Community Renaissance

Completed in full just last month, Think Park today is a bustling community space, packed with students, tourists, and stylish young Thais eating, drinking and shopping.

By | Thu 1 Jan 2015

Chiang Mai has been known for its artisans and handicrafts since the Lanna period, the city rife with bustling markets that even today remain a vital part of daily life. But with towering megamalls popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm and traditional markets turning into dime a dozen tourist traps, many worry about rapid modern development replacing what used to make Chiang Mai, well, Chiang Mai.

The worry is valid, but fortunately, a more inspired model may be emerging with a growing number of community commerce spaces that simultaneously retain the old and welcome the new. These spaces fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, between the traditional marketplaces of yore and the modern megamalls of today. As their emergence is organic, no two are alike. Some are large scale, some are small; some are brand new, some are regenerations of old; but what they all have in common is a new and far more charming vision of modern Chiang Mai, in which business, culture, tradition and community go hand in hand.

A Sharing Village

It’s a balmy December morning with just a hint of a chill to the air; the picturesque blue sky has only a scattering of plump white clouds. I am deep in the heart of the Wat Umong neighbourhood, a leafy haven for students, artists, small coffee shops and art galleries. Turning into a gravel parking lot, I come face to face with an assemblage of teak houses, centred around a sunken amphitheatre with grassy tiers stair-stepping their way down to a circular, concrete interior. This is Baan Kang Wat, the brainchild of Nattawut “Big” Ruckprasit, the 35-year-old Thai designer best known for his ceramics shop, Bookoo Studio.

Big, a softspoken fellow with a goatee and flip-up sunglasses, spent three years designing and building the space, which was finished in September. The teak buildings are crafted in a traditional style, nodding to modernity with cool concrete interiors and arty flair. Housed inside are a dozen different independently owned Thai businesses. A northern Thai restaurant called Home, a clothing store called Jibberish, a library/cafe called Mahasamut, an eclectic zakka shop called Tiny Space, and more.

Baan Kang Wat is distinctively Thai, a centre of not just commerce but neighbourly, everyday life. As I browse the grounds, which are spacious but not sprawling, I see a young family playing a board game beneath the bookshelves at Mahasamut and a giggling student getting a 50 baht “ugly portrait” painted at Tiny Space. The mood is relaxed, yet charged with creative energy. Of course, there is also a fair share of tourists, dropped off by fleets of big silver vans for 30 minutes of perusing and selfies.

In addition to the shops and cafes, Baan Kang Wat also has a communal organic garden that shopkeepers – many of whom are also residents, living above their shops – help maintain. Anyone who helps gets to share in the harvest.

“Thai life is simple and nice but with civilisation growing up, I’m afraid people will change – become all about business and not about sharing,” says Big.

This place is his antidote. Big isn’t looking for rapid growth; rather, slow development and strong community bonds. Baan Kang Wat plays host to a growing number of local activities and events, including small festivals, film screenings, games, community gardening, crafts workshops, and an art market every Saturday where local students can sell their products.

Big believes that business and sharing can go hand in hand, but clearly values a sense of community over one of commerce, inspired by the familial culture of local hill tribe villages. He has no plans to expand the number of shops; rather, looking forward he hopes to become a hub for people who care about crafts and organic agriculture.

“Malls are about business,” he says. “Here, it is about feeling peaceful. People can come to enjoy the crafts. Just to come, buy and go is not good. Sharing is the priority.”

Community Trends

Similar small-scale communal art markets have been popping up of late throughout the city. Penguin Village, located just off Canal Road, is an outgrowth of the popular three-year-old coffee shop Penguin Ghetto. Now, the space, which is little more than a narrow dirt alley lined with storefronts, features a lovely new restaurant called Barefoot Cafe, a small zakka shop and a few local design and architecture studios.

Rent is affordable for small-scale businesses and the owners and shopkeepers plan to start a community garden of their own in the back, but they’re in no hurry. Right now, Barefoot Cafe hosts weekly backyard movie nights every Friday at 7pm, and the area has become a laid-back community space for Chiang Mai’s young and artsy set.

