10 Minutes In Jail
CAVEAT: This story is not meant as advice. It is simply a factual account of an experience that, fortunately, ended well. Taking the same course of action that I did given a similar situation may not necessarily yield the same results.
A little over a year ago, I was visiting my old stomping grounds in Udon Thani City. I went out with my buddy after hanging out at his bar / restaurant. Around midnight, we decided to call it a night and I began to drive him home – a mere mile away. Cruising at a mellow speed of about 40, my friend and I were enjoying a chat as I entered an intersection on a green light. I never saw the motorcycle that ran a red light or its driver until I exited my car after impact. I hit her straight on and she and the bike were laid out in the street, though she was conscious and sitting upright.
I stopped the car and got out. As I approached the young lady, I had two distinct, opposing emotions: relief that she was obviously okay and fear that there were numerous Thai men running toward the scene screaming "farang, farang, farang!" In that moment, my friend said what every fiber of my being was feeling, "Get the f**k out of here now" and we did.
As I was driving the final 500 yards to his place I noticed this loud, scraping noise. When we arrived near his place, I stopped and we both got out of my car. He high-tailed it to his place and I tried to quickly diagnose the cause of the scraping noise. The right, front-end of the car was dislodged and was dragging on the ground. It was then that I noticed a truck approaching at a high speed, flashing its lights, horn blaring.
Another rush of adrenaline overtook me and I ripped the entire front panel off my car bare-handed and threw it on the sidewalk. I jumped back in the car as the truck stopped next to me. I sped off as someone punched my side window, but the excitement was far from over. It took me a good ten minutes to lose my pursuer driving at ridiculously high speeds and I found myself in a part of town that I'd rarely been in, though I had the feeling I was near the airport.
Using a meditation technique I had learned from my Buddhist teacher, I calmed quickly. The next step was to drive 40 km south to my wife's family's home near Kumpawhapi. In short order, I found Mithapap Road and 30 minutes later, pulled up at "Bahn Ma Yai's" place. This would be the end of the story except for one thing and I knew it before I even arrived at the village at 1 AM. The front panel of the car I hurled on the sidewalk in an adrenaline fueled panic had a license plate attached to it!
The family meeting included my wife, Thai dad, Thai mom and me and concluded around 2 AM. The result? Go to the police station in Udon in the morning and explain what happened. What did happen? I fled the scene of an accident that wasn't my fault (which is illegal under Thai law, and I knew that) because my physical safety was in jeopardy. Besides, if the lady I hit didn't go to the police station to file a report, it would simply be a matter of trying to find my license plate, filing an insurance claim, getting the car fixed and…done. Right? Wrong.
When we arrived at the police station I had only slept about two hours. As it turned out, a report was filed (Oh sh*t!), but the officer in charge of the case would not be in for the day. We were instructed to return the following day without any incident. We were given the officer's phone # and called him. A meeting was scheduled for 10 AM with the "victim". Back to the village we went.
We arrived at the Udon police station at 9:30 AM and I was recognized by the young, red-light-running lass and her entourage. It turned out she was a 20-year old sophomore at the same university my wife graduated from. On the steps of the police station, an interesting dialogue ensued.
The "victim" was mute. However, her entourage – about 6 people – were not. You see, little miss red-light-running, no-helmet-wearing, poor-victim had a scab on her knee and a small bandage on her left ear and she was going to need plastic surgery and a new motorcycle. For a mere 90,000 baht, this could all be taken care of – no need to go into the police station. My Thai father became as pissed off as I have ever seen him.
When it became obvious that no money whatsoever was going to be handed over, the most vociferous member of their group became quite confrontational and threatening. Keep in mind this was on the steps of the police station. He was quite big and started to get in my Thai father's face yelling that we were going to be taken to court and acting like a complete bully. I actually understand spoken Thai / Isaan pretty well, especially numbers. I also understand body language. Up to this point, I was just standing in the background silent.
To my wife's horror, I stepped in between "the bully" and my Thai dad and yelled, "f**k off". I herded our group into the police station immediately and sought the officer in charge of the case. The meeting that followed was beyond surreal and tested me to my emotional and psychological limits.
