Monday, August 23, 2010

WTF - Why Not?

Sometimes events, seemingly distant and disconnected, converge and cause a burst of creativity.  I believe this is happening today.

Yesterday afternoon when Duang's son returned home, we learned of an auto accident at the intersection of the road outside of our development and Highway 216, "The Ring Road" - 2 minutes walk from our home.  This is where I had my auto accident in May two days before I was returning to America.

Duang was very curious about yesterday's accident so we walked down the street to investigate.  A car and a pick-up truck had collided.  There were no Police in sight or had there ever been any Police in sight.  Often on the Internet you will read about some one's relationship status as "It's complicated"  Well here in Thailand dealing with Police can also be described as "It's complicated".  Most Thais, given a choice, prefer to not involve the Police on most matters.  For matters that they can not resolve amongst themselves, Thais will use the office and services of the "Village Headman" to resolve.  In regards to auto accidents that do not involve serious personal injuries, most Thais avoid involving the Police.  All vehicles in Thailand must have "Property Damage" insurance coverage.  The certificate of insurance coverage is one of the documents requested at most Police checkpoints and roadblocks.  Since property damage is covered by insurance, the liability for an accident is sorted out by the accident participants and their insurance agents.

When we arrived at yesterday's accident scene, one vehicle partially blocked the entrance to our road.  The other vehicle was being hooked up to a tow truck a little ways from the first vehicle and on the side of the Ring Road.  In no time at all Duang had determined first hand what had happened - direct interrogation of one of the victims.  I have often written about there are no secrets here in Isaan and yesterday was no exception to my many observations and experiences to that fact.  The pick up truck that contained a one year old girl, her brother about 5 years old, her grandmother, and her uncle was going straight on the Ring Road when the car pulled out in front of them from our road.

The driver of the car had admitted his responsibility for the accident and had called his insurance agent.  The insurance agent arrived with the tow truck and had taken down the pertinent information from both parties.  There were no apparent injuries which simplified matters.  In Thailand the guilty party is responsible for the medical bills of the innocent parties.  It is left to the parties to work out the medical costs and compensation for any "pain and suffering" amongst themselves.  If they can not work it out, they get lawyers and eventually go to court.  If someone can not pay their financial responsibilities as determined by a Judge, they go to jail.

Duang befriended the family that had been in the pick up truck - the grandmother was Lao Loum and lives in Kumphawapi, the town near Duang's home village of Tahsang Village - this made the grandmother almost like family I guess.  I am being facetious but perhaps not too much.  Here in Isaan there is a strong sense of community.  A person's family extends far beyond your immediate family.  The community that you belong to extends beyond your neighborhood. The grandmother's daughter, the children's mother, lived about 12 miles from our home.  Duang offered to take them home so that the baby would be more comfortable.  I went along with Duang, them, and Duang's son.  He did the driving because I was not familiar with the area.  Taking directions as you drive along a road is always difficult.  I have learned the Thai words for go, straight, right, left, and stop.  However this woman was Lao Loum and spoke Lao - a completely different set of words!  After going to the water company based upon directions given by my Step-son's girlfriend in Lao as translated by Duang into a combination of Thai and English, I was not going to be volunteering to drive like that any time soon!

As I wrote the responsible person has to pay the medical bills of the accident innocent victims.  This is terrifying to an American.  I asked Duang about getting insurance to cover medical liability and she said it was not possible.  However this is Thailand and not America.  Expats use the terminology "TIT" - "This is Thailand".  There seems to be some self regulating limits on medical bills including "pain and suffering".  If a Thai were to accidentally kill another Thai in an accident the blood money is roughly 100,000 to 200,000 Baht ($3,000 to $6,000 US dollars).  Doctors visits are around $12 USD and often include prescription medicine.  More importantly, the Thai people have a completely different attitude as well as perspective regarding accidents.  Thai people, in general, do not involve lawyers when there is an accident.  They only involve  lawyers if they can not come to an agreement amongst themselves first.  The courts are truly the "courts of last resort".

