The King and His Dog

Tongdaeng, a previous Bangkok stray, adopted as a pup by Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, caught the heart of the Thai people. The book on her life story, “The Story of Tongdaeng,” or เรื่อง ทองแดง, written by His Majesty, turned into a best-seller the moment it went on sale.

Thais love their king, and customers wrestled over the last few books on November 12, 2002, when the book was launched and 200,000 copies were sold. That doubled the first-day sales of the best-selling Harry Potter’s book.

Tongdaeng’s rise from outcast to palace favorite began in 1998 when she entered the Chitralada Palace in Bangkok. It was a present from a medical development centre, which looked after stray dogs and knew that the King loved dogs.

The King praises Tongdaeng as one of the best-mannered, considerate, and respectful dogs in the world and as an example to all Thais on how to behave—particularly politicians. The King’s loyal subjects have been buying the book to read about His Majesty’s views.

TongdaengThe book contains messages on morality and manners—much-appreciated considering the stories of corruption surrounding the country’s politicians. King Bhumibol, a constitutional monarch, enjoys immense respect from his people. He introduces Tongdaeng as “a common dog who is uncommon.”

When chasing other dogs around trees, the King writes, she insists that they always run clockwise. Many readers interpret this as a call for national unity.

Tongdaeng can also pick up and open coconuts at the King’s seaside palace on the Gulf of Thailand even though this can take a long time and result in torn gums—advice to be patient and endure pain in times of adversity.

The King writes, “Tongdaeng shows gratitude and respect—as opposed to people who, after becoming important, might treat with contempt someone of lower status to whom they should be thankful.”

Thais worship their king and have the highest respect for him. He never directly criticises public figures, though he occasionally issues reminders to Thailand’s political leaders about their loose moral standards. Thais remember too well how King Bhumibol ended several serious clashes, particularly the one in Bangkok in May 1992, when the army shot at demonstrators protesting a military takeover. Millions of TV viewers worldwide witnessed the army chief and a democracy campaigner, General Suchinda Kraprayoon and Chamlong Srimuang, prostrating themselves in front of His Majesty as he ordered them to stop the hostilities for the good of the nation.

The ultimate message of Tongdaeng, the crossbreed stray, is that, even though you may be born into poverty, you can rise to the top by means of your attitude and manners.

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The Final Walk

My walk home from the pier is one of life’s small pleasures. It’s normally a 20-minute stroll, but it can often take up to an hour or sometimes even two, as I have to stop and chat with everybody on the way, from merchants to people I know by sight, or even complete strangers. This is the Thai way and the way of my village in Southern Thailand where everybody smiles and talks to you.

Old dog

Bombom was old and tired, ready for his final walk to the temple.

The weather is nearly always hot and sunny, between 29º and 38ºC (85º and 100º F), Today it’s exactly 32º C according to my diving computer. Of course it rains during the rainy season, but only for an hour or two and everything soon dries off, leaving a sense of freshness and the smell of wet soil in the air. Sometimes it rains cats and dogs, turning the streets in the village into small rivers, but everyone takes it in their stride and, with shoes off and pants rolled up, life continues (literally) with a smile.
After having completed three dives, one of them in a strong surge, I’m starving as usual. These days, in my ageing youth, my job in Thailand is marine biology environmental management, which, basically, means I dive, sometimes with students, sometimes without, take pictures of the fish and corals I see, and then write a report—yes, I call that a job! I stop at one of those remarkable street vendors on the main street to grab something to eat. ‘Street food’ is so cheap and so good that it doesn’t make any sense to go home and cook.

Buddhist Monk and Dog.

Buddhist Monk and Dog (image by John Lander).

