DESPITE its scenic beauty, green spaces and strict restrictions on building height and design control, the city of Chiang Mai finds itself overshadowed by massive advertising billboards.
Where once people could drive around the highway and admire Doi Suthep in the skyline, today they just see one giant four-storey billboard after another.
To put this proliferation of billboards into context, Citylife counted the number of billboards found along Nimmanhaemin Road, Chang Klan Road's Night Bazaar and the Airport Plaza Intersection.
The kilometre-long stretch on Nimmanhaemin Road boasted 63 hoardings in public spaces and 581 on private spaces. In the 850-metre Night Bazaar stretch on Chang Klan Road, there are 40 signs and 294 on private property. From the Airport Plaza intersection, 26 signs were detected on public spaces and 104 on private property.
According to the 1992 Sign Board Tax Act, no signs obstructing or cluttering public spaces can be put up without consent from authorities. Violators will have to pay fines and remove the signs, though in reality, the authorities themselves seem to be compounding the problem.
"The municipality is the reason why there are so many signs in our city," the owner of a top sign company said. "The mayor has overseen the most unprecedented increase in the number of billboards in Chiang Mai's history.
"Putting up a hoarding on your own property, be it for your own product or if you are renting your location to another company, is very simple, provided you are not advertising alcohol or cigarettes, and the sign is not an impediment to public space. If the sign requires construction, then you must get an architect to sign off on it and you are pretty much guaranteed permission from the municipality. The company will pay the tax for you and you can just sit back and collect the rent for your space."
There are three tax levels for signs: if it is in Thai, it costs Bt3 for every 500 square centimetres; add a foreign language and it costs Bt20 per year; and if the ad is in a foreign language or if the Thai text is too small, it costs Bt40.
"What concerns me is this new spate of signs on public land," the man, who asked to remain anonymous, continued. "This is controlled by either the municipality, or in some cases the Highway Department. As far as I know, only three Bangkok-based companies hold all the concessions for public advertisements in Chiang Mai. No company here is involved as far as I know. So let's say a company from Bangkok comes up and asks the municipality for a concession to place 100 billboards: they will pay a concession fee, are granted the right to build billboards for a contracted period and then pay their tax. I don't know what other deals they have to make, but you should be able to get the accounts from the mayor's office."
Citylife failed in its attempt get a look at the accounts at the mayor's office, though it was told that the money went into the city's coffers and was used as per the annual budget.
"I pay hundreds of thousands of baht every year for all my clients' taxes," the man said. "I have negotiated contracts for my clients on 30 properties. But I have never negotiated with the authorities for public space. In the past, companies from Bangkok would 'donate' garbage bins, bus shelters or police boxes in return for a relatively subtle logo or a small ad. Today they can advertise anywhere.
"As a local, I know that large billboards don't work because Chiang Mai people hate them. People have even brought down billboards, like the one advertising bras against the backdrop of Doi Suthep. The latest outrage is over the massive digital screens recently erected on Tha Pae Road."
A Bangkok-based company signed a three-year contract with the mayor to put up these massive screens and agreed that 30 per cent of the display would be used for public announcements. There's no mention of the income the city is getting from this concession.
"We have recently installed over 80 CCTV cameras across the city. But there's no point in having CCTV if people don't know about them," Mayor Tassanai Buranupakorn said.
"Studies show that up to 70 per cent of crime can be reduced this way. The live feeds displayed on the large digital screens will boost awareness and the screens will also be used to make public announcements.
"Initially we were going to put them up at the Three Kings monument as well as Tha Pae Gate, but we just picked this one location to minimise the clutter."
The anonymous man said: "It's all very slick. These companies start off by putting up signs to honour Their Majesties or put up public service announcements. This way no one can complain. Then, once we get used to them, they slowly switched to commercial advertisements."
Architect Pawat Tantayanusorn, managing director of Niwat Architects, believes that Chiang Mai's development has been following the Bangkok format - to its detriment.
"Chiang Mai is a special city. It has culture, history, architecture and nature. It should have its own set of laws. In fact, the old city is already doing this, but Chiang Mai is more than just the area within the old moat. Development should be controlled in the entire city.
The mayor, however, was ambivalent.
"If you want to put a sign up on your property, I can't stop you provided you follow the rules. It takes years to change the law. I have changed some and will continue to do so. We also need to think about businesses and need Chiang Mai to grow and develop so everyone benefits," the mayor said.
Tul Lekutai, president of Chiang Mai University's Faculty of Architecture Alumni Association, said: "It isn't easy, and, following pressure groups' requests, the mayor has made great strides in the old city. Building heights are controlled now and even roofs have to conform to the Lanna kalae design and only certain colours can be used."
Pawat agreed that public pressure was bringing some results.
"The top-down management of Chiang Mai is slowly changing … I suggest that we first use social and traditional media, then ask members to make viral videos or record instances of signage abuse. Get the academic sector involved," he said.
"I would look at current concessions and their contacts. Once we have a plan we need to tell them that their contracts will not be renewed. Once they expire, we set new rules to control where and how many public spaces can be used for advertising," Pawat said.
Citylife has set up a Facebook page "SignCityChiangMai" and hopes people will post photos of this visual pollution.