273rd Meeting – Tuesday, April 4th 2006

Chiang Mai: Disneyfication or Rational Development?

 Do citizens have a voice? What are they saying, and what are they planning to do? 

A Panel Discussion on the mega-projects proposed for the Northern Capital.

The panel consisted of experts in various fields: political, economic, environmental, communications, etc. from the 48 Chiang Mai organizations that Pakee Kon Hak Chiang Mai has contact with. The four panelists each outlined their views on what the mega-projects will do to CM, and what might be proposed as alternatives – they also suggested how campaigns might be mounted to ensure interests of Chiang Mai citizens are not merely expressed but responded to. The discussion was open to all members of the audience either during panel sessions, or in the question and answer session afterwards.

Background - Twenty years ago, major construction, political and governmental interests proposed building a mass-transit cable-car system from the Chiang Mai Zoo to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. It was put forward as a done deal, without discussion. If built, it would not only have done irreparable damage to the natural environment, but inevitably led to the Disneyficated 'development' of the mountain and the city itself. Although initially assumed that, given the forces behind the project, it would be impossible to halt it, a year-long sustained campaign was mounted - led mainly by the klum puer chiang mai - that eventually drew in such massive support, including that of the Sangha, that the project had to be abandoned. Although projects are again being initiated with no consultation, there is likely to be a sustained and broad-based campaign calling for the democratic rights of Chiang Mai's citizens to be heard and respected. It's probably true also that recent events have made the circumstances more favourable to such a campaign's positive outcome than they were twenty years ago.

Whilst no minutes of the meeting were taken, the following articles are examples of some of the issues discussed during the evening.


Edited from a commentary by Bob Kimmins [The Nation: 24.12.05]

SIX months ago, Thailand’s tourism and sports minister announced the Bt 2.1-billion [US$52.5 million] ‘Lannaland’ scheme, which included restoration of the city’s Tha Pae area, but nothing has been heard of since. Instead, Chiang Mai could soon become a ‘tinsel town’, with zoos, theme parks and coloured cable cars gliding across the mountainside. If the Rose of the North - as Chiang Mai has often been called - withers and dies to make way for ‘Chiang Mai World’, who cares? After all, more money can be made from tourists at funfairs than those staring at the national heritage or relaxing in peace and tranquility.

   Chiang Mai World is a multifaceted mega-project that kicked off with the soft opening of the Night Safari – a ‘world-class attraction’ that hopes to lure 1.2 million tourists per year. This so-called nocturnal-animal collection is heralded as the third largest of its kind in the world, and will be accompanied by a horticultural expo, world spa centre, theme park, elephant camp, luxury hotel, bird tunnel, cable car system, monorail, aquarium and conventional exhibition centre – clustered in the landscape between Chiang Mai City and the nearby mountain Doi Suthep.

   Estimated at an overall cost of Bt5 billion (US$125 million), the project has been met with immense opposition from environmentalists, animal-rights groups and ordinary folk, who don’t want to see the character of their hometown ripped to shreds.  Amid controversy concerning cruelty to animals and constraints on the local power and water, Chiang Mai Night Safari recently opened its doors.

   It seemed clear to me that if daily attendance targets are met, traffic and logistical problems are likely to follow. Parking facilities could prove inadequate and a lack of tour trams was already causing two-hour waits. The lighting was pretty, reflecting in the water, but the monkey islands showed no signs of life, and most enclosures were no different from ordinary zoos. There was also an obvious shortage of animals. On the catering side, the thought of watching tigers at night before eating them for breakfast made an awful lot of people feel sick. And after international condemnation, the wildlife buffet has been largely revoked.

   From the mid-1980s, the Chiang Mai area relied largely on backpackers, who appreciated traditional Thai values and the natural environment. They became the grassroots of Thailand’s tourist industry, pumping money into guesthouses and cheaper restaurants. Package tours soon followed, bringing better times to middle-market establishments, and an overspill of nightlife revelers kept the clubs and bars happy.

   Unfortunately, this bread-and-butter business has been almost obliterated in favour of five-star tourism. And have the millions of people who got themselves those exclusive Elite Cards arrived? [The Elite Card project was initiated by the Prime Minister to attract luxury tourists.] No, and they never will, because sticking up a few luxury hotels and spas doesn’t make the whole region ‘high-so’.

   So the theme park perception is a gamble against fierce competition worldwide. Chiang Mai is in danger of losing its individual charm and becoming another mere choice among fun locations such as Hong Kong’s disappointing Disneyland. The northern capital should preserve what it has and revise a basic marketing strategy before it’s too late.


[Bangkok Post: 4.2.06; 7.2.06; The Nation: 2.2.06] - AFTER a 10-month delay, the controversial Chiang Mai Night Safari Park finally celebrated its grand opening 6 February, but without the long-awaited 175 wild animals it has been trying to obtain from Kenya. The ceremony was presided over by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who has initiated the ambitious project in his home town Chiang Mai.

