From the Diplomatic Bag: Parting Shots at Thailand

From the Diplomatic Bag: Parting Shots at Thailand

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British Ambassadors going out with a bang…

Going around the Thai expat community this week are scans from Parting Shots, a collection of parting comments from British diplomats. Diplomatic opinions such as these were popular with expats when I lived on Borneo, and back even further, when I lived in France (only via snail mail, not email). And they were often sorely needed.

Parting Shots, by Matthew Parris
When leaving a foreign posting, Britain’s ambassadors were encouraged to write a valedictory despatch until the practice was abolished in 2006. Unlike the usual style of the diplomatic bag, these last reports from foreign posts were unbuttoned, indiscreet and often very funny.

Being able to laugh at cultural snafus, misunderstandings, and the day-to-day frustrations that come from a foreign post does help to release building tensions. And tensions are always in evidence, whether they are minimal to mediocre to grand slams.

I remember back when… oh… well… never mind… (I’ll wait until I’m far away from it all – or everyone is dead – one or the other or all three).

Some British ambassadors let it all hang out:

Ambassadors going out with a bang: There is, I fear, no question but that the average Nicaraguan is one of the most dishonest, unreliable, violent and alcoholic of the Latin Americans.

Roger Pinsent, Managua, 1967

Parting shots at Thailand…

While some of the ambassadors’ last words towards the countries they were leaving were quite scathing, one ambassador to Thailand showed his clever in other ways:


… but since it is now immaterial whether my superiors consider me better fitted for a lunatic asylum than for a diplomatic post, I shall try to describe the Thai way.

First the idiom. If I were a Thai official in the presence of my superior I would stand at deferential attention while he spoke, then when he had finished would bend low and hiss his ear the one word: “Crap!” For in Thai this basic four letter word is not only the appropriate but the mandatory expression of total submission.

And, on another plane, what can one make of a language where the word for dentist is “more fun” or where, at least to the foreign ear, the words for “near” and “far” are exactly the same?

There are indeed separate and distinct expressions for “yes” and “no”, but since it is impolite to use the latter the former is used for both…

Sir Arthur de la Mare, Thailand, November 1973

Polite particle: ครับ / kráp/
Dentist: หมอฟัน /mŏr fun/
Near: ใกล้ /glâi/
Far: ไกลๆ / glai glai/
Yes: ใช่ /châi/
Not yes: ไม่ใช่ /mâi châi/

(TiT, I won’t be posting the others – so buy the book?)

Note: The book is based on a BBC Radio 4 program of the same name. You can listen to a handful of the shows online: Parting Shots: Series 1.

8 thoughts on “From the Diplomatic Bag: Parting Shots at Thailand”

  1. Hi Megan. Ouch. $300 living tax sounds steep! And I’d be upset as well. Most students exist on a tiny budget, so having to cough up that much money at the end would be difficult.

    But why the mystery? Why aren’t people told?

    They called mine a ‘renters tax’, but I’ll bet it was the same as what you paid. And like yours, mine was not cheap. If memory serves me, it was US$1000 per year. As I was there with an oil company, I had to have my financial ducks in a row or they’d take it out of wages owed. Yeah, OUCH and thanks for all the fish…

  2. Hey Catherine–I had to add my own story about France. I studied abroad there for 10 months in 1998-1999 and I didn’t have any trouble leaving the country. About a month later back in the U.S., I received a bill for a $300 “living tax”. I was a student and I didn’t have the money, so I never paid it–plus, what the heck is a living tax? I haven’t been back to France yet and I’m scared to death that when I go back they’ll figure out I never paid the tax, then hit me up for the tax plus interest, which will end up being, like, $15,000.

    I can be a little dramatic sometimes. (And that story about the French landlord–yikes!)

  3. Hi Martyn, welcome back to Thailand 🙂 I figured you were floating around somewhere, enjoying the country once again.

    I’ve ordered to book to be sent to the UK where I will read it in full. From what I’ve found around the Internet (the actual, full reports by British ambassadors) it promises to be an interesting read.

  4. Catherine a big warm hello from Udon Thani, sorry about my comment inactivity but I’m currently in the village, I’m breaking loose into the city on Saturday. I’m typing this on a laptop I bought a couple of days back. Jesus….a daparting diplomat could have a lot to say about the speed of the internet here. It’s so slow.

    Nice post and one which needs looking into further via your link.

    Have a sweet day.

  5. Leaving France wasn’t as easy as it should have been either. After two years I was told that there were all these invisible taxes that had to be paid before leaving the country (why didn’t they just send them each year?)

    And when the packers went into overtime, I asked the landlord if I could stay a day over. One day. So instead of leaving on the 30th, I left on the 1st.

    He smiled and said ‘yes’… and when I went to settle up he hit me with a bill for an extra month – over US$1000 for a one night stay.

    In France, if you have a disagreement with a landlord, you might as well unpack your bags for awhile. Or pay up.

    I left France with a curled top lip, for sure. The arrogant chap at immigration just gave me a chance to voice my frustration is all.

  6. Cat, I would love to have giving a few parting shots on my way out of Saudi Arabia. Leaving the country is even harder than getting into in the first place. You need an exit visa to leave!I nearly missed my flight because of all the messing about in Ryiadh airport; one of the reasons I never went back again.

  7. “I was leaving anyway” 😀

    After two years of living in France, I was in the EU line heading out. I always head to the EU line and if I don’t, I’m asked why I’m not ‘over there’.

    Tired from packing and dealing with packers and landlords and all the rest, I was over ready to leave.

    The dark-tempered Frenchman behind the counter rebuffed my passport. Sigh.

    As I was walking away grumbling loudly, he yelled ‘EEET ESSSS zeee French law!”

    To which I yelled back, “Oxymoron!”


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