As we quickly entered the Udon police station, we were joined by a man I'd never seen before. Already on red alert, I was ready (perhaps too ready) to intercede again as the unknown person spoke to my Thai father. Turned out it was the insurance agent, but I didn't know it. Thankfully, my wife told me what was going on as I was about to tell him to F-off, too. At that point, I realized I needed to chill out and regain emotional sobriety.
The insurance representative recommended that we have a chat and formulate a plan before meeting with the officer and the "victim's" party. With my wife as a translator, the insurance agent was apprised of exactly what happened. He was fantastic. He said it was wise that we didn't hand over any money and that our insurance would handle the cost of repairing not only our car, but the girl's motorbike. He thought the amount of money demanded from us was absurd and that we should offer them nothing. If they wanted to go to court, so be it.
The agent stressed how important it was that when we met with the attending officer and the other party, that everyone acts respectful and remorseful. Though he believed my story, he accurately noted that there really wasn't any way to prove I wasn't lying. My friend, and only friendly witness, was himself embroiled at the time with legal matters and it was best that he wasn’t involved. Also, the agent mentioned that members of the other group would most likely try to twist the truth in an attempt to get as much money as they could, but it was imperative that we remain calm and let him negotiate. Minutes later, the meeting occurred.
Thais love photos. In any government office you will see a group of pictures on the wall of all employees arranged in a top-to bottom order of importance. As we entered the office area of the police officer who was handling our case, I recognized him straight off from his photo on the wall. He was very high-ranking and everyone, including myself, went out of their way to show immediate and exaggerated deference. This initial display is obligatory and necessary. Generally speaking, Thais in positions of importance cannot handle being treated poorly, or even as equals.
Of course, I was a bit nervous and still revved up a tad from the brief, verbal altercation outside minutes before. There were two issues that needed to be addressed. First, the victim and I needed to agree on an "arrangement" and second, there was the issue of me breaking the law by fleeing the scene of an accident.
Now in front of the officer, the "victim’s" price to “let bygones be bygones” had dropped to 50,000 baht. Actually, she was mute. Her entourage was doing all the talking while she just sat there looking as pathetic as possible. The loud-mouth idiot I had cursed wasn’t there, but he had been replaced by this domineering wench of a woman that was leading the charge for financial compensation. Our insurance agent was sitting right there and calmly explained that the "victim" could deal with him and him only regarding finances. This didn't sit well with the sister of the victim and it was amusing watching her fight to remain calm and respectful. I honestly think it never occurred to them that they weren’t going to be offered a single satang.
When it became obvious to all concerned that the victim's group were not content to deal with the insurance agent regarding compensation and that they would be leaving empty handed, the officer had no choice but to refer the matter to court. Personally, I felt she should be compensating me as it was her fault, but I was advised to not point out her role in the situation and trust that the insurance and the judge would handle everything.
We were told that we would be notified the following day as to the time of the first court date and the “victim’s” party exited the room. Now there was the matter of me fleeing the scene. My defence, which was true, was that I felt my safety was in danger. Additionally, it was pointed out to the officer that if my intent was to completely avoid the matter, I would not have voluntarily gone to the police station the next day. This went over well and I was not put in a cell, but I was finger-printed. The consequence of my fleeing would be handled in court and I was free to go. Free, for the time being.
One thing I didn't mention was that prior to going to the police station, we stopped for a meeting with my Thai family's "spiritual advisor". The consultation was deemed absolutely essential and was the first of many over the ensuing months. An entire story could be written about her, but I’ll get back to what happened when we went to the initial court proceeding.
I don't know if I was more shocked to be put in the cell or what the cell looked like and what was happening inside. We had arrived at the courthouse to appear before the judge and everything seemed to have been going okay. Our visits to the spiritual advisor revealed all would work out just fine, the insurance had paid the repairs on the motorcycle and our car was in the process of being restored, too. So why did I suddenly find myself in a jail cell?
