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CHIANG MAI OF YESTERYEAR

What was Chiang Mai like 30, 40, 50 years ago? How has the city – and its people - changed?  I spoke to sons and daughters of Chiang Mai – as well as long-term residents. Below they share their memories, observations and comments.

Please join in the conversation! Kindly enter your comments and memories in the space given below, following this posting. Thank you!

Mr. Wit Boonma, from Mae Wang, hairdresser, 53 years old

“I was born and grew up in Mae Wang (approximately 40 kilometres from Chiang Mai), but as a young boy, starting when I was about seven years old, I used to come to Chiang Mai regularly. Now I live and work in Chiang Mai.

“My parents were farmers in Mae Wang; but after the harvest they would come to Chiang Mai to seek occasional work, to make some extra money. They worked in construction; or sometimes my father would drive the samlor, (trishaw) and I would go with him; or my mother would make and sell food in the market.  Many people in the countryside did that; like us, they came to Chiang Mai to make money.

“At that time, there were no cars in Chiang Mai, only bicycles and samlors, and a few motorbikes. There were no high rise buildings at all, and only a few tarmac roads, the rest were dirt roads. I remember Huay Khao was a very bad road. There was no air pollution, the skies were clear, and the climate was much cooler.

“The city moat was not in good condition, and the soil at the side was falling into the water.  There were no trees around the moat, and no sidewalks.  The inner wall was there, but broken; and that was the time that the municipal authorities began rebuilding the wall and the four corners with new bricks.

“The rice paddies came up to where the Shangri-La Hotel now is. And the Hang Dong to San Pa Thong Road was all rice paddies.  One by one the rice farmers sold their land; the rice fields were filled up and houses and later hotels were built.

“When I was a teen-ager, I used to go to the Huarin Corner with a net to catch fish. That was the place where water was released into the moat. The water came from Huay Khao Waterfall, but now the moat water comes from Mae Ngat Dam. I would bring the fish I had caught to my mother; she would mix them with chili paste, wrap the food in banana leaf and sell in the market.

“At that time Chiang Mai was a small community; people were closer and they worked together and helped one another.

“I went to primary and secondary school in Mae Wang, but I came to Chiang Mai for my university studies at Rajabhat, where I studied tourism.

“At that time tourism was just starting to take off in Chiang Mai (1980s); there were greater numbers of hotels, restaurants and tour companies, and more tourists travelling to the city. Most of the tourists arrived by train; and I would go to the train station to meet tourists and try to sell accommodation to them.

“The Thai people saw tourism as a good thing, as it could bring them an income. But many of the Thais were not honest; they were cheating the tourists on pricing. For example, tour guides would bring tourists to San Kamphaeng where prices for arts, crafts and goods were higher than the Night Bazaar; and the tour guides would get a commission for anything that was sold.

“Some tourists knew this and accepted it as the system. But for me, I was embarrassed and ashamed that we were not selling genuine items for the correct prices.

“How to describe my boyhood at the farm – we were living a very simple life. We had what we needed, but nothing more. We had enough to eat. The rivers were clear; we had plenty of water, just for the taking. There were fish and crabs in the rice fields, also just for the taking. We would get one new shirt per year, at Songkran. That was what we waited for.  We helped our parents; that was part of life. But we also had fun playing, climbing trees, riding bicycles and swimming.

“Our possessions were few, only what we needed to live. And yet we were very happy.

“I became interested in hairdressing whilst working in Phuket. I worked at the Sheraton Hotel in Phuket for five years. One day I had a chance to see a hair show there. It sparked an inspiration in me; and I found it so interesting; yet I had never thought of it before. After the show, I went to the stylist and asked: ‘How can I become a hair stylist?’.

“Three months later I quit my job at the hotel and went to hairdressing school in Bangkok. I just loved it, and was very happy with my new profession. Later I went to New Zealand for a year to gain experience doing western hair. I started my business in Chiang Mai in 2003.

