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The week that was in Thailand news: Ten faced Thotsakan! A metaphor for the complexity of Thailand


The week that was in Thailand news: Ten faced Thotsakan! A metaphor for the complexity of Thailand

Everyone who lives in Thailand – or who wants to gain a deeper understanding of why Thais think or behave the way they do – needs to know about Thotsakan and the story he inhabits.

Thotsakan is the demon King of Lanka and one of the anti-heroes of the Thai national epic called the Ramakien. largely based on the Indian Ramayana.

In Sanskrit versions he is Ravana a great ruler, a learned scholar well versed in the precepts and religious texts but above all the epitome of evil.

To cut a long Thai story short he abducts Rama’s wife Sita before Rama and the forces of good – many of them monkeys – turn the tables and bring about Thotsakan’s demise.

Not surprising given the multifaceted nature of Thotsakan’s character, in Thailand as well as India he is depicted with many faces. Here in the kingdom he has ten – a main one, three on the back of his head and six others on his headdress.

With all those faces plus twenty arms and a whole load of useful weapons, it’s no wonder that Rooster has always seen Thotsakan as a metaphor for the Thais.

There are newbies who complain about Thais being two faced. Oh Buddha – it’s much more complicated than that!

Elaborate “Hua Khon” masks of Thotsakan and Rama were in pride of place on pedestals in my Thai Studies suite at international school. I gave them both a nod every day on the way to my office. A reminder to look behind the smile, read beyond the headlines and between the lines, keep my own cards and aces close to my chest.

And always be prepared to learn and be surprised by my adopted homeland.

Teaching about the Ramakien was more of a revelation to me than my students. I was pointed in the right direction by a former columnist at the now defunct Bangkok World and Bangkok Post called Denis Segaller who died in 2006. He wrote “Thai Ways” that became my “bible”. I based many cultural lessons on its excellent chapters and informative observations that are just as relevant today.

Thanks to Mr Segaller, I found myself teaching children as young as seven about an offshoot tale from the Ramakien about two errant buffaloes called Torapha and Toraphee. Thai news stories refer to them when reporting on ungrateful children who murder their parents. Sadly, not an infrequent occurrence.

Among twenty plays I wrote containing Thai cultural themes was an English version of Torapha and Toraphee. A personal crowning glory was my own epic “The Ramakien Rocks”; performed by Year 5 that was a collection of stories set to western music.

When Hanuman arrived the children sang “Hey, Hey We’re the Monkees”; when a baby who would later float down a river was born on came ELO’s “Mr Blue Sky”; the final triumph of Rama was accompanied by Jimmy Cliff’s classic “King of Kings” with the children dancing ska style.

I had fun teaching my version of Thai culture. The Thai parents seemed to appreciate a foreigner teaching their children Thai culture utilizing English. I say “seemed to” because I was always wary of their true feelings and felt I was walking a tightrope. To cement my position, I always believed it was important to present Thailand and its culture in nothing but a positive light.

I knew that this was two-faced and the parents would either see through it or quietly patronize me in private as an outsider who was doing rather well but could never know more about Thailand than they did. In reality, I was distinctly aware of the dark underbelly of Thailand, its disgraceful episodes and disreputable characters as I remain so today.

The fact that I may not talk about this – and may legally be unable to – does not mean it doesn’t exist!

To wit, the metaphor of Thotsakan returns to this columnist. It was always dicey casting a ten-year-old student as this disreputable character! One didn’t want the other children to bully them!

It was easier to cast a student as an honorable king though not without difficulties peculiar to Thailand. I once wrote a play in which Nang Noppamas – the Sukhothai era lady of legend behind the Loi Krathong tradition – returned in 2000 to save planet Earth from pollution. She was played by my own daughter who teamed up with “Nai Nop” (a male invention to balance the sexes).

After saving the world from plastic waste, they were honored by the King of Thailand played by a male classmate. The parents of the boy came to see me saying they were uncomfortable that their son was acting the part of such a great figure as Rama IX. We compromised with a private ceremony before the curtain went up. The little boy presented a garland to a picture of the king asking permission to portray him.

As I said, I learned a lot about Thai culture too, especially making things “seem” right, a huge part of understanding Thailand.

That learning continues every week for me as a translator at Thaivisa. Not a day passes when my background in the culture fails to help. It helps in figuring out language and the reasons why people act as they do, of course. It helps in reading between those lines, looking behind the headlines and assisting the reader in interpreting what at first glance can seem like abject nonsense from the Thai press who have the habit of calling a spade a fork.

