Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Why Chiang Mai?

                                                                         by Jim Goodman

Chang Puak Gate and Doi Suthep
       Thirty years have passed since I decided to make Chiang Mai my home.  Of course the city is much bigger now, more congested, more polluted, but that’s true almost everywhere.  It swarms with tourists during the dry months and is still pretty crowded even in the rainy season.  But increasing tourism is a permanent phenomenon for any attractive destination and Chiang Mai gets such attention because it truly deserves it.  Its location, size, cultural features, religious and historical monuments all contribute to its popularity for travelers, and were precisely the characteristics that first enchanted me. 
the iron bridge across the Ping River
       The city lies on a broad plain between the mountain Doi Suthep to the west and the Ping River to the east.  With mountains on the horizon, especially north and west, towering trees both right inside the city and gracing the banks of the moats and the river, Chiang Mai is easy on the eyes. 
       Even with its expansion over the past three decades, it’s still a small city.  Traffic can be pretty heavy at times, yet if you’re on a motorbike instead of driving a car, even in rush hour you can be in the quiet, clean-air countryside in less than half an hour.  Most of the city traffic emanates from the business district near the river and the suburbs.  The old town, the main focus for tourists, experiences far less traffic.
Ku Ruang, the southwest bastion
       Chiang Mai dates its creation to 1296, founded by Mengrai, King of Lanna, a state that at its peak comprised most of the provinces of Northern Thailand.  Roughly square-shaped, 1.5 km per side, surrounded by moats, the city had five entry gates, bastions at the four corners and brick walls connecting them.  Mainly the extended royal family and some of the nobility lived within the walls, while commoners dwelt outside.  From its inception the city had many temples and another large portion of the city’s population were resident monks. 
       Today the old town has about forty temples within the moats and many more in the neighborhoods beyond them.  One cannot walk very far without passing by a temple compound and the high sloping roofs of the viharn, the main assembly building, and the spires of the chedi, the reliquary building shaped like an inverted bell that stands behind the viharn, are often taller than surrounding secular buildings.  Towering skyscrapers are absent from the old town, and much of the rest of the city as well, a factor adding to the pleasure of exploring it.
Wat Phra Singh compound
       In the early 90s, though, real estate speculation threatened to turn Chiang Mai into a Little Bangkok.  Condos and high-rise hotels began going up at a frantic pace.  Ownership changed hands several times before the building’s completion.   Meanwhile debris from the construction process fell into people’s yards and monastery compounds.
       By the mid-90s city residents were more than just annoyed.  Before work began on the Rimping Condominium next to the Nakhon Ping Bridge, angry neighbors called in monks to curse the ground.  Then they put up a banner just across the street announcing what they had done.  The condo went up anyway, but after its completion it was nearly three years before anyone moved into it.
ruins at Wat Chedi Luang
       The governor rebutted these complaints by stating that Chiang Mai needed development and that meant more condos and hotels.  But shortly after that an earthquake struck, cracking four of the condos.  Nobody was hurt and it fact it was a mild tremor, but it did scare people living near anything tall.  Then the governor himself died in a helicopter crash.  His successor reversed policy and limited new buildings within the city limits to six stories.  Those that had already begun construction were permitted to rise according to the original plan.  But since then, the six-story rule has held and all the tall buildings standing in the city today are at least twenty years old. 
sculpted horses at Wat Khun Kha Ma
       Thus Chiang Mai did not become Little Bangkok after all.  It retained its identity as a small, pedestrian-friendly city, full of historical and religious monuments, free of the hustle and bustle of a major metropolis, even though it’s Thailand’s second largest city.  There are no industrial complexes or big factories in the area and tourism, broadly defined, is the biggest industry. 
