Public Beheading in Siam: Three True Stories of Crime and Punishment in the Siam of Old (Part 3 – Pra Preecha: Despotic Madman or Innocent Victim?)Posted: June 26, 2011
The story of Pra Preecha is a complicated one, and – like many other things in the orient – shrouded in a mysterious web of lies and treachery, that the westerner can scarcely comprehend. In a country where the truth often amounts to the same thing as a lie, it hardly seems surprising that there is no singular, concrete account of what happened to this middle-ranking Siamese official. Some say he was innocent of all charges, and cruelly framed by the rival Bunnag family, who were afraid that Pra Preecha’s own Amatayakun family would steal their thunder, and knock them off the top spot as Siam’s number one influential family of rank. Others say that Pra Preecha was a despotic madman, who murdered numerous prisoners working at the Kabin gold mine, while embezzling large sums of money to enrich himself and his family.
On March 11, 1879, Pra Preecha married Fanny Knox, the daughter of the British Consul Thomas George Knox and his Siamese wife, Prang Yen. Some believe that he married Fanny as a way to avoid punishment from the Siamese government. Pra Preecha, sensing the brewing storm, put all of his assets in his wife’s name. Not long after the wedding, he was arrested and put on trial for his alleged crimes.
Meanwhile, Fanny was pregnant with her new husband’s child, which inspired her father to intervene and try to save Pra Preecha. He took his case to King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) asking him to help his friend, who he believed was being wrongly framed by the Bunnag family. King Chulalongkorn was a personal friend of Pra Preecha, and made it clear that he had no wish to see him punished if he was not guilty of the alleged crimes. During this time, more scandalous rumours of Pra Preecha’s malfeasances were surfaced and a number of his family members were also put under arrest.
Knox’s intervention in the affair cost him his post as Consul and he was recalled to London, where he was later given the title Sir Thomas George Knox.
Pra Preecha’s trial got underway in mid-1879. An article in The New York Times of April 12, 1880, said that “[the] trial is admitted by all intelligent persons to have been a complete farce, since he was not allowed to cross-question witnesses who accused him of murder, nor was he permitted to refer to his books when called upon to account for sums drawn by him as expenses for the gold mine.” Although Pra Preecha eventually admitted to stealing gold from the King’s mines, some believe he made the confession in the hope that he would be spared the cruel torture that so many criminals of the time suffered until they confessed. He was found guilty, and his execution date was set for November 24, 1879. Not long before the execution took place, Fanny departed to England along with her newly-born baby and two of Pra Preecha’s children from another marriage.
Public Beheading in Siam: Three True Stories of Crime and Punishment in the Siam of Old (Part 2 – Kan: The Hapless Desperado.)Posted: June 24, 2011
This is the second in a three-part series of gritty true-life stories of public execution in Siam. Today’s story follows the last moments of Kan, the hapless desperado who robbed and murdered a nobleman to feed his starving family; and lost his head under the executioner’s sword. . . .
April 2, 1903 Samrong Province
Kan still didn’t know why he’d let himself get into this, but his family were hard up, and he needed the money. He held the knife in his hand, afraid of the killing power that lay dormant in its steel shaft. There was no turning back now; if he tried to walk away, his companions would kill him. His heart raced, and thoughts of fleeing ran through his mind. Just at that moment, Khun Prawit – the rich landowner of Samrong’s most productive rice fields – came into view. He was heading back to his dwellings after collecting payment for a recent rice crop. He was escorted by two sturdy guards. As they passed the patch of trees where Kan and his companions lay in ambush, two of the other bandits leapt out of their hiding place, easily slitting the throats of the guards. Kan jumped out, right on cue, holding the knife to Khun Prawit’s chest, and demanded the money. Khun Prawit was bold, and flatly refused, deftly sidestepping as though he might make a dash for escape. Instantly, another robber jumped on his back and held him down; he screamed to Kan: “Kill him!” Kan ran forward, searching Khun Prawit’s body for the money; he found it, threw it to one side, then – before he knew what had happened – thrust the cold steel blade deep into Khun Prawit’s chest; his accessory finished him off by slitting his throat; the blood streaming out onto the grassy path.