My favorite ‘restaurant’ (it looks more like an open garage) is a family business, like most small businesses in Thailand. The owners live there too. They have a TV and a bed for the kids in the back—that is, behind the four tables for the guests. It’s all on view for all to see. Of course, you don’t want to isolate the kids in a room by themselves. Children (and dogs) are an inherent part of Thai life; you see them everywhere. They are allowed to do whatever they want, are seldom scolded or yelled at and, amazingly enough, they are pretty well-behaved. It puzzles me how they manage it, especially when I think of some of our little brats in the West, both human, and canine. I am yet to discover their secret, but I guess it has something to do with the fact they are part of every aspect of daily life from the day they are born; they are perfectly integrated with no artificially constructed, designated kids-zones. The same goes for the dogs, they belong there like anyone else: no fuss, no extra attention, no special treatment one way or another.

“Sawasdee kha khoon Logel,” Phee Mali greets me with a big smile when she sees me.

Phee means big sister and Mali means Jasmine, which is her name. I’m Logel because Thais are always on first name terms. Last names are a relatively new invention imposed on them by the government in response to the growth of the nation and a more modern society. The telephone directory is ordered by first names. King Rama VI introduced the practice of surnames in 1920 and he personally invented names for about 500 families. All Thais have nicknames. You call your friends by their nicknames and sometimes you don’t even know their real name! I’m Logel because most Thais can’t pronounce the ‘r’ sound, not even in their own language and, surprisingly enough, they do have ‘r’ in Thai.

Dog in Temple

Thais often take the dogs to the local temple so they can die in peace, in the company of the monks, near Buddha.

“You OK, you see beautiful fish today?” Phee Mali asks me in ‘Tenglish’—or Thai English, which is a language in its own right, most charming and highly addictive. Before long and without even noticing it, you begin speaking Tenglish. I speak a mixture of Thai and Tenglish with the locals. As my Thai improves, I speak more Thai and less Tenglish, but Thai is difficult as it is a tone language. The tone with which you pronounce a word changes its meaning and sometimes dramatically so. There are words I consistently mispronounce which has the Thais in fits of laughter, either because I talk utter nonsense, or I say something naughty. They love it when it’s the latter. They even encourage me to say something they know I can’t pronounce just to amuse themselves. It’s all good-hearted and good fun, with no disrespect intended. On the contrary, I get preferential treatment because I speak Thai. I’ll transcribe below some of our conversations in English, directly translated from the Thai words, in order to give my readers a feel for it.

“Yes,” I answer, “I saw beautiful fish and corals. Thale (sea) Andaman very good.”

“Oh you so black!” she exclaims with furrowed brows and a smile. ‘Black’ actually means either tanned or sun burnt, as the case may be. Thai women don’t like to be sun tanned. They like white, as they say, and they become very worried when they see someone with what in the West we call a healthy, attractive tan.

“You hung’y ‘ight, gwai teeaw moo pet mak ‘ight?” Phee Mali asks me laughing. She knows just what’s on my mind—I love a hot, spicy gwai teeaw moo, especially after a hard day’s work. It’s a soup, containing noodles and pork, chicken or shrimp, with everything else imaginable thrown in. It even comes with a side plate of fresh vegetables that you tear into pieces with your fingers and add to the soup as you please. You season it all yourself with dry chili, fresh chili, chili sauce, fish sauce, soy, pepper, salt, and a bit of sugar (yes sugar, try it and you’ll see why I love it). It’s delicious I can assure you, and healthy too.

I eat my gwai teeaw moo and sip down my iced green tea, no sugar. The sun will set in about half an hour; it always goes down at the same time here, seven degrees north of the equator. No rain today. I relish life in Paradise!

“Tao thale sa baay dee mai.” The kids come running to ask me about the fish and especially the sea turtle, their favorite—which is a good opportunity for me to practice my Thai language. They call me Lung Logel (Uncle Roger), in deference to my age. Then, it’s the dogs’ turn to say hi—in Doggish, one language I do know, no accent and spoken the same on every continent.

Thai Child wai.

The wai is the Thai greeting when you raise both hands together to your chin. It still strikes me as the most beautiful greeting I’ve ever seen.

