An elephant sprays water at young Thai revellers during Songkran festival celebrations.
An elephant sprays water at young Thai revellers during Songkran festival celebrations.
A tourist participates in a water gun fight during the Songkran Festival.
A tourist participates in a water gun fight during the Songkran Festival.

Chiang Mai, Thailand - Thailand's Songkran festival, the traditional New Year celebrated April 13 to 15, promises to be a chiefly Chinese affair in Chiang Mai this year, thanks to the popularity of the Chinese film Lost in Thailand.

“Chinese tourists account for 55 percent of our bookings for this Songkran,” said Phunat Thanalaopanich, president of the Thai Hotels Association northern chapter.

“Altogether we are expecting 95 percent hotel occupancy rates, including Chinese, European, Thai and other Asian guests,” he said.

The celebration is also called the water festival as it features playful splashing to cleanse oneself from the old year and help cool off during the hot, dry season.

Chiang Mai has never been high on the destination list for tourists from China, even last year when an estimated 2.7 million Chinese visited the kingdom, pipping Malaysia for the first time.

But only about 100 000 of those tourists visited Chiang Mai, 600 kilometres north of Bangkok, according to government estimates.

“Normally Chinese prefer going to the beach,” said Wisoot Buachoom, northern region director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).

“Chiang Mai is seen as more suitable for European market as a cultural and historical city,” Wisoot said.

Lost in Thailand, a low-budget Chinese comedy released in December that has become the country's largest-grossing domestically made film, has proven the TAT's best marketing investment.

The government office gave the film's Chinese producers 2 million baht to shoot it primarily in Chiang Mai and feature some of the city's famous attractions, Wisoot said.

Some of the featured sights, such as a beautiful transvestite praying at an ancient Buddhist temple, were not wholly appreciated by Thai officials, but no one is complaining about the results.

During the Chinese New Year festival, which fell on February 10, Chinese tourists accounted for 50 percent of Chiang Mai's 40 000 hotel room bookings, up more than 30 percent from last year, Phunat said.

“We were taken by surprise. When we asked them, why are you coming to Chiang Mai, they answered because of the film Lost in Thailand,” he said.

Chinese visitors are faithfully touring the locations in the film's plotline, which follows a pair of businessmen trying to find their boss in Thailand, with a Chinese tourist they meet on the way.

The itinerary includes elephant rides, visits to temples, sampling spicy Thai cuisine and a chase scene at Chiang Mai's Night Bazaar.

“They are chiefly interested in the Lanna culture and shopping, especially wooden handicrafts,” Phunat said.

Not everyone has been happy with the influx.

Some Thai tourists complained that the Chinese were rude and pushy during the Chinese New Year, according to newspaper reports.

While hoteliers were unprepared for the sudden influx of Chinese in February, they have geared up for Songkran.

“In our rooms we have a brochure in Chinese explaining how to follow Thai customs and what you shouldn't do,” Phunat said. “For example, we warn them against spitting in public,” he said.

TAT is planning a similar brochure, warning against spitting, talking too loud and jumping queue.

“At first we were going to do it only in Chinese, but then we felt that was too obviously focused so we are now printing it in Thai, English and Chinese,” Wisoot said. - Sapa-dpa