Finding a place in Chiangmai

DoiSaket-evening

Place is the product of a relationship – part subjective projection, part internalisation of an external reality.

I first went to Chiangmai, Thailand, in 2008. I was working in the border town of Mae Sot and the six hour bus trip to the northern Thai city was a popular break from the small town. Chiangmai was a place where you could get a good pasta, browse bookstores and watch a movie on a big screen that wasn’t a projection at the local cafe. Once I’d discovered the town I went there as often as I could for weekend getaways, enjoying the cool mornings, the relaxed city vibe, the galleries. But once I’d moved on from my job in Mae Sot, I didn’t expect to go back to Chiangmai.

But life has a way of weaving in strange directions.

Mae Kuang Dam, Doi Saket
Mae Kuang Dam, Doi Saket, Chiangmai

Perhaps it was the cosmopolitan atmosphere that drew me to the city, an initial contrast to the town I lived in. This element of Chiangmai is well recognised, more recently in it’s growth as a digital nomad hub, where people are attracted by the cheap rent, stable infrastructure, great food and creative scene. There is a growing number of coworking spaces as well as makerspaces. More formally, in 2017 it became a UNECO Crafts and Folk Art creative city and in December every year there is the Chiangmai Design Week (CMDW19), to name just a few initiatives.

The city doesn’t lack galleries and in a  more recent trip I visited the impressive Modern Art Museum Maiiam, a museum based on the private collection of the Bunnag-Beurdeley family. Assembled over 30 years, the collection focuses on leading figures of Thai contemporary art. The entrance to the gallery has millions of decorative thin mirror tiles, similar to those commonly used in traditional Thai architecture, and it opens up to a light-filled space. The works are an eclectic mix, ranging from paintings, to textiles, to photography to installations.

But it was not necessarily these cultural markers that drew me time and again to Chiangmai, at least it wasn’t only them. Trying to identify the appeal I thought it was perhaps the conversations that happen in between: the shared cup of tea with walls open to the greenery; the discovery of yet another arts and craft space winding around the streets of Suthep; the discussions while walking around the Ang Kaew Resovior. There are so many spaces in Chiangmai that encourage taking the time for conversations, resting in them rather than rushing through them.

Near Chiang Mai
Near Chiang Mai

Relationships with a place can be hard to pin down. There can be a swell of emotion when thinking about a place, but when you stop to delve further, the reasons behind it can be hard to grasp. As historian and urbanist Barry Curtis observes, ‘Place is the product of a relationship – part subjective projection, part internalisation of an external reality’ (Curtis, 2001, p. 55). It’s not just about the place as a neutral, fixed space; getting to know a place also involves a continual dialogue between the place and a person’s interactions, what they choose to notice and internalise, what they project onto it. As architectural historian Jane Rendall points out: ‘“Knowing” the city invites, and invokes, a need to know the self…What we call objective historical knowledge cannot be separated from a fluid network of cross-linking, feedbacking, constantly shifting and reciprocal relations between outer and inner worlds, between the city and the self’ (Rendall, 2001, p. 108).

It’s not just the physical beauty of Chiangmai that appeals, but it’s the way I can slow down and rest in the moment more than any other place. Perhaps my initial encounter with Chiangmai as a place of refuge and cultural encounters has contributed to my continued feelings of rest there. Or perhaps it’s the confirmation of this feeling every time I visit. I am by no means an expert on the city and I still have so much to learn about it, but I am enjoying the conversations I have with the place, the way they talk to my inner self.

Studio 88 Artist Residency, Chiang Mai
Studio 88 Artist Residency, Chiangmai

This feeling of comfort in Chiangmai is why I’m excited to be working with Thai arts manager Sasiwimon Wongjarin on an art residency project in Doi Saket, just 30 minutes from Chiangmai. Studio 88 Artist Residency is driven by a desire to connect creative thinkers and contribute to local communities and provides space and time to experiment with the process of creating. It’s an evolving project, and we hope to develop projects that draw from both our international and local knowledge. Keep an eye out for upcoming open calls here!


References:

CURTIS, B. 2001. That Place Where: Some thoughts on Memory and the City. In: IAN, B., KERR, J. & RENDALL, J. (eds.) The Unknown City: Contesting Architecture and Social Space. Cambridge and London: MIT Press.

RENDALL, J. 2001. “Bazaar Beauties” or “Pleasuer Is Our Pursuit”: A Spatial Story of Exchange. In: IAN, B., KERR, J. & RENDALL, J. (eds.) The Unknown City: Contesting Architecture and Social Space. Cambridge and London: MIT Press.

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