As I was directed into the room, there were several things I noticed that really confused me. The room itself was quite large and I quickly realized it was a holding cell. It was spotlessly clean and even had fresh paint. The next weird thing I saw was a "fellow prisoner" talking on his mobile while smoking a cigarette. It then occurred to me that I hadn't been searched. As bad as I wanted to light up, I refrained. My wife was allowed to hang out right on the other side of the bars. Did they even lock the door? The whole scene was simply baffling.
Ten surreal minutes ended when I was escorted out of the cell and brought to the actual courtroom. There was one female officer of the court in the room and one police officer. Also, the victim and her brother / boyfriend (never was clear who he was) were there. My wife was allowed to accompany me to the proceedings. After about twenty minutes, the judge entered. "All rose" and the judge sat there silent a few minutes while he did some reading.
When the judge first spoke, it was directed at my wife. His tone was pleasant and in the brief back and forth between him and her a few chuckles from all those present were heard. I had no idea what was going on and found it a bit strange that my wife was asked to raise her right hand and repeat a series of statements uttered by the judge. I assumed she was being asked to ""swear to tell the truth, the whole…", but that was not the case.
Unlike many Thai people I've encountered in positions of extreme power, the judge was surprisingly informal and pleasant. He had a very light, playful energy and enjoyed making jokes. He asked me in Thai if I could speak Thai & I replied yes, but not that much. At that point, he proceeded to speak English and he asked where I was from, what Thai food I liked and several other questions that had nothing to do with the situation. I was wondering why I wasn't instructed to raise my right hand & take some oath like my wife and when we were going to get down to business. He asked me where I taught English and it turned out a relative of his was a former student of mine. This seemed to please him, but I was quite guarded in allowing myself to feel that all was well.
After asking the victim about her injuries, the judge asked the victim how much money she wanted. He seemed a bit surprised and followed with a reply that I wish I could have understood at the time. After we left the courtroom, I received an explanation. Apparently, the girl claimed she needed plastic surgery for her ear injury & the judge replied, "Why, are you a model?" then basically dismissed the request. The judge asked me what I felt I should pay her. I knew my reply was critical and it needed to be calm, respectful and in no way make the victim look bad.
I said that the repairs for the motorcycle were being taken care of as was a 1,000 baht or so medical bill. I explained that there was no proof of an ear injury as no one had actually seen the ear and it wasn't documented in her medical bill. I said I would be happy to consider additional compensation if the victim wouldn't mind seeing a doctor of my choice. I don't know what became of that offer other than that I was never taken up on it…wonder why!
That was about it for that court hearing. Nothing was decided or resolved and another date was set for about 6 weeks from then. I was free to go, but I had to pay a 10,000 baht deposit (bail?). Also, before we left I noticed that my wife was asked to fill out a form. I asked her what was going on. She said the judge had sworn her in as an officer of the court in the role of translator and she had to fill out the paperwork so she could receive the 300 baht she earned! Say what? You just never know around here.
The biggest challenge between court appearances was to not worry about the future. The mind has an amazing capacity to concoct doomsday possibilities and mine is no different. There were several things that helped me to deal with this "mental mania".
The fact that I was teaching a lot helped me maintain my focus on the present moment…not potential what-ifs of the future. Teaching for me is much like playing sports. In the classroom or on the field, I usually find my mind to be exactly where my body is. That might sound like an obvious and simple statement, but it is key to being at peace in life I’ve found.
Another big help was the time spent with Katt, who was pregnant. Although Katt and I always had spent a good deal of time together, her need for assistance and our excitement of having a child together really brought us closer as a couple. Again, the point is that being present in the moment spending time in a useful and enjoyable way is the ultimate antidote to a poisonous, fear and future based mind.
The days went by quickly and relatively stress-free. The next court appointment was fast approaching. My wife was getting bigger by the day and the reality of my responsibilities in life intensified the importance of a favorable outcome with the judge. The day of reckoning was now at hand and we made the journey one more time to Udon Thani city.
There were several differences between the first court appearance and the last one. This time, I didn't get to spend 10 minutes in the cleanest, most accommodating jail cell in Southeast Asia! Another difference was that there were many people in the courtroom and it was a different room altogether. I was worried briefly that the judge would change, but fortunately, the same one entered the court. The victim's party totaled 4, while we had a group of six. There were also other people there with unrelated cases. I felt like a zoo exhibit – if I charged 10 baht per minute to be stared at I probably could have earned enough to pay for an unnecessary ear plastic surgery.
