Cultural Insight

 |  November 30, 2009

Starting in the 1970s the north of Thailand underwent rapid and fundamental changes. Rutted laterite tracks turned into superhighways; ox carts were replaced by pick-up trucks, buffaloes by Japanese tractors; electricity and with it television sets, entered the remotest village.

The borders of Thailand to the north, for so long closed, are now open, so that Lanna is no longer a dead end but a gateway to the riches of China.

These developments opened the eyes and changed the lives of the villagers; elders gathered around the TV and discussed world politics instead of local temple affairs; young girls saw the Bangkok high-so characters in the soaps, leapt onto their motor bikes and sped off to the nearest town to buy a mini skirt or a pair of jeans.

Gone forever were the days when Renu and Banja were met at the station by their parents in an ox cart and driven slowly home, id, od, ad, id, od, ad. (as I learned in my first Thai primer).

In the cities, goods of all sorts became available – there were hyper-marts, super-marts, shopping malls, beauty parlours, coffee shops and spas. 5 star and boutique hotels, also restaurants for every taste and purse; hospitals, dental (no need to bring a dentist from Bangkok) and eye clinics of world-class standard; universities and international schools; clubs and societies – all had sprung up, it seemed, overnight.

Chiang Mai was now thought of, by foreign and Bangkok tourists alike, as a highly desirable and safe place to visit, even a place for a second or retirement home. Housing estates, condominiums and golf courses were built to cater for this demand, sprawling out beyond the first, second then third ring roads.

All that remained was to bring about a Lanna renaissance, to reinvent, or to create, a present day ancient Kingdom of Lanna, of which virtually nothing remained – save only the language and a predilection for sticky rice.

So ajarn, rich business people, government and TAT officials, those in the hotel and tourist industry – whether from the north or from Bangkok, set about inventing a Kingdom of Lanna that would be attractive to Bangkok and foreign visitors. Lanna architecture, Lanna food and kantoke, Lanna textiles and dress, Lanna festivals and traditions, Lanna arts and crafts, silverware and ceramics, Lanna massage and herbal medicines, Lanna painting, music and dance.

Let it be true – the Lanna renaissance. Please for panda’s sake lets not forget to look after our city and the beautiful surrounding countryside.

Thanks so much to John Shaw MBE for writing these fascinating pieces on northern Thai history over the last few years. Unfortunately, even though only a sprightly 75, he has decided to retire, this is the last installment of Cultural Insight.