Thailand's northern rose fades Culture: The popular tourist city of Chiang Mai, an ancient town known as Thailand's "Rose of the North," is being overwhelmed by AIDS, pollution and rank commercialism.

Sun Journal

August 29, 1998|By Peter Eng | Peter Eng,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CHIANG MAI, Thailand -- At the five main gates of Chiang Mai's old city, people gathered recently for an ancient ceremony called Inthakin. Buddhist monks in saffron robes chanted as people offered flowers, incense and candles to ask for rain and bountiful crops.

But the raucous traffic jams around the gates muffled the chants, and the fumes from cars and motorbikes overpowered the sweet smell of incense.

Chiang Mai, former capital of the Lanna Thai Kingdom, celebrated its 702nd birthday this year. After Bangkok, which is five centuries younger, it is Thailand's second-most-popular city for foreign tourists.

Chiang Mai still offers old-world charms: temples, handicrafts, jungles, waterfalls, and the nearby villages of the ethnic-minority hill tribes. Still preserved are the moat and parts of the fortified gates that marked the city's original perimeter. Wrapped by forested mountains and the Ping River, Chiang Mai has been called the "Rose of the North."

'Another Bangkok'

But conservationists are calling it "another Bangkok" as rapid expansion has brought traffic jams, pollution and high-rise condominiums and mega-malls, and has threatened the distinctive cultural traditions of the north.

A painting at the newly-opened Contemporary Art Museum, entitled "Chiang Mai 1997," shows car fumes and high-rises beating down on an elephant with tears in its eyes.

Chiang Mai's growth has been fueled in part by the Japanese-built agribusinesses and other factories south of the city. But some of the expansion also comes, ironically, from an influx of wealthier people seeking to escape the misery of Bangkok.

Just as in Bangkok, in Chiang Mai's suburbs the paddy fields have given way to vast new housing tracts, many of them uninhabited because no one can afford them now. Thailand's current economic downturn has provided a breather by halting the bigger projects, but there is no doubt what direction Chiang Mai will take once the money returns.

Chiang Mai's first "super store" opened three years ago. Suddenly, three more opened in December. Carrefour and Auchan, two French super store chains, brought their global battle to Chiang Mai.

These gargantuan warehouse-like structures, equipped with parking lots the size of soccer fields, sell everything from tropical fruit to soccer jerseys to washing machines. Offering one-stop convenience and cheaper prices, they are threatening the survival of the small family stores and community fresh food markets where people have traditionally shopped.

"Our aim is to put all the products in one place and let the customer choose. Every day more and more people come," says Philippe Richard, manager of the Auchan store, which has 50 cashiers and 10,000 square meters of floor space. Auchan built an underpass on the adjacent highway so customers can drive in from all directions.

The super stores have worsened the city's traffic and made the roads more dangerous. They are also heralding a new era of junk mail. Their glossy, full-color advertising brochures are scattered all over the city, piled on tables, stuffed into mailboxes, slipped under the doors of offices and through the gates of homes.

Researchers now are testing lead levels in the blood of traffic policemen. Similar tests produced alarming results in Bangkok. They are also monitoring the Ping River, which has been polluted by pesticides used by farmers upstream. As the city grows, its garbage challenges the disposal and waste-treatment facilities.

The problems should not be exaggerated. The authorities have banned the construction of high- rises near temples. The moat surrounding the old city has been dredged and equipped with a cleaning system. In terms of population, Chiang Mai is still only one-fortieth the size of Bangkok.

More worrisome to many people are the changes in the city's way of life.

The vices more often associated with Bangkok include a racket last year in which army officers and city employees tried to extort money from vendors at the Night Bazaar, a popular tourist spot downtown.

Also last year, a policeman, angered after his girlfriend left him for a foreigner, shot and wounded two Italian tourists at Chiang Mai airport. As dangerous as the AIDS epidemic is in Bangkok's Patpong bar district, it is worse in the brothels of Chiang Mai featuring underage girls.

More people are swaggering about with the mobile phones that are favorite status symbols of Bangkok's yuppies. At a restaurant specializing in the "Khantoke" dinner, a variety of northern Thai dishes served with sticky rice, a guitarist sings not local ballads but badly mangled American country songs by John Denver.

"The new greed is robbing us of our simplicity," says Udom Roongruangsri, director of the Center for Promotion of Arts and Culture at Chiang Mai University. He is completing six years of work on an encyclopedia of northern Thai culture. He calls the book "the last citadel, the last wall, before our civilization is finished."

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