It is difficult to talk about Chiang Mai without flaunting its long history. But I will keep it short. The official seal for Chiang Mai is a white elephant cased in a glass dome. The white elephant represents the gift from the ruler of Chiang Mai to King Rama II (1809-1824) and the glass dome is a reference to a Theravada Buddhism synod in 1477 when top-notch monks from all over the world came to sort out Tripitaka, the religion's holy books that had been handed down orally. So, it was important to get together from time to time to see if they had still got it right. The dome signifies that Chiang Mai is where the religion prospers. Just look at all the temples in the city.
What is Chiang Mai really like and what will it be like in the near future? For Thai readers I should warn you that I got a lot of this interesting stuff from the Chiang Mai development plan that is posted on the Chiang Mai official website. All the important development projects are also listed with their progress status. Either you like it or you don't but never before has accessing government information been this easy. The dates are slightly old, from 2002-3 but I bet official information will surprise you.
For a start Chiang Mai as you know it is the most developed town in Thailand after Bangkok, yet it is sitting in a province that is 70 percent 'forest' (69.92 to be exact). There are 22 districts and two sub-districts in the province, however only six have water works reaching only 12 percent of the 1.6 million people in Chiang Mai Province. Most of that 12 percent live right here in the city. According to a government survey, citizens of Chiang Mai are making an average of 22,256 baht per person per year. That is just skirting above the 20,000 baht poverty line. When calculated from gross provincial production, our per capita income is 59,304 baht per year or just under five grand a month - an amount that an average tourist spends in less than two days.
Some people in Chiang Mai have a lot of money, after all this is the hometown of our Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. However, according to the official brief, even people in the Muang (city) District are not making very much. Even though it is the richest district they are only making 38,450 per year and that is just over 105 baht per day. The poorest district in Chiang Mai is Omkoi and people there are trailing far behind at 6,384 baht per person per year and that is only 17.50 baht per day. Some people in this province are among the poorest in the country.
But let's look on the bright side. The city of Chiang Mai is extremely cosmopolitan. It has a vision to be the 'city of life and prosperity.' In the development plan it will soon be an aviation hub, gateway to trade and investment for the entire Mekong region in addition to being a world class tourist destination. Already it is attracting 1.6 million foreign visitors with an average stay of four days. It is also a big university town with a ratio of one teacher/professor for every 18 students. I grew up here and have since lived in many cities all over the world. This city of ours is my favourite.
The best way to understand Chiang Mai is to take Highway 108 to Omkoi. It is a drive from prosperity to subsistence economy and it only takes just about three hours. The first 15 kilometres to Hang Dong District will take you through an area of expansive urban growth. True, the city might have been around for a long time but most of what we see today only dates back to the period between the late 1970s and the Asian economic crisis in the late 90s. Most of the houses were built in the period between 1992 and 1996. Take a look at the satellite image. The old town is the tiny square in the middle and there was practically nothing else in 1977. It all happened so fast. In the 90s Chiang Mai folk were having a tough time adjusting to the new housing projects. I remember in high school that taking friends home after a late night was quite a chore. The houses looked alike and it took a long time to find the right one.
Leaving Hang Dong, Chiang Mai becomes hilly patches of longan orchards and rice fields. Most of the folk in farther away districts are farmers. Back in 2003 other than rice Chiang Mai was producing lots of longans, oranges, garlic and red onions. Now that we have a free trade agreement with China, longan production has gone through the roof but it looks as if garlic and onion farmers will have to find other crops because China can produce them much more cheaply. Turn right at the district with the curious name 'Hot' and you will be on a beautiful road passing through a real forest, the Obluang National Park, and take another turn to Omkoi and you will pass through land that is classified as forest - a mosaic of fallow fields, cut flowers, and vegetable patches.
Omkoi is at the end of the paved road. People there are making an average of less than 500 baht a month. Drive another ten kilometres on dirt road and Chiang Mai is a different world. In a smoky hut in a village surrounded by magnificent mountains, we had an absolutely cheery conversation over homemade rice wine. We were talking about life, love, money and how there were supposed to be 3.7 people in that household according to the official data. I love their Thai accent too. The vowels were slightly off and the words failed to end in a proper consonant. If it was not for their unified sense of fashion, it would be this accent that is the most visible label identifying the hill tribes as a minority group in Thailand. To be precise the folk that I was eating with were Pwo-Karen and they had just collected a bucketful of frogs.
