The old and the new. Modern condos sit behind the ancient wall of Chiang Mai's old city. Pic: AP.

It was only a matter of time, really, before Thailand’s sleepy northern capital began to take on some of Bangkok’s sheen. Shopping malls, luxury resorts and an increasingly sophisticated dining scene are putting a newfound polish on Chiang Mai.

Once the center of the ancient Lanna Kingdom, Chiang Mai is a beacon for backpackers and do-gooders everywhere, and is still a quieter city than Bangkok. Where the capital has skyscrapers, branches of major international companies and some of the best nightlife in the country, Chiang Mai doesn’t even have a skyline or a proper public transportation system. But the city is rapidly growing, and groaning under the weight of increased traffic and tourism.

Chiang Mai is an attractive alternative for those who eschew the heat and chaos of Bangkok. Accommodations are still fairly inexpensive, food is reasonably priced and nightlife and entertainment won’t break the bank either. International restaurants are opening all the time, making for an ever more diverse selection when it comes to cuisine. It’s no wonder that both Westerners and expats from other Asian countries are eyeing Chiang Mai more and more as a good place to call home, not to mention well off Thais who want to escape the clutches of Bangkok. The Financial Times noted that there are 40,000 expats in this small city, and that it  is becoming more and more popular among mainland Chinese buyers and retirees from South Korea and Japan.

This growing popularity, however, could lead to rising prices in Chiang Mai. For example, The Bangkok Post reported in July that condominium prices are on their way up. Because the cost of living here is so much lower than in many Western countries, expats are unlikely to be deterred from relocating here, at least for a while. But what will this mean for local business owners who pay rent in coveted neighborhoods and parts of the city?

For the time being, the city is still kind to some local business owners who say that rents for their Old City shops are fair and manageable. Whether that will be the case as the city continues to grow remains to be seen. As one guest house manager put it, “It’s getting more expensive but for now, it’s okay. But two or three years from now…we’ll have to see.” She pointed out that properties outside the city are less expensive and more tranquil, in closer proximity to some of the natural landmarks and spots that draw expats and tourists on day trips.

But it’s not just price increases that could be on the horizon. A ride outside the heart of the city past the newly opened Central Festival Mall speaks to another aspect of the story – bright signs announcing UK brands Topshop, H&M, Marks & Spencer, and popular clothing retailer Uniqlo, seem a taste of things to come in Chiang Mai. Central Festival and the Promenada Mall, another shopping center inhabited by a number of reputable Western brands and fine jewelers, are attractions in and of themselves, with an IMAX movie theater at the mormer and ice skating rinks at both. The two malls opened in 2013, and another mall, the luxury Maya near trendy Nimmanhaiman Road, will open in early 2014. For a look at all of the planned malls for Chiang Mai in the coming years, see this round-up from CityNews Chiang Mai.

Promenada, one of two major shopping outlets to open in Chiang Mai this year.

But while shiny malls are indicators of economic growth, what does this – dare we say gentrification – mean for the city’s ambiance and soul? Investment by foreign companies is often a positive in that jobs are created and new resources are brought into a community. But a large part of Chiang Mai’s appeal is the slower pace and the fact that it retains its cultural charm. Winding through the city streets on a motorbike or by foot, you’ll come across temples and ruins that remind you that you’re in a place with ancient history, not just any other sanitized metropolis.

With the recent opening of the Chiang Mai International Convention & Exhibition Centre, the city became more attractive as a destination for corporate retreats and conferences, with the potential to attract more visitors and tourists through the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) business sector, according to The Nation. The city has been named one of the top places to visit in the world by a number of prominent outlets, including Lonely Planet and Travel + Leisure.

Given the interest in and possibilities for the city’s growth, it seems unlikely that there will be a reversal in trends. But one hopes that with development, local residents will not be left behind and that increased investment will not only line the pockets of businessmen and politicians, but will also bring improved resources for the city, and will not detract from the things that drew so many to Chiang Mai in the first place.