Winning While Losing: Gambling in Thailand
One of the best things about traveling is the opportunity to get to know cultures different from your own. However, as much as I enjoy experiencing a new culture, sometimes the stark differences from what I’m used to can become a little overwhelming. It was a religious difference that acted as a catalyst for my spontaneous jaunt into Thailand.
Ramadan (a month long period of prayer and worship, best known for the fasting) is a cultural difference that tends to wear on visitors just as much as locals. After a few weeks of abstaining from food and drink during the hottest month of the year, the hunger understandably wears at the patience of the usually jovial locals. Taxi drivers are often more irritable, bus drivers sometimes abandon their routes the minute the sun sinks below the horizon, and many restaurants close down for the month. After spending the majority of Ramadan in Indonesia and Malaysia, my travel companions and I were tired of it.
Sam and Samu, the guys I was traveling with, suggested crossing the border to Thailand, a primarily Buddhist country. Thailand hadn’t been in my original plan, but I was ready to leave Malaysia.
We crossed the border in a minibus and spent the night in a city just on Thailand’s side of the border. I think it may have been Hat Yai, but I honestly never learned its name. Because we knew that the journey to the island of Koh Tao would be a long one, we set out to find some playing cards. As most travelers know, when you don’t speak the local language, the next best thing is charades. We entered a shop and mimed dealing a hand of cards to the keeper. He looked slightly taken aback and pretty confused. When charades fails, the next best thing is Pictionary. So I drew an ace of spades. The shopkeeper caught on then, but still shook his head no. I then I asked him how they were called, to which he replied, “pai.” To date, that’s the only Thai word I remember, and I don’t even think it’s accurate.
The first sign of my impending doom should have been when Grandpa giggled when he looked at his hand. He went first. He drew a card and smiled a wolfish grin, but didn’t play anything.
We went into another shop, armed with the ace of spades drawing and new knowledge of the Thai language. We again mimed the act of dealing a hand of cards, but this time showed the picture, and asked, “pai?” We were turned away again. After we were turned away for the third or fourth time, Samu remembered that gambling is illegal in Thailand. But surely that wouldn’t mean that playing cards were also illegal, would it? As it turns out, no, pai isn’t illegal, just hard to come by. Our perseverance won out and we eventually acquired a deck of cards. Hooray!
The journey to Koh Tao was long and involved a train, a bus, and a ferry, with lots of idle time in between. At one of these junctures we had to wait over four hours for our bus. Worse still, this was after dark and apparently in the middle of nowhere. Thankfully, a Thai merchant had realized the potential for this untapped market and set up a small kiosk with snacks and some tables and chairs.
While Samu played soccer with the Thai children from the nearby village, Sam and I played hand after hand of Rummy. This was fascinating to the locals, presumably because gambling is illegal so cards aren’t often played out in the open. We weren’t betting anything, though, so we didn’t worry about it. Nonetheless, at one point we had five adults and three children crowding around our table to watch. As travelers, we often forget that we are ambassadors for our countries. While we are experiencing cultural differences, so are the locals.
Sam and I were playing the simplest form of Rummy, which is easy enough to follow. It consists of collecting sets of the same number, or a run of numbers in the same suit, with different values according to the card. There’s a draw pile and a discard pile. Your turn starts when you draw and ends when you discard. The game ends when one player’s cards are all matched up in sets and runs. To be honest, the crowd we drew was more entertaining to Sam and me than the card game itself. We were happy to teach them how to play, and soon enough they caught on. One grandfatherly figure was really excited to help us out. He would tell me which card to play and wince if I missed something.
Before every hand I dealt, I asked the older man if he wanted to play. He declined three times, and before I even asked him to play the fourth game he swung a chair around with a surprising amount of energy considering his age, sat down on the chair backwards like Uncle Jesse, pushed up his sleeves, and gestured for me to deal him in. Okay! Grandpa clearly wanted to play Rummy!
The first sign of my impending doom should have been when Grandpa giggled when he looked at his hand. He went first. He drew a card and smiled a wolfish grin, but didn’t play anything. He discarded and Sam took his turn. He too drew but played nothing. I drew, but I didn’t need the card, so I discarded it. Grandpa’s eyes lit up when I placed my jack of clubs in the discard pile. He snatched it up, arrogantly threw down two sets worth an impressive sixty-five points, and then walked away. Sam and I stared at each other, completely nonplussed.
The old man had handed us our butts on a silver platter. The best part of being schooled like that was how he had left. He didn’t just rejoin his friends nearby. No, he slammed down his winning hand and then sauntered off into the darkness with his head thrown back in maniacal laughter.