“Chiang Mai has changed a lot physically since I was a boy. And the people of Chiang Mai have also changed. Previously they were nicer, more helpful and friendly. They were helping one another from their hearts. Now there is more competition amongst people, and people expect to be paid for whatever they do. That is a big change.

“When I was young, I knew nothing of Buddhism. The only thing I knew was tamboon (to make merit by giving offerings at the temple).  But when I was about 10 years old, I started to want to go to temple on my own.  As was the custom, I went into the monastery for about a month as a young boy.

“My whole life I have been interested in learning about the truth. I wanted to learn and practise how to eliminate suffering. I first ordained as a monk when I was 29 years old. In fact, I entered the monastery several times, the longest was one year at Wat Rampoeng, here in Chiang Mai.

“In my view, the practice of Buddhism in Thailand is changing. Many people form groups to learn about the real teaching of the Buddha.  Other people are still practising the traditional Thai Buddhism, which has a lot of superstition, magic and ritual in it.  Some monks are destroying their reputation with this superstition and magic. Some people, when they have a lot of problems, they consult the fortune teller, who tells them to go to temple and make merit.

“I’d say it’s about 50/50 now between the two groups. I think the group searching for the real teaching of the Buddha will become bigger and bigger. If you know the truth about the Dhamma, you understand that it is everywhere.  You can practise anywhere. The real teaching of Buddhism is quite simple. And there are now many lay people teaching the Dhamma.

“I don’t see the younger Thai generation that interested in Buddhism.  But this may change when they get older. It is difficult to say. But if they get into the real thing, they will understand right away.”


 

Mrs. Margaret Bhadungzong

Founder and Managing Editor of the tourism magazine Welcome to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai for 23 years (1986 to 2009), resident of Chiang Mai since 1979

“When my husband and I first came to Chiang Mai in 1979, we lived in a teak house on the river in an area called Nong Hoi, on the road to Lamphun. Back then, that was considered out of town. We really liked that area because it had lots of huge trees on the road.  Those trees were planted in the early 1900s.

“The road going to Hang Dong also had lots of trees, as did the Huay Khao Road. Even in April, the weather would be cool. Now most of those trees have been cut down and cleared out.

“There weren’t many cars or mini-buses, mostly motorbikes and bicycles. Many people got around with the samlor (trishaw). I remember my mother-in-law used to take the samlor to market to do her shopping. The songthaews (red trucks) would queue at the Night Bazaar, and were usually for people who wanted to go out of town, like to Doi Suthep or Chiang Dao.

“The end of the business district was where Pantip Plaza now is, and a bit further where Mother and Child Hospital now stands. Beyond that it was farmland and at night it was very dark and desolate, no electricity.  It was a place to be feared and where you could be robbed.

“The Night Bazaar was really like a bazaar; there were no buildings, just lights strung up. At that time, it was mostly hill tribes who would come to sell, laying their wares on the ground.  In the 1980s Chiang Inn Hotel was built and shop houses were added to the bazaar.

“There used to be a family park on what is now Canal Road where you could ride a horse and carriage and see traditional dancing.

“There was no walkway around the moat, so you had to be careful walking. It wasn’t unusual that a drunken driver would fall into the moat!

“To phone to Bangkok, we had to go to the telephone company offices; and of course we used the post office to collect the many letters that were coming to us.

“Northern Thai women were renowned for their beauty; and at least every Friday, they wore traditional dress, as they did of course on Buddhist holidays when going to temple.

“Even at that time there were quite a lot of foreigners living in Chiang Mai, for example people working in tobacco farming and missionaries; even then there was a large expat community. I don’ think there has ever been any discrimination towards foreigners living in Chiang Mai. Foreigners were accepted. Rather, the problem was, and in some ways still is, the language barrier.  Few foreigners learned to speak Thai, and at that time few Thais spoke English.

