Chiang Mai has been in existence for more than 700 years. It was founded by King Mengrai in the late-13th century. Some decades earlier, the king had already founded another major centre of northern Thailand, Chiang Rai, which he had named after himself. Mengrai came to control a huge area of land in between what today consists of Laos and Myanmar. Lanna—‘kingdom of a million rice paddies’—was born and Mengrai was its king. His dynasty was to rule Lanna for the coming centuries. Lanna thrived through turbulent times. Agriculture produced such a surplus that a class of prosperous artisans who didn’t have to break their backs in rice farming was born in the city. An indicator of the high culture and status of Chiang Mai then is the fact that in 1455 the city hosted the eighth world Buddhist convention. The venue of the meeting, the gorgeous temple of Wat Chet Yod, still stands on the north-western fringe of the city by the ring road.
Then as now, war and intrigue were tools of statecraft. A prolonged conflict with the Kingdom of Ayutthaya to the south sapped the resources and in 1545 a strong earthquake added to the misery. Finally, following a dispute of an important Buddha image that was believed to have significant powers, Lanna was overtaken by Pegu (currently Burma) led by King Bayinnaung in 1558. When the heroic leaders of Ayutthaya, Taksin and Kawila, finally liberated Lanna from the Burmese in 1774, they found a suppressed and hungry nation. In bloody times, it’s hard to distinguish between the good and the bad. All occupying troops kill and rape innocent civilians and destroy their villages and fields. Soon Taksin and Kawila fell out with each other and another conflict ensued. Eventually, some years later, the founder of the dynasty that still today rules Thailand, Kind Rama I (Phra Buddha Yod Fa) came to power.
The legacy of Lanna is alive in Chiang Mai and the city still retains the structure of the town built by Mengrai, with the old town surrounded by a square of moats. While the city has spread out far beyond the original area, it has retained much of its charm and the physical setting in between the hills remains beautiful. There are some 85 Buddhist temples or wats in the city and its immediate surroundings. Thailand’s second city, Chiang Mai is still quite small with only about 170,000 inhabitants in the city proper (and double that if you count the surrounding area), but it is booming. Traffic has increased and the growth puts inevitable pressures on sustainability.
Chiang Mai has changed significantly since the 1990s when I had last been here. Fifteen years ago I remember sitting with Kanok Rerkasem at a bar in the night bazaar enjoying a quiet Singha beer in a sedate atmosphere. The hilltribes from the surrounding areas were selling their handicrafts and traditional music was accompanying a slow dance on a nearby stand. Chiang Mai has of course been a tourist destination for decades. The beautiful setting in a valley surrounded by forested hills, pleasant climate and exquisite temples have long attracted foreign visitors, whether on a spiritual or more physical quest (or a combination, inspired by the ready availability of mind-expanding weeds). Now the scene has changed and the atmosphere today is anything but sedate. The bar area around the bazaar has expanded and there are now numerous fashionable bars and restaurants serving not only Thai food and beer, but a large variety of European and Asian fares. One indicator of change is the wide availability of decent and reasonably priced wine (unlike in neighbouring Laos, with its French influence, wine has until recently been a luxury item limited to fancy hotel restaurants). You can still find the hilltribe women in their colourful outfits and there are chairs where a weary shopper can sit down for a soothing foot or neck massage, but many of the shops have also become more formal in style.
So, I too was so glad to be back. The reason why I visited Chiang Mai regularly in the 1990s was a joint project with Chiang Mai University, a comprehensive institution of higher learning established in 1964. Based then at the UN University in Tokyo, I was the managing coordinator of PLEC – ‘People, Land Management and Environmental Change ‘– a project based on a network of research institutes in a dozen countries working on identifying successful local adaptations in smallholder agriculture that both provided a reliable source of food as well as sustainably managed land and biodiversity in the face of global environmental change. Funded by the Global Environment Facility through the UN Environment Programme, we were the first ever project to be incorporated into the GEF portfolio working on biodiversity conservation in production landscapes. Kanok was one of our leaders and co-coordinator of the Southeast Asia cluster working across the borders in the region. He and his colleagues at CMU and in China’s Yunnan Province produced some path-breaking work, but that’s another story. Sadly, a few years ago Kanok succumbed to a massive heart attack while on a field trip in the hills doing what he liked best. The world lost a top-notch applied scientist and a sweet, gentle soul.
Back at the lounge, Boy Blues Band showed no signs of slowing down. We decided to call it a day to make it fresh to the day-long meetings starting again early in the morning. The blues night was a nice complement to the cultural event we had witnessed the night before at the workshop get-together. The Thai traditional dance performed by a group of skilled dancers and musicians was lovely, certainly somewhat spiced up to entertain the foreign visitors. Apart from the dance (in which I was forced to partake towards the end), I did appreciate the music played by the group of four men primarily on bamboo flute and percussion. More importantly, however, not too many years ago this type of musical entertainment would have been the only type you’d find in the entire northern Thailand. While Bangkok has its live music spots—even there rather few and far between—Western style music, apart from that booming out of the go-go bars and clubs, has not penetrated widely into Thailand.
On other evenings, I would wonder around the city tasting excellent meals in the many small establishments, but limited my musical experiences to listening to a lonely musician playing bamboo flutes in one corner of the night bazaar. I can well understand those of my kin who wish to settle here permanently.