maintains it).

When I had finished the brochure layout, I returned to Bangkok and researched printing methods. I looked into home-brewed inkjet printing, professional laser printing, laser photocopying, digital printing (a relatively new plate-less technology) and offset printing. I probably visited 7 or 8 offices ranging from hokey consumer printshops in Mah Boon Krong shopping center, staffed by twenty-something, former sticker-shop mavens, to towering, professional book printing establishments such as Thai Wattana Panich where I was offered chilled beverages while I waited in the imposing lobby to speak with my "assistant marketing manager." The larger establishments always seemed endlessly confused, but enthusiastic, to see a somewhat-Thai-speaking farang show up and price out their products.

Offset printing was still by far the cheapest (by a factor of 10) and best quality for my situation. I had 3,000 brochures offset-printed at a cost of around 3.3 baht (8.3 cents) per brochure. If I had printed 10,000 (too many for Kun Panna to use before they became obsolete), I could have gotten the price down to 2 baht. This price included cutting, folding, and packaging. Pretty cool!

Here is a picture of the brochure. It is a 3-way folding affair printed on 2 sides of an A4-size page. When folded, the "front" of the brochure is the rightmost panel on the upper image, and the "back" is the middle panel on the upper image. The leftmost face of the upper image, and all 3 faces of the lower image, are on the "inside" of the brochure.

Honey Inn Brochure: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Honey Inn Brochure
Click here if image does not load automatically.

Honey Inn Brochure: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Honey Inn Brochure
Click here if image does not load automatically.

I also made a poster for a new package tour Kun Panna was considering:

Honey Inn Poster: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Honey Inn Poster
Click here if image does not load automatically.

but the details were far from solid, so I left the data with her on CD-RW so she could modify/print the poster if desired.

Amazing Desperation, Amazing Generosity

This is the longest I have ever spent in one place in Thailand. The owner and her husband and staff speak only a little English, so I got a lot of Thai practice. As I stuck around, I heard more and more of their stories. The realities, dramas, and scandals of this particular corner of Nang Rong revealed themselves like layers of an onion peeled off one by one. Good material for a novel :) The Greng Jai is so thick, the half-baked schemes and face-saving omissions are so convoluted and intertwined that it's a wonder they can keep things straight.

North-East Thailand remains the poorest region of Thailand, disproportionately plagued by gambling, alcohol, drug, HIV, and other problems as desperate residents grasp for a way out, and this tends to produce behavior that's extreme even by Thai standards. But don't draw the conclusion that North-East Thailand is a dangerous place to travel—it is probably much safer than Bangkok and just as safe as everywhere else in the country. Unlike America, where these problems face outward and generate huge homicide rates, crack houses, and dangerous slums where you don't want to be at night, in Thailand the problems face inward, destroying people's families and private lives while those same people inexplicably manage to maintain a positive, welcoming, contented face to employers, strangers, and visitors.

During this period, I helped an acquaintance of Kun Panna, who happened to be working at the Honey Inn at the time, translate some letters from English to Thai. She was an extremely hard-working 18-year-old Thai woman who grew up in Nang Rong, who I will refer to as Nit. Nit had just graduated high school with highest honors, and had received a scholarship to study biochemistry at a good technical university in Bangkok. However, as with many people in north-east Thailand, basic Bangkok living costs were far beyond her financial means, and alcohol and gambling had destroyed her parents to such an extent that she has been raising her two younger siblings by herself for at least the last 5 years. So, she had essentially no chance of ever attending that university.

One day, a few months before I arrived, a 60-something American man who I will call Bill came through Nang Rong. A successful, nearly-retired chemist at home, he had been moved by stories of poverty in North-East Thailand and had come to Isaan to give scholarships to smart, disadvantaged junior high and high school students who would otherwise not have a chance to continue their studies. While in town setting up scholarships for younger students, Bill heard about Nit through the Honey Inn, and after meeting her briefly and talking with her teachers, he decided to make a most amazing commitment, described in the letter I translated for her.