“At that time the town was very small and quiet; it was regarded as a backwater. The atmosphere was peaceful and calm (except during Songkran!). People were very kind and would do their best to help you.  I think in that way the town has remained pretty much the same.

“As time went on, we saw more and more cars, traffic, buildings, hotels, condos, malls. I remember that when they first started to build the flyover at Airport Plaza there were huge protests, because people felt it was unlucky to not be able to see Doi Suthep temple.  Of course we have seen more and more tourists choose Chiang Mai as a destination.

“One incident that remains in my mind was when a tourist walking along the river accidentally fell into the water. A passing boatman saw him struggling, and approached, holding out his oar to the man, saying ‘Gok, gdai!’ (‘Grab it!’)

“The tourist understood the boatman to say ‘Crocodile!’, so he swam away in the opposite direction as fast as he could!”


 

Mr. Tawat Worrasritakankul, native son of Chiang Mai, 49 years old, employee of THAI Airways

“I grew up in Chiang Mai and did all my schooling, up to Payap University, in Chiang Mai. My father was from China and my mother was from Chiang Mai. We lived in a series of houses, but where I spent much of my boyhood was a wooden house in the centre of Chiang Mai, close to Tha Pae Gate.  I was one of six children.

“At the back of our house was Mae Kha Canal, which then was in the centre of the city. I remember that the water was very clean; and the kids in the neighbourhood were all swimming in that canal. There was no running water in the house; and we used that water for washing and cleaning, and we showered outdoors. But our drinking water we got from the nearby Wat Bhupparam. We Thai people believed that the water we got from the well at the temple was holy or sacred. We would go to temple with buckets to bring back the drinking water. Or my mom would pay one baht for a man who was delivering drinking water from the temple.

“Now, if you see Mae Kha Canal, the water is very dirty.

“My boyhood was very carefree, very happy and a lot of fun; there was no pressure. After school, I would come home to play with my friends; and we would swim in the canal every day.

“There were very few vehicles, mostly bicycles and samlors, and a local yellow bus in Chiang Mai at that time. There were some motorcycles, but only for people who had the money to buy them. My mom used to take the samlor to go to market; she could buy food for the whole family for 100baht, including paying for the samlor. There were many cinemas in town and we used to take the samlor to go see films.

“If you lived in the city, to go to the airport or the zoo was something very far away and scary. There were no street lights on the road, a lot of jungle and a lot of trees.

“The middle-aged and older people would go to temple every day to tamboon (make merit). As a boy, what I knew of Buddhism was when my mom would take me to temple.

“To me, the Chiang Mai of my boyhood was much better than it is now.”


 

Mrs. Parichart Worrasritakankul, from Mae Hong Son, 49 years old, THAI Airways employee, resident of Chiang Mai for 30 years

“My father was Thai, from Bangkok; he was in the Thai Air Force, and later was a station manager for THAI Airways in Loei. At that time most people working for THAI Airways were from the Air Force. My mother was from Loei and a school teacher. That was where they met and married, in Loei.

“In 1970, they moved to Mae Hong Son to work. My dad loved Mae Hong Son because it was so peaceful and quiet; he said it gave him peace of mind.

“I had a very comfortable childhood; and did my primary and secondary schooling in Mae Hong Son. But then, when I was 19 years old, I came to Chiang Mai for my university education at Payap. But even as a child, the family frequently came to Chiang Mai; and I have happy memories of those travels.  For me, it felt like Chiang Mai was a big city.

“I remember taking the samlor to Wororot Market and having an American breakfast with my Dad.  There were different cinemas for Thai, Chinese, and American movies. And it was very exciting for me and my brother to go to the cinema.

“When I was a child growing up, Mae Hong Son was cut off from everywhere and everything. Going there from Chiang Mai was very hard; the road was dirt and very rough.

“At that time, Mae Hong Son was a very small community; and everyone knew everyone else. If there was a wedding, the entire community would attend. The Thais and Shan lived in town, and the hill tribes lived in the mountains.

