The Helpless And Self-Denigrating Nature Of Hiding Things
I just read an article about Songkran on the April 10 front page of The Bangkok Post. The article read that spaghetti straps and traditional Thai sarongs were "banned" from the Songkran festival on Kao Sarn Road. Who was the subject of the ban? Only Thai women, as "foreigners were free to do what they wanted". Furthermore, the police explained the law was technically unenforceable as Thai women could ignore them, and the police would be helpless in forcing the issue with no legal mechanism.
The Minister of Tourism, among other officials, spoke about the ban at a meeting. They explained the reasoning for the ban, and stated that Thai women should "behave differently" than foreigners who wear revealing clothing. The response was a slew of criticism, which the Thai officials remained "tight-lipped" in response to.
This is a perfect example of the Thai mentality in attempting to hide the embarrassing, either to gain or save face, and how this mindset often actually makes the Thais lose face and credibility. Let's walk through the Thai thinking that led to the above events.
First, I can understand the point made, by the Tourist Minister, that certain clothing gets much more revealing when wet. I can see her concern that tight spaghetti strap tops and strapless tops will end up showing breasts. The last thing the Thai Tourism Authority wants is to support the stereotype, true or not, that Thailand is a destination for sex. This would be particularly embarrassing to the TAT and Ministry of Tourism, if such events were to occur at one of the most important Thai festivals, and at such a well-known tourist venue as Kao Sarn Road. Lastly, as Kao Sarn is NOT known for its connections with the sex-trade, it would make sense for the TAT and Tourism Ministry to protect it from being connected with the red-light district.
However, did Tourism Minister really follow the thought-pattern above? Can we assume the Thai thought pattern would follow what a Westerner would conclude? I would venture to guess she basically decided that the Kao Sarn Road Songkran festival was high profile and wanted to ensure no loss of face. In the traditional Thai way of protecting face, it is the object with the potential to cause embarrassment (Thai women, in this case) that must be controlled. Therefore, Thai women must be controlled and held to a higher standard than the farang tourists. Does this mean farang are revered? I don’t believe so. Most expats know the Thais are very nationalistic and proud of their heritage. At the very best, farangs are considered equals, but never better than a Thai. Instead, the farang women are allowed to wear whatever revealing clothing they wish, because it is not a source of embarrassment to Thailand. Sometimes the Thais even consider foreigners less than equals, and may consider the farang women’s inappropriate dress to simply be expected with such (a lower) people. This also has the upside of showing a strong contrast between the uncouth actions of farang women compared to the uplifting behaviour of Thai women.
Additionally, farang represent a source of revenue, and there is perhaps the thought of pleasing the customer. The Thais are part of the tourist attraction (destination), which the Tourism Ministry and TAT would desire to be clean and family-oriented. The farangs are not part of the attraction (destination); they are the customers and visitors to the destination. Therefore, it is the TAT’s concern to both please the customer and to ensure the environment is clean and acceptable. It would not make sense to irritate the customer by dictating how they dress. However, it would make sense, given the TAT’s goal of a family-oriented Thailand as a tourist product, to wipe out signs of the erotic side of Thailand. This is a product most Thais, who are constituents of the TAT and the Ministry of Tourism, approve of. It makes Thais proud of their heritage and nation, whereas the farang-oriented nightlife only reveals an embarrassing reality of Thailand. After all, it is a reality that the farang-oriented prostitution scene is only a very small part of a much larger Thai-selling-to-Thai prostitution market within the country.
Whichever thought pattern was going through the Tourist Minster’s mind, the net effect was the same for this year as for many years before. It was also similar to so many other attempts by the Thai tourist officials to suppress the embarrassing and sexually erotic sides of the country, which so often come hand in hand, like a Thai hooker and her farang customer. The more they try to suppress and hide this side of Thailand, which they deem embarrassing, the more it seems to be accentuated.
It is innate in Asian and especially Thai culture to hide the embarrassing, to avoid it, to run from it. However, sometimes you cannot run and you cannot avoid it. The major Songkran festival at Kao Sarn is just such a situation. Additionally, it is not likely they can hide the fact Thailand is changing either. Wouldn’t it be better to admit that the younger generation is starting to act and behave like Westerners? Wouldn’t it be better to just let those from the nightlife who attend this festival dress as they do most days (in relatively revealing clothes)? After all, the alternative is to hold such public "bans", which due to their lack of legal-backing (there are no laws in place to support the ban) and clear double-standards, only draws attention to the very thing the TAT and Tourism Ministry is trying to hide — that there are attractive women running around Bangkok (with wet T-shirts) revealing their breasts to foreigners. Hasn’t the TAT just done a great job of advertising what the go-go bars are providing at Patpong and Nana?
If they made the situation more low profile, than people would pay more attention to other reasons for visiting the Kingdom. Sometimes, the best way to hide something is to play it down and ignore it. This is one part of Thai culture the Thai Tourism Minister seems to have forgotten. In the end, it is often only embarrassing if the Thais care too much about what foreigners think. For a people who believe they are equal if not better than others, and who are so proud of their uniqueness in the world, why do Thais care so much what others think of them? It reminds me too much of the ludicrous things teenagers do to "fit in". In the end, by trying to conform, you often look like a fool.
The image of Thailand as a sex-tourist destination could be much more effectively reduced, if the authorities either went after eradicating the root causes of the sex-trade, or at least worked at going after the actual sex businesses. However, that would require much more than making public statements of bans that are legally unenforceable (thus embarrassing the police and the government), attracting the criticism of others (embarrassing themselves), and putting it in the minds of possible tourists that Thailand is no longer fun and thus perhaps not worth visiting.
If, on the other hand, all the Tourist Minister was trying to do was to prevent that flashing of Thai women’s nude breasts, thru wet T-shirts, than it still goes back to the self-denigration of trying to hide things the Thai way. She should have either made a "request" of ALL Songkran visitors to wear less revealing clothes, or she should have ensured the laws supported a true "ban" of certain clothing. By applying a double-standard between farangs and Thais, it only angers the Thais (who may feel foreigners are given more respect) and the foreigners (who may feel they are looked down upon and therefore held to a lower standard), while at the same time making herself look like an ineffective leader who is perhaps just putting on a show in an attempt to save or increase face. I am not Thai, and I wonder if such behaviour actually increased her face among her countrymen? I have always found it difficult to comprehend that many Asians consider such behaviour a reputation-builder, while in the West it only seems to show half-hearted sincerity or possible lack of competence. As surprising as it may be to those new to Thai culture, I honestly believe the Thais in charge often consider this a face-building activity among their Thai constituents. Perhaps even more shocking, their assumptions maybe be true and their Thai constituents likely do approve of their actions, choosing to neither see the ineffectiveness of their "bans" nor the face loss it incurs in the international tourist community. After all, if they were wrong, why are they still in office?
On the ground, the Thai women who I spoke to about this thought it was stupid. Yeah, the Thais often over-react and make fools of themselves, and the seeming inability to look at themselves and really question what is going on means that things won't change.