CHIANG RAI – The border town of Chiang Khong sits on the edge of Thailand, separated from Laos by the Mekong River.
Each year, thousands of Chinese vehicles pass through, some carrying produce trucked through Laos. Then there are Chinese tourists, conspicuous in their left-hand-drive sport utility vehicles as they traverse northern Thailandâ€™s mountainous attractions.
This year, there has been a new sight: Chinese Campervans aka Motorhomes
Dozens of these mobile homes arrived during the Chinese New Year tourism crush last month.
They stirred up debate on Thai social media after pictures of them parked in seemingly inappropriate places like temples and curbsides were circulated online.
For locals already frustrated with the boorish behaviour of Chinese tourists, the appearance of these campervans has only fanned the disapproval.
Although new campervan spaces have been built in some national parks, they were not ready for use last month.
In that month alone, 4,757 Chinese-registered cars entered the country through Chiang Khong, five times the January figure. According to Chiang Khong Customs House, the Chinese cars made up three-quarters of all cars entering Thailand from that checkpoint last month.
“They parked everywhere,” said Major-General Pongsak Chuasomboon, the deputy commissioner of police in the northernmost provinces. “They even parked by a police kiosk because they wanted to be safe.”
He added, however, that the campervan drivers were polite and compliant when asked to move their vehicles.
But the arrival of the campervans has brought on safety concerns, given the lax rules that already govern foreign vehicles in Thailand.
Apart from documentation fees, Chinese motorists need only sit through a video introduction lasting no more than 20 minutes and buy third-party insurance covering only injury or death, to be able to drive in the country.
As a result, Thai motorists involved in accidents with Chinese vehicles find it difficult to claim damages, says Manop Sae-jia, the president of a tour guide association called Care Lanna Guide Community based in neighbouring Chiang Mai province.
Chiang Mai, whose capital city is a five-hour drive from Chiang Khong, has had a prickly relationship with Chinese tourists. While the province surged in popularity after the hit 2012 Chinese comedy Lost in Thailand, it is grappling with traffic hazards caused by young Chinese tourists riding rented motorcycles recklessly through its streets.
In 2014, Chinese tourists were caught in Chiang Mai University dressed in its student uniform as part of an elaborate costume play, while others reportedly sneaked into the classrooms to take pictures.
With the arrival of campervans, some locals wonder if traffic woes will worsen without any compensating revenue for hotels and restaurants.
Pornchai Jitnavasathien, the president of the Tourism Council of Chiang Mai, dismisses these fears.
“People think that those who come in campervans are poor,” he said. “But they pay gasoline, gasoline tax, (and) they probably buy more coffee and shop a lot before going home.” Such tourists “come for adventure”, he added.
There were no campervans in sight when The Straits Times visited Chiang Mai and neighbouring Chiang Rai province last week.
But tourist policeman Kitidesh Tajiwongsuriyakool – who last month chatted, dined and played music with some campervan users who had parked at Chiang Maiâ€™s Doi Suthep-Pui National Park – had only fond memories.
“They were very respectful, very lovely,” says the gregarious senior sergeant-major, who moonlights as a tour guide.
The young couple he met, who were travelling with a child, had parked their campervan near the national park toilet and explored the surroundings during the day.
One night after work, the policeman grabbed his saeng, a traditional string instrument, and brought along some homemade spicy buffalo salad for an impromptu party with the Chinese family by their van.
“I told them: â€™You might get a stomachache if you eat my food.â€™ But they ate it anyway.”
The couple cooked some tofu and soup dishes, he said, and they jammed into the night – the husband with his guitar, and the policeman on his saeng.
Chinese tourists interviewed said the image of bad Chinese motorists was probably exaggerated.
“Thai drivers are not that much better than Chinese ones,” Zhang Li, 65, told The Straits Times before riding his rented motorcycle up Doi Suthep with his wife.
“We are from Suzhou, and the city has banned motorcycles. So we come here to relive our younger days.”
There is no question of shutting out motor traffic from China. Tourism accounts for about 10 per cent of Thailandâ€™s gross domestic product, and the Chinese form the largest group of visitors.
The Thai authorities plan instead to tighten regulations for foreign vehicles in the coming months, possibly making motorists buy more comprehensive insurance to protect all parties in case of accidents.
The Tourism Council of Chiang Maiâ€™s Pornchai suggests campervans be prohibited from areas like hospitals, temples and police stations but be allowed to park in hotel compounds, which could offer cleaning and other services for a fee.
The Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation says there are now campervan parking facilities with water and power supply, as well as sanitary facilities, in five national parks around the kingdom: Khao Yai in Nakhon Ratchasima province; Hat Wanakon in Prachuap Khiri Khan; Thung Salaeng Luang in Phitsanulok; Mae Moei in Tak; and Doi Inthanon in Chiang Mai.
They are not in use yet. Once opened, users will be charged about 500 baht (S$20) a night.
Such developments will be good news to independent tourists like Sun Feng, 34, who arrived at Chiang Khong in a mud-splattered Toyota Prado on March 4 after driving through Laos.
He had driven all the way from the eastern Chinese province of Shandong, and planned to drive to the seaside district of Hua Hin in Prachuap Khiri Khan province.
“There are so many Chinese people all over the place, itâ€™s like a Chinese province,” he quipped. “It doesnâ€™t feel like a fresh (adventure) any more.”