“During my university years in Chiang Mai, I remember that the highway only had two lanes and the superhighway was just being built. I and my friends used to go to Suki-Coca on Huay Khao Road. It was very popular. There was nothing on Nimmanhamen Road and no one wanted to go there.

“Of course Chiang Mai has changed a lot in the past 30 years. There are more cars, motorcycles, traffic, housing, highways and malls.

“This has brought good and bad. On the plus side, life is more comfortable and convenient. There are more tourists, which has brought more money and prosperity to the Thai people (pre-covid).

“The city has stayed safe, and there isn’t much crime, nor personal security fears. I think this is because we still have our traditional culture and it is still deeply practised.

“On the negative side, small business owners have been put out of business by the big shopping centres and malls. Additionally, many tourists come on package tours, which financially does not benefit the Thai people, as those tours are paid for in the home country.

“The way people interact with tourists has changed. They are less sincere; and for many the attitude is not good. Some are not honest and try to cheat the tourists. We see this in the Night Bazaar; it is different from the old days where the sellers were genuinely interacting with the tourists. Now it is just a business for them; and many try to take advantage of the tourists.

“Looking back over the past 30 years, I would say that not only has the city changed, but the way people think and interact has changed. Generally speaking, people are more business-oriented, more selfish and aggressive.

“I know times change and people change. But I like Chiang Mai the way it was 30 years ago.”


 

Ms. Janet Greenleaf, retired American missionary nurse, came to Thailand in 1968, came to Chiang Mai in 1973, worked with leprosy patients for 25 years at the McKean Leper Asylum, Chiang Mai.

 “I was sent to Bangkok in 1968 by the Christian and Missionary Alliance, out of New York, USA.  I studied the Thai language in Bangkok for about 17 months, then was sent to a clinic in Khon Kaen, which was near the country’s first leprosy centre, a Thai Government Leprosarium.

“There was a surgeon at this centre who said that the McKean Leper Asylum in Chiang Mai was looking for a physiotherapist to work with leprosy patients. The Government Leprosarium in Khon Kaen was looking for a surgeon to do reconstructive surgery on their leprosy patients, and our clinic doctor was willing to do this, but the patients would need physiotherapy before and after surgery. So, I was sent to McKean to learn the necessary physiotherapy skills.

“McKean is situated on an island in the Ping River. I worked there for 25 years, from 1973 to 1998, when I retired. I have lived in Chiang Mai for 48 years.

“At that time, hardly any of the South East Asian countries had treatment facilities for leprosy patients. McKean was founded by Dr. James W. McKean, an American missionary, in 1907, and financed with church funds.

 “After medical treatment for the disease was discovered, The Leprosy Mission sent a team of Australian medical workers to develop the treatment programme.

“At that time, many Thai medical personnel had no training in leprosy; and McKean provided training for medical students and later to public health workers. In that era, leprosy was very prevalent in Thailand.

“McKean has been recognised by the Thai Government for its contribution towards treating and mitigating leprosy. After a cure for leprosy was found in the form of a multidrug treatment and the number of leprosy patients dwindled, leprosy case finding and treatment was turned over to the Thai Government Public Health Department.

“The facility was then turned into the McKean Rehabilitation Centre and began to help those in need of general rehabilitation; it now caters mainly for the elderly.

“Chiang Mai in the 1970s was like a big village. Everyone seemed to know everyone else. Wororot Market was the centre of town; and there was the train station and the ‘super highway’, which was only two lanes. The Old City consisted of half the Thais there selling things to the other half!

“Thai women dressed very conservatively, no sleeveless blouses, no shorts or short skirts. Many women still wore their traditional dress.

“There was a large enough expat community, so that foreigners did not stand out. Most foreigners spoke Thai and fit in with the Thais, and were accepted by the Thais. As far as I was concerned, the Thai community was my community. That held true for the Christian Thais working at McKean as well as the Buddhist Thais I knew. I also felt accepted by them.