If I had any romantic thought about living harmoniously with nature, this is my wakeup call: snap, snap, snap - fingers were skillfully breaking each frog's back. The frogs will be immobile but they will survive until breakfast because there is no electricity in the village and living frogs stay fresh longer without a refrigerator. For some of the frogs, their misery is about to end. They will be impaled on a thin bamboo stick and grilled over a fire. They will then be pounded in a mortar with salt, MSG, and chilli and eaten with large portions of rice. Their flavour will make the meal special. Usually, and particularly in the dry season, they would just eat rice with salt, chilli, and lots of MSG.
For me it was the rice that made the meal. Colours of rice in the upland range from purple to red to yellow to grey depending on the village or the household that we visited and the texture differs from sticky to grainy. The taste and the smell are harder to explain but some actually do taste and smell a lot better than others. Upland rice is grown in swidden fields along with sesame and many other kinds of useful plants - some even throw in a few patches of flowers to make the field a nicer workplace. Without chemicals, weeding is a back-breaking task and back pain is commonly very much part of that lifestyle.
A rice expert told me that there were a hundred different kinds of rice. At home in Chiang Mai I normally eat just five kinds and the other ninety-five would be found in homes much like this one. What I had on that plate was not just food, the expert told me. It represents the genetic biodiversity backbone of Thailand's most important crop. After all, we are a world super power when it comes to rice.
Omkoi produces lots of meat, cabbages, and
tomatoes. The 40,000 residents there are estimated to own about 20,000 cows. It may sound like a great many plates of steak and salad but most of this production is for export to other parts of Thailand. There is a sad story here: going about 50 kilometres in from the paved road to a village call Salatae, we met a child who was blind from vitamin A deficiency resulting from prolonged dietary deprivation. Vitamin A is soluble in fat and it is found in animal liver, egg yolk, and yellow vegetables.
You see, we have a vision. Soon we will have an awesome tourist attraction where we can visit African animals - just minutes outside of town. A cable car will link all manner of tourist attractions together. Highways to China and beyond are to be opened up. You just don't get that in a poor Asian country, do you? Vitamin A deficiency or VAD is the leading cause of preventable blindness in poor countries. We actually thought we had the problem under control. But Omkoi is full of surprises. Government officials there also reported that leprosy is alive and well behind those magnificent hills.
Chiang Mai is the second largest province in Thailand and it is ethnically diverse. About 300,000 people are hill tribes A lot of the people are also living in 'forested areas' and the debate about how to do development in the uplands has produced many, many PhDs. If the forest were cakes we are looking for ways to have lots of it and eat it too. In addition there were also complications about opium cultivation in the past. So when people talked about 'development' or 'conservation' it was often more about narcotic control rather than the well-being of families living there. We met a family who had lost seven babies one after another. They were in tears even before I could ask more questions to get the details.
We asked many people in Omkoi what to do to solve their problems and there seems to be a consensus that we should pave more roads, develop water systems, and then work with them to find agro-forestry activities that produce both cash and biodiversity in addition to job opportunities elsewhere. We asked them if they think their children will stay where they live and if they are going to be better off than they are. They are optimistic. They said conditions have much improved and what makes things better is the local government system (Tambon Administrative Organisation) that was put in place eight years ago. Democracy is also alive and well. For the first time ever, there is competition to become the TAO representative in Nakien, one of the most remote places in Chiang Mai.
Back in town I am sure you have a few ideas about how Chiang Mai should progress.
The needs of Omkoi are basic and simple. Weera and Jarae Fahkwang said that a free nursery would be wonderful because their baby has just been born and if they could both work for part of the year Chiang Mai would be a beautiful place for them. They were really happy that we are working to be an aviation centre - but also caution that crossing a road in Chiang Mai is still a terrifying experience. Sure there are problems here and there but I believe that if all take a little time to work with what the government has in mind Chiang Mai will be even better than planned.
It is just worth reminding ourselves, as we whip Chiang Mai into modern shape, that the province is much more than the city, and for us to develop into a large, populous and modern city, we must remember that beyond the hills on our horizon our fellow Chiang Mai citizens are still struggling to survive on a daily basis.
Kriengsak demonstrates the back breaking task of weeding in swidden fields: "can you imagine how much I would have to bend if the land was flat?"
Harvesting rice in Omkoi
Children at Pa-Un village, too shy to talk to us in Thai but one of their older relatives told us,
"I don't know what they will do when they grow up but for the guys I want them to be as proud as the boxer who got an Olympic gold medal....for the girls I want them to be as proud as Miss Universe."
Karen farmers sowing upland rice