As Time Goes By
I wouldn’t generally describe myself as being obsessive-compulsive. I don’t worry if I’ve left the house with the water running, or feel the need to shower more than twice a day. Actually I take that last one back. On the hottest days here in Thailand, I may take a third or occasionally even a fourth shower.
The closest I come to being obsessed is about being on time. I absolutely hate to be late. I’d rather sit around for an hour cooling my heels than be late for an appointment. The mere thought of keeping someone waiting is enough to induce heart palpitations.
Anyone who has spent a fair amount of time Thailand has probably needed to readjust his concept of what it means to be on time. I’m not talking about Greenwich Mean Time, or AM/PM versus Military Time. I’m talking about Thai Time. Theoretical physicists might confidently talk about “time dilation” as you approach the speed of light, or the “twins paradox”, but even these guys would find themselves bewildered by the what passes for time keeping here in The Land of Smiles.
I know this has probably happened to many of you. Your Thai boss sends out a memo saying that there will be a meeting at 4:00 P.M. You show up at 3:50 because you don’t want to be late. You take a seat and patiently wait for everyone else to show up. I emphasize the word patiently. It’s now 4:15 and no one else has shown up yet. Oh well, no big deal. Before long though it is apparent that the clocks in your universe are moving at a different rate than clocks in the alternate universe that your Thai co-workers operate. It's 4:30, and then 4:45. Somewhere approaching 4:55 people begin showing up. My Australian friend would say “wandering in like Brown’s cows”. I comment to my neighbor that a meeting was called for 4:00, but no one specified 4:00 on what day! Welcome, my friends, to Thai Time! You have to understand that it doesn’t matter when the meeting was scheduled for. If it was supposed to begin at 5:00, no one would show up until 6:00.
Perhaps this lackadaisical attitude towards time is due to the fact that until fairly recently Thailand was a primarily agricultural society. Down on the farm, does it really matter what hour it is? You get up with the sun or more likely while it’s still dark. You work like a dog until the mid-day sun is straight overhead. You take a well deserved lunch and have a nice nap. Eventually you go back to work in the fields. When the sun sets you have dinner and a drink or three, and go to sleep. And so it goes in the non industrial world.
While agriculture still occupies a major role in Thailand, much of the population lives and works in an entirely different world. This world theoretically marches to the beat of the ticking clock. There are certainly no lack of watches and clocks in Thailand. Most people wear a wrist watch, and even if they don’t, almost no one is out and about without a mobile phone. Even the most basic phone, like mine, has a digital clock. The problem then isn’t that Thais don’t know what time it is, but rather that for many of them, the time simply is of no big concern.
Has anyone living here in Thailand ever made an appointment for a technician to install internet or satellite TV service? If so, you know that when you are told that someone will be by “tomorrow afternoon”, they are obviously jesting. Not only will someone not be by, but they will not call to say so. When you call to complain you will undoubtedly be told that someone will be by the nest afternoon…for certain. Last month an electrical storm knocked out our satellite dish and internet service. Both service providers swore to my wife that they would be there “the next afternoon”. They said this every day for over a week until Somchai and Somsak reluctantly, oh so reluctantly, showed up to restore service. Knowing how things work here, I consider myself lucky that they showed up at all! Oh well, that’s how things work when you are on Thai Time.
During the five years my wife spent living in America, she adapted to a culture where barring a magnitude 9 earthquake, people do generally show up for appointments on time. This speaks well of a girl from Buriram whose family was so poor that she never could afford even a cheap watch until she was in university. Now that she’s back in Thailand, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen her wearing a watch.
My school does care what time we show up for work, and when we leave at the end of the day. Everyone has to scan his or her finger on the keypad of our time clock. We used to simply sign in and out on a sheet of paper, but too many teachers simply wrote in whatever time they pleased. I of course am usually one of the first people here in the morning. I enjoy the brief quiet time before the daily bedlam begins, and try to get some of my endless paperwork done.
Thai buses and trains seem to mostly run on time, at least in my experience. One might think that adverse weather conditions might affect transit times, but the reality is that Thai drivers, especially bus drivers, usually drive as fast as humanly possible, inclement weather or not!
