Thailand: Rain on My Parade

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It was supposed to be the party to end all parties, on Thailand's premier party isle; a riot of noise and color that would banish the specters of terrorism and SARS and celebrate Koh Samui's transformation from druggy refuge to haven of good, clean family fun. The Beach author Alex Garland was out, floral garlands were in—if you bought the hype.

Bangkok Airways, organizers of the inaugural Koh Samui Carnival, flooded newsdesks this summer with breathless prose and photos of brown bodies draped in fruit and feathers. Koh Samui was billed as the "Rio de Janeiro of the East." The press release added: "To say that there has never been anything quite like it in Asia is an understatement."

Hyperbolic promotions to lure back tourists are de rigueur in Asia these days—from Malaysian shopping carnivals to Hong Kong air ticket giveaways. And the Koh Samui Carnival is an example of the kind of latter-day tourism twaddle that should never have made it past a boardroom brainstorm.

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 Thailand: Saving Koh Samui from itself


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The promised highlight of the three-day bash was a Friday afternoon parade. But the closest thing to Rio's sumptuous Samba schools was a float from a local Brazilian restaurant, with two dusky dancers and a band. The rest of the dozen or so floats looked hastily cobbled together from tinfoil, and the bulk of the parade comprised local schoolchildren.

Predictably, there was a sizeable contingent of jiggling ladyboys, who never need to be told twice to put on a frock. Meanwhile, a "fun zone" boasted tired fairground rides, and in the evening, DJs appeared at a "dance zone," although organizers' promises of "top international names" evaporated with the tropical breeze. Critics were sharpening knives before the fest was over.

LATEST COVER STORY
Is the U.S. Stretched too Thin?
September 1, 2003 Issue
 

ASIA
 Terror: Hambali's heir apparent
 North Korea: Kim's next move
 South Korea: Reunification?


ARTS
 Movies: Singapore's gritty 15
 Sports: Japan's no-hit wonders


GLOBAL BUSINESS
 India: The new middle class


NOTEBOOK
 Economy: Rational exuberance?
 Afghanistan: The Taliban returns
 Tech: Dawn of the worms
 Korea: Roh's media feud
 Milestones
 Verbatim
 Letters


TRAVEL
 Thailand: Saving Koh Samui from itself


CNN.com: Top Headlines
"I knew it would be a shambles," said one prominent hotelier, who asked to remain anonymous. A local art dealer sniffed, "Carnival is in the blood. You can't conjure it up on a word processor," adding that comparisons with Brazil were ludicrous.

Indeed, since mentioning the R-word, Bangkok Airways have been backpedaling fast. "We don't expect people to compare us to Rio, we're just Koh Samui," says M.L. Nandhika Varavarn, the airline's senior director of corporate communications. She proclaimed the carnival a success, claiming a first-day crowd of 10,000, full hotels and extra flights scheduled from Bangkok. "The idea was to give the island a boost in the low season, and we achieved that."

But are manufactured parties really the best way forward for Koh Samui and ailing Asian destinations like it? Last year, drought caused the island's taps to run dry—and threatens to do so again. The past decade has also seen unfettered deforestation and development accompanied by pollution. Koh Samui is becoming a parched paradise lost.

This hasn't escaped the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), which held a "Samui summit" last month where Cabinet ministers and TAT officials discussed how best to solve environmental and image problems. "Everyone has been told to go away and get a list of ideas together," a spokesman said. Not that the carnival can be considered a model for recovery. They may be targeting families, and there is indeed a decrease in the dreadlocked human detritus that normally washes up after full-moon ecstasy parties on nearby Koh Phangan. But Koh Samui's traditional customers may be hard to ditch.

Take Dave, for example. As the carnival quietly ran out of steam on a Sunday night, he loomed like an apparition out of the "dance zone," poured beer on his naked chest, embraced me, tweaked my nipple and regarded me with saucer eyes. Here was authentic Koh Samui man, unabashed and raving. "Sorted mate," he said. "Effing sorted or what?" The carnival had made someone happy, anyway.