Chiang Mai, Thailand has been touted as the “Rose of the North”. It’s the Hail Mary pass for tourists, English teachers, digital nomads, and barefoot hippies. But in recent years, it has changed a great deal which is causing a bit of a commotion.
First of all, I’ve written about CM a lot:
(2014) Best of Chiang Mai
(2012) 5 things to hate about CM (in response to a friend who asked if I said only good things about CM)
and that’s just a small fraction. Part of the reason is I lived in CM for several years, and the other is, I usually visit once a year due to friends and family.
At the beginning of the year, we went for a few days, and I must say despite all the hullabaloo about tourists numbers being down, it looked just as busy.
// Chiang Mai has a long-standing reputation for being cooler than the rest of the country.
// It has the most concentrated amount of unique temples within short walking distance.
// Northern Thais are reputed to be friendlier.
// Northern Thai food also has a good reputation.
// There are cooking schools, massage schools, shopping…
// It can be an easy city to navigate especially when compared to other Asian cities.
// It is seen as a good size, not humongous like Bangkok or too small like Chiang Rai.
// CM is laid back and green (for Thailand).
// It has a major airport, and many accommodations for all budgets.
// Many folks have passed through here and have said positive things.
And to piggyback on the last reason, we can’t discount social media and blogs. We all love to crop and filter our travel photos. We all want to look like we’re having a great time.
So, what’s the big deal? What’s the downside? Doesn’t every place have it’s pros and cons? Yes, but blogs and social will not always alert you to the scams, smells, and sucky sides.
So what are they?
// The large scale development
// The pollution
Too many tourists on the dance floor…
There is no way around it. The Chinese presence has changed the city as Thais cater to this new tourist culture. [And let’s face it, Thais underwent a change when Westerners starting discovering this city, too.]
But right now there are Thais at Thae Phae Gate (one of the main tourist attractions downtown) taking advantage of the Chinese photographing themselves here. There are pigeon food sellers, folks scaring the birds while you run through them, and even Thais singing in Chinese!
Mega massage centers and more shops catered to them have also opened creating more of an American strip mall feel.
When we visited one of our favorite temples, we were shocked that we had to pay to enter. All temples used to be free to the public. But now, rows of tuk-tuks (a blight on the environment) take Chinese tour groups on temple tours which I think has caused this new development. After all, for decades tourists from all over the world came to see CM’s wonders. Why now?
After the Chinese version of ‘The Hangover’ came out, they were sneaking into Chiang Mai University, complete with CMU student uniforms and pretending to be students for some weird reason, I think it had to do with a movie scene. As a result, you now have to pay to visit the campus. No big deal, you might think, but it’s one of the few green spaces in CM that you could walk around in…
I believe Thais have accepted that the Chinese (in large numbers) are here to stay and have adapted. There was definitely an unhappy growing period. And unlike their European and American counterparts, the Chinese are a thrifty bunch. They are more likely to travel in a group, share hotel rooms, and eat at 7-11. But rumor has it that even the Chinese are not visiting CM as much as they used to. It’s hard when you rely on tourist dollars.
But the kicker for me was this: Thais used to speak to me in Thai, now they speak to me in Chinese.
If you build it, they will come
Because CM has always been such a big tourist attraction, more and more folks have been tearing down buildings to put up guesthouses or another massage/spa establishment. It’s all about making money, and not preserving the history or the old charm that made CM so popular in the first place.
In other words, everything in the city center feels like it’s catered to tourism. You have to wonder if there is anything left for the locals? Sure, the locals enjoy some of the same things, but very often they go to other places. I was once again surprised by the amount of new buildings for tourists. It was the first thing my friend said when we met up for coffee. She probably saw it on my face.
But when they carved out part of Doi Suthep (Mt. Suthep) to build condos, it wasn’t for tourists, it was for government officials. (Apparently, they are going to reverse the damage done to the land.)But one of the challenges for CM is it’s narrow roads, and despite the underpasses and development that has bled out of the city borders, there is a great deal of traffic.
Part of this problem stems back to what expats referred to as the “songtaew mafia”. Songtaews are public taxis/buses; trucks with a top on the back with two benches for people to sit for a low price. CM always has had the most expensive songtaews, too, and rumor has it the drivers were the ones who have fought the hardest against public transportation, like a light rail system.
Grab drivers have helped alleviate the need to use songtaews who can refuse you for various reasons. And there’s even a public bus that started which is laughable considering that public bus services for most towns across the globe have been in operation for many, many years. All of this has resulted in congestion that rivals bigger cities.
The fight for clean air
Unfortunately, pollution in CM is nothing new. The city sits in a bowl or valley. The beloved mountain range is home to hill-tribes who practice slash and burn agriculture. Neighboring countries are free to burn their crops as well contributing to the problem.
There are no regulations or rules for vehicles or companies that pollute the air (or water for that matter). And the government has turned a blind eye to the protests, to help, information, and the cries from everyone who calls the North home.
If anything, the powers-that-be get angry over the “negative” publicity that the pollution brings and wait for the rains or the complaints to die down. It’s no surprise that CM residents are among the highest in the country to suffer and die from respiratory, and other health related problems.
And this year to make matters worse, the pollution started earlier than the usual March time slot. It’s deceptive because Thailand is developed in ways that makes folks wonder if it is still considered a developing nation, but the lack of clean air can surely be an indicator that the Land of Smiles has much work to do.
What’s been your experience with CM? Have you watched a tourist destination change for the worse?