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During April showers, watch out for emboldened young men
Monday, April 09, 2012

Our Expert on Divine Intervention vouchsafes: Earlier in the year, we reported on the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s plan to restore the kingdom’s image and revive its hospitality industry with a 6.3 billion Baht PR crusade, supported by the government under the title “Miracle Thailand Year 2012”. For many years previously, the TAT’s preferred slogan had been “Amazing Thailand”. Now, emboldened by the magical achievements of her first months in office (such as the swift reversal of the flood waters), PM Yingluck Shinawatra had decreed the nation’s elevation from being merely “amazing” to the status of an actual “miracle”. Strangely, there’s been precious little evidence of “Miracle Thailand Year 2012” so far, but perhaps the TAT has been distracted by what it refers to merrily as the “Songkran Splendours” of April.

Visitors to the TAT's web site are currently being regaled with a super-smooth depiction of the pious origins and present realities of Songkran. The annual water festival is celebrated on 13, 14 and 15 April in most parts of the Kingdom, though Pattaya – never to be out done where excess is concerned - now stretches the enforced jollity over several more days.

“If you go out on the street, you most certainly will get wet,” says the TAT, making an early bid for the Understatement of the Year award. “The normally quiet and respectful Thais go a little crazy at Songkran and arm themselves with water guns, hoses and buckets to soak anyone and everyone they see.” Just in case that doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time, TAT adds optimistically: “Try to keep your temper and smile.”

Despite its references to Sanskrit, the zodiac, sand pagodas in temple grounds, the bathing of Buddha images and paying respect to elders, the poor old TAT can’t disguise the fact that Songkran has, in parts of Thailand, become an extravaganza of smiling yobbery.

The TAT makes no reference to the huge increase in road traffic accidents that inevitably accompany the middle days of April. Nor do they acknowledge that the transformation of the festival from an Indian-influenced ritual of blessing through the sprinkling of water to an industrial-scale aquatic assault has been encouraged by visiting westerners.

More inspired by Johnnie Walker than by Buddha, the process has been the opposite of “going native”. Tradition (and there’s the most over-used word in the Thailish language) has been hijacked – lock, stock and water barrel – by a strictly western idea of fun. Songkran has gone the way of Ibiza, office Christmas parties and football hooliganism. The European colonialists have arrived at last. Thai decorum? Essex waives the rules. “Respect for elders”? Respect drowns during Songkran.

Still, the TAT’s advice can always be relied on to raise a smile, as they struggle to sustain a prim and proper tone while excusing the inexcusable. “If you are a woman, please bear in mind that thin white tee shirts and tops can be pretty revealing when wet. Traditionally conservative Thai young men emboldened by the occasion and possibly alcohol” – note that the consumption of alcohol during Songkran is no more than a possibility - “can become quite boisterous and” – here’s the best bit - “may try to touch you.”

In other words, if a woman wears a white tee shirt over Songkran, she’s liable to be groped as well as soaked and – by implication – she can’t complain. Besides, the young man who does the groping is sober and “conservative” for three hundred and sixty two days of the year, so that’s all right, then: a miracle, indeed!

But we’d still like to know exactly what has happened to “Miracle Thailand Year 2012”. The main miracle-related activity on the TAT’s site is “Miracle Me”, where site visitors are invited to upload photos they’ve taken of “anything you think should be included in the Miracles of Thailand… not necessarily of tourist attractions.”

Some appealing scenic views have been posted, for sure, but so have a lot of nondescript snaps of holidaymakers grinning smugly in indeterminate locations, and a couple of pictures that look more like advertisements.

Why is the TAT fishing for images from the public in this way? Were it not for the involvement of the Blessed Yingluck, we’d be tempted to suggest that they’re short of ideas for the much-vaunted campaign, and can’t quite work out how to spend the 6.3 billion Baht. But of course, that’s the sort of thing to which no one would ever own up. Likewise, Thailand will probably be stuck with water guns, hoses, buckets and emboldened young men in the middle of every April from here to eternity, because nobody will admit the plain and simple fact that the once-beautiful Songkran has got out of control.

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