The Great Bangkok Songkran Bare Breast Debacle

Songkran is the traditional Thai New Year’s festival, a three-day holiday held each April at the height of the hot season.  The meaning of Songkran has been subject to much debate and over the past many years it has evolved into something much different than it originally was.  This year, however, Bangkok was caught up in a great Songkran scandal that, according to several local pundits, revealed the hypocrisy with which we choose to view “culture” and what is “appropriate”.

At its roots, Songkran is something of a harvest festival, a time of cleaning up after one year and getting ready for the next rice-planting season, which will begin when the rainy season arrives shortly after the peak of hot season.  Water has always played an important part in the Songkran celebration, and traditionally the holiday was celebrated by performing the “rot naam” (pouring of water) ceremony. 

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In this picture I took three years ago, school children dressed in traditional Thai outfits pour water over the hands of their elders.  This is a way of showing respect and blessing them. 

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In fact, this same ceremony is performed when a couple is married, as in this example from my Thai teacher’s wedding this past December.

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In addition to pouring water on the hands of elders, there is a religious aspect to the Songkran celebrations, where you pour water on the hands of monks and also over Buddha images, washing and blessing them.

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So those are the traditional celebrations of Songkran.  Given that Thailand is a hot, tropical country it is no surprise that along the way some amount of splashing about with the water also happened.  So Songkran started to get a reputation as being “the water festival” and was thus stylized by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.  A little bit of playful, good natured splashing for the youngsters to engage in, if you will.

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Somewhere along the way, though, it evolved into something more: a water war with roving mercenaries with pump-action water guns.  This picture above is typical – families or young people fill up large tubs in the back of a pickup truck with water (usually with some blocks of ice in them) then drive around the city looking for revelers in other trucks or playing by the side of the road.  An impromptu water fight ensues.

Often, though, it isn’t just the revelers who are involved.  Anyone on the street – including those who are not interested in playing – are targeted with ice cold water.  A favorite target is passing motorcycle drivers and as you might imagine, there are any number of accidents in which motorcyclists lose control and crash after being splashed unexpectedly.

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In some sections of the city the celebrations turn into chaos, the streets shut down with people splashing each other with water and smearing each other with talcum powder.  Needless to say, the partying is fueled by substantial quantities of alcohol.

Which leads us to this year’s scandal.  Let me start by making clear that, while I don’t particularly enjoy the mess that Songkran has become, I also don’t have a bone to pick with it.  I either get out of town during the holidays or stay indoors to avoid unwanted splashing.

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The scandal began when video clips appeared showing a trio of young women – reportedly ages 13, 14, and 16 – dancing topless on a vehicle along Silom Road.  Worth noting is that Silom Road is adjacent to one of the more famous red light districts in Bangkok where you can find things much more racy than this.

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As you might imagine, there was a big fuss over this nudity and there were no shortage of pundits and officials tripping over themselves to proclaim what an insult to Thailand and Thai culture this was.  In a statement, Culture Minister Nipit Intarasombat said, “the clip has negatively affected the image of Thai culture and that all parties involved with such behaviour should be punished, while asking police to give importance to this issue, for it destroys the country’s reputation.” (emphasis mine)

The girls surrendered to the police, were made to publicly apologize, and were fined 500 baht (about US$16) each, and released.

As for the hypocrisy that was pointed out by several observers?  Well, that comes in two parts.  The first is the “oh, that’s too damn funny” part.  Reportedly, at the time of this whole scandal, if you went to the website for the Thailand Ministry of Culture, the following art was displayed on the page banner:

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The picture shows some young Thai girls dancing topless in what looks like a water festival, right?  This was quickly picked up on by the denizens of the internet who hooted and hollered, posting and tweeting about how the Ministry of Culture was both promoting and punishing topless Thai teens at the same time.

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In no time at all – as one observer pointed out, on a Sunday, nonetheless! – the nubile nipples were replaced with this classical Thai picture which, if you look closely, also has some bare breasts displayed in it.

Several other commentators pointed out that the impromptu redecorating of the Ministry of Culture’s website wasn’t the real hypocrisy, though.  They explained that the real hypocrisy is that Thai society has long treated women and girls poorly.  The sex industry here, the vast majority of which serves Thai men, not tourists, is founded on the treatment of women as sex objects.  Young women and girls are sold into sexual slavery and rape is often not reported or, when reported, the women are treated as the guilty party for bringing shame on their family by not keeping quiet.

Now, I want to make clear that I’m not singling out Thai culture for its hypocritical treatment of women.  I’m just reporting on the controversy that erupted here.  Plus, hypocritcal treatment of women is something that is too common almost everywhere in the world.  But as a number of cooler-headed commentators pointed out about this event, the trio of topless girls aren’t the cause of the problem.  They are the symptom of larger societal attitudes that need to be discussed and addressed.  I wonder if this event will provide a catalyst for that discussion to begin?

