First there’s food. Western nutritionists still don’t understand how a Thai woman can eat five big meals a day (plus crisps and Pockies from petrol stations on long journeys) and still be able to hide behind a chop-stick.
Next there’s planning. I don’t mean town planning, though that can be confusing enough, but planning what we’re going to do tomorrow. A recent visit to Mrs Pobaan’s family will illustrate the point. Planning is done the evening before by a caucus of family members yelling at each other. The noise abates and a result is declared. Mrs Pobaan, the light of my life, approaches: ‘We’re going to go into town in my brother’s car to buy a wardrobe. There’s Mum, two sisters, one brother, various nieces and nephews—eight people altogether. We’ll have lunch in the market, buy the wardrobe and drive home. It’s about 100km. Would you like to come?’
‘Sure. What time do we leave?’
At eight o’clock the next morning my teeth are brushed and I’m standing at the front of the house like a shiny new pin. Mrs Pobaan emerges.
‘Where is everybody?’ I ask.
‘Oh, we decided not to go. You and I are going to take my nephew to a waterfall instead, in our car.’
‘What about the wardrobe?’
‘Mum’s decided she’d prefer a dining table. She’ll get it some other time.’
If this isn’t baffling enough for you, consider the mysteries of transliteration.
For example, I have friends from a long while back who, after a fortnight’s vacation on Thailand’s biggest island proudly declared that they’d been holidaying in Fuckit. You can’t blame them; that’s what the name looks like to an English-speaker, more or less.
I’m talking about Phuket.
I had to imagine them, watching out of the aeroplane windows as Asia came up to meet them with its verdant fertility and swaying fringe of palms; and then, later, as they lay by the pool, snorkelled in the glassy azure ocean and took slow romantic moonlight walks along the beach and all the time were thinking, ‘Wouldn’t this be so much better if the place wasn’t called Fuckit?’
You’d think the tourist people would do something about it, wouldn’t you? The problem is transliteration, the conversion of the sounds of words from their originals in Thai script into our ABC so that ordinary people can read them.
This ABC they use in Thailand is known as the English alphabet, blithely and without apology to all the other people that use it for their languages and have much greater claim to having invented it in the first place. Since the alphabet is Latin in origin, I imagine the Italians are the people most miffed by having their ancestors’ invention called 'English’.
Most transliterating into this alphabet goes on with place names and we farangs are all jolly grateful that road signs generally include Western versions of the names of towns coming up ahead. Without them, it would take so long to decipher the curly worms of the Thai script that, by the time we’d discovered we’d reached a town, we’d have passed it.
Sometimes this happens even if the town name is transliterated. The reason for this is two-fold. First, there’s no universally approved way of transliterating Thai place names. The Pobaan domicile is most commonly spelt Pattaya, though Phathaya, an unnecessarily lengthy alternative spelling, appears on some road signs on the way into Funtown. If you look hard enough, you can find many more spellings for the same place, as well as many ways of rendering Jomtien, or should that read Chom Tian? These rogue spellings cause difficulties for people looking for a town for the first time.
The second problem is the over-generous use of aitches. What is it with the h’s? It’s as if the road-sign people at the council, through some ordering error, ended up with a box of letters containing ten times as many h’s as required. Rather than waste them, the sign-writers sprinkle them recklessly around their signs, making p’s into ph’s and t’s into th’s. The result is linguistic confusion, at least for anglophones.
Phuket is a case in point. In English, ‘ph’ is usually pronounced ‘f’, yet the initial consonant of Phuket Island is definitely said as a ‘p’. Which should give us ‘Puket’.
Pursuing this issue a little further, the Thai letter that makes the ‘k’ in Phuket is variously pronounced as a ‘k’ or a ‘g’ in other contexts. As research for this scholarly blog I asked Mrs Pobaan, a Thai speaker, to repeat the name of Thailand’s largest island about ten times. She thought I’d lost my mind but agreed, pronouncing the middle consonant like a ‘g’. So the island most commonly transliterated as Phuket sounds more like Pooget to me.
Then there’s the problem of ‘th’ which an anglophone would pronounce as a voiced dental fricative (really) as in ‘thongs’ rather than as the ‘t’ in ‘tongs’. When transliterators here write ‘th’, they actually mean ‘t’ since the Thai language doesn’t have a ‘th’ sound and Thais are too busy worrying about what they’ll have for lunch to bother with voiced dental fricatives.
To my ears, Phathaya is over-egged with h’s and Pattaya only encourages Westerners to say Pat-eye-a, which you don’t hear coming from the locals unless perhaps they’ve had a couple too many Leo beers. Generally, Thai speakers call Funtown Patia, so this would be a better way of spelling it on road signs.
I am confident that, as avid readers of this blog, the people who matter in the ministry of transport will now wish to revamp the place-names transliteration system to make it more accurate and consistent. It will simply be a matter of replacing all the signs on Thailand’s 180,000km of road. This would cost a loth, but it'd be worth every phenny.