I know of what I write - I know from personal experience.  Two days before my flight back to the United States, I caused and accident at the same location - the junction of our road and the Ring Road.  I pulled in front of an oncoming motorbike.  I did not see the oncoming motorbike.  Duang yelled out a warning and I gunned the engine but was unable to clear the intersection.  The motorbike hit our truck broadside just behind the passenger cab.  Fortunately there was only the motorbike driver, a young man, and no passengers such as a toddler which is a common practice here.  I immediately stop the truck on the side of the road so as to not block traffic.  Duang and I assessed the damage.  The young man was hurting but did not seem that he was injured - just a couple of minor scrapes and a sore abdomen.  His motorbike had a damaged front end and could not be operated.  Our truck was operable with a dent in the side, a damaged running board, and a couple of holes in the paneling.  Duang, Peelawat and I were uninjured.  This was the first accident that I had been involved in.  Being so and the fact that I was in Thailand, I was at a loss as to how to handle it.  The young man did not want to involve the Police.  I realized that I was responsible for the accident - I had cut him off.  I asked Duang to handle the details as I gave her the insurance papers.  Our agent came with the tow truck, interviewed us and the young man, filled out some forms, and hauled away the damaged motorbike.  The young man's mother arrived and there were some discussions on how to resolve the matter.  We took the young man to the Thai Military Hospital about three blocks from our home.  We stayed with him while he was checked out.  He left the hospital with some Tylenol, antibiotics, and a couple of gauze bandages on his scrapes.  Since he had medical coverage from his job, we did not have to pay any charges at the Military Hospital.

From the hospital we drove the young man to his home.  After ensuring that he was settled in his home we gave him about $6 USD for lunch.  Duang then arranged for her daughter's motorbike to be brought out from Tahsang Village for the young man to use until his motorbike was repaired.  Duang called twice a day for the next week to check on the boy's condition.  Everything seemed to be under control given the circumstances.  The Police were not going to be involved.  Lawyers were not going to be involved.  We were going to take care of the man's medical bills and "take care of him" fairly.

I left as scheduled back to America.  Before leaving, I had a discussion with Duang regarding settling the accident.  Here in Isaan, falang, foreigners, as perceived as being "rich".  As much as many expats do not like being considered as being "rich" or "wealthy", we, even those of us who are retired, are wealthier than most of the Isaan people.  There are some tensions and resentments between some foreigners and some Lao Loum people over these perceptions.  At many places, foreigners will be charged a higher price than Thais for the same product, admission, or service.  I was concerned that the young man might try to take advantage of the fact that I was responsible and a foreigner.  I told Duang that I knew that I would end up having to pay more than a Thai in the same set of circumstances but I wanted to be treated fairly.  I wanted to be respected and not taken advantage of.  Based upon the cost of blood money for killing some one and a pretty good idea of how much money the young man made a month at his job, I set up a budget for Duang to settle the accident.

Over the course of my month in America, Duang kept me advised of the negotiations to resolve the accident.  From everything being under control, matter deteriorated to the point that Duang was accused of having a rich husband who could afford to pay a great deal of money.  Duang told them that I was not like the other falangs and I did not have a lot of money.  The boy's father who is a Policeman in the large city south of here got involved in the discussions.  This was not a good sign.  From what I understand Duang told them that if they thought that they could get more money from us, they could get a lawyer and we would get a lawyer.  I am certain that she kept many details from me in order not to upset me or distract me from my duties in America.  Eventually the negotiations were relocated to her home village of Tahsang Village involving the Village Headman, and the local Policeman who resides in the village.  From what I understand from Duang, the Village Headman and Policeman attested to her assertion that I was not like other falang and that I had a "good heart".  From our many visits to Tahsang Village and participating in celebrations as well as merit making rituals, I know both the Headman and Policeman well.  Having a "Good Heart" in Isaan is very important.  It is about your personality and behavior.  It has nothing to do with your cardiac health.  People who are "good heart" are considered to be "nice people" and are respected for their behavior as well as kindness.  It is taken very seriously in the Lao Loum culture.

Apparently after confirming with third parties that I was indeed a "good heart" person, the young man and his family were able to come to agreement with Duang - an agreement that met their needs and satisfied our needs as well.  This is another important aspect of Isaan culture - agreements need or at at least should be "good for me, good for you".

