Tourist dollars turn Chiang Mai into capital of cool

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 May, 2007, 12:00am

To get a sense of how Chiang Mai, has changed in recent years, head to Nimmanhaemin Road, a street that runs south past the leafy campus of Chiang Mai University.

Five years ago, finding a decent cup of coffee in the biggest city in northern Thailand was a mission impossible.

Now on Nimmanhaemin, you find not one, but at least half-a-dozen cafes to please Java lovers. On one corner alone, there's a Starbucks and two local competitors with comfy seats and eclectic soundtracks that mix Ella Fitzgerald with Arcade Fire.

Foreign tourists to Chiang Mai, who flood the city during the peak October-March season, aren't the only ones getting their caffeine fix. Instead, on any given day, the tableau would probably include a clutch of bespectacled local architects hunched over their laptops and artfully dishevelled Japanese expats.

As well as slick coffee shops, Nimmanhaemin is bustling with other barometers of gentrification: boutique hotels, spas, upscale boutiques, art galleries, swish restaurants and newly built apartment buildings and townhouses.

The trend is also apparent in the old city centre, where tourists usually start their trips. Everywhere you turn, there seems to be a spa or boutique hotel - and at least four English-language guides telling you which ones to go to. Tourism gurus say Chiang Mai has shed the stigma of being a backpacker destination and is now in the grips of another makeover. Some reckon that this once sleepy backwater is becoming the hip alternative to Bangkok, a year-round playground for foreign and local artists, architects and creative types.

'Everything before was Lanna - Lanna, Lanna, Lanna,' says Pim Kemasingki, managing editor of Citylife, a local magazine her father started 15 years ago. 'But you've suddenly got an era where you've got some really creative people who've said, 'OK, Lanna is a great base but we're not just going to keep selling the same product and reinventing it over and over.' And Chiang Mai has suddenly woken up and there's now a lot of new, contemporary, cutting-edge modern and international design.'

Pim and other long-time residents date Chiang Mai's revitalisation to ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's tenure, which started in 2000. A hometown boy made good, Thaksin earmarked billions of baht for mega-projects in Chiang Mai, including the critically panned Night Safari and a three-month floral show last year.

'I would go away for a month and I'd come back and I couldn't find the soi [side street] into my house because there were all these new buildings,' says Pim.

Thaksin doesn't deserve all the credit, residents say. The recent proliferation of budget airlines in the region and, in turn, direct flights from Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and China have opened the floodgates to tourists, including expats coming for a weekend jaunt and demanding more sophisticated venues and services. Arrivals soared from nearly 4 million in 2005 to around 5.6 million last year.

At the same time, growing numbers of people from Japan, Europe and America are choosing to settle down or spend part of the year in the city. Official figures put the city's population at around 172,000, but residents and diplomats say it's closer to 300,000.

Among Thais, Chiang Mai has always had a special place. Founded at the end of the 13th century, the city was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lanna, which means 'a million rice fields'.

At its zenith, Lanna covered northern Thailand, Laos and Burma. Even as the kingdom declined, Chiang Mai was still regarded as the heart of Lanna culture, which has its own language and culinary traditions. It's also seen as the home of Thai creativity, part of the reason why the city has long appealed to artists looking to escape the spiraling expense and stifling conventions of Bangkok.

Surveying the construction site for an avant-garde boutique hotel he's designed, Thaiwijit Puengkasemsomboon, one of Thailand's best known artists, exclaims enthusiastically: 'You can only make such a design here in Chiang Mai.' A long-time resident of Bangkok, Thaiwijit, a wiry, gregarious, energetic man of 48, is in the process of building a house in an area of Chiang Mai where two other noted local artists live.

Artists aren't the only ones flocking to the north. Att and Sineenard Viravaidhya, a young, wealthy couple from Bangkok, decided to leave the chaotic capital two years ago in order to start Puripunn, a 30-room boutique hotel. Though initially motivated by business, they found themselves beguiled by the slower pace of life here.

'When we go back to Bangkok, we feel like we don't belong. It's very hectic, all those traffic jams. We used to be used to that, but now I wonder, why spend your life sitting in traffic?' muses Att, 36.

Not everyone, though, is happy with Chiang Mai's newly minted reputation as Thailand's capital of cool. Unchecked growth has resulted in deteriorating air quality and endless traffic snarls, residents complain.

Meanwhile, rampant building and poor planning could mar the city's character and charm, turning it into a concrete urban jungle, instead of a million rice fields.

'I am afraid Chiang Mai is going to be ugly one day,' says Sommai Lumdual, 32, director of La Luna Gallery and a Bangkok transplant.

Others also worry that the rush to grab tourist dollars will backfire, especially if Chiang Mai fails to live up to its promise as a destination. Although rents and property prices haven't skyrocketed in Chiang Mai, some worry that the city's rapid transformation could ultimately drive up prices and drive out locals.

'The cost of living is getting too high and it's beyond many local people,' says Jiraporn Withyasaktan, a professor at Chiang Mai University and local activist.

Still, many inhabitants are sanguine about Chiang Mai's ability to withstand the onslaught of cafes and boutique hotels. 'Chiang Mai still has a social conscience. It won't stem the growth, but maybe it will help manipulate the growth so that it retains some of the essence of the city,' says Pim.