Monday, September 8, 2008

Clocks of Thailand

I've got thirty or fourty thousand words of this kind of stuff. Might as well share some of it.

At the big grammar school in a northern provincial capitol there is a clock in every classroom and every one is wrong. Some are stopped all together; some are close to the right time, like within ten or fifteen minutes; some are off by many hours.

The classes are scheduled without travel time, in other words, classes start and end on the half hour, the next class starts instantly. In reality, classes may start or end anytime within ten minutes of the half hour, depending on the lesson. There are no bells or other annunciators to mark the change of class. These are related events. In Thailand keeping to a close schedule is not highly valued. It’s a farm thing. On the farm, people wake up when it’s light and make their way to the fields. When the work is done, they go home.

There’s a clock in the office of the sixth grade teachers the face of which is covered by a picture of the two great kings: Rama V and Rama IX. The time may only be read between five to and five after any one of three hours: 11:00, 12:00, or 1:00 o’clock. At any other time the face of the clock completely obscures the hands and it is impossible to tell the time from further away than several inches. When I mentioned this, I received the standard, bemused look, as though to say: “Farang think the damndest things are important.” It’s a very attractive clock, after all.

Every temple prominently features at least one very nice, old German grandfather clock. Almost always they are stopped. They face the gathered worshipers as part of the Buddha image display in the central area. They are there to remind the congregation of their own mortality. There is usually one clock that bears the correct time. It is usually a cheap wall clock over in a corner somewhere.

I remember visiting the clock department of a large department store in Chiang Mai. There were lots and lots of clocks, I couldn’t even guess how many. These clocks found themselves in one of three different circumstances: 1) one third were stopped randomly at different times; 2) one third were running and displayed a time within plus or minus ten minutes of the correct time; or 3) one third, the biggest third, were running but with the wrong time. The effect was chaotic. In America every clock would be stopped at ten minutes after ten with the battery removed from those that ran on electricity.

In Thailand, clocks are everywhere as decorator items, but only rarely are they employed for their primary purpose. This is true of wrist watches as well: many times I have asked students wearing wrist watches to tell me the time, only to have them shrug their shoulders, smile and say, “mai dai,” (“doesn’t work.”) Time pieces here serve a mostly symbolic purpose. Modern societies value precise timing; ‘our timepieces prove that we are a modern society.’ Successful people wear very nice wrist watches; ‘our stylish watches prove that we are successful people.’ And of course, the symbolic stopped clock, which has the same meaning in European iconography: everything ends, boys and girls, your time will come.


Anonymous said...

But a stopped clock is right twice a day, which is more than I can say for most people. -E

fred c said...

I always liked that one.