The city reinvents itself as a haven for creatives and innovators
In the Nimmanhaemin neighborhood, posters promoting TEDx and Chiang Mai Design Week hang outside cafés serving single-origin coffee. Entrepreneurs and digital nomads hunch over laptops at co-working spaces all across town. A Grab ride can take you to Makerspace Thailand in the old city, or to the shiny Science and Technology Park run by Chiang Mai University. World-class creators like Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul, best-selling author Naomi Duguid and art world darling Navin Rawanchaikul choose to live here. The relaxed, open vibe is as you’d expect in any place that’s put creativity on the agenda. But this is not Brooklyn or Berlin — this is a city in northern Thailand.
People who self-identify as members of the creative class have gravitated to Chiang Mai for decades. This attraction goes beyond the Instagram-perfect boutique hotels, Airbnb listings and cafés that cater to the young tourist tethered to their social media feeds — it’s rooted in part in Chiang Mai’s deep-seated culture and aesthetics, which are woven into its tribal fabrics and baked into its pottery.
Chiang Mai was founded in 1296 as the capital and religious center of the historical Lanna Kingdom and its northern Thai people. More than 700 years on, Chiang Mai — literally “New City” — remains a confluence of the old and the new. Ornate palaces and Buddhist temples with gilded, multi-tier Lanna-style roofs rise up from within the old city, surrounded by its historic walls and moat. And beyond still, around the Ping River, are boutiques selling Lanna crafts as well as hotels, resorts and stores that incorporate Lanna architecture with a modern twist.
It’s no surprise, then, that Chiang Mai’s rich cultural tapestry continues to invigorate its new breed of artists, creatives and innovators. And the world has begun to notice: In 2017, Chiang Mai was designated a Unesco Creative City of Crafts and Folk Art, and the Nikkei Asian Review described the city as a “modern-day Left Bank”, drawing similarities to the Parisian enclave where artists and dreamers congregated. From makerspaces and boundary-pushing restaurants to experimental studios, the creative movement in Chiang Mai is constantly reinventing itself.
“Chiang Mai naturally fills your emotional quotient tank,” explains Nati Sang, founder and CEO of Makerspace Thailand and a transplant from Chicago by way of Bangkok. Nati’s own EQ tank, he felt, had run dry after 12 years in Bangkok where he was constantly stressed and angry. Seeking happiness and the creativity that flourishes from it, Nati moved to Chiang Mai and set up shop in 2014. Now, creatives of all stripes come to Nati’s Makerspace, a prototyping and product design center within the walls of the old city. Today the workshop hums with about 300 members — foreigners and locals in nearly equal numbers — who learn how to use laser cutters, 3D printers and other welding and woodworking tools for free, and are charged a monthly fee for their use of the space and equipment.
But it wasn’t always like that. In Makerspace’s first four months, nobody came. “To innovate, you have to make a lot of mistakes and get into an experimental mindset,” explains Nati. “It takes a lot of failures to get to success.” According to Nati, the affordability of Chiang Mai over Silicon Valley, Singapore and even Bangkok allowed Makerspace to tide through the burn rate — and it was this lower cost of living that also drew creatives to Chiang Mai and, eventually, to Makerspace. First, an artist walked in, needing a space to work. After that, someone wanted to use the laser cutters. Nati may have been off to a slow start, but he had good timing: Digital nomadism was on the rise, and Chiang Mai consistently came out tops on blogs and in listicles trumpeting the best destinations for this kind of work.
From there, the business grew by word of mouth among foreigners and locals alike. It was also during this period that Chiang Mai’s identity as a creative city really took off. In 2010, representatives from the design, digital and IT sectors came together to form Creative Chiang Mai. This volunteer network eventually went on to kick-start TEDxChiangMai and the annual Chiang Mai Design Awards, as well as to successfully campaign for Chiang Mai’s place as a Unesco Creative City. Buoyed by the city’s collective enthusiasm for design and invention, Nati has built a tight community of tinkerers.
