Every afternoon Chiang Mai's centres of education open their doors and out spill hordes of students onto the city's streets. At times, it seems, there are more uniforms in the city than casual dress. With 63,391 university students enrolled and living in Chiang Mai, they certainly make up a large, and significant, proportion of the population.
No doubt if university students in western cities wore uniforms we would likewise feel surrounded by the lucky blighters, who are yet to experience the 9-5 slog. Though that would never happen, and the reason for that of course, is western students are seen as adults and Thai students merely kids in uniform. But as Thailand edges towards globalisation, its students are ripping the binds off piece by piece. There are still the traditional kids, the mummy's boys and girls, though there is a strong subversive counter group, and these students are tired of being children.
A mere generation ago, Chiang Mai and Payap Universities were surrounded by noodle shops and bakeries, sex before marriage was taboo, girls didn't drink or smoke, and - on the surface at least - university students were as well behaved as they were when they were in high school. Today Chiang Mai's six universities and their campuses are surrounded by pubs and bars, sex before marriage is the norm, girls drink their boyfriends under the table and university students are as wild and independent as many of their western counterparts.
"The elder students are expected to tell, and show, younger students how to behave." explains Kanokwan Sodata, a master's student in Engineering at Chiang Mai University. "Skirts are actually supposed to be to the knee. But if older students get away with short minis, the younger students copy." The uniform is no doubt a refection on the changing times, as students strive for independence they manipulate their dress code as a means to show off their sexuality, their rebelliousness and alliance with certain sub-cultures such as Hip-Hop.
It seems more university students are supplanting their books for beers, stripping off their uniforms in favour of sexy dresses or tight jeans, then drinking and dancing the night away at Chiang Mai's numerous hotspots. Countless female students divulge that university allows them to let loose for the first time. "Being at university makes it safer to party for women because it is easy to go out in big groups," said one student.
"Partying here is not just about being out, it is about being seen in the right place," admitted one university socialite, acknowledging that being packed into Warm Up with little room to breathe, let alone dance, is better than going anywhere that is not 'in'.
Sex and Shame
Around the world university students are hooking up with each other and sharing their exploits with their mates, encouraging and egging each other on in their sexual experimentations. While in the west such experimentation often begins in high school, in Chiang Mai, students are for the most part relatively chaste until they arrive at university. Being away from home for the first time is a giddying experience and many students succumb rapidly to peer pressure. Most people I asked were not keen on discussing the subject of sex, even anonymously, especially girls - chastity being the traditional expectation for young women in this patriarchal society. Many said they were still virgins, though with a wry smile. One may question their veracity when vowing never having taken the carnal plunge, as there is increasing evidence in Thailand on the changing sexual habits of students.
Double standards still occur in Thailand causing wide discrepancies in the behaviour of young men and women. Sexual activity among young females is strongly disapproved of.
Sex is still seldom discussed; many parents do not have 'the talk' with their children. As abstinence is still enforced by many parents, many students are dating without parents' support, leading to students not knowing who to go to for advice when dealing with rape, pregnancy, STDs or other sexual-related issues.
Sugar Daddies and Sugar Mommies
Students deny there is any prostitution at their universities but do admit there are many students with sponsors. What is the difference between sponsorship and prostitution? A sponsor is often justified as a rich boyfriend or girlfriend (albeit often decades older) and not seen as a direct exchange of sex for money. One student revealed "we are beautiful women, in a few years we will be married, until then we have to take advantage of it. So men want to take care of us and pay for us, why not let them?"
Paweena Nakha graduated from the Faculty of Humanities 15 years ago while reflecting back she tells me how little has changed. "Thailand is still a male dominated society, and sponsorship is accepted. I knew many girls who had sponsors. They were all nice girls that were not poor but did it for fun. They hooked up with businessmen and had them pay their way during university, receiving gifts and goodies along the way. You always hear about young women with older men but boys also had sponsors whom they used to support their real girlfriends."
Universities and the government have been urged to take action against the trend of students using social networking websites to advertise themselves sexually. Ramjitti Institute director, Amornwit Nakhonthap, believes that the student sex trade via the internet is not surprising, but rather in keeping with the trend towards promiscuity and prostitution in an increasingly materialistic society.
Up the Duff
An English student enlightened me on pregnancy at CMU, saying that, "students who are pregnant have to wear loose clothes and make sure they look fat instead of pregnant. This way they can study as long as possible, drop out for a semester to have the baby, and then return to their studies. If a teacher finds out a student is pregnant, no matter what month she is in, she is expelled."
Turn On, Tune Out, Fall Over
"What kind of drugs, you mean from the pharmacy?" An innocent student asked as I inquired about drug use on campus. Many students confess to not knowing of drug use on campus claiming that, "beer promotions are our drug of choice."
A Humanities major had the low-down, "only certain groups take drugs, usually only during stressful times or after exams to let go. Ecstasy is the most common, but not so common that it is sold at the university." Again you might question the veracity of this answer, especially considering that when students' behaviour was surveyed in 2003, 17% of university students in Chiang Mai that were randomly selected admitted to taking illegal drugs. Drugs are still very underground even with club drugs becoming increasingly popular.
Apinun Aramrattana, the Deputy Director of the Research Institute for Health Sciences, CMU, has conducted years of research on drug use in Thailand. Methamphetamines are becoming the most popular drug in Thailand and many students are becoming addicted. "The demand and the accessibility are here, drugs are still not talked about, making it hard for users to get help. The majority that we are able to help are those that have hit rock bottom and are forced into rehabilitation by the police or their parents."
Though compared to the west, there is less concern over drugs in Chiang Mai, alcoholism in this province is rife, accidents and violent crime related to alcohol far outweigh any consequences of drug taking. The Thai media may not expose this, it is not a populist mandate propelled by any of our short-lived governments, but statistically, alcohol is the one drug parents ought to be concerned about, though paradoxically, they rarely are.
It was the Sorbonne students of Paris who rioted through the streets with lime in their eyes that eventually overthrew parliament. It was the students at Thammasart who fought for freedom of speech and human rights, and it is to the students that we should be looking to lead us into the future, not stamping on them with our dogged pasts. No doubt Chiang Mai students want to have sex, experiment with drugs, stay out all night, and who can blame them? It is in their independence that they will no doubt learn the most, be it through their mistakes or success. We just have to make sure that we are there to support them and guide them through their individual journeys.