Thanong Khanthong

Editor, The Nation
Old Thai proverbs shed light on airport fiasco

Why can't they do one thing right at Suvarnabhumi Airport? In a way, the Suvarnabhumi Airport mirrors Thai society.

We have an excellent location to be the transport hub of Southeast Asia. We are a great nation with a rich history (have you watched "The Legend of King Naresuan"?). We have the natural resources. We have the facilities. But we can't do things right.


You probably have to go back to the Thai proverbs or old Thai sayings to understand the particular traits that have given rise to the mother of all sloppy and corrupt projects - the new airport.

It took more than 40 years, an incredibly long time, to plan, design and build this airport, during which time politicians came and went. This is in line with the saying chao cham yen cham ('I just wash one dish in the morning and another dish in the evening'), which describes motionless people who are very economical with their energy and who rarely set their sights on getting anything done. Chao cham yen cham is most often used to describe civil servants who are lazy and lack the incentive to work. Well, that's why it took us 40 years to build the airport. Cracks have begun to appear in a taxiway and runway only four months after its opening. This has raised doubts about the standard of safety at the airport.

It all goes back to the time when politicians, civil servants and contractors colluded to fill in the land at Suvarnabhumi in a suk ao phao kin ('I'll eat it regardless of whether it's cooked or burnt') way. Suvarnabhumi was originally swampland with a high incidence of floods. Efforts to fill in the land began during the government of General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh and continued through to the government of Chuan Leekpai.

Engineers and technicians will have to investigate whether the land at Suvarnabhumi was filled adequately enough to support the taxiway and runway. The authorities, at one time, used to allow some water into the land to alleviate flooding in nearby areas, possibly undermining the foundation of the taxiway and runway. So, now we have the cracks in a taxiway and runway as a result of this substandard practice.

We happened to have dishonest politicians, civil servants and contractors responsible for this, who went about their jobs in a manner that was suk ao phao kin. Suk ao phao kin means to do things sloppily or recklessly. This suk ao phao kin behaviour is another prominent Thai trait.

The roof of the terminal also leaks. You might substitute suk ao phao kin when referring to this approach to construction and call it loop na pa jamook ('I just need to stroke my face and patch up the nose then I can get away with it').

Don't forget to open up your umbrella once you are inside the terminal - it might rain!

During the six years of Thaksin Shinawatra's reign, construction of the airport terminal and other facilities got off the ground and it was eventually completed. This gave politicians and civil servants a good chance to revise the design and call in new contracts to facilitate bribes.

The contractors had to pay bia bai rai thang ('I have to pay money under the table all the way'). With the cost of the bia bai rai thang, the contractors had to compromise on the quality of the jobs they were hired to do.

While the Thaksin government was in power, politicians adopted a nam khuen hai reep tak ('I must fetch the water while the tide is high') approach. It was time for the opportunists to make money without fear of the consequences. They wanted to open Suvarnabhumi as quickly as possible because only then they could walk away with lucrative deals from the contractors. Now that Thaksin has gone, all the dirty tricks that occurred while the airport was built have become evident. The saying nam lot tor phut ('when the tide goes down, all the stumps show up') accurately captures this. The stench of corruption hovers over the procurement of the CTX luggage scanners and the underground power-line system. There are not enough toilets for passengers, as toilet bowls had to make way for shops.

Shortly after the coup, the military leaders asked the airport authorities if they were ready to open Suvarnabhumi or not. If things were not ready, they could delay the opening further. The authorities assured everybody that the airport was 100 per cent ready to open.

This haste to open Suvarnabhumi was an act of phak chi roi na ('topping my face with coriander just to get a way with it'). In July, two months before he was ousted, Thaksin had proudly launched a soft opening of the airport by flying from Don Muang to Suvarnabhumi. He wanted the new airport to become a hallmark of his government's success.

As a result, we have an airport that is beautiful from the outside, but inside it is hollow. This is equivalent to khang nok sook sai khangnai pen kluang ('I look beautiful from the outside, but don't ever kiss me!') It's hard to believe how badly things have turned out at Suvarnabhumi. Only the old proverbs can say it all.


NB:� With kind permission of The Nation this article is taken from The Nation, January� 26, 2007, p. 11A. �

Keywords : Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok Airport, Thaksin regime, Thailand airport fiasco, Thanong Khanthong
Jan 30, 07   

ศูนย์โลกสัมพันธ์ไทย สถาบันเอเชียศึกษา จุฬาลงกรณ์มหาวิทยาลัย
ชั้น 7 อาคารประชาธิปก-รำไพพรรณี ถนนพญาไท ปทุมวัน กรุงเทพฯ 10330
โทรศัพท์ 0-2218-7464, 0-2218-7466 โทรสาร 0-2255-1124

Thai World Affairs Center, Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University
7th Floor, Prajadhipok-Rambhai Barni Building, Phyathai Road, Bangkok 10330 Thailand
Tel: +66 (0) 2218-7464, 2218-7466 Fax: +66 (0) 2255-1124