Bill set up a trust fund which will support the education, living, and professional needs of Nit and her younger siblings for at least the next 12 years. Many rich "benefactors" arrive at a poor place like North-East Thailand, dump a bunch of cash to quell their guilty consciences, and leave. Such false (or at least naive) benefactors usually end up doing more harm than good since people who've grown up living off of the most recent crop or paycheck usually have not yet learned how to save or invest money, and will waste it all right away, or even if they are frugal they will typically lose the money quickly as soon as their peers find out they have it. Bill, however, is not such a false benefactor. In addition to his money, he is spending something much more costly to him and valuable to her—his time and attention. He's taking an active role in finding Nit a place to live in Bangkok, making sure her siblings get taken care of, and generally spending time looking over her as would a parent. They refer to each other as father and daughter. When an aged farang generously takes a young Thai woman under his wing, one is unfortunately drawn by the statistics to suspect ulterior sexual motives. But Bill has gone to great lengths to make her comfortable that that is not the case. He is setting up Thailand trips for his family, and America trips for Nit, to introduce "his new daughter" to his wife and children in America. The trust fund will require ongoing administration and management, and Bill's grown-up American daughter has volunteered to be the trustee, thus also committing her own time to Nit, possibly for many years after her father has died. Bill has set up similar trust funds for several other, younger children in Thailand and America, but these other children have some kind of guardian and do not require as great a commitment as Nit.

Nit herself was stunned and dumbfounded at Bill's generosity. As she decided how to respond, and as a handful of people in town started getting word of her unbelievable good fortune, the greng jai started setting in...

Nam Jai, Gadtanyuu, Greng Jai and Other Thai Mysteries

Thailand Fever
Important Note: the rest of this journal entry is an early, rough explanation of Thai culture which I later rewrote and expanded into a whole book called Thailand Fever with a Thai co-author. The text on this webpage remains unchanged, and there are many aspects of my explanation here which I would now consider wrong or at least incomplete—that being entirely my fault and not the fault of those who advised me.

This journal entry is primarily based on my own relationship and a few days of talking to my Thai teachers and a few couples. It is full of my own sarchasm and bias. Our book, on the other hand, is based on interviews with many couples over many years, and is balanced with the view of my Thai co-author. In fact, I'd say that every paragraph of the book is the result of impassioned negotiation between myself and my co-author over how to present each aspect of both cultures! For the real deal, check out the book!

Thailand Fever is a bilingual guidebook to Thai-Western romantic relationships which helps both the Thai and the Westerner avoid the nasty cultural pitfalls that are so common in such relationships!

If you want to check out our book or recommend it to a friend, just visit:

http://thailandfever.com
On our website, you can even peek inside the book. Thanks!

This would be as good a time as any to attempt to explain these fundamental aspects of Thai culture, which are relevant not only to the current story but nearly every other weirdness I have observed on my Thailand travels.

After 5 years of hanging out with Thai people, a 2.5 year relationship with an English-fluent Thai woman (born in Nang Rong, strangely), and 8 months spent in the country, I am still in the process of figuring out what they mean and how their subtleties play into every part of Thai life. These are the factors which explain the amazing generosity for which Thailand is so famous (and what Thais expect "in return"). These were major factors in my relationship and its demise two years ago. These factors enter into Nit's situation in a surprising range of ways, not only for her but for her teachers, peers, helpers, etc., and they have a direct impact on whether she is happy and able to function properly with her peers both at home and at school, given Bill's support.

The concepts are mysterious and ever-elusive for western visitors because understanding them challenges you to disregard basic assumptions about what gives a person self-esteem, assumptions which you've taken for granted your whole life.

First let's go over the corresponding concepts in American culture. These might seem obvious to you the first time you read them. But come back and read them again after you read the Thai equivalents. If you get a little confused or weirded out, then congratulations! You are just starting to get a whiff of the mysteries a western person experiences visiting Thailand!

