Chiang Mai UNESCO World Heritage Site
Table of Contents
Update on the UNESCO World Heritage Site submission of Chiang Mai
Before you start reading this page I want to update you. The Chiang Mai World Heritage Committee has worked very hard on the submission of Chiang Mai to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The government decided though to submit the Si Thep Historical Park in Petchabun province to UNESCO this year. This means that Chiang Mai has to wait another year. Many people expected the Khaeng Krachan National Park to be the no.1 candidate of Thailand in 2020 but Si Thep Historical Park has won the submission. This Historical Park has been on the Tentative List of Unesco World Heritage Sites since April 2019.
At the 44th meeting the UNESCO World Heritage Committee approved the listing of Kaeng Krachan National Park.
World Heritage Sites in Thailand
For several years an effort is underway to get Chiang Mai inscribed on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are six UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Thailand at the moment:
If all goes according to plan, Chiang Mai would become the seventh World Heritage Site in Thailand. The Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex was the last site to be inscribed on the list in 2005.
List of Tentative World Heritage Sites
Since 2015 Chiang Mai is on the list of Tentative World Heritage Sites of UNESCO. A team in Chiang Mai is working on the dossier that ultimately should succeed in convincing UNESCO to add Chiang Mai to the list of World Heritage Sites. There are six other sites in Thailand on the tentative list. Although it has nothing to do with the current UNESCO World Heritage effort, it is nice to look back at the first plan for historic and environmental preservation. This dates back to 1991.
Consultants of the Chiang Mai Planning Project, Louis Berger International Inc., and the Faculty of Engineering – Chiang Mai University prepared a document titled: Chiang Mai Policy-Based Action Plan for historic and environmental preservation. This final report is dedicated to Dr.Pairat Decharin, the former Governor of Chiang Mai. He was one of the primary sponsors of the Chiang Mai Planning Project. Dr.Decharin, his wife Supap and probably their only child Pasu died in the crash of the plane of Lauda Air on May 27, 1991.
Failure of the action plan
Chiang Mai and Lamphun: Twin Cities
The first time I heard about the UNESCO World Heritage undertaking was in 2013. In July Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Fine Arts organized two seminars on the project to push for Chiang Mai and Lamphun to be one UNESCO World Heritage Site. One seminar took place at Chiang Mai University, the other at the National Museum in Lamphun.
I attended the meeting at the Hariphunchai National Museum in Lamphun. I remember there was much talk about the experiences of Luang Prabang with UNESCO. Afterward, every attendant received a black t-shirt with the slogan: Chiang Mai and Lamphun, a tale of two cities.
I think the idea was that Chiang Mai and Lamphun complemented each other. Chiang Mai is a global tourist destination and Lamphun is rich in history and culture. After this, I lost track of the World Heritage Project until early 2020. Some time along the way Lamphun was dropped as twin city: Chiang Mai is going for it alone.
Lanna Cities of North Thailand
In hindsight, it would maybe have been better if Chiang Mai would have cooperated with Lamphun and Lampang. These three cities have a lot of history and heritage in common. Sukhothai, Sri Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet form the World Heritage Site “Historic Town of Sukhothai and Associated Historic Towns”. Sri Satchanalai is about 130km from Kamphaeng Phet so the distance should not be an issue. Chiang Mai is closer to Lampang.
Chiang Mai, Lamphun, and Lampang have been part of the Lanna Kingdom for centuries and were ruled for more than a hundred years by the Chet Ton Dynasty. So it would have made sense to include both Lamphun and Lampang in the quest for a “Lanna Cities of North Thailand” UNESCO World Heritage Site, in my opinion.
Chiang Saen, the forgotten World Heritage Site
In the past couple of years I have visited the Ancient City of Chiang Saen several times. Chiang Saen should be inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites, in my opinion. Unfortunately it is not even on the tentative list of World Heritage sites and there is also no initiative to get it listed. If you look at the sites that Thailand has submitted on this list, there is a strong case for Chiang Saen, I think. If the Si Thep Historical Park is listed, Chiang Saen certainly should be on there.
Chiang Mai on the tentative list
It was not until early 2020 that we heard again about the initiative to get Chiang Mai inscribed on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. UNESCO added Chiang Mai to the list of Tentative World Heritage Sites on February 9, 2015. Chiang Mai is listed as “Monuments, Sites and Cultural Landscape of Chiang Mai, Capital of Lanna”. The “tentative” list is an inventory of properties that a country intends to nominate to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. A local committee is now working to draft the nomination documents.
The dossier of Chiang Mai UNESCO World Heritage Site focuses on historical sites in Doi Suthep-Doi Pui National Park, in the Old City, and in buffer areas around the park and the old city. The map below shows the main zone (property) in orange and the buffer zone in green. There are four groups of so-called attributes. You can find more information about the attributes here. In the core World Heritage zone are temples such as Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chiang Man and, ofcourse, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.
Submission to UNESCO
International Council on Monuments and Sites
The evaluation process
If the desk review is positive, the nomination is then subject to a second stage evaluation which consists of an on-site inspection and evaluation of (primarily) management issues. ICOMOS will appoint one or more experts to come to Thailand. They will work together with the Thailand National World Heritage Committee, the Ministry of Culture, local government officials, and the nomination drafting team. Together they will examine the management system in place to protect the nominated property’s potential outstanding universal value. As part of this process, the evaluation team will hold public consultations with various stakeholder groups.
ICOMOS recommendation to the World Heritage Committee
The World Heritage Committee
Meeting of the World Heritage Committee
The World Heritage Committee meets once a year in July. If the Chiang Mai nomination is officially submitted by 1 February 2021, the World Heritage Committee will consider the nomination at its meeting in July 2022. Due to the Corona crisis, there is serious doubt that the local committee will be able to finish the dossier in time to submit it in time. After finalizing the dossier it has to be approved by municipal, provincial and national bodies.
Update on the submission of Chiang Mai as a World Heritage Site
Sites on the UNESCO tentative list
These sites are competing for the nomination. These have all been on the list of tentative sites of UNESCO. This list is an inventory of properties that a state party considers to be cultural and/or natural heritage of outstanding universal value, and therefore suitable for inscription on the World Heritage List.
The Commitment of Chiang Mai a la Carte
Why Chiang Mai should become a World Heritage Site
Looking at the list of tentative sites I consider only the Khmer ruins in Buriram province and Khaeng Krachan National Park as serious competition. The impact of the status of a UNESCO World Heritage site for Chiang Mai would be much, much bigger than the impact to the other contenders.
The status would give the whole of North Thailand an enormous boost. It would strengthen conservation efforts in communities and stimulate responsible tourism. I have been to the Khmer ruins in Northeast Thailand and to Khaeng Krachan National Park and love those places. It would make much more sense to nominate Chiang Mai though.
References for this article
The above information is based on:
Private correspondence with representatives of the Chiang Mai World Heritage committee
Private correspondence with Dr.Richard Engelhardt, former UNESCO Regional Advisor for Culture in Asia and the Pacific
Website of the Chiang Mai World Heritage Initiative