Who mattered most in Thailand in 2009

Who mattered most in Thailand in 2009

From paper airplane outrage to iconic comebacks, the year’s most interesting characters are as diverse as they are noteworthy

It was a wild year in Thailand, filled with panda obsessions, paper airplane fury and dramatic athletic firsts. We take a look at some of the people who mattered most here in 2009. Some deservedly, others, well ...we'll leave you to decide. Here they are, in no particular order:

Thongchai Jaidee: King of the greens

Thongchai JaideeThongchai Jaidee

Let's forget about half-Thai pro golfer Tiger Woods; nobody appears too happy with him these days anyway. It's PGA stroker Thongchai Jaidee that has us impressed. He was instrumental in Asia's Royal Trophy win over Europe back in January this year and holds the record for most career victories on the Asian Tour.

Remarkably, Thongchai didn't even play golf until he was 16, and didn't turn pro until he was almost 30. He's also the first Thai to win a tournament on the European tour.

Mong Thongdee: Paper airplane boy

He's Thailand's unlikeliest hero, a stateless boy born to Burmese migrant workers in Chiang Mai province. Mong captured the attention of the entire country when he was denied travel permission by the Thai government to compete in Japan's international paper airplane contest, owing to his unique (lack of) citizenship.

We were shocked. We were outraged. And we also secretly wanted to know where these competitions were when we were kids. Prime Minister Abhisit eventually stepped in, Mong went to the competition, brought back two medals and was offered a scholarship. Though still, no Thai citizenship.

Tata Young: Comeback crooner

Tata YoungTata Young

Following her canceled engagement in late 2008 and an endless stream of gossip, Thai singer Tata Young spent most of 2009 away from the limelight -- well, as much as a superstar like Tata can. Turns out she was traveling the world enlisting top names to produce her latest album. She stormed back to the spotlight in August with the release of her third English-language album, “Ready to Love.”

Petchara Chaowarat: ­ A legend returns

As Thailand's most renowned actress in the 1960s and 70s, Petchara made 300 films in a 16-year career. But all that time under the hot lights led to total blindness after which she disappeared from the public eye, becoming a virtual recluse.

She amazed an adoring nation this year by coming out of hiding to appear in a makeup commercial that benefited a development center for the blind, followed by a stunning photo spread in "Lips" magazine.

Lin Ping: Celebrity panda

Lin PingLin Ping

OK, so Lin Ping isn't a person. But she is undeniably the country's biggest celebrity of the year, making her inclusion on the list unavoidable. Her birth in 2009 generated millions of dollars for Chiang Mai zoo.

Thai company True even launched a not-so-riveting 24-hour reality show chronicling Lin Ping just sitting around doing nothing. Her star is likely chugging along on borrowed time, though -- like most of the world's child actors, she will inevitably grow up and her cuteness will sadly fade.

Keigo Zato: Searching for dad

The second child with a heartbreaking story and a somewhat happy ending to make our list is 9-year-old Keigo Zato of Phichit. After his mother's death due to illness, Keigo used his only photo of his Japanese father, whom he had never met, to question Japanese tourists passing through his town.

The Thai media caught wind of his search earlier this year, got the word out and eventually Keigo’s father was found. He traveled to Thailand in September for a teary reunion under the close watch of the media.

Noppawan Lertcheewakarn: Tennis hero

Noppawan LertcheewakarnNoppawan Lertcheewakarn

Junior tennis player Noppawan Lertcheewakarn had a great 2008, becoming the first Asian player to win the ITF World Champion crown. Things got even better for the champ in 2009 when she won Thailand's first Wimbledon title in the junior grand slam singles event by defeating World Junior No.1 Kristina Mladenovic in the final. The next day, Noppawan and Sally Peers beat Mladenovic and Silvia Nirjic in the Doubles finals.

We've got our eyes on this one and fully expect her to earn a spot in one of our future sports heroes lists.

