Bangkok’s Northern Émigrés: Lanna’s quiet presence in the capital

How small groups of Chiang Mai and northern residents in Bangkok are preserving Lanna culture in Thailand’s capital.

By | Fri 19 Jun 2020

Philip Cornwel-Smith is the author of the runaway hit Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture and his new book Very Bankgok: In the City of the Senses, to which this feature relates. Citylife interviewed him in 2019 when he co-curated an exhibition at the TCDC centre called Invisible Things.

Every Bangkokian seems to relish khao soy, but the northern noodle soup is as elusive from Bangkok’s menus as Northern culture is from its cosmopolitan milieu. Bangkok has countless Isaan restaurants, and enclaves of Southern eateries, but far less Northern Thai fare. Although many Northerners migrated to Bangkok, they’ve left a lighter imprint on the capital, which can be traced through more intangible forms of culture.

Northern migrants haven’t clustered in the ethnic enclaves typical of its urban patchwork. Isaan people diffused across the city, but you can still sense the distinct Isaan character of urban villages like Soi Rangnam, Soi Lasalle or Khlong Toei. Southerners still concentrate in Ramkhamhaeng or Bangkok Noi, where sheafs of sator pods flag their presence, but Bangkok has no “Little Lanna.”

In the 1990s there were still wooden shophouses serving khao soy on Sukhothai Road in Dusit, which is a clue to tracking the Northern diaspora. Dusit’s Wat Benchamabophit has always had abbots from the North. Royal wats rarely hold temple fairs, but since 1964 Wat Ben has hosted the Than Guay Salak festival each September for khon meuang from across the metropolis.

Than Guay Salak is held near the end of the rainy season retreat to encourage monks to complete their studies. The offerings of monastic necessities like soap, talc and toothpaste aren’t in Bangkok’s standard container of an orange plastic bucket, but in woven natural baskets of each province’s style, labelled with a prayer and the names of their ancestors.

The long festive day starts with an 8am procession of “offering trees” – draped in tinsel, banknotes and corner shop supplies – to each province’s zone, where devotees worship at impromptu altars. At noon, dozens of youths ordain after circumambulating the “Marble Temple.”

Secular sideshows spill out along the canal lane to a stage where Lanna singers croon till 6pm. In between vendors grilling coils of sai-ua sausages and frying pig skin into puffy kaeb moo pork scratchings, are staged activities like kids’ singing contest or the fon nan dance from Nan province. While vocalists trade cheeky jousts over sonorous melodies on the three-stringed sor, the Nan dancers bend so far backwards they can pick up donated banknotes in their teeth.

While Isaan migrants tend to klub baan (return ‘home’) to the provinces at festival times, both Northern and Southern migrants re-create their cultural festivals in the capital. “Like Northern Thais, Southerners in Bangkok live in a mental ghetto,” says Takerng Pattanopas, an artist from Phattalung. “Both hold culturally specific ceremonies at temples where the abbot comes from their region. Unlike the Northern events, Southern festivals aren’t publicised as spectacles for the general public.”

Southern festivals involve wats in specific provincial networks. For the Ching Pret festival, Wat Dusitaram hosts Songkhla and Phattalung natives, while Wat Ratchathiwat draws those from Surat Thani and Nakhon Sri Thammarat, which is why it holds a wheeled-float version of Surat’s boat-based parade Chak Phra. By contrast, Than Guay Salak festivals have spaces for all Northern provinces and increasingly draw the wider public. So many thousands go along that more festivals sprang up. In what form they reappear after the pandemic remains to be seen.

On other September Saturdays, many of the same vendors, dancers and revellers celebrate Than Guay Salak at other north-related temples like Wat Wachiratham Sathit in Sukhumvit Soi 101/1. Led by a Lampang abbot, it has a Lanna-esque golden stepped chedi and bot with sweeping eaves.

This is a less formal kad mua fair under red lacquer parasols. In one corner, kids cheer their dads’ sportive hobby: Hercules Beetle wrestling. The men twirl foil goads to spur the male beetles to use their antlers to knock their rival off a log of sugar cane. They can scent the presence below the log of a female beetle, who gets to mate with the winner. Such folk pastimes make homesick revellers feel a world away from Bangkok.

“A friend told me about this day, so I just had to travel up here,” says Noi, a teacher from Lampang who works in Narathiwat. In pa sin skirt and flower-decked hair-bun, Noi steers a lacquer collection plate between keening fon laeb dancers twirling their long scarves and nail extensions, while swordsmen swish scimitars to the shush of cymbals, and men in moh hom (indigo farmwear) acrobatically slapping long drums.

Decked in turbans, tunics and knee-length scarves, the Lampang revellers yelp and cavort in fon phii (spirit dances) to syncopated Mon music from instruments arrayed upon plastic chairs. Unlike the spirit dancing by katoeys at northern shrines like Pratu Pha, this event, Noi points out, “isn’t a real spirit dance because it’s inside a temple.”

