Find Your Tribe: Why Creators Flock to Chiang Mai

Itiporn Lakarnchua

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Bangkok may get all the attention, but the city of Chiang Mai is bringing all the creatives to the yard. With Chiang Mai Design Week around the corner, this is a great time to take a closer look at how Chiang Mai became a member of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network (UCCN) and why it continues to be the chosen home of craftsmen and creators in all forms. 

Get the cultural context of Chiang Mai, major events worth checking out, and the spaces that are drawing thousands of creative professionals to the Rose of the North.

Find Your Tribe: Why Creators Flock to Chiang Mai
1. What makes Chiang Mai a Creative City?
2. Creativity-centric events
3. Making room for creative connections
4. Creativity as a way of life

What makes Chiang Mai a Creative City?

Doi Inthanon National Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Source: khonkeng / Shutterstock.com

The UCCN promotes collaboration between places that employ creativity as a key to sustainable urban development. Chiang Mai was added in 2017 to the now over 300-city-strong global network of communities that place “creativity and cultural industries at the heart of their development.”

By including Chiang Mai, UNESCO highlighted the ancient capital of the Lanna Kingdom as having a long history of craftspeople being central to the local economy and how, even today, more than 150 of the city’s enterprises are based in craftworks. More importantly, crafts practices and arts — from pottery and silk embroidery to silverwork — remain at the core of local culture, with dedicated programs passing on these disciplines to Chiang Mai’s children.

In addition to Chiang Mai’s crafts and folk art bona fides, the city has an active community of startups, freelancers, and digital nomads, who’ve come for the nature and stayed for the culture. These entrepreneurs and creators infuse the city’s Lanna identity with the energy of a true creative economy. Combined with the city’s many art galleries and universities, Chiang Mai is brimming with creative potential.

Creativity-centric events

So what’s actually going on in Chiang Mai? Here’s a selection of some amazing events that bring together creators and thought leaders from across the northern region, the country, and the world. Fuel your creativity with these inspiring events:

Chiang Mai Design Week

Chiang Mai Creative District during Chiang Mai Design Week

Displaying the potentials of the Creative City, Chiang Mai Design Week is held annually by the Creative Economy Agency to bring together both local and international creative professionals to collaborate and showcase their innovative designs and projects.

Under this year’s theme, “Transforming Local,” the festival aims to use the fruits of creativity to enhance quality of life, featuring programs such as a collection of local blacksmith sounds by area recording engineer Nohn Intaranan and the “Local Cabinets” displaying indigenous stories curated by painter Patipat Chaiwitesh and textile artist Thamarat Phokai.

Creative Design Awards

Celebrating Chiang Mai’s continuing culture of creativity are the Creative Design Awards, which have been held since 2012. The awards promote designers and good designs, helping Chiang Mai creatives to gain international recognition and connect with business partners. They also highlight the value of design and assert Chiang Mai as a home of creativity.

In 2022, the ceremony’s theme of “New Local” placed focus on creators building on the local Lanna heritage and craft traditions, with awardees including new media artist Teerasak Sakon and packaging designers Tanet Tapngern and Ankawipa Trakulveerayut.

Lanna Expo

Lanna Expo 2023 that was held in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Source: Lanna Expo 2023 Facebook Page

An innovation and product sales exhibition, Lanna Expo aims to showcase and promote commercial opportunities for local products and services based in the upper northern region of Thailand. 

The most recent expo revolved around themes of sustainability and the circular economy and was divided into zones including the Coffee Hub & Northern Food Valley, Lanna Crafts & Folk Art, Health & Wellness, and Sustainable Tourism, among others.

TEDxChiangMai

Highlighting the creative spirit of Chiang Mai, the city is also a base for the TEDx program, with TEDxChiangMai staging over 50 events over the past 10 years.

A grassroots extension of the TED initiative to foster “ideas worth spreading,” the Chiang Mai chapter of TEDx has shown the strength and diversity of the creative community in Chiang Mai, curating talks on ideas from creative tourism to disruptive innovation with speakers such as journalist Bunnaroth Buaklee and the late apiarist Dr. Panuwan Chantawannakul.

Significantly, TEDxChiangMai supports “Chiang Mai as a creative city and links Chiang Mai with global communities.”

Making room for creative connections

Women painting paper umbrellas, traditional handmade products that are popular among tourists visiting Chiang Mai, Thailand
Source: Supermop / Shutterstock.com

The Creative Chiang Mai Ecosystem Directory provides a fantastic overview of the creative ecosystem in Chiang Mai, collecting spaces and groups that foster creativity along with necessary services for creators. Physical copies of the directory serve as a comprehensive guide while the online version features an interactive map and conveniently searchable database. Creative professionals who are “finding their tribe” should start here:

Creative Chiang Mai (CCM)

Established by the then-governor of Chiang Mai in 2010, CCM actively promotes “creativity and innovation to develop Chiang Mai,” serving as a think tank and networking platform from which policies, projects, and activities are originated to catalyze the creativity that has long been a driving force for the city. Use CCM resources to make like-minded connections and create together.

Chiang Mai University’s Science and Technology Park (CMU STeP)

The stated mission of CMU SteP, the result of collaboration between seven faculties of Chiang Mai University to build upon the city’s inherited base of craft wisdom, is “to drive the creative economy in Chiang Mai” by fostering creative entrepreneurs using science, technology, and innovation.

The distinctly Chiang Mai incubator has brought about a range of initiatives, including the Lanna Essence Workshop, which has a goal to develop businesses founded in local wisdom and practices.

Local product storefront in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Source: suchai.guai / Shutterstock.com

The Brick Startup Space

Supported by the Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Research, and Innovation, this coworking space extends from SteP to provide a place for new entrepreneurs to hone their creations.

Situated on popular Nimmanhaemin Road, The Brick Startup Space is unique for its Pre-Incubation Program, where local startups can exchange views with experts and access science and technology to enhance their competitiveness in the market.

Makerspace Thailand

Focused on creators with a do-it-yourself ethos, Makerspace Thailand supplies hardware and spaces for the exploration of creativity with a focus on production and manufacturing.

Employing the “4P” concept of Play, Passion, Projects, and Peers, Makerspace Thailand not only serves people in Chiang Mai looking to develop their crafts, but it also seeks to motivate complete newcomers to creation so they may be moved to actualize new concepts and goods.

Wicker shop located on Chang Moi road in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Source: gothiclolita / Shutterstock.com

PINN Creative Space

Billing itself as an “experience store” where anyone can share ideas and test them out using the latest technological tools, PINN Creative Space grew from PINN Shop, a crafts store serving needlework.

Now equipped with 3D printers and laser cutters, users of the space can engage in digital fabrication to realize their designs and trial product concepts.

Allowing creators to manifest ideas so they can continue research and development, PINN Creative Space also serves Chiang Mai by being a place for hands-on experience by young originators.

Creativity as a way of life

A Buddhist monk walking through the Tha Prae Gate which is an ancient city gate in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Source: Supermop / Shutterstock.com

The northern Thai city has a comprehensive infrastructure that supports and promotes creativity, from folk art to modern creations. With creative spaces, a thriving event scene, and an ever-growing community of creators from across Thailand and around the world, Chiang Mai affirms its creative vitality on the daily, making it a fitting member of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

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Itiporn Lakarnchua

A radio producer, newscaster, and communications consultant, Itiporn, or Van, graduated with a Master’s in Bilingual Education from Rangsit University and has produced media programs and marketing collateral for major Thai and international corporations. His work spans a range of industries, including civil aviation, hospitality, real estate, food & beverage, and tourism.

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