I see Ae on the other side of the street (Ae is a funny name deriving from the Thai peekaboo game). I know her and her family. Her father works on one of the boats I regularly sail with on my diving tours. I often help him dock the boat when we arrive at the pier in less than perfect weather and we sometimes have a beer together after having secured the boat, unloaded, etc. Ae is squatting beside her dog, one of those Thai dogs that looks the same as every other. Village dogs in Thailand all look alike, as if they were a particular breed, the product of random breeding throughout the years. I call them ‘default dogs.’

“Ae sad, right?’ I ask the kids.

“Oh, dog Ae old already, tomorrow father of Ae bring dog to go temple,” Chang Lek (Little Elephant is his name) replies.

I finish my meal and go over to talk to Ae, still squatting beside her dog and petting him. I can see Bombom is old and tired. He’s a good, friendly dog. He can often be seen strolling around the village, quietly surveying the neighborhood. He’s always incredibly dusty despite Ae and her mother painstakingly and frequently bathing him. When I approach them, he barely raises his head. He gives me that affable, resigned look of his.

“Sawasdee khrap, Ae.”

“Sawasdee kha,” she says to me and hastens to wai to me. The wai is the Thai greeting when you raise both hands together to your chin. It still strikes me as the most beautiful greeting I’ve ever seen.

“Bombom is old, right?” I ask her.

“Yessir.”

“Bombom already had happy life. You are good friend of Bombom.”

“Yessir,” she says gently.

“Bombom likes you very much,” I say, lost for words.

“Tomorrow Mom and Dad bring Bombom to go to temple,” she replies and I see a big tear roll down her left cheek.

“Yes. I know,” I tell her. Again lost for words, I add “Ae, I go across the street to buy ice cream for us to sit here eating ice cream and talking to Bombom. You like that?”

“Yessir, thank you so much sir,” she says and manages to give me a lovely smile. “Bombom likes ice cream so much,” she adds and her eyes are now full of thick, sorrowful, young tears.

In Thai culture and beliefs, all living beings under the sun deserve the same respect. Species is of no relevance. They love their pets and when they are old and dying, some Thais take them to the local temple so they can die in peace, in the company of the monks, near Buddha. That’s why there are always many dogs around the temples, which sometimes is a real problem. The temples are poor. A monk owns only seven articles. The villagers cook for them (and the dogs) in the morning before going to work.

Sawasdee khrap,

ชีวิตที่ดี

R~

The Thai Rikki-Tikki-Tavi

— by Roger Abrantes

 

We all know Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the brave mongoose from Kipling’s ‘The Jungle book.’ This is the story of Mah Noy, the brave dog from Koh Lanta Yai in Southern Thai.

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the mongoose hero from Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.”

Koh Lanta Yai (เกาะลันตา) remains one of  Thailand’s well-kept secrets (I shouldn’t even reveal the name). It is relatively close to the better-known islands of Koh Phuket and Koh Phi Phi, but is practically inaccessible, requiring two flights, a long drive, and two ferry trips. Tourists are few and far between on this particular South Andaman island and it is virtually devoid of Western influence, except for a few resorts for those who want a taste of unspoiled paradise. Koh Lanta Yai is the biggest of 52 islands of which only 12 are inhabited.

Of course, it’s much easier for me to get to Koh Lanta, as I am resident on a neighboring island only 43.5 nautical miles away. The beaches of Koh Lanta are idyllic: the sand unsullied the water clear and warm (about 86-88º F) and the underwater world along the coral reef just breathtaking (although not literally, I’m happy to say). I always look forward to my diving assignments nearby, drifting above the Staghorn and the Anemone corals monitoring the various species’ fortunes. What a great job!

Thai Fisherman With Dog

Thai fisherman like to have their dogs with them for company and practical purposes.

