The Bangkok-ification of Chiang Mai
Originally posted on April 1, 2016
I usually avoid downtown Chiang Mai, especially during rush hour (I also never go downtown on holidays like Songkran, Loy Krathong, and Chiang Mai University graduation days). But I just had my 6-month check up with my trusted urologist and the appointment was for 5pm. Happily, my PSA level was steady and I was good for another half year. I was smiling as I pulled out of the hospital garage but that soon changed. I was quickly reminded why I had set my rule about avoiding downtown CM during rush hours.
An hour and 20 minutes later I got home, a trip that during non-rush hours takes about 20 minutes.
I know, you people who live in Bangkok must think I am a bit of a wimp. I mean, just an hour and 20 minutes. That’s nothing to complain about. Your daily commutes often take so long that many of you bring along a nice wide mouth bottle just in case your bladder threatens to explode. I’m sure my trusted urologist would have a field day with that.
No, Chiang Mai traffic isn’t that bad yet and I have never needed to carry a bottle with me. But in its growing traffic congestion and in many other ways, Chiang Mai is beginning to look a lot like our big cousins from down south on the banks of the Chao Phraya River.
Chiang Mai is nowhere near the nightmare that our southern cousin is. In fact, it is quite livable and even though it isn’t the Shangri-La like town I came to live in and love 47 years ago (with lots of back-and-forths since then), a town where I knew almost everyone who owned an automobile, where today’s busy Nimmanhaemin Road, center of all things HiSo, was all rice fields, where there was only one nice hotel in town and guest houses hadn’t been invented yet, and where a bowl of noodles cost 1 ½ baht, I still love the place, but it has changed, and continues to do so.
In the past five years 3 new shopping malls have sprung up, making a total of 5. I know it is questionable whether shopping malls are a benefit or detriment to a city. But when it is 104 ̊ F it is nice to have a cool place to hang out and have lunch. One of the malls has a beautiful round aquarium where I spend lots of time waiting for my better half to finish her shopping. At another there is an ice skating rink. There are 3D and Imax theaters and lots of good clean restaurants to choose from. I counted 9 Japanese restaurants at one mall.
But I like to avoid wall-to-wall crowds and traffic jams, so I stay away from malls on weekends, holidays, and always on Children’s Day, and especially whenever a Korean boy band is in town.
When we decided to retire to Chiang Mai we drove down the Irrigation Canal Road, dirt and gravel at that time, and found a nice gated community about 1K off the road and nestled at the base of Wat Doi Kham, a quiet, beautiful temple where I would often visit; a place to be alone.
The Irrigation Canal Road is now not only paved, it is a 4-lane divided highway for most parts and now has been extended for many kilometers and has cut by half the travel time to Doi Intanon, highest mountain in Thailand, and another good place to go when the temperature is ridiculous.
And my quiet temple? Someone started the rumor that a certain image up there, if prayed to and offered jasmine flower garlands, would grant all your wishes. The image specializes in giving you the correct lottery numbers too.
The last time I was at the temple there were trinket shops on every corner, and thousands of people, everyone with armfuls of jasmine garlands. And of course the ubiquitous lottery sellers were there where you could immediately test whether your jasmine garlands were working their magic.
Obviously, there was no more alone-time for me there.
The Chiang Mai International Airport recently had a complete overhaul, increasing its capacity by around double. Sorry, but the planners missed something. They saw that tourism to Chiang Mai was booming, both for Thai tourists and foreigners. But they never counted on the Chinese.
The Chiang Mai International Airport planners are now drawing up plans to double again its capacity. And BTW, I advise you not go to the airport between 5pm and 8pm, that is unless you want to see a real traffic jam. If you have a friend arriving at that time, tell them to take a taxi to your house and give them the 300 baht the taxis are now charging. It will be worth it.
If you are not like me and enjoy big crowds and the feel of a stranger’s body rubbing against yours then the Chiang Mai Walking Street market is for you. It is said that here was established the first “walking street” in Asia. Now of course they are everywhere, towns big and small. Today about half of the tens of thousands of people at the Chiang Mai version on a Sunday night will be speaking Mandarin.
Luckily, with the increase in the number of vehicles on the road came booming highway construction. The largest and most important of these projects is the Chiang Mai ring road system that circle the city. And as the ring roads opened up, land prices skyrocketed, businesses opened, gated housing communities sprouted up (I know one that contains more than one thousand homes). The ring roads, looking lots like Bangkok highways, skirt around the old city and make my visiting friends on the other side of town lots more convenient. In fact, if it weren’t for visits to my trusted urologist I would probably never even go downtown anymore.
So far the ring roads are still open and the traffic runs freely. But if Chiang Mai continues to grow like it has in the last few years that might soon change. No problem, I have already scouted out a nice area on the outskirts of Lamphun, the province just one hour to the south. I could maybe even find some alone-time there.