I was advised to readily admit my wrongdoing (fleeing) when asked by the judge. Apparently, the consequences can be ridiculously severe if you deny something and then are found guilty. A humble and clear admission coupled with no hostility shown to the other party or anyone else would assure the best outcome possible.
I was asked recently why I never pointed out the wrongdoing of the victim. Without proof (video or an eyewitness) I was advised that this would blow up in my face and perhaps lead the other party to make further claims with false witnesses. Also, as a foreigner and driver of the car and the one who wasn't injured, it would look really bad not to show kindness and compassion toward her. Additionally, I was advised that given the whole situation – fleeing for my safety, returning on my own accord, acting respectfully and humbly to all concerned – that most likely the judge would impose a very mild sentence, which is exactly what happened.
The judge ruled that the victim should receive no further compensation, though I could show "nam jai" (generosity) should I wish. The only thing I was required to do was perform 20 hours of community service. Actually, I had to pay nominal fines on 2 occasions. Once was at the police station before the court appearances which was around 1,000 baht and the other was for about 500 baht, but I can't recall where or when that was. If you take into account the 600 baht my wife was paid for translating twice, our total cost was under 1,000 baht. The 10,000 baht bail was returned the day of the judge's decision.
The story, however, does not end here. The victim confronted of us outside the courthouse and we had to report to a separate office regarding the community service. The drama and the intrigue were far from finished.
As we were walking to the car, the boyfriend/brother/whoever politely spoke to my wife. Of course, it was in reference to the "nam jai" issue. My wife relayed the request for money and thank God I didn't say what I was really thinking. I paused briefly and replied, "I'll have to think about that." You see, I figured if we just blew them off, that would be the end of it, but that was far from the truth.
We arrived at the probation office a few hours later after having lunch. I was feeling good, but a bit concerned that I was going to have to keep returning to Udon to do this "community service" bit (I was teaching English 6 days a week in KKC at the time). What I was not concerned about was what confronted me when we approached the probation officer's desk.
Much to my surprise, I was staring straight at the "victim" and her male companion! Thank God I didn't go off on them a few hours previous as they were obviously still a part of the equation. The probation officer (female) proceeded to ask a series of questions unintelligible to me after all were seated. Her affect was unemotional and tone rather serious. I also noticed a long, thick scar on her right forearm.
Basically, she hinted quite strongly that it would be a good idea for me to give some money to the victim, which was the ONLY reason she was there anyway. Remaining composed and calm, I replied that I would need to consult with the family's spiritual advisor as well as Grandma before I could make a decision (stall tactic which couldn't be refuted). I said we would contact the victim with an answer soon, which brings me to another point.
From the very beginning at the Udon police station, both parties were given copies of each other's ID's and mobile phone numbers. I didn't like this at all because the address on my Thai drivers license was the address I actually lived at and I was a bit worried about future vengeance should the "plastic surgery bill" not be paid. I have numerous firearms, but none on this continent!
My stall tactic worked and the victim departed, but the probation officer was far from finished with me. She produced a roughly twenty page questionnaire which, ninety laborious minutes later, we had completed. This was particularly difficult for my wife as she had to translate (no compensation this time) and was over seven months pregnant.
The questions amounted to a psychological profile and were highly personal. Sexual history, drug/alcohol history (nothin' bout rock n' roll) family background, medical history…Jesus H! At least she could have allowed me the comfort of a couch! My replies reflected whatever the best response possible was given my knowledge of Thai culture. The "truth" faded in and out.
At some point during the "interrogation", I asked her how she had injured her arm, just to get the focus off of me briefly. Wrong question. She went on fifteen minutes with her response. It turns out she was riding her motorcycle one night with her daughter and was struck by a foreigner! The guy gave her a few hundred baht and quickly left the scene. Fortunately for me/us, she didn't "project" her experience onto me and in the end, she was quite professional. She offered to transfer my probation to the province I taught in which we readily accepted. Although she could have made my life hell, she didn't and, like the judge and the high-ranking officer at the Udon police station, acted without a hint of corruption. It should be noted that in this entire saga, the only Thai who tried to extort money from me was the wench who caused the accident.