Creating everything from furniture to architectural models and toys, Makerspace members allow their own inspiration to lead in their designs. When Makerspace member Thamarat Sukjeeradet wanted to build his wife a loom she could use at home, he got to work. Thamarat reverse-engineered the loom mechanism, designed and cut the component parts in the Makerspace workshop and eventually built a desk-sized foldable, portable loom. His new modular design — a reimagining of the traditional loom, which could be as large as a bed — was so popular with other weavers that Thamarat eventually set up a craft store business around his invention. Together with his wife, Suparak Rattanamongkonyut, Thamarat now sells his loom, silks and other craft materials at Rada Loom.
In the spirit of Makerspace, Nati strives to help start-ups like Thamarat’s find investment, fueling ripple-on effects of entrepreneurship throughout the city. “Our core ingredient is creativity,” Nati says — and at Makerspace, the sky’s the limit.
Across town, a different kind of project with the same DIY spirit is bubbling away. Chef Phanuphon “Black” Bulsuwan and Anothai “Beer” Pichaiyuth chose Chiang Mai six years ago to start Blackitch Artisan Kitchen, where a modernist nine-course tasting menu introduces northern Thailand’s bounty to just 16 diners every evening. Black is a self-taught chef who left a career in engineering to follow his culinary obsessions. In case of any doubt, his passions for this single-minded pursuit have been inked onto his arm in black and red script: Artisan. Creativity. Umami. Balance. Fermentation. Localize.
Experimental, bold flavors seem to be the name of the game. Blackitch’s walls are lined with jars containing local vegetables, seafood, meat and poultry and other items in various stages of transformation. Over the seasons, these pickled, fermented or aged items make their way back onto the menu. In April, they served threadfin fish with an aged plum sauce. In May, there was a squid-and-crab roll with fermented strawberry syrup, as well as wild boar cured with northern spices and drizzled with balsamic honey from stingless bees. The winter menu features pickled duck yolk and green snapper aged for 67 days.
While Black’s philosophy is evident in Blackitch’s handcrafted dishes, Beer plays the storyteller and community organizer between the duo. “Our staff shares responsibility for gathering salad ingredients,” Beer says by way of introduction to course number five, fish with a preserved French mother sauce, pomelo and salad from their own garden. “They picked these greens on their way to work.”
Some weekends, she and her team go foraging out of town, guided by village chiefs who know the countryside around Chiang Mai. “The forest is the community refrigerator,” Beer explainsto us skeptical city dwellers. “We find so much that it’s impossible to bring it all back to the kitchen.”
The focus on locally sourced ingredients isn’t just a culinary choice — the ethos and value of being close to the land runs deep for both Black and Beer and informs how their business gives back. They currently set aside THB100 (about ₱165) out of every customer receipt for a fund that, by the end of the year, will be enough to build a well in the mountains. “We want to support those who put the fires out,” Beer says, referring to the bush fires that have beset the northern provinces for a decade. “Our tribal friends live all their lives in the forest. They guard the trees against the fires by keeping them moist.” Black and Beer are optimistic. When the next dry season comes, they hope that villagers will be able to depend on the well for water in critical areas.
Nati and the Blackitch team might be considered irrepressible innovators in the creative community today, but it’s evident that Chiang Mai’s creative lineage runs further back still — to a group of maverick artists that kick-started everything a generation ago. In 1992, a group of young artists including Montien Boonma, Mit Jai Inn, Uthit Atimana, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook and Navin Rawanchaikul organized the Chiang Mai Social Installation (CMSI) project. Chafing against the way art was being shown at that time — in stuffy rooms to Bangkok’s nouveau riche — these artists, many of whom were bringing back new ideas from graduate school overseas, used CMSI as an experimental vehicle to present art directly to ordinary people.
