‘Why is that, my precious?’ I enquire lovingly, trying not to sound too Gollum-like, but knowing that it takes a momentous occasion to separate my wife from a bowl of boiled chicken’s feet in noodles.
‘It’s a Buddha day,’ she explains. ‘Could be for when Buddha was born, or his enlightenment.’
‘Or possibly when he died. Anyway, it’s a public holiday.’
My confidence in my loved one’s grasp of the Buddhist calendar is not greatly enhanced by this exchange. However, I accept that she’s probably right about the holiday. There are a great many public holidays in Thailand. Authorities differ about the exact number, but it’s somewhere between 14 and 16, so let’s say 15, which puts us into the public holiday big league. There are few nations on earth that award themselves more collective down-time than we do.
This might lead you to suppose that here in Thailand we’re a load of workshy layabouts who prefer to snooze under palm trees than spend the day at toil, but this is not the case. Firstly, Thailand rates very low in the amount of other time off that employers are required to give their staff—just six days in fact. Add the bank holidays to the elective vacation time and you get a total of only 21 days, a lot less than are granted in sweatshop Europe, for example. You try telling the average Frenchman that he can have only 21 days a year off and he’ll angrily set fire to a pile of dead sheep, unless I’ve failed to understand industrial relations in la belle France.
Secondly, although today is a public holiday, not many people seem to have noticed or taken advantage of the concession. Government offices may be closed (I don’t propose to check this) but the rest of Funtown appears to be operating as normal. I go to the gym and find it in full swing; Mrs Pobaan shops (vegetables only) in the market; I drop some letters off at the courier’s office; everyone is in their accustomed place, eagerly ready to do business. These people are not shy of work.
The first sign of anything out of the ordinary comes when we drive to Jomtien for lunch on the beach. Life isn’t all lunch on the beach at Khao Talo Towers, but watching the paragliders while munching on a chicken drumstick (salad only for vegans) is an arrangement with which we occasionally indulge ourselves. As we amble along Beach Road looking for a welcoming deckchair, I notice a number of forlorn white faces staring gloomily from the bars that line the thoroughfare. Normally, all is jollity and bonhomie in these establishments; today a grey fog of despondency descends on the farangs as if their favourite football team has failed to score for three matches on the hop. The explanation is in their hands – instead of bottles of Chang and St Miguel from which to swig, they’re clasping Cokes served with straws.
‘Oh,’ I exclaim, remembering, ‘it’s a public holiday today.’
‘Yes, I told you it’s a Buddha day.’
On religious public holidays in Thailand, the sale of alcoholic drinks is banned. Without for one moment expecting this law to be based on any logic that I would be able to understand, let’s rehearse the possible reasons for this statute.
Abstinence from alcohol is one of the five precepts of Buddhism, so good Buddhists don’t drink anyway. Banning the sale of grog has no effect on them.
Bad Buddhists who have studied the calendar know when a religious festival is coming up and, if so inclined, can buy enough drink the day before to see them through the dry spell.
For non-Buddhists, the religious festival has no meaning, so those wishing to buy a beer become the collateral damage of the general ban.
Non-Buddhists who live here and have learned the score can do the same as bad Buddhists, stocking up as required. Or they may go to bars where they serve beer in coffee mugs just like that speakeasy in Some Like It Hot, or go to Jomtien beach where they will still bring you a beer, but only after looking furtively over their shoulder. (I was in Bangsaen during a religious holiday recently and the beer bottles were delivered discreetly swaddled in opaque plastic bags.)
Non-Buddhist tourists who haven’t a clue what’s going on just get annoyed and think about going somewhere else for their holiday next year.
So, the law is clearly aimed at bad Budddhists who forgot to get the beers in the day before. And what it does to them is to remind them of what life is supposed to be like if everyone took the inconvenient bits of the national religion a little more seriously.
But is this a legitimate task of government? And is it consistent? If the law is to make one of the pious precepts compulsory, oughtn’t it to mandate all five? This would mean banning the sale of meat since eating it creates a demand that inevitably results in somebody killing something. Stealing is already illegal, so that wouldn’t require a change. Telling lies would have to become illegal, though it’s hard to see how it might be policed. Lastly, there would be a ban on sexual misconduct, which would reduce Pattaya to an eerie ghost-town with tumbleweed blowing down Second Road.
Back home at Khao Talo Towers, I pour a large whisky on to some rocks and ask Google what the day has all been about. It was Makha Bucha, apparently, a commemoration of an event some nine months after Buddha’s enlightenment when 1,250 monks turned up and were taught by him the fundamentals (Ovada Patimokkha) of his new religion. It also celebrates a moment near the end of his life when he achieved nirvana, a state in which your worldly body, rather fittingly I think you’ll agree, becomes separated from your spirit.