CHIANG MAI, Thailand -- The millions of tourists who flock to the ancient, mountain-ringed city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand might not immediately notice, but the alleys, riversides and Bohemian cafes here are percolating with striking imagery, innovative design and digital wizardry. It is a heady brew that has prompted some to predict a real explosion -- a creative one, that is.
The city is already home to more than 40 art galleries and a world-class contemporary arts museum, with others planned. It hosts design and arts festivals and was listed on a widely consulted digital nomad website as No. 1 of 991 places in the world for roving techies to plug in their computers. A creative resource guide to the city runs to 199 pages, focusing on venues ranging from the Wandering Moon Theater to Chiang Mai University's College of Arts, Media and Technology.
Among a growing base of arts enthusiasts, Chiang Mai has become Thailand's Left Bank, a part of Paris long known for its artistic and intellectual community.
To make this transformation "official,'' the city is preparing applications to gain the status of a UNESCO Creative City, in a bid to join a network of 116 others that have identified creativity in crafts and folk arts, design, media arts and other related fields as major factors for sustainable development.
Chiang Mai seems to fit the criteria: Becoming a true center of creativity would lessen its dependence on tourism and agriculture, giving it "a third leg to stand on'' and help reverse a deteriorating urban environment, says Martin Venzky-Stalling, senior adviser to Creative Chiang Mai, a nonprofit network encouraging innovation.
Why, then, has the country's third-largest city veered in this direction and away from the development tracks of commercially driven, restlessly paced Bangkok?
Many agree that Chiang Mai's aesthetic credentials rest on solid foundations, a tradition of superb arts and crafts stretching back seven centuries, to which links endure to this day. Buy an artifact of crafted beauty, antique or modern, anywhere in Thailand and chances are high it was fashioned by the artisans or artists of Chiang Mai.
"The lifestyle in Chiang Mai is suitable for art,'' said local artist Torlarp Larpjaroensook, explaining why the city has attracted so many like himself and spawned so much local talent. In the urban vastness of Bangkok, he says, artists tend to be lonely and isolated. Chiang Mai offers an atmosphere and urbanscape that stimulates exchange of ideas and mutual material support.
Others cite other factors from the cooler weather and lower costs of living -- about one-third that of Bangkok's -- to a generally supportive, less bureaucratic officialdom and a more leisurely pace of life with echoes of a rural past. It is a yeasty mix that brings out inspiration and draws in outside talent.
Chiang Mai's excellent and ubiquitous cafes bring to mind fin de siecle Vienna and the Left Bank of Paris, where these meeting places were vital wellsprings of creativity. "Artists love coffee,'' said Thanwimol Khunsuthum, Torlarp's fiancee and the manager of a cafe attached to his Gallery Seescape.
''You are the most creative when you are happy. I am a strong believer in emotional intelligence and Bangkok drains your EQ with its underlying level of stress, anger as soon as you step out your door. It saps your EQ tank,'' said Nati Sang, founder of Makerspace, a co-working venue for innovators. ''Chiang Mai naturally fills it.''
Given the meager budgets of many young artists and fledgling innovators worldwide, Nati added: "Creative people need to be able to muck about, make mistakes, but in Bangkok you can't afford this because the costs are too high. Here you can.''
Artists tend to hog the spotlight of the creative community, but the city also teems with musicians, graphics and product designers, software and website developers as well as photo and film professionals, including director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, winner of the Palme d'Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival for his movie "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives."
The contemporary art scene originated in the early 1990s with the Chiang Mai Social Installation Project, when artists like Uthit Atimana and Mit Jai Inn penetrated public spaces with their work and inspired younger creatives to interact with society. Today, three generations of artists work side-by-side, with a number of those in the first wave having won international recognition through exhibitions abroad, from Tokyo to Sydney and elsewhere.
New York's Guggenheim Museum and the Venice Biennale have exhibited works by multi-faceted artists Navin Rawanchaikul and Kamin Lertchaiprasert, who explores Buddhism with striking originality. Pieces by some of these artists have sold for tens of thousands of dollars.
Torlarp, at 39, places himself in the second generation, followed by the third, who could be called the "young strugglers." Despite the many advantages Chiang Mai offers, there are still not enough cheap, suitable quarters for young creative people and rents are rising. Landlords around Nimmanhaemin Road, one of the city's main arts hubs, can ask $1,500 a month for a small space.
While some buyers, collectors and curators from Asia and Europe are now converging on the northern city, Chiang Mai's art market is still limited and artists hoping to sell must travel to Bangkok to show and promote their work. To make ends meet, a number take on commercial assignments and incorporate a money-earner, like Torlarp's cafe, which despite his own international reputation, is still needed to pay the bills.
When he opened his gallery in 2009, Torlarp was lucky to have one or two visitors a day. Now, more than 100 come daily to view his works which integrate painting, sculpture, installation and interactive art. Some paintings are connected to music on an iPod.
While art marketing and sales have yet to catch up with Chiang Mai's creative momentum, help is on its way.
The opening last year of the MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, the first major contemporary art exhibition space in northern Thailand, is seen as enticing visitors and collectors to engage in the art scene. A beautifully converted, 3,000-sq.-meter warehouse on the edge of town, it houses revolving exhibitions highlighting local artists and an impressive private family collection.
"We hope that MAIIAM will ignite contemporary art in other parts of the city,'' said Inthaphan Buakeow, manager of the government-backed Thailand Creative and Design Center.
There are also now a dozen co-working spaces across Chiang Mai, allowing anyone to set up temporary shop for free or for a low price and to exchange experiences with the like-minded.
Makerspace founder Nati, born in the U.S. to Thai-Chinese parents, was a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, venture capitalist, fish farmer and a Buddhist monk before coming to Chiang Mai where he saw an abundance of ideas but few places to put them into practice. Makerspace provides free lessons and tools -- from old-fashioned lathes to 3D printers -- that have been used to create everything from jewelry to a drone that drops seeds to replant denuded forests.
One of the city's most successful initiatives has been Chiang Mai Design Week, a biennial event staged for the second time in 2016 by Inthaphan's center to help market the work of designers and stimulate creativity among residents, especially of the younger generation. The week showcased 145 wide-ranging entries from a clever teeth-cleaner for dogs and cats to an installation using lighting technology to emulate blue clouds floating low enough for passers-by to interact with them.
There was also considerable foreign participation, since Inthaphan says Chiang Mai's limited exposure to international trends has not allowed creative locals to accept, reject or integrate these with their own visions and traditions.
"You can't still compare it to Hong Kong or Berlin but Chiang Mai is bubbling up within its own context and will do so even more if it can better connect with the outside world,'' said Creative Chiang Mai's Venzky-Stalling. "We're waiting for another creative explosion.''