But I am the first to admit that I don’t always get it right and Thailand still surprises each and every day.

The story of the Hungarian and Italian divers rumbled on this week. They are languishing in jail after picking up a sea cucumber and a crab. This hardly warrants deportation and many on the forum pointed this out. Attila the Hun (I coined this term years ago, Rumak, in a story from Samui about a coin-op launderette thief) told me from jail that he expects the worst.

I didn’t want to get his hopes up but this is one of those Thotsakan multi-face jobs. A minister has got involved, so has a professor and the head of coastal resources. Maybe if their facial needs can be satisfied then sanity will prevail and the men – at least one of whom has a wife – will get a severe talking to and a fine.

Many posters condemned Thais who damage the environment. That is their version of smoke and mirrors with the now almost ubiquitous and nonsensical tag of xenophobia adding a perverted justification for bashing the locals. The divers in Phangan accept they messed up, realize there has to be a reckoning but for all that, they should be dealt with sympathetically.

This will benefit foreign divers living in Thailand and potential tourists who might be put off coming. The spirit of compromise – a wonderful Thai trait – needs to prevail.

Down in Pattaya a story didn’t add up. It involved five masked men allegedly bursting into a luxury home and stealing ten million baht, quickly reduced to 3 million, from the safe of two Chinese men. Were they tourists or businessmen? The local police started investigating properly once the regional chief reminded them the public were watching. There is clearly a lot more to this case than meets the eye. What my mum called “inherently iffy”.

Likewise, in Rayong. Here 400 Cambodians at a company went to the police complaining a visa agent had taken 15,000 baht from each of them for an extension then reneged. In addition, their leader (soon to be jailed for not having a visa I suspect!) said that the company, not named, were withholding 250 baht a month for constabulary tea money.

How do they get through so much Rosy Lee? (A rhetorical question).

The station chief – barely hiding his contempt for foolish foreigners appealing to the constabulary in matters of corruption – intoned in classic plod parlance: “There’s nothing to see here, move on now”.

How I remember as a cub reporter in Croydon when I had first heard that phrase at the scene of a horrendous accident in which there were limbs lying all over the roadway. Nothing to see indeed! It always means the polar opposite!

It was a bad week for the “wins” or motorcycle taxi riders. In Bang Plee, east of Bangkok, shoppers scattered in all directions as two hoodlums who run opposing ranks on either side of the road near a branch of Big C took potshots at each other.

It was lucky no one was killed though the death of either of these miscreants might have been a blessing. Clearly not fearing plod, who are nearly always involved in taxi rank rackets, they readily gave themselves up. The rambling excuses of one could have filled the tome of “Thai Khor Thoots”. He went from how he accidentally had a lethal weapon with him to the now standard “solly to society”.

PM Prayut is in charge of the police these days and it is time he got his finger out of his khaki underpants. Bringing these ranks into line is decades overdue. The mafias behind and within them need to be cleared up and the conniving police need to be jailed. The public need this service, in many places depend on it, but they could do without risking their lives in the crossfire.

In Lat Prao, Bangkok, another jacketed rider was filmed assaulting a pedestrian who didn’t get out of his way on the sidewalk. Despite sounding his horn! Unnamed “win” on this occasion appeared under a white sheet at Choke Chai nick as plod fined him 2,000 baht for having the wrong license. Other charges would have to wait for the pedestrian to pop in and make a report about his injuries.

Hapless Uncle Too caused further consternation this week by throwing his not inconsiderable weight behind plans to ban alcohol sales online. Not surprisingly there was a backlash from the suppliers. While readers of this column will be familiar with my views on alcohol as a serious and damaging drug, the demon drink is also subject to idiotic advertising laws that need to be changed. They serve only to protect the big players – Uncle’s pals if you will – to the detriment of the lowly consumer and supplier who are unjustly preyed upon by corrupt officials looking for their cut.

Virus news mostly concerned the ongoing wringing of hands about letting in foreign tourists and the decimation of the Thai economy. It’s as plain as the piggy nose on a DPM’s face that no one is coming. The reason is not that they don’t want to come to Thailand. Few can be bothered to leave home.

And it is equally obvious that anyone in the tourist industry who doesn’t have considerable funds at their disposal should abandon the business if they are an owner or quickly seek alternative employment if an employee.

