The K-pop boom in Thailand is being driven by stars like LISA, a Thai-born member of the K-pop girl group BLACKPINK.
LISA's debut single "LALISA" was a smash hit in Thailand last year. Even Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha praised her, saying the government is ready to promote the country's soft power "to increase value in the creative economy."
About a dozen artists from Thailand have made names for themselves in K-pop entertainment.
Following in a teen idol's footsteps
Fourteen-year-old Panida Panyo takes lessons at a studio in the northeastern province of Buriram. It was jointly launched by LISA and the South Korean government in 2021 to help local youths learn K-pop dances.
The studio is housed in a local school and -- much to Panida's delight -- dance classes have been incorporated into the curriculum. She hopes to become an idol like LISA one day.
"LISA is a big inspiration. She's motivated me to take up dancing and do it well," Panida says. "I also want to improve my singing skills here."
Whenever Panida feels tired or dejected, she looks at her collection of LISA photos. The superstar's dazzling smile and glitzy costumes always motivate her to continue.
Shortly after joining the lessons, Panida was given an opportunity that many young Thais dream of. While dancing in the studio one day, she caught the attention of a South Korean entertainment company official. She was offered exclusive lessons with professional dancers for free.
The teen says she wants to become a success so she can help her parents, who are farmers. Her parents are optimistic about their daughter's future.
"It's difficult to have a stable future as a farmer. We've worked hard for many years, yet we still have financial problems," says Panida's father. "If she can have a better life than us, we'd like her to pursue that path."
An ideal K-pop talent hub
In Bangkok, South Korean entertainment groups are holding tryouts for young Thai teens who want to join the K-pop industry. The auditions mainly focus on dancing and singing. Only a few will be good enough to win trips to South Korea and potentially become professional artists.
One candidate says she's been patiently waiting for this moment for years. "Since I've practiced so long, my effort must have exceeded 200 percent. My confidence is pretty high now," she says.
Audition judge Lee Ju-yeong, who works for the FNC Entertainment Casting Team, says his firm is focused on Thailand, which has so many enthusiastic supporters for his industry.
"Thai youth have a lot of energy. I enjoyed watching their performances. I think we will come to Thailand more often," says Lee.
This year, Silpakorn University began offering an entertainment major to help meet the soaring demand for K-pop culture. The courses not only cover singing and dancing, but also makeup and wardrobe management, and practical business skills such as social media management.
First-year student Tunsaporn Sakulpaet says the program will help her develop the necessary skills to become an artist.
"I'm really happy this kind of major is being offered in Thailand. I can learn both performance and backstage skills. They can't easily be found elsewhere," she says.
Kim Jin-woo, the head researcher at music-ranking firm Circle Chart in South Korea, explains why Thailand can produce many K-pop artists.
"The country presents itself as an open and free environment with more potential in cultural development," says Kim. "Thais are very receptive to other cultures, and this is a big plus for the Korean entertainment industry."
He says that Thailand can act as a hub in Southeast Asia for South Korea, promoting K-pop culture among other countries that have their own young people with dreams of becoming K-pop's next big thing.