May 9, 1905 Bangkok
The jangle of the jailer’s keys cut through the darkness, arousing Kan’s dulled senses. The heavy key was thrust into the lock and turned with a decisive twist, opening the door to the cell where Kan had spent the last two years of his life. He didn’t stir, just remained staring at the floor. Two sturdy guards entered the cell and picked him up by the arms; he had no power to resist; he allowed them to push him to the exit like a ragdoll. They walked purposefully down a long, dimly-lit corridor; Kan being dragged by the guards; his bare feet trailing on the floor.
They came to a large wooden door; one guard stepped forward with a key and opened it. As the door opened, the brilliant rays of the rising sun flooded into the corridor where Kan was standing, he screwed up his eyes and tried to cover his face; it was the first time he had seen full sunlight in two years. It would be the last.
Kan was flung on the ground in heavy shackles and handcuffs while the guards discussed things among themselves. They could have left him unchained; he would not have been able to get away. All his strength had been withered away by two years of meager rations and cruel beatings. Suddenly, he was being dragged to his feet again, but the whole scene felt like a dream to him. The guards took Kan a short distance away to a small port where a boat sat waiting, and numerous state officials stood around, looking irritated and flustered at having to be awake at so early an hour for the execution of such an insignificant prisoner.
Kan must have drifted to sleep, because the next thing he knew, he was sat on the boat, floating downriver at quite a pace; guards and officials sat around; saying nothing. A deathly silence pervaded the boat. He began to feel more aware of his surroundings, and his eyes focused on the houses on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. He could see river people going about their lives: just another day for them; how lucky they were to be alive; in the thick of things. Presently, a guard sat next to him began smoking. Kan asked the guard for a smoke, but he just stared at him through slanted eyes, and blew smoke in his face.
Wat Samrong 7 a.m.
They arrived at Wat Samrong, and the guards and officials went onshore to make preparations for the execution. Kan was left on board the boat, where numerous Buddhist monks came to visit him and prepare him for the afterlife. One of them was preaching to him about cause and effect: “. . . you were deluded into believing material wealth was the key to happiness, but now look where your hunger for gold has got you,” said the handsome young monk “They’re going to execute you, and you’re none-the-better for your actions.” Kan did not reply, only stared across the boat at the area that was being cordoned off with flimsy blue cloth; his final resting place.
“. . . so you must find peace within yourself before you go. Understand that what you did was the ripening of bad karma, it could not be avoided.” The monk carried on in his languid tone for the best part of an hour; Kan didn’t mind, he wasn’t interested, but it wasn’t so bad to be alive, listening to the drivel of a newly-ordained monk. Someone passed him a cigarette and he smoked it with his handcuffs on: raising two hands to take a pull; chains rattling with every movement. By and by, the executioners finished their preparations and two of the guards came to collect Kan. The dreaded moment was drawing near.
Kan was placed on the ground on a square of freshly-cut plantain leaves. His shackles were removed and he was firmly strapped to a T-shaped bamboo stake. They filled his ears with clay and marked a line across his neck. The executioners took long drafts of an alcoholic beverage to calm their nerves. They knelt down in front of him, asking his pardon. When everything was ready; all of the onlookers, guards and executioners stepped away from the small square of plantain leaves, and watched from a distance.
One of the executioners began dancing a set of intricate steps, staring intently at Kan, who became absorbed by the enchanting display. Just behind Kan, another executioner was posturing in a similar fashion. He briefly made a wai to the state officials then, with the stealthy silence of a cat, he took two graceful steps towards the prisoner, leapt in the air, arms outstretched, all the features of his face contorted in the most horrific manner, like some Chinese dragon. The curved blade flashed through the air like a beam of light, severing Kan’s head in a single blow; a jet of crimson shot two feet in the air; the severed head rolled limply across the ground, coming to a stop several feet away from the body; sightless eyes looking out across the Chao Phraya River, where an old woman spat blood-red betel juice into the fast flowing water.