 

0 thoughts on “The Great Bangkok Songkran Bare Breast Debacle

  1. Interesting read. It sounds like fun =)It’s funny how, as different as the background traditions might be, it basically devolved into exactly what it would have eventually become had it started in the U.S. =p No matter where you go the holidays mean one thing: getting drunk, screwing around, and taking pictures and videos you will later regret.this is why I’m an experimental psychologist… or more importantly why I can get paid to be a psychologist

  2. Asian culture is hypocritical. We like saying we’re conservative and stuff but the society says otherwise. Oh well. The splashing of water is somewhat similar to the “feast of San Juan” here minus the topless ladies. 🙂

  3. Take out the alcohol factor and most of the rowdy behavior disappears – still the idea of a water festival at the hottest time of year you have to expect a little overzealousness. Hypocrisy happens everywhere. The sex trade sickens me.  

  4. we have a celebration of the harvest festival in India, called Holi. Colored water is sprayed on all people … but usually within a home or yard or in closed compounds. it is a lot of fun, and nobody hurts anyone. It is sad that the Thai culture is finding itself in the grips of criticism. Yes I’ve read about the sexual exploitation of the young girls in Burma and Thailand. What a shame.

  5. The water fights remind me about was goes on in Spain during the harvest festival. Truck loads of tomatoes come into town and thousands of people go out on the streets and have a tomatoe fight. Its a messy situation.

  6. Interesting blog and beautiful pictures as well. I have heard more about the sex trade in Thailand lately than anything else. How can we expect young women to behave like ladies when we are treated like whores? That always confused me. And I am in no way opposed to women taking off their shirts, especially when mowing the lawn.

  7. yeah.. it is very hypocritical. Sad in a way for these young girls.I know Burmese Water Festivals have become of the similar nature. Too much alcohol and sex. I miss the old days when it was clean fun.

  8. First of all, I’m tickled that “Bare Breasts” in the blog title manages to drive hits, currently at about twice the normal level!  Ah, the depravity of it all…  =D@DriftingDeadly – @awoolham – Songkran and Thingyan (in Burma) are essentially the same.  Many countries in SE Asia celebrate some variation of this festival this time of the year, @ZSA_MD – and the connection with Holi in India is no surprise, since Buddhism and many of our traits (with Hindu and Bhraminist roots) came originally from India.@awoolham – Thanks, too, for the rec.@nurseynursey – Your sentence – “How can we expect young women to behave like ladies when we are treated like whores?” – sums up what several of the more aware (and non-hypocritical) commentators had to say.  We treat women as sexual objects yet are shocked when they act as anything less than prudes.@ClimbUpTreesToLookForFish – And of course the difference between those two is a matter of perception more than reality.@Fatcat723 – That’s very true Rob.  Any large crowd of people you will have people whose behavior isn’t ideal.  Humans aren’t at their best in a mob setting!@The_Eyes_Of_A_Painter – Yes, there are some comparisons to Tomatina, aren’t there?  I guess I should be glad that here they are using just water and talcum powder.  Tomatoes would be a bear to clean up!@murisopsis – The fact that these underage girls admitted they had been drinking was kind of brushed over by the police, since that would be an admission on their part that they weren’t policing the event very effectively.@CurryPuffy – A “revealing” entry?  Ha ha ha…  Oh, Gary, you didn’t go there, did you?  As for ladyboys, I have no doubts that there were plenty out playing, too.@oxyGENE_08 – Interesting how the Feast of San Juan has roots in the same traditions as Songkran but evolved into having a Catholic meaning.  Kind of like Christmas being held on December 25 to co-opt the celebration of Winter solstice.@ThePrince – @Passionflwr86 – You’re right, it is more of the same (hypocrisy) and not really that surprising.  Although we don’t usually get to see such a naked display of hypocrisy.  Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun.  (Thanks for the rec, Meg.)@jenessa1889 – Kind of like Val said, add alcohol and it isn’t surprising how things ended up.  Your comment about taking videos you later regret is particularly funny, though.  Smart phones and the internet do not pair well with impaired judgement.  Thank you for the rec.@npr32486 – There is definitely blame to go around, but in this case it doesn’t seem like the authorities or anyone in a position of responsibility has accepted that responsibility.

  9. I can see why the young girls created such a scandal, simply because they are so young! I would be appalled if my teen daughter does that. I see the picture on the official website as more art than sleave whereas the picture of the three young girls is more sleazy.

  10. @icepearlz – I understand your point, but if the picture of the young girls had been a painting instead of a photo (or video, since it was taken from a video), would that had transformed it from sleaze to art?

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