Chiang Mai is a place like no other. The city stands alone in Thailand’s northern mountainous region as a wellspring of cultural and architectural brilliance. Its ancient history stretches back to the time of the Lan Na Kingdom, a monarchy that governed the area for almost 500 years until the 18th century. Today, it’s a crossroads for regional trade with a legacy for linking Thailand to the rest of the world. But it wasn’t just the city’s aura or regal scenery that prompted photographer Denis Amirtharaj to visit this storied place — it was the opportunity to photograph one of the creative city’s most beloved events: the annual Flower Festival.

Children dance in front of Chiang Mai's Tha Phae Gate in a photo by creative Denis Amirtharaj.
A monk in saffron-colored robes walks before a temple in Chiang Mai, in a photo by creative Denis Amirtharaj.

Though Denis had been traveling and volunteering throughout Thailand for nearly a year before making his way to Chiang Mai, the weekend-long celebration was what beckoned him to this serene and illustrious corner of the country. The long-standing ritual highlights the beauty and diversity of indigenous flora and encourages the preservation of local craft, music, and dance traditions through competition. It is an orchestrated display of the rich regional diversity that Denis would come to explore more deeply over the next few days. By turning his camera lens elsewhere, especially toward the quiet and contemplative quarters of the city far from the festive flurry, he got a closer look at the essence of daily life there.

A woman prepares food to be sold in a Chiang Mai night market.Indeed, before the celebrations began, Denis was spoiled with the type of scenes photographers dream of: carefree crowds passing time in the fortified old town, monks walking in saffron-colored robes at sunset, and radiant spirals of Buddhist temples (called wat) reaching into the sky. The farther he walked, the more the city transformed before his eyes. These traditional elements of Chiang Mai also gave way to markings of modern creativity, like antiquated telephone booths repurposed as colorful works of graphic art — which struck Denis as an ingenious recycling of the city as a canvas.A payphone covered in graffiti in Chiang Mai.

As if the ancient temples and colorful streets weren’t enough evidence already, portrait artists and craftsmen were deep in focus at sidewalk workstations, musicians were serenading tourists who’d arrived for the festival, and photographers like him were capturing it all — everywhere Denis looked, he saw art being created. It’s no wonder UNESCO named Chiang Mai a world “creative city” in 2017: one of only 33 others worldwide in its category. Chiang Mai seemed to be both the backdrop and subject he’d been searching for.

On the morning of the festival, the opening parade set off from Tha Phae Gate, an ancient fortification turned modern-day meeting place. From its onset, seemingly contrasting groups of people came together in the spirit of the day: locals and tourists, tribal dancers and beauty queens, students and elders, each contributing to the communal sense of joy that Denis felt lucky to capture.

A beauty queen dressed all in pink waves to the camera in Chiang Mai in a photo by creative Denis Amirtharaj.

Not long after, the jubilant procession reached the end of its route and people went their separate ways. Following their lead, Denis had no intention of standing still. Seeing the energetic crowds disperse into other parts of the city encouraged him to fall in among the locals and capture what the parade left him longing for more of: what he called “the old and real Chiang Mai.” Denis didn’t have to wander the streets much longer before discovering the hubs where this creative authenticity was best preserved, though. Before he knew it, he was engulfed by the city’s myriad markets.

Performers in traditional garb carry a banner in a Chiang Mai parade.
A tuktuk drives underneath Chinese lanterns in Chiang Mai in a photo by creative Denis Amirtharaj

Packed with fruit and drink vendors, craftspeople, and a unique mix of locals and tourists, these bustling bazaars mirrored Denis’s mental image of what a Southeast Asian market looked and felt like. Fascinated by the intimacy of these in-between spaces, he immediately dedicated the rest of his time in Chiang Mai to seeing as many of the different markets as possible. Even though that would mean visiting them in rapid succession, and catching them at seemingly awkward times, he knew that they offered the most genuine impression of the city.

At Sompet Market, Denis found a quiet chaos among mountains of fresh fruit and colorful carts.

On the way to Muang Mai market, he met a merchant carrying her wares in bamboo baskets, exuding a joie de vivre that he found to be infectious.

A merchant woman carrying her wares to market smiles for the camera.
Merchants display their fruit and food wares in Chiang Mai in a photo by creative Denis Amirtharaj.

At Muang Mai, he discovered a local haven, brimming with traditional lanterns, handicrafts, and clothing.

At Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, he encountered dozens of painters hard at work on new pieces they were hoping to sell that night.

While it was a specific event that turned Denis’s path toward Chiang Mai, his time there became about much more than just the flower festival. This creative city embraced him and presented new opportunities around every corner. It provided him a with a landscape of inspiration to make his own creations: striking yet casual photographs of everyday life.

Shoppers and merchants gather in Chiang Mai's Chinatown in a photo by creative Denis Amirtharaj.

Denis’s spontaneous quest among markets led him to hidden scenes in the alleyways and shopping centers, in the hurry and the hush, and in the enticing and the exotic. Though he was not looking for anything in particular, he simply followed the hum of the city with his camera, and came face to face with the real, creative Chiang Mai.

Have you ever visited Chiang Mai, or another city where creativity seemed to flow so freely? Let us know in the comments! 

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Joseph Ozment
Originally from Tennessee, Joseph Ozment is a writer and musician whose relationship with travel was shaped by growing up between the Southern U.S., Wales, and Hong Kong. So far, he's written for a newspaper in Russia, released a handful of home recordings, and started a novel (with plans for more, someday). When he's not busy running country roads or cheering on Liverpool FC, he's most likely making the next cup of coffee, or plans for the next trip.