Public Beheading in Siam: Three True Stories of Crime and Punishment in the Siam of Old (Part 1 – Ai Yone: The Jealous Husband.)Posted: June 21, 2011
Long before the lethal injection, long before the firing squad, and many thousands of miles away from the cold efficiency of the guillotine, the Siamese had their very own way of executing their murderers, thieves, adulterers, and unfortunate individuals who got on the wrong side of the king, princes, and nobles. Before the year 1919, those sentenced to death were publicly beheaded by sword in an intricate ritual that involved two swordsmen, Buddhist monks, and state officials. This practice was discontinued after August 19, 1919, when Boonpeng Heep Lek was the last person to be executed by decapitation in Siam.
Over the coming week, I will be posting three accounts of public executions in Siam. Today’s story tells the tale of Ai Yone, a jealous husband who lost his wife to another man, and consecrated their love affair with a blood bath. Some of the places and names used in this account have been fictionalized; the main story, however, is based on a true account of crime and punishment in Siam.
Ai Yone: The Jealous Husband
April, 1893 Phra Pathom
When Ai Yone’s wife ran away with another man, he became possessed by an irrational desire to murder the cheating couple. He had always been an honest and upright man, working hard to earn his living. But now, nothing else mattered to him except the death of his adulterous wife (Nok) and her Casanova lover. Driven by an irrepressible urge to exact revenge, he stalked the carousing pair with the cool headedness of a detective, and the burning hatred of Mephistopheles. On April 13, he located them at a house in Phra Pathom, about 50 kilometres west of Bangkok. He watched their movements and waited patiently; he was in no particular rush. Later that day, the perfect opportunity revealed itself. His wife and her new lover were alone in the house, and he watched through burning eyes as the hated man bestowed kisses upon his wife. He sprang upon them unexpectedly, but the lover – quick and agile – deftly leapt from an open window and ran for his life, leaving the unfortunate Nok to face the wroth of Ai Yone alone. He wounded her in several places with a knife, and she died not long after. Ai Yone was promptly arrested, tried, and condemned to death.
May 19, 1893 Phra Pathom
Ai Yone was released from prison amidst taunts and jeers from a crowd that had gathered to witness the prisoner’s removal. He seemed oblivious to their presence, and chewed betel nut noncommittally. He was escorted by a heavily armed guard; bound in iron shackles. They took him to the river where he and a procession of state officials, police, and military, boarded a boat. They left the port at six a.m., and headed for Wat Matkasan, where Ai Yone was to be executed.
At 7:15 a.m., the procession arrived at Wat Matkasan, where preparations for the execution got underway. Ai Yone remained bound and shackled on board the boat, smoking and engaging in animated conversation with those around him. Meanwhile, the executioners – seven in number – began the lengthy ritual, first making offerings of boar’s head, fowls, rice and betels at the temporary altar, erected for the occasion. The swords to be used for the execution were placed on the altar and duly consecrated and anointed. Looking on from the boat, Ai Yone seemed disinterested and detached as he received the last ministrations of the Buddhist monks. He held his head high, and showed no signs of fear.
Promptly, he was brought onto land and placed on the grass. The executioners were arrayed in red, and had wrapped red sashes around their foreheads. They knelt in front of Ai Yone and asked his pardon for what they were about to do. Some of the executioners took Ai Yone a little distance away, where they removed his neck-chain and handcuffs, then tied his elbows to a bamboo post, securely planted in the ground. He sat cross-legged on freshly-cut plantain leaves, neck exposed to receive the fatal blow, murmuring prayers and holding lighted tapers between his pressed palms. Next, his ears were closed with wet clay, so that he would not hear the deadly approach of the executioner. A line was drawn across his neck, to guide the descending sword; a white cloth wrapped around his body. All was ready.