Using Chiang Mai itself as a canvas, the CMSI artists installed paintings, performance works, sculpture and video art in temples and cemeteries. They made their point: By using relatively inclusive and democratic spaces, CMSI flouted artistic conventions of the day and showed the city’s populace a fresh, new way to experience art. By year two, the festival had attracted foreign artists and subsequently expanded to pavements outside the night market, onto the steps leading to shops and dental clinics as well as along the city’s streets, canals and bridges. The festival lasted six editions. Nobody knew it at the time, but CMSI became Thailand’s first public art program.
Three decades later, and virtually everyone from CMSI’s pioneer cohort has become a star in the art world. Collectively, these artists have helped establish Chiang Mai as a stop on Southeast Asia’s contemporary art route. More importantly, CMSI gave other budding artists the license and inspiration to consistently push the envelope.
The original collective keeps this spirit going by mentoring new waves of artists who come to the city to attend Chiang Mai University’s Fine Arts Program. Phattharakorn Sing-Thong (“Baan” to his friends) came to Chiang Mai to study painting, where he found community and mentorship as he developed his craft. As his career took off, he participated in multiple shows a year — first as part of group shows in Chiang Mai and Bangkok, then his first solo exhibition at the reputable Numthong Gallery and eventually at shows and auctions in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
In 2011, amid creative and commercial success, Baan stopped. “For the first 10 years of my professional career, I focused on realistic art. I preferred realistic art because it demanded such a high level of perfection. I even went as far as to cut my paintings into pieces when I made a mistake. Every detail had to be absolutely perfect,” he explained to The Nation, an English-language newspaper in Thailand. “The problems started when the galleries started to suggest the kind of paintings I should be doing to achieve commercial success. I followed their advice, but I also found I was far less challenged in my work. That led me to question my life, and in the end I decided to quit.”
Baan subsequently decamped to Lamphun, a town on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, for a period of introspection and what became a seven-year hiatus to “learn the truth of world and life”. After five years, he picked up a paintbrush again, changing his style from realistic to abstract and drawing inspiration from the nature that surrounded him. In 2018, Baan returned to the art world with not just one show but two, at Numthong Gallery in Bangkok and Temple House in Lamphun, which displayed 600 pieces of his work on rotation.
Baan’s studio is a two-storey concrete-and-wood structure in a longan orchard. His two-sided scroll-like works hang from the rafters downstairs, lit only by bare light bulbs. On the second floor are triptychs that lean against the walls and smaller paper works organized in grids on the floor. The studio is basic — the lower floor peeks through slats in the floorboards — and dangerously open to the elements. For Baan, the place is integral to his art. “It’s not far from Chiang Mai and close to nature… This is where I found what I had to learn. The people who live and teach the important things in my life and art are here,” he says.
Already, Baan is continuing the creative legacy and chain of mentorship started by CMSI. He’s taken on young Ot as his assistant. Ot, who’s also learning to be a barista while he decides if art is for him, has set up a pour-over station next to a jackfruit tree and is making cups of filter coffee from local beans, to be served out of mismatched ceramic cups produced at the craft center a few streets down and acquired at a discount. Ot also follows Baan through the studio with a DSLR, and the next day the grainy black-and-white photos are up on Baan’s Instagram. Having shied out of the public spotlight for a part of his career, Baan now shares a small but steady stream of art from this unmarked fruit orchard to the world.
It is this creative mindset — an attitude of relentless experimentation, regardless of resource or circumstance — that makes Chiang Mai and its residents special. As Nati of Makerspace says, “Innovation is not necessarily new tech. You can mix and match a combination of disparate things. Innovation is about your impact on the world. It’s about asking: Do things have to be the way they are?” Chiang Mai provides an answer to that question as an example of a city that embraces creativity — where new tech coexists with the organic, and new ideas blend with ancient knowledge, all in service of a more humane and expansive experience of life.
Cebu Pacific flies to Chiang Mai via Singapore from Manila. cebupacificair.com
This article first appeared in the July 2019 issue of Smile magazine.