       Temples and the historical remnants are the main tourist attractions.  Temples all over Thailand feature ancient chedis, outstanding sculptures and so forth and so do various Chiang Mai temples.  The most famous chedi is that at Wat Chedi Luang, which in the 15th century stood 95 meters tall, truly the region’s first religious skyscraper.  A major earthquake in 1545 knocked down the upper part, never rebuilt.  What’s left of it still rises higher than all other buildings around it.
Tha Pae Gate
       Some temples are unique to Chiang Mai.  I include Wat Lamchang, Temple of the Tethered Elephants, erected on old Lanna’s royal elephant stable and full of elephant statues in the compound.  Not far away is Wat Khun Kha Ma, built on the former royal stables after an epidemic slew the horses and the distraught owner wanted to commemorate his beloved animals.  Finally, there is Wat Lokmolee, across the northeast side of the moat, which has a special shrine to Chiraprapha, the only Queen Regnant in Lanna history, who ruled briefly about a dozen years before the Burmese conquered the city in 1558.
       All these details became familiar to me the more I explored Chiang Mai, augmenting my appreciation of the city.  In 1996 the city celebrated its 700th anniversary by restoring some of the old temples and city walls.  Wat Lokmolee’s restoration came only this century, along with a few other temples.  This exemplified another notable feature of Chiang Mai.  Its people have a strong sense of their own separate cultural and historical development, without that sliding into nationalism or separatism, such as affects the Shan in Myanmar.  One manifestation of that is keeping their historical monuments in good shape and restoring whatever can be restored.
alms-giving in the old town
       When the Japanese occupied Chiang Mai they tore down the gates and walls to use the bricks to make new roads.  They left the four corner bastions standing though, but it was not until the late 1960s that the city got around to reconstructing the gates.  And only in the mid-90s were parts of the walls rebuilt.
       Of the city gates, the most important today is Tha Pae Gate, the eastern one, with a large plaza in front and the only one vehicular traffic cannot pass through.  It’s popular in the morning with tourists who want to pose for photos with the pigeons.  It is also the venue for special city events—beauty contests, stage shows, New Year’s countdown--and festival processions pass by here.  Opposite Chang Puak Gate, the northern one, and right next to Chiang Mai Gate, the southern one, food stalls open at night, with a variety of inexpensive meals on offer.
northern beauty on a Loy Krathong float
Flower Festival procession
       Another example of the Northern Thai people’s cultural consciousness is their enthusiastic celebration of the city’s festivals.  A majority of these are Buddhist events and largely restricted to gatherings at the temples, though one of them, Buddha’s birthday, includes a procession up Doi Suthep the night before.  Religion is still a major factor in local people’s lives and many Chiang Mai residents rise early to donate food, money and other daily necessities into the monks’ begging bowls when they make their morning rounds.
summer flowers on Rattanakosin Street
       Others are basically secular, even if they have accompanying rituals.  The most famous is Songkran, 13-15 April, marking the traditional Thai New Year.  It’s also known as the Water-Throwing Festival, after its primary activity—people throwing water on each other the whole day long for three days.  After one experience of it I have tended to avoid it over the years.
       The most attractive event is Loy Krathong, held for three days around the full moon of November.  People make krathongs—small boats made out of banana leaf, containing flowers, incense and a candle—and float them in the Ping River.  This is done to persuade the river goddess to cease the rain, for it’s harvest time soon, and take the waters back, by giving her a beautiful send-off.  Processions, fireworks, stage shows and thousands of floating lanterns wafting into the sky these nights make it the most spectacular and enjoyable public event of the year.
flowering trees on the northern moat
       The Tourism Authority of Thailand added another annual event to the calendar with the creation of the Flower Festival the first weekend of February.  Heavily decorated floats on flatbed trucks file in a procession from the train station all the way through downtown Chiang Mai to Buag Had Park in the southwest part of the old town.  Here they stay another day, while various food and commercial stalls set up on adjacent streets. 
