I knew something was different the moment that I opened the curtains in my hotel room. On my previous journey to Thailand, I had stayed in a guest house in Bangkok and did not see much out my window but other buildings close by in that crowded city. This time I was in Northern Thailand in the city of Chiang Mai and the difference could not have been more startling. Within easy view of my window was a breathtaking scene of beautiful mountains and a sprawling but modern city.
While both cities had tropical temperatures and lots of humidity, the contrasts continued for my entire trip. The biggest difference was the oppressive spiritual warfare and extreme sexual perversion on display everywhere I went in Bangkok. In Chiang Mai, there plenty of was evidence of the highly sexualized nature of Thai culture in many massage parlors and dance clubs with obligatory girls on stools out front, but it was far less “in your face” than in Bangkok. In addition, the transgender population was not nearly as obvious and certainly not as celebrated.
Chiang Mai is an old city (founded in 1296) that has been reborn. It is the largest and most culturally significant city in Northern Thailand and is now the gateway for gospel growth in all of Asia. Its name actually means “new city” and that is certainly true for those involved in Christian ministry in this part of the world. Following the inclusion of Hong Kong into mainland China in 1999, many Christian organizations moved their operations to Chiang Mia which is quite strategically located for travel to India, China and all other parts of the Far East. It is not hard to understand why this city has been such a magnet for growth and development in the great commission community. Over and over again, I experienced an amazing level of friendliness and superb service from the local people. They welcome foreigners from all over the world and have made their city a place worth visiting.
Nothing defines Chiang Mai quite like the Sunday Night Market that overtakes many of the streets in the old city every weekend. Vendors set up stall along both sides of the street and local musicians perform right in the middle of the road. As we walked down the street, it seemed like the mass of humanity and market stalls went on forever. Despite the crush of people, I never felt unsafe and enjoyed the incredible variety of items available for sale. The Thai are wonderfully creative and extremely hard working. The other night markets located all over the city have to be built up and torn down every single day. People travel from all parts of the world to experience this open air celebration of arts, crafts and food.
A network of supportive institutions have developed in Chiang Mai to enable the growth of the Christian ministries that call this city home. Its medical care and hospitals are so well respected that missionaries will travel from all parts of Asia for maternity care and the birth of their children. Two excellent Christian counselling ministries provide much needed help for people struggling with any number of issues from marriage problems to interpersonal conflict on small teams. Grace International School has over 500 children enrolled from a variety of missions’ organizations and provides an excellent education. Guest houses and high quality hotels abound for rest and relaxation for people coming in from closed access countries and some of the hardest places to live in the region.
As a result of this inviting and supportive atmosphere, several thousand expat missionaries and NGO workers have moved to Chiang Mai. In addition, it is the “go to” place for major organizational conferences. These conferences bring in thousands more kingdom workers who fill the hotels and meetings rooms. SAM (Southeast Asia Marketing) provides logistical and organizational support for these mega-events and hosts an average of two per month. Several large English language international churches provide a home base for missionaries in transition and Christian workers that are not working in the Thai language churches that abound.
CLC has a store located in a strategic part of this important city and is in its own process of rebirth. This summer, Don and Betsy Veldboom went to Chiang Mai for eight weeks to help supply books for two huge book tables for other missions’ organizations that were holding conferences. They are planning on moving to the city full time in January of 2016 to help re-invigorate CLC’s English language book department that has been languishing. During the last two weeks I was able to work with them and experience the demand for Christian books and particularly materials in English. It was a delight to meet our local team – Yongyut and Moham – who have done an excellent job of meeting the Thai language book needs and have an extremely positive reputation in the local community.
As we were getting ready to leave the Sunday Night Market and look for our Songthaew (the most prevalent means of local transportation for small groups), we came across something that I will never forget. In the midst of this throng of people, a group of Thai believers had set up on the sidewalk and were singing worship songs at the top of their voices. As we passed by, we noticed that it was primarily comprised of men who were singing their hearts out. We stopped to chat and discovered that they held this outreach event every Sunday night and were able to connect with hundreds of people each week. What a blessing to see the result of gospel advancement in this highly Buddhist nation as Thai nationals had taken up the baton and were doing great ministry of their own. Not surprisingly, they were delighted to learn that we had gospel tracts and booklets available for distribution at their local CLC store. God is on the move in Chiang Mai and it is our privilege to provide resources to enable this expansion to grow even further in the years to come.