Prasit Ruangsombat is a 68 year old man. He’s disabled, and his wife died a few years ago. There’s no-one to look after him, so he begs around town. On Sunday he was sleeping rough near one of the main markets in Ayutthaya, close to Chankasem Palace. He awoke to find himself engulfed in flames. He’d been set on fire (for the second time in a week!) by members of a gang who extort “protection money” from beggars. The cost of protection is, apparently, 400 Baht a day – that’s twice the legal minimum wage.

Passers-by took him to the local hospital where he’s recovering.

Sometimes I’m just lost for words …


Just got home. Undid the padlock on the gate. Then looked down. Just centimeters from my fingers, wrapped around the bracket of the lock, was a snake. I was, to put it mildly, a little taken aback.

Here’s a not very good photo of the poisonous critter. By the time I’d positioned myself for a second shot he’d scarpered.

Small snake on front gate


Should the British TV gameshow “Countdown” ever make it to Thailand there’d be no need for the contestants to ask Vorderman for a vowel; there are plenty of Thai words which eschew even a single vowel. That’s because there’s an implied vowel where none is written. Usually this is an “oh” (/o/), but sometimes an “ah” (/a/) or even an “aw” (as in “paw” or “saw”) (/ɔː/).

Also, two consecutive r’s (รร) can be pronounced as “ah” (/a/) or “an” (/an/) according to context.

This leads to such peculiarities as the female name รรรรร (rrrrr), which is pronounced ran-rawn. (An “r” at the end of a syllable is pronounced “n” – most Thai consonants have different pronunciations according to their position in a syllable.)

According to Thai tradition, girls born on a Monday are given a name bereft of vowels. A previous Thai teacher of mine was called วรรณพร (wrrnphr), pronounced “wan-na-pawn”. I was therefore pretty sure, even without asking, that she was born on a Monday.


Noam Chomsky postulated that language development was parameterised – that there were certain switches in our brain that could be turned on or off when, as babies, we developed language skills. One such switch is verb order. In English most unmarked sentences are SVO – subject, verb, object. For example:

John (subject) likes (verb) chocolate (object).

In other languages, such as Japanese and German, SOV is the norm. (In fact, about three quarters of languages use the SOV ordering.)

Less common is VSO, which is used in formal Arabic and in certain forms of Welsh. For example, “Lloyd spoke Welsh” is:

Siaradodd (verb “to be”, past tense) Lloyd (subject) y Gymraeg (object)

And even rarer is OVS, though it is used in Hixkaryana and Klingon (the former language is spoken only by a few hundred tribes people in a village on the banks of a tributary to the Amazon in Brazil; the later by a multitude of nerds and geeks with more time than sense).

Another switch is the need for a sentence to have a subject. In English a subject is obligatory – even if it’s completely meaningless:

“It’s raining”

To what, exactly, does it refer?

In many other languages the need for a subject is discretionary where the subject is either apparent from the context, or simply non-existent.

I was therefore a little surprised, after a little digging, to find that the existential it is so prominent in the first lines of novels. For example:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
– Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
George Orwell, 1984

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.
– Paul Auster, City of Glass

It was like so, but wasn’t.
– Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2

It was the day my grandmother exploded.
– Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road

It was a pleasure to burn.
– Ray Bradbury, Farenheit 451

It was love at first sight.
– Joseph Heller, Catch-22

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.
– Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man.
– William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust

and, of course, the classic:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
– Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford

And finally, what I consider the most arresting first line of a novel ever:

It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.
Anthony Burgess, Earthly Powers


The restaurant I visit more often than any other in Ayutthaya is called “Sai Tong” (ไทรทอง) , which means “large banyan tree”. In the centre of the establishment is, indeed, an enormous banyan tree. These trees are considered sacred, and under their branches is considered a suitable place to dispose of old spirit houses. Like most banyan trees here in Thailand, there are bands of coloured fabric tied around its trunk. There’s also a small altar for offerings of food and drink to the spirits which live in the tree.

The restaurant is next to the Chao Phraya river, close to a ferry which takes passengers and motorbikes across the river for a few tical a time.

Today the river was exceptionally high, with water lapping at the lawn of the temple opposite. The remnants of a tropical storm have brought heavy rain to the north, and that water is now making its way down to the sea. As is government policy, the land around Ayutthaya is being flooded to protect Bangkok. The local farmers don’t like this, but there’s nothing they can do. And the government does pay some compensation for the lost crops.

The sky is overcast. There’s a light breeze. And the flags in a row outside the temple make desultory attempts at fluttering before giving the task up as in vain.

When I arrived there was one other table occupied by a group of four. However, there’s a long table set out. I surmised it was for a group of teachers or bank workers. But I was wrong.

I’m glad I arrived before the big group, since such groups put a great strain on the kitchen, and I might have had to wait too long for my lunch.

Then the group arrives. They’re tourists, Americans in their 50s and 60s. They’re clearly excited to be in Thailand and everything around them fills them with awe.

I watch with a feeling of trepidation as they sit down to dine. The plastic chairs, which in the West would be considered cheap, outdoors furniture, might be unable to bear the weight of these portly visitors.

Not that they stayed seated for long. After a few moments many of them were up and wandering around the restaurant. It felt as if I were dining in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. I was not exactly thrilled.

And, oh, they were all so loud!

