Sois of Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai presents a unique urban future with several geographical and historical advantages: the scale of lanes and Sois (streets) is intimate and inviting, mostly lined with single to double storey buildings; shop fronts are lively with displays and outdoor seating; warm climate encourages an active street scene; the city has conserved its original boundary lines defined by 13th Century moat and city wall; flat, walkable topography of the city is surrounded by rain forests and mountains nearby; and a number of Wats provide opportunities to step away from busy streets and rest.

Wat Chedi Luang Worawihan is one of many Wats found in Chiang Mai. They are an urban living space for all, providing a break from the city noise, pollution and heat.
Wat Chedi Luang Worawihan is one of many Wats found in Chiang Mai. They are an urban living space for all, providing a break from the city noise, pollution and heat.
Moat surrounding Old City: attempts are made to celebrate it,  with fountains, new landscaping and light sculptures. However the water is just not accessible due to the fast moving vehicles on adjacent roads.
Moat surrounding the Old City: Attempts are made to celebrate it, with fountains, new landscaping and light sculptures. However the water is just not accessible due to the fast moving vehicles on adjacent 3-lane roads.
Old City Walls are significant architectural heritage, but they are also cut off from the Old City by heavy vehicular traffic.
Old City Walls are significant architectural heritage, but they are also cut off from the Old City by heavy vehicular traffic.
High-end restaurants and stores invest in attractive shop frontages and generous walking paths.
High-end restaurants and stores invest in attractive shop frontages and generous walking paths.
Outside of the Old City, local restaurants like this one spill out everywhere and bring life onto the streets.
Outside of the Old City, local restaurants like this one spill out everywhere and bring life onto the streets.

While above conditions provide sporadic pockets of delight, walking around the city is often unpleasant and physically difficult. Continuous sidewalks, if any, are rare and zebra crossings are almost non-existent. In fact most pedestrians in the Old City are tourists- locals simply don’t choose to walk. They say motorcycles are affordable to buy and maintain. M is a 29-year-old Burmese who moved to Chiang Mai from Kachin 5 years ago in search of work. He is one of 100,000 refugees forced to seek homes elsewhere, mainly in China and Thailand, due to the ongoing civil conflict between the Kachin Independence Army and Burmese Army. M works as a waiter in the Old City and commutes on his motorbike, a 15-min ride each way. Petrol costs about 90-100 Bahts (US$3-3.30) per week, price that he says he can afford. Some of his Burmese friends though, who earn 5,000-6,000 Bahts a month (below minimum wage) have to cycle or walk- given the lack of sidewalks, absence of bike lanes and urban sprawl, both options seem unattractive and unsafe. Buses don’t run very often or on time. Taxis and Tuk Tuks are expensive (going across the Old City costs about 100-120 Bahts). K, who manages a massage shop in the city, says kids will start riding motorbikes in high school and own one as soon as possible. It is difficult to get around without one. Three giggly teenage girls in black and white school uniform make a quick snack stop at a gas station on Kotchasan Road- all of them on motorbikes and without helmets. Yet, they may be safer driving than to walk along that road that has no sidewalk.

Shop owner removes barricades for his truck to arrive and park.
Shop owner removes barricades for his truck to arrive and park.
Sidewalks are often interrupted by  street vendors and motorbikes.
Sidewalks are often interrupted by street vendors and motorbikes.
A zebra crossing, and even a pedestrian traffic light is spotted on Kotchasan Road. But the crossing only leads to a car lane.
A zebra crossing, and even a pedestrian traffic light is spotted on Kotchasan Road. But the crossing only leads to a car lane.
Shop fronts have no sidewalks and getting from one to another is highly stressful. Shoppers only arrive by car or motorbike.
Shop fronts have no sidewalks and getting from one to another is highly stressful. Shoppers only arrive by car or motorbike.
Lychee seller settles in the middle of a sidewalk. Pedestrians walk past, weaving through the coming traffic on the road.
Lychee seller settles in the middle of a sidewalk. Pedestrians walk past, weaving through the coming traffic on the road.
Scooters, motorbikes and cars zip by every second. Cross the street at your own risk.
Scooters, motorbikes and cars zip by every second. Cross the street at your own risk.

Chiang Mai’s biggest urban planning challenge is sorting out vehicular traffic. At present, a motorbike is the most convenient, affordable and fast mode of transport. Without one, or the ability to drive one, accessing the city is limited. The city’s development priorities should include reducing vehicular traffic and providing different transport options; supporting infill projects within the Old City; continuous and safe sidewalks and crossings; active building frontages; provision of open/green space; and using existing Wats as public space anchors. Urban life in Chiang Mai without a motorbike per adult, can be possible.

Lane ways with tiled paths are attractive and less used by cars and motorbikes.
Lane ways with tiled paths are attractive and less used by cars and motorbikes.
Even a small garden like this make a huge difference in the city centre.
Even a small garden like this makes a huge difference in the city centre.

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(c) 2014 Julia Suh

Urbia by Julia Suh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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