Governor Nirat Pongsitthaworn discusses pollution, tourism and city infrastructure

By | Tue 4 Apr 2023

Citylife: It has been a few years since we have interviewed a governor, can you please tell our readers what your role is?

Governor Nirat: The role of the governor is to develop the province in accordance with government policies and to elevate each province, through their strengths and potentials, with the aim of reducing inequality across the nation. My job is to help Chiang Mai to move forward. The government has appointed me to implement their policies, by adjusting and adapting them for Chiang Mai. I work with various government departments and bodies as per their functions. We also have mayors and local administrative bodies, all of whom I work with. 

Chiang Mai is not a province that needs to be built up, it has so much already. For over 700 years Chiang Mai has been building its strength in terms of culture, language, tradition, history. To preserve these values and utilise them into selling points to benefit the people of Chiang Mai is one of my roles. We have soft power in terms of culture, food, clothing, mannerism, Buddhism.

Citylife: What are you working on in terms of large infrastructure projects?

Governor Nirat: There was talk about a new airport, but at this point there is no budget yet allocated from the central government. The budget required will be huge, but this does not seem likely to happen for another 10-15 years. This means that we will have to make do with what we have. What I can do now is facilitate the development of the current airport to support growing numbers over next 10-15 years. 

I have also been working with relevant departments to expand all of the highways leading out of the city in all directions to four, even six, lanes. As to the high speed train, again, it is being studied. I can try to push it to go faster, but let’s see. 

My job is to push for Chiang Mai’s interests from the government at the same time applying government policies for the interest of Chiang Mai people. 

Citylife: What is happening in terms of tourism?

Governor Nirat: Chiang Mai’s GDP is 60-70% from tourism. With 11 million visitors per year. These are big numbers. We don’t want to change this, but to add value to it. Let’s expand the times when tourists come from three months per year over winter to perhaps nine months per year from Songkran to after the new year. We want the 11 million tourists to spend five, maybe seven days in Chiang Mai, instead of three; to spend 4,000 baht per day instead of 2,000 baht. 

We are working hard now on the idea of turning Chiang Mai into a festival city, with events happening throughout he year across the city to attract visitors. Meetings, seminars, concerts, events, imagine if we have an event each week for 52 weeks of the year.

Chiang Mai is an international city and we can’t just sit here alone, we need to work with the international community. Did you know that we have 25 consuls. Ambassadors come and talk to me all the time. There is much to do.

Citylife: One of our readers has asked what the expatriate community can do to contribute towards Chiang Mai.

Governor Nirat: Anything that will add dimension, weight, and value to Chiang Mai is something I support. What expats can do? Give me advice, I will listen, but as long as it is not against the cultural norm. Please understand that we have our own unique issues and can’t adjust to your way of life. And anything too strong is not going to be listened to. Come through my page. I will listen. They are watching me. I know. 

The feedback from expats I have received so far? Some admire and agree. Some advise. I like this second group. But the strongly worded ones, not our way of life, too hard core, I don’t like. I listen, but I don’t say anything. At the end of the day international perspectives are always important.

Citylife: Now lets get to the question on everyone’s mind…pollution. 

Governor Nirat: When you look at the pollution issue in Chiang Mai you have to separate it into the pollution generated in Chiang Mai and that which is spread here from elsewhere. The pollution we are generating here is being controlled very well this year. In fact, I set a target of fewer than 50 hotspots per day across the province for this year and we were on target for two months…until the last week of March when so many people started burning, as is tradition. As to the pollution from elsewhere, all we can do is reduce. Chiang Mai is the largest province in the north and the second largest in Thailand but our number of hotpots is ranked sixth for the north, so compared to other provinces we have been doing well. 

I have been working seamlessly with all four provinces which surround us, but yes there has been a lot of burning since the 23rd March, perhaps 100-200 hotspots per day. It is the old belief of people here to burn before the rains. We need to change this habit. We can’t just complain though. If you are still eating the mushrooms and vegetables which are harvested after fires, then you are complicit too. And if they make money, they will do the same again next year. This is why we are making arrests. I can’t feel sorry for people who burn because I am more concerned about breathing for the rest of us. You have to invite people to change their ways. Maybe instead of corn we can incentivise them to enter the tourism market, grow fruits, coffee.

The problem with that is that they are going to make no income for three to four years waiting for their coffee crops to grow or businesses to take off. People in the city and those of us who benefit from the masses of income from tourists should help them out.  I have invited the tourism association to help, and will wait for their response. If there is a way that we can carry these people for three to four years then it could change everything.  

Citylife: What real policies are being implemented though?

Governor Nirat: All I can do on a national level is wait for them to give me a budget. In the meanwhile we do what we can with our limited budget and I try to get as many people as possible working together towards a common goal.

Citylife: Many readers have been asking about dangerous zebra crossings and traffic.

Governor Nirat: I have heard all of the complaints about zebra crossings and we are currently fixing them all now. We used to paint zebra crossings and other road signs once a year, but I have ordered it to be done more frequently and to have lights added to avoid any dangers to tourists. It is getting better and it will get better. I also have been working on managing communication lines. We first wanted to bury all electrical lines, but we can’t do it on all routes as its simply too expensive and there are no returns for some areas. So we chose some important areas such as around the moat, Nimmanhaemin, etc. The problem isn’t the electricity cables, but the communication lines. I have had them tested in selected areas and any lines which aren’t functional have simply been cut. We have reduced the number of these lines by half and are now tidying them all up. Nimmanhaemin has reduced its cable lines by 60% now and we are also working in Mae On, Mae Kampong, Doi Saket and many other areas. 

Citylife: What can you tell us about Songkran this year?

Governor Nirat: Songkran will go full steam this year and all the fun activities will return. Covid is nearly finished. I have been talking to doctors and we have no serious cases left, with very rare hospitalisations. Most people who catch it are recovering at home. No one is is wearing a mask for Covid now, it is all about the pollution. 

Citylife: What else can be done to attract tourists?

Governor Nirat: One thing we don’t talk about more is how safe Chiang Mai is. I believe that we have been ranked the safest city in ASEAN and the 32nd safest in the world. These are really important stats for tourists. We also have fantastic weather nine months of the year and I know that there are many big investments coming in for medical tourism and retirement homes. All I can do is give them a green light and support them. 

Citylife: We notice there have been fewer signs across the city. 

Governor Nirat: Yes, on day one I went after all the illegal signs in the city. I cleared Nimman’s footpath of illegal signs and I hope you have noticed that the city has far fewer signs than before. Chiang Mai is naturally beautiful without advertising signs. [Citylife lead a campaign to reduce signage across the city in this [opinion]article]

Citylife and the governor discussed the future of Chiang Mai as a coffee city, the plan to organise an Edinburgh fringe style festival here, the upcoming election and many other topics, but we were soon out of time. We asked the governor for a longer interview in the future and he tentatively agreed. 

In the meanwhile he said that he is happy to hear from any of our readers who have helpful comments or ideas. Please feel free to contact him on his Facebook page at: