Every year, there is a moment when the city pauses for a last glance before the heat unleashes its fury and the smoke rolls in from the mountains. These are the last few days when colours still vibrate alive, before the city turns into molten air and concrete, and gets swallowed up in a bleak orange-grey haze. Now the sun is welcome and bounces back happily from the million flowers flooding the streets. All the colours are on the palette, hues of green, mild pinks, crazy purples, serene oranges, shiny whites, smiling yellows.
In this last moment, Chiang Mai’s flower lovers, gardeners, photo enthusiasts, balloon sellers, food stall owners, excited children and pollinating insects all descend upon Buat Hat park for the city’s 33rd annual floral extravaganza. Not to mention our canine friends!
Flowers are special in this region, and it is not just floral language that Chiang Mai is called “the rose of the north”. Their Majesties the King and the Queen have been working tirelessly to provide alternative crops and sources of income for the previously mostly opium-growing hilltribes of Northern Thailand. Besides vegetables and fruits, flowers are now a major produce of the region, thanks to the cool climate at higher altitudes. Near the entrance, the display from Phuphing Palace, which has a majestic garden near the top of Doi Pui, always dazzles visitors with the largest roses and vivid floral landscapes.
The orchid, rose, bonsai and bromelia growers have a major competition but the crowd seems to enjoy flowers of all shapes, sizes, colours and awards.
The floats are of course the main attraction: after the parade around the streets of the city on Saturday morning, they are neatly lined up in front of the park to be admired close up. With Makha Bucha just round the corner, the themes of the 23 floats were mostly in tribute to this auspicious occasion.
The Buddha images, chedis, elephants, nagas and other mythical figures are initially sculpted from styrofoam, mounted on cars, and decorated with millions of cut flowers, petals, seeds, white and brown rice grains with painstaking detail for a truly dazzling overall effect.
This year saw a large number of elephants in leading or supporting roles: carrying chedis, flanking chedis, kneeling down before the Lord Buddha, carrying jasmine garlands, poking at visitors.
My favourite float of all, a giant kneeling elephant, was the first runner-up in the float contest this year, representing Hang Dong district.
On Arak road, the western side of the moat, yet another strip of spectacles unfolds. Food stalls dot one side of the road, selling everything from fruits to squids. Families with children may initially frown at the large number of vendors selling balloons, toys, and other assorted junk. Miraculously, I don’t remember seeing a single screaming child – but maybe some of the parents were upset.
On the other side, plant vendors set up temporary mini-jungles and inviting gardens, offering everything you have ever dreamed of for your garden, maybe more. There are hundreds of blooming orchids, needless to say, in much better shape than my dried-up orchid sticks with new shoots of fresh green at home! For a while, I read the Thai names of flowers and tried to recall their names in my mother tongue, but many probably don’t even have names – well, bromelias do.
In a few stalls, OTOP products from all over the province are on display: strawberry jam and wine from Samoeng (advertising the annual strawberry festival coming up next weekend up in the small hill town of Samoeng), woodcarving from Baan Tawai, umbrellas from Bosang, textiles and clothes from faraway districts.
When you are tired, Buat Hat park swallows you up for a little rest, but no peace and quiet. You may rent a straw mat, eat, doze off, sign the kids up for a mad session at the bouncy castle or a ride in the mini ferris wheel. In the evening, there is music, the obligatory beauty contest, and more food. Sorry guys – no pictures of the beauties
This is my favourite time in Chiang Mai, and my favourite festival. It is a final reminder of all the best this city and region has to offer before we face the worst of what it can throw at us.