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Conserving our Heritage:
Wat Gate, Chiangmai

Chiang Mai University's Faculty of Architecture held an off-campus conference in January entitled: "Hompoom Sathapattayapatha 47: Architectural way, Communal way, Folk way". In essence, an architectural, conservation think tank, with the old Wat Gate area as the central topic.

Visiting professors from the USA mingled with CMU students and Wat Gate inhabitants, exchanging views on how best to conserve one of Chiang Mai's oldest neighborhoods.

The keynote speaker, Dr. William Chapman, delivered an excellent slide presentation, depicting conservation work carried out in communities similar to Wat Gate in other cities throughout the world. Conference delegates saw how conservation and restoration projects had been completed with little, or no disruption to the way of life in each community.

There were slides showing the palatial Antebellum estates in Madison, Georgia, each picture provoking memories of Tara, and the palatial pre-civil war homes that formed a backdrop for the silver screen classic— "Gone with the Wind".

Not a pillar or picket fence was out of place. Proving, quite frankly my dear, that the denizens of the South clearly DO give a damn, about architectural conservation- (apologies to Margaret Mitchell). Other examples came from elsewhere in the USA's Deep South, and from Italy and Britain.

It was explained how foreign cities employed integrated conservation, or how to keep the buildings and residents of a city in harmony with economic, social and conservation issues. Ferrara in Italy, is a city that has much in common with Chiang Mai in terms of conservation; the preservation of its ancient wall, for example.

The great city of Venice was shown to have suffered as a result of "gentrification": a phenomenon occurring when working class residents of a city sell their property to rich outsiders, thereby driving the price of property beyond the reach of local residents.

The preservation of old buildings is comparatively new to Chiang Mai, although such projects elsewhere in the world have been in existence for almost a century. The American cities of Charleston and New Orleans have projects in which the citizens of older parts of each city are encouraged to preserve their properties. In the case of New Orleans, there exists a scheme whereby residents are granted loans for the sole purpose of preserving their buildings.

No such funds are available in Chiang Mai, which relies, at present, on Non Governmental Organization encouraging people to pay for the restoration of their own properties.

UNESCO, a body responsible for the restoration and preservation of Wat Chedi Luang, here in Chiang Mai, is actively pursuing a conservation program at sites in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and elsewhere in the world.

Architectural conservationists face an uphill battle here in southeast Asia, where property owners see little value in maintaining old buildings, and there exists a natural resistance to being told what one should do with one's own property.

Do it yourself, or DIY, while popular in the west, has little attraction for most people in this region. Also, selling them the idea that there is economic gain to be had from conservation has, so far, proved unsuccessful; although facts have proven that economies gain from the preservation of culture.

The Wat Gate community leader Mrs. Wornwimon Chairat explained to delegates the individual eccentricities of neighborhood structures, such as the steeple of Wat Gate Garam. The point of the spire is deliberately off-centre, so as not to point directly at heaven. (An example, perhaps, of the non-confrontational character of the Thai people). The Wat Gate community is also proud of the life-style museum within Wat Gate Garam temple grounds.

Following the conference, delegates were invited to tour certain ancient sites in the Wat Gate neighborhood. Some chose to visit the Borneo compound, where the ancient mosque has stood for over 200 years. Others went to the 100 year old Sikh temple, built by pioneers from the Punjab who made their living here by selling fabrics.

Many delegates visited that part of the Lamphun road where the Sripragard Hotel and Chinese restaurant still stand today; the hotel is the oldest in the city.

Legend has it that the original owner's teenage son became the first student to leave Chiang Mai to study in America. The wife of a missionary had fallen ill and needed someone to help her look after her children. She asked that the young man accompany her and her children to the United States, and he agreed. It was unheard of at the time for a young Thai female to leave the family home and travel to distant shores. The young man, however, spent a year in the United States, during which time he wrote daily to his family in Chiang Mai. He returned to Chiang Mai as a missionary, and his letters were published in the form of a supplementary textbook for the use by the schoolchildren of that day.

The current owners of the hotel have plans in the pipeline to turn the building into a museum, and to republish the book of letters for future generations to appreciate.

The Wat Gate area is rich in history and has been, during the 18 years of our magazine's existence, featured regularly in its pages. Check out our website www.chiangmai-chiangrai.com for a wealth of information, bringing an absorbing slice of Chiang Mai's history to your desktop.

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