Krungthai Compass said that it could be four years until the tourism industry recovers. Incredibly for a prediction group they put foreign tourists next year between 900,000 and 14.9 million. Talk about hedging your bets! This is indicative of the private sector not having a clue what the government is going to do next.

Even the government – like so many around the world – doesn’t know what it is going to do next. If the pandemic has taught us anything it is that throughout the world our leaders are completely ill-equipped to handle this crisis.

Yes, Thailand has done well to keep the virus numbers down but their handling of the economy has been shambolic and the people know it as they are the ones suffering the most. Overreaction to isolated virus cases has been incredible. Nearly 1,000 were tested because of the DJ. The Egyptian soldier debacle crashed the Rayong economy.

Meanwhile on a personal level, I am seeing staff desert their posts at stores and ignore temperature checks or insistence on obeying the Thai Chana app protocols. CP Group even came in for criticism from a Chula academic who said their labor saving (read money saving) automatic temperature devices reading customers’ palms were a waste of time.

Rooster couldn’t resist the “Facepalm” headline and awaits next week when Thais start “wai-ing” the machines so that their foreheads can be read.

In Chiang Mai a video from “The Standard” showed the north deserted. In Patong more Thai media spread the doom and gloom. The Phuket Model still lingers but she’s more like a hag waiting for the grim reaper.

Thai domestic tourism is clearly not the answer. It WAS momentarily the answer to Pattaya’s prayers during the long weekend but as soon as the Bangkokians headed back to the sanity of Krung Thep, QUOTES was left with nothing (except curmudgeonly expats gloating about how much they prefer it now there are no tour buses).

Mayor Sontaya – oh how he must wish he could get his own way like daddy Kamnan Poh did with his gun – diverted attention with his 160 million baht “greening” of Beach Road. It’s been one long stream of “improvements” from Jomtien to Bali Hai, underground toilets to parking spaces, drainage schemes to wire burying, parks to more department stores to recreation areas.

If only they had that commodity they once thrived on and so wantonly took for granted. Foreign tourists.

I agree with Sontaya that Pattaya has to reinvent itself as a family friendly destination for Bangkokians as well as foreign tourists when they do return. Its seedy days may well be numbered but Rooster expects that the day before all the landscaping is completed plod will round up the “Coconut Ghosts”.

Who will then return to the shadows beneath the trees next day despite the dearth of Indian men who formerly engaged them in heated ‘negotiation’.

In international news France recorded 10,000 coronavirus cases in a single day. The UK government were accused of reneging on their own Brexit deal with the USA saying they couldn’t be trusted. Bless!

The POTUS had to field more questions after revelations in the latest books. One by Bob Woodward of Watergate fame came after 18 interviews. One tidbit was that Trump played down the virus because he didn’t want to spook the American public. Mr Woodward even came in for criticism that he sat on information out of self-interest.

Ronald Bell, one of the founders of Kool and the Gang died aged 68. Cue Rooster spending an entire evening going down YouTube music-video ratholes. I think I can feel a “Ladies’ Night” coming on as part of a “Celebration” for a life well lived that we should “Cherish”.

Dame Diana Rigg of Avengers and more lately Game of Thrones fame also died aged 82.

Back in Thailand a new British Ambassador was announced. Brian Davidson will be replaced next year by Mark Gooding, OBE. Hearing the British curmudgeons complaining about their consular personnel, one imagines they think the award stands for Obsolete British Expat….

These ambassadors seemed to have encountered one other in postings in China and they also have something else in common. Both their husbands are men. It’s excellent that is not a hindrance to joining the diplomatic corps these days, not that it ever was.

Sadly, stats showed that the suicide rate in Thailand was up 22% during the six months of the pandemic.

Finally, this weekend marks the beginning of something that Mrs Rooster dreads – after a 48-day hiatus the English Premier League is back. The last time my beloved Spurs won the top flight title was in 1961 just a couple of months before I popped out of my mother’s nether regions in the back bedroom.

For years at my international school as Head of Thai studies I would “graap” to Buddha to mark the start of our annual Teachers’ Day celebrations. Everybody looked on believing I was placing my head to the respected image to pray for student/teacher harmony and learning.

Not a bit of it. I was praying that the EPL title would come to White Hart Lane.

Even though my wishes always fell on deaf ears, I would straighten my jacket after the prayers, bow solemnly, walk serenely to the podium, take a deep breath then grin widely before delivering my annual speech.

After all, there was more than a bit of Thotsakan in this Englishman.


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Nina has worked for Inspire and Choice Group Asia since 2011 and loves to party when she can!

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