Tourism; positive change, mindless irresponsible growth?

'Progress' - a word that is generally taken to imply positive evolution, but talking to an aged Wieng Ping (Chiang Mai) resident today, I wondered just how beneficial the changes that this city has seen over the last decade or two really have been...

Chiang Mai remains a beautiful city, full of charm, in a wonderful natural setting, inhabited by the welcoming Lanna people. But recent arrivals such as myself don't have the perspective of the older residents, and 'Took' had many reservations about the way things are going...

She described what was once a pollution-free city after WWII, with none of the environmental problems that are commonly accepted today. At that time, under the 5th National Economic and Social Development Plan (in which the city was designated as the principal tourist destination for northern Thailand), rapid and unstoppable changes were set in motion.

In stepped the developers, with huge high-rise hotel and condominium constructions, dwarfing the temples - something which in itself made Took, a devout Buddhist, feel most uncomfortable. Views of the mountains were increasingly restricted, as each new construction attempted to outdo its neighbour.

The city began a rapid horizontal expansion too, with the urbanisation of the fertile land along the banks of the Ping River, as well as encroaching into the forests. Housing estates, country resorts for tourists, golf courses, sprung up in an entirely ad hoc, disorganised fashion.

Clean air in the jungle approaching the hill tribe village Doi Pui on the mountainside high above Chiang Mai

The lack of planned infrastructure and public service facilities has left an indelible mark on the city today. Air and water pollution may not rival that of Bangkok, but it is rapidly catching up. The drainage system is completely inadequate for the expanding city. The Mae Ka Creek that flows slowly through the city centre is full of rubbish, and worse; the smell is so strong that I unconsciously hold my breath for 50 yards either side when walking up the likes of Loi Kroh, which crosses the Mae Ka just before the Night Bazaar road, Chang Klan. Garbage on the streets is a common sight, and there has been a large increase in the number of urban poor, some of whom have been attracted to the city to beg from the farang visitors. Riding in an open air tuk-tuk taxi can be a hazardous affair in the dense traffic of today. Emissions controls don't even approach the likes of European standards, and should you find yourself boxed in on the moat road between a couple of blue smoke-belching song taew baht buses, behind a lorry that looks and sounds as if its last check-up was around the time of the Vietnam War, you're in serious danger of expiring on the spot.

From Doi Sutep; a polluted haze hangs over the city of Chiang Mai.

Took's was a sad story, despite the natural optimism of the Thai. One that of course echoes that of many towns and cities around the world in the rush to cash in on the tourist bonanza, not just in the developing nations, but in Europe too. Unsustainable growth, the rush towards profit at all costs, with the developers the main ones to benefit. A story that the younger generations find difficult to grasp, without the perspective of age and the passing of the years, to bear witness to the changes.

Perhaps in a few decades' time, older generations will even be looking back on today with nostalgia...

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