Pull up to the bumper

The usual uncouthness of fender stickers has been toned down as Thais remember their revered late king

On busy Rama IV Road, my driver explodes in a mighty chortle. "Well, would you look at that," he says, pointing to the pickup truck in front of us. In the back seat I look up from my position, documents in my lap, crunching numbers. It's been a stressful morning, especially since the numbers in question are the latest lottery results, and my ticket has come nowhere near the 6 million baht first prize.

"Look at what?" I ask, and my driver points to the pickup in front.

"The sticker," he says.

I can't quite make out what the yellow bumper sticker is saying but I can see the cartoon picture attached. It's of a yellow man bending over, flashing his yellow backside.

My driver barges into the right lane so that we can get past the pickup. He's only doing it to read the sticker, and as we pass it says, translated into English: "WHY THE HELL YOU WANNA GET SO UP CLOSE TO MY ASS?"


Some days, when I am sitting in traffic in a pensive mood without the distraction of failed lottery numbers, I do ponder the surprising ways people make a living in this country.

Bumper stickers are ubiquitous, with some vendors setting up market stalls selling them and nothing else. In other words, people are raising families and sending their kids to school producing yellow stickers of a man flashing along with offensive lettering. People are raising families selling them as well.

I wonder how they think them up. Do they have brainstorming sessions? Does everybody sit at a round table with snacks and beverages, drawing mind maps of potential obnoxious bumper stickers?

There is an art to making something guttural sound funny and then strike a nerve with the general population, in particular those driving pickup trucks. Somebody has to think it up, write it down, lay it out in Photoshop and then go off and print 30,000 of them. And it is clearly lucrative if their ubiquity is anything to go by. The internet has gobbled up so many industries; so far it hasn't found a way to gobble up uncouth bumper stickers.

But who am I to pass judgement? I am an Australian. We invented uncouth!

We were a wild and crazy bunch back when I was growing up in suburban Australia, an era summed up in a popular TV ad circa 1975 that told us we loved "football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars".

(This was pre-internet era, so we had no idea the ad was a rip-off of a 1974 American ad in which the yanks loved "baseball, hot dogs, apple pies and Chevrolets".)

Nothing could be greater proof of our wild and crazy nature than the bumper stickers we slapped on the back of those Holden cars. For example: "Don't laugh; your daughter may be inside."

I remember being in grade four when my best friend Ian's father got a new Charger. At the time there were ads on TV where old people in bell bottoms and platform shoes would shout "Hey Charger!" and give the peace sign as the car went past. Old people? I was in grade four, remember.

Ian's hip older brother stuck "Don't laugh; your daughter may be inside" on the back of that Charger. Who knows how his father felt about that, but that bumper sticker was so popular at the time, along with the one on every single ultra-hip Combi van: "If it's rockin', don't bother knockin'. "

Hilarious, I know. Right up there with "WHY THE HELL YOU WANNA GET SO UP CLOSE TO MY ASS?" but at least it rhymed.

I am loath to include "Honk if you love Jesus" in the mix though it was also prevalent among religious folk. They never drove trendy cars like Chargers and Combi vans. How could they? They had six or seven young mouths to feed and monthly tithes to pay.

My mother would not allow me to honk at those cars, swatting my hand away as she drove, muttering things like "don't get involved", as if honking for Jesus was a one-way ticket to hell or, worse, a heaven filled with those religious folk.

Those days are gone. We are in Thailand in 2017, and the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Take a quick look at the bumper of that pickup truck or 10-wheel semi-trailer as it thunders past you at 140kph in the right lane on Sukhumvit Road. You'll see messages like "I'm drunk every day", which was one of the first I noticed on such vehicles. In Thai it sounds a lot more street-savvy and obnoxious; feel free to insert an obscenity anywhere in that sentence for effect and you've instantly got a better translation.

That was the first Thai sticker to pique my attention and make me wonder why one needed to advertise the fact one was always drunk. Another common one, "Don't drink and drive -- you might spill your drink", is hilarious but wouldn't stand a chance online with all the social justice warriors. Neither would "Don't drink and drive -- so how the hell am I supposed to get home?" And anyway, isn't that a red rag to a bull for the local constabulary?

Speaking of cops, another favourite I have seen is "I've got only 20 baht on me, so no need to pull me over, OK?" alluding to the 100-baht-under-the-driver's-licence trick one pulls in the Bangkok traffic when summoned to stop.

"If I drive slow, the wife gets angry. If I drive too fast, the cops get angry" is another that cleverly mixes stern cops with nagging wives. A shorter one along similar lines is "Mia Do" or "Danger: Nagging Wife."

These are the most common themes of bumper stickers in this country -- nagging wives, police and getting drunk.

There is an issue of cleanliness too. "This is a white car" can be found on dirty, unwashed vehicles of every colour besides white. My own car often gets an anonymous "Wash me!" written in the dust by an unknown finger belonging to one of my staff, but that's not a bumper sticker. That's graffiti!

Recently at the Rot Fai Market behind Seacon Square, I found a bumper sticker shop and was surprised at how up to the minute it was. Remember the actor who forced the motorcyclist to wai his vehicle last year? He shouted at him to krab rot goo, or "Pay humble respects to my car!" Those three words have become folklore in Thai society. They are also a very popular bumper sticker that I had to buy, not for any reason other than it was ludicrous.

If you are a language scholar, Thai bumper stickers are great reading practice. They are straightforward and play on words, and of course they are funny.

You also realise that what is important to us as human beings or, rather, those things that bug the hell out of us, are no different across country borders. I'm sure there are Laotian and Bhutanese bumper stickers lamenting tough cops and nagging wives and not laughing about daughters being inside.

But this story has a happy ending. All is not totally uncouth in the world of Thai bumper stickers.

Cops, alcohol and nagging all take a back seat to the love the Thais have for the late King Rama IX. These days decorum has taken over, and the majority of bumper stickers are prayers and declarations of loyalty to the late monarch, with various depictions of the number nine.

The ability to be loyal, as well as to laugh, supersedes any offence I may take from a yellow backside flashed in my direction.

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