Saving Face by Not Losing It


Recently the New York Times could not be printed in Bangkok, for the printer was afraid to leave himself open to prosecution under the country’s Lese Majeste statues, which are frequently invoked to protect the reputation of the Crown. This particular edition of the Times contained an article that mentioned the King was in ill-health, and there were concerns about which of his children might assume the throne. So rather than risk it, he declined to print the paper.

I hadn’t had much contact with Asia before moving to Thailand, though I had certainly tried to read the instruction manuals that came with appliances made in China, and was always amazed by the fact that they had not bothered to consult a native English speaker before printing them. Why not just run it by someone who speaks English and ask “Does this make sense?  Is the meaning clear?”

Here in Thailand, they are very worried about foreigners taking jobs away from Thais, and so the Ministry of Labour issues guidelines concerning the rules. A document issued by that Ministry reads:

Career aliens do not. Not alien to the professional set of career. Professional and not an alien to do. Set in professional video and tea alien life that do not.”

Now this is an edict from a government Ministry, housed in a huge building, with a staff of hundreds, maybe thousands of clerical workers.  Out of all those, why couldn’t they find someone who spoke English, or knew someone who did?

The answer lies in the cult of saving face. Thailand is all about hierarchies. Being quick-witted or original isn’t thought of as a virtue, but knowing your place is. The big boss cannot look bad, and heaven help help the person who puts him in a position to do so.  So if Mr. Important said that his daughter studied English at the University, and when he showed her the document she said it looked fine, it’s fine.

A few years ago, a person in the Thai Defense Ministry  approved the purchase of a million dollars worth of hand-held bomb detectors, to help the Army screen people at the strife-ridden southern border with Malaysia. They were manufactured and sold by a British company. Trouble was, they didn’t work. There was nothing inside the handle but a battery that made an LED light glow intermittently. This British company made a killing selling these to hot spots around the globe, but then the truth came out and people started complaining.

The British government became aware of the problem and legal action ensued.  The British courts started refunding money when possible. But the Thais never asked for their money back. In order to make a claim, they would have had to admit that a high-ranking person had made a mistake.  So they just let it go. The bomb-detectors work fine. No need for a refund.

By the way, people with good government jobs here are never fired. They are “transferred to an inactive post.” That way they still keep their salary and benefits, including a chauffeur, membership in private golf courses and a personal attendant/dresser while there. The big loss of face comes from loss of power and status, for they are now no longer able to accept bribes, which was where the real income came from.

From what I’ve seen and heard, Thailand is a typical Asian country. Young Chinese people love coming to Thailand, for it’s so wide open here, so nutty and exotic. There’s a popular Chinese comedy film, Lost in Thailand, which is sort of like our Hangover series of movies, and Chiang Mai is prominently featured in that film. Every day you can see Chinese tourists taking selfies in front of the locations used.

I once met a Chinese woman in her twenties who was on vacation in Chiang Mai and I asked if she and her friends (they travel in big groups) had gone out to listen to music at a nightclub or gone dancing. “Oh no,” she responded, “I haven’t taken a class in that yet at University.”

I don’t think the next revolutionary change based on risk-taking or entrepreneurship will come from Asia. Nobody here will invent the next home computer in their garage.










This is our second time here, five months later, during low season. There’s no one around! Miles of pristine beach, inexpensive bungalows only yards from the water, cute little railroad station right in town…and I think there may be ten other tourists here. It’s not even hot. We have air con, but it’s off half the time. Rain sprinkles every few hours for a few minutes. It’s low season all over the country, but this place is just as nice as it was five months ago, when we first came here to escape the smoke and haze in the North.

We rented a motor scooter for one day and bicycles for the other two. Got to get out of town but there’s just more of the same out there, a few dramatic hills covered with trees, probably limestone jutting up forming the border with Burma, just like it does 500 miles north to Laos. There’s really no where to go that’s not already here. Those oddly shaped hills, combined with the palm and banana trees, combine to send a strong “we’re not in Iowa anymore” to this photographer.

The people are extraordinarily friendly and seem truly happy. Even the young people don’t seem as addicted to their cell phones as they do in Bangkok. At least at our hotel, wi-fi seems OK, and the few coffee shops all have it, but I guess it’s just a wire running down along the railroad tracks.