   Besides an extravagant performance staged by the zoo's director, Plodprasop Suraswadi, a highlight of the opening was the debut of a pair of white tiger cubs - Lizhen and Zhaojin - donated by a zoo in China. Zoo staffers said the stressed-out cubs had arrived at the zoo just three days ago and were having trouble adjusting to their new surroundings and Thailand's hot weather.

   The zoo was originally scheduled to open on April 13 last year, but the date was postponed several times, partly because of problems involving the import of wild animals from foreign countries, including Kenya and Australia. The Kenyan government suspended its plan to deliver 175 birds and animals to Thailand last year following a controversy over Plodprasop's plan to serve the meat of wild animals, such as giraffe and zebra steaks, at a zoo restaurant (see new frontiers 11[6]). Most of the 900 animals presently being displayed at the Night Safari were obtained from domestic zoos.

   Meanwhile, civic groups in Chiang Mai have demanded a probe into the embattled project. Nikhom Puttha of Wildlife Fund Thailand, citing a source at the zoo, said 104 animals of at least 21 species have died because zoo staff lacks expertise in animal welfare. The source also said that the project has triggered an over-priced wildlife trade and possibly fuel the illegal trade in animals.

    Despite widespread criticism, Plodprasop announced he would propose two more related projects – an elephant park and a cultural theme park – to the government. ''The Night Safari is my proud achievement. And I will carry on with it no matter how hard the protesters attack this project,'' said Prodprasop, who has been bombarded with accusations of irregularities involving the zoo's operation over the past several years.

   Premier Thaksin said the zoo was part of the multi-billion-baht ‘Chiang Mai World’ project that was aimed to make his hometown the country's ''second capital''.


Ethnic groups living in the hill areas surrounding Chiang Mai are also severely affected by ‘Disneyfication’ for tourism purposes. Bangkok Post Assistant Editor Sanitsuda Ekachai  has provided a critical analysis of  plans to establish hilltribe “tourism villages” [Bangkok Post: 2.2.06]

FORGET morality. This is the era in which making a fast buck has become our religion. So if the hill peoples cry foul against Thaksin Shinawatra's idea to turn them into slaves in the government's human zoo, just feign deafness.

   Who needs to listen to these dirt-stained tribals when we are talking big tourism money?

   Never short of ideas to turn everything in sight into banknotes, Thaksin Shinawatra has come up with a plan to transform denuded mountains into tourism villages by ''gathering'' different hill peoples there to attract tourists. Don't worry if those denuded mountains happen to be in national parks or wildlife sanctuaries where human resettlement is prohibited. We can be sure that our premier has all the legal experts he needs to turn what many of us deem immoral or illegal into a totally legal venture. It does not matter if the idea of a human zoo and forced resettlement are denounced all over the world. Why worry what the world thinks when our leader has bravely declared that the UN is not his father?

   Mr. Thaksin's sidekicks are now busy finding the right denuded mountains to resettle the highlanders in order to build Mr. Thaksin's dream village - and the hill peoples' nightmare. While his admirers may describe Mr. Thaksin's idea as an ingenious effort to solve the problem of deforestation and to make tourism money at the same time, human rights advocates have blasted Mr. Thaksin's idea as a smokescreen for the government's policy of forced resettlement, which has long been a cause of misery for the hill peoples.

   Being made scapegoats of Thailand's deforestation problem, numerous hill communities have been evicted from their forest homes and subjected to forced relocations which have destroyed their culture and consequently plunged them into deep social problems. One of these resettlements is Ban Wang Mai in Lampang province. Branded a threat to the environment for inhabiting rain-catchment forests, the hill people of different tribes were thrown together to live in the same resettlement, where the promised land was arid and there were no decent jobs for hill peasants with neither education nor citizenship. To survive, their children migrated to work in the cities. The young men mostly ended up as labourers, the girls became waitresses, with many among them lured into the flesh trade. As families broke up and community ties weakened, their hill culture crumbled. Drug addiction became rife as the community tried to grapple with the AIDS problem.

   But the hill peoples cannot escape those tourists who trek up to their villages day in and day out, anyway. So why not make some money out of it through better planning and management? The hill peasants at Lorcha in Chiang Rai's Mae Chan district have the answer. They have organized themselves to manage the tourists by taking turns acting as tour guides to show them around, provide them with accurate information about their culture and charge them entrance fees. Yet, they have found tourism money unreliable. Farming, which has been made difficult by constant eviction threats, remains their bloodline.

   Ask what they want, and they similarly plead for land security and citizenship. But our government only wants to sell their culture. Having been through the pain of forced resettlement, Komkrit Wongchanisara, the village head of Ban Wang Mai, noted that the government should not expect to move the hill peoples around as easily as before.

   The tourism village idea was okay - if the villagers were willing to work there and get paid for it, while still keeping their forest homes, he said. ''But if this is about forced resettlement, things won't be as easy as the government plans.''