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The waterfront of old Chiangmai

IN THIS AGE OF HIGH-RISES, super highways and a frenetic pace of life, wouldn't it be fascinating to have a view of what Chiang Mai looked like perhaps 100 years ago. Some hotels, bars and restaurants display framed, sepia photographs of that era and they surely set the imagination a wandering when trying to identify "then" with "now". A "window" allows you to take a peek at how Chiang Mai looked in the early 1900's.

Map of the old waterfront areaOn the eastern side of the river Ping, just north of Nawarat Bridge, is the area of "Wat Gate" at the center of which is the Wat Gate Garaam 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.

The setting of RarinJinda Wellness Center (meaning "the stream of gems") is in a 140-year-old teakwood house from which RarinJinda draws its inspiration, character, inner peace and beauty. The former owner was Dr. Jinda Singhanetr longtime respected physician of Chiang Mai.

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 (at least 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.

Moving along from one temple to another, 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.

Nearby is the "Sala Bart" (formerly used as a hall for breakfast and lunch, later it was a multi-purpose building). A preservation project to save it from further ravages was commenced some 3 year sago. This building is where women would bring food to be prepared and presented for merit making. Of a similar vintage to the Gallery Restaurant (about 90 years), the Satapat has Chinese style murals (also seen on front of the Gallery Restaurant) which are waiting their turn for restoration.

A brief walk brings us to "Baan Orapin" which is an 89 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 (via the River Ping) and Mae Sot en route to Myanmar. The pedestrian footbridge known as Sapan Khaek, crosses to Gaad Luang (Wororot Market) is where the Lanna Kings of old had their Royal Jetty and Boathouse.

Another lovely old residence is "Baan Ajarn Yudh" which features sliding, wooden panels which allow breezes to flow when opened. And not far away is the huge "Bain Compound"; this was owned by a British national, Mr. 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 great-grand son, affectionately know 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!

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.

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