Last week I posted CHAPTER I ... I promised CHAPTER II .... here it is.
(NOT QUITE) NAKED AMBITION PAYS OFF
How I passed my first Thai exam — with a little help from up top
The story so far: Your columnist has enrolled himself in Thai university to learn the language. Fatal mistake! Upon opening his first textbook, he is overcome with a sudden desire to jump off Baiyoke Tower.
One week before the test, with all eyes watching him, he freaks out: He’s going to fail. “Relax,” his friend Taweesak says. “Here we have a special way to ensure you pass.” NOW READ ON!
Ramkhamhaeng University is named after a very famous King of the Sukhothai era from 800 years ago. This monarch is credited with creating the first written Thai alphabet. His austere statue is located right in the middle of the university.
I’ve always felt an affinity with King Ramkhamhaeng, so it was only fitting my friend Taweesak made me meet him at the foot of the statue.
“So, you’re having problems with TH101?” he asked.
“That’s an understatement,” I replied. TH101 was the first Thai subject I had taken, and the sheer volume of information about the Royal Language and Thai grammar was causing me sleepless nights.
He handed me some joss sticks and a lotus bulb and pointed up to the statue. “OK. You’re going to bon barn,” he said.
(I have since been through numerous Thai-English dictionaries and almost all conveniently omit bon barn … I assume Thais just don’t want we westerners to know about this practice.)
He saw my quizzical expression but continued nevertheless.
“Go up to the statue and pray to King Ramkhamhaeng. Tell him what you want. Then come back down.”
What a relief! Was it that simple to pass a subject at this university?
“Not quite,” said Taweesak. There was a catch, as there always is. “You also have to tell him exactly what you intend to do if your wish comes true.
If you ask King Ramkhamhaeng to pass TH101, and you pass, then you have to kae bon — or repay the Great King’s kindness by performing an act.”
“Er … what kind of act?” I asked my friend.
“Well, some people give thanks by dancing naked in front of their deity of choice. Most people get friends to hold up sheets so nobody can see you.”
I was wondering who I would choose to perform the dubious task of holding up a bedsheet while I stripped off and performed a traditional Thai dance in front of a deity … and what about those folks in high-rise buildings and aircraft?
“Here at Ramkhamhaeng, we don’t often do that,” said Taweesak, and boy did that reduce my anxiety tenfold. “Students here will repay the kindness by running around the statue.”
“With my clothes on?” I enquired.
“Of course,” said Taweesak with a laugh. “We’re not sex maniacs, you know!”
Of course you’re not, Taweesak. It’s perfectly acceptable behaviour to strip off in public and dance in front of a statue.
“Students will promise to run around the King 99 times.”
Ninety-nine times! I would later measure out one time around as being 300 metres. I would have to run almost 30km!
By now I was weighing up which was worse — the shame of failing a subject, or the fatigue of running almost an entire marathon. Or, of course, the naked thing.
“You don’t have to run it all in one go. You can break it up over a few days. And you can also get your staff to run some of them for you,” explained Taweesak with a deadpan expression suggesting he was being serious.
I had no choice. I was there; I had to go through with this. I took off my shoes and began climbing the steps towards the ominous figure of King Ramkhamhaeng.
“Oh, I nearly forgot!” shouted out Taweesak from below. “You are talking to a King, so remember to use royal language!”
Now I wanted to just break down and cry. I was in this ludicrous situation because I couldn’t remember the royal language … now I was expected to get out of this situation by using royal language!
As panic threatened to rain down upon my central nervous system, I got an idea — I would bon in English. I knelt down, clasped my hands together, closed my eyes and began.
“Pleasssse, King Ramkhamhaeng. Help me pass TH101. And if you make me pass, I’ll run around you 99 times. With love, Andrew. Oh, and take care of your health.” I prostrated myself before my beloved King, and soon I was down the bottom again.
Well, a week later and I did the test. I was even more convinced I was going to fail. But life in Thailand is a life of nothing but surprises, and when the test results came out, I got the shock of my life.
I had passed TH101.
It felt like I had won the lottery. I called everybody I knew, and some I didn’t.
I called my mother in Australia. “I passed my first Thai subject at university!” I squealed. My mother misunderstood; she thought I came first in the whole of Thailand in the subject of Thai, beating even the Thais. When I found this out I took absolutely no steps in putting everybody straight.
It was Taweesak who put a momentary stop to my self-aggrandisement. “So, when are you going to kae bon?” he asked.
Oh, never mind about that. I’d passed. That was the main thing. This was my initial reaction until this faint voice echoed in the back of my head — from the ancient monarch himself perhaps? — whispering: “Remember. Next semester … TH102.”
I chose midnight on a Monday night. I figured there’d be no one there, and so late that night I dragged out my old running outfit, which was more frayed at the edges than I was on the day of the TH101 test. I drove to the university. I parked outside. I walked in the darkness towards the statue, silhouetted against the moonlit sky. Just the night, King Ramkhamhaeng, and the moon, all witnesses to my extended run of thanks …
… and a hundred Ramkhamhaeng students! Imagine my surprise to see, in the darkness, 100 students all doing what I was doing that night! How egocentric of me to think I was the only one who had bonned (note the past tense) before the tests! It is testament to my courage that I threw up my hands, thought “What the hell” and began running round and round and round a total of 99 times, stretched over three nights, with nothing but Thai students laughing and ridiculing me.
To this day I still visit King Ramkhamhaeng when I need things. I do it quietly, and these days my kae bon usually takes the form of a charitable act of some kind.
I have never had the audacity to strip down and dance naked by way of thanks. I can imagine the statue’s hands creaking up to the royal eyes to shield the view.
I used to wonder why King Ramkhamhaeng had been so gracious to allow me to pass a subject I had so little knowledge of. “King Ramkhamhaeng is very benevolent,” Taweesak explained later. “And I guess when he saw a farang coming up those steps, he might have been a little surprised. “Plus you were probably the first person ever to bon in English. Perhaps His Majesty didn’t understand you, but took pity on you and decided to help you out. Don’t ever forget his kindness.”
I haven’t. And that, dear reader, is how I got good at Thai.
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