Travel Writing: Chiang Mai, Thailand

[Article by Robbie Fraser]

It’s not easy to interview a city, but I’ve done my best. Two months ago I touched down in Thailand and soon made my way up north to Chiang Mai. This wasn’t my first trip to the country. I’ve been through the insanity that is Bangkok, a city that is home to over well over ten million. I’ve been to the breathtaking beaches and scattered tourist traps that make up Phuket, and even to a few small towns along the way. But Chiang Mai is something entirely unique. It’s that uniqueness that has the city on the verge of becoming a UNESCO creative city. The possibility of such a title is something the community here takes great pride in, a fact visible on the hundreds of roadside signs promoting the potential honor. If Chiang Mai is successful in its attempt to become an internationally recognized city of craft and folk art, it will join only four other cities in the world.

The primary factor in Chiang Mai’s ability to rise above the dozens of other cities vying for similar recognition is the fact that it sits at a cultural crossroad. If you spend enough time in the city, you will undoubtedly come across a few children in the intricate dress of the Lanna tribe. The Lanna are traditionally a hill people that were an independent nation until a few hundred years ago. Today, they have melded with mainstream society in many ways, but in many ways they remain proudly independent, careful to retain an art-focused culture that has persisted for centuries. They are most visible at the city’s night markets. Some are selling art, always handmade, and almost always incredible in its quality. Others are making art, performing it. Children dance while the smooth sound of drums and a bamboo flute drifts through hundreds of individual stands.

Robbie Fraser is an associate editor for Synchronized Chaos Magazine. Fraser may be reached at robbiedfraser@gmail.com.

As for the visual, one aspect dominates the landscape. Far removed from the coastal cities that have helped make Thailand a famous tourist destination, Chiang Mai is surrounded by hills and mountains that have taken on the surrounding rainforest. Atop one of these mountains in particular is a temple, known as Doi Suthep, which provides incredible views of the city as you stand eye level with the clouds. It’s one of dozens of notable temples in the city, with some dating back as far as seven hundred years.

Yet for all the opportunity provided for solemn introspection, Chiang Mai is ultimately a fun and engaging city. It is a widely held opinion in Thailand that the locals here in the north are simply nicer. I can’t say that I’ve encountered anything during my travels to suggest otherwise. Nothing illustrates this city’s playful nature better than its most famous festival, known  as Songkran, which essentially consists of a city wide water fight during the height of summer. While the festival takes place in cities all over Thailand, people travel across the world to experience Songkran in Chiang Mai, where Thais and westerners (known locally as “firangs”) attack the city with water balloons and super soakers.

In the end though, it’s the intangibles of the city that make it so inviting. Over the past decade Chiang Mai has become an increasingly popular spot for tourists. While it may not boast the beachfront resorts or sprawling shopping districts like some of the more traditional Thailand destinations, the numbers point to a definite pull on the rest of the world.  It’s a pull centered on the fact that, yes, it is a city largely dependent on tourism and thus home to many of the associated accommodations, but it doesn’t always feel that way.  It provides the opportunity to envelop yourself in Thai culture, while always taking a bit of comfort from the fact that you saw a 7/11 not too far away. It’s a place to lose yourself in a new culture, while never being asked to lose your own.

In the past two months I’ve had the honor of sharing meals with people I didn’t share more than three words of language with. I’ve packed into the back of pickups with ten different people hailing from ten different countries. I’ve mangled the Thai language in ways they probably never thought possible, and thus have become a certifiable master of charades. It’s easier when you know you’ll get a smile for the effort. Thailand is of course, the land of smiles. It’s easy to see why.

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