To the left of Ai Yone, a first executioner began an intricate set of dance-like moves, not unlike the movements seen in ram muay, the graceful dance performed at the beginning of muay thai (kickboxing) bouts. Ai Yone was transfixed on the hypnotic dance of the executioner. Meanwhile, to the right of Ai Yone – just outside his field of vision – a second executioner was skipping along in similar manner to the first. When this second executioner perceived that Ai Yone was entranced by the movements of the first, he swiftly moved in for the death blow: lifting the sword high above his head, stretching onto his tiptoes, he swung the razor-sharp blade with all his force, almost severing the head in one blow. The first executioner then quickly moved in to finish the job.
The severed head rolled across the floor; vacant eyes stared at the morning sky; a light covering of rain clouds began to form. The body was quickly buried in a nearby grave and the head displayed on a pole; a warning to would be criminals. The once-handsome face of Ai Yone looked out across the execution ground, now nothing more than flesh and blood. The whole episode came to a close at 9 a.m., just four hours after he first saw the light of day. The crowd of Chinese and Siamese onlookers quickly lost interest, and dispersed within minutes. The rain came out of nowhere, cleansing the bloodstained ground.
 Before June 24, 1939, Thailand was known as Siam. As this document is primarily concerned with happenings prior to 1919, I will refer to Thais as Siamese, and Thailand as Siam.
To see more images, visit Siamese Visions.
After hearing much about a mythical island just outside the city of Bangkok, I finally got the chance to see it with my own eyes this Sunday. Just as one of Bangkok’s inopportune power cuts hit my street, our neighbours kindly invited us along to Koh Kret. Here’s how the story unfolded.
The car pulled up on Pumvej road, next to an uninspiring canal, with water hoses trailing across the pavement. Is this it? I thought. Is this the mythical Koh Kret? Thankfully, it wasn’t. We took a short walk along the road, past a group of motorcycle taxis and came to a tiny, inconspicuous pier, where a few vendors ventured to sell snacks for those waiting to cross. We paid for a ticket – 2 baht – and waited for the boat to arrive; which didn’t take long. Promptly, the boat arrived, driven by a man who looked like he’d been doing it his whole life; he stared transfixed, as though he could have controlled the boat blindfolded.
Arriving on the other side, I was still looking for signs that this was an island; or that it was interesting in some way; so far all I’d seen were motorcycle taxis. We began walking and within a few minutes, things began to perk up. As we followed the path, I saw on the left, crumbling chedis that had been built from brick and what remained of an old temple. Directly in front of this temple was a concrete platform, which had a statue of a Buddha on it, and a monkey and an elephant prostrating in front of the Buddha. We followed the path further along and passed another temple on the left (the Chao Phraya River snaked past us to the right), which had a statue of a reu-see, or hermit, in front.
From here we crossed a small bridge over a tiny canal and headed into the pottery village, which is home to the island’s Mon-Thai inhabitants. Directly over the bridge was a small house that I can only describe as shack-like. Despite this, it had a subtle poetic beauty to it, as though left behind in some time the world has forgotten. On top of this house was a small, rusted child’s bicycle – with a radio in the basket and a torch hanging from the handle bars. At the foot of the bridge, a signpost – explaining how the kilns work – poked its head out of a pile of junk: an old television; part of a radio; some empty beer bottles.
Once past the bridge, we came into the village proper. It was made up of a haphazard combination of houses that were built around each other in a hodgepodge fashion. Most of the houses had open doors, with the inhabitants sitting around doing handicrafts, cooking food, or just resting. Built in amongst some of these houses were the ancient-looking red brick kilns. One house had a pseudo-European façade, with white-painted walls and imitation stained glass; others were built from teak wood and stood on stilts to protect against floods. As we rounded a corner, I saw a Hindu shrine built in amongst a chaotic mixture of clotheslines, flags, tools, and miscellaneous items.
