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
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
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.
result of population growth, the town constructed tall buildings, an
airport and shopping centers – all of which adversely affected the once
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.
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
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."
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
" Local people are no longer speak their own
language," and instead are imitating the Bangkok style of speaking, Tanet
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
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
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,
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