Farang have been the dominate touri demographic in Thailand for decades. And thanks to the internet, first-time English speaking visitors have a wealth of information at their fingertips. But in addition to ideas of what to do and see while in the kingdom, there’s also a plentiful supply of warnings of things not to do. Like falling for the Grand Palace is Closed scam. Which they do anyway. But at least most visitors pay attention to warnings about cultural no-nos to avoid causing offense, or committing a criminal offense. The Ugly American abroad may not be just a stereotype, but for the most part we’ve learned how to behave ourselves while misbehaving in Thailand.
The Russians had their heyday too. Although it was more of a morning than full day. Loud, obnoxious, and culturally insensitive, not long ago it seemed you couldn’t turn around in Thailand without bumping into an over-weight and in dire need of a shower Russian. Then the ruble went back to being the worthless currency it has historically always been. Do svidaniya Russkies.
The new touri paradigm in the Land of Smiles is mainland Chinese visitors. Thailand is one of China’s largest outbound tourism destinations. According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand, around 4.6 million Chinese tourists arrived in Thailand in 2014, a minor decrease from the previous year due to political instability. You’d think with the historical influx of Chinese immigrants to Thailand those arriving on tourist visas would be easily assimilated into Thai culture. Instead, like those nationalities who’ve come before them, touri behaving badly is the name of the game.
Farang visitors have been well schooled in the cultural no-nos we’re supposed to avoid. Even if some of those rules make no sense. Never touch a Thai on the head, we’ve been told. But if you’ve ever spent a night enjoying the companionship of a bar boy, it’s difficult to not touch his head when those Siamese ears are just crying out to be used as handles. And while we know it’s rude to point your feet at another person, short of being a talented contortionist that is something difficult to do at times. Chinese tourists have it a bit easier. All they have to learn are a few simple rules. Like not peeing or taking a dump on city streets. For observing cultural sensitivities it may be a case of same same but different, but the Chinese have taken those differences to new heights. And Thailand is not amused.
The most recent incident of Chinese tourists behaving badly happened earlier this week in Chiang Mai. Authorities are looking for a tourist to publicly shame after he single-footedly enraged the nation by kicking a temple bell at the famous temple on top Doi Suthep. Video surfaced online Saturday of the man who is believed to be a visitor from mainland China delivering a deliberate kick to one of the temple’s bells.
Chuan Patwan, an administrator at Doi Suthep Temple, said he could not comment on whether the tourist was Chinese, as he did not witness the incident firsthand. However, he said that many Chinese tourists visited the temple over the weekend. “It will take some time to say whether the tourist is actually Chinese,” Chuan said. “But judging from his style, he was kicking his feet with so much agility, it was like kung fu.”
Blaming the Chinese may sound like a bit of xenophobic racism, but Chiang Mai has been plagued by rude and obnoxious visitors from mainland China thanks to the movie Lost in Thailand, a 2012 slapstick comedy that is China’s highest-grossing homegrown movie in history. Part of the film was shot at Chiang Mai University and the bucolic, once laid-back campus of one of Thailand’s top universities is now under a security clampdown. Not against a terrorist threat, but against Chinese tourists.
Thousands of tourists have clambered aboard student buses at the university, made a mess in cafeterias, and sneaked into classes to attend lectures. Someone even pitched a tent by the campus’ picturesque lake. Now visitors are restricted to entering through a single gate manned by Mandarin-speaking volunteers who direct Chinese tourists to a line of vehicles for guided tours. Individual visitors are banned, and a sign in prominent Chinese characters requesting that passports be produced is posted by the gate.
And their egregious behavior has spilled over into the surrounding area too. Chiang Mai residents have complained about Chinese visitors defecating in the city’s moat, causing accidents by driving recklessly – which considering the skills of your average Thai behind the wheel is really saying something – and defacing several tourist attractions, including Chiang Rai’s famous White Wat which banned Chinese visitors last year following complaints of “inappropriate toilet usage”. Evidently, like dogs, Chinese tourists feel the need to mark their spot wherever they go.
And like a tour bus load of mainland Chinese visitors, the complaints from locals continue to flow. Just this month alone reports surfaced about Chinese visitors breaking off a decades-old wooden stair pole at the Black House Museum in Chiang Rai, and a video that went viral of a Chinese woman drying her underwear on the back of a chair in Chiang Mai airport caused locals to cry enough is enough.
The Good General’s people have responded by printing etiquette manuals in Mandarin to instruct mainland Chinese visitors on proper museum behavior, requesting that paintings are not touched, warning against using public property as lavatory facilities, and encouraging proper driving behavior, according to the Tourist Authority of Thailand office in Chiang Mai.
Those manuals should make good reading material on the planes that drop thousands of mainland Chinese into Thailand daily. But that’s assuming they have the time to read the Thai government’s publication since they already have to wade through their own government’s 64-page “Guidebook for Civilized Tourism” which includes a long list of do nots, including nose-picking in public, stealing life jackets from airplanes, and slurping down noodles.
That publication came about last year after Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang said Chinese tourists’ negative conduct had “damaged the image of the Chinese people.” It urges travelers abroad to “abide by the norms of civilized tourist behavior.” Which, you have to assume was a bit too long to read on the Thai Air Asia flight that had to return to Bangkok after a Chinese couple became verbally abusive and poured hot water on a flight attendant. Ditto for the group of Chinese tourists who pushed over protective barricades at the Grand Palace to take a few selfies a few days later.
So it’s no wonder that in Thailand the Chinese have become the new Ugly American. Even when the blame, at times, seems to be placed on the wrong shoulders. Among the love ’em / hate ’em initiatives recently undertaken by the Thai government is a crack down on Chinese tourists who buy illegal ivory products during their stay in the Kingdom. According to Natural Resources and Environment Minister Dapong Ratanasuwan, this violation of Thai and international law has become far too common. “Buying these products is illegal. If Chinese tourists try to take them out of the country, they will face legal action,” he says warning that could include a free stay in a Thai jail. What he didn’t say was what the government proposed to do about those locals who sell ivory to tourists. Because when it comes to making some baht, the Thais want their cake and be able to eat it too.
With their economy surging, mainland Chinese have become the world’s most common world traveler, with more than 100 million expected to go abroad this year alone. In 2012, they overtook Americans and Germans as the top international spenders according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. And the Chinese are the biggest visitors to Thailand, accounting for 20 percent of total arrivals. Spending by mainland Chinese tourists jumped 80 percent to $6 billion in 2013 from 2012, and tourism accounts for around a tenth of the Thai economy. So while on one hand the Thai government is bitch slapping mainland Chinese visitors for inappropriate behavior, it’s other hand is reaching out for more of their cash.
Thanks to the civil unrest that resulted in the Good General’s rise to power last year, Thailand’s tourism industry took a solid kick to the nuts. And if anyone knows what happens when the military takes over, it’s mainland Chinese; visitors from China numbers slumped more than any other nationalities after the Good General’s military coup last May. In order to boost its sagging economic growth last August the ruling junta announced a three month visa fee exemption to stimulate Chinese tourism, and Thai authorities have attended road shows in major Chinese cities to advertise tour routes and travel products. ‘Cuz winning back Chinese visitors is what the Good General believes will make Thailand a happy place. But from the numerous complaints about their behavior, it would appear he forgot to explain to the Chinese just what happy means. And a place to empty your full bladder was probably not what The Good General had in mind.