Chiang Mai spiritual oasis: fact or fiction

By | Thu 30 Apr 2020

Chiang Mai has developed into an epicentre of wellness and spirituality luring travellers and residents from around the world. Inundated with vegan and vegetarian restaurants, yoga and meditation classes, and a plethora of other alternative practices focused on the healing of the body and mind, Chiang Mai has become a globally recognised destination for personal growth. But how did this culture develop and why are people drawn here?

Buddhism has been deeply ingrained into the local psyche for over a millennia, yet Chiang Mai’s extraordinary number of ethnic and tribal groups to this day remain very animist in many of their beliefs and practices. This assumption that the spirit(s) exists in all things and the public and proud display of this often jarring combination of beliefs has long been a hallmark of the faith of many people in this region which has always been accepting and open to other religious ideas and beliefs. Additionally, as renowned healers and thinkers settled in Chiang Mai so too came the ever-increasing populations of people looking to experience development and release in the Northern Thai mountains.

“Chiang Mai is the only place in Thailand

with more temples than Seven Elevens.”

Clinical hypnotherapist, Nicholas Harris, when asked about Chiang Mai’s spiritual background, joked that “Chiang Mai is the only place in Thailand with more temples than Seven Elevens.” Spirituality seems etched into the landscape of the city with reminders taking shape in grandiose temples and glittering pagodas on every corner. Harris speculates that people are drawn to Chiang Mai due to a fundamental dissatisfaction with life that then motivates them to pursue change and healing. He states that, “When people arrive in Chiang Mai they find a fundamental sense of rest; the city is almost like a big retreat.”

When interviewing expats and travellers to Chiang Mai, many personal stories included a medical problem, a heartbreak, or some variety of pain that pushed them to come to this little corner of the world, seeking relief and revival. Of these visitors, many of them were drawn to extend their visits or stay in Thailand because they fell in love: either with the chilled vibe, the welcoming community, with a special someone or just simply the overall lifestyle and beauty of the environment.

This story of pain and satisfaction culminating with relief and healing found in Chiang Mai is exemplified by Hunter Lafave, an American from Texas who has lived in Thailand for over a year and now runs Breath of Fresh Air focused on adventure-based healing and It’s In Your Head which is an organisation that promotes healing through the power of the mind. Lafave was diagnosed with stage three cancer in 2017 and began a rigorous schedule of chemotherapy and radiation. After developing neuropathy or numbness in his hands and feet, decreased recall abilities, and other negative side effects associated with cancer treatment, Lafave made changes to regain control of his health. This began with a rejection of many western ideas on medicine and instead focused on diet, acupuncture, and breathwork. After practicing these alternative forms of healing, Lafave quickly began to recover the feeling and control over his body that he had lost. This increasing interest in alternative medicine can be seen spreading across western nations and drawing people to further seek out knowledge about natural healing that has been popular and accepted in many Eastern countries for generations. When hosting a breathing workshop at Free Bird Cafe, Lafave voiced complaints about Western medicine, and was met with significant positive vocal response by those attending his session.

These steps away from Western traditions and towards more Eastern ideas are taking place not only in the context of medical ideologies, but also in spiritual and interpersonal practices. When asking many expats about their draw to Chiang Mai there was overwhelming response relating to Chiang Mai’s relaxed and open-minded atmosphere that provides communities of inclusivity which contrasted their experiences with more rigid and narrow-minded interactions they associate with western culture. Lafave expressed that, “people are accepted here.”

“The city is almost like a big retreat.”

While this is a pleasant idea expressed by many western travellers and expats, it is unclear if this is an equally pleasant exchange for the authenticity of Chiang Mai. Lisa Byrd Nesser has lived in Thailand for sixteen years and has watched as Chiang Mai has transformed into the city it is today. She owns a successful vegan restaurant, Free Bird Cafe, which serves as a focal point for wellness conscious travellers and residents. When discussing some of the shortcomings of the spirituality and wellness community, Nesser mentions that, “people are seeking peace and serenity. They are seeking their idealism of Buddhism and what they see it to be from the outside.” While there are positives to travellers adopting new perspectives and mindsets, it can, at times, come at the cost of reality. As individuals adopt the surface level experience of Chiang Mai and Thailand, they can lose the true texture of belief and life within Chiang Mai for the Thais who live here. It is easy for spiritual tourists to remark on the “simplicity” of life for locals here without accounting for hardship and genuine feeling.  Nesser continues, expressing that, “the danger is romanticising and not remembering that these are real people with real lives and real struggles.”

Additionally, one of the charms and draws of Chiang Mai is that it has avoided the fast-paced nature of most large cities in Thailand. Longtime residents have reported that they already see this beginning to change. One expat remarked that when driving, people used to let him merge easily, but now with the influx of Grab and Food Panda speeding to deliver convenience, you see drivers being less respectful towards each other. The charming relaxed atmosphere that characterises Chiang Mai and draws people to the city seems to be at risk due to the very people it attracts. Spiritual tourists also leave their mark on the city seen by the dotting of juice bars, vegan eateries, and wellness shops that exist predominantly to cater to the tastes of visitors.

There is fear that in the search for authenticity, tourists may have created an echo chamber of thought that is not necessarily eastern, but rather, its own hybrid of Western counter-culture with the handpicked elements of Buddhism that best suit their needs. This culture has allowed them to have experience conveniently packaged in English and tailored to many western conveniences. In this attempt to ease the experience of travellers it is possible that reality of Thai culture and ideals has been lost. This relationship only grows as the economic codependency between Chiang Mai and its influx of tourists who seek to discover themselves within the old city walls strengthens. Genuine experience, change and relief has been claimed by many in Chiang Mai, and new developments in thinking and perspective may be beneficial for society, but in this search for understanding it is necessary to seek authentic understanding of the environment being benefited from.