American Values

In my experience of people born in America (primarily east and west coast—the parts of the USA who voted for W Bush remain an equally impenetrable mystery to me), the primary factors which make someone feel good about themselves, and on which someone is judged by others in society as a "success" or a "loser," revolve around independence and the courage to expose sometimes unpleasant factual truths:

Thai Values

After spending time in Thailand, it became clear that things don't quite work the same way over there. Although Thais certainly care about independence and the pursuit of factual truth, other factors take precedence in determining what gives one self-esteem.

Note: many thanks to Kruu Supatra, Kruu Nui, and others for tolerating many hours of my questions on this matter. All errors in interpretation are mine.

Thai and Western Culture Clashes

Neither the Thai nor the western system is better. They are both self-sustaining systems that maintain order in society and keep people content.

But they are not generally compatible when mixed together.

Western visitors who get mixed up in Thai-only affairs almost inevitably end up feeling they are being taken "advantage of." After all, why should a western visitor feel a motivation to give freely when:

The western visitor in this case has not fully understood (or accepted) nam jai.

Western tourists are also given an extremely skewed view of Thai culture by the hordes of Thai ripoff artists (a subset of hotel and guesthouse owners, taxi drivers, tuk tuk drivers, tour leaders, pimps, you name it) who accumulate around heavily touristed areas like a fungus. In this rare instance, I believe most Thais would agree that some of these people are "ripoff artists" even by the generous Thai standards. There's some gray areas, such as Tuk-Tuk drivers who bring their customers to Jewelry shops, without asking, and then tell their customers that they will receive gas coupons if the customer just goes and takes a look. I'm not talking about those guys. I'm talking about the people who flat-out lie about services or prices offered and switch their offerings when it is too late for the customer. Or Taxi drivers who take their customers to the wrong restaurant (the one where they get commission) and argue with the customer that this is the right restaurant. Or pimps who import girls from Burma on pretense of becoming dishwashers and instead lock them in brothels as slaves.

These people do not constitute a representative slice of Thais any more than the worst foreign tourists constitute a representative slice of westerners. In a Buddhist twist, I think that for every Thai ripoff artist, there are an equal number of decrepit westerners who come to visit with intentions of abusing Thais or Thai culture to an equal degree (sexually or financially or otherwise).

Thais experience their own frictions when they get mixed up in Western-only affairs and/or move to America:

Thais living in Thailand, especially young, middle- to upper-class Thais living in Bangkok, now get bombarded with western television and movies. It's as if America (and bits of Europe) are coming to them. Every time I have a conversation with any Thai adult about Thai values, they never fail to mention their belief that there is a new generation of Thai youths breeding in Bangkok who are not nam jai and do not feel gadtanyuu towards their parents or others. The Thai adults predict that these children will grow to rebel against their parents and teachers like American teenagers do, upsetting the social order in a way which makes the adults sad. While this may be true, I have yet to meet such a youth. The Thai teenagers with whom I have interacted may sport piercings, colored spiky hair, or custom Power Rangers cell phone covers, but when it comes down to obeying their parents' grounding orders or planning for the folks moving in when they are older, they are still as gadtanyuu as Beaver Cleaver.

Here are some ways that Thai and western culture clashed in my own personal experience:

Phanom Rung Festival

One reward for staying so long in Nang Rong was that I happened to be there for the yearly Phanom Rung festival, which was extra special this year (or extra pompous anyway) because the Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra decided to visit. It's unclear why he visited, but it might relate to the recent violent anti-Thai riots in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh over alleged (but denied) Thai TV comments that Angkor Wat should really be part of Thailand, and subsequent border closings and other diplomatic scuffles between the two countries. It was unclear if Thaksin was appearing as a way of mending relationships, or as a way of gloating that the Thais still have Phanom Rung (an ancient outpost of the Angkor empire now deep inside Thai territory)!

