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IN THIS AGE OF HIGH-RISES, super highways and a frenetic pace of life, it is fascinating to have a view of what Chiang Mai looked like perhaps 100 years ago. On the walls of some hotels, bars and restaurants are framed, sepia photographs of that era and they surely set the imagination a wandering when trying to identify “then” with “now”. The photos allows you to take a peek at how Chiang Mai looked in the early 1900’s.

But, would you like to admire this charming neighborhood for yourself? Look on any map for direction to the eastern side of the river Ping, just north of Nawarat Bridge, to the area of “Wat Gate” at the center of which is the Wat Gate Garaam temple (If the sign spells -- Wat Kate Karahm, oh yes it is the same temple). The Charoenraj Road runs alongside the river and, at various points, there are old, solid timber built houses many of which are well over 85 years old. Some have been converted into boutique galleries and shops of various sorts. The area has a long history and some of the present residents are descended from families which have been living there for almost 200 years.

Better hurry to visit because if the Provincial City Planning and Civil Engineering under the federal Ministry of Interior in Bangkok have their way, the old neighborhood will soon be known only through those remaining old photos. The officials from Bangkok are pushing to enforce the zoning change to turn the Wat Gate residential area into a Red Zone meaning an Approved Business Area resulting that ambitious businessmen can turn the area into a repeat of chaotic Nimmanhemin Road. Chiang Mai will lack the physical presence of history, conservation, and heritage. It is sad indeed that only pollution and eyesores will be passed on to the younger generation. It is perplexing that Thai citizens keep talking about government decentralization but decisive action has yes to be taken to decentralize.

Take a look at the incredible architecture. Rather than pure Thai, the Wat Gate Garaam structure has distinctly Chinese influence with reliefs of animals and dragons which almost look ready to pounce. Also, in great piety, the pinnacle of the stupa is learning slightly in order not to point directly at the God above! Within the temple compound is a solid, two storey building (80 years old) which originally served as a temple school but later was converted into living quarters of the resident monks. Unusually, the roof of this building is topped with “Bpaan Lom” motifs instead of the common crossed “Galae” style. Within the temple compound, is the two storey library building which has been wonderfully restored by Khun Bovorn of the Chutima family -- which housed the temple’s sacred books and manuscripts. Such were kept on the higher floor -- but how to access as there is neither an internal nor external staircase? This was to dissuade rodents from scrambling into the library -- when needed access was gained by leaning a ladder against the wall. European tea sets, silk wall hangings from China, lanterns and a collection of old volumes are on display.

Nearby is the “Sala Bart” (formerly used as a hall for breakfast and lunch, later it was a multipurpose building). A preservation project to save it from further ravages was commenced some three years ago. This building is where women would bring food to be prepared and presented for merit making.

And not far away from the eastern front gate is the huge “Bain Compound”; this was owned by Scottish, Mr. William Bain, who was a “Teak-Wallah” in the service of the East Asiatic Company. The Bain Estate of 110 rai was purchased for 20,000 baht and the several long standing residences reflect something of the British Raj in India. One huge bungalow, atop 137 supporting pillars, has wide, balustrade verandahs reminiscent of those merchant trader days. Mr. Bain’s son, affectionately known as “Uncle Jack”, remembers some of those early days and that his wage, working in the tobacco industry, was a handsome 17 baht per week!

Uncle Jack opened and organized the Wat Gate museum about four years ago. With his own money, he refurbished the old wooden structure and arranged the display of artifacts from a time gone bye. There’s an old gramophone, wiht a Dinah Shore 78 rpm on the turntable, coins and crockery from a hundred years ago, ancient household appliances and farm tools, wood carvings and Buddha images, and a gallery of photographs of old Chiang Mai that is unrivalled anywhere.

The creation and upkeep of the museum is all down to Uncle Jack; he gets no money from the government, and more importantly, asks for none. (Apart from funding from its benefactor, the Wat Gate Museum depends on voluntary contributions from visitors)

“I used to give my children pocket money”, he laughs. “Now, they give me pocket money, and from that I pay for the upkeep of the museum”.

For all Jack’s wealth, he has never driven nor owned a car __ “My family has thirteen cars” he shakes his head in wonder. He has never left, and at 87 is unlikely to leave, his beloved Thailand.

A circle tour from Bain’s compound and front gate of the temple again toward north and left turn to Nakorn Ping bridge, it is a teak house that belonged to the former prime minister, Dr. Sukij Nimmanhemin. A brief walk toward south brings us to Baan Tree House, “Just Old Furniture”, belonged to the well-known Tantipong family and “Baan Orapin” which is an over 90 year old, teak wood residence built in European, colonial style. The upper level was intricate fret-working for ventilation, and fine, slatted shutters affording both shade and air. Such huge houses were usually the home for merchants and another, called “Baan Khun Arak” was the residence of a rice trader. “Baan Khun Arak” cost over 200,000 baht to build (a hefty sum over 80 years ago) but the owner could well afford it as he traded rice and goods, by his own river barges, as far away as Tak province (via the River Ping) and Mae Sord city en route to Myanmar.

Moving along from this house to the creme color building behind Wat gate, an adjacent building houses that of the Sikh community temple. At present, there are about 120 families worshipping at the temple. Punjabi is the language of the Sikh believers. The temple was established some 90 years ago. Taking a look inside the prayer room, a beautiful, gold and crimson, canopy covers the high altar and resting place of the Holy Book. Sihks’ gather for worship on most Saturdays (or on any day as their personal commitments dictate) but the 4th Saturday of the month is when all Sikh families make a special effort to meet.

Another lovely old residence on the river bank is “Baan Ajarn Yudh” which features sliding, wooden panels which allow breezes to flow when opened. The pedestrian footbridge known as “Sapan Khaek”, crosses to Gaad Luang (or, Wororot Market) is where the Lanna Kings of old had their Royal Jetty and Boathouse.

Of a similar vintage to the Gallery Restaurant (about 90 years), the design has Chinese style murals also seen on front of the Gallery Restaurant.

This little walk-about, around what was once Chiang Mai’s waterfront, is a fascinating look at the city’s more recent past. It is highly recommended - and it may be followed by a relaxing river-cruise afterwards. You may find out more by contacting The TAT Region One Office, Tel. 053-248604, 248607.o

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