Saturday, April 10, 2010

You Can Bet On That ...

Gambling is illegal here in Thailand.

But as former US President, Bill Clinton, is quoted "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is", here in Thailand it depends on what the meaning of the word 'gambling' is. Just as it is most likely in the United States and else where in the world, it also depends on where and how the word is applied. Just as it makes a difference if the word is applied to conduct in the White House or in your house, there is a difference here in Thailand as to where and how the word 'gambling' is applied.

There are no casinos here in Thailand. There are casinos across the border in Laos, officially known as the Lao People's Democratic Republic. It seems rather ironic that a one party political system would refer to themselves as "Democratic" or a "Republic" but I guess to some extent we are all culpable for the names we selected or prefer to use to describe or to identify ourselves. It is almost as if selecting the proper word absolves us of all behaviors, omissions, and transgressions. It is also ironic that a Communist state would be home for gambling casinos though my understanding is that Lao citizens can not gamble at the casinos.

There are also casinos in Malaysia. Malaysia is a secular Muslim state so guards at the bottom of the mountain going up to the casino check the identity of the people traveling the road to ensure that no Muslims are going to go up and gamble. I have been to the casino in Malaysia - sort of. I can not describe what it is like to gamble there. My understand that you are not given free drinks while you gamble. The casino also said that I could not gamble without wearing a tie. They rented ties for people who arrive without one of their own for $7.00 USD. That was the last straw for me ... I rationalize the loss at the tables as the cost of a night's entertainment largely offset by the free alcohol and free shows. To charge rent for a tie in order to "take" my money and not getting me drunk or at least feeling better about losing was too much for me to accept. We ate dinner at the casino and spent the night in a naturally cool room in the Genting Highlands high above the hot and humid remaining regions of the rest of Malaysia. The highlight of the stay was to open the window and door of our room and watch the clouds pass through.

Back to Thailand and more specifically here in Isaan - gambling is illegal. "Games of Chance" conducted on Buddhist temple grounds are acceptable. We have attended numerous festivals at Wats over the past three years. The festivals were to celebrate religious holidays and sometimes were to raise funds to support the Wat. At every celebration there were "Games of Chance" where people paid money to have the opportunity to win a prize. The games of chance are very similar to games that you would encounter at county or state fairs back in the USA. People pay a small amount of money to throw thee darts at inflated balloons - three punctured balloons with three dart throws earns a "prize". People pay money to shoot air rifles at moving targets - so many hits out of so many shots earns a "prize". People pay money to pluck a small plastic floating duck out of a big pool of water with the number written on the bottom of the floating duck corresponding to a "prize" on the rack. For people who are not into the athleticism required for shooting, throwing, or netting, you can pay your money, select a short piece of plastic drinking straw. Inside the straw is a piece of rolled up paper with a number on it. The number corresponds to a prize on display.

I have seen backyard card games amongst neighbors. I have seen dice games outside of funeral rituals. I have seen money changing hands at gunpowder rocket launching competitions. I have seen rocket launches delayed until the "financial arrangements" were acceptable. Like I read in a tourist pamphlet from Laos where they proudly proclaimed themselves as " a democracy with one political party", I can report that gambling is illegal in Thailand. The dichotomy of the Laotian and Thai statements add to the rich fabric of life here in Southeast Asia. It is the nuances and juxtaposition of what is supposed to be and what is reality here that makes life interesting as well as entertaining.

I have seen many "games of chance" (remember gambling is illegal) and yesterday at the Wat in the middle of no where - here in Isaan, I saw a new "game of chance". This game involved a circular arena constructed out of recycled cardboard boxes and bamboo. There were 24 pieces of bamboo penetrating the base of the cardboard ring with a number written above each penetration. In the center of the approximately 12 foot diameter arena, there was an inverted translucent plastic Tupperware type container. A string was attached to the container and ran through a loop to a table outside of the ring where prizes were on display.

At the start of each game, a man went around the arena and sold a piece of paper with one of the numbers from 1 to 24 written on it. The price for each ticket was 5 baht - roughly $0.15 USD. He had no problem quickly selling the 24 tickets for each game. People of all ages were 3 to 4 deep around the cardboard walls of the arena eager to participate. Once the tickets were all sold, there was a announcement and some hype as another man pulled on the string to lift the inverted container revealing a mouse. Now unrestrained the mouse, ran around the arena looking for a way out. Eventually to the accompaniment of yells, shouts, and incantations in Isaan (a Lao dialect) plus some spirited slapping of hands against the cardboard walls, the mouse would run into one of the bamboo penetrations. The number above the selected penetration determined the "winner" of that game. The prize was a small plastic bucket filled with small household products such as soap, candles, talcum powder, small boxes of juice or soy milk. I later found out that the prize cost about 60 Baht so a profit of 60 baht (roughly $2.00 USD) was realized from each running of the game. All profits were going to be donated to the Wat.

The mice were not professionals or pure bred mice. They were typical field mice that are found in the rice and sugar cane fields here in Isaan. I am certain that they can also be found in many of the village homes. Most of the mice used in the game had long tails so that when they entered one of the bamboo tubes a portion of their tail remained outside to be used to extract the mouse from the tube. However one mouse did not have a very long tail. Just as in the Americans With Disabilities Act, this mouse was not excluded from participating in the game. Reasonable accommodation was provided which allowed this mouse to participate. A short piece of blue plastic string was tied to the mouse's hind leg which was used to extract the mouse from its selected tube.

After the running of each game, the mouse was placed into a covered 5 gallon plastic bucket and a new "fresh" mouse was placed under the inverted container in the middle of the arena.

I have heard stories and seen some movie scenes on some the odd things that people would bet on. This was the first time that I had seen mice involved in a game of chance.

You can bet on that ... even in Thailand but it is not gambling! It is a game of chance for a good cause.

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