       For a resident then, Chiang Mai has regular public events to punctuate the year.  Some are rather sedate temple affairs, but others, like Loy Krathong, are spectacles worth seeing every time they occur.  Loy Krathong occurs at the beginning of the cool, dry season, the most comfortable time of year.  Temperatures drop somewhat the next couple months, but not to the level of more northern countries.  It never snows here or at night gets colder than ten degrees Celsius. 
200 year-old tree at Wat Chedi Luang
sacred trees on the road to Lamphun
       From March through May is the hot, dry season, with temperatures reaching up to forty degrees Celsius in the daytime.  Yet the nights are pleasant and in compensation for the heat, tropical fruits abound in the market and flowers bloom on the trees along the moat and throughout the suburbs.  When the rains commence in June-July, the temperatures drop a bit and the rain comes mostly at night and rarely all day long.
monk procession on a Buddhist holy day
Lahu Shehleh in Warorot Market
Besides their colorful displays when they blossom, some of Chiang Mai’s trees are believed to be home to guardian spirits, like the towering dipterocarp planted by Kawila at Chedi Luang, after he resurrected Chiang Mai in 1796, following the expulsion of the Burmese.  The biggest trees in temple courtyards date from the compound’s original construction or a major renovation.  To honor the tree’s guardian spirit, devotees place poles at its base to prop it up and relieve the stress of its weight.  Other venerable trees feature shrines in front and the tall trees parallel to the old road south to Lamphun are wrapped in yellow robes to indicate their sanctity.  They make this route the most beautiful drive in any direction outside Chiang Mai.
street mural, Loi Kroa Road
       Modern Chiang Mai has its supermarkets and shopping malls, but the traditional markets, like Warorot and Muang Mai along the river, are still quite active, the latter all night long.  The scenes here are sometimes enhanced by visits of ethnic minorities from the mountains, dressed in their traditional clothing, especially Lahu Shehleh, Hmong, Akha and Palong, which adds an exotic, colorful aspect to the streets, yet another attraction of life in Chiang Mai. 
       Night markets are also popular, especially with tourists, both the Night Bazaar on Changklang Road and the ‘walking street’ weekend markets Saturday on Wualai Road, southeast of Chiang Mai Gate, and Sundays on the road between Tha Pae Gate and Wat Phra Singh.  Lanna handicrafts dominate the goods on sale, from hill tribe products to items from long-established specialty villages, like celadon wares from San Kamphaeng, umbrellas from Bor Sang, woodcarvings from Hangdong and silver and lacquer creations from Chiang Mai’s Haiya district.
       In addition to its traditional crafts, Chiang Mai is one of the country’s prime artistic centers, home to many modern artists.  The city has several galleries and art and photography exhibitions take place throughout the year.  Imaginative street artists have also covered bare compound walls with their works and when riding around familiar routes I often come across new murals that cause me to stop for a bit and appreciate.
rising of a 'super moon' over the banks of the Ping River
       Beyond the city’s assets, which I am constantly discovering the longer I stay here, Chiang Mai is close to other attractions in the region.  It is a short, pleasant drive to ancient Lamphun, whose moats, walls and religious architecture had a profound impact on Mengrai and his foundation of Chiang Mai.  The hills, valleys and gardens of Mae Rim are less than an hour away going north.  Hmong, Lahu and Karen villages are within easy reach, while Akha, Lisu, Palong and Yao villages are further on.  Forest parks and scenic reservoirs are also within easy access, while the Ping River itself is most attractive near the city and a great venue for sunset and moonrise viewing.
       All these features make the city increasingly popular with tourists, but they hardly ever get in my way.  Tourism development has basically meant more hotels and restaurants, so if I fancy a different meal than the local food that I ordinarily prefer, I can choose among a variety of Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, German, French, American and Italian restaurants.  It’s obvious why Chiang Mai became a tourist hub, as well as a favorite place for retirees and pensioners.  They are all here for the same reasons that lured me to remain for three decades so far, with little inclination to seek anything conceivably better.
wooden foot-bridge over the northern moat
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