A massive influx of Chinese tourists into Chiang Mai has given a much needed boost to the local economy . But despite this, guests from Thailand’s northern neighbor are quickly wearing out their welcome—and that is putting it politely. The Thai language Daily News was a little more blunt in their story on the attitudes of Chiang Mai residents towards Chinese tourists when they ran with a headline that translates as “Chiang Mai folk are against the Chinese tourists using the toilet and not flushing.” As you’d guess, this kind of behavior doesn’t go down too well here.
After many setbacks to Chiang Mai’s tourism industry—due mostly to political shenanigans in Bangkok—the city should be wholeheartedly embracing the swarm of visitors from China. In just the past 5 years, their number has increased from 0.7 million to 4.7 million annually. It’s enough of a phenomena that the traditional tourist low-season hardly exists anymore. There’s now a steady flow of new arrivals year-round.
One would predict the number of Chinese tourists to be expanding at an even pace due to the growth of China’s economy, but Chiang Mai experienced a sudden deluge of visitors from Mainland China beginning in late 2012 after the release of the hit movie “Lost in Thailand” helped put the city on the map among viewers in the People’s Republic.
You might not expect a clash of cultures to result when Chinese visitors mix together with Thai people. After all, these two Asian civilizations have been mingling for centuries. Thais will proudly tell you that their country has never been colonized, and yet one of every seven “Thai” people in the country is ethnically Chinese, with up to 40 percent having some degree of Chinese ancestry. On top of this, the Thai Chinese make up the most influential group in the country. They are the business owners, politicians, and celebrities.
But the difference is that the Thai Chinese are so thoroughly integrated into Thai society that they have the same shared values as all other Thai citizens. The citizens of Communist China, on the other hand, have lived in another world entirely. Their values are completely different. The traditional family structure has been eroded by the one-child policy. And the brutality and lack of justice in a totalitarian government has caused its citizens to keep their heads down to avoid trouble rather than looking out for their fellow man.
So Chinese tourists tend to have a degree of self-centeredness and a lack of awareness for their surroundings and for the way they blend in with the people around them. I honestly feel bad for them because I know they just want to go on holiday to a foreign country and enjoy themselves. They are mostly completely unaware of how their behavior in public is seen as rude, inconsiderate, or disrespectful by others.
A survey, which was conducted between February 4-10 via social media, got 2,220 replies from local Chiang Mai residents. Among the results were the following:
- 80% agreed that Chinese tourists have caused problems such as: making too much noise, cutting in front of lines, pushing others, smoking, spitting, littering, disobeying rules of public places including parks and universities
- 70% felt they’ve lost privacy and peacefulness in public areas due to Chinese tourists
- 53% thought the local government is unable to deal with the situation
- 48% do not feel proud at all to have many Chinese tourists come visit Chiang Mai
Some other notable complaints included:
- stopping suddenly anywhere they feel like while driving in traffic
- removing clothing and bathing in a fountain in front of a famous shopping mall
- not flushing toilets after using them
In addition to these, talking with Thai people, I’ve found that some other common complaints are:
- hoarding food at buffets
- leaving a mess on restaurant tables
- dangerously cutting in front of other motorists by trying to turn right from the left lane
A quick glance at online comments in social media will show that the behavior of Chinese tourists in traffic is probably the biggest complaint overall. I suppose it is only natural for drivers in a strange city to appear somewhat lost, but many Chinese tourists also appear like they have no driving experience at all. As mentioned above, it’s quite common to see them attempt to turn right while positioned in the left-hand lane, thus cutting right in front of cars who are trying to drive straight forward. I’ve also seen many who stop and park momentarily in unsafe spots while they consult a map or converse with their group about which way to take.
If you’re getting Thai people to complain about your driving, you must really be doing something wrong considering Thailand has one of the highest per-capita road fatality rates in the world. The one thing that Chinese tourists do better than local Thai people is wear helmets religiously. In fact, you can easily spot who is a Chinese tourist because they’ll be the ones wearing helmets.
But while they’ve got their protective headgear covered, one has to wonder how many actually have a proper driving license. In recent months, traffic police have been more strongly enforcing the regulation that residents need to have a Thai drivers license. Tourists are supposed to have an international driving permit, specific to the class of vehicle they’re operating. This means they should have a motorcycle license if they’re going to rent and drive a motorbike. But bike rental shops don’t seem to care if anyone has a license or not. If you’ve got money, they’ve got a bike for you. And while western foreigners have been targeted by traffic cops more frequently as of late, I’d venture to guess that the police don’t bother trying to stop Chinese motorists because they’re afraid they’d have to speak Chinese.
So while it’s common to see Thais complain about Chinese driving skills, they only have themselves to blame for allowing them on the road in the first place.
Bad driving can be explained by lack of experience, but strangely—many Mainland Chinese tourists also have difficulty walking. Of course, they know how to put one foot in front of the other, but they’ll often meander out away from the sidewalk and into the middle of the road. Furthermore, living in Chinese mega cities has so thoroughly desensitized most Chinese from the sound of a horn, that even if you’re less than 2 meters away from someone standing in the middle of the road blocking your way, beeping the horn gains exactly zero reaction from them—it’s as if they simply don’t hear it. This is the one peculiarity of Chinese tourists that perplexes me the most, because I’d think that living in a country with such a huge population you’d have to practice constant awareness of any vehicles around you when you go out in to the road or you’d soon be dead.
One common complaint I’ve read about regarding Chinese visiting Thailand is that they don’t respect local social norms, such as how to dress politely when visiting a temple. Honestly though, I think this is a non-issue. Ten or fifteen years ago this might have been a more valid complaint, but Thais have become less conservative over their clothing choices in the past decade. It’s now very common to see Thai women wearing short shorts out in public, where it would have been uncommon for “respectable” women to do so just a few short years ago. This looser attitude to clothing carries over into the temple, where I’ve seen many Thai women wearing outfits that match the “don’t wear this” side of tourist notice boards, yet nobody seems to mind. Actually, many Chinese women seem to like wearing very long skirts and sundresses. At least I’ve not heard any reports of them wearing bikinis to a temple, unlike some other foreigners.
The behavior of Chinese tourists at Chiang Mai University has also come under criticism. Having some very nice green areas, CMU is a pleasant campus to walk through, so I don’t entirely blame Chinese tourists for wanting to check it out. But there’s so many of them that their presence on campus is becoming a distraction for the students. Every day, you’ll see groups of tourists standing in front of the university entrance to get their picture taken with the sign. I would even guess it’s one of the top 5 most photographed spots in the whole city. The problem is they’ll stop their rented bicycles or motorbikes in the way of traffic while they pose for their photos.
Recently, one Chinese student caught grief from Thai netizens for her use of a university uniform. Thailand is one of the few countries in the world that has uniforms for university students, and the girls’ uniform is seen as cute by many people. So this young woman just thought it would be fun to buy a white blouse and black skirt that the students wear in order to take some photos on campus with her boyfriend. I’m sure she had no idea that most Thai people found her actions incredibly disrespectful. Instead of feeling flattered that someone from another country would want to wear a local style of clothing, Thais hurled abuse at the Chinese woman’s blog until she finally took it down.
So finally, what is the solution here? The number of Chinese tourists looks to keep increasing, and Chiang Mai is a city that thrives on tourism, so they should be happy about that. Something needs to be done, though, to better educate Chinese visitors on how they should behave as guests in Thailand. But it may be too late, as many Thai people have already formed a strong negative opinion about their Chinese brothers and sisters. And this will be difficult to overcome.