The train comes four times a day, and two are air-conditioned second-class cars with reclining seats. Fare from Bangkok was about $14 per person. The un-airconditioned trains charge much less, about $2.50. The trip takes about five and a half hours.

As with most of Thailand, it seems that the main business here is agriculture. Here it’s not so much rice as it is coconuts and vegetables. Fishing boats at night line the horizon at sea, glowing green. I think they’re mostly catching squid.

I most parts of the world, people pay a premium to stay on the seashore, but here the room is about $21 and meals are about $2 each. I guess everybody goes to Phuket or Krabi where the scenery is more dramatic and there’s wave action. The water here in the Andaman sea is like the gulf of Mexico. No surfing or diving here. It’s quite shallow until you walk out about a hundred yards.

Maybe the reason nobody’s here is because most people equate a seaside vacation with nightlife. There certainly isn’t any of that here. You can go to the 7-11 after dark and see all the motorcycles parked in front. There’s a mini Tesco Lotus convenience store opposite, just to keep “seven” as they call it here, from having a monopoly.

A meandering scooter ride in north Thailand



Took another three day trip, a ramble on the motor scooter, heading God Knows Where, but knowing that it’s all going to be good, because this is Northern Thailand. On our trust steed, the one year-old Honda PCX150, we headed due north.


Got as far as Fang, which is up near where the mountain range that forms the Burma border comes in from both the west and the north. Went to a shining gold temple up in the hills and tried to relax by meditating. Couldn’t calm down very well after five hours of driving, but found myself amazed by this ultra-modern temple, one that looked more like a spaceship in a fifties Sci-Fi movie than a standard Thai, Buddhist temple. I kept expecting Michael Rennie from the 1951 movie The Day The World Stood Still appear. There were these big crystal balls about 500 centimeters in diameter surrounding this very large glass bell. In a Christian church you would call it the altar, but I don’t know what you would call it here.

We went into the hills as sun was setting, and noticed that the people who live there are shorter and darker than the Thai people who live in Fang. Maybe they have come from Burma.

The next day we went to a National Park for the Fang Hot Springs, and there was a sign saying the baths would be closed from July 10 to 25, but using Thai numbers for the dates, which was odd, and is often a sneaky way to keep things from foreigners. They also disregarded my Thai drivers license as proof of residence and tried to charge me eight times what they charged my Thai friend Wipa for admission. She talked them down to only four times. Then we drove around and found the place was closed. There was no hot water at this hot springs!


The big treasure of the trip was the road that ran from Chai Prakhan straight south to Phrao. Amazing scenery, wonderful two-lane blacktop road running along the ridges of mountain valleys. When you get to Phrao, it meets the highway that goes west to Chiang Dao, and the scenery remains spectacular all the way into that town.


Doi Pui Hmong Village near Chiang Mai

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Like Boulder, Colorado, perched against the Flatirons, Chiang Mai sits right up against Doi Suthep, a mountain that is topped by both a Buddhist  temple and a one of many royal palaces.  This is the summer home for the royal family, should they choose to come this far to sample the bracing, mountain air. Doi Suthep has a twin, Doi Pui, which is about thirty feet higher.  The mountains  are about 5,500 feet tall, and the temperature at the top is noticeably lower than at the base in Chiang Mai. The air is sweeter and fresher on top, as well.

The winding road up the mountain is well maintained, and heavily traveled by bicyclists, motorcyclists and the red trucks that form the backbone of mass transit in Chiang Mai. Most people make it as far as the temple, climb the 306 steps, take a few pictures and then head back down. After the temple you come to Pu Ping Palace, but then the road becomes terrible, full of potholes.

But if you keep going another five miles, you come to a Hmong village that sells handicrafts in order to support its one-thousand inhabitants. Unlike most tourist items, I find these attractive.  I like their clothing and their silver jewelry. I’ve visited the village several times already, usually just as an excuse to ride up the mountain on my Honda PCX150, but this time we rented traditional Hmong clothing and used their beautiful little park for a location.  It was surprisingly fun.  They charge you 50 baht (about  $1.75) per person.