I’ve been following with some amusement the “controversy” about whether not wearing an expensive wristwatch says something about one’s social status. I remember my first wristwatch which I received for my 10th birthday. It was a real beauty, with Mickey’s gloved hands pointing out the correct time. It was also a Timex, which continues to be my timepiece of choice to this day. If you are of my generation, you might remember the TV ad where John Cameron Swazey tied a Timex to a boat’s outboard motor. “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking!” Ah, they don’t write advertising copy like that anymore!
I also remember a “rich” guy strutting into my father’s auto parts store in the early 1970’s showing off his flashy new LED watch. With a flourish this fellow pushed a button, and voila, a glowing digital display magically appeared! Then he casually mentioned that this wonder of wonders only set him back $300.00! Oh my, how easily people were impressed with such a “space-age” toy. I was not impressed. I personally thought it was stupid to have to push a button to find out the time.
I have never owned any kind of “high-tech” watch, although I must admit I was once tempted by one that received signals from the U.S. Bureau of Standards “Atomic Clock”, and was guaranteed to be as accurate as a time piece could be.
As I write this, I am instead wearing a 15 year old analog Timex that has definitely seen better days. Oh, it still keeps good time. Luckily the little watch kiosk in my Big C stocks replacement batteries. I wish they also had a new crystal for it. Mine is pretty well scratched. Oh, it does have one technological marvel…a little button which will light up the face in the dark!
I did once splurge on a relatively expensive watch. In 1976 I was spending some time in Lucerne, Switzerland, and went out for a stroll one sunny afternoon. I decided to treat myself to a genuine Swiss watch. The shop I set foot in was a pretty impressive establishment. The rich burgundy carpeting must have been two inches thick. The drapery was gold satin that probably cost more than I earned in a year. The place simply oozed panache. It’s a good thing I was wearing a well tailored suit that day. If I had come waltzing wearing shorts and a tee-shirt, the sales attendant probably wouldn’t have deigned to speak to me. I was soon seated on a red velvet banquette while being shown a few little “trifles” that caught my eye. I was of course not in the market for a diamond encrusted number. I was looking at some more “modestly” priced choices. Modestly priced in this place was still pricey. For the life of me, I cannot remember the brand I finally walked away with. I do remember that it was heavy…very heavy, and certainly well made. It was a self winding model that was waterproof to some absurd depth that I would never see, unless I was in the process of drowning, in which knowing the correct time would be the last thing on my mind.
I wore my Swiss treasure for about a year, and then stuck it in the top drawer of my dresser, where it remained collecting dust until many years later until I finally gave the damned thing to my son, Eli. It was just way too heavy to wear comfortably. From then on it was back to a $30.00 Timex.
Since moving to Thailand, I’ve often found myself taking off my watch and stuffing it into a pocket. The fact is that much of the year it is so damned hot that my watch band quickly gets soaked with sweat. Poor Sawadee’s “delicate” skin gets chaffed easily. I really should look for a pocket watch. I haven’t come across one yet here.
For me, really expensive watches are little more than jewellery, and to be honest, I’m a little put off by men’s jewellery. The only bit of it I wear is my wedding band. No gold chains, bracelets, earrings etc. I suppose I’m a tad conservative, but that’s just me, I’m afraid.
So what is the big deal about not wearing a watch, especially when you’re on vacation in Pattaya? Most likely no one has any urgent appointments to keep. All most guys need to know is the sun has set, and it’s time to head off for the bars. As for wearing an expensive watch, I don’t think sending out the message, “I have lots of money” will serve anyone well. Who in the world are you trying to impress? The few truly wealthy friends I have are the least flashy people you can imagine. Well dressed, yes…well groomed, naturally, but out to impress the world by wearing expensive baubles…definitely no.
I can honestly say that if a vast fortune fell into my lap, you still wouldn’t find me sporting a Rolex. I do think that I would treat myself to a brand new Timex though…maybe one with Mickey on the face. Hey, everyone is entitled to relive a little of his childhood!
I have to admit that I am rather partial to nice Swiss watches. Unlike you, I like the feeling of weight and heft, I like the workmanship that has gone into it and like the precision engineering. That said, I think a watch is a personal thing and you should buy it because it makes you happy, not because you want to impress.
On the subject of Thai time, I have found there to be a strong correlation between socio-economic group and punctuality. The wealthier they are, the more likely they are to be on time. Just my experience…