About five minutes in to the village, we came across a coffee shop: Coffee House No. 1. It was built alongside a small canal, made entirely out of wood, and the owners served coffees prepared in traditional clay pots. On the front of the shop was a black-and-white photo of Democracy Monument, taken during the floods of 1942. Jazz was playing on the sound system, and that was enough to draw me inside. All down the side of the café – on the side next to the canal – was a long wooden platform with mattresses on it, allowing customers to relax and take in the ambiance. The menu was surprisingly cheap, with mostly western-style food on offer: steaks, french fries, chicken wings. The music moved onto acoustic instrumental remixes of Bob Marley and the Wailers. A group of bohemian internationals were taking adventurous photos of each other; leaning over the canal and balancing on their stomachs on a wooden beam. While we were eating, a cockerel just happened along and came to sit under our table. That would never happen at KFC!
After the brief pit stop, we headed out to discover what else the island had to offer. As we left the primarily-residential area, we came to the OTOP Village, where the locals sell everything from handicrafts to hand-painted t-shirts, original art work, kid’s toys, an array of Thai sweets and snacks, pottery, and Buddhist paraphernalia. The narrow pathway ensured that everyone visiting the island got close together, like one big happy family. An artist sat amidst the chaos, peacefully sculpting an ornate statue of Hamsa – a mythical bird-like creature. Eventually, we came to the northeastern corner of the island, where you can find the leaning chedi.
At this point, the rainy season was living up to its name and we were all getting wet so we headed inside the Rama V Museum, which features a collection of Mon pottery. The museum seemed more like a store house, and group of men – including a Buddhist monk – sat talking glibly in the corner of the room. The pottery was fascinating to look at but there wasn’t much maneuverability. We exited the museum and browsed the various other temples in the vicinity, following the path on the north side of the island. Just across the river, a large statue of the Buddha sat erect, watching over the island.
Further along the trail, we came across a Mon Gamelan orchestra, garbed in bright pink shirts. They were just getting ready to do a performance and so, always interested to hear some new music, I sat down to hear what they were playing. They struck up a fast instrumental piece, which had a chaotic rhythm to it, and the various instruments weaved intricate melodies that seemed to be in syncopation with each other. After the first piece, a group of Mon classical dancers came on stage. These delicate young ladies looked shy and awkward until the moment they stepped on the stage; from that point on, they were in complete control of their graceful movements; many of which required great flexibility of the hands. While they were dancing, a man approached the stage and gave them a hundred baht each; perhaps he thought this was Koh Kret’s answer to Soi Cowboy.
Koh Kret is a fascinating place to visit and is a reminder of the versatility that can be found within Bangkok. Forget sleek modern malls, tourist infested temples, and gaudy attractions; places like Koh Kret represent the real Bangkok; about as far away as you can get from the pretentiousness of modern life, while still being in a city. Much of the island, and the inhabitant’s way of life, remains untouched by modern technology: there are no cars! Koh Kret exudes character: from the guitar man – who sat among his paintings and broken guitars that he had crafted into works of art; to the hobbled old lady, with her multitude of cats, sat high up in her little house on stilts – the inhabitants of the island have the wealth of character that is completely lost on the modern city dweller; selfish and mass-produced; like the world they live in. Ink would be in short supply if poets discovered Koh Kret: the island within a city
The year 1932 marked a turning point in the history of Thailand. Faced with a failing economy, a reduced military budget, and cuts to civil service payrolls, a group of foreign-educated civilians and military leaders secretly began plotting the overthrow of the ruling princes of the Supreme Council. These princes practiced nepotism and greedily hoarded their personal wealth. In an attempt to ease the economic tension, King Prajadhipok proposed the levying of income taxes and property taxes but the Supreme Council opposed these policies, fearing that their personal fortunes would suffer. They instead made cuts to civil service and military spending, causing the Minister of Defense Prince Boworadet to resign, and angering civilians. The king himself was of a passive nature and allowed the Supreme Council to overrule him. He admitted his lack of financial acumen and publicly apologized for his failings:
“I myself do not profess to know much about the matter… if I have made a mistake I really deserve to be excused by the officials and people of Siam.”