The Neo-Lanna Renaissance is highly performative. Now it’s an intangible way to sustain migrants’ customs in the capital. Many of the dancers, crafters and cooks are brought down from the North, but some performers trained at the School of Lanna Art and Culture housed within Wat Wachiratham Sathit. Run at weekens by Mae Khru (Respected Mother teacher) Champa Saenprom, it binds the community, temple and school in the symbiotic bond known as boworn, a word derived from the initial letters of their Thai words baan (bor), wat (wor) and rongrian (ror).

The kids are enrolled at the school next door and aren’t all from northern families. “Initially their parents send them here, but those who’d like to learn more can get intensive training,” says Champa. The children learn Lanna drumming, dance and ceremonies, while adults learn how to play instruments and sing khab sor folk songs. They also teach crafts and the script of the northern language kham meuang.

“I worry that one day this beautiful tradition will be gone, but Lanna customs must adapt to survive,” Champa says. “On the positive side, many university students come to gather information and take professional training.” After decades of central authority trying to turn people from each region into generic Thais, there’s a trend among younger Bankgokians to rediscover indigenous cultures – and trace their own roots after two generations of people becoming generically Thai.

“My father is from the mountains of Phrae and my mother from the Chonburi coast, but I don’t really identify with anything. I’ve only learnt about the North in recent years,” says graphic designer Chakrapan Suwanphanich. He lived abroad between age two and his study at Mahidol University in Bangkok, where he later founded Ari Magazine. “I went on a journey to learn more about the real Thailand. It amazes me. Writing about Phrae has made me appreciate Northern culture – and realise how people in Bangkok used to look down on other regions. He now works with communities all over Thailand, helping solve their problems through design and identity. “It is an extension of Ari Magazine, which focuses on design and social matters – how design helps. I teach locals about international design, but also talk about rich local wisdom to city dwellers.”

Interest in the rustic North has reached Bangkok’s mass market, through domestic tourism and the TAT Thainess Festivals. Held in January at Lumpini Park, that event stages arts from each province in regional zones with crafts and foods around exemplars of indigenous architecture. The Thainess Festivals might be done for nationalism and tourism, but they are impressively genuine.

Bangkok prefers things orderly and formal. The Than Guay Salak fairs are run by the Northern Association and provincial associations, which typically have a hall for weddings or concerts, and yearbooks depicting officers in white-suited finery, and doing charitable works. Not all Northern émigrés fit that Bangkok-style establishment.

“Some of my cousins are very active in Wat Ben religious events, but I never was,” says Gritthiya Gaweewong, who was born in Chiang Saen, but whose curatorial career has been mostly in Bangkok (aside from a stint leading Chiang Mai University Art Centre). Founder of the pioneering gallery Project 304, she is now chief curator of Jim Thompson Art Centre. “Even at university in Bangkok, I didn’t join the Northern Club; I was the member of the Southern Club instead.” Her outsider stance is not generically ‘Lanna’, but relates to her ethnic context.

“I was born in a Yong family – part of the Tai Lüe ethnic group,” Gritthiya explains. “I always see myself as a Yong from the North, based in Bangkok, and working within local, regional and international layers. Yong culture and Northernness play vital roles in my identity and daily life. It’s not only about language or cuisine, but the way I see things. My perspectives are always from the periphery and marginalised point of view, never from the centre. This translates to my curatorial practices, which focus on small narratives.”

Many Bangkokian Northerners retain their homeland’s small narratives. Champa’s is so interesting that a university did a Lanna musical based on her life. She moved to the capital in 1978, and yet still declares: “I prefer to say that I’m from Chiang Rai, but reside in Bangkok. I never forget my northern roots.” Champa visits her hometown often for rituals, family and business. At home in Bangkok she cooks northern food and speaks northern language: “I taught my kids kham meuang and refuse to speak when they talk to me in central Thai.”

The Northern Renaissance has brought renewed pride to émigrés in Bangkok, while the exotic Lanna label has made its tribal complexities more digestible for outsiders. Tourism has turned rituals into a product. Local crafts have been commodified into neo-ethnic ‘Thai design’, from the simple stalls at OTOP Fairs to the boutiques of the northern part of the “the village” in Icon Siam mall. Lately, that repackaging has applied to northern food.

Amid a sophisticated reimagining of regional cuisines, Bangkok has fallen for northern sausage, sai-ua. The founder of Thai Niyom, Kasama Laopanich, pairs her Northern family fare with Southern food and makes her own sai-ua, but cures it in a Western way. Bangkok’s reworkings are not strictly traditional, but like many hybrids, they spur interest in the authentic original.

After all, tradition has always been about adaptation. Khao soy is a version of a dish that morphed along the Silk Road from Central Asia. And Bangkok adapted khao soy to be as thick and creamy as Central Thai curries. Doubtless Lanna practices differ in Bangkok, yet through change extend their life.

Each April at Wat Ben and Wat Wachiratham Sathit, Bangkokian Northerners conduct Pitee Sueb Chata – the Life Extension Ceremony. Ailing elders take turns to sit inside a cone made from three bamboos swathed in foil patterned cut-outs, each pole decked in auspicious betel nut, coconuts and cotton pom-poms. Sacred white sai sin strings connect the elder to the gathered well-wishers. Through such rites, Bangkokian Northerners connect to their traditions, and find a way to extend the life of Lanna culture in Bangkok.