Chiang Mai: Coexistence of Tourism and Local Life

Thailand and I

I went to Thailand for the second time last summer during the vacation. As is very known to the world, I don’t have to write too much about the country itself. The main reason I decided to go back again, is that I was attracted not merely by its natural splendour, but its cultural and ethnic diversity.

foto_liu_1The last time I have been to Phuket Island, a celebrate vacation spot in the Indian Ocean in the South of the country: beach, sunshine, fishing and other habitual stuff. Everything was great but somehow the trip followed typical pattern that you will probably see everywhere in the world, such like a tourist guide speaking your mother tongue, the tour coach that carries you from one sightseeing point to another, star-ranked hotel that provides you with scrambled eggs and bacon for the breakfast and the so-called “local” pubs that welcome you in the night.
They suit perfectly those who simply feel like consuming and relaxing in an exotic environment, but I felt no lust whatsoever for voyages like this. As a result, I took the decision to go to a northern Thai town together with my friends instead of joining a guided group.

We chose Chiangmai located at the crossroad of Indochina Peninsula, the largest city in the region situated amongst the highest mountains in the country with a population of 160,000.
Seen that this article is not dedicated to provide some tourism information, my focus will be put on the two essential aspects: religion and everyday life of the local people.



Being a Buddhist myself, I was super thrilled to have such an opportunity to explore such a community. One of the first things that may impress a traveller in Thailand (even in its commercialised capital, Bangkok), is the number of Buddhist shrines. Let us make a short comparison with Bologna, which is considered as a catholic city in the north Italy with around 400,000 habitants.

On its yellow pages I found 479 churches in its downtown area while in Chiangmai, less than half of former’s population, there are more than 300 in town. On the streets, you feel like immersed into a Buddhist community with an aura of pacific and reassuring solidity. Though the Buddhism is supposed to be exotic and progressive in the West, it is deeply rooted in this country. In regard to what one of my Thai friends has told me, in almost every important life event: birth and adulthood rite as such, Buddhism plays a vital role, setting the rituals for the believers to practice.

foto_liu_3Yet the Buddhism in Chiangmai differs significantly from the one from my hometown. It is called Theradava and it remains as a dominant form of Buddhism in South East Asia and South Asia, just to name a few: Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka and Burma. Besides various differences in terms of conceptions, it generally focuses more on disciplining people’s behaviour.
On the other hand, the Buddhism I practice, named Mahayana, has a widespread following more in East Asia: China, Japan and South Korea. One interesting idea about Buddhism is that different branches are not mutually exclusive. That is to say that no one in this religion would claim its orthodoxy by condemning others of being “heretical”.

All the Buddhist declare to belong to one common belief, in a sharp contrast to Christianity. As is known to all, the Patriarch Constantinople and the Pope of Rome had long been attacking each other for centuries just to affirm their own legitimacy.


In this photo on the left, the temple is called Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Built on the mountain of Doi Suthep, the shrine was constructed more than 600 years ago. For longtime it has continuously been a sacred site to Thai people. The surface of the Pagoda was covered by gold donated by people with faith. On the top of the mountain inside the shrine, a gorgeous view could be enjoyed over the city of Chiangmai. On the eagle view point people erect magnificent architectures to pay homage to the God they believe in.




Everyday Life

From satellite map, one can clearly tell the square-shaped historic centre in the city of Chiangmai.

foto_liu_8_map Its old center is environed by stone wall and a moat bid to defend from the threat from Burma in the ancient time, given the strategic importance of the fortress.
Much different from other European cities, people living in the historic centre still keep their lifestyle despite the tourists from the outside. When I was in cities like Venice and Lijiang, local people escaped out of the town caused by the gradual erosion of commercialisation.
It is true that the flourishing tourism has brought about economic benefits to people, but it should not come at the cost of propelling them out of their own home. Up to then, Chiangmai seemed to maintain the status quo, thus I sincerely hope that their lifestyle could be carefully preserved.

Liu10This photo was shot in front of an elementary school. At 4 p.m. the pupils left for their close-by homes. The street was crowded by vehicles and people, which reminded me of my elementary school period.
I stayed much fascinated by the school uniforms of the students. Their preference in color showed their serenity and warmth in characters. Every time I approached them, they did not appear to be uncomfortable or annoyed. Actually they greeted me in return with sunshine smiles on their faces.  That was truly touching for me.


Liu 10In addition to basic education, there are also universities and colleges in town. University of Chiangmai remains as one of the most prestigious high education institution in the entire country. Furthermore, there was also a vocational college situated right at the core of the historic center.
The school serves to satisfy the needs of booming tourism by providing courses in many languages to Thai people. Even an Italian can easily find a local guide speaking his mother language in some of the agencies. Applying for the Creative City in UN, Chiangmai has tried in its own way to better integrate itself in the world.



Xiuru Liu





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