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Food by VICE

Sticky Rice Has Taken an Unexpected Turn Into Diplomacy

Government officials in Thailand and Cambodia are spreading political messages through huge feasts of sticky rice.

by Bettina Makalintal
Jan 23 2019, 6:52pm

This past weekend, an event in Thailand set a Guinness World Record for the largest serving of mango sticky rice. Over a ton of sticky rice and a total of 6,000 mangoes were served to an estimated 10,000 Chinese tourists, and the dinner also included lobster, fish, ribs, and curry dishes.

The purpose of the feast, called “We Care For You,” was not just to set a record, but to give Chinese visitors a positive perspective on Thailand given the two countries’ recent history.

In July, off the island of Phuket, a tourist boat capsized and sank, killing over 40 people—all of whom were from China. Because the boat went out during bad weather, it caused concern over the safety standards of Thai tourism. In an op-ed in the state-run China Daily, one columnist wrote, “...the Thai government cannot shirk its responsibility for guaranteeing the safety and security of tourists.”

As of 2017, Chinese tourists made about a quarter of all visitors to Thailand, but following the tragedy, forecasters expected that figure to drop, the South China Morning Post reported. A statement from Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan blaming Chinese tour operators for the tragedy didn’t help the situation. In the month following the boat crash, thousands of hotel reservations were cancelled, and the booking rate across Phuket was cut in half.

As Pichit Kuandachakupt, chairman of the committee of religion, art, culture and tourism of the National Legislative Assembly, told China Daily, “Considering there was a sharp drop of Chinese tourists to Thailand, we've been making an effort to improve the country's safety standards, expecting to restore the confidence of tourists from China and let them know Thailand cares about them.” Accordingly, Wongsuwan presided over the weekend’s “We Care For You” event.

This attempt at easing political divides through food might sound like a one-off, but it echoes similar stunts in Cambodia. In 2015, a 8,900-pound rice cake was served at the temple of Angkor Wat for the Angkor Sankranta Festival. The rice cake was certified as record-breaking by Guinness, and was called a source of national pride.

But like Thailand’s sticky rice feast, Cambodia’s giant rice cake—which was filled with mung beans and pork belly—had a political purpose: to make young people interested in the “aging regime” of Prime Minister Hun Sen, according to the New York Times.

After the sticky rice record, Cambodia set a few others, including the world’s longest dragon boat and the world’s longest scarf. The purpose of these events is obvious, Katrin Travouillon, a scholar of Cambodian politics, told the Times: they’re meant to “create images of visible enthusiasm for the nation and its leadership.”

Though the Prime Minister cited the event as a way of waving Cambodia’s flag in the world, the move was criticized not only for being wasteful, but for highlighting the authoritarianism of Cambodia’s leadership. Still, in interviews with Cambodians, the Times found that the record-setting ploys did work for some people, especially younger generations.

It’s unclear if, and how, the sticky rice feast will ultimately help Chinese tourism to Thailand bounce back over the coming year. But, according to Shanghai.ist, things are looking okay: over 7 million Chinese tourists are still expected to head to Thailand for festivals in the spring.