Have you ever revisited a place only to find it completely transformed? This is how I felt recently upon revisiting Chiang Mai after being away from the city for five years.
Chiang Mai had been the home for the SEA Backpacker Office and was personally my home for the best part of three years. During that time, I lived in two different apartments, both were located outside of the walls in the north-west of the city, near Doi Suthep Mountain and Nimman Hamen Road – which had been one of my ‘hangout areas’.
Today, I walk down the road and can hardly recognise the cafés and bars where I used to go. The ‘beer shop’, an off-license turned bar, where I used to sit with friends on plastic chairs after purchasing a cheap beer in the shop behind, is now McDonald’s. There are hundreds of trendy new cafés, restaurants, upmarket massage centres and fancy hotels, many of which have replaced the smaller businesses that I used to know.
At the top of Nimman Hamen Road, there’s a brand new swanky shopping mall that glitters purple in the night sky (Maya Mall). Opposite that mall, there’s another new shopping complex (Think Tank). Down the road from that mall, there’s yet another mall, Gad Suan Kaew, once the epitome of modernity in Chiang Mai, it’s now looking rather shabby and neglected compared to the new stars on the shopping scene. Then, on the Super Highway, there’s the Mother of all malls, (Central Festival Chiang Mai). Mall, mall, mall, mall… How many malls does one city need?
We hire a motorbike for 200 THB and set off to explore the city. I quickly begin to realise that the changes taking place are not just isolated to the Nimman Hamen area. We stop within the old city walls to explore a building that’s falling down. It stands out as derelict amongst all of the swankiness of its surroundings.
After spying the crumbling watchtower and having a peak in the dining hall and the cells, we discover that it used to be the ‘Women’s Prison of Chiang Mai’. A prime piece of land in the centre of the Old Town, which houses prisoners, is a waste of space in a city whose real estate has tripled in the last five years. We notice a sign on the wall that tells us that the prison is being completely demolished to make way for, yes, you guessed it… another shopping plaza.
Still within the city walls, in the place where our old SEA Backpacker Office used to be, down Rathwithi Road, Soi 1, not so far from Thapae Gate, there’s now a clothes and souvenir shop called Origins. It’s rather tasteful actually.
Both of my neighbours, the travel agent, Jack on my right, and the friendly Nepalese tailor, Santos, on my left have been replaced. I wonder what happened to them? I wonder what has happened to so many of the small businesses that have been replaced?
I could hardly recognise the area around the office. The bar, ‘The Griffin’, had disappeared, a dingy little place where I used to meet friends and drink cheap mojitos after work. ‘The Van’, literally a Volkswagen van that used to serve cocktails near the notorious nightclub Spicy, was nowhere to be seen. Second Floor Gallery, a fun art gallery/bar that had salsa nights on Thursdays had closed long ago apparently.
All of the ‘rough around the edges bars’, the ones that, in my opinion, give a city character, had gone! (You know the kind – those places that are lit by candles or fairy lights at night and look really cosy and welcoming, but by day, you fear that you may catch something if you sit down on one of their barstools!)
Even Tip, the famous fruit shake lady at Somphet Market, was nowhere to be found! I did have a nice reunion with Khun Khae at her fruit shake stall though, which has been renovated somewhat! Now drinks are served in a glass, instead of plastic and there are brightly coloured tables and chairs for customers to sit down. Khun Kae seemed happy with the changes, though my Thai was too basic to get into the politics of globalisation and capitalism with her.
The man who we rented our motorbikes from seemed less enthusiastic about the developments. Arriving here six years ago from China, he’s seen prices of one-bedroom apartments in Chiang Mai rise from 1 million Thai baht (About 20,000 GBP) to as much as six or seven million Thai baht today (150,000 GBP!). If only I’d have had the money to buy myself an apartment back then. Perhaps I’d feel differently about the changes that have happened to the city. Don’t get me wrong. Chiang Mai was no backwater five years ago. Tourism was well and truly established in the city and there were high rises, shopping malls, fancy condominiums being built and pretentious jazz bars… just not as many.
Following a hit movie in China, Lost in Thailand, the city saw an influx of Chinese tourists like never before. Unlike stingy backpackers and ‘farang kee nok’ (bird poo foreigners, used to describe foreigners who have no money), the middle-class Chinese tourists have injected more money into the city.