“Of course, some Thais had not had contact with foreigners. I remember a little boy in Galasin Province. He was so excited to see my American friend and me that he ran to call his friends to come and see the foreigners!

“It’s difficult to say how one’s relationship with Thais has changed, because now everyone is on their phones 24/7, so interaction with them has been greatly reduced.

“Tourism has of course grown so much over the years. And it has made the Thai people very dependent on this one industry.  There have been numerous outside influences, such as American films. Thais pick up attitudes and behaviour from western films. There has been a tremendous change in diet, with the introduction of fast food restaurants, like MacDonalds. This has led to a growing problem of obesity.

“Now motorbikes and cars have pretty much replaced tuk tuks and samlors. And of course there are lots of hotels, condos, malls, and more and more traffic.

“My most outstanding memories over the years have to do with the many, many kindnesses that have been extended to me. I remember I was at a Christmas Gift Fair on Tung Hotel Road, near the Railway Station. There I had purchased sa paper bags.  I sat down for something to eat, when I saw one of the vendors running towards me. She said she had charged me for a larger size bag and wanted to return the difference.

“Over and over again things like this have happened to me. I have repeatedly had these kinds of interactions. And honestly, I don’t feel like that has changed very much over the years.”

© copyright: Linda Pfotenhauer

Posted in JOIN THE CONVERSATION.

8 Comments

  1. One of my memories was triggered by these words. “There were fish and crabs in the rice fields”, indicating always plenty to eat. When I was in language study in Bangkok, one day it rained all through the class, drowning out the teacher’s voice, so instead she sang an old song for us. I recorded it on my cassette recorder, including the sound of the rain, and then memorized the song, so I can still sing it. The words, some of which are literary, I have translated here as:
    In the water are fish, in the fields is rice. Our land is fertile and plentiful. Our towns are tranquil and peaceful, thanks to Ramkhamhaeng who enabled the Thai people to expand.
    I also noted the comments about objections to the increasing numbers of fly-overs. In this case, the objections of Chiang Mai residents actually won out, and that is why we have underpasses on the ring roads.

  2. I have been living in Chiang Mai for 14 years only but in that time, I have seen many changes in the physical environment with new shopping malls, hotels and restaurants. But the Thai people are still very welcoming and exceedingly generous when I try to speak the language! I love the food and the warmth of the sun, and as an older person, all the services I need are available. Yes, life is good here and I count myself fortunate to be living in Chiang Mai.

  3. Very interesting to read what was Chiang Mai several decades ago. I had a great time visiting couple years ago. It seems like the way of life has changed and lost a bit of his original charm toward something more business oriented and less personal, and allowed locals to live in a more modernize and westernize lifestyle

  4. This is fascinating always wanted to visit Chiang Mai very colorful and unique part of the world. Hopefully when all travel restrictions are lifted this will then become number one on my list. Thank you for posting such a variety of stories from the people there.

  5. Mr Boonma’s thoughts and reflections on his life and the enormous changes that CM has undergone are so interesting to me. And rice fields near Shangri-La!. Who knew?! I particularly love this line: ‘My whole life I have been interested in learning about the truth.’ I think much can be learned from that stated desire and also from his reflections on Buddhism in general.

  6. These are beautiful stories full of detail that spark my imagination of what Chiang Mai was like years ago. Yes, the world has changed all over but we can still hold on to a simpler way of life if we choose.

  7. These memories of Chaing Mai as it was many years ago express quite well the changes that modernization has brought to the city. Some changes have been positive for the Thai people and some less so. Despite these changes it seems that Chaing Mai is a vibrant, thriving city that retains much of its original charm, attracting people from all over to visit, or settle there permanently.
    Very informative reading, I especially enjoyed the descriptive, detailed recollections. I look forward to visiting Chaing Mai one day when travel there is possible!

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