What appears to be a miniature Bengal tiger tries to take a lick of my ice cream crepe before catapulting, a streak of black and orange fur, over a fluffy white Persian lounging on a pillow and bouncing off the opposite wall.
Meet Leo, domestic Bengal cat and star resident of Chiang Mai’s first official cat café, Maewmoth, which currently houses no less than 23 felines in a small but airy space off Soi Wat Umong. The atmosphere is one of controlled chaos, where visitors slurp ice cream sundaes and iced mochas (they used to serve tuna salad but apparently it made the cats too crazy) while dangling sparkly toys and snapping Instagrams (#cats, #kitties, #catstagram).
Soft-spoken owner Knot, who lives upstairs, shows me the list of cat engagement rules, which includes items such as “Do not wake them up while they are sleeping” and “No such violence as pulling the tail, slapping, picking neck.” Most of the cats roam free, except for a few who laze about in a separate area behind glass. “That’s their bedroom,” says Knot. “It’s also the punishment zone.” He glances at Leo, who has just tripped a waitress and knocked the list of cat rules off a table in one remorseless swoop.
A small grey ball of fluff with a squashed-looking face settles contentedly into Knot’s lap. “We want everyone to treat them like they are yours,” he says. “They’re everybody’s cats!”
The world’s first cat café opened in Taiwan in 1998, before spreading like wildfire through Japan, in part because of the country’s strict policies on pet ownership in rented apartments. Now there are about 40 cat cafes in Tokyo alone, and dozens more throughout Asia. And as of the past year, the trend has spread westward, with new cat cafés popping up everywhere, from Amsterdam to San Francisco.
Here in Thailand, the trend has already hit Bangkok hard, with not just cat cafés but dog and bunny cafés too. And now, Chiang Mai, not a city to get left behind when it comes to trends, has jumped onboard, with Maewmoth opening at the start of this year and several more popping up since.
Into the Catmosphere
The day after my first-ever cat café experience at Maewmoth, armed with plenty of Zyrtec and cat cuddling enthusiasm, I set out for my next destination: Catmosphere, which is located off Huay Kaew Road near the university. Despite opening just last month, the café is already packed with university students, decompressing from exams with caramel lattes and the company of ten cats.
The cleverly named Catmosphere is a “tribute to all those brave cats who dedicated their lives to space exploