How One Woman's Marijuana Festival Is Changing Thai Culture Forever
Southeast Asia’s various drug laws are so severe that they have become renowned the world over. Countless books, films and television series have been made about the people whose lives have been destroyed by breaking them. And yet—in a plot twist few of us saw coming—one twentysomething woman has managed to host a marijuana-immersion festival called Pan Ram in northeast Thailand.
Gen.T honouree Chidchanok “Nan” Chidchob was working for Buriram United FC—a Thai football club owned by her family—when she and her family realised cannabis was an untapped resource, both economically and socially, and that Thailand urgently needed to rethink its attitude towards the psychoactive drug.
“Cannabis shouldn’t be illegal, it’s as simple as that,” says the 27-year-old, on the phone from her home in Bangkok. “Yes, a lot of people here still view it as a drug, and when you suggest anything else, they become very angry and say we will all become lazy if we legalise it, but that’s what I’m here for: to try and change people’s perceptions. Because underneath all the bad press, the health benefits of it are undeniable, and it is far less dangerous than alcohol.”
Chidchob’s background is evident in her accent. Born in Buriram, raised in Bangkok and educated at boarding school and university in the UK, she veers between Thai inflections and upper-crust English vowel sounds. A love of festivals was born during her teenage years in the UK, and enhanced when she returned to Asia and spent her spare time visiting Clockenflap in Hong Kong, Japan’s Fuji Rocks and Singapore’s Laneway.
As her relationship with music and festival life deepened, so did her work in Buriram—a province in northern Thailand still largely dependent on rice farming. Noticing that marijuana grew naturally in the area, and was even used by small local noodle shops as an MSG-like flavouring agent, she and her family started thinking about the financial security that could be brought to the region if farmers were legally allowed to cultivate it.
“It was around the time that Californian marijuana farms were really taking off, and it just made so much sense to us from a purely economic perspective,” she says. “Yes, I’m interested in the recreational potential, but that’s still really grey—and we have to take it step by step, just like they did in the US, where they didn’t talk about recreation until they had seen the economic benefits. Because, seriously, if you look at yield per square metre, and compare cannabis to rice, it’s exponentially more lucrative. And best of all, there are some hill tribes near Buriram who are certified to grow hemp, so it’s within our culture’s knowledge.”
Her father, Newin Chidchob, is revered in the region for bringing a professional football club and race circuit to what was once an impoverished part of the country, and he helped found a political party called Bhumjaithai. The party has made full legalisation of the drug a core campaign policy, going so far as to incorporate cannabis leaves into its posters all over Bangkok.
Thanks in part to campaigns by Bhumjaithai, in December 2018, Thailand became the first nation in Asia to legalise the use of cannabis for medical treatment and research. In a country that relies on medical tourism and is surrounded by nations with draconian drug laws, the implications of this act are vast.
But for Nan Chidchob, they provided the impetus for launching Southeast Asia’s first weed festival. The three-day festival was held earlier this year and aimed to promote awareness and understanding of a plant that has been demonised by successive Thai governments.
If you look at yield per square metre, and compare cannabis to rice, it’s exponentially more lucrative. And best of all, there are some hill tribes near Buriram who are certified to grow hemp, so it’s within our culture’s knowledge
— Chidchanok Chidchob
“It was incredible,” she says. “We did it over three stages: reggae, hip hop and mellow music, and it was a full-on 24-hour thing. I didn’t want to just educate people about what medicinal drug use is—I wanted to show them the reality of the culture within the weed community. It had such an amazing atmosphere. There were no problems, no violence, nothing. Mostly because everyone was a stoner.”
Organising the event took some planning. As marijuana usage is only legal for medical reasons, they set up a medicinal card registration and coordinated with local government, and people came in with note from their doctor. “In the end, we registered about 6,400 people,” she says. “My expectations were totally surpassed: I thought it would mostly be my generation but loads of the older generation came and they were really interesting, as they grew up with it before it became illegal.”
The more time she spent with that age group, the more Chidchob realised that marijuana had been an integral part of Thai culture for centuries, and the draconian drug laws of the last 40 years have only temporarily hidden a rich culture that lay beneath them.
“I don’t think young people are as aware of this as they should be,” she explains. “Thai stick has been famous for quite some time, and marijuana was legally sold at pharmacies here until late ’70s. It’s really embedded within our culture, and you can trace it back to all our reigning families of the past: think royals with marijuana-filled medicine cabinets and cannabis tea sets, and murals on the palace on the walls celebrating the marijuana plant. I’ve even found all these old paintings of monkeys smoking bongs.”
And while her day job will remain running the marketing for the football club her family owns, Chidchob’s passion clearly lies with helping farmers to benefit economically, those who are pain to benefit medically and everyone else to benefit recreationally from the full legalisation of marijuana.
“In a decade, I really hope that anyone will be free to use the drug and that we’ll be able to export it round the world,” she says. “It’s important to remember that the law isn’t always right, and just because something is legal or illegal, doesn’t mean we necessarily have to use that as a way of judging its moral worth. Sometimes the law is wrong, and that’s when we need to step in and fight to change it.”