The Real Movie That Created Fake Students

If you’re an American junior or senior in high school, there’s a good chance that at some point over the next few months, you’ll be going on tours of colleges and universities. Almost all schools offer such an experience: the schools want you to attend their institution, and the tours are a good way for the schools to sell themselves to prospective students. As a result, almost all of these college tours are free. Sure, you have to pay to get there and you may need to book a hotel for the night, but it’s not like the university is going to charge you for the tour itself. In fact, most colleges let just about anyone walk around their campuses for free.

But if you want to tour Chiang Mai University, you may have to hand over a couple of bucks.

If you’re Chinese, that is. Maybe.

Chiang Mai University is located in Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand. It’s not all that close to Mainland China — to get from China to Thailand, you have to cut through Burma or Laos (or, more likely, fly) — but starting in December 2012, Chiang Mai became a very familiar city to many Chinese. The reason? A movie, titled “Lost in Thailand.” The film, was “by any measure a ridiculous movie,” according to Time Magazine. Per Time, the movie was “lowbrow” with low-budget action scenes and a “plot [that] feels like a rehash of The Hangover Part II and Planes, Trains and Automobiles” — which was the magazine’s way of saying “not all that great.” It has a 67% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (albeit on only six English-speaking reviews) and a 49% audience score, with a similarly-low 2.9 stars on Letterboxd. It’s a Chinese-language slapstick comedy that didn’t resonate with audiences outside of China. But in China itself, Lost in Thailand was a blockbuster. A month after its release, it had earned the equivalent of around $200 million and was the highest-grossing Chinese-language movie in China’s history at the time. 

And many of the scenes were shot in Chiang Mai. Within a year after the film’s release, Chiang Mai started to become a popular tourist destination for Chinese travelers. According to a study (pdf here) that explored the impact of the film on tourism in Thailand, in 2012, there were “2.8 million tourists from mainland China” to Thailand. The year after the movie came out? “The number of Chinese mainland tourists exceeded 4.7 million—an increase by 68.7%.” And, according to the paper’s authors, most of that gain can be attributed to the film. Fans of the movie wanted to see themselves in the same place as their now-favorite film.

And for Chiang Mai University, that became a problem. The movie doesn’t take place at the school, at least not in its classrooms or the like, but many of the scenes use locations on campus as a backdrop. And for many tourists, that was enough to make the school a destination on their itineraries. Thai publication Samui Times reported on some of the tourists’ more unusual activities:

The behavior includes sneaking into classrooms to take photos of teachers and students, causing car accidents, leaving a mess in the canteen, and pitching a tent near the lake and writing “we are here” in paint on the ground.

The most bizarre behavior, however, is the practice of costume play where the tourists buy or rent school uniforms and pose for photos, a practice which is widely encouraged on Chinese travel websites, according to reports. Many of these visitors also sneak into classrooms in school uniforms and attend lessons

Universities can’t have real students being disrupted by fake students sitting for classes — that’d be bad for everyone (other than the fake students, I guess) — so Chiang Mai University decided to take action. It was actually against the law to dress like a student when you aren’t one; per the Samui Times, “it is against university regulations for non-students to wear the uniforms – which consist of dark slacks or skirt, a white top, and a purple tie” and “under Thai laws, an offender could be fined up to US$3,076 (100,000 baht) or face a jail sentence of up to one year.” But the school decided to go with a non-punitive route instead of pressing criminal charges: special tours for Lost in Thailand tourists.

As Chiang Ria Times reported, as of the spring of 2014, “visitors are restricted to entering through a single gate manned by Mandarin-speaking volunteers who direct Chinese tourists to a line of vehicles for guided tours. Individual visitors are banned, and a sign in prominent Chinese characters requesting that passports be produced is posted by the gate.” The guided tours aren’t free, but they also were quite reasonably priced; per the above-linked Samui Times story, the school offered “30-minute mini-bus tours of the school charging adults $1.54 (50 baht) and children $.62 (20 baht), with guides speaking both English and Chinese.” 

The idea seems to have worked, as complaints of fake students have virtually disappeared in the years since  — although that may be attributable to the movie no longer being as popular.

Bonus fact: In 2013, the owner of a grassy knoll in the small English hamlet of Whitchurch, Warwickshire, flooded the middle of her field — it was, she figured, better than the alternative. The owner, named Rosemary Harding, was fed up with tourists showing up in her backyard in the middle of nowhere. Why were they there? From 1997 to 2001, the BBC used Harding’s field as the location for the set of their preschool TV show, the Teletubbies, as seen here. (If you’re not familiar with the Teletubbies, you’re probably better off.) A decade or so after filming came to a halt (and the Teletubbies house had been removed), the field still attracted lots of tourists; as Harding told the Irish Mirror, “people were jumping fences and crossing cattle fields” to visit this otherwise boring mew far from anything else worth visiting. To ruin their pictures and prevent future tourists, Harding flooded the region, turning the former location of the Teletubbies’ dome into a pond. (You can see a picture of the pond at the Irish Mirror story.) 

From the Archives: The Pink-ish Scarlet Kitty: A story about Thailand that, like the bonus item today, references a kid’s character.