The Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center

Five women in traditional dress

The Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center

Table of Contents

The Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center

The Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center (OCCC) is a Living Heritage of Chiang Mai. For almost 50 years this venue has showcased Lanna and hilltribe culture to visitors from all over the world. When the OCCC opened in early 1971 it was ahead of its time. It would take another two decades before the first tourist boom would put Chiang Mai on the map as a tourist destination. The OCCC was pivotal for the development of tourism in Chiang Mai and North Thailand. Long time British resident and travel writer, the late Major Roy Hudson, wrote in his 1971 guidebook: “This impressive complex of restaurants, shops and representative families and houses of some of the hilltribes is a place that meets a long-felt requirement, both for residents and visitors.” 1 The architecture of the OCCC is also of great beauty and adds to its heritage status.

Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center
Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center in 1971

Birth of the Khantoke dinner

The Nimmanhaemin Family, one of the most influential families in Chiang Mai, founded the OCCC in early 1971. After members of the family witnessed a cultural show with local dances and music on Hawaii in 1970, they got inspired. Back in Chiang Mai, they decided to do something similar to introduce the ancient Lanna Thai culture of Northern Thailand to visitors to Chiang Mai. The family financed the construction of a cultural center in Chiang Mai that would showcase Lanna Thai culture to visitors.

The Khantoke dinner was born. Visitors would sit on pillows on the floor enjoying Traditional Northern Thai food and dances. The food was served in little bowls (“Toke”) on a low bamboo table (“Khan”). After dinner, visitors enjoyed a show of music and dance of the hill tribes of North Thailand. The Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center consisted of a number of houses in traditional style. Below pictures were taken at the time of the opening in 1971. Pictures courtesy of Old Chiang Mai.

Tribal people dancing
Lahu dance in the 1970s. Courtesy OCCC

The Khantoke dinner in the early days

At the time of opening, there were four different rooms in the OCCC: Pearl Room, Gold Room, Crystal Room and Silver room. Roy Hudson wrote: “Prices vary according to the room chosen, but all are reasonable. I saw many residents enjoying dishes at only 3 or 4 baht each in the Crystal and Silver Rooms.” 2
The price of a Khantoke dinner was 140THB on the carpet of the airconditioned Pearl Room. This included Lanna dancing and a performance of one hour by the various hill tribes. For 60THB you could also watch one of the two shows without dinner.
Below are pictures of the Khantoke dinner and of Lanna and hill tribe dances. After the dinner dancers invite guests to join them on the stage for a communal dance called “Rumwong” which translates as “dancing in a circle”. Pictures courtesy of Old Chiang Mai.
Tourists and dancers on a stage
Rumwong dance. Courtesy of OCCC.

The beginning of hill tribe tourism

In 1971 hill tribe tourism was in its infancy. Some tour agencies, such as Tommy’s Tourist Agency which had an office in the Railway Hotel, offered day tours to Karen and Hmong villages. American tourist Nick DeWolf visited a Karen village on an organised tour by Tommy’s. He rented a motorbike, rode up Doi Suthep and visited one of the Hmong villages there.3 Not until the mid-1970s trekking with an overnight stay in hilltribe villages became popular with backpackers.

Tourists showed interesting in visiting hill tribes. Roy Hudson though didn’t recommend tourists to visit hill tribe villages near Chiang Mai. He wrote: “Despite anything heard to the contrary, it is not possible to see any hill tribes near Chiang Mai, and those at a distance take up a good deal of time, money and energy to see – and even then, the expedition might not be a success.” 4

Two tribal women
Lahu women in front of their house next to the OCCC. Courtesy of OCCC.

Hill tribe Village at Old Chiang Mai

Close to the OCCC  a village was constructed of traditional houses of five of the six main tribes: Akha, Lisu, Lahu, Yao and Karen. The Hmong were not represented in the early days. The families of these tribal groups made a living performing every evening for tourists and selling souvenirs. The OCCC had a shopping arcade as well.

According to Roy Hudson the Hill tribe village at Old Chiang Mai offered the perfect solution for tourists who wanted to see hill tribes. “Though the setting is perforce artificial, here one can see Karennis, Lahus, Lisus, Yaos and Akhas in houses they have built themselves in their traditional styles”, Roy wrote. He continues: “Their houses, costumes, jewellery, swings, spirit gates, musical instruments, pigs and chickens – all can be seen in comfort at “Old Chiang Mai” for less than the cost of a packet of cigarettes”. When I visited Old Chiang Mai for the first time in October 1990, the village was not there anymore. The hill tribes still performed after the dinner in a separate theatre though.

Below some pictures of the hill tribe village and of the tribal performances. Images courtesy of Old Chiang Mai.

Five women in traditional dress
Akha women at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center. Courtesy of the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center

OCCC becomes an institution

With the spectacular growth of tourist arrivals, Old Chiang Mai became an institution. The Khantoke dinner became a regular item in package tours. Joe Cummings mentions OCCC in the Lonely Planet guide of 1984: “Old Chiang Mai is a “tourist instant hill tribes’ centre” 5.

John Hoskins, another travel guide writer, wrote in his 1984 guide for Chiang Mai about OCCC: “here there are also resident hilltribe people who live in reconstructed typical tribal houses within the grounds thus giving a potted introduction to the culture of the various tribes”. 6 As a tour leader, I took my group to the OCCC in October 1990 for the first time. The hill tribe village wasn’t there anymore, as far as I can remember.

Bowls of food on a tray table
Kantoke dinner at Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center. Courtesy of OCCC.

Other Khantoke venues

John Hoskin mentioned the Diamond Hotel in his 1984 guidebook as a venue for Khantoke dinner. Most likely this took place in the historic Luang Yo House on the Diamond hotel compound. The dinner cost 180THB per person, including pick up and drop off at the hotel but not including drinks. Old Chiang Mai was the same price. With the growth of tourist arrivals other Khantoke venues opened (and closed). I attended a Khantoke dinner in 2001 at the Vista Hotel in the Old City. It has been closed for a long time.

The biggest venue is Khum Khantoke, a purpose-built restaurant just off the Super Highway. Another, the smaller venue is Sibsongpanna, not far from Wat Umong. Both of these restaurants seem to be open. Another venue, the Wiang Kaew Khantoke restaurant, seems to be permanently closed.

Dance of people in tribal costume
Hmong musical performance at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center. Picture courtesy of the OCCC

Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center celebrates its 50 years anniversary

This year the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center turns 50 years old. A new generation has taken over the management with fresh and new ideas. One of those ideas is the Chu Chai Market where artisans of the ethnic minorities can sell their products. These are pictures of the Chu Chai Market in 2020.

For us, Old Chiang Mai is still the original and the best venue for your Khantoke dinner. Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center is part of the heritage of Chiang Mai and should also be recognized as such. They still offer daily Khantoke dinners.

Tourist dancing with local woman
Rumwong Dance with visitors. Picture courtesy of the OCCC

Location of the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center

  1. p.66, Roy Hudson, Hudson's Guide to Chiang Mai and the North, Chiang Mai, 1971
  2. p.66, Roy Hudson, Hudson's Guide to Chiang Mai and the North, Chiang Mai, 1971
  3. you can find pictures of his visits to these villages on the Flickr page of Nick DeWolf
  4. p.66, Roy Hudson, Hudson's Guide to Chiang Mai and the North, Chiang Mai, 1971
  5. p116, Joe Cummings, Thailand, a Travel Survival Kit", Lonely Planet, 1984"
  6. p.47, John Hoskin, Guide to Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand, Hong Kong, 1984.