Nice old railway station
Lampang Railway station

The Heritage of Chiang Mai and North Thailand

What is the Heritage of Chiang Mai and North Thailand? Heritage is any sort of inherited property or goods, according to one definition. I would use a much broader description of heritage. Heritage is not only limited to property or products but also includes ideas, skills, rituals, food, art or culture, and so on. It’s an endless list. We would like to discern different kinds of heritage. There is inherited tangible and intangible heritage.

Tangible Heritage of Chiang Mai

The tangible heritage of a place refers to archaeological sites, historical monuments, artefacts, heritage houses and objects that are significant to the people who live there. I don’t have to elaborate on this further. Tangible heritage in Chiang Mai are locations like Doi Suthep and the Old City. These locations are the basis of the bid of Chiang Mai to become inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. As such, there is some kind of recognition of these locations as being heritage places that should be protected. There are numerous other structures we consider the Tangible Heritage of Chiang Mai.

Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH)

The Intangible Cultural Heritage of a place indicates ‘the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated in addition to that – that people recognize as part of their Cultural Heritage. It doesn’t refer to objects such as tangible heritage. We also call ICH “living heritage” or “living culture”. UNESCO inscribed Thai Traditional massage on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage last year.

ICH is a relatively new phenomenon. Only in 2003, UNESCO recognized the importance of safeguarding ICH in an era of globalization. You can find the text of the convention for the safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage here. UNESCO states that the importance of intangible cultural heritage is not the cultural manifestation itself but rather the wealth of knowledge and skills that people transmit from generation to generation.

Tourist learning to weave
Weaving at Mae Chon

Intangible heritage has many forms

Many people conceive heritage as something from the past. They usually associate it with ruins, old building, monuments, and so on. A heritage walk is a walk past old buildings and houses. There is no understanding and appreciation of the concept of intangible heritage. People don’t consider a centuries-old recipe for a Burmese medicinal drink that has been passed on from generation to generation as heritage. We think it is. Many things we encounter daily we should recognize and appreciate as heritage. In our view, the Sanpatong Saturday morning market is intangible heritage. People don’t call it heritage. We are sure that all local people value this market as intangible heritage and want it to be protected.

Future Heritage or Heritage in the making

Heritage doesn’t have to be centuries old. We consider the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Centre part of Chiang Mai Heritage even though it will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. Heritage is community-based. It takes many more than a single person to elevate a building to become recognized as heritage. People build structures or create things that could become heritage in the future. We will be looking for these expressions of the human imagination. Tours should not only focus on old buildings and traditions. We have to be open-minded and are very aware of the beauty that people create around us at this very moment.