Madam, I’m not interested in how you feel you should sit at the end of the table because you’re left-handed.

Sir, yes, you do take a little food from the communal dishes and put it on your plate.

And yes, you can have a small bowl of fish sauce laced with potent chillies (even though it’s totally inappropriate for the sweet, Chinese-derived food that has been set in front of you, and nobody is remotely interested in your attempt at demonstrating machismo by partaking of more chillies than anyone else).

(The guide had done a good job of ordering the least-challenging food items on the menu for her charges – nothing too spicy, nothing too interesting. Of course, the fried rice has to be served in a hollowed-out pineapple – that’s what tourists like – and the meat comes on a hot metal pan, just like one gets at ethnic restaurants back home. Chinese, Thai, Korean – they’re all the same, aren’t they?)

And no, Sir, you can’t get a discount on the bottle of beer you’ve ordered because you don’t want the bottle of water that’s included in the set price. Do you realise how much of a cheapskate you appear to be? You want to save 25 cents?


I’m sure these were good people, thrilled to be visiting a country strange and exotic to them. I’m happy they were enjoying themselves so much. And I wish I didn’t feel so curmudgeonly. But as it was, I couldn’t leave the restaurant fast enough.


Consider the magnificent King of the Jungle with his swinging mane stalking proudly through the savannah under the baking African sun. Now consider the same beast confined to a small cage under the heat of the halogen lights of a department store in central Bangkok. Something’s wrong here, surely. The distress of the beast is palpable – alongside that of a white tiger similarly incarcerated and that of the baby elephant made to spend the day walking in circles under the spotlights.

Even worse is the state of a Rusa deer – a notoriously sensitive species. Then there’s the barn owl whose deep, wide eyes are forced to endure the ceaseless flashes from visitors’ cameras.

And let’s not forget the meercat, lemurs, ostrich and bat-eared fox …

The department store – Emporium (let’s name and shame) – is one of the top stores in Thailand. The lesson they seem to preach is that it’s OK to do anything whatsoever to defenceless animals in the pursuit of profit.

Worse still is the involvement of various other organisation that one might have though would have the better interests of the animals at heart: the Zoological Park Organisation (ZPO), the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry, and the Chiang Mai Night Safari.

(Actually, the involvement of the Chiang Mai Night Safari doesn’t surprise me muchly. This night zoo was set up at the behest of former Prime Minister Thaksin in his home constituency purely to bring in more tourist dollars. Since its opening a little while back several hundred animals have died because of serious failings in their care.)

The chief of the ZPO is on record as saying “they will only be [at the shopping mall] for 10 days, not forever”.

So that’s OK then. Eleven days of torture bad, ten days of torture good.


Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there were standards.

There’s a 1958 musical, Expresso Bongo, that includes a witty song with the lines:

“When I see this little bleeder
and compare him to Aida
… nausea.”

These are the words of a music promoter who, having fallen on hard times, decides to promote a rock & roll musician.

The song was banned by the BBC, and the subsequent movie of the same name (featuring the well-known English popular singer Clifford Richard) didn’t include the song; the word bleeder was deemed far too offensive.

Fast forward to today.

On the wireless one frequently hears a song by a so-called artist, Mika. Apparently aimed at prepubescent girls (who haven’t yet developed the nous to suspect the sexuality of a singer whose song video features him prancing around a teenage-style bedroom in a state of serious undress – no doubt much to the enjoyment of his gayer fans), his song “We Are Golden” features the line:

“Who gives a damn about the family you come from?”

I’m not concerned about his almost total nudity.  After all, nude wrestling was popular in classical times and is a perfectly proper pastime for an English gentleman.

I’m not concerned about his prancing. At least it was done in the privacy of his own bedroom. Poor lamb, he probably didn’t know there was a video recorder and operator in there with him the whole time.

I do, however, take exception to the filthy language. Damn is not a word to be bandied about in polite company. Heaven forfend some young, impressionable individual might hear such caddish language.

Standards are slipping.

Lord Reith, I trust and pray you’ll stop your gyrations soon.


In Thailand the favourite meat is probably fish, closely followed by chicken (though Thai Chinese people tend to favour pork); many a meal is accompanied by a Thai-style omelette (usually studded with minced pork and deep fried), and a fried egg (or “star egg” as it’s known here) is an essential topping for chopped meat stir fried with handfuls of chillies and basil. However, chicken aren’t only appreciated for their eggs and meat. A few months ago I visited the home of former Prime Minister Kukrit Pramoj. In the garden there were cages housing decorative chickens – more like bantams, really. Clearly there are people in Thailand who appreciate the prettiness of a nice cock.

Thailand Cockerel

Today, travelling to school on the subway, I noticed a man reading a magazine with photographs of beautiful cockerels seemingly in the peak of health. As he turned the pages more and more lovely birds were displayed. Clearly a cock-lover, thought I. Then I caught a headline: “School for Fighting Cockerels”. The beautiful birds featured may well have been ripped to shreds by now in some sordid and barbaric fight for the entertainment of some sick individuals. So sad.

Cock fighting is not against the law in Thailand, though the primary focus of the events isn’t so much the fight as the betting that surrounds it, which is illegal in Thailand (not, of course, that that stops its being widespread).


To find an image to accompany this Postcard I Googled Google Images for “Thailand Cock” – not an experience I’d recommend. Please burn out my eyes with a red hot poker now.