An item circulating on Facebook this week tells the unfortunate story of a drunken American tourist in Thailand who, after insisting on singing with a bar band and refusing to get off the stage, was stabbed to death by one of the band’s musicians. The whole pathetic episode resonates for a number of reasons—not least of which were the three years I spent in Bangkok as a sub editor at The Nation, a daily newspaper in which stories like this were a dime a dozen.
With all due respect to Bobby Ray Carter Jr.’s grieving relatives, the man suffered fatal consequences for being a total dork and a moron. It would be callous to say he had it coming, since no one deserves to be stabbed to death just for being rude and obnoxious. But with a little more intelligence on his part, the tragic incident in Krabi province could have been avoided. Had Carter shown a dollop of respect for his hosts, the good times could have kept rolling for him, his son, and his buddies.
The Land of Smiles has always been a magnet for tourists. Most people who go there have some basic knowledge of, and a genuine interest in, the ways of Thai people, culture and society. But ever since the American war in Vietnam, when the fishing village of Pattaya was converted to a seaside Shangri-La for horny U.S. marines on R&R, another type of tourist has become all too prevalent: the marauding, neocolonial male hedonist with a boundless sense of entitlement. This type of tourist doesn’t give a shit about Thai people or culture, tends to be racist and unaccountable for his own behaviour, and treats everywhere he goes as his own personal playpen. More often than not, he is escaping the “feminist” West to indulge his master-slave fantasies with presumably “submissive” Thai women. (And yes, a gay equivalent does exist. See The Rice Queen Diaries.)
There is a long tradition of this type of tourist suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous karma for his ignorance. The dimwit who ends up in jail after posing for a photo while sitting on a statue of the king—or pissing into a fountain surrounding it; the unlucky Lothario who gets framed for a drug bust by the jealous Thai boyfriend of the Thai woman he insists on seeing even after being warned to back off; the enraged taxi passenger who, assuming the cabbie is ripping him off, gets into a loud argument and, instead of ending up at his destination, finds himself dropped in the middle of nowhere with no language skills to cope with the situation.
During my first visit to Thailand, I once found myself in a country bar in the middle of Phetchaburi province, the result of a fling with a waiter in Phuket who wanted to introduce me to his family upcountry. My Thai skills were non-existent then, and there was no English to be found within an hour’s drive of this bar. My fling’s older brother had brought me there in the middle of the night, a terrifying ride on the back of his motorbike over a long dusty road with no lights. Everyone in the bar was drunk when we arrived, all taking turns with the karaoke machine. Greatly amused at the rare presence of a farang in their midst, they soon insisted that I sing “Hotel California” (the same song the band in Krabi was playing last week when Bobby Ray Carter got into trouble).
The Eagles should probably send a letter of thanks to the Thai government for all the royalties they’ve earned from the Kingdom because of that one song. Thais are still crazy about “Hotel California”: it can be heard everywhere—live and on karaoke—where people gather to drink. If they can get a farang to sing it in the native, unbutchered phrasing of the original, all to the better. When the folks in that Phetchaburi bar insisted that I sing it, I willingly obliged. Afterward, they bought me a beer and taught me a few Thai expressions. Score one for positive intercultural relations.
Despite—or perhaps because of—their country being one of the most desirable tourist destinations, Thai people are often misunderstood. While tourist brochures emphasize the warm, Buddhist jai yen of the cool Thai heart, the unconditional friendliness to be found everywhere, they also remind the first-time visitor how quick to anger Thais can be when directly confronted, insulted, or humiliated—especially in public. The Thais are very forgiving, and put up with a lot of stupid behaviour by foreigners. But they are human and, contrary to the cultural stereotype of mai pen rai (“no worries,” “it doesn’t matter” or “never mind”), no pushovers. If they sense that someone, Thai or farang, is showing them disrespect, that warm welcome can quickly be replaced by anger.
From news reports, it appears that Carter was being an asshole. He kept singing with the band (probably badly) and hogging the microphone, refusing to leave the stage or let other customers sing. When they started playing “Hotel California,” the 51-year-old Texan might have prolonged his moment in the limelight by singing it, since no American of his age does not know the words to it. Or—regardless of his inebriated state—he could have shown a sense of humour by recognizing that he had overstayed his welcome. You know: take a drunken bow and hand the mic to someone else. Then he could have apologized for being such a prick by buying a round of drinks for the whole band. Instead, he added to the tension in the room by arguing with the band on their own stage and insisting that they play something else. When Carter’s 27-year-old son joined the argument, things escalated. A brawl ensued outside the bar, and Carter got knifed. End of argument.
Death by Sense of Entitlement? It happens all the time, in the Land of Smiles.