Architects of Interaction: The Visionaries Behind Two of Chiang Mai’s Innovative Community Spaces

 |  May 1, 2017

Beyond the walls of the Old City far from the usual bars and clubs where many Chiang Mai residents find their nocturnal weekend entertainment, a new social space began filling up by 8pm. In an unlikely location — a warehouse tucked behind a Nissan dealership — the city’s hippest tastemakers flocked to take part in a new kind of nightlife.

The warehouse had been transformed from a daytime storage space on an unassuming litter-strewn lot into a nighttime playground. Neon lights tossed a blue and pink glow off the walls. DJ Chama stood on an elevated platform, spinning pulsating beats above the crowd. A counter to the left boasted a creative menu of cocktails, while booths to the right were staffed with chefs ready to serve wild and unexpected dishes like crocodile meat and spicy eel soup.

For the partygoers, the atmosphere and design elements might have felt happenstance or effortless, but behind every d้cor decision was the deliberate motivation to create a specific vibe: one in which guests would be able to make new friends.

That might seem an obvious goal for a social gathering, but for Anothai Pichaiyuth, one of the producers behind the event, it isn’t something that often occurs naturally on her nights out in Chiang Mai. She said, “Normally, Chiang Mai people will go to the same places where they have to sit tight at the table with their friends. They’re not making new friends. We just want them to connect with other people as well, and to make a big community.”

The need for community is human. In a digital age when more and more interactions are reduced to screens, Chiang Mai residents are meeting this need with creative solutions. Innovative community spaces have become defining markers of the city’s social scene. And they are built with intention: there’s an art to raising a community, as making new friends does not happen as easily as we might wish, especially in a city with travellers who pass through for short stints and there are sometimes noticeable divides between groups of expats and groups of Thais. These architects of interaction are working to design places to bring all these people together.

The forces behind the creative vision of the “Bob and Friends” warehouse party were Anothai Pichaiyuth, her husband Chef Black and the events planning agency Sabudbob Studio. Multiple elements of the party were added deliberately to spark discussion among the party attendees and encourage them to get to know one another.

One conversation piece was a jar of clear liquid on the bar counter with an animal appendage floating inside. Chef Black lifted the mysterious object from the glass container and cackled with glee, “It’s a crocodile foot in gin!” Another point of party discussion was the welcome sign that declared that this was “Volume 15” of the Bob and Friends events, but Anothai confessed, “This is the first one.” Then why does the sign say Volume 15? “We just made that up! We wanted to give people something to talk about: ‘Oh, they’ve been doing this 15 times already?’ No, actually, this is the first!”

In addition to providing interesting things for guests to decipher and discuss together, they limited the amount of seating available so people would stand and mingle, and the food stations were set up so people would need to walk around to serve themselves and interact with others.

For Anothai, one specific change she hopes to be able to help facilitate is in what she sees as a difference between Thai and western social cultures. “Mostly for Thai people, party culture means just sitting around in the same group,” she said. “But here at our event, you have to walk around. You have to go grab your drinks, go dance. This is more like western culture, which we feel is good. It’s not a closed community; it’s quite open. And we welcome tourists and expats living in Chiang Mai.”

Whether or not western nightlife promotes more interactions between potential new friends, the gap that exists between expat and Thai communities is one that another Chiang Mai community organiser has noticed as well. Sarah McCarthy-Sitthiket, who opened Chiang Mai Community House in Pongnoi in September of last year, hopes that her community space can help bridge that gap.

“I wanted to help develop this community that I’m a part of, and then to extend that development to the Thai community here, which will allow them to integrate themselves with the international community in Chiang Mai,” said McCarthy-Sitthiket. She is an expat from the US, but her husband, Wisamun Sitthiket, is Thai. Wisamun’s photography is what supports the Community House, as his gallery allows for McCarthy-Sitthiket’s programmes to be possible.

The Community House’s tools for bringing people together are programming events within the realms of arts, education and wellness. McCarthy-Sitthiket explained, “It’s a space where people can give a talk, where people can trade skills, where people can form a club, where the purpose is not for private use, it’s for community use. For example, some of the events that we’ve had in the past have been yoga, qi gong, a teen’s figure art drawing workshop, portrait poems, and every Friday I’ve facilitated the Children’s Circle.”

McCarthy-Sitthiket has a delicate demeanour, but fierceness rises to the surface when she talks about how much she believes in the potential of those who use the Community House to develop their creative endeavours. “The Community House is for anyone who might want to lead a community event, knowing they’re doing that voluntarily and for the purpose of developing community involvement,” she said. “It’s a place to share your gifts and what you have to give in the world, and we will do what we can to support that.”

In the few months since its opening, the Community House has already served as a launching pad for the new venture of one of its members, Rosalie Wilmot. Wilmot said, “I was able to help Sarah do some Children’s Circle events, and I started to teach kid’s yoga at those events. Those gave me the space to practice, because there’s no other studio where I could have proposed to do that in Chiang Mai, and Sarah was receptive to it. It gave me a lot of confidence that the idea would work.” She was able to open her own yoga studio, and many of her early supporters were people she had met through the Community House.

“Sarah created this space because she believes in what other people want to share, and she believes in other people’s passions,” Wilmot said. “It’s been an amazing place where I’ve had a chance to grow and lead and get to practice things that I love doing. I teach at some of the other studios in town for more advanced practitioners. But here, every time there are new faces.”

At the Chiang Mai Community House’s Grand Opening on March 25th, a diverse group gathered to share food and either catch up with their friends or introduce themselves to newcomers. The camaraderie felt similar to that of a family get-together. The community McCarthy-Sitthiket had dreamed of nurturing was there, a result of her determined encouragement and prudent programming.

Rather than reject the limiting nature of digital and online resources in forming connections, community organisers are taking advantage of what they have to offer, and using them to help build arenas for forming genuine relationships. Anothai’s warehouse party was marketed via an online flyer sent out through email, and the Chiang Mai Community House creates Facebook events for each of their weekly programmes.

McCarthy-Sitthiket acknowledges that people now often feel a need to capture and share experiences on social media, but by having Wisamun photograph their events, she aims to free up participants to fully engage in the moment. “You can participate without wanting to take a selfie, without needing to break away your consciousness from engaging in your experience of what you’re doing,” she said. “So we say Wisamun will be taking your portraits during this event so you can then share it on Facebook, you can keep doing that, and you don’t have to be disconnected from your families.”

By paying attention to people’s needs, and pushing them out of their comfort zones to talk to each other, Chiang Mai’s community organisers have contributed to a burgeoning culture of openness.