The Governor of Chiang Mai Nirat Pongsitthaworn invited twenty consuls and honorary consuls, along with Cityife, to a meeting at the provincial hall earlier this week where he confirmed that Chiang Mai will be holding a Chiang Mai Festival from November 15th to December 15th 2024.
This has been the realisation of a decades-long dream of Citylife’s.
In the September 1995 issue of this publication (then called Chiang Mai Newsletter), a proposal was made, “A way in which both Thai and international visitors could be encouraged to visit and return regularly, would be by establishing a prestigious annual event,” wrote our editor, and my father, John Shaw MBE.
“One possibility is to establish a Chiang Mai Arts and Music festival. The idea would be to hold such an event for a period of approximately one week to ten days each year. The festival would be a blend of both western, Thai and regional contributions, with an opportunity to see and hear established and distinguished musicians, singers, actors and other artists from all over the world. It would also provide a venue for up and coming Thai and international performers.
The Chiang Mai Festival could ideally be a cross between two internationally renowned events – the Hong Kong Arts Festival and the Edinburgh Festival,” he suggested, bringing up the fact that Chiang Mai had just opened the 1,400 seat Kad Theatre, at the time one of the most cutting edge theatres in Asia. He also noted that the following year would see Chiang Mai celebrate its 700th anniversary, the timing perfect for a festival launch.
“Are we ready to take advantage of such a grand vision?” We asked our readers, as well as the leaders of the city at the time over a course of numerous meetings.
The answer was a resounding no. Chiang Mai simply didn’t have the capacity, the communities or the ambition to support such a vision.
Over the years I have talked about this idea with anyone who would listen, and eventually the possibility of Chiang Mai Festival began to take shape, with Honorary British Consul Ben Svasti, showing great enthusiasm when I first mentioned it to him well over a decade ago. It was when he was introduced to Alex Soulsby, Creative Director at Prem Tinsulanonda International School just before the pandemic that the idea began to become a reality. Soulsby, who had spent many years working in the UK arts and cultural sector, had a wealth of contacts from Edinburgh and beyond at his fingertips.
Discussions continued over the pandemic, and after reaching out to leaders of the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, all of whom were highly positive (many of whom had been guests of Prem’s Artist Residency programme and knew Chiang Mai well) about the idea and in full support. Similarly, to our editors all those moons ago, who wrote, “Chiang Mai is in many ways an ideal location for holding an event of this type. It is already a well-known tourist destination with the necessary hotel and airport facilities. It has recently acquired the facilities for holding musical events to meet international standards. Examples of these are the Kad Theatre, the National Theatre, the two university auditoriums, the new SEA Games Stadium, to name the most obvious. Although the Chiang Mai populace is not naturally attracted by culture of this kind, there is an increasing appreciation of the arts and classical music throughout Thailand and the region.
” And so it was decided, in late June of this year, that we should probably go to Edinburgh to see for ourselves what this great festival was about.
I will be publishing a series of articles in the coming weeks about our trip to Edinburgh and our journey to this point, including what we learnt there and how we can draw from their success to create our own. Suffice to say, an 11 person delegation – all self funded – from Chiang Mai, visited Edinburgh festival in August. In attendance were the Presidents of Payap and Rachamonkol Universities, the Vice President of Chiang Mai University, the President of the Chamber of Commerce, Svasti, Soulsby, two researchers from CMU, two members of the Tourism Council and myself. Over the course of five days, we attended over 20 meetings with presidents of universities in Edinburgh, heads of organisations such as Visit Scotland and Creative Scotland, heads of many festivals being held at the time, the city council, government representatives, the Edinburgh chamber of commerce, and a multitude of experts in their field who were incredibly generous with their time and knowledge, helping us to begin to form a clearer idea of what it would take for Chiang Mai to hold our own version of events, and what our unique event would look like.
Since our return, we have set up various working groups of volunteers, found ourselves some funding by generous patrons, and presented the idea for a Chiang Mai Festival to the governor and heads of all relevant local public organizations.
This week, at the provincial hall, the governor approved the project and now we are set to launch Chiang Mai Festival next year.
This month-long city-wide festival has, at this time, no funding. It is hoped that all current events and festivals around the time period will coalesce into the four week period set, self fund, and self organise. The government sector will see to issues from traffic to garbage collection, public restrooms to labour law, temporary work visas to public space management. Through fundraising and private donations we will market the event, initially across Thailand and the region, and eventually globally. Universities will offer tech support, creating venue matching platforms, booking engines, web sites and other tools to help such an ambitious event be run.
We anticipate numerous challenges, but we know that with the help of Chiang Mai we will overcome them. The aim is to have a month long festival to benefit Chiang Mai, working to our strengths and making sure that it is a bottoms up festival where everyone in the city can potentially benefit.
Once an office has been set up, we will start reaching out to current organisers of festivals from the food festival to the Citylife Garden Fair, the Design Week to the Museum Night, in hopes of working with them, while they retain full autonomy.
The Chiang Mai Festival will succeed because of all of us. This is the chance for Chiang Mai to help ourselves, to pool our resources, to work towards a shared vision and to create a memorable and creatively impactful event.
When asked to comment, British Consul Ben Svasti MBE Stated:
“The Governor’s green light for the Chiang Mai Festival is a monumental step towards realizing a vision many of us have nurtured for years. I am thrilled about the endless possibilities this presents and am fully committed to contributing to a festival that will not only showcase our unique cultural heritage but also position Chiang Mai as a crucible of international artistic exchange.”
Alex Soulsby FRSA, co-lead of the August delegation visit to Edinburgh added:
“The endorsement of the Chiang Mai Festival project is more than just a nod of approval—it’s an invitation for the people of Chiang Mai to revolutionize the city’s cultural landscape”