Rebuilding Lanna: Constructing And Consuming The Past In Urban Northern Thailand

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This dissertation is an ethnographic study of the perspective and treatment of the city as a space imbued with charismatic power in Northern Thailand. Reviving the city through channeling and re-imagining the perceived past prosperity of the city of Chiang Mai in the wake of the economic crash of 1997 became a matter of concern for architects, activists, city planners, and spirit mediums: each group respectively sought to control the negative effects of the economic downturn through reconstructing a latent potential within the city with explicit reference to Chiang Mai's "Lanna" past (approximately the 13th-19th centuries CE). The various methods ranged from the attempts to redesign public space using models of urban design adapted from the Lanna period to the efforts of spirit medium devotees, who sought to stave off misfortune through reviving the literal guardian spirits of Lanna. However, such attempts at rebuilding both the physical as well as the spiritual integrity of the city carried with them the uncanny trace of misfortune made manifest in the ruins of pre-1997 buildings. These ruins stood alongside the shells of new highrise construction, providing an unwelcome resemblance that put a pall on the hope placed on the new buildings. Both sites, both newly constructed and abandoned, became sources of stories of ghosts and violent crime. I explore how ruins and failures of the past constantly stain and conflict with visions of the future, while at the same time this sense of "pastness" animates present-day images of the auspicious that drives urban planning in Chiang Mai. Ultimately, I argue that the increase in attempts to "rebuild Lanna" as well as the increase in anxiety about a perceived decline in urban charisma can be traced to an atomized urban population and economically and politically uncertain times. As the future blossoming of a Lanna renaissance grows more and more in doubt, stories of ghosts inhabiting the shells of new high-rise construction grow alongside calls to define, edit, and revitalize the image of the past in Thailand's urban north.
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