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Chiang Mai’s Charm

Chiang Mai’s Charm

The Good, The Bad And The Ugly: Preserving The Fragile Charm Of Chiang Mai


By Andrew Forbes

Charm as a quality is difficult to define precisely. It is easy enough to identify various constituent elements - something charming is usually beautiful, natural and graceful. It may be unexpected or unusual, but - perhaps above all - it is always appropriate. If we accept this as a loose general definition, then it is a simple matter to identify the antithesis. Things which lack charm are ugly, unnatural and lacking in grace. In terms of Chiang Mai - city, valley and province - they are also singularly inappropriate.

As a city fast approaching its 700th year, yet isolated behind ranges of hills covered with all but impenetrable forest until the building of the railway at the beginning of this century, Chiang Mai is unusually rich in charm. More than any other town in Thailand, the city has preserved its past. A wealth of temples - there are presently 36 wats within the Inner City and nearly 100 in the metropolitan area - combine with tree-lined moats and ancient red brick bastions to constitute a remarkable architectural heritage. To this must be added the maze of winding lanes in the Old City, around Tippanet, and south of Thapae which contribute greatly to the city's character.

Even in Thailand's "near abroad" it is difficult to find a city which rivals Chiang Mai for charm. Mandalay, once the capital of Burma's Konbaung Dynasty, had its heart burned out when its grand palace was razed to the ground in fighting between the British and the Japanese in 1945. The ancient Vietnamese royal city of Hue suffered a similar fate during the Tet offensive of 1968. Only tiny Luang Prabang in land-locked Laos is a serious rival for Chiang Mai - and Luang Prabang aside the Lao heritage, too, has suffered grievously. Vientiane, the national capital, was sacked and razed by the Thais in 1828, whilst Xieng Khwang, the capital of the Plain of Jars, was completely destroyed - together with its unique Phuan school of temple architecture - by US bombing during the Vietnam War.

Given these tragedies, both man-made and natural, Chiang Mai is doubly fortunate to have retained the amazing degree of charm it still has. Preserving this quality for visitors and for future generations should be both a duty and a pleasure. But how to go about it?

It is obvious that in recent years Chiang Mai has lost much of its appeal. Commercialisation proceeds apace, condominiums and shop houses proliferate, traffic clogs the once-quiet streets, and a massive ribbon of concrete, the eight-lane super highway, binds the city on three sides. These changes and developments cannot be undone, but perhaps city planners and residents can draw some conclusions from their negative aspects. For a start, most people would agree, they lack charm, and they are most definitely inappropriate to a historic city like Chiang Mai.

Nor is it simply a question of roads and shop houses. Chiang Mai needs such facilities if it is to develop - as seems probable - as a modern commercial centre, the "gateway" to Burma, Laos and South China. The aim, then, must be to keep this inevitable development as charming and as appropriate as possible. "Appropriate Development" is already on the books in some instances. The building of condominiums within the Old City, or the construction of tall buildings in the vicinity of temples, is increasingly strictly controlled. But is this enough? What of the temples themselves, for example?

North Thailand - the ancient Lan Na kingdom - has its own particular style of temple architecture. Compared with central Thai temples, the buildings of the north have a sturdier aspect, with multiple-tiered roofs, graceful curved eaves, and a portico. Central Thai temples - of the style presently promoted on a nation-wide basis by the Department of Fine Arts - may be fine for Bangkok and central Thailand, but they are inappropriate for Chiang Mai, and lack local charm. The indigenous Lan Na temple architecture belongs here; it is "on and with the earth". However dazzling, modern temple construction, by comparison, is often out of place. Far from melding with the local environment, the steel-tipped piles seem rather to violate the land itself.

Chiang Mai's charm is not only in its buildings, but also in its people, with their distinctive northern dialect, Kham Muang - the "Speech of the Principalities" and readily identifiable traditional dress. Fortunately, the people of Chiang Mai are well aware of this, and recent years have seen a rediscovery of Lan Na confidence and cultural pride. Every Friday local people working in banks and government buildings throughout the city are encouraged to wear traditional clothing - and increasing numbers do so.

The lilting language of the north is flourishing, despite Central Thai's overwhelming command of the airwaves. What could be more charming than the distinctive "Kop khun chao" of a northern girl - even over the loudspeaker systems of local super stores! Regional consciousness has even led to a revival of the old written language, and signs in Northern Thai, Central Thai and English have been affixed to the Old City bastions.

Another vital ingredient of Chiang Mai's appeal is the diversity of its people. The Thai Yuan, or northern Thai, still make up about 80% of the population. But just beneath the surface - behind this market or round that corner - are the distinctive signs of other local cultures. By Wat Pa Pao, near Sri Phum corner, the city's Shan community is currently enjoying something of a cultural revival - the Shan ordination ceremony of Poy Sang Long was celebrated at Wat Pa Pao and Wat Pra Singh for the first time in 60 years this April. Other distinctive and surprisingly "appropriate" communities include the Yunnanese of Ban Haw on upper Changklan, the Bengalis of Chang Pheuak, the Vietnamese of lower Changklan, and the Sikhs of Chang Moi - Warorot. All play an important role in the commerce of Chiang Mai, and all add in their own way to the local colour.

Which brings us, finally, to the Western element in Chiang Mai - the city's farang, both transient and settled. On an initial appraisal, Westerners would seem to have added little of real charm to the northern capital - particularly if we take the small collection of bars and night clubs on lower Moonmuang Road as an example. But this rather tawdry area aside, western contributions to Chiang Mai have been surprisingly appropriate. The shaded foreign cemetery, with its venerable statue of Queen Victoria, the Gymkhana Club with its well-tended lawns and over-arching trees, the peaceful grounds of the McKean Institute on its small island in the Ping River, as well as a wealth of medical and educational contributions over the past one hundred years have all helped to make Chiang Mai what it is today - quite simply, Thailand's most appealing city.

The question now must be, how long can Chiang Mai retain this distinction? However defined, charm is an elusive quality which requires careful preservation. Chiang Mai's is under threat as never before - not just from population pressure, pollution and greed, but also from inappropriate development. In future years guarding against this threat should be a priority for citizens and city fathers alike. 


Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History - © CPA Media