Expat · Thailand

What’s happening to Chiang Mai? (or why CM is starting to suck)

As a fresh profusion of tourists arrive to Thailand I feel both sorry and sympathetic. When travellers visited Oahu Hawaii, where I grew up, I often heard, “We thought it would be less, you know – developed.” Yeah, everyone expects more island. Here, I would imagine visitors would expect more Thailand.

You know how they say marijuana is the gateway drug to all other hardcore drugs? (Not that I believe in this.) Well, I’ve decided Thailand is like the gateway drug to other (hardcore) travel destinations. And that’s why everyone likes it. It’s a smooth feeling without going too far out.

Look, I just don’t like it when I hear a red truck songtaew driver try to charge 300 baht to a tourist, when a typical ride around town cost 20 baht. You might think, hey, that’s not your problem. Well, it kind of is. I live here, and my friends live here, and when we try to get around, the mafia drivers think they can fleece us too. Even in pasa Thai, the Thai language. It’s an interconnected, tightly woven world, folks.

That being said, everyone expects a certain kind of experience, but the rapid development that is sweeping here and there, is bringing down not only the level of expectations folks have of the “exotic” but the uniqueness that made here or there what it is. Chiang Mai isn’t the only city changing for the sake of modernization.

This phenomenon was happening back in the United States, when I lived there. I watched Walmart take over my hometown Mililani, and as I drove down the coast of Southern California, on my way to San Diego, the red tiled roofs of strip malls seem to make each city blend seamlessly into the next. But the biggest trend that brought me down was the same ‘ol same ‘ol restaurant chains from West to East that made me feel that choice (and good food) was no longer an option.

Not too long ago, the city of Chiang Mai decided to rip up the cobblestone/brick roads inside the Old City. Some of these original streets or sois still remain, but the main vein, Ratchadamnern Road that cuts through Tha Phae Gate, went from quaint to utilitarian.

ratchadamdern
My angry face. (Thanks Ian for the great shot. No, really, thanks…)

Since I work on Ratchadamnern, I frequent the area, and for a while I couldn’t understand why it was so bloody hot whenever I walked there, but a friend astutely pointed out that it was the new pavement. She was right, and I was surprised by how much it made a temperature difference.

By now I’ve gotten used to it, as I have to, the McDonalds, Burger King and Starbucks that surround Tha Phae Gate, the centro de la ciudad or “center” of the city.

I’ve also gotten used to the massive amounts of ongoing construction, the malls and buildings that don’t finish because someone ran out of money, the condominiums that stand empty waiting for buyers, and the increased traffic. Oh, lord, has the traffic gotten so much worst. And the ugly graffiti – and trash.

When I was interviewing at a school, back in the States, I asked the teachers, “What’s the school’s biggest challenge?” And one of my future colleagues chirped up, “We’re growing so fast!”

At the time, I thought, Great! That doesn’t seem to be a big problem at all! How wonderful! Of course, now I realize just what a Big Mac Whopper of a problem that is.

As we increasingly spin towards a mono-culture of globalization, how will this change the way we experience travel? Do we do the Jimmy Nelson thing and go to the remotest areas in search of “lost” “forgotten” “stuck in time” tribes for questionable reasons, or do we look for the extraordinary in the ordinary? Will the ordinary be good enough?

Perhaps my sympathy for first time travellers to Chiang Mai is also mixed with easy envy, as they take in the sights and sounds with fresh eyes open to whatever adventure lies awake.

I don’t know. Maybe cities don’t lose their specialness in the wake of development but instead, find in their development, what makes them special. Let’s hope so.


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14 thoughts on “What’s happening to Chiang Mai? (or why CM is starting to suck)

  1. I thought it was a tragedy when they dug up Rachadamnern road. The famous walking street is less attractive when the road is no longer cobblestones, but a paved road that could be anywhere in Los Angeles. Sure, it might be better for CARS, but certainly less charming, historic, or Thai. Personally, I’d rather they tucked the McDonalds, Burger Kings, and Starbucks in the malls. Something about having a McDonalds in front of a cultural landmark takes away from it. I mean, it would be convenient to have a McDonalds within Stonehenge – one could look at the monoliths while sitting down, having some fries, and in the AC – but I can’t help but feeling the real experience might be lost.

    You were the one who summed it up so beautifully in saying that Chiang Mai was becoming a “Thai Theme Park”. Park your car, get your McDonalds, climb in a tourist van, and take pictures of the for-tourist attractions.

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    1. I understand that the cobblestone roads were getting difficult to maintain, but so are paved roads. What was interesting was to see how many folks started hoarding and collecting the cobblestones/bricks because of their value.

