The city of Pattaya, Thailand, closish to Bangkok, hosts an annual laughing contest.

The winner of the 2008 contest, who laughed for more than 12 minutes and reached 110 decibels

Contestants are judged on “loudness, length, content, style, and infectious quality.” Loudness is gauged by a decibel-level reader, while all the others (save length) are assessed by human judges.

The laughing contest fits the profile of your average provincial diversion – colorful, good-natured, and inexplicable to outsiders. The difference in this case is that Pattaya is a pretty rough town, with high rates of gang-related violent crime, prostitution, and drugs. It was also the site of the 2009 red-shirt protests against prime minister Abhisit, which forced the cancellation of ASEAN. And it remains a pretty bizarre place in more minor ways as well.

For the benefit of American readers, I was going to say that holding a laughing contest in Pattaya would be like holding a laughing contest in Newark. Then I thought Las Vegas – or Reno – would be a better choice. But Miami in the 1970s is probably more perfect. Both are formerly sleepy resort towns transformed in a short period by tidal waves of narcotics and commercial sex, and both have gone to great lengths to make themselves livable and (more crucially) visitable. In doing so, both cities also spin a narrative about winning a war against criminals, negating the impression that ill-gotten profits built the skyline in the first place.

The Thai Ministry of Tourism and Sports funds the laughing contest, along with its organizers, Ripley’s Believe it or Not. Much like the facile nickname, “The Land of Smiles,” the contest – whether it began with such an intention or not – becomes a kind of top-down viral tactic by the government for disseminating happy narratives. Laughter is an especially astute choice because of its “infectious quality,” which is to say its tendency to spread involuntarily to all those within earshot. This is in (metaphorically rich) contrast to the kind of infectious epidemiology that generally characterizes a major sex trade outpost.

Thanks to B.B. and immanent discursivity for the link.

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