Tradition in the Globalized World: The CMU Annual Freshman Walk

By | Wed 23 Nov 2022

Just last week Chiang Mai University (CMU) held its annual 1st year student walk to Doi Suthep temple. This was a welcoming event in a post-covid climate.

Between 20,000 – 30,000 CMU students, staff, reporters, and tourists flock to witness and participate in the 14-km walk/run in the early wee hour in the morning, starting at the foot of Doi Suthep.

Even the Chiang Mai governor and Chiang Mai mayor joined.

I find the whole event fascinating.

You see, about 20 years ago my father urged me to apply to CMU for an undergraduate degree. Being Bangkok-centric then, I scoffed at his suggestion, telling him “Chiang Mai was too provincial for my taste.”

I left for Australia instead.

Fast forward to today, I am running for national election representing Chiang Mai district 1 constituency!

That proves that you just never know where you’ll end up in 20 years.

The annual CMU freshman walk, started since 1964, to my mind, kills multiple birds with one stone.

First, it serves as a bonding exercise between 1st year and senior students promoting camaraderie. Second, it promotes Buddhism, our national religion, and Wat Doi Suthep. Third, it is a great PR for both CMU and Chiang Mai tourism, not to mention the health benefits.

Moreover, my understanding is that it is voluntary. The first-year students do not need to run if they believe the activity to be too physically taxing.

What I found odd, however, was why the students run in jeans. Would not running shorts and t-shirts be more practical? The only answer I can furnish is the modesty factor. CMU doesn’t want to turn the partially sacred tradition into a marathon with young female runners wearing tights, revealing their flesh.  It would attract a different sort of crowd, if you know what I mean.

This kind of annual activity beats the hazing tradition in which many freshmen have been bullied, resulting in deaths on university campuses.

I recall my time in my Aussie high school (where incidentally King Charles had attended). One night the grade 12 seniors woke us up, told us to dash to a girl’s dormitory naked, with a tie around our necks.

They coordinated with the senior girls beforehand.

It was a stupid prank by the seniors. Hilarious – yes, but at our expense.

In contrast is the CMU annual freshman walk where everyone including alumni and the community participated. This creates a bond not just between students from different faculties, but also between CMU and the community at large.

Shorty’s Unsolved Murder

Previously, in each year’s run the CMU beloved dog ‘shorty’ would join the walk (see the cover photo). So popular was the dog that he had a Facebook fan page. One day, shorty was kidnapped and murdered, angering many Chiang Mai citizens. To my knowledge, the case hasn’t been resolved.

Maybe we should call good’ old Sherlock Holmes to solve the mystery?

“Let’s travel to CNX to investigate the long overdue Shorty’s case, Watson.”

Tradition Hacked

Tradition has to start somewhere right? There is no reason to stop, say, a university from Kon Kaen or Ubon from creating a similar annual event to promote their respective province.

Thammasat and Chula have an annual football match, with tens of thousands of fans cheering. This too is a huge event in Bangkok whose tradition should continue.

Speaking of tradition, there is a story of a boy asking his mother “Why do you bake a cake this particular size?”

Mother: “That’s how your grandma taught me”

The boy then asks his grandma, who replied “That’s how your great grandma taught me”

Luckily the great grandma is still alive.  The boy asks the same question.

“Because it fits my oven” She replies.

In other words, activities and festivals can be created new so long as successive generations continue the tradition. Otherwise, they die out.

Assume it’s the year 2090. CMU has an external campus on the moon. And the freshmen annual walk up Doi Suthep becomes ‘the annual walk on the moon.’ Spaceships take students and staff to the moon; there they begin their annual run, with their portable oxygen masks and gravity-regulated suits. Accompanying them is the Governor of the Moon.  

Admittedly, when activities are imbued with religious rites, they tend to be long-lasting. Where activities are merely trendy, they risk fading into obscurity when the trend changes, which they inevitably will.

Another sort of Moon race. Source: Butch Tan, 

Scaling CMU Freshman Walk

To add horsepower to the annual CMU walk, I suggest making the event more global – or at least regional. CMU should invite all its international university networks to participate, including its exchange students.

My American friend said “Chiang Mai’s hotels would be overbooked.” He then added “But that’d be a good problem to have.”


To the extent that the annual Chiang Mai Loi Kratong floating parade has successfully drawn in the US, China, India, and Japan consulates to join, I see similar opportunities in the CMU annual Doi Suthep walk.

Live locally, celebrate globally.