      I like your suggestion of keeping the McDonalds of the world in malls or tucked away from cultural and historical centers. When I lived in Colorado, the town of Purgatory (yes, that’s what it’s called) was known for keeping all brand name commercial biz outside of the city limits, preserving the town’s “historic look” and quite frankly, it’s beauty.

      Innsbruck Austria did a really clever thing by disguising McDonalds to look like another business within the city center. I think Thailand and many places, can compromise by blending these money makers/popular eateries with the local architecture and flavor of the culture.

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  2. Thank you for the link to my mall piece – I’m very interested in this topic, particularly because I regularly feel like I need to escape Chiang Mai, which is absurd because I chose to live here for a reason. It’s still a beautiful, lovable, immensely interesting city, but what happens when people no longer want to just escape for the weekend, and they leave? I can see a very different future in store for Chiang Mai than the fat cats and developers see!

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    1. I completely understand. I’ve been contemplating escaping here too with all the development and growth. It makes CM, less CM, less the reasons why I liked living here in the first place. I don’t mind modernization but the lack of planning.

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  3. Everyone says Thailand is easy, but that’s because they choose to to live an easy life. I’ve been here for 8 years and have constantly been challenged, from learning to speak and read the language fluently, traveling into border communities, and just learning to navigate the culture.

    Chiang Mai is a lot bigger than the old city/Nimman/Huey Kaew area where tourists hang out. There are various spots that aren’t “developed”.

    A lot of westerners get it in their head that by romanticizing a place as this “other world” and they expect “challenging” to mean “rugged or dangerous”. It’s my personal opinion that Chiang Mai and Thailand as a whole is challenging in the sense is it’s difficult to for most westerners to understand a lot of aspects of the culture on a deeper level. It might be easy to catch a bus or train or get a cheeseburger, but it’s easy to do that just about anywhere.

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    1. Challenging is definitely relative. It depends on where you live, how much you want to immerse yourself into the culture/language/etc and your background. When I first relocated here, I wasn’t in the areas you mentioned, so it was more of a “culture shock” but these things, as I’ve just mentioned, are relative. What’s easy for you could be darn difficult for me, and vice versa.

      But I think, compared to many other countries, like China, for example, or Ecuador, Thailand is easier to navigate because Thais are much more likely to be helpful, and trusting. Of course, this depends on personal experience but the growing numbers of expats here leads me to believe that Chiang Mai, overall, is accessible and easy to a great majority of foreigners.

      That being said, you brought up great points, like what is considered challenging? And it seems like one of the reasons why you’ve felt challenged is because you have constantly pushed yourself to do so. Not everyone does that. In fact most people have to be forced to grow and work, and reach. So for that reason alone, I think you are one of those rare birds to look up to.

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      1. Reading this old post gave rise to a new thought for me. I lived in CM twice and failed to acclimate both times but I dove into the deep end by trying to live outside of the city center and sometimes living in a village half way to CR. The water was too deep and I drowned.

        Sooooo, maybe, just a thought, a better way is for new comers to CM is to slowly go local. I never considered this option. I could get a comfortable apartment with real cush chairs for my larger western body (more important than you know as it is impossible to sit on your bed everyday), eat a big mac or whopper or have a latte from SB a couple of times per week, bring along plenty of my favorite rock and roll music (because I missed it and you really cannot find the real thing in CM), and get access to the NFL channel so I can watch real football. All of these, and similar things, would have made my transition much easier.

        They also would increase the cost of living in CM, which is probably why I never considered them. However, the payoff in the long run could be very good as I could gradually go more local and maybe succeed.

        Just a thought. I do not remember seeing anyone advising newcomers along these lines. Usually the implication is go local or stay home.

        Chao

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      2. Many expats in Thailand (and I imagine elsewhere) do just that. Set up yourself how ever you want. Western amenities are readily available, but you know you have to go though some “Welcome to Thailand experiences” while you get yourself situated and comfortable 😛

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  4. Globalization, while fantastic for many aspects of life (connectedness, cheaper goods, etc) and many modern luxuries, brings this sad truth with it as well. However, hailing from a small Florida town originally and, most recently, tourist-laden Manhattan, there are always diamonds in the rough – like Harlem where we still have an apartment and enjoy a vibrant neighborhood free of tourist traps. We hope to find that in Chiang Mai when we visit in a few days, as well.

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    1. You’ll probably love it, many folks do. CM is easy and accessible. I would recommend getting away from comfortable Western amenities. While those things are familiar, and so nice (esp during long time travel or when expating), I think if you are interested in seeing and experiencing Thailand, that means getting out of your comfort zone. Good luck! Thanks for stopping by, and let me know how it goes! 😀

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