In the Thai language there is no word for “intolerance.”  The notion is so foreign to this Buddhist culture that promotes acceptance that they simply never got around to inventing a word to express the notion.  Thais  also tend not to have a lot of negative words.  I’ve never heard anyone described as “ugly.”  Instead, they say “not beautiful.”

When Thais drive, they do so in a way that mimics their language.  As far as I can tell, no notion of “right of way” exists.  People drive on the left hand side of the road, and when entering from the left, they don’t look behind to see if it’s safe to enter.  They just slide on in, expecting others to watch out for them.  Usually, it works, because no one is thinking “hey, I have right of way here and you’ve just invaded my space without asking.”  Such a person would have to be a foreigner, schooled in ancient inalienable rights that simply don’t exist here in a country where most people assume “we’re all just bumbling along as best we can, trying to be kind to one another.”

I’ve had a driver’s license here for two years now, but I wouldn’t assume that many of the Thai drivers I share the road with have bothered to do the same.  I’ve seen children as young as ten driving a motorbike containing three of their friends.  At night, they frequently drive with their lights out in order to economize on gas.  Often they drive the wrong way down a street, because the nearest turnaround is inconveniently distant.  I’ve never seen a police car chase someone down for a moving traffic violation.  Here police stage traffic stops, where they pull over anyone they think might be worth shaking down.  Foreigners are usually fare game.  I have been issued a ticket for “impoliteness” for driving without a shirt in hot weather.  The fine is about twelve dollars.  If you pay right there, you don’t have to go to the police station to collect your license.  I know another foreigner who was fined for smoking while driving his motor scooter.

Thai young people are most often stopped for not wearing a motorcycle helmet. They are simply too vain and rebellious to do so, and are willing to pay a fine that amounts to a full days salary at minimum wage. As much as they prize loyalty and obedience to elders, they also seem to lack the ability to fall into rank when it comes to discipline.  The image of herding cats springs to mind.  Siamese cats.

The Sacred and the Profane in Northern Thailand


With my friend Sam, I took a three day motorcycle trip to Phrae.  It’s about five hours east of Chiang Mai, past Lampang and then up into the hills.  Once you get into the mountains it’s fresh and cool, and the scenery compensates for the long haul. Phrae was once the center of Teak logging in Thailand.  Teak is a magnificent wood with which to build houses and furniture.  It’s heavy, insect resistant, and grows straight as an arrow. It’s also largely missing, as Thailand has lost 85% of its forests since World War II.  They’ve replanted a lot, but teak takes a long time to grow.

When we got to the mountains northeast of Lampang, we were looking for someplace to rest and came across a coffee shop that was largely hidden from the highway.  It looked like a dark recess in the trees.  The owner had built a delightful tree house in addition to his main buildings, the coffee house itself and a little church.  That’s right, church, as in Christian Pentecostal place of worship.  His name is Chestha Suwannasa, and he credits his conversion experience with saving him from a life of dissipation.  He also fancies himself an artist, and was busy working on a large canvas when we arrived.  The canvases have titles like “The Last Judgment.”

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When we got to Phrae, we toured one of several nineteenth century mansions that were made, of course, of teak. The largest had belonged to the governor of the region, and the opulence of the upstairs was in great contrast to the basement, which was used as a prison and a place of torture.  I could not imagine relaxing at home knowing there were people being tortured in my basement, but heck, maybe that’s just me.  Guess I don’t have thick enough skin to be a provincial governor in 19th century Indochina.

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Mae Rim

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Mae Rim is a suburb to the north of Chiang Mai. About fifteen miles away, but there’s only one way to get there, along a highway that is often crowded and ugly in that way development has of being here. There’s also road construction that has been going on for two years now, and is thankfully drawing to a close.  But the air is sweeter in Mae Rim, the foliage more abundant and greener, and the mountain is closer than in Chiang Mai.  We found a house of the same size we’re renting now for half the price.  $110 a month!  There’s even room for a little garden. And there’s a market right next door.

So for that last three weeks we’ve been riding the motorcycle up there and checking it out.  Now that the rainy season has begun, the vegetation is lush again.

After lots of driving around I concluded, yeah it’s pretty, but that doesn’t make up for the fact that all my friends are in Chiang Mai.  So unless someone shows me an amazing place to live up there, we’ll stay right where we are.