Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

 |  June 29, 2011

Denis Grey joined Associated Press in 1972 during the Vietnam War era covering war and postwar issues. In 1976 he was appointed Bureau Chief of AP in Bangkok covering Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. He resigned as bureau chief in February this year when he was appointed roving correspondent for AP in Asia, focusing largely on environmental issues.

Years ago, I was certain I had found what every man and woman should seek – their own Shangri-La.

On a whim, we – two young and not undashing army lieutenants – headed for the hills of northern Thailand, to Chiang Mai, snatching a much longed-for leave from the wars and turmoil then storming across Asia.

Slumbering in a green valley, guarded by forested ranges, Chiang Mai had the singular feel of innocent, far-away mountain places, like that Himalayan hideaway in James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon where peace and kindness reign. To us up there, it seemed that all man’s inhumanity to man, not that far from us in miles, was being staged on another planet.

We strolled down the narrow, languid lanes and their delightful teakwood houses where chickens clucked in backyards, to suddenly stumble upon a splendid Buddhist temple that some unknown Thai Michelangelo had created. Hardly a motor was heard, just a lulling swish, as a trishaw driver would pedal us back to our hotel on almost rural Huay Kaew Road, below the darkening silhouette of Chiang Mai’s dominating feature, Suthep Mountain.

What enchanted us most was a certain essence, detected by many but almost indefinable, ancient yet fragile, blended of refined art and gentle manners, natural hospitality and a seductive gracefulness in all things. Of course being, as I said, young, etc., we were also very taken with the legendary northern Thai women.

“It’s a natural wonder to have so many beautiful ones in one place – behind potters’ wheels, carving wooden tables, weaving cotton, all sweet, soft-skinned and round-faced,” reads an entry in my diary, dated March 31, 1970. “We smiled at all of them and always got smiles and laughs in return.”
Fast forward to 2011…The overgrown village is now an urban conglomeration, encircled by ring roads and suburbs where shoppers flock to Lotus and Carrefour mega-stores. Many an idyllic home has been replaced by a concrete guesthouse catering to the streams of tourists. Huay Kaew seethes with evening rush hour traffic. And the legendary northern beauty? She’s still there, but harder to spot in the crowds of migrants, not to mention scruffy foreign backpackers.

Although still touted as the ‘Rose of the North’ by tourism promoters, has Chiang Mai’s magic potion been lost, or adulterated, over what has just really been half a lifetime?

As fate and good fortune would have it, I didn’t lose touch with Chiang Mai after we reluctantly parted more than 40 years ago now. Not too long after, I exchanged my U.S. Army jungle fatigues for the rumpled wear of a journalist and got posted to the Thai capital, Bangkok. Chiang Mai and the so-called Golden Triangle at its doorstep became part of my beat, then, unlike now, an untamed region of remote hilltribe villages, opium warlords and rebel armies. So year after year, I saw and felt, often with heartache, the changes, the transformation of Chiang Mai into today’s new, and still evolving identity.

During one more recent visit, I stopped by to ask a friend, Pim Kemasingki, about the present and future. “Chiang Mai is changing and will continue to change. It takes my breath away. A lot of the charm will be lost but I think there is enough dissent to keep some of it intact,” said the young, energetic editor of Chiang Mai Citylife magazine. “It’s an ancient city, a city of artists, a seat of learning so I think it will always have enough academics, artists, left-leaning people to let out a hue and cry to stop rampant development.”

Describing their hometown, natives like Pim invariably point out with relish how much it differs from Bangkok. Chiang Mai, they say, is far more laidback, savouring an outdoor lifestyle and a sense of community. Some high rises may have sprouted but tucked behind them are small neighbourhoods, villages within the city, where chickens still cluck and residents tend their tranquil gardens. Passionate boosters will deride Bangkokians as crass money-grubbers, in sharp contrast to sensitive northern souls. “In Bangkok, there is a drive to succeed. In Chiang Mai people are not that ambitious,” remarks Joe Cummings, a longtime resident and author of that backpacking Bible, the Lonely Planet guide to Thailand.

Chiang Mai has also become Thailand’s Left Bank, tapping into a 700-year-old artistic heritage to create distinctive design, architecture and painting. A vibrant alternative culture has sprung up in recent years that features art galleries, second-hand bookstores like the Gecko and Shaman, more vegetarian restaurants than Bangkok (a city about ten times its size) and an Irish pub where poets of all talents can recite their latest opus.