When I’m working in Koh Lanta, I always go ashore in the evening and stay in modest accommodation right on the beach. On one of these occasions, just before sunset, I was sitting in front of my bungalow, cleaning my equipment, when two children came along to talk to me, as always, curious about foreigners.

I had seen them both before; they belong to the food booth where I often eat, just behind the bungalow. We talked about the sea and the fish and about my diving gear, which of course fascinates them.

After having washed my gear, I decided to walk the 30 yards up the cliff to grab something to eat, and the kids followed me. My Thai is not as good as I would like, but my inadequacies have their advantages. As it is so difficult to pronounce words correctly, I nearly always commit embarrassing mistakes that produce a great deal of giggling—and giggling is the best way I know to decrease distance between strangers.

Woman with her dog: Thai street food booth

Thai street food cooking and selling is a small family business and since dogs are part of the daily life in Thailand it is not unusual to see them with their owners at work.

“Khun cheu aria?” (What’s your name?), I asked the little boy who was giggling the most and who happened to have one of his front teeth missing.

He told me his name, which sounded funny to me. Thais have all sorts of interesting nicknames, and they are especially fond of animal names. Elephant, shrimp, crab, fish, bird, duck, rabbit, turtle, and even chicken are common names—but I’ve never heard a nickname like this little boy’s. It was then that his mother, Poo (Crab), the owner of the food booth, told me the story.

Five years earlier, two days after giving birth to the now gap-toothed boy, Poo was cooking dinner whilst the family dog catnapped behind the cradle where her newborn baby was happily babbling away to himself.

Thais usually cook outdoors. It’s always warm and they don’t like the smell of food indoors. The dog was typically Thai, of unknown origin, the size of a small spaniel, with an unruly black and white coat, and friendly, deep brown eyes. They had found him on the street a couple of years beforehand and had fed him. For want of a better name, they called him just (หมาน้อย), Mah Noy. He stayed around and finally moved in a couple of weeks later after conquering their hearts. The pressure of natural selection for dogs in Thailand is on kindness. The kindest dogs have a greater chance of survival and pass on their ‘kinder’ genes to their progeny.

On that particular day, Mah Noy gave Poo such a fright she almost lost hold of her hot pan, which could have resulted in serious burns. The dog had suddenly emitted a deep growl and then in two agile, determined jumps, just missing the baby’s cradle, he launched himself on top of a cobra, biting it firmly behind the head.

Thai boy and puppy

Mah Noy (หมาน้อย), the boy, got his unusual name for a good reason.

The Andaman Cobra (Naja sagittifera) is an impressive snake, measuring about three to four feet in length. The effects of its venom are devastating; it is capable of killing a human in 30 minutes.

Poo was terrified, rushed to pick up the baby, and ran out of the front gate into the street where she began shouting for her husband. Na (short for Chai Cha Na = victory) came running to the scene and charged into the backyard to grab a spade. The cobra was lying a few feet from the dog, apparently lifeless, but, just in case, Na cut it in two with a well-aimed strike with the spade. Mah Noy looked up at him, gasping for air, and barely able to wag the tip of his bushy tail. Na understood right away that the dog was dying, picked him up and, holding his dog firmly on his lap with one hand, he rode his motorbike as quickly as he could to the local vet.

On the way to the vet, Mah Noy peed and pooped on his lap. Na stopped to get a better grasp on the dog. Mah Noy looked at him, gasped for air for a last time and gave a final wag of his tail. Na understood it was too late for the vet and the strong fisherman from the South Andaman Sea began to weep like a child, right there on the side of the road to Klong Dao, in the fading light of the day on which he had come so close to losing his first-born baby boy.

When Na got home to Poo and their newborn, they buried Mah Noy in their backyard and placed a yellow marigold on top of the grave (yellow is the color of friendship for Thais). That evening, they decided to call their baby boy หมาน้อย, Mah Noy, which in Thai means ‘puppy.’

Sawasdee khrap,

ชีวิต ที่ด