In April of that year, Bangkok celebrated its 150th anniversary. Rama I founded the capital in 1782, after the fall of Ayutthaya. Legend tells how Rama I prophesised that his dynasty would last but 150 years. To honour the founding of the Chakri dynasty, the king had commissioned the building of a bridge to span the Chao Phraya River and a large statue of Rama I, which was sculpted by the resident Italian artist, Corrado Feroci. King Prajadhipok had promised to reveal his planned constitution during these celebrations. When the sesquicentennial passed without mention of a constitution, the People’s Party began to foment revolution.
Four senior army officers joined the Promoters after sensing the growing vibe of discontent among many of Siam’s young officers and civil servants. Chief among them was Phraya Songsuradet, who became the main tactician in plotting the coup and advised the Promoters to be more secretive to avoid official detection. The coup organizers held clandestine meetings in dimly-lit boardrooms to plan the overthrow of the ruling elites. Despite their precautions, word of the coup eventually leaked to the police. On the evening of June 23, 1932, the Director General of the Police made a phone call to Prince Paribatra – who was acting Prince Regent while the king was away at his seaside resort in Hua Hin – asking him for authorization to arrest the coordinators of the coup. The prince, recognizing many of the names on the list of conspirators, decided to delay the order until the next morning, a delay that would cost him bitterly.
In the early hours of June 24, 1932, civilian and military members of the People’s Party began to gather on the pavilion of Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall. A gunboat sailed up the Chao Phraya River and was positioned facing the residence of Prince Paribatra. Naval units arrived on the scene under false orders to suppress a Chinese uprising. Many of those gathered there on that fateful morning were unaware of the intentions of the People’s Party and there was a general air of confusion. Military units secured all strategic locations and the princes of the Supreme Council were arrested and imprisoned in the Throne Hall. Prince Paribatra was reputedly in his pyjamas when armed soldiers came to take him away; he was given no time to change his clothes. It was well known that Paribatra had strongly opposed the constitution and wished to put himself or his son on the throne in place of King Prajadhipok. Only one of the princes managed to avoid arrest. Prince Purachatra had been away at the Turkish baths in downtown Bangkok when a faithful servant came to warn him of the uprising. He escaped from Bangkok by train and disembarked in Hua Hin, where he informed King Prajadhipok of the state of affairs back in the capital.
When a large crowd had gathered on the pavilion of Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall, a speech was given by Phraya Manopakon (Mano) which strongly criticised the king and the ruling elites. The speech was written by Pridi Phanomyong, a French-educated radical who played a key role in organizing the coup d’état. Mano, standing on a podium on the pavilion of the Throne hall, read out the Manifesto of the People’s Party. In it, the king was accused of embezzling funds, nepotism and governing without principle. In the speech, the People’s Party invited the king to retain his position, but under a constitution which would strip him of all his theoretical powers. The king was given an ultimatum: if he did not reply, it would be taken as treason and the country would adopt a republican form of government. All this was broadcast over radio and supporters of the movement blanketed the capital with flyers and pamphlets. Despite the rousing speech, many of the onlookers remained noncommittal and waited to see the reaction of the forces that were being ousted.
Meanwhile, King Prajadhipok was at his seaside palace, Klai Kangwon, teeing off a game of golf when Prince Purachatra came charging onto the scene talking of revolution in the capital. The king took the news with aplomb and asked his wife, Queen Rambai Barni, to finish the game of golf while he went indoors to discuss the matter with Purachatra. Also staying with the king was Prince Svasti, Queen Rambai Barni’s charismatic father, who was well known for his wit and charm. The group nervously listened to the strongly-worded radio broadcast of the People’s Party and considered what course of action to take. At first, the possibility of fleeing the country was broached but when the king turned to his wife for a final answer, she decided the most honourable thing to do would be to return and face the music. Later in the day, they received a telegram from the People’s Party which contradicted the terms set forth in their Manifesto. In the telegram, they assured King Prajadhipok that if he did not want to remain on the throne, they would be happy to replace him with another prince. Soon after, a gunboat was dispatched to Hua Hin and the commander of the vessel went ashore to ask the King to return with him to Bangkok. He refused to board the gunboat and went instead by royal train.
