Richard Lipez: Fun-loving Thais still look to heavens


BANGKOK >> How come whenever anybody in the Berkshires mentions astrology in any context other than a joke, I snicker inwardly and change the subject? A few times I have even snickered outwardly and watched acquaintances get miffed. Yet here in Thailand, where astrology is a main feature of people's everyday lives, I'm charmed.

When Thai friends plan their daily choices and activities around the positions of distant objects in the heavens, it's not annoying to me, as it is at home, just quaint. What's going on here?

March 6 was a big day in Bangkok. When Joe Wheaton and I walked over to the Malaysia Hotel restaurant for dinner at 8 that night, the place was packed to the Chang beer sign with noisily partying Thais, unusual for a Monday night. The din was something. In fact, Buddhists were out and about all over the city, earning merit and making merry, because astrologically March 6 this year was a huge deal.

Affection for Sanuk

Astrologers had declared that March 6 was the day that Uranus entered the Taurus zodiac sign for the first time in 84 years. This meant, they said, that big changes were in the works for Thailand and its people, and it would be wise to make offerings at temples and shrines to help ensure that those changes would be good ones. Also to drink a lot of Chang beer and to create traffic gridlock on the roads around the City Pillar Shrine at Sanam Luang Park and elsewhere across the Big Mango.

One of the many things Joe and I love about Thailand (where we spend three months most years) is the Thai love of sanuk. The word means fun, but it means more than that. It's an outlook that says when you get up in the morning it's important to make the day as enjoyable as you can. It also means finding as many occasions as possible to take a break from routine and get together with family and friends and kid around and drink and eat.

Especially eat. The Thais' greatest art is their food, and they know this. They graze on their finest contribution to human existence pretty much all day long but especially on the many local holidays established by someone peering at the stars.

I don't agree with my Thai friends that the configurations up above have any influence whatsoever on human affairs. There is no scientific basis to it — how could there be? — and it is hooey. Yet this thinking is so big a part of their cultural DNA that I don't think I am patronizing them by being irked at home and enchanted in Bangkok. Astrology is not part of Buddhist philosophy, but it followed Buddhism from mostly Hindu India thousands of years ago and it's a belief that apparently is in Thailand to stay.

North Americans, on the other hand, should know better. Astrology is definitely not part of our cultural anything.

A few years ago a local magazine in the Berkshires ran a straight-faced article about a South County woman who was doing a brisk business advising locals on their life choices based on their "charts." The piece contained numbers and graphs and purported to be somehow scientific.

I wrote a tart note to the magazine's editor, an acquaintance whom I respected, chastising him. He replied defensively — and non-specifically — but he did allow as how a Berkshire astronomer at an esteemed college had also complained vociferously.

I wasn't surprised. Being mischievous, I once asked Fred Franklin, the Harvard astrophysicist, who is a Wheaton family friend, what he thought of astrology. He just chuckled.

Nancy consulted stars

A recent obituary for Nancy Reagan mentioned how she drove White House schedulers crazy by having a West Coast astrologer advise her on the president's travel plans. The First Lady didn't want to risk disaster by having Ronnie show up in Tallahassee on the day Skaneateles dropped a stitch behind Jupiter while crossing paths with Hunca Munca on the way to Mars. Mrs. Reagan was widely ridiculed at the time, and appropriately so.

In Bangkok, a Thai friend of ours was trying to get his not-at-all-wealthy father's costly open-heart surgery paid for by the National Health. Thailand has universal government health care, but the quality varies and what you actually get — like so many things here — depends on your social class and your connections.

Our friend used all his considerable social skills to manipulate the healthcare bureaucracy. As a backup, he also went to the astrologer every day for heavenly guidance. One of these approaches worked.

Richard Lipez is a writer who most of the time lives in Becket.


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