However, there’s a problem with this, as explained by the Thai owner of our guesthouse in Bangkok, who says that the Chinese Tour Groups who travel with Chinese Tour companies are often carted around to Chinese Restaurants and made to shop in Chinese owned souvenir shops, Therefore, none of the money actually stays in Thai hands.
I don’t know if that is really true or not, however, one thing puzzles me. What do the Chinese tourists hope to see when they come to Chiang Mai? An experience of Thai and Lanna culture or the chance to go to a shopping mall? I’ve never been to China, but I reckon they’ve got enough shopping malls there! Yet the free jam-packed minibuses from the hotels straight to Maya Mall tell a different story…
I suppose it’s selfish of me to want things to stay the same when I leave a place. Since I left Chiang Mai, I’ve travelled to South America, India and lived in Barcelona for two years. But, I have a lot of memories in this city where I lived for three years, some good, some bad. It was the city where I lived when I lost my father to cancer, ended a relationship, saw good friends come and go and suffered the transience of expat life.
It was quite difficult for me emotionally to come back here, and I guess I always thought it would be exactly the same when I returned. I felt that the city would be here for me, always as a kind of home whenever I came back for a visit. I have been shocked by the transformation of Chiang Mai, and I will admit that some of it, I don’t think is for the better. However, ‘mall is not lost’ (sorry I couldn’t resist a pun to lighten the mood!).
I must make clear that the changes to the city are only on a structural level, and the attitude of the people here, the amazing cheap food and the beautiful Thai countryside surrounding the city have remained untouched. If you’re heading to Chiang Mai, please don’t read this article and decide not to go.
Just don’t be mistaken in thinking that you are about to stumble upon a quaint and charming example of Thai culture. This is a city. And, like all big cities and popular tourist hubs, you have to try a little harder to get under the skin and escape the mainstream tourism and shopping traps that will undoubtedly be thrown at you.
So how can you get under the city’s skin? Here are a few ideas…
Hire a motorbike for 200 THB/day and ride out of the city in any direction until you reach rice fields and a slower paced Thai village lifestyle.
Do the Samoeng Loop on your bike. Chat with a monk at Wat Suan Dok or Wat Chedi Luang. Visit nearby Ob Khan National Park or Doi Inthanon National Park (home to Thailand’s highest mountain). Get the best massage of your life from a prisoner at the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institute.
Go camping at any of these amazing places just outside the city. Go down a back street and eat a delicious Khao Soi (Chiang Mai’s famous chicken curry), goyteow moo (pork noodle soup) or pad see yoo (pork and cabbage noodles) for 30 THB.
Take a course in Thai massage, Reiki, Tai Chi, Chi Gong or other holistic therapies and martial arts that are available in the city. Take a yoga class or a yoga retreat at one of the many fantastic yoga schools in the city. Get your coffee fix at any one of the specialist coffee shops in the city.
Treat yourself to afternoon tea at the Chedi. Visit these five temples. Take a cooking class and learn to cook Thai or Lanna food. Make your own jewellery at a silver workshop. Visit one of the many Chiang Mai elephant sanctuaries. Visit Pun Pun Organic Permaculture Farm.
Climb up the ‘sticky waterfall’. Jump into Chiang Mai canyon.
Have fish lunch at Huay Thung Tao Lake.
Train in the martial art of Muay Thai.
Take a 10-Day Vipassana Course at Wat Ram Poeng.
Take advantage of the quality Western food in Chiang Mai and indulge in an amazing pizza (honestly the best we’ve had in Thailand) at By Hand Pizza Café.
Or if you fancy a burger, try Beast Burger off Nimman Hamen.
Motorbike beyond the temple at the top of Doi Suthep, past the tacky market stalls and keep driving as far as the coffee-growing region of Doi Pui.
Spend a chilled out week at Suan Sati Yoga and Meditation Retreat in nearby San Sai, just 30-minutes outside of the city.
Set off on the amazing Mae Hong Son Loop – a 3-5 day adventure of Northern Thailand’s beautiful countryside.
Check out some of these trips and courses.
My advice? Avoid the shopping malls, take advantage of the superb hostels, cheap street food and cultural activities on offer in the city – and make Chiang Mai your base for full exploration of northern Thailand!
Read our Chiang Mai guide here for more information on how to get the best out of the city!