Suvanant Kongying: The bride

Suvanant Kongying was Thailand’s most searched for celebrity on Google in 2009, mainly due to her incredibly lavish wedding in January to Danuporn Poonakan that aired on Channel 9. The pair have long been tabloid fodder, enjoying a lengthy 10-year courtship after meeting on a soap opera set and dealing with some subsequent mother/daughter-in-law drama.

Outside of Thailand, Suvanant may not be known by name but many will certainly remember the news events linked to her. She’s the Thai actress who was misquoted by a Cambodian tabloid in 2003 as saying that Angkor Wat belonged to Thailand. The report led to the 2003 Phnom Penh riots and the destruction of the Thai embassy in Cambodia.

Joe Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Film's best

Joe Apichatpong WeerasethakulJoe Apichatpong Weerasethakul

One of few Thai directors to break into global cinema, he's also the first Thai to win the jury prize at the Cannes International Film Festival for his 2004 film "Tropical Malady." His 2007 work "Syndromes and a Century" brought universal awareness of Thai film censorship when it was banned for scenes depicting a doctor drinking and kissing in a hospital and a guitar-playing monk.

That film topped Toronto International Film Festival Cinematheque's "30 best films of the decade" list, released in November of this year. Also placing were his "Tropical Malady" at No. 6, and 2003's "Blissfully Yours" at No. 13. He sat as a jury member at the 2008 Cannes film festival and this year was short-listed for the Guggenheim's 2010 Hugo Boss Prize.

Stretsis: Style sisters

Thailand’s fashionistas have known for years that fashion brand Sretsis has something special to offer the country's label-mad scene. But in 2009, the three sisters really hit the big time, steadily gaining followers worldwide. Their designs have appeared in the pages of "Teen Vogue," "Marie Claire" and "Harpers Bazaar" and on the backs of celebs such as Katy Perry. Their fashion shows are a hot ticket event, with ladies loving their girly, sweet vintage styles.

Thaksin Shinawatra: Man on the run

Thaksin ShinawatraThaksin Shinawatra

Not everyone's a fan of the guy, but he's managed to dominate headlines this year anyway. Keeping the flames of discontent kindled with his hot-button rhetoric, the former prime minister/current fugitive kept in touch with his scarlet-clad fans during rallies through regular video and phone links.

Last time we checked (Monday), Thaksin had returned to Cambodia for another controversial visit -- his second since being named "economic advisor" last month. No doubt he'll still be making headlines in 2010 as all watch to see where this man on the move heads next.

Uthis Haemamool: The writer

Thai writer Uthis Haemamool's 444-page novel, “Laplae Keang Khoi," won this year’s prestigious SEA Write Award, which has been honoring Southeast Asia’s top writers and poets since 1979. “Laplae Kaeng Khoi” recounts the story of a family living in Saraburi's Kaeng Khoi and Uttaradit's Laplae districts. The book was heavily praised by judges for its excellent portrayal of the area's local history.

Not bad for a 34-year-old. What's even cooler is that Uthis actually has a strong background in visual arts, having studied at Bangkok’s famous Silpakorn University Faculty of Painting, Sculpture and Graphic Arts.

Bryan Robson: Not just another English football coach

Bryan RobsonBryan Robson

Football-mad Thailand was pretty ticked when the country's coach, Peter Reid, left for a position in his home country England's Premier League. But Thailand had no qualms about welcoming another British import, former England captain Bryan Robson.

Here on a four-year contract, he's already done some great things with the team, sports analysts say. That includes securing a huge three-year shirt sponsorship deal with McDonald's. Today, the country's hopes of reaching the World Cup in 2014 rest firmly on his shoulders.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva: One year down

Hard to believe it’s been nearly a year since Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva assumed office. Though the waters have been anything but calm Abhisit has managed to defy predictions that he’d be booted out within months and keep his government intact. The English-born, Oxford-educated leader of Thailand's Democrat Party hasn’t been without critics this past year though, with everything from his cabinet choices to his populist policy moves coming under attack. At the moment he's battling an ongoing war of words with Cambodia and former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra (see above).

Karla is a digital producer with CNN Travel based in Bangkok, Thailand. 

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