Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind

Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind

Memoirs of expatriates aren’t our favourite genre when it comes to Southeast Asian reading, but Carol Hollinger’s Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind is the best of its kind to come out of Thailand.

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A quick and easy read, it nevertheless delves deep into the psyche of a nation that really hasn’t changed all that much since it was written back in the 1960s (the psyche, not the nation). This is an easy introduction to the kingdom that travellers could devour it in a sitting on their flight here (presuming they are not coming from, well, within Southeast Asia).

Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind is now something of a history book too, recounting as it does the time Hollinger spent in Bangkok some 50 years ago, first as a housewife, then as a horrified (by the curriculum) teacher at the American University and then, more interestingly, at Chulalongkorn University. At Chula, self-deprecating Hollinger is completely immersed in Thai culture as she lectures hundreds of students and bumbles her way through a comic bureaucracy.

Some parts of the book haven’t aged well — the use of “Oriental” is horribly grinding — but if you can forgive this, she does an engaging job explaining to the lay reader via plenty of colourful anecdotes what life was like back then for an American in Thailand. And while generalisations are always dangerous, there is still something to be said for national characteristics — it’s why we travel, after all, right?

For instance, this seems awfully relevant to today’s situation in Thailand:

“The Thais present a unanimously bland face to the foreigners and are past masters of double talk. But among themselves there were few secrets, for they were impossible to keep. Every Thai is a natural spy, and information filtered through servants’ quarters and around Bangkok with the speed of a highly mechanized wire service.”

Hollinger in fact learns of an upcoming coup when her hi-so friends warn her to ensure her water jars are full (utilities get switched off when coups occur):

“The day before Marshal Sarit took over the country, Samnieng (her friend) charged in like Paul Revere and personally satisfied herself that my klong jars were ready for the emergency.”

Hollinger’s account is a revelation, as she’s covering a time that the kingdom has well moved on from, such as parties in wooden houses by khlongs that would have by now long since disappeared. Even the minutiae of day-to-day academic life was different, too:

“Robert, who was Southeast Asian correspondent for the London Times, wrote all his dispatches with a quill pen. Some of the others were more a part of their century and used fountain pens… I had never cut a mimeograph stencil in my life…”

But then again, some things really do not seem to have changed:

“Inhabiting, as they do, the Venice of the Far East, the Thais are more attune to boats, than cars, and I think their driving is in some fashion influenced by the tides. For the most part they employ the British system of driving on the left-hand side of the road, but this is a variable and it is folly to count upon it. One one-way streets they drive two ways because they think they are as good as the man going in the opposite direction. They believe that what makes a car go is the horn.”

Add this book to your to-read pile ahead of a Thailand trip. And even if you’re familiar with Thailand, it’s a lovely little history book covering an intriguing era of a Thailand mostly now long gone, though echoes of the past always inform the present.

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