King Prajadhipok and his entourage arrived in Bangkok late the next night and were met by a police guard who served as escort to the group. No military display was permitted at the Bangkok station and the People’s Party kept a respectful distance. Early the next morning, the king expressed his wish to meet with the leaders of the coup. Four members of the People’s Party were escorted to a room in King Prajadhipok’s palace where he was sitting behind a broad desk. He smiled and rose to greet them. “I rise,” he said, “in honour of the People’s Party.” In a country where civilians had once been obliged to prostrate themselves in the presence of the king, this significant moment was seen as a clear sign of King Prajadhipok’s willingness to agree to the terms of the People’s Party Manifesto. On June 27, 1932, King Prajadhipok signed the draft constitution, which stripped him of all his ancient powers. All the princes held captive were then released, all except Prince Paribatra, who was exiled to Germany for fear that he might stage a counter coup.
By the end of November of that year, the new government had drafted up a Permanent Constitution and it was formally signed by King Prajadhipok on December 10, 1932, thus ending 150 years of absolute monarchy.
To see more pictures from the 1932 coup d’état, visit my image blog, Siamese Visions.
Learning to speak a new language is a great way to broaden your horizons and expand your perception of the world around you. It is said that learning new languages improves intelligence, and in an increasingly globalized world, multilinguists have a marked advantage over their monolingual counterparts. Of course, some languages are harder to learn than others – Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean being among the hardest for English speakers – and the far eastern languages have proven tricky for westerners en masse. Thai is a tonal language, much like Chinese, and has five tones which denote the meaning of words. With around 26 million native speakers in the world, it’s not the most widely-used language. But as tourists, teachers and expats continue to flock to the Land of Smiles, learning Thai is becoming an increasingly popular choice.
When you first arrive in Thailand you will be bombarded with new information: signposts demand your attention in an ornate and complicated-looking script that means nothing to you; people ask you questions that you don’t know how to answer; the taxi driver wants to know where you’re going; you don’t even know how to order food. The list goes on. At first, this can all seem quite bewildering. But eventually, like a raging storm must abate, the madness and confusion eventually give way to the clarity of understanding; albeit slowly. Many people arrive armed with phrase books, only to find that the book was about as much use as chocolate fireguard – and they’re not very useful. You try speaking that “golden” phrase you learnt from the book: Khun suuay mak na krub – you thought you told her she was beautiful, but you just politely told her she’s unlucky. Oh the tones, the wretched tones. After a couple of weeks you’ve thrown your phrase book in the trash and decided to just listen!
The Easy Stuff
You’ve now been in Thailand for a couple of months and you’ve impressed yourself – and the locals – with your new vocabulary. You know how to ask the price of things, ask your friend where he/she is going and ask them if they’re hungry – Thai people love that question. Everything seems to be made up of short syllabic sentences: Gin kow mai (Do you want to eat?), Bai nai (Where are you going?). You feel, in your own humble opinion, that you have mastered the language. You send emails to friends: “Thai is easy. I’m already speaking it.” And then . . . the bomb drops. Someone reels off a long complicated sentence in the vernacular and you have no idea what they said.
The Hard Stuff
Thai language, like all other languages, has evolved organically over a period of time, adopting words from Pali, Sanskrit, Khmer and Chinese along the way. Thai is a member of the Tai group of the Tai-Kadai language family, which was brought from the Shan states in southern China around 1,000 years ago. These different influences can be heard in the sounds of the language. Long ceremonial names are often derived from Sanskrit and Pali – such as the full ceremonial name for Bangkok – and road names like Viphawadee have a distinctly Indian flavour to them. Other words, like bai and mai, have similarities with the syllabic nature of Chinese and other oriental languages.
