CHIANG MAI, 24 September 2018: Meals-on-wheels whirl around the corner, brakes screeching bringing an impressive convoy of street food to a halt in the courtyard of Chiang Mai’s impressive convention centre on the outskirts of town.
The collection of brightly coloured food vans means business. A conference’s morning session is closing at noon. With just minutes to spare, van owners roll up the awnings push back the shutters and set out folding tables and chairs.
A street food market takes shape; there’s the aroma of freshly brewed coffee as van drivers don their white ‘chef’ aprons for another day of roadside cooking. The curries line up in a neat display on van counters and the noodles broth is on the brew as the conference badges chatter and shoes clatter on the fine shiny marble conference centre floors.It’s a typical scene at the Chiang Mai Exhibition and Convention Centre (CMECC) where a clever marketing team sees the benefits of waving in a motorised food market whenever a major conference convenes. It’s special to Chiang Mai, almost as unique as the background vista of the forested Dou Suthep mountain that overshadows North Thailand’s largest convention centre.
If the meals-on-wheels brigade is lucky the conference is a biggie with more than 1,000 delegates loaded with cash and to be doubly sure a custom-built ATM van has just drawn up to the kerbside courtyard on the tail of the street food convoy. Nothing is overlooked.
Opened in 2013, the CMECC complex is located on the fringe of Chiang Mai town, 7 km from the city’s popular night bazaar. Arguably the largest meeting venue outside of Bangkok, times have been tough to the point the local populace dubbed the complex a “white elephant”.
Designed to handle up to 10,000 attendees for a conference or exhibition, the city’s path to the lucrative events business was strewn with obstacles, but there are now signs that the Thailand’s second largest city is making a breakthrough as a so-called emerging “MICE” (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions) city.
The turning point came when the city and CMECC hosted the Thailand Travel Mart in 2016 and again in 2017 with an international delegate list exceeding 1,000.
Research by the International Convention and Congress Association estimates Chiang Mai attracted 21 international events in 2016 compared with just 10 five years earlier in 2013.
Now another prestigious event, Routes Asia, will hold its annual event for airlines and airports worldwide in Chiang Mai in the “spring of 2020″, a big name conference that will have an impact beyond the immediate event revenue.
Thailand’s Airports of Thailand is bringing this top aviation meeting to Chiang Mai and the conference focus on airline connectivity bodes well for the North Thailand’s tourism gateway. Routes Asia was last held in Thailand at the east coast resort town of Pattaya in 2006.
Chiang Mai has all its ducks lined up when assessing its ability to host international events. It musters 16 convention venues three of which including the CMECC can accommodation between 3,000 to 10,000 delegates. The remainder are in the 500 to 1,000-delegate segment focusing mainly on corporate and incentives gatherings.
At the latest count the city has more than 41,500 hotel rooms in the two to five-star categories.
The city’s airport is served by 31 airlines and around 50 flights daily, while in 2017 it handled 10 million passenger movements.
More importantly, the city is served by direct flights from China, Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos and in November 2017 Qatar started direct flights from Doha.
Expansion will continue as the airport embarks on a THB15.82 billion project to boost annual passenger handling capacity to 16.5 million by 2022, while there is also a long-term project to build a new airport positioned between Chiang Mai and Lampang and close to a proposed motorway to Chiang Rai, 180 km to the north and bordering Laos and Myanmar.
But for the events planner, the allure of Chiang Mai goes beyond infrastructure to an elementary observation; this city’s appeal differs dramatically from your typical urban conference destination. Yes it is a fast expanding city, the second largest in Thailand and a gateway for tourists exploring North Thailand particularly provinces, Mae Hong Son, Lampang, Lamphun, Phayao and Chiang Rai.
The differences start with the climate, three distinct seasons; hot and dry in April and May, wet and green in May to September and cool perhaps even chilly October to March. Other distinctions focus on the impressive mountain landscapes surrounding Chiang Mai valley, the student buzz of university communities and the charming influence of ethnic minority groups.
Then there’s the food or to be more specific the vast array of street-food that proliferates at almost every street corner, near the ruins of the inner city gates (Chang Puek, Tha Pae), or the roadside stalls in the up-market tourist district of Nimman Haemin .
Warorot Market is another popular evening spot to enjoy street food just a short walk from the city’s famous night bazaar. There is a distinct Chinese influence and the presence of local shoppers and diners gives it an authentic ambience. Recommended are the fried pork dishes and if you wish to experiment the market is famous for its grasshoppers.
My favourite Chiang Mai’s signature dish that I never grow tired of is the iconic ‘Khao Soi’. Made with fried crispy egg noodles in a coconut curry it is served with chunks of chicken or beef with lime, roasted chilli, pickled vegetable and shallots.
It’s found everywhere in the city at simple roadside food carts, or in fancy food halls and forecourts of upscale shopping malls.
Definitely a must-eat when visiting Chiang Mai is the famous northern Thai sausage known simply as ‘Sai Oua’ made from lemon grass, cilantro, shallots, pepper, galangal, dried chilli, chilli paste and pork. There are both mild and spicy varieties usually served with sticky rice (Khao Niao).
But it was the Chang Puek cowgirl that caught my attention after reading novelist Deepti Kapoor’s account of a street-food adventure.
“It was the Cowgirl who really did it for me… There we were, riding past the Chang Puek Gate,” explained Kapoor in a Guardian feature. “Then we saw the queue, and at the end of the queue the cart, and behind the cart the Cowgirl, immaculately made-up beneath a Stetson hat, wielding a cleaver above a mountain of pork, a ridiculous grin on her face.”
Every evening she poses in that important distinguishing hat and cooks the now famous stewed pork dish at her busy food stall on the street facing old city’s Chang Puek or North Gate.
Thanks to Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Parts Unknown’ review, the smiling cowgirl of Chang Puek shot to social media fame; a celebrity chef almost as iconic as the historical city gate.
Residents and tourists queue for takeaway ‘Khao Kha Mu’ (stewed pig’s knuckle on rice) for THB30 (small serving) and THB50 for the whopper dish. Served with a boiled egg, raw garlic, pickled mustard greens and chilli sauce, the single dish washed down with a bottle of ale will set you up the rest of the evening. Is it the hat, the smile or the smoky aroma of the Chang Puek stalls that personify the Chiang Mai experience?
Or as Kapoor hints Chiang Mai’s enduring charm is the grand wrap of all elements merged; “a gleeful fusion,” a potpourri of experiences, lifestyle and landscapes that is distinctly the city’s version of event tourism. To be convinced it requires a tasting and there is no better way than to book a city break once the corporate event closes.