Hooked on Chiang Mai
THE EAR - JT Gonzales (Associated Press) - January 22, 2017 - 12:00am

CEBU, Philippines -   It wasn’t as easy as I thought, but eventually (and to be honest, without that much difficulty), I found them.

The in-flight magazine of a regional airline had just featured gorgeous and eye-catching street art that, supposedly, had become a hallmark of Chiang Mai, this younger sister of Bangkok. The photos were arresting, and since I am admittedly an art junkie, I thought, “Why not”?

So there I was, winging it to Chiang Mai.  It was right after Christmas day, and Don Mueang airport was packed with holidaymakers. But the flight was only an hour or so from Bangkok, and armed with a book, it wasn’t long before I was checking in at my hotel, a lovely colonial three- storey building that had been converted to a stunning modern abode.  Thus, I was safely sheltered at The Gallery 99, to the task at hand – prospecting for the best examples of Thai street art!

Chiang Mai’s traditional center is the Old City, a square block of temples and hostels surrounded by walls and a formidable moat. (I peeked into its murky waters, and there were black creepy fish lurking in it. I wouldn’t recommend swimming across.)  As this fortified center was meant to repel Mongol invaders and Burmese occupiers, there are limited routes to access the Old City.

The most dramatic of these access points is at Ratchadamnoen Road, where the brick walls of Tha Phae gate rise up to block entry.  I thought this would be a good start for the hunt, because this would also lead me to the night market. Walking down the length of this main road, however, I got diverted by the gorgeous gilded spires of the many temples that dominate the old town. So much history of worship packed into this thoroughfare!

As I snapped away at Wat Bupparam and Wat Indrakin Sadue Muang, two temples that are easily stumbled across while strolling leisurely (my preferred pace), one invariably encounters Europeans, intent on proving that Buddhism was a far superior religion, meandering through the wats.  Nearby, numerous stalls selling them t-shirts, flowers, massages, and bottled water bear proof that commerce is, after all, the superior god.  There are delightful souvenirs that can be purchased at the night market, including carved wooden toys, delicate silks, and ornamental flowers.

Hardly any sign announces their existence, but at the basement of a crumbling structure at Changklan Road called the Night Bazaar, more than a dozen galleries and studios of Chiang Mai artists reside.  The place is rough, but creativity is in the air, as artists live-sketch and paint artworks in situ.  What luck to witness the creative process!

The artists’ booths display plenty of options for souvenir seekers, much better than the cheap reproductions on offer in many Southeast Asian cities.  The prices aren’t bad either, reportedly running from as low as a few hundred baht for small pieces.

Naturally, as elephants are a revered part of the traditions of this city, elephants have taken a dominant position in the creative mindset of Chiang Mai’s residents. Name it, they’ve thought of it.  Black-and-white canvasses, multi-hued, in rough wooden sculptures, in sleek ceramic form, in mugs and in giant art pieces.  There are even hundreds of giant sculptures that are displayed around the city, commissioned from different artists, and available for sale via www.elephantparade.com.  This alone could become a fun elephant treasure hunt, with the goal being to find as many elephant sculptures as one can while learning more about the artists whose works impress one the most.

There are also elephant tours offered at affordable rates, mingled among the adventure treks and mountain climbing that more daring tourists can enjoy. But that wasn’t my mission.  I was on the quest for the free-flowing energy of street cred, perhaps considered as unwanted graffiti by some, but an art form nonetheless.

I hit pay-dirt the next day, when I veered off the main roads and wandered into narrow sois that could barely accommodate cars.  In here, amidst the youth hostels and organic stores, various sundry walls, fences, and even garage doors had been commandeered to serve as canvasses for youthful angst and adult exuberance.

There were the grinning gargoyles, the fairy tale monsters, the fierce lions and whimsical creatures much bruited about by the blogs and the mainstream press. I flung myself into an orgy of picture taking, never mind that I couldn’t read the Thai text that most often came with the visuals.  Time enough for translation later (if at all).

Very much evident were representative samples by Mauy Cola, whose ubiquitous signature “yap” can be seen emitting from the lips of his engaging creations.  I was intent, however, on looking for Alex Face’s tributes to Chiang Mai, and there I saw one of his works, mingling with the rest of usual suspects.

Alex Face is a Bangkok native identified in real life as Patcharapol Tangruen, and he is a street artist whose winsome works had already caught my eye three or so years ago in Bangkok.  Alex has blessed various cities around the globe with his trademark extra-eyed baby ogres, (including a controversial unveiling in Phuket), and of course Chiang Mai should naturally have the benefit of his genius.  If I could only fly him to Manila to paint one of my walls! (Another item to put on the bucket list of when I win the lottery.)

Just a few blocks outside the Old City, the best bet to catch more street art is at Nimmanheimen, a hip area that has sprouted bistros, art galleries and bars. Excellent coffee joints are a dime a dozen, and it is hard to imagine how Starbucks can compete given the strong brews offered at half the price at every other cafe. Walk into an open air parking lot, you can find street art. Park yourself in a garden restaurant, the more hip of these have street art decorating a wall. Even bars and clubs are proud to sport some form of street art. Heaven!

Over at the Nimman area, Gallery Seescape and Art Mai? hotel are sure bets to catch art exhibits, so if you’ve had your fill of catching sight of goblins, felines, and yes, even elephants in street art form, these venues can provide the traveler a more traditional representation of Chiang Mai contemporary art.

At Gallery Seescape, contemporary artist Anon Pairot had installed purple-maize rifles made of a pillowy substance and strung them from a ceiling, filling the entire art space in his show entitled “Souvenirs from my Depression”.  Outside the gallery cum cafe, giant rusting dinosaurs had been installed on a sidewalk. More unique garden pieces were situated around the cafe, and one could not help but marvel at the creativity that’s just bursting from this city’s seams.

I couldn’t resist purchasing a small avant garde sculpture called Besto Boy, with a light switch for a head.  (The lightbulbs are situated very delicately). The creator of this amusing piece is Torlarp Larpjaroensook, and he calls his series “The Journey of Switchhead.” The write-up says Besto Boy has a phobia from thunder, and is confused as to whether he’s AC or DC.  Well, when I found out he was 220, I decided to take him home! Best souvenir ever!

With this token tucked safely away in my suitcase, I could pronounce this a successful vacation.  With all the calories I burned walking down Chiang Mai’s streets, and the delight every time I encountered yet another visual explosion, the trip is definitely worth any traveler’s time.  I wouldn’t mind popping into Chiang Mai again (and the fact that Galleries Night, the Chiang Mai art fair, is scheduled at the end of January is not preying on my mind. Honest.).  (FREEMAN NEWS)

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