I asked Duang about getting some kind of paper to formalize the agreement and she said that it would not be necessary.  To close out the matter, Duang hosted a Bai Sii ritual for the young man.  The Bai Sii ceremony is an Animist ritual that involves the making of offerings to spirits, and tieing of cotton strings around a person's wrist.  The cotton strings prevent the 32 internal spirits from escaping the body.  The 32 spirits are necessary to ensure good health, wealth, and luck for the individual.  Since the young man had suffered the trauma of the accident, it was necessary to perform a Bai Sii ceremony to restore the spirit's balance and harmony within the young man.  At the end of the ritual there was a party with beer, whiskey, food, and music.  Apparently the ritual and party served as documenting the fact that we had all come to an agreement and the matter was officially closed.

Interestingly the young man's father had asked Duang at the end of the ritual if I was happy with the amount of money that we paid.  Once again the need for "Good for me.  Good for you" was a concern.  Since Duang had accomplished the resolution for the budget that I had given her, I was satisfied.  I was happy to have it resolved.  I was satisfied to have been "respected".  I was pleased to have met and concluded my responsibilities - all thanks to my wife.

Last week on Facebook I notified my friends about a blog I had written related to dealing with governments - specifically the Royal Thai Police and the Embassy of Brunei with a veiled comparison to dealing with the US Consulate in Bangkok. In a follow on comment I noted that the US Immigration process was not as simple or easy as we assume or expect it to be. One of my friends wrote the comment ... "Is anything in life as simple or as easy as we assume or expect that it should be?"

I know.  I know.  But I am an optimist and worse yet - an idealist.

Most people see things the way that they are and don't ask "Why?"   I dream of things the way that they should be and ask "What the @#$% - Why not?"  I make no apologies to Robert F. Kennedy or more correctly to George Bernard Shaw for hijacking the sense of his saying and "making it my own".

My accident and the accident that we saw yesterday were handled simply and directly by the people.  The people responsible for causing the accident took responsibility for the damages that they caused and held themselves accountable.  The victims were realistic in their expectations for compensation.  There was need to involve outsiders such as Police or Lawyers to complicate a process that did not need to become complicated.  People of "good heart" held themselves responsible and accountable to come to a final agreement that was "good for me, good for you".

Here in Isaan, you are primarily responsible for solving your own problems.  You are empowered to solve your own problems.  You are expected to solve your own problems.

Here in Isaan things are simpler - you can by a house in 45 minutes, if you have the cash, without needing the services of a real estate agent or lawyer.  The two parties go to the land office sign some papers, pay a small transfer fee, and exchange the keys.

Living here in Isaan, my dreams are reality - on some days.  It is on those days and thinking of those days that encourage me to remain an optimist as well as an idealist.

I see things as they are here and wonder why not else where?  Why not every where?


  1. Nice post Allen, I agree with you. I had a similar accident a few years ago in Vientiane. there the police were called, as needs to be in Laos, but they were very practical. The matter of 'fault' was never raised. I turned left against umcoming traffic, didn't see him coming at me on his bike. Of course, he was speeding (obvious to the condition of his damage bike, my damaged Pick-up truck, since I was barely moving when he hit me. also, it was after dark, and he had no lights on, nor was he wearing a helmet. But we negotiated with his uncle, paid US$ 100 for his time off work, my insurance paid the material damage, everybody seemed very pleased with a win-win situation. The police received a donation of a few dollars to compensate for use of fuel (They carried the Bike to the hospital. I was told that if we hadn't come to an agreement between the parties, both bike and car would have been confiscated until such time an agreeement was reached.
    In my country that would have been quite different.

  2. Thanks Kees. I t is always nice to get positive feedback on these blogs. It was also reassuring to read about your similar experience in Laos. I can't speak about New Zealand or the Netherlands, but in America it would have been much different. Lawyers would have been involved. It strikes me so ironic that in the "Land of the Free" the people do not feel empowered or "free" to resolve their own problems. In America, litigation is a growth industry, perhaps the only remaining growth industry.