Feeling At Home in Chiang Mai

by Kenneth Champeon, Nov 9, 2002 | Destinations: Thailand / Chiang Mai

Travelers beware. They say that if you arrive in Chiang Mai for the first time by train, you will live there forever. I know of numerous exceptions to this rule, but there is something about the journey to ensnare the most wayward soul. The train slithers between lush, rounded hills as the clouds become more colossal and the sky a deeper blue. Chiang Mai residents will maintain that the Lanna kingdom, of which Chiang Mai was the capital, was more civilized than its southern conqueror: its people have fairer complexions and superior manners; they built more temples and fostered more art. The train ride is like passing through an architectural museum, with bold and flush temples seeming to burn for the enlightenment that Buddhist doctrine offers.

People have trouble leaving this town forever. I have made the attempt twice, first to live in the United States and second to live on Thailand's eastern seaboard. But nowhere else is the living as easy and as exhilarating. Where else could I share a table with a Hollander, an Aussie, a Thai, a Cambodian, and a Karenni? A Burma expert, a Thai literature Ph.D. candidate, a man ignorant of both the Rolling Stones and - what are they called - web sites? The town's pubs and guesthouses often seem like international universities. Perhaps I exaggerate their grade of talk - much of it about drinking, sex, and sport - but here you can be a citoyen du monde, free from the suffocating provincialism of cities ten times its size.

Not everyone embraces this ancient city. The traffic is bad, they say, and the air pollution worse; the vendors are interested only in your money; the place is crawling (why is it always "crawling"?) with sex tourists; the culture is all hype; the sidewalks are shattered and the trash collection hit-or-miss. All true. And all irrelevant if you are not a tourist. Chiang Mai is seductive for its very slovenliness - and, yes, even for its squalor. She is like a once beautiful and now wizened grandam, blowing smoke in your face and smirking at your pressed suit and determined gait. What's the rush, mon cheri? Is today so uninteresting that you must always rush into tomorrow? Must everything be sharp angles and action plans - must the world smell like soap and tick like a clock? Is a little grit, a little risk going to kill you?

Asked by the magazine Chiang Mai Citylife "Why Chiang Mai?", Lonely Planet author Joe Cummings replied, "convenience." I rush to concur. Chiang Mai is such a compact city that nearly everything is accessible in minutes. If I walk 5 minutes in any direction from where I now sit, I could be getting a massage, eating a one-dollar breakfast, buying a score of foreign and domestic newspapers, surfing the internet, or worshipping at a temple. Airport? 10 minutes by car. Night market? A little less. Tesco or Carrefour superstore? Same. Want to go to Bangkok? It's a one-hour flight, and you may not need to reserve your ticket.

When Bangkok people hear you talk about Thailand from the perspective of Chiang Mai, you might as well be telling them about Alpha Centauri. Just as New Yorkers confuse America with New York, Bangkokians confuse Thailand with Bangkok. But Chiang Mai people speak of Bangkok as if it were a foreign and sovereign and slightly menacing country - menacing because they are afraid that Chiang Mai will be paved into the toxic monstrosity that the capital has become. And already there are refugees abandoning Chiang Mai for Chiang Rai, or for Pai, rapidly becoming known as a kind of Haight Ashbury, where you can go to get groovy, get wasted, or whatever.

A recent article in Harper's addressed a question too rarely posed. What is the ideal population of a city? Plato's Athens, Dr. Johnson's London, and Renaissance Florence were all puny by modern standards, yet they were large enough to foster cultural activity that put our bloated metropolises to shame. There must be a slightly sub-critical urban mass, below which nothing happens and above which everything goes wrong. No one seems to know Chiang Mai's population for certain, partly because the name can refer to the city center, the metropolitan area, or the province as a whole. But when Johnson writes about squandering an afternoon in ambulating around his London; when he says that it affords infinite delight and surprise, I am reminded of my own walks around Chiang Mai. I'm sure I haven't seen all of it yet. The ideal city should be small enough to cross on foot without becoming bored. And there is no hour when it is unsafe to walk in Chiang Mai; muggings are unheard of, and as soon as the bars start closing, the fresh markets start stirring and the noodle stalls are still shilling.

