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Inside the Creative Kingdom bringing Hollywood to Chiang Mai

Creative Kingdom, an international company whose diverse portfolio consists of architectural and master planning design, 2D/3D cartoon animation, CGI 3D architectural video animation, music production and more, has plans to change not just the geographical landscape, but the economic, of Chiang Mai.

Their office in Chiang Mai, the biggest of seven – Dubai, L.A., Beijing, Manila, Johannesburg and Bangkok – is a technological cornucopia, a labyrinthine string of charismatic rooms that take up three floors of the Kad Suan Kaew shopping complex. Replete with larger than life sized cartoon characters goofily grinning behind glass windows, whacky sets for children’s television, and animations playing on the ubiquitous plasma screens, it makes the experience of being there somewhat intoxicating. You walk into yet more rooms to find immaculately detailed model structures of architectural developments, from theme parks on terra firma, to worlds in other galaxies that will soon be inhabited by online gamers all over the planet; turn the corner and find concentrated artists, designers, architects, sketching, drafting and fiddling with the many ongoing projects of the Creative Kingdom.

Mark Thomas, the company’s Chief Financial Officer, a native of Wales, whose inflexion has been somewhat affected by his fifteen years in Scotland, spared us almost three hours of his busy work day to delineate the history of Creative Kingdom, from its chrysalis to its present day success. Thomas has been with Creative Kingdom for the past five years, having joined the company’s founders, Eduardo A. Robles and Thanu Boonyawatana, whilst working in the Middle East. “Both Eduardo and Thanu were world renowned architects, working from L.A.; both of them worked for all the top architects firms. They met on a number of projects, recognised each other’s potential, and decided to start their own company,” explains Thomas. Robles, born in Mexico is now a naturalised American, as is Thanu, who was born in Bangkok. “Robles is the entrepreneur,” says Thomas, “and Thanu is the design genius.” This combination of talent inspired them to form Creative Kingdom in 1997, and soon their work was vaunted all over the world, giving them the opportunity to work on some astounding modern day architectural feats including Dubai’s Madinat Jumeirah, the MGM Grand Casino in Macau and the Lost City Hotel and Resort in South Africa. “Whether they were designing resorts, hotels or theme parks, their objective was always to bring the ‘wow factor’ to a development,” says Thomas, who exhibits an obvious pride for the men’s past achievements.

In their early years Creative Kingdom worked out of Dubai, many of their projects being in the ‘city of gold’, which was developing faster than the banks could print the money. Many of their other projects were in South Africa, where, in the spirit of their entrepreneurial acumen, they bought a record label which went on to sign on two of South Africa’s most successful R&B artists. “This was their first foray into the entertainment industry,” says Thomas. An achievement in itself, though he goes on to say that “their greatest achievement of the past was Madinat Jumeirah, a complex consisting of two hotels, a residential area, a mall and a theatre, under the theme of ‘water’.” It was during this time that Thanu invited some of his old classmates from Thailand to Dubai to help with a workload that was always increasing. “This is where the Chiang Mai connection starts,” explains Thomas, “some of the Thai guys were not happy living in Dubai, so Thanu and Eduardo decided to open an office in Thailand. Bangkok didn’t suit them because of lifestyle issues, so they scouted Phuket and Chiang Mai. They decided on Chiang Mai and set up here in 2004.” Robles quickly fell in love with the city and relocated permanently here in 2005. Thomas talks of Robles’ fondness of Chiang Mai, and also the potential he saw,

“He realised there were young, talented artists here whom he thought he could develop into great designers and architects.” Thomas maintains that if you recognise cultural differences, you can attain success from your staff. He expresses that what Creative Kingdom has done is take local Thai artists and offer them international projects, international standards, the best in technology and software, and allow them to hone their talents within their cultural comfort zone.

Robles always had a dream to create children’s animation, and that dream came to fruition in Chiang Mai when he started a small 2D and 3D animation team that went on to make cartoons for Thai television. If you’ve ever seen Magic Panda and the Cool Kids, Bubble Warriors or the Trio Bunnies, you have Robles to thank for your viewing pleasure. Their small team of animation artists grew and grew; they are presently working on creating an entire animated virtual planet (Cyrene) for the online platform game – otherwise known as an MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) – ‘Entropia Universe’, one of the biggest online games in existence with 810,000 registered participants from over 220 countries. The game is free to play though real planet Earth money is the only accepted currency in the Entropia Universe. “We’ve been on this eighteen months already and have sixty people working on the project,” Thomas tells me, and takes me to look at some of the fantastic creations they are working on. It will launch sometime in 2010.

Robles, I’m told, favours work to sleep – aside from creating architectural wonders and building planets, he also finds time to write children’s novels – and is consistently etching out new ideas. In 2007 he had the idea for Chiang Mai Wood. Robles and Thanu put together a business plan, consulting Chiang Mai’s already established filmmaker, Chris Lowenstein of Living Films, and were told they would receive support from the BOI (Board of Investment) – a government initiative to support large businesses that will benefit the Thai economy. They received an eight year tax break. “At first it was going to be a fully functioning, Hollywood standard, film studio complex that would be a viable alternative to Hollywood, where you could make a start to finish movie,” says Thomas. Although movie studios soon transmuted to bigger things in Robles’ mind and what was to be 10-30 rai of land for film studios became 650-1400 rai of land on the outskirts of Chiang Mai – the exact location is supposed to be top secret, though those living in the area seem to be quite in the know and surrounding property is already being eyed by investors – that will encapsulate hotels, residential areas, affordable housing to luxury housing, shopping outlets, an art and design university, hi-end arts theatre, restaurants, theme park rides, apartment complexes and just about everything you could imagine and a little more besides. Looking at the model of Chiang Mai Wood – not yet available for public viewing – the project looks as ambitious as it does outlandish, as it’s hard to imagine Hollywood studios and Beverly Hills style luxury developments here in Chiang Mai. Though Thomas replies, when asked if the project wasn’t just a bit too mega: “Edurado told me, ‘this aint so big,'” and added that Creative Kingdom has indeed completed bigger projects in other countries. Although Chiang Mai Wood might just be a tad more special than previous projects as this is Creative Kingdom’s very own project, “a legacy project”, it’s their vision, from start to finish, whereas in the past they were consultants.

A deal for the land has already been agreed upon and the project is now underway. “It has big potential for Chiang Mai, for employment opportunities, new business to the area, huge tourism potential, and we are already in talks with major Hollywood studios and theme park developers whose names we would like to attach to the development,” says Thomas, as we look at the giant model aside the main office at CK. Chiang Mai Wood will be open to the public, it will be a small town within a small town, with as many features as you can imagine, including Chiang Mai’s first beach outside of Huay Tung Tao. If you’re interested in buying a plot, land will be up for grabs soon through www.gowealthy.com. The first phase of the 650 million dollar _ give or take a few bucks – project will take three years to complete, while the entire project should take seven years.

In the midst of their colourful enterprise Thomas explains that you can be anywhere in the world, whether looking at incredible architecture in the Middle East, traipsing the futuristic streets of a city in a virtual galaxy, or looking at a cityscape exhibition in New York, and if you look closely, you’ll see that what you are looking at was “Made in Chiang Mai”.

[Ed. In spite of Dubai’s current economic woes, CNXwood project, says Creative Kingdom, will go ahead on schedule. ]