What’s in a Thai Name?

For me, names are permanent. Whatever tickled your parents’ fancy decades ago is pretty much what you are stuck with forever.

By | Tue 2 Dec 2014

For me, names are permanent. Whatever tickled your parents’ fancy decades ago is pretty much what you are stuck with forever. Yes, forever. Think headstones. The only times in my life I would consider changing my name would be if I switched sexual orientations and got married or if I converted to some odd religion. But for many Thai people, names are more than just an identity, they are indicators of luck, prosperity, and sometimes the sole reason for all the good or bad fortune in your life.

After hearing a few stories about friends changing their names and how life has really improved as a result, I became curious. What, exactly, is in a Thai name? Thais are very cautious about names. Astrologers, monks and fortune tellers are often consulted to ensure that the names chosen in no way conflict with date, even time, of birth. The tradition originates from Buddhism (or more likely, Thailand’s unique approach of placing all the strange animist and astrological beliefs under the banner of Buddhism) in the belief that almost anything in life can bring about good or bad luck according to specific circumstances.

As a result, name changing is the norm here, and even the government has made it incredibly easy to change your name.One form filled, and a new ID card can be printed in an afternoon. Incomparable to the lengthy legal processes of the west. In fact, there are some temples now that use actual name changing machines to help crunch out new names. Simply input the data and voila! You have a virtual Excel sheet of appellations to choose from. “Names make us who we are,” said Monk Vichian, the phra ajarn or resident fortune telling monk of Jet Yod Temple. “If someone is born at the same time, in the same room, on the same day, month and year as someone else, why are they not the same? Because of a name.”

Vichian is obviously not your traditional style monk. Chatting with him, as he took long drags off his cigarettes, felt more like a conversation with an uncle than a robed member of the sangha. My attempts to interview several other monks proved significantly less fruitful; one even fell asleep in the middle of our conversation – yes, mid sentence! Interestingly, these fortune telling monks don’t change or speculate on surnames.

Vichian told me it’s because the origin of a surname is blurry and thus cannot be accurately understood, but I think it probably has more to do with the fact that surnames aren’t really that important in Thailand. Indeed, people didn’t even have them here until 1913 when King Rama VI made it a law to “catch up with people who are regarded as civilised.” Vichian’s role is to suggest new first names and to give people advice about what they should do to realign themselves in the sea of merit. I, for one, believe that predicting the future is dangerous; not because I believe it, but because if your fortune is negative, your subconscious may follow that idea.However, before I could refuse, Vichian asked me my name and started his journey into me as a person, who I am and what I am like, all by looking at two vowels and three consonants.

The basic theory is that everybody’s name is relative to a set of numbers which then can be transcribed into a formula to predict your personality and whether you will come into good or bad luck. For this to work, you need to provide a monk with your name (obviously), your date, and if possible time, of birth and what day of the week you were born. I gave my details, cautiously awaiting his prediction. He seemed to put himself into a numerical trance as he began to write down a grid of 42 numbers, circling several number ones while muttering some strange incantation.

For Vichian, the piece of paper scribbled with numbers and lines was a map of the past and the future of my soul. I felt that I had just been unplugged from the matrix and was looking at all those green codes. When he came to, he smiled at me and lit another cigarette. “You don’t need to change your name,” he said, grinning. “You’ve already passed the worst years of your life.” Despite my scepticism, this pleased me. Vichian went on to describe my past with impressive accuracy. He talked about my childhood and even told me how old I was when certain key changes in my life occurred (all of which were correct). I just sat there smiling, nervous but inquisitive.

He said I see the world in a different way to most people, and that I don’t fully understand the norms of society but still strive to adhere. Again, I was taken aback. With a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosed when I was a child, this sentence was almost identical to a doctor’s report I have sitting in a drawer at home. Vichian then said I would be skilled at making profits from land sales specifically (if I could ever afford it?!), that I have an obsessive personality (can’t disagree) and that the only other “bad” year of my life will be when I hit 34.

“The truth is, I know about names,” Vichian mused. “I know the importance in a name. If you have the wrong set of vowels or consonants, it can really mess things up. So it’s better to change, right?” Lucky for me, Aydan seems to be doing just fine for now. Though I can’t promise what will happen when I’m 34…