Editorial: July 2018
We Thais are not known for our activism. Whether it’s the expectation and acceptance of karmic balancing acts to come, the lackadaisical sabai sabai attitude, the hierarchical social structure which attempts to keep one firmly in place, a long history of oppression of alternative voices or a lack of education, it is pretty clear that social activism is still in its relative infancy in this country.
But when our buttons are pushed hard enough and long enough, when things get lua thon (beyond bearable), we somehow pull it together, get out of our hammocks and salas and say ENOUGH! And for Chiang Mai, during my lifetime at least (and politics aside), it has always been about one thing: Doi Suthep.
In the mid-eighties, when I was a saucy young teen, I recall my parents one day putting a sticker on our car. I remember it well, as all of the Doreamon, Culture Club, Bananarama and other uber cool stickers I had been trying to put on our cars over the years had all been ruthlessly ripped off by my parents — dad likes a clear rear. So it was such a shock to see the ‘I Doi Suthep’ sticker take pride of place at the back window one day.
You see, ‘they’ were about to build a cable car up Doi Suthep and we weren’t having it. Like the popular Monkey Club sticker a decade ago and Martin Venzy-Stalling’s ubiquitous Chiang Mai Creative City stickers today, in 1986 just about every single vehicle and front gate in the city featured the ‘I Doi Suthep’ sticker. Soon there were ruthless editorials in the newspapers, local celebrities were trotted out on television and the radio to voice their opposition and eventually street protests were held. This was just one of numerous attempts over the past four or five decades to link Doi Suthep temple by cable with the city below…all of which have failed. To be fair, the environmental impact of a well-designed and ecologically sound cable car system would be far less than the toxic spew from the hundreds of songtaews and other vehicles which ascend the mountain each day, but neither rhyme nor reason were to be considered when defending our beloved mountain. Just the idea of tourists dangling high above our heads, forever tarnishing the unblemished vista of our mountain, was lua thon. The protest was so vociferous, that there was no talk of cable cars for at least a decade after that.
Then in the early noughties, the late Ajarn Sirichai Narumitrekhakan of Chiang Mai University began to voice his concerns when Bangkok announced that it had set a budget to build seven overpasses across all of the Superhighway intersections. He suggested that underpasses might be more aesthetically pleasing and appropriate for our cultural and historical city. But with a difference of hundreds of millions of baht in costs, Bangkok insisted. You know why we finally only had one overpass by the airport intersection (until the Promenada Intersection many years later)? It was because once again, Doi Suthep came to our rescue. With Bangkok’s denial of funding for underpasses, Ajarn Sirichai cleverly readjusted his protest to say that views of our beloved mountain would be forever marred by overpasses…and that was it; they were done. You can mess with a lot, but you don’t mess with Doi Suthep. It’s visceral.
And that’s why no amount of logic or law cited by the courts is going to make this matter go away. Yes, the judges have legal rights to build their mansions at the Scar of Doi Suthep and yes, so much money has already been spent on a near-completed project it would be a waste of a lot of tax bahts. But at the end of the day, for we residents of Chiang Mai, just knowing that the ‘scar’ exists is lua thon.
I tried to organise a gathering to raise awareness about the health hazards of our annual pollution a few months ago, resulting in, well, a hot mess. But it was the rally, one month later nearly to the day, against the ‘scar’ that was successful. On the surface it would seem that our passion had been misplaced; after all, lives at risk should surely be of greater concern to the public than a small patch of land on a mountain. But, whereas there are no clear villains nor victims in the ongoing fight against air pollution, it is quite clear who they are in the case of the ‘scar’— the villain being the court and the victim being our mountain, which we will seemingly protect at all cost.
It is heartening to see some kind of activism during these hushed climes. While many of us are silenced about so much, one thing we can stand together and speak up without fear of being accused of being political, is the protection of our greatest icon — Doi Suthep.
Citylife this month:
We have been on a bit of a green drive of late and this month Tus Werayutwattana takes a fascinating look at responsible slash and burn rotational farming. Before you all start spluttering with indignation, have a read about the harmonious relationship with their surrounding nature of this one Karen village. I would be interested to hear your thoughts. Our interns Tara Nasse and Deidre Jahn also go green with Tara’s charming look at who and what Doi Suthep is to us all in Chiang Mai, while Deidre checks out sustainable and environmentally conscientious companies in our city. Aydan Stuart writes about one of his greatest passions, cooking, and giddily interviews the three top winners of this year’s MasterChef Thailand, all of whom hail from the north. He also introduces you to the incredible couple behind Warm Heart Foundation, and we hope you too are impressed by their works and can do your bit to help them help others. Check out their10th anniversary party at The Edge on the 4th of July. I, on the other hand, went on holiday, so didn’t write anything! Next month, I will get back to work and hopefully bring you some great stories. In the meanwhile I hope you enjoy your read.