Sunday, November 09, 2008

Dinghy sales with me and Weerasak Kowsurat

A journalist once told me that you can measure the arrogance of a celebrity by how many questions and comments they give to people in conversation. The less questions, the greater the arrogance.

I think it's true, so I now know that Weerasak Kowsurat, minister of tourism and sports, is actually a very modest, down to earth man. I know that because today I sat on a small dinghy with him as we darted around the Chao Phraya river.

The day was dull until then. The Tourist Police had a special ceremony which involved a whole lot of police, a display of force via police cars, Harley's and mountain bikes and no less than one hour and twenty minutes of talking, while we had to stand in the same spot. But then the day became surreal.

By chance, I was stood on the pier as Minister Kowsurat and the Tourist Police elite left the stage after their speech and headed to the pier. I moved out of their way as the entourage - surrounded by all kinds of media - stepped on board a small boat. Suddenly, the police commander said something about getting a foreign volunteer on the boat. His subordinate looked around, saw me, and literally grabbed me and pushed me towards the boat.

Before I knew what was happening, I was on board with some of the most important policemen and one of the most important politicians in Thailand. With all seats taken, I crouched on the floor next to Kowsurat, as the commander of the Tourist Police pointed out a few Loy Khatong sites to him.

It was less than five minutes before a motorised dinghy pulled up next to us. The commander told me to get on and I gladly obliged, feeling glad that the awkward moment was over. But then something happened that truly amazed me.

For reasons that I have not yet had explained to me, Minister Kowsurat suddenly jumped on to the small dinghy next to me. It was just him, me and the two drivers. Kowsurat instructed them to head to the next pier. He smiled at me, but didn't speak. So, still wondering if I was dreaming, I figured I'd start the chat.

"Have you had a good day minister?"

"Well yes, but it will be a long day, I'm flying to England this afternoon"

"But Thaksin isn't there any more"

[Thankfully he realised that I was joking and laughed]

"Yes but I'm going to see the princess"

Then our dinghy pulled up on a pier. I realised that I was supposed to distribute some of the tourist police leaflets to tourists, so I stood up on the wobbly dinghy and called out to some tourists.

They do what any self respecting tourist does when accosted in Thailand and ignore me. I turn to Kowsurat and say: "They think we are salesmen". He laughs and agrees. I explain we are just tourist police. The tourists realise we won't go away until they take our leaflets, so they take them.

I figure this incredible incident is now over, but Kowsurat instructs the driver to take us to another pier. As we move upriver I spot senior police, media and other people who are waving, filming and taking pictures.

I start another conversation and ask about the effects of the recent trouble on tourism. He explains tourism has dropped about twenty percent but that the worst seems to be over. I comment that the international coverage has been somewhat alarmist. He agrees and explains that he has invited ambassadors and media to visit him so he can show that the problems have not affected foreigners.

We stop at another pier. Once again I try to greet a few tourists and give out leaflets. Once again, I'm blanked. Kowsurat helps out by explaining: "we are not selling anything we just want to give some information". The tourist turns around and says something very, very rude in German. I don't know if Kowsurat understood but I did. Luckily another tourist takes our bumf and we leave.

Kowsurat asks about me. I talk about my family and my son and he does likewise. He then asks about my job and seems impressed when I mention my school. "it's a very good school" he says (my school is owned by a well known former minister). He even asks about my subject and what grades I teach. He asks which town I'm from, and mentions that he is visiting Manchester next week to meet some Thai athletes who will partake in the next Olympics. "I'm thinking of building a new pier at Sathorn" he tells me next. I respond by asking about the sky train route to Bang Khae. "It's planned to start next year" he says, "but" he grins; "you know it will take a while!".

Then our dinghy pulls up back at the main pier and we are pulled off the boat with media and other people looking at Kowsurat and wondering who the farang is with him. I thank Kowsurat and make my way home.

It's strange that of the phu yai I have met in Thailand, Weerasak Kowsurat and Sittichai Pookaiyaudom have been the least arrogant. Yet if I were Thai, I'd be opposed to them. I also note that the real phu yai in Thailand are a lot less domineering than some of those below them - such as headmasters and office managers - who seem to feel less secure about their authority, so spend more time displaying it. That trait, however, seems universal to me.

Life can be strange like that, especially in Thailand.

1 comment:

Bangkok Pundit said...

He is actually from Chat Thai. Interesting story