But foreigners are not the only ones who have a hard time understanding the language in Thailand. Various dialects are spoken throughout the length and breadth of the country. A Thai speaker of Bangkok – for example – may not understand the Thai spoken by an inhabitant of northeast Thailand, where the people speak numerous dialects, including a language similar to Laotian. So once you get over the initial hurdles of just speaking a few words, you will suddenly find that learning to speak Thai in all its wonderful multiplicity is a life-long task.
Foreigners who speak Thai were once a rarity. Even now, there are not many who can speak, read and write the language. When you try your first phrase on Thai people, they will invariably be enthusiastic about your ability to speak their language. Just being able to ask how much something costs will result in Thai people making a big fuss over you and saying: “Oeey! Farang pood pasa Thai keng leaw! (Oh wow! This long-nosed farang can speak Thai like a specialised pro!).” And of course, it goes to your head. You might feel like a superstar . . . for a while.
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart. — Nelson Mandela
But as your ability to speak Thai continues to improve, you may find that this Thai-style bemusement will occasionally work the other way: they will assume you can’t speak Thai. An example is getting on a bus and the ticket collector asks someone sat near to you if they can speak English: because that dumb foreigner sure as hell aint gonna speak Thai! It can be annoying when you realise they’re making that assumption, especially when you’ve dedicated a lot of time to learning their language. Still, it’s also a good way to learn more about Thai culture, to just let it pass and not take it seriously.
Thais love to tease foreign learners with tonal riddles which make use of the same (or similar-sounding) words that are differentiated by their tones. When I first came to Thailand, a friend asked me: Krai-kai-kai-gai (Who sells chicken’s eggs / ใคร ขาย ไข่ ไก่), which, when spoken quickly, sounds like: Kai kai kai kai, and comes out in a monotone when repeated by most foreigners. It took me about a year and a half before I could confidently say that, and I still have to think carefully to get the tones right. Another one – though I learnt this from a book – is: Mai mai mai mai (Does new wood burn?), the answer to which is: Mai mai mai mai (No, new wood does not burn). Of course, written in Thai script, each mai would look different (ไม้ ใหม่ ไหม้ ไหม? ไม้ ใหม่ ไม่ ไหม้) , which is why learning to read Thai is greatly beneficial to improving spoken Thai.
Reading and Writing
Thai language is made up of 44 consonants, which are divided up into three tone classes: low, middle and high. How on earth have Thai people created an extra 18 consonants? They haven’t. They just have various different letters to denote the same sound. In fact, when you strip back all the extra letters, Thai actually has only 21 consonant sounds. The vowels are where things get a little more difficult. Not only are there 44 consonants to remember but there are 32 vowels as well – many of which are sounds not used in English. Vowels can be grouped together or wrapped around consonants in a counter-intuitive fashion to create new sounds, and there are both short and long versions of most vowels. Once you start learning to read Thai, you will be amazed to find that all those signposts are no longer so indecipherable. Within a short time, you may find you can read the destination on a bus or the name of a district in Bangkok.
There are some good books and websites to help you learn Thai. The ones I found useful are Thai for Beginners by Benjawan Poomsan Becker, and Learning Thai.com. Learning Thai.com has fully interactive pages where you can listen to the sounds of the consonants and vowels being spoken by a Thai person. There are also other useful resources such as recordings of stories with an accompanying text, and links to other blogs and websites. Thai for Beginners comes with a C.D. which allows you to listen to the vocabulary and conversations in the book and is one of the most thorough and error-free Thai language books I’ve come across.
Thai language is a wonderfully melodic and musical language that does not readily lend itself to the academic approach. Like a small child – who repeats what the people around him/her say – learn to speak Thai by repetition and listening. Too much analysis only blocks the path to clear, spoken Thai, and while you may have a huge vocabulary (of words you’ll probably never need) it’s useless if you can’t string a simple sentence together. Allow yourself to become a child again, forget what’s right and wrong, and just listen!
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few. — Shunryu Suzuki