One encounters a touch of this Bohemian flair on Nimmanhaemin Road, Soi 1, once and a run-of-the-mill alley not far from the hillside campus of Chiang Mai University. The street’s short run encompasses exquisite d?cor and fabric boutiques, a neighbourhood noodle shop, fancy hairstylist lodged in a Mediterranean yellow building. Not long ago it also included the Gong Dee gallery. Its owner, painter-designer Vichit Chaiwong, exemplifies the new Chiang Mai ?lan.

Born into a farming family near the city, Vichit grew up absorbing the centuries-old, still living skills of silver-making, weaving, wood-carving and painting. Schooled at the country’s top fine arts university, he dreamed of living by his brush but found that the only paintings he could sell were boring still-lifes featuring flowers. With a wave of Thai designers fusing traditional and contemporary design just beginning to roll, Vichit experimented with gold leaf pointillism on home d?cor items, selling them at Chiang Mai’s Night Market, the mother of all Thai bazaars and the city’s no. 1 tourist attraction of many years.

With wads of baht in his pocket, he moved to the then non-descript Nimmanhaemin Road, opening up Gong Dee. “It was my dream to have a gallery so I could show my own paintings and this is large enough to share with other artists in Chiang Mai,” says Vichit, an exceedingly friendly man of humble demeanour. A lover of classical music, he added a compact concert hall at the back of the gallery which hosted foreign and local musicians, adding lustre to Chiang Mai’s music scene. Now, he has moved both gallery and a much expanded concert hall to the city’s still green outskirts, where he hosts promising Thai artists and visiting musicians on Sunday afternoons, complete with tea and snacks on a lawn bordering rice fields.

The cityscape too has bright spots despite some towering monstrosities which have drawn local protest. Turning their backs on globalised, cookie-cutter hotels, a group of architects is pioneering smaller-scaled structures adapted from the architecture and atmospherics of the Lanna Kingdom, which rose in the 13th century and ended six centuries later with loss of independence to the Bangkok-based kingdom of Siam. Evoking Chiang Mai’s golden age are a growing number of unique hotels including the minimalist Tamarind Village; super-opulent Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi; the Puripunn Boutique Hotel and Spa, styled like a nobleman’s home, and a jewel in the crown, the magical Rachamankha.

“It’s a good sign that people begin to appreciate the character of the old architecture, becoming proud of their heritage. It’s never too late if you have enough concerned people,” says architect Viyada Charoensuk, who used to work out of a charming teak house in the old, walled city.

Some of this hometown pride even smacks of the subversive. One outspoken and popular advocate of the Lanna way, Tanet Charoenmuang, ranks ‘Braveheart’ – depicting the fight of the Scots against the English – as his favourite film, and glows at the idea of Scotland’s independence. The university professor stands at the forefront of a pro-Lanna movement which has revived interest in the kingdom’s language, art, dress and history, helping stave off those southern invaders – the developers and money barons of Bangkok aiming to ravish the Northern Rose.

The new Chiang Mai also attracts both Thais and foreigners with very different motives. Viyada, a gentle, soft-spoken young woman, gave up a lucrative but hectic career in Bangkok, seeking a simpler, less materialistic life. Pim, whose magazine captures the city’s contemporary pulse, returned happily to her childhood home after ten years abroad. “At first we came to do business and then we fell in love,” says Att Viravaidhya, who left behind a Bangkok yuppie lifestyle and the family company, planting with his wife Sineenard the small Puripunn Hotel in a quiet, traditional neighbourhood.

Foreigners have been pulled to Chiang Mai since the days they came to exploit the great teak forests of the north, and their number has been growing – businessmen, journalists, English teachers, assorted Lotus eaters and retirees.

Cummings, the Lonely Planet writer, who spent many years in Chiang Mai and still keeps a base there, sought a cheaper cost of living, an escape from Bangkok’s traffic mayhem and a vibrant expatriate community with foreigners “who spoke Thai and were interested in more than just making money.” Together with several journalists and artists, we met at the Writer’s Club and Wine Bar in the heart of the old city, which turns into a pedestrian zone every Sunday. Vendors were selling handicrafts and food on the pavements outside while street musicians played, the fun-bent crowds spilling into temple courtyards. “It’s even pleasant going to the post office here,” Cummings said. “There are fewer people and everyone smiles. If any place can put a brake on development it’s Chiang Mai.”

But he’s worried that the brakes might fail and the once-upon-a-time essence will be lost forever. Like all who love Chiang Mai, I have similar fears, but after much toing-and-froing I made my decision.

While neither is as good as living in Shangri-La, I came to realise that you either never return to a truly cherished place, or strike a compromise with change. So, my wife and I found ourselves deep in consultation with Viyada, the lovely architect. Today, you may meet us in a lovely house overlooking (our own) rice fields and not-too-distant hills nestled in a valley truly out of postcards.