Sunday, August 31, 2008

As time goes by


As time goes by


There was a story last week that all clocks would be adjusted in Thailand so that everybody would be on the same time to the very millisecond. I am not quite sure how they can manage that in this country, which has a certain flexible approach to time. For a start, the three clocks within my vision at the office at the moment are currently displaying three different times.

They can do want they want with the clocks but whatever happens, Thai time will continue to baffle all non-Thais as anyone who has tried to make an appointment here will attest.

Sometimes you wonder if everyone in Thailand lives in the same time zone. In fact, I suspect in Thailand we have at least two time zones and there's probably more. There is the Official Thai Time when foreigners think things are going to happen. And then there's the Real Thai Time when something actually happens ... well, might happen within an hour or so. If something is scheduled to take place about 4pm, it really means that, with a bit of luck, it might get going about 5, but don't rule out 6. Or maybe I've spent too much time hanging around at press conferences waiting for important people to show up.

Slowing down

If you want to experience just how slow time can be, a visit is recommended to the district office or police station while you wait for the third-grade official to get around to typing out those forms you need, most likely in triplicate and rather ploddingly. There's an awful lot of "hanging around" in Thailand. The "Outlook" section of the Bangkok Post is very useful in such situations. The comics and the crossword are enough to keep Crutch amused for a while. If things get really slow you can resort to drawing moustaches on the characters in Born Loser or Peanuts, although admittedly the kids look a bit strange with moustaches. Still it's certainly good training if you think you might be transferred to an inactive post, a job which has a time zone all of its own.

I experienced an early taste of Thai Time travelling on those old "Orange Crush" buses in the provinces in the 1970s. Buses tended to leave when the driver showed up and the arrival time was anybody's guess. On a number of occasions Crutch galloped for a bus after being told it was just leaving, only to be sitting on the blasted thing an hour later after it had done a couple of circuits of the town looking for passengers.

Early rising

Every now and again there are attempts to move the Thai time zone forward one hour under the guise of "daylight saving" although there's hardly any daylight to save. A few years ago there was such a proposal which confirmed the mindset of those who suggested it - money. They argued that if the Thai clocks were moved forward one hour, the stock exchange would be on the same time zone as the important regional markets and suddenly Thailand would be booming again - or at least the stock market. It was quickly pointed out that it would be a lot simpler just to move the operating hours of the stock exchange forward one hour, rather than disrupting the country and confusing everybody. If they are so keen on making money they can get up an hour earlier, that's not too much too ask.

Time to hang up

In the unlikely case that you really, desperately need to know the exact time in Thailand you can always call 181 and hear the dulcet tones of a young lady. Call her up day or night and she will tell you what the time is down to the nearest 10 seconds. Unfortunately you can't have a decent conversation with her as she keeps talking about na tee and wih na tee. One Christmas many years ago a friend who had overindulged in the amber liquid called up the telephone girl at 181 to offer his season's greetings and serenaded her with a brief refrain of Jingle Bells, sorry, Jinger Ben, but all he got in reply was that the time was 27 minutes and 20 seconds past 2am. I wonder if she has ever been late for an appointment?

Rock around the clock

I must admit it took quite a while to work out the Thai system of telling the time and I still haven't really got the hang of it. It's almost as if Thai time was designed on purpose to confuse visitors.

Although the day is basically divided into four lots of six hours, there are several different versions of any particular time. When I was first here I was baffled when a Thai friend said he would meet me at hah mong chao, literally five in the morning. It seemed to be a strange time for a meeting. I thought it couldn't be right and got him to show me on his watch. He pointed to 11am. If he had said sip-et mong chao, 11 in the morning, I might have been okay.

Similarly the evening in Thailand can begin very early - 3pm to be precise. I remember arranging a date at see mong yen, four in the evening, which I worked out was 10pm. But it turned out to be 4pm. Miss Nok was not amused at Crutch's non-appearance at the appointed hour and that was the end of a very brief romance. Maybe that's why no one seems too bothered about time-keeping in Thailand. Things happen when they happen.

Perhaps the less said about punctuality the better. In his Devil's Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce summed up punctuality quite nicely as "a virtue that seems to be abnormally developed in creditors". Maybe that's why it never really caught on in Thailand.

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