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Chiang Mai – A City in Crisis

By Ngo Thi Mai Huong
Countryside Today, Vietnam

In a lush valley surrounded by green mountains, Chiang Mai was a perfect setting for the capital of the ancient Lanna state.
 
King Mang Rai built the first temple, followed by a moat around the city to protect the people. Residents lived in harmony with nature. The word "Lanna" meant "one million fields."  Today it might as well mean one million cars.
 
A town of seven centuries of culture and beauty, Chiang Mai now battles sprawl, traffic congestion, pollution, a loss of local identity and other urban ills.
 
Nearly 20 year ago, Thailand began to develop quickly. Chiang Mai also grew rapidly as people from Bangkok came to invest, visit and stay for the relaxing atmosphere and natural beauty.
 
As a result of population growth, the town constructed tall buildings, an airport and shopping centers – all of which adversely affected the once pure environment.
 
The nickname " rose of the north” has lost its meaning,"  said Sirichai Narumitrekakarn, an environmental activist, architect and Chiang Mai University lecturer.
 
Buildings block the free flow of air. Exhaust from vehicles is trapped. " The air is very bad," said Tanet Charoenmuang, Associate Professor of political science at Chiang Mai University said.
 Like the people in Bangkok, locals also desire a comfortable life. They want to buy their own cars. So the number of cars in Chiang Mai province has increased nearly as much as its population of 1.5 million, Tanet said. But the road area remains the same, creating traffic congestion.
 
In addition, the one-way traffic system around Chiang Mai’s ancient center is not safe for pedestrians. Traffic zips through the city center with few spotlights or signs, creating a hazard for people, said Boonsong Satayopad of the Center for Traffic Management at Chiang Mai University. " It’s difficult to cross the road,"  he said. " It’s dangerous."
 
The super highway around the city may ease traffic congestion, but also it causes the city to lose some of its beauty and adds to traffic fatalities, according to Boonsong. It’s " a crazy idea"  when people want to drive 100 km/hour on this super highway, he said.
 
Without proper land-use planning, infrastructure expansion, administration and control, the result is a conglomeration of physical problems, including overcrowding, encroachment on the natural environment, and solid waste crises.
 
In less than 20 years, Bangkok investors and central planners turned Chiang Mai into the development center of the North, causing Chiang Mai to lose much of its traditional charm and culture, Tanet said.
 
Ancient temples were restored in inappropriate ways or overshadowed by tall, modern buildings." Local identity is being destroyed everyday,’ Tanet said.
 
More than 40 government agencies on Doi Suthep, the majestic mountain overlooking Chiang Mai, have ruined its beauty and strained water resources. As a result, the famous waterfall whose roar could once be heard across town now trickle like somebody " urinating."  Tanet claimed.
 Even traditional houses have been replaced by European-style homes. There are only 8 traditional houses left in Chiang Mai. Billboards and street furniture spoil the ancient city’s character.
 
" Local people are no longer speak their own language,"  and instead are imitating the Bangkok style of speaking, Tanet said sadly.
 
Bui Van Chin, a Vietnamese-Thai who has lived in Chiang Mai for nearly 50 years, said that many parts of the ancient wall around the city were not rebuilt properly and do not match the original brick structure.
 
In order to get as much as possible from tourists, officials and businesses created new and "instant culture" in which local people became "mere spectators," not active participants as in the past, Sirichai said. He stressed that people will no longer remember Chiang Mai as “the rose of the north” if the city continues its short-sighted planning.
 
Though it is late, Chiang Mai citizens still have time to preserve some of their identity. It steps are taken soon to control development and preserve what is left, Chiang Mai might even be able to qualify for World Heritage status after 10 years, Sirichai said.
 
He added that most people want a livable city with sustainable development, and that this vision for Chiang Mai could be achieved by 2020.
 
According to a tentative plan put forward by a citizens’ committee, Chiang Mai would seek to conserve energy resources while making better use of land for housing and transportation. Air and noise pollution would be improved, and cultural and archaeological characteristics would be preserved.
 
Satellite towns around Chiang Mai would have jobs, education, shopping and entertainment. Better transport links between the new towns and Chiang Mai would enable people to use the facilities of the new settlements while preserving the ancient identity of the old town.

If such steps are taken now to control development, Sirichai said, Chiang Mai could once again become a city of great charm.

Copyright 2009 IMMF.