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🐶 Clichéd life lessons from the Soi dogs of Thailand
Street mutts are many and you could learn a thing or two from them
I still remember Subramani.
He was a stray. As the ‘dogfather’ of the colony next to where I lived, he terrorized a small portion of my childhood, aggressively protecting his hood and engaging in manic and vicious chases that were the stuff of legends.
Subramani was one of 60 million stray dogs that live in India (more than the population of many countries) and was one of the many hundreds that made life on Indian roads interesting for me.
The rules of driving your motorcycle in this urban jungle:
Never let your hands go off the bike
Never speed up
Don’t kick or dangle your legs
I think those who grew up in India, driving cycles or scooters through streets filled with stray dogs, are well prepared for a future, doing speed runs through a derelict urban setup filled with zombie humans taken over by Cordyceps (I just recently watched The Last of Us - if you haven’t seen it, stop reading and first go watch).
Look, it’s no picnic being a stray dog in India. Dust, heat, and torrential rains are just the canvas. Murderous vehicles of all forms and shapes are always a threat. Eternal hunger. The toppings, over this Dickensian pizza dough, are the people who often seem unnecessarily cruel. I’ve seen dogs being stoned, beaten, threatened, abused, and harassed so much. In turn, the dogs are scared and aggressive. The vicious cycle of this urban jungle continues.
At the same time, the strays are often a fixture of life in colonies. People give them little nibbles daily, dog or human food - doesn’t matter, hands occasionally pet them and they find an ecosystem for survival in the twilight zone between feral and domestic. But despite being a bully, when Subramani stopped patrolling the streets (as dogs tend to do with time) we all felt a hole in our hearts.
Thailand has only a million or so stray dogs. But the moment you step into the quieter Sois of Bangkok or to one of Thailand’s islands, the little towns, and mountains, it is impossible not to encounter the strays.
And they are all unique.
1. The hyper-excited human-seeking missile
‘Holy fuck! a human being’
The fastest I’ve seen a dog move from being a little brown blip to a fuzzy brown streak to a zooming animal to the brown mongrel that seemed to have magically sonic-boomed his way to us was in Pattaya at Jomtien beach where N and I were staying for some work-action.
He had a manic glint in his eyes, the kind that indicates that some sweet chemicals are firing too hard in his brain. He had little whimpers and barks - joy unbridled, trying to find its way through his wind tunnels. His legs wouldn’t stop moving and the tail literally wagged him.
N, with a deep fear of dogs, began to hyperventilate next to me.
Once close to us, not knowing what to do with the boundless energy he’d generated from his nuclear power of human love, he ran in circles around us that grew wider and wider. He was creating his own Hadron Collider of Joy and we were its fulcrum.
Like any random stray in the streets of TN, we called him Ganesh. Why not? Every day, when we came to the beach, he would go from being a blip on the horizon to standing next to us, like a super dog. His name felt insufficient and we added a superpower moniker. This is the origin story of Flash Ganesh.
Life lesson: Be the fulcrum for someone
2. Goodfellas of the beach
‘Boys, get ready to assert dominance’
There are striking similarities between drunk rowdy teenage football fans and some dog packs. These packs, usually in sizes of 3-5 dogs, roam the beaches, pee territorially, make some growling noises, snip at each other, and generally watch out for intruders.
Any new walker is a potential aggressor. The best approach is not to look and to instead maintain a false sense of calm and walk by. You can see them looking at you, their haunches raised. Perhaps you hear a low pre-bark, that little sound that feels like something bigger is going to come. A few throw mud around with their legs like they are taking strike at the crease.
The sane option is to avoid them completely - which means abandoning that part of the beach. Assume you’ve ceded territory and know that you’ve been bested in this ancient animal dance of territorial claim. During Covid and a little bit after, walking on many deserted massive beaches where we are the only tourists, we would encounter several such dog packs and cede whole parts of the beach to them.
Life lesson: Avoid bullies and negative energy
The frisky dog pair just wants some privacy
‘Wait, wait….someone’s here!’
Usually a pair, often younger dogs that are having the time of their lives. They’re jumping and rolling, and giving little barks of fun. I have often wondered if this is a mating dance or if they are siblings playing a game. Either way, they are frisky and having so much fun that when you, the human, walk by, it is like you’ve caught them doing something naughty. They stop, stare at you, and consider how to best deal with it.
Most recently, I encountered a pair on a trip to Bang Kachao. As I was walking on the lonely path through the garden I could see the pair, a brown and a black playing with each other and then one of them walked closer to me, made a little pre-woof and when I ignored it, continued to play. Oftentimes, one of the pair is the aggressor and the other one joins in too. The rule here is to always stay calm, ignore, and continue on. If they turn friendly, you can too of course.
Life lesson: Live and let live
The dogs that rule the waterfalls
‘We’re going to run this waterfall’
The scariest encounter I’ve ever had was when I visited a lonely waterfall in Koh Chang.
I was already edgy. It was a solo trip and I’d been driving through several kilometers of hill and forest with no one around. As I parked my bike in the clearing to go to the waterfall and was about to step further, a pack of six dogs came growling toward me.
