Find real souvenirs at Chiang Mai’s new artists’ collective

November 26, 2017
Steffani Cameron

Our vacations are often among the most vibrant experiences in our lifetimes, and a trip to Thailand would be at the top of anyone’s list, since the land of smiles and sun works its way deep into your heart. Would cheap trinkets bought at some touristy shop do your memories justice?

That’s what the artists’ collective at Baan Kang Wat has set out to address. With a great selection of beautiful local arts and crafts for sale, there are countless unique pieces for you to cart home, but if you are seeking something even more special, craft classes allow you to make your own take-home souvenir, such as ceramics and watercolours.

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The Baan Kang Wat live-work community sits on Chiang Mai’s outskirts, en route to holy mountain Doi Suthep. Its modern take on traditional Thai wooden terraced homes, surrounded with tropical gardens, makes the community a picturesque retreat from the bustle of central Chiang Mai, and worth visiting for the setting alone.

Surprisingly, it was only in 2014 that the collective sprang up under the creative guidance of a group of young visionaries wanting to make a community where they could live above their shops, and embrace an arts-forward lifestyle with like minds. Walking around, you’d think it’d been there for decades.

Today, tropical trees line paths carved between rustic-but-funky two-floor terraced buildings, which surround a small amphitheatre. It all combines to make for a great spot to while away part of a day. The property holds four little cafes, a bistro, a woodworking shop, a watercolour gallery, a ceramic-making store and a “souvenir” shop that sells work by local artisans.

pathways in a village in Chiang Mai

Tropical trees line paths carved between rustic-buildings | Photo by Chiang Mai Urban Adventures

Visiting on a quiet morning, I spoke to the owner of the Mahasamut Library & Café, Nut, about what makes the community so different.

“Because we work here but we live here too,” he said. “We don’t work, close up, go home. Our life is here, and I think it shows.”

He’s right, it does. From personal touches in shops and on the homes through to the casual easiness one feels when strolling the verdant paths, there’s a vibe you just don’t find in retail centres.

It’s fitting that Nut should be part of a place designed to bring a sense of peace and community to those who visit. The Bangkok-born and raised café owner’s previous life was as an architect in the big city. In Bangkok, with its population at 10 million now, it can be easy to forget Thailand is packed with beaches, jungles, mountains and stunning scenery everywhere in between. And Chiang Mai is the perfect place to get that life-meets-nature balance, says Nut.

Feeling something was missing in his life, a friend told Nut about the plans to build Baan Kang Wat in Chiang Mai. Soon, the architect told his boss he was leaving his job to chase his dream of opening a café with a lending library. Today, locals around Baan Kang Wat drop by his café for iced Thai coffee and a book to read.

tour guide in a souvenir shop in Chiang Mai

Shop for truly unique souvenirs (with a local guide to help you!) | Photo by Chiang Mai Urban Adventures

That’s part of the magic of Baan Kang Wat — it’s not just trying to attract tourists. They strive to be a cultural hub for the locals, too, and that’s what makes its art and environment so compelling. The community embraces the arts-meets-nature feel that has always made Chiang Mai so special, and that resonates with Thais, too. Baan Kang Wat exemplifies Chiang Mai’s outpost past while also embracing what Chiang Mai is becoming — a hip, balanced, arts-focused, enlightened city that celebrates culture and creativity.

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During the high season, the amphitheatre hosts the occasional theatrical or musical performance in the evening, a sometimes-magical affair as lights dangle and illuminate the greenery and rustic buildings. One of the most-anticipated annual events is their five-day film festival each December, which shifts themes every year.

Ultimately, what Nut and the other makers in Baan Kang Wat hope visitors take away is an understanding that Thailand isn’t just an ancient kingdom. It’s a thriving, changing, positive, open place with thousands of years of history, but a bold, exciting future too. Thailand is a country where you can step into the future while embracing the past, and Baan Kang Wat is the perfect place to do just that… while taking a little piece of it home with you.

Because Baan Kang Wat is such an informal and laid-back community, owner-operated with lived-in premises, shop hours can vary.