“None of this was planned, it just came together organically,” says Wilailuck Kunsaknan, manager of Penguin Ghetto. She and her husband chose the name Penguin Village for the area as a nod to the fictional world depicted in the popular Japanese comic book series, Dr. Slump. “It’s a small village with weird people,” Wilailuck adds with a laugh.

Meanwhile, the same types of young, artistic Thais are starting to reclaim the pop-up market format as well. The good people of Warmup Cafe, for example, have just started a younger, fresher, more local-centric alternative to the rather touristified old city’s weekly Sunday night market. At the monthly Warmup Flea Market, which takes place from 4–11pm every first Sunday of the month, young local designers and artists hawk a hip selection of both new and vintage items.

Of course, we can be also warmed by the fact that Chiang Mai just held its first ever Design Week, in which dozens of local businesses, designers and thinkers came together at venues throughout the city to showcase the growing volume of modern creativity the city has to offer.

“I believe Chiang Mai is still looking for an economic development strategy that really works and is inclusive, creates new opportunities and jobs. In my view, focusing more on creativity and innovation is the way to go,” says Martin Venzky-Stalling of Chiang Mai Creative City, who helped organise the event. “There is a lot of evidence that by unlocking the creativity of people in a city, the people and community can help to solve urban and social problems if the government cares to listen.”

The Creative Tycoon

Tan Passakornnatee, owner of Chiang Mai’s Think Park, is not exactly a struggling young artist. Actually, according to Forbes, he is the 34th richest person in Thailand, with an estimated worth of over 20 billion baht and the second most popular Facebook page in the kingdom. He is well-known by Thais for his quirky – and at times ruthless – business antics, dedication to philanthropy, and large scale giveaways (gold bars and iPhones and Porches, oh my!). The average farang (read: me) might recognise him only from his cartoonish statues, which can be found all over Thailand, complete with oversized head, trademark captain’s hat and stiff salute.

Tan is the founder of Thailand’s top two leading tea brands, Ichitan and Oishi, and the owner of Villa Maroc, a popular resort in Hua Hin. For him, Think Park began as a pet project.

“I came up with the business plan so I could come to Chiang Mai more often on vacation!” says the tea tycoon, who lives in Bangkok. Wearing his captain’s hat and a lemon yellow polo shirt, Tan does the interview in Thai, through a translator, but his enthusiasm for Think Park is clear.

The project was actually the brainchild of Tan’s daughter, Varisa, who after finishing university in England wanted to create a Thai art museum like the Tate Modern in London. While Tan thought a standalone museum might leave people bored, he was inspired by the idea, and so decided to start Think Park as a mixed community space with an art concept.

Completed in full just last month, Think Park today is a bustling community space, packed with students, tourists, and stylish young Thais eating, drinking and shopping. To name just a few, there’s Pop Shop, a small glass grotto filled with handmade iridescent stuffed dragons; 24 Nara, a gallery shop filled with splatter-painted bags, notebooks and iPhone cases; and Inly Design, a co-op shop featuring ten different local designers and selling everything from knitted socks to bamboo bicycles. Located at the top of Nimmanhaemin, just across from Maya Shopping Centre, the space is both figuratively and literally a bridge between the goliath mall and the small, independently owned shops that line Chiang Mai’s most fashionable street.

“This is a public space for everyone to enjoy,” says Tan, noting that only 30 percent of the land is occupied by buildings – the rest left open for exhibitions, art shows and live music. The shops themselves are housed in Hoikkado-style nooks, which Tan says are intentionally kept very small so that young local artists and entrepreneurs can afford the rent.

As a result, Think Park, while clearly on the cutting edge of modern for Chiang Mai, has retained in many ways the traditional charms of a classic Thai artisan’s market. “It’s old meets new,” agrees Tan. In fact, he tells me, from a bird’s eye view Think Park looks exactly like a small scale version of Chiang Mai’s old city.

“People, especially foreigners, get bored with tall buildings and technology,” says Tan. “They’re looking for culture, atmosphere, a place to enjoy the good weather.”

This vision sounds remarkably similar to Big’s plan for Baan Kang Wat, especially when you add in the happy fact that Tan bought the land partially in order to preserve the giant tree that was on it, which today stands tall in the centre of the park, festooned with fairy lights. However, in Tan’s case, business remains a primary focus and expansion is imminent. He has already leased the unoccupied land across the street, where the Amari Rincome hotel used to be, and says he will soon open another hotel and another mixed use community there much like Think Park, with underground tunnels connecting the two.

Furthermore, the tea mogul does not see malls as a threat. “Think Park and Maya are a good combination, not competition. We can support each other. The goal is community, going hand in hand rather than competing.”

As such, Tan’s vision for Chiang Mai’s future is bright. “It will expand a lot more because of all the open space, the flights, the culture and the universities,” he says, “but it will not become like Bangkok because there’s a new law preventing tall buildings. All buildings in the city area must be three floors or less.” He chuckles. “I’m glad this happened after I built my hotel! But really, I think this is a good idea to keep Chiang Mai’s culture intact.”

Old Meets New

For over 40 years, Chiang Mai’s Baan Tawai handicraft village has been known for its famous woodcarvings, supplying palaces and temples across the land. In more recent years, the area has become a must-visit for corporate buyers and international designers.

Driving down the main drag today, you’ll pass all manner of shops, from classic woodcarving studios that look like time capsules from the past to swanky new luxury design showrooms. Popular high-end brands like Koch and Ginger have outlets here, and the market shows no signs of slowing down. Instead, hip coffee shops like the popular Waan Cafe, with its stunning raw wood architecture, have popped up – the products of young second and third generation locals with artisan parents. These shops are a clear indication of modernisation without pulling up roots, and an encouraging sign for historic Baan Tawai’s future, which appears bright in spite of the recent recession.

Also encouraging is the development of the area that surrounds Baan Tawai. Long considered simply the outskirts of Chiang Mai, Hang Dong is in the process of coming into its own as a satellite hub for community and commerce – a “townlette,” if you will. Illustrative of this progress is the recent rejuvenation efforts of Kad Farang on Hang Dong Road.

Having grown rather derelict since its conception nearly eight years ago, the outdoor shopping centre’s facelift, which is currently in progress, has so far seen the arrival of a sports bar, a Wine Connection, and a brand new Rimping Supermarket which opened just last month. Rather than a high rise mall, Kad Farang follows a more traditional outdoor structure, similar to the new Jing Jai market in Pa Tan.

“The Hang Dong area was, and will continue to be, an attractive residential and business area of the city,” says Phairoj Phatsorpinyosakul, Rimping’s Chief Executive Officer and a long-term resident of Chiang Mai. Phairoj has shown a perceptive degree of development acumen in the selection of locations for his stores because he understands how successful communities work. He also cares deeply about retaining the things that make Chiang Mai special.

“Chiang Mai, for decades, has always enjoyed a benevolent ‘community feeling’ – something which I now feel risks being lost,” he told me in an email. “Globalisation and the media, including the internet and iPhones, can eclipse a country’s traditions. Young people may easily become preoccupied with foreign values and habits, overlooking the richness of their own culture.”

Perhaps this explains the rather underwhelming response towards The Harbour, another outwardly similar modern market space that opened in early 2013. There is nothing inherently Chiang Mai about the Harbour – instead it’s a recycled concept from Bangkok, all Disney World kitsch, haphazard references to western pop culture icons, and an unnecessary amount of bubble tea shops (even the night club there is called Fake) – it’s like globalisation threw up on Chiang Mai and out came a mall.

The Harbour has not fared well since it opened in early 2013. Neither locals nor tourists seem very interested in this kind of space, even though both groups have fully embraced its counterparts: places that celebrate both Chiang Mai’s history and its future, places like Think Park and Baan Kang Wat.

Perhaps what this signifies is a change of heart for Chiang Mai – a chance to take development back to the drawing board, and back into the hands of locals and those who actually care about the future of their city. Sure, the global boom of westernisation hit Thailand hard, but maybe now both its business tycoons and its young creators are hitting back.

As Big from Baan Kang Wat puts it: “Yes, Chiang Mai is growing fast. Yes, there are many department stores opening. But it’s a city of art and design. And when we grow, we want to use design to help local people, and to make Chiang Mai a better place to live.”