Right off the bat, they were uber-aggressive - barking, snarling, and making it clear that I wasn’t welcome. They pretty much surrounded me. Knowing that I had no option of moving fast, I stood my ground, my heart thudding but pretending nevertheless that I was calm, and continued staring out into the beautiful landscape. And then slowly, I edged my way to the scooter, like I was walking in water, started the vehicle (barks got more ferocious), and then began to move. Thankfully they didn’t chase. I abandoned the waterfall. N and I encountered similar gangs en route to a different one on a different island and abandoned that too.
Life lesson: Sometimes you have to fake it till you make it
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The scooter chasers
‘The chase is on!’
This is so common that it no longer bothers me. I’ve spent a big part of riding two-wheelers in India and being chased by street dogs.
Some of these chasers in Thailand are even cute. Fluffy little things trying to be all alpha and assert dominance over this noisy contraption running away from them. Sometimes they are a little more spirited and continue for a while. But dogs that chase scooters in Thailand have short attention spans (relative to Indian street dogs). Once in India, I was chased for multiple streets by one really determined dog that had a lot of time on its hands - talk about persistence.
It’s just a primal hunting instinct. You are better off just letting them chase and exhaust the energy. Most dogs have no clue on what to do when they catch up and that’s something to think about.
Life lesson: Don’t be the dog chasing the car your whole life
Dog in restaurants and roads that just can’t be bothered
‘Everything smells great but I just feel bored and sleepy’
What’s with dogs in restaurants? The times I have encountered them in Thailand, they’re always so zen, perhaps mimicking the energy of their owners.
Once in Koh Samui, we were left to guard an empty vegan restaurant with a gentle giant of a dog huddled at our feet, as the proprietor lady went to buy coconut milk to use in making the dish for us. The dog dozed at our feet the whole time, fluffed by our legs and not bothering to even wag a tail.
Restaurant dogs are always making their way calmly across tables and resting their head by the feet of all the patrons. I wonder how the world looks from their eyes, always encountering a forest of legs while something delicious wafts up above. Maybe its all the access the food that makes them so zen.
Life lesson: Sometimes all you need is some good food and rest
‘Oh..kay. I am just going to rest, ok? Right here, bang in the middle of this nice quiet street’
Tired dogs that don’t give a frack lie in the weirdest places. Middle of the road. The lone path up the little jungle you are trekking. Stone steps up to a temple. They don’t move a muscle but watch you as you gingerly sidestep them with the question ‘Where are you going in such a hurry’. Fair question.
Life lesson: Let sleeping dogs lie
Dogs that vibe with you - rasta dogs
‘Every little thing…gonna be alright’
I was sitting on a beach in Koh Chang, watching the sun go down in spectacular colors. A mild breeze had picked up as dusk rose and the beach was largely empty. Behind me, an empty beach bar started the evening reggae. The sea continued churning and the sky was a canvas infused with purple and orange.
Deep in this fantastic vibe, I spotted this black form on four legs saunter up to me and then plonked herself on the sand in front of me, feet crossed elegantly in front, chin resting as she too decided to enjoy the sunset. We didn’t speak to each other. I didn’t pet. We were just two animals vibing in sync as we watched the miracles of nature unfold. And then, once dusk fully set in, I rose and gave a parting ‘see you’ to the black beauty and walked away.
Sometimes you feel the energy of the dog that seems to be crafted from the same pool as yours. Some beach strolls I get a bodyguard I didn’t ask for. She would walk up and around me but keep pace for a long time. Again, no expectations of food or petting but just two creatures vibing. This happens only on beaches.
Life lesson: Remember, the Earth is big and full of fantastic things
Dogs at 7-11 doors
‘This moment here, this little moment when the doors open and I get a fresh burst of air conditioned air is called happyness’
I could write a whole separate essay on 7-11s (you call them ‘say-when’) in Thailand. They always feel like a homely refuge in the heat, will likely have what you are looking for, and always have fun, new interesting things to eat. But the most fun aspect of many of them is that surprisingly often you’ll encounter a stray doggie at its door, often lying flat across just over the threshold of the automated doors with their signature ‘ding dong’ whenever they open. They’re literally like the unofficial mascot of 7-11s in Thailand. There are whole Facebook pages dedicated to these dogs (and other animals :)).
They get the cool AC breeze from inside while still not going inside the stores. Every customer carefully sidesteps them, and when they enter, the door opens and the doggie gets a new blast of the chill air. The stores never shoo them away (perhaps there are those that do, I just haven’t seen them), the customers are always careful to step over them, and it’s a win-win all around.
Life lesson: If it gets too hot in Bangkok, find a seven
There you go.
Perhaps, I should do a separate on Cats of Thailand. It would go something like this:
Cats that scheme and plot
Cats that are divas
Cats that want to hunt you
Cats that want you to think they just want to rub
And cats trying to freaking mind their own business and failing
Cats in cafes
Could be Worse,
If you enjoyed it and you like to contribute to helping the strays in Thailand, there are several places to check out and contribute:
Lanta Animal Welfare – A dog and cat sanctuary on the island of Koh Lanta.
Forget Me Not – Thailand – FB community that organizes dog rehoming.
The Adoptable Puppy Café – FB community for dog adopters.