By Fotograf / Photographer: Heinrich Damm CC BY-SA 3.0
“Go and take a photo with the performers”, our waiter suggested enthusiastically as we tucked into the fifth or sixth course of a traditional Northern Style dinner in the dining room of Chiang Mai’s 137 Pillars House boutique hotel. Our mix of fellow diners included a honeymooning American couple, a large family from China and incongruously - a bickering couple of English expats.
I must admit I wasn’t keen to be there. Cultural performances in any country lurch towards the tackier end of modern tourism. Relatively bored performers go through the motions in front of a gawping audience of patronising foreigners who either find the spectacle quaint and vaguely exotic or deathly dull.
Either way, after the first couple of pieces are performed, most people find something different to stare at whether it be other diners or the décor. In this instance I went for the décor. A traditional Thai timber room featuring carved doors and furnishings situated in the tropical gardens of the 137 Pillars House’s meandering layout.
We had come for a traditional Lanna “Khantoke” style dinner and it was a follow-up to a day of culture. We’d visited a hill tribe village and the Queen Sirikit Botanic Gardens about 40-minutes out of Chiang Mai on the edge of the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park.
The drive up to the gardens along a winding road through lush vegetation and past roadside food stalls grabbed the attention more than the gardens. So did the tourist traps along the way - a snake farm where scenes from the film Rambo IV were shot, a monkey centre, butterfly farm and the famous Tiger Kingdom where the tigers display all the energy of McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest after Nurse Ratched finally wins. I went looking for the Chief or at least a pillow.
The handlers assured us the tigers weren’t drugged but had only been disciplined from a young age with bamboo sticks. The result was large full-grown tigers living in fear of their puny keeperss and a sharp crack across the nose if they displayed too much “tiger-like” personality. All good for the tourists lounging around on their living trophies but maybe not so good for the long-term mental wellbeing of the animals. Then again, there might be a conservation story in there somewhere, although the Tiger Kingdom doesn’t really push that angle at all. It’s all about the opportunity to drape yourself over an apex predator.
Similar to the Tiger Kingdom in the exploitation stakes was the Baan Tong Luang hill tribe village where a number of hill tribes live as the guests of the Thai government in Disney-like model villages. After mostly fleeing persecution in China and Myanmar, the people of Akha, Yao, Karen, Lahu, Palong, Hmong and Kayaw origin dwell in a living museum where (mostly) aging middle class tourists stare gormlessly at the traditional costumes and trample through the villagers basic housing. There are plenty of picture opportunities with the cute kiddies or long-necked Karen women as well as a chance to buy mass produced “handwoven” village handicrafts. I waited to no avail for the villagers to punch out a few lines of It’s a Small World (after all).
While I hoped the hill tribe villagers were paid actors and, like Disneyland’s cast members, head home after hours for a dull night in front of Thailand’s Got Talent, it wasn’t the case. In fact, similar to a safari lodge, visitors can stay in onsite cabins (offering a few of the modern conveniences the villagers do without) and wake-up to the sounds of the jungle or at least the Hmong boiling some water.
What’s really interesting is the region doesn’t need to showcase the tacky at all. It’s monstrously rich in history and natural attractions. The Chiang Mai city centre dates back to the 13th century and the temples such as Wat Phra Singh – one of Thailand’s most visited temples - in the old city features extraordinarily detailed frescoes and ancient artifacts. Many of the 30-plus temples in the old city were built at a time when the independent Lanna kingdom was part of a huge trading hub. In fact, over 50 per cent of the world’s trade centered around China, India, Persia, Japan and their thriving neighbouring kingdoms. Most westerners aren’t taught this at school because the Europeans were far and away the last to the party.
Yet once the Europeans arrived they certainly left an indelible mark. The verdant surrounds and architecture of 137 Pillars House hark back to colonial times as does the former British consulate building which acts as the centerpiece of the gorgeous Anantara Chiang Mai Resort. Both properties offer luxurious accommodation matched with exquisite service although Anantara’s Mai Ping River setting, striking design and signature restaurant, The Service 1921, offers something a little more stylish. Either way, Chiang Mai’s rich pleasures go far beyond the obvious tourist bait.
And standing in the rain outside 137 Pillars House waiting for a tuk-tuk after an eight-course traditional northern Thai dinner, I realise it’s this richness I want to discover more of in a city and region that hasn’t quite figured out how to share the stories of its glorious past.