I really didn't want to give her a single satang. However, I gave her 3,000 baht. Why? My probation was already transferred to Khon Kaen, the court proceedings were finished and she caused the damn accident.
The reason I gave her $100 boiled down to one simple factor: the spiritual advisor. Before making a decision regarding payment, we visited P' Daeng yet again and she made it quite clear that it would be in my best karmic interest to pay a few thousand baht. My Thai family already credited her in part for the favorable court outcome, not to mention many other positive aspects of their lives. It simply wasn't worth causing any ill feelings within my Thai my family who had been fantastically supportive of me throughout this ordeal.
I wasn't present when my wife met the victim to give her the money for a good reason. If the victim hadn't been 100% polite and appreciative upon receipt of the money (which she wasn't technically owed) I couldn't guarantee my behavior. A new court proceeding may have been created!
I'm not suggesting I would have physically harmed the victim. I'm suggesting I would have harmed her smug, greedy little male companion. I know my limitations and I have many. Intuitively, I knew I couldn't trust myself should they act stupid, so I removed myself from the situation entirely. In fact, I specifically instructed my wife not to tell me if they were rude, given I had copies of their IDs, addresses & phone numbers.
If you are a foreigner who has lived in Thailand for any length of time, I'm sure you can relate to what I'm about to describe. Given our lack of rights (voting, land ownership, etc.), the blatant discrimination (dual pricing, scams, corruption, etc.) no real recourse for harms done, immigration policies changing at a whim and, in case you didn't know, a fair percentage of the Isaan population don't even view foreigners as HUMAN BEINGS (we're more in the category of livestock with assumed large bank accounts), there comes a point in time where rage can overtake you.
This anger is often directed outward, even if it's only in your thought-life and never manifests verbally or physically. It manifests in people bitching and complaining on barstools and on forums, but doesn't the real source of your frustration stare back at you every time you look in the mirror? If you’re honest with yourself, the truth is that living in Thailand can be quite emasculating. If you think you have power in this country, you're severely delusional, regardless of how wealthy you are or who you know.
The first trip to the KKC probation office was rather uneventful. The officer (male) was polite and "sentenced" me to 20 hours of English language instruction at a local library. Also, I was required to report to him every 90 days for a year. That was no big deal, as most of us are used to reporting every 90 days anyway.
It's interesting to note that my teaching at the library led to several private students, not to mention the fact that I taught a group of probation officers as well which I was paid for. All in all, I made money on the whole deal, though I can't say I would want to re-visit a similar situation ever again.
I was asked by a friend not long ago if, given a choice, I would have done anything different. Honestly, I would have. I would have made sure I had my license plate with me after I fled the scene and would have never returned. But hey, that would have made for short, boring story that would have never been written.
A few summary statements regarding this story…love em' or hate em':
1. The majority of Thais in this story were ethical and honest.
2. Never underestimate the power of a spiritual advisor.
3. Selfish, dishonest jerks get what they deserve sooner or later – no need to waste time or energy seeing to it personally.
4. If you are a foreigner living in Thailand and don't have a Thai that you can trust implicitly…leave ASAP or buy some KY, bend over and smile.
5. You're only a "walking ATM machine" if you allow yourself to be.
6. Not paying for the best possible insurance is insane if you drive a car/truck.
7. If you drive a motorcycle (how many times have you been in an accident now?), you're insane period.
8. If you are ever arrested in Udon Thani, pray you are presided over by the judge that I was and tell him you know me.
9. Never hesitate to break the law if it means saving your own ass…good things can happen if you're still breathing.
10. The truth is relentless.
11. Kissing ass by design is not a sign of weakness…it's a sign of sanity.
12. Kicking ass driven by emotion is a sign of weakness…a weakness that could be fatal.
13. Clinging to western beliefs in Thailand will leave you bitter on a bar stool.
14. Corruption stops with the judge.
15. If you are not Thai, you have NO power here and never will…see statement # 4.
Great story, nicely told, and yet another example of why I don't miss driving a car here!