Confusing Noon and Midnight: Time in Thailand by Christopher G. Moore

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There’s a reason that the military, police and professional criminals use a 24 hour clock to co-ordinate ambush, surveillance, or other operations with a team of people who must act in unison if they want to be successful and accomplish their goal.

The 24 hour clock is perfect for making certain everyone shows up at the same time to knock over a gold shop or surprise a group of insurgents planning an attack.

Catching an international flight is another example of exact timing co-ordination. You need to know when the flight departs so you can be at the airport in time to board the flight.

The least ambiguous measure of time is the military 24 hour clock. 24.00 (twenty-four hundred) hours is midnight, and 12.00 (twelve hundred hours) is noon. Unlike the decimal system, time has a number of different ways of being expressed depending on language and culture.

What made me examine the issue of cultural timing was a call I received from a good Thai friend. I was in the middle of dinner.

“Khun Chris, are you busy?”

“Never too busy for your call Khun Chai.”

“My travel agent is making me crazy.”

“How so?”

“My flight to Berlin leaves at 12.30 a.m. and he is trying to tell me that is a night flight. I keep telling him a.m. means it is an afternoon flight. I mean, I’ve been on that flight before. It leaves in the afternoon. How can he say it is night time?”

“When the sun is high in the sky and it is noon, is that a.m. or p.m.?

He paused as if I’d asked a trick question.

“I told him a 12.30 a.m. flight is a day time flight.”

“So noon is a.m.?”

“That flight leaves during the day.”

“And midnight? Is that a.m. or p.m.?”

“But he’s wrong, isn’t he? I knew you that you’d know.”

In the Thai language this confusion doesn’t exist. Noon is tien. And Midnight is tien kuun. The kuun part means ‘night’ eliminating any argument. But near a.m. or p.m. have any reference to day or night. The problem is when we see only 12.00 a.m. or 12.00 p.m.—this twilight moment which seems—well, confusing.

This confusion comes from the Latin. A.M. is an abbreviation for before noon or midday, while P.M. is afternoon.

It is the 12.30 a.m. and 12.30 p.m. designations that confuse people who show up at the airport twelve hours early or twelve hours late for their flight.  If you concentrate on 12.30 a.m. you can remember this is the beginning of the new day which in this case is Monday 1st April.

So 12.30 a.m. on 1st April is what we’d think of as night even though a new day is born. It is, in other words, not Sunday 31st March any longer. But it feels like an extension of Sunday night of 31st March to our senses (especially if we’ve been drinking). We are fooled by our senses which tells us that it is still some time on Sunday before the sun rises on Monday which was already born at 12.01 a.m. 1st April.

And 11.59 p.m. is the ending of a day—in our case a Sunday ends.

One problem we have is when we fix out mind on a certain formula we cling to the idea our understanding of the formula is correct. When someone gets the time wrong, you can gently explain by saying your watch is slow or fast. Over the phone people don’t time check in the same way. They can read each other’s facial expression. If Khun Chai could have read mine, he would have know that I had tried to explain that magical moment 23.59 hours when the 31st of March becomes the 1st April at 00.01 and counting. When someone makes up his or her mind in Thailand, it is hard to change it without a loss of face. When it comes to knowing what time it is—Thailand has been in many ways having this debate, and many are as confused about the current as Khun Chai is as to the departure of his flight.

There is one big difference, on the issue of a.m. and p.m., I suggested that Khun Chai ‘google’ the question and see if what he finds supports his belief that 12.30 a.m. is thirty-minutes after noon or thirty minutes after midnight.  Knowing the time has a political dimension. In this case, it isn’t whether it is morning and evening, but what century we are telling time in. If you need to check which century you are living in  you might discover that your Google search has been blocked by the authorities, who have already decreed you are living at the dawn of a new age.

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