Winning While Losing: Gambling in Thailand

Maggie Dickmann

© Copyright 2020 by Maggie Dickmann

Photo from Koh Tao, 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 Iím 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 tries 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 the Islamic countries of Indonesia and Malaysia, my travel companions and I were tired of it. Sam and Samu, my travel companions at the time, suggested crossing the border to Thailand, a primarily Buddhist country. Thailand hadnít been in my original plan, but I was eager for a change of scenery, and Thai curry always hits the spot.

We crossed the border in a minibus and spent the night in a city just on Thailandís 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 we didnít speak the local language, we had to fall back on the next best thing: 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 asked him what cards were called in his language, to which he replied, ďpai.Ē To date, thatís the only Thai word I remember, and I donít even think itís accurate.

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, ďpai?Ē We were turned away again. After leaving the third or fourth store, Samu suddenly remembered that gambling is illegal in Thailand. But surely that wouldnít mean that playing cards were also illegal, would it? As it turns out, no, pai isnít illegal, just very hard to come by, for our perseverance won out and we eventually acquired a deck of cards. Hooray!

The journey to Koh Tao was long. It involved a train, a bus, and a ferry, and 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 to make some baht 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 arenít often played out in the open. We werenít betting anything, though, so we didnít worry about it. Nonetheless, at one point we had five adults and three children crowding around our table to watch. As travelers, we might 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. Thereís a draw pile and a discard pile. Your turn starts when you draw and ends when you discard. The game ends when one playerís 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 winced if I missed some easy points.

Before every hand I dealt, I asked the older man if he wanted to play. He declined three times. However, as I shuffled the cards to deal 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 Grandpaís giggle when he looked at his hand. In a country where gambling is illegal itís only understandable that he would have no poker face. He went first. He drew a card and smiled a wolfish grin, but didnít play anything. He discarded and Sam took his turn. He too drew but played nothing. I drew, but I didnít need the card, so I discarded it. Grandpaís eyes lit up when I placed the jack of clubs on the discard pile. He snatched it up, confidently threw down two sets worth an impressive sixty-five points, and then simply 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 didnít 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.

Maggie Dickmann is an amateur author who writes nonfiction and recently, fiction. She has contributed to small online travel blogs, such as Pink Pangea. Though she enjoys writing fiction, none of her stories have yet been published.

Author Bio: Though originally from Washington State, Maggie Dickmann has lived and traveled all over the world. She currently resides in Spain with her cat, Ms. Biscuits. Maggie loves traveling, eating local cuisines, reading, and watching movies with Biscuits. 

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