Both Thai and overseas visitors flock to the North during cool season and when festivals are taking place. Selfies get snapped at sacred sanctuaries. Blooming flowers are bombarded by tourists wanting pretty photos. Tents take over mountain camp grounds like wildly growing weeds. Queues for khao soi at local restaurants spill into the streets, where traffic is jammed all the way to main roads. Is Northern beauty in peril? Do we love the North to death?
Despite what modernity brings to the fore, Northern art and culture still charm visitors. Its vernacular architecture, visible in both homes and temples, is uniquely enchanting. Simple houses made from woven bamboo slits look like giant baskets. Some are thatched with bai dtong dtung, or dried teak leaves. The cross-shaped Kalae, or Gha-lair, characteristic of Northern construction, wards off bad spirits. At the top of door frames, hamyont, a lintel piece, does the same. Although traditional houses are vanishing, Dr. Chulathat Kitibutr, a national artist in architecture, has incorporated their elements into his contemporary designs.
For over 700 years in Chiang Mai, wat, or temples, were gloriously built next to one another. Architecture of faith had its boom time in the medieval period. Among the most significant, historically and artistically speaking, are Wat Chiang Mun, which was the first built in the area; Wat Phra Singha, the most beautifully proportioned; Wat Umong for its mural-painted tunnels; Wat Chedi Jed Yod for its laterite stupas; Wat Suan Dok for its grand hall and royal memorials; and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep for its much venerated stupa.
In neighbouring provinces, less visited temples with rare beauty include Wat Phra That Lampang Luang in Lampang for its architectural style, Wat Phra That Hariphunchai in Lamphun for its distinctive stupa and the legendary beauty Queen Camadevi, Wat Phumin in Nan for its mural paintings, Wat Baan Goh in Lampang for its folksy paintings, and many Burmese-influenced temples in Mae Hong Son.
Traditionally, as mainly monks and men were allowed on the temple grounds, many became sa-lhaa, or artists or craftsmen, who worked on these temples and palaces. They didn’t only learn the Buddhist teachings but also the art of painting, sculpture, woodcarving, stencils, and more. And so the North has become an artists’ enclave. In Chiang Rai, behold the gleaming white temple of Wat Rongkhun by Chalermchai Kositpipat, be awestruck by Baan Dum, the all-black artist’s abode by the late Thawan Duchanee, and calm down in Doi Din Daeng, Somluck Pantiboon’s serene ceramics studio.
Contemporary artists have sought refuge in Chiang Mai. Thaiwijit Peungkasemsomboon continues his work there while Rirkrit Tiravanija started the Land Project. Kamin Lertchaiprasert houses his 31st Century Museum in containers on an empty plot. Local artists like Srijai Kanthawang, Limpikorn Makaew, Gade Chawanalikikorn, Navin Rawanchaikul, and Kitikong Wattanotai all celebrate local culture through their distinct interpretations.
Creativity seems to run in the Northerners’ veins, as craft-making and design are prolific. Traditional arts and crafts are still prominent, including the classic mulberry-paper umbrellas in Bor Srang, silverware on Wua Lai Road, and ceramics and celadon all over the region. Ever since the modern Asian look became trendy in the 90s, Northern-made furniture and homeware collections for local consumption and export have unceasingly flourished.
Textiles from the North stand out for their textures, colours, and craftsmanship. Ikat silks are woven with tie-dyed threads on the warp side. Soft indigo-dyed cotton gets its beautiful colour from hom leaves in Phrae. From Mae Jaem, tube skirts or hip wrappers with intricate dteen jok, or end borders, are highly sought-after collectibles. Throughout the region, hilltribe textiles incorporate all kinds of techniques, from embroidery to appliqué and batik.
The North is equally rich in performance art. Graceful dancers, with their iconic long fingernails and their palms holding flat, lit candles, glide as they perform the fon; meanwhile, a young man plays a pin bpia pressed against his chest as he courts the maiden. Literature like Lilit Phra Law, a version of Romeo & Juliet with two Juliets, was inspired by Northern lore and penned in the Ayutthaya Period. In a more contemporary story, Sao Khruea Fah, an interpretation of Madama Butterfly, confirms the loyalty and innocence of a Northern girl who falls in love with a military cadet from Bangkok. “Khon Phukhao,” or “The Mountain Folks,” is an award-winning film from the 80s, displaying the plights of the hilltribes.
Northern food is much beloved—and so is its most common ingredient, pork. A typical khan dtoke, a meal served on a low table, is comprised of sticky rice served with nahm prig num (smoked eggplant relish), nahm prig ong (minced pork and tomato relish), nhaem (cured pork sausage), sai ua (spicy pork sausage), jihn mhoo (fried pork chops), and khaeb mhoo (crispy pork rinds). Khao soi, the famous egg noodles in curry topped with crispy noodles, actually came from the Haw Chinese, who are Muslim, so an authentic bowl of it should come with chicken or beef. Khanom jeen nahm ngiew, fermented rice noodles with a broth rich in pork ribs, minced pork, and blood, is named after a key ingredient, dok ngew, dried flowers from the kapok tree. Ghaeng hunglae, one of my favourite curries, featuring pork belly braised in a hardy curry made with cinnamon and nutmeg, among other spices, originates from Myanmar.
On Doi Ang Khang, where opium once grew, the Royal Project produces fresh and packaged food, fruits, and flowers under Doi Kham labels. Coffee aficionados countrywide sip brews made with Doi Tung beans. And the Mae Fah Luang Foundation fashionably furnishes homes and wardrobes in Bangkok and abroad. Northern culture knows no bounds anymore.