Anyway the festival consisted of four full days of traditional Thai dance, elaborate and interesting Hindu ceremonies at the temple itself (which is a giant offering to Shiva) from the normally-invisible Thai Hindus, rock bands, floats, and some endless, nationally televised, parading processions of foofed-up socialite ladies in full makeup being carried on pillow chairs by equally dressed-down subservient looking men. With the TV finish, the parade had the definite feel of "who's who since you're not."

At night on two evenings they always have a "sound and light show," but apparently this year it was much bigger and fancier than usual. They placed theater lights all around the main temple and constructed giant bleachers for the audience, charging up to 1000B for a direct-on view (all sold out before the event started!) and 200B for the cheap seats on the side where they stuffed all the farang tourists who showed up. There was a professionally produced and (amazingly) high quality soundtrack and lots of actors in costumes playing out various legends, seemingly both Hindu and Buddhist but I couldn't really tell since it was all in Thai and I didn't understand a word of it. In the first scene there was a video projector which projected images of volcanic creation onto a huge canvas screen, which the crew doused with gasoline throughout the piece and which then burst into flames at the climaxing moment of the presentation. At several points they released little cylinder-shaped kites with candles inside, which gracefully floated past the ruins into the sky, except for one which got stuck on the very top of the principal prang! They also had huge fireworks in the sky and coming out of various parts of the temple.

I took some pictures for Kun Panna's use in later posters. Here's some of them:

Here was a Hindu ceremony set up inside the temple during the day. These worshippers went on for hours and hours in the direct sunlight:

Hindu Ceremony: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Hindu Ceremony
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Here's some scenes from the "stage" during the sound and light show:

Scenes from the Show: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Scenes from the Show
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Scenes from the Show: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Scenes from the Show
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Scenes from the Show: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Scenes from the Show
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After the festival everyone went to the stage and got themselves photographed with the "stars." From the crowd it seemed like this part was at least as important as the show itself:

Photos after the Show: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Photos after the Show
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Photos after the Show: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Photos after the Show
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Support
This Site
I created this site and made it available free to all readers. If you have found it helpful or amusing, please support the effort, and future updates, in one of these ways:
donate now   Donate Now
Use your credit card or PayPal to donate in support of the site.

get the best thai-english phrasebook app
Experience Thailand richly with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Phrasebook app.
get the best thai-english dictionary app
Learn Thai with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Dictionary app for iOS, Android, Windows.
get a cool thai-english paper dictionary
Don't leave home without the Thai-English English-Thai Compact Dictionary I co-authored.
get thailand fever
I co-authored this bilingual cultural guidebook to Thai-Western romantic relationships.
get the best chinese phrasebook app
Visit China easily with my Talking Chinese-English-Chinese Phrasebook app.
get books or almost anything
Pick a Thai learning book from my list or buy anything at all from Amazon.
See AlsoYou'll probably also like these sites...
allaboutpai.com
A site about Pai, my peaceful home in the mountains of Northern Thailand.
lurkertech: video tech and diversions
Buzzword bingo, bill the borg, MEZ, lurker's guide to video, and Thai, oh my!
mapfling.com: free custom maps with your own labels
Party? Meeting? Request a map, label it yourself, and easily fling it to your friends!
world's stupidest everything
See some of the worst the world has to offer, and add some of your own!

World's Stupidest Holiday and Birthday Presents - stupidest-presents.com
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World's Stupidest Politicians - stupidest-politicians.com
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World's Stupidest Movies - stupidest-movies.com
World's Stupidest Blogs - stupidest-blogs.com
World's Stupidest Websites - stupidest-websites.com
World's Stupidest Company Websites - stupidest-company-sites.com
thailand your way
Travel with my friend Nang, who is a great nature, birding, and cultural guide.
jeed illustration
My English-fluent Thai friend Jeed is a freelance illustrator who is available for hire.
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