Chiang Mai is to Bangkok rather as Boston is to New York. It is smaller, older, and it is known for education more than for commerce. Chiang Mai's expatriates are mostly teachers, volunteers, journalists, and writers; and though it is hardly a hotbed of intellectualism, the variety of ideas here would be hard to surpass. All expatriates are by definition from elsewhere, and they are also more inclined to travel. They therefore always have something new to say (and perhaps a new language in which to say it.) Travelers often use Chiang Mai merely as a base for excursions into Burma, Laos, and increasingly Kunming and Xi'an in China, not to mention into the interior of northern Thailand. There is even talk of making the city a hub for travel to Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Climate. On any given evening, Chiang Mai can be fully 10 Celsius degrees cooler than Bangkok and points south, and during the winter nights and early mornings it would be reckless to ride a motorbike without wearing a coat and shoes. The summit of nearby Doi Inthanon, Thailand's highest peak, has recently begun to experience freezing temperatures. Yet during most days the temperatures are ideal and the skies blue. (The Thai word for blue, incidentally, is "sky color".) The best climate is one that goes unnoticed.

Because of Chiang Mai's small size and the warmth and informality of its people, friends are always dropping in. (One just did, in fact, halfway through the preceding paragraph.) Only a sociopath could be lonely here, as the city also affords a number of places where one can easily cease to be a stranger. But there is also ample room for anonymity, especially as the foreign population is constantly being renewed. True, some expatriates eventually leave precisely because they grow weary of losing friends all the time. But at least you seldom grow weary of the friends you have.

"Concrete," a mentor once told me, as our taxi whizzed down a highway in Bombay, "is the bane of the developing world." Though I cringe at this word "developing", as if the so-called developed countries were not also developing, my mentor was right about the grim ubiquity of concrete. Parts of Chiang Mai are ugly, or at any rate a bit rough-hewn, and this is worsened by the Thai fondness for enclosing their yards in unsightly cinderblock and mortar walls, peaked with spikes or embedded broken glass. But beauty is never far. Arguably, Chiang Mai has one of the highest ratios of temples per capita of any city. From where I now sit I could toss a rock into a temple compound, and I write under the shade of a sacred Bodhi tree. (Recently it had to be pruned to admit more light, and the monks had to be brought in to provide their blessing.) From almost anywhere you can see unspoiled hills and cottony clouds.

I do sometimes wonder how I could feel at home in a place that is so - antipodal, and it is always amusing to recount the coincidences and torturous decisions that conspired to, as it were, drop me here. An acquaintance of mine, whose effortless fluency in the Thai language was a puzzle to many, proposed that he had been Thai in a former incarnation. I think he just wanted to pick up chicks, and reincarnation only provided a pretext, but who knows? Perhaps like Teddy in the Salinger story, I was formerly a holy man tempted away from my devotions by a beautiful woman. And for this fall from grace I was punished by being born in America, where it is so difficult to be - I loathe the word, but there is no other -- spiritual, and I am here to repair my fractured karma.

Probably the real reasons are less fanciful. I am cheered by petite, smiling people. Navigating Chiang Mai's labyrinth on a motorbike is a perennial thrill. I smile when a familiar song begins to play and all the Thais begin to sing along, spontaneously, and often with gestures to accompany. I cherish gossip in northern dialect. Something interesting happens every day. A few days ago I saw a woman holding orange balloons and standing in a gigantic plastic orange in order to advertise her fruit juice shop. A few days before, I saw women dancing on tables. (Don't ask.) Life is not, or is not always, a party. But there is no reason to make life more difficult or serious than it need be, and in Chiang Mai I feel that happiness is more ardently pursued and more regularly attained than it is anywhere else. Fun planned is no fun at all.

Recently I learned of the Lanna Separatist Movement, a facetious attempt by some expatriates to liberate northern Thailand from Bangkok rule. Possible national flags and anthems were discussed, as was revolutionary strategy. Chiang Mai would of course be the capital, and the old Lanna script would be reintroduced and northern dialect taught in schools. Unfortunately, land would have to be reclaimed from Burma and Laos to restore the "original" Lanna borders. I mention this extended jest only to show how deep runs the love for this obscure part of the world. After all, one can fight for a homeland only when it feels so much - and so inexplicably - like home.

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