IN SWELTERING heat at Ayutthaya Historical Park north of Bangkok, Thailand’s capital, a bevy of beautifully clad ladies strut ostentatiously in their silky traditional costumes, known as chut thai. They are among thousands who visit daily to have their pictures taken amid the scenic ruins of the old city of Ayutthaya, destroyed by Burmese invaders in 1767.
Many of the tourists are not really there for the remains. Ayutthaya is the setting of a television series called Buppesannivas or “Love Destiny”, which has broken audience records in Thailand and stirred the nation into a frenzy of sartorial nostalgia. It is a time-travel love story about a woman in contemporary Thailand who is reincarnated in ancient Ayutthaya. In front of an old royal temple, Wat Chaiwatthanaram, half a dozen women dressed in the protagonist’s iconic pink chut thai wait their turn for a professional photo shoot. The temple’s periphery is plastered with posters depicting scenes from the soap.
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These days the park receives 18,000 visitors daily, up from just a thousand when the series began in February (it finished in April, but is being re-run). Most visitors are Thai, but there also many foreigners—the soap is also being screened elsewhere in the region, including Vietnam, Laos, China and Russia. Some ruins have been damaged by the sudden surge of visitors. Sukanya Baonoed, the site’s director, says visitors have been climbing on ancient structures and taking “inappropriate photos”. In March a picture of a woman (not in chut thai) sitting on the lap of a Buddha statue caused fury among social-media users.
Mania for the show is widespread. Ayutthaya-era dishes have been added to the menus of Thai eateries. Hair salons offer styles seen on the show. It is a distraction for a country that has been plagued by divisive politics for more than a decade. “The show serves as escapism for Thais who imagine a kingdom that is united against foreigners instead of fighting amongst themselves,” says Waranya Pimsri, who studied anthropology.
It also happens to suit the agenda of the army, which took control in Thailand just over four years ago. Prayuth Chan-Ocha, the coup’s leader who is now prime minister, has complained that television dramas make people “fight and create divisions”. He says scripts must be written “on reconciliation, on tourism and on Thai culture”. He has praised “Love Destiny”.
Since 2015 junta leaders have been encouraging officials and students to wear traditional dress, perhaps believing that this will help to inculcate a spirit of patriotic conservatism and thereby boost support for the army, a bastion of such sentiment. Until now they have had little success. Yukti Mukdawijitra of Thammasat University says that before the show, people rarely wore chut thai except at weddings. He says Western dress has long been regarded by Thais as a symbol of modernity.
The monarchy, another stronghold of conservatism, has been encouraging the wearing of period costume. In February King Vajiralongkorn, who in 2016 succeeded his late and long-reigning father, Bhumibol Adulyadej, revived a traditional “Winter Festival” associated with one of his ancestors. Citizens were encouraged to attend in traditional wear and take part in retro-themed activities such as garland-making. The culture minister declared that Mr Prayuth and his wife were the “best dressed” at the event.
Mr Prayuth’s efforts to harness Thai culture to his own political ends are sometimes more blatant. Earlier this year, the junta launched a campaign called Thai Niyom or “Sustainable Thainess”—a project sounding like one that aims to appeal to people’s cultural pride but in reality is aimed at their pockets. It involves sending out 7,800 teams to help “local development”. This week, the junta approved a Sustainable Thainess project that involves doling out 200,000 baht ($6,240) to each of 82,371 villages across the country by July to “improve the quality of life”. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that national elections are planned for next February.
The junta may well have little to do with the show’s success, but it has decided to ride the wave. Mr Prayuth has appeared in selfies with the cast in traditional wear (see picture). Authorities have deemed the show so culturally enriching that it is now screened in Thai prisons. In March the interior ministry announced that people could have their national ID cards replaced with ones showing them in traditional wear.
Those with an interest in history may find all this disturbing. Chris Baker, the author of “A History of Ayutthaya”, writes that in the city’s heyday “paternal kingship” gave way to “royal absolutism” and freedoms were “buried by slavery and monopoly”. Those who cannot remember the past may be at risk of repeating it.