Friday, June 20, 2008

Of 'Sanuk' and 'Mai Phen Rai'

Pix 1: Phi Ta Khon ghosts & spirits festival in Loei
Pix 2: Loy Krathong.

One of the perks of working with a foreign tourism authority is that you get to chalk up a lot of travelling, in order to get yourself acquainted with every nook and cranny of your host country.

As always, the best part of the whole deal is the fact that you get paid to do it. It is doubly sweet if you are culturally-inclined; it makes every visit special and meaningful.

For the most part of 1990s, my public relations outfit served the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) as its PR consultant for Malaysia, rendering me and my consulting partner frequent travellers to Thailand.

Our main task was to organise regular trips to all parts of Thailand for members of the local media, to highlight the country's natural and cultural richness and savour its local festivities.

Make no mistake; Malaysia is very important to Thai tourism. The country has been topping Thailand's tourism arrival charts for decades, making it a key tourism resource.

Last year alone, of the 3.7 million tourists from ASEAN, 1.5 million were from Malaysia. Close on the heels of Malaysia in the one million tourist arrival bracket were Japan (1.2 mil), China (1.0 mil) and Korea (1.0 mil).

As a tourism destination, Thailand is a heady mix of old and new. The sheer wealth of its culture, the unashamedly garish, in-your-face nightlife it offers, the genuine hospitality of its people coupled with its reputation as a shoppers' paradise, are enough to induce repeat tourists.

From the Phi Ta Khon festival of ghosts and spirits in Loei to the Bun Bangfai Rocket Festival in Yasothon where home-made rockets are fired into the sky to entice the gods to bring rain, Thailand has the knack for turning sometimes lame and tame, nondescript local events into international tourist attractions.

Among the more well-known festivals are the Monkey Banquet in Lopburi, the Straw Bird Fair in Chai Nat, the Thao Suranari Fair in Nakhon Ratchasima (in honour of a local heroine) and Sunthorn Phu Day in Rayong (in celebration of a famous Rattanakosin era poet).

There is also the famous Candle Festival in Ubon Ratchathani, Korlae Boat Race in Narathiwat, Buffalo Race in Chon Buri, Elephant Round-up in Surin and the Isaan Kite Festival in Buri Ram.

Topping them off are of course the two most popular and highly-awaited festivals of all; the water-splashing Songkhran in mid-April, and Loy Krathong in November.

Songkhran marks the start of the Thai New Year when many Thais working in the city travel back to their home villages to celebrate with their respective families (just like our annual balik kampung exodus).

They sprinkle water on Buddha images and on the hands of monks as an offering to express confidence that water would be adequate to cover the dry season.

Loy Krathong is a religious festival during which krathongs (small rafts made of banana leaves and decorated with flowers, incense sticks and candles) are floated away as a symbolic gesture of letting go ill fortunes so that one can start life afresh.

Personally, what I enjoy the most about Thailand is its rich historical tapestry. I love wandering among the graceful ancient ruins of Ayutthaya, Sukhothai and Sri Satchanalai, taking in the intricately carved masonry of wats and stupas, visiting museums no matter how provincial, and sampling local foods.

I always looked forward to accompanying Malaysian journalists into Thailand. The ladies, almost always, would ask for the best places to shop and to have a traditional massage. They were the easiest to manage.

You let them loose in that monstrosity called Chatuchak weekend market (35 acres, over 15,000 stalls), and you need not worry about them again until dinnertime, by which time they would be too knackered to eat anyway.

The guys usually showed their unruly side the moment the soles of their shoes hit Thai soil. Our exchange, almost always, would be like this:

Reporter: Puteri, how come Patpong is not part of the itinerary?
PRC: Don't know, ask TAT.

Reporter: How to get there?
PRC: Don't know, ask the tuktuk fellow.

Reporter: How much is one of those.. err.. non-traditional massage and where to find it?
PRC: Don't know, ask the hotel.

Reporter: Puteri, You are not much help la!
PRC: Ishh, I am not supposed to la! We are on a cultural trip here! By the way, you guys wanna go shopping?

Reporter: Shopping? hang gila? Ni Thailand! Aku jantan la! [Shopping? Are you nuts? This is Thailand and I'm a red-blooded male!]

PRC: (Loooong sigh)

Mai phen rai! Mai phen rai!


  • Sanuk - the hallmark of all Thais. Literally it means "good time" and in practice it governs much of the way the Thai people work, rest and play. The best analogy I could think of is "don't worry, be happy."
  • Mai phen rai - literally it means "It's ok", very much like the Malaysian "tak apa" or the English "no sweat."
  • Our late Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman was a great one in saying "takpa, takpa" when faced with any situation. It must be his Thai heritage. His mother, Makche Menjelara, was Thai.

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