BANGKOK – When it comes to cracking jokes, people in Thailand like it naughty and spicy.
In the former kingdom of Siam, it even sounds like the language was designed to facilitate double entendre: Thai is a tonal language whose pronunciations, modulated according to five different tones (one more than in Mandarin), make it the perfect tongue for pun lovers – which is fortunate, as Thai people absolutely revel in sexual innuendos.
For example: in Thai, the words "penis" and "banana", although written entirely differently, are pronounced almost exactly the same way – with only one tone difference. Such a phonetic proximity allows a great variety of jokes – granted, not necessarily tasteful ones...
"Wit and humor are often linked with sexuality," says a young female university professor who wished to remain anonymous. Thai society is a paradoxical mix between prudish conservatism and a pronounced taste for sappadon -- salacious and even indecent jokes.
A few years ago, during a fierce debate in Parliament, an MP was demanding the resignation of the presiding speaker; he approached the latter’s high seat with a ladder – asking the speaker to symbolically descend from his throne. But the words he used could be interpreted in two very different ways: When the MP shouted, "I’ve brought you a ladder," he made sure to pronounce the sentence so that people could also understand: "I'm here to chase you with my d*ck."
Everything is game
In Thailand, the way people laugh at each other has nothing to do with the Western world’s cautious, handled-with-care mockery. "Here we make fun of fat women, transvestites, big noses -- it makes us laugh and we don’t hesitate to crack jokes in front of our ‘victims’," says a former French teacher who cannot help but laugh as he’s talking.
"Ladyboys," or kathoeys, are also a favorite object of ridicule. Although transgender persons genuinely represent a "third sex" in Thailand, and are probably better integrated into society than anywhere else in the world -- except perhaps in Brazil – it does not make them less a target of derision and mockery. TV shows often feature kathoeys, whose job is to make the audience laugh at their own expense by purposely exaggerating their ambivalent appearance and manners in a hilarious exercise of self-deprecation. Dwarves and other more or less grotesque characters complete the cast in this kind of show, where every dumb joke is punctuated by a ironic ba-dum-tss rimshot. Slapstick humor at its best.
But beyond the fact that Thais are always up for a good laugh, the way they’ve become masters in caustic irony might also have to do with a need to skirt round their society’s strict codes. "It’s very difficult for us to tackle sensitive issues directly, so we have to find more oblique answers," says the young university professor. With sarcasm, Thais have found a way to laugh at what annoys or embarasses them.