The Chiang Mai Festival City journey

By | Tue 12 Dec 2023

Part 1: An idea thirty years in the making…

Please join hands across Chiang Mai to help the city put on an annual city-wide festival, tentatively titled Chiang Mai Festival City, with the aim of becoming one of the region’s greatest annual events held by all people of Chiang Mai for the benefit of the future of Chiang Mai. The current aim is to launch our first festival late next year.

The dream…

For nearly eighty years, Edinburgh city has worn the crown as the shining example of how a city can create, embrace and blossom from an annual festival city. Today many cities across the world are looking towards Edinburgh as a glowing example of success, with delegations from Australia’s Adelaide and Malta’s Valetta just two examples of cities which have successfully created their own international festivals, following their first delegation to visit Edinburgh Festivals years ago. Just this year alone there were three Asian delegations, including ours from Chiang Mai, who were welcomed to the Scottish capital in August to learn how it is done and how they too can take on Edinburgh’s best takes while learning from its mistakes. As the world’s leading celebration of arts and culture, Edinburgh Festivals 2003 attracted three million people to the windy Scottish city where around 3,500 shows were performed over 60,000 times, across hundreds of venues large and small, throughout the month of August bringing hundreds of millions of pounds into the economy. The impact of this annual festival on the city, and indeed Scotland as a whole, is vast and profound and something which Chiang Mai hopes to, in our own way, emulate (not to say that Edinburgh Festivals is without its challenges and many ensuing problems, which I will continue to address in this journal of my personal experience with the project as we – fingers crossed – proceed).

As of last month, when Governor of Chiang Mai Nirat Pongsitthaworn officially declared the Chiang Mai Festival City project a GO, Chiang Mai has been gearing up to get ready to plant our flag on the world festivals’ map. The current vision is to look towards the successful Edinburgh model to help us build our own unique annual festival city with the aim of creating a grounds-up opportunity for all Chiang Mai people to get involved in, contribute towards as well as benefit from — across all sectors, communities and spaces across Chiang Mai.

We are hoping that Chiang Mai Festival City will open our entire city up to celebration and festivities throughout the year and with a concentration of events in a wintery month of each year.

Everyone can open and rent out a venue, anyone can perform, sell, show or organise activities. Multiple festivals can be held by anyone and for any occasion from food to culture, tech to music. And the entire city can enjoy a month when Chiang Mai welcomes the world and shows it what we do best – be gracious hosts, show off our culture, express our creativity, put on shows or special events, hold festivals of all sizes and shapes and generally put on our Sunday best. Every single day. The vision is that the government sector supports this initiative with clean energy transport links, subsidised venue rents, free work permits for international artists, global branding and marketing and, eventually, proper funding for all aspects of infrastructure development and an enabling environment for communities to participate. That we put together a group of volunteers and experts to help with multiple facets of the month-long event from building a brand to setting sustainability guidelines; from issuing licenses to venues to working on international relations. And that everyone can sink, swim or shine as they wish, within a framework of a city which comes together to celebrate a shared vision.

Yes, I have always been a dreamer…

The beginnings…

As published by Citylife in late October, the story began thirty years ago when I was actually studying (Sanskrit of all things!) at Edinburgh University and first heard of the event. I was sulking because my parents made me come home for the summer which made me miss the festival. So, when I reluctantly returned home, I sat down and told my parents all about this great festival that I wasn’t able to attend. At the time my father John Shaw MBE was the Honorary British Consul as well as editor of this publication. Though he had heard of the Edinburgh Festivals before, he didn’t know much about it, and frankly neither did I, but when I told him what little I knew, he immediately thought it would be a good idea for Chiang Mai, whose economy was then in the doldrums. After discussing the matter with the governor, mayor, TAT and other relevant organisations, including the then-recently opened Kad Suan Kaew Theatre, it was decided that Chiang Mai was simply not ready to step onto the international stage. We had no expertise, we had insufficient venues, we didn’t have an international enough of an outlook, we lacked resources and frankly it was hard to get people to understand the concept – no, we were not proposing another traditional Lanna festival – a challenge which we suspect remains true today. Traditionally, all large events held in Chang Mai have on the most part received vast budgets from the government which barely trickle down into the economy, mostly benefiting Bangkok based businesses. The idea was to do this on our own for the greater good of everyone in Chiang Mai. What little we knew then was that this event HAD to be inclusive, it HAD to empower every citizen, it HAD to avoid money interest groups and it HAD to amass a city-wide consensus. None of which was possible in Chiang Mai of old…and it will remain to be seen if it is possible today.

Decades later I was talking to Ben Svasti Thomson MBE, Honorary British Consul, about the idea and was deeply encouraged when he showed immediate enthusiasm. I knew that I had no skills, nor frankly interest, in running anything on this scale. I have always been more of a facilitator, connector and cheerleader for various causes and projects…not a doer. So I think that I could best be useful by communicating with you all about what we are hoping to achieve, how you can contribute or benefit, what effects this will have on Chiang Mai and ways to attract the best minds, skills and resources here in Chiang Mai to come together to make this happen.

With that in mind, Ben appeared to be the perfect person to kick start this decades-dead idea. As far as I could figure out, we needed someone who was highly respected, has a long history of working for the greater good, above all the drama of interest groups, multilingual and with deep roots here in Chiang Mai while having the ability to represent our city on the national as well as international stages. Over the past half-decade, Ben has wined and dined heads of universities and industries, he has reached out to royalty, he has spent countless hours with government officials and business leaders, he has read and researched all manner festival-city and he has reached out to numerous groups, from local community groups to internationally renowned players in the festival world. What was important, to my thinking, was to make sure that everyone who got involved in the early stages of this event had Chiang Mai’s best interest at heart and that is why initially we began to talk with groups which had no financial or direct interest in the festival. All while fully understanding that in the years to come, we hope, there will be great benefit, financially, culturally, even educationally, for the entire society and environment if we do get this right. We both knew that this was not going to be easy to achieve so we spent the years of the pandemic just talking to people, hearing their takes, concerns and ideas. A couple of years ago I introduced an old friend, Alex Soulsby, Director of Artists in Residence at PTIS who had spent over a decade working in the arts, theatre and culture sector of the UK to Ben. It was when Alex told us that he could reach out to Edinburgh Festivals organisers with the aim of visiting them to learn more about the festivals that the entire idea began to take shape.

And so it was that thanks to Alex, a group in Chiang Mai was cobbled together with the aim of visiting Scotland for the August festival earlier this year. By the time we landed in Edinburgh’s Turnhouse airport one very windy morning, there were 11 delegates from Chiang Mai, most of whom had never met before.

We had the President of the Chamber of Commerce Julanit Wangwiwat, the President of Payap University Apicha Insuwa, President of Rajamangala University of Technology Lanna’s President Assst. Prof. Dr. Jutturit Thongpron, Vice President of Chiang Mai University Asst. Prof. Ekkachai Mahaek, two members of CMU’s faculty of architecture, two representatives of the Chiang Mai Tourism Council, Ben, Alex and myself.

All members of the group were self-funded, with two members supported by a kind benefactor who stepped in to help pay for their travel. Thanks to trip coordinator Aracha Boon-Long, who wonderfully put together our itinerary, travel plans as well as, importantly, liaising logistics with all of Alex’s contacts, we were set to meet the who’s who of Edinburgh Festivals and learn as much as we could to come back and share it all with you.

There I was, for the first time in decades, back at my alma mater with a group of people from Chiang Mai realising a dream my father and I shared thirty years ago. It was pretty wild.

Next: Part II (The Trip)…