No matter what country I’m in, it is the artwork and the way people appreciate it where I most enjoy the beauty of a culture. I had an experience like this recently at a community art fair in Northern Thailand. If you’ve ever visited Chiang Mai, you’ll notice that people take their time, things come together at the last minute, there’s usually something bright and handmade to admire, the food is delicious, and, there’s always a smile to see on someone’s face! The Nimmanhaemida Arts Promenade, or NAP fair, was no different.
Since 1999, the Annual NAP Fair takes place off a main street outside the old city in Chiang Mai. Nimmenhaeminda Road, Soi 1 is a charming lane lined with art galleries, home decor shops, clothing boutiques and the occasional cafe. The avenue is an intimate and fun social scene, whose smaller streets branch out lazily, flowering with all sorts of restaurants, bars, clubs, cafes, ice cream parlors, inns, and usually with a construction site or two anticipating the latest new establishment. One reaches all these places by bicycle, motorbike, or an easy stroll. Not coincidentally, Nimman. ave. (as the name is abbreviated) is also the location of my apartment. Especially in the evening, the nearby fair is beautifully welcoming, warmly lit from above by large paper lanterns in the shape of toy elephants, giraffes, and birds. Just beneath them, a sweeping length of voluminous fabric decorates the night sky with a shallow swag. Walking through, visitors are met with delicious scents wafting from a fresh-flower trellis, soaps and sweets in equally pleasing presentation. Opening on the King’s birthday, the fair engages people in the national holiday with wax candles distributed by brightly make-upped girls in traditional Thai costume.
Similarly garbed dancers perform in a makeshift theatre to a soundtrack of gamelan music, the brass orchestra of Southeast Asia. Though not without the ubiquitous presence of Elle: Decor and Martha Stewart: Thailand in stands for the distribution of these two widely known decoration and crafts magazines, the NAP fair focuses on local talent. Handmade, one of a kind and gorgeous or adorable works of art (as the case may be for the large number of toy dolls), all sit on display for ogling, photo-happy passersby and customers, including young metropolitan Bangkokians and their families who made the trek north for the NAP festival and to enjoy all Chiang Mai has to offer. During this special week artists, artisans, and shop owners crowd the street with temporary booths, where as usual a considerable outpouring of hilltribe fabrics unique to northern Thailand find their way. An insider now, I know these same brightly patterned cloths can be found most of the time and for cheaper prices in the smaller markets.
I’m volunteering for Studio Naenna Textile Gallery for a few evenings of the fair. It’s fun to chat with everyone and help guests try on our silk and cotton scarves. The temporary stands cozy up to the usual establishments, whose doors are swung open and welcoming everyone to have a peek at their wares. We invite people to take pictures of the displays and it’s just like anywhere else where you see people taking silly pictures with cameras! I can’t stop looking at everything and it’s overwhelming. A scrumptuous bag of Irish baked goods here, a gingerly placed arrangement of handmade Japanese ceramics there, a sinfully soft handwoven cotton shawl to the left, a set of silk floor cushions to the right. I want to try everything. I fell in love with an acrylic based dyptich of a Wororot Market scene by a Thai artist. Too late though, since it sold at that point for 400,000 THB. It featured contemporary genre scenes with cartoonish characters from the most typical “Thai” market I’ve been to in Chiang Mai. Sino-French pop and sharply contrasting Americana inspired sculpture and textiles are attractive now, especially quilts and floral patterns like multi-colored french toille. Though Thailand has gained a penchant for materialism especially in the abundance of fake couture, the NAP fair demonstrates how Chiang Mai fashion and creativity treads a line between brand names and homegrown crafts. The colors and lines are modern and there’s a sense of humor in so much of the design- it’s fresh! The global variety you can find in a city as laid back, unassuming, and neighborhoody as Chiang Mai is pleasing.
There is something for everyone at NAP, which continues across the main street into an open parking lot called the Think Park, usually harbored by a single cafe. This week instead numerous food stalls hug an area of bistro tables and chairs shadowed by sunbrellas in the daylight and overlooked by a musical performance at night. Enjoy gelato, pizza, or a bowl of kow soi, the delicious northern Thai dish. Made with yellow curry, dry yellow noodles, and your choice of chicken, beef, pork, or tofu, one can add any combination of the following condiments at hand at all times; a squirt of lime, a dash of chili-pepper, and spoonfuls of hot pepper sauce, brown sugar, and fish sauce. These are essential ingredients on the Thai dining table that I’ve come to take for granted. Definitely not on the menu at home!
In addition to the aforementioned arts and dishes, other things you won’t find at most arts fairs but are here in Chiang Mai: A gallery of clever, elephant inspired caricatures and sculptures promoting elephant protection, hilltribe purses and bags with red pom poms and bright patterns, and contemporary paintings including anger-infused depictions of yellow shirts and red shirts representing the present political power struggle in Thailand and in Chiang Mai, referred to by some as “red-shirt country.” These paintings play quite a different tone than the rest of the fair, and are surprising to me in a city where people are known to actively repress emotions of discontent most of the time. My favorite booth here isn’t selling much, but is advertising educational programs instead. The Sangdee Art Gallery is a thriving community art space cum late-night live music and bar scene cum contemporary art gallery. Love it! Not too surprisingly, there is a Pennsylvania connection. 😉 A Lancaster native is gallery director! And at least one other member is a bi-continental traveler from NYC too. Invited me to party the first night, drinks on the house.