CHIANG MAI, Thailand -- More than 1 million people live in and around Chiang Mai, a city surrounded by lush countryside and the mountains of northern Thailand.
The streets teem with commerce and temples abound, a reminder that 95 percent of the people are Buddhist.
But amidst all this, a powerful Christian community is at work, strategically building the Kingdom. As many as 2,000 missionaries and Christian workers live and/or work out of Chiang Mai, and hundreds of Christian organizations have established offices.
That puts the city on the level of Colorado Springs, Colo., and Orlando, Fla. -- two well-known hubs for Christian ministry.
But what sets Chiang Mai apart is its proximity to the 10/40 window. The window, named for the region located between 10 and 40 degrees north of the equator, is filled with countries known for extreme poverty and a lack of access to Christian resources.
Media missionary Tom Silkwood has worked in Chiang Mai since the 1980s. As founder of Freedom Films Production, a video production studio, he's partnered with CBN's center in Thailand and countless other Christian organizations.
"We also have Campus Crusade, Compassion International. We have YWAM, we have Wycliffe, SIL, just all your top players as far as ministry outreach are here," he said.
So how did this seemingly ordinary Asian city grow to this? The answer begins almost 200 years ago.
"The history goes way back till about 1828 when the first missionaries came here and they set up schools, they set up hospitals," Karen Thomson, regional director for CBN Thailand, explained.
Today the fruit of their labors is evident. McCormick Hospital, founded by Presbyterian missionaries, still stands, as does Prince Royal's College, a private Christian K-12 school and the McGilvary College of Divinity at Payap University, to name a few.
But despite these services, long-timers like Esther Wakeman with the Presbyterian Mission Agency, say for many years the missionary population in Chiang Mai remained relatively sparse.
"When I came to Chiang Mai 33 years ago, if you were a Westerner walking down the main street of Chiang Mai, little kids would still point you out, 'Oh, there the Westerner,'" she recalled.
A Ministry Haven
Then in 1997, the British gave Hong Kong back to China, forcing the missionary population on that island to re-evaluate.
"I think a lot of missions organizations were saying, 'What's next, what are we going to do now?'" Silkwood said.
They soon realized that Thailand could be the answer.
"Thailand was a free country and the government of Thailand actually supported freedom of religion, so it was actually a very safe place for organizations to migrate to and work," he said.
Part of that support came from the Thais' appreciation for missions work: the medical care, schools, and other social services.
Missions organizations have also learned that Chiang Mai offers a way of life that facilitates ministry.
"The cost of living makes it easier for missionaries to be here," Thomson said. "It's a very reasonable cost of living and it's also a very safe place."
"It's a really nice place to live," Wakeman said. "It's located really wonderfully in southeast Asia and with access to China, India, all these nations in Asia, very easy access. So a lot of mission organizations that don't actually work in Thailand but work in the region have their offices here."
Another plus -- a host of services in Chiang Mai aimed at keeping Christian workers in the field. Cornerstone Counseling and The Well provide counseling and mental health services for missionaries. The Juniper Tree also provides lodging for those in need of rest.
"Some missions actually recommend that their people leave their countries every four or six months just to come out from the pressures that they're under," Simon Carey, who runs the Juniper Tree with his wife Melanie, said.
For How Long?
It would no doubt be impossible to measure the impact this city has for Christ. Perhaps the bigger question right now, however, is how long will Christians be welcome here?
The concern revolves around the 85-year-old king of Thailand. He's ruled the country since 1946 and no one knows who will succeed him.
"It will be a huge event when we lose the king," Thomson said. "And nobody's really sure what will happen after that."
For now, missionaries here say they're enjoying the benefits of working side by side and are thankful for a city that makes it relatively easy to advance the Gospel.