The Gulf Islands seem to represent Thailand’s mainstream/gap yah partyville and short holiday culture and Bangkok the loud smelly, vivid sensory big city experience. Meanwhile, Chiang Mai carries the alternative or younger cultural scene. I’m not pretending it isn’t geared for tourism; there are tourist markets and innumerable travel agents make sport out of selling a ‘same same’ set of excursions (I’m a particular fan of the ‘non touristy’ bullshit in the picture below) typically including trekking, cooking, zip lining, ATV and mountain biking. But Chiang Mai also seems to have this underlying young alternative personality.
From the (admittedly very limited) two weeks I’ve hung around here, it seems down to the lesser presence of a music scene and cafe culture. There are fewer late tourist-only bars with drunk people falling out and not so many international retail/food chains. There are lots of great coffee bars and cafes and you aren’t hassled past the point of “no thanks” by tuk tuk drivers. Unlike in Bangkok, where they’ll chase you down the street and take umbrage if you ignore or dismiss them.
There’s, some good live music in many of the bars. People seem happier, younger and there is a strong university presence. Again, it’s subjective and partly based on my having landed in a great chilled out hostel with a great cafe next door. Now here’s a cafe with personality that I’d love to have near where I live. It’s called Birds Nest and is charmingly decked out.
It’s themed like a bird cage (bear with me), with a hand-painted tree on the wall, painted and model birds and associated paraphernalia (like the eggcup) around. It plays varied background jazz music, as the owner also owns a local jazz club and it’s got nicely miss-matching wooden furniture. There’s an impressive array of modern classic and reference books (from Bryson to Bennett, Tolstoy and travel guides). There are also board games like chess, go, draughts, scrabble and brain teasers like rubix cubes.
And I’m not only bigging it up because it did one of my favourite things which was to serve me perfect soft boiled eggs. The majority of its food is freshly cooked and cheep (like the budgie). For example, you get a great breakfast of fresh fruit, yoghurt and muesli (which would tend to see me through to dinner); green, red, massuman and Penang curries; hot sandwiches with fresh bread and even homemade pita bread and hummus.
Its the kind of place you meet very interesting people. For instance, I met a local guy named Pisit, known as Peter, who was jamming on the guitar and killing time before a job interview. We had a chat about music and we talked about out favourite current bands (he also works as a DJ) and he is launching an online music radio station. It’s launches today, so have a look: http://www.marchroom.com/.
Back home, I think too many cool places like this fall foul of the a dangerous curve. People seek reliability, so the economics of what I call ‘the cool curve’ destroy fun of places like this. A place becomes well known and usually prices rise, the brand is used to open a chain or group and standardisation takes over. The more people go there, the less cool it gets and the more standardisation happens. The less cool and charming it is. The chain then trades off a standard quality or reliability brand and the magic is gone. The cycle is to an extent, inevitable, but some cities manage to cultivate a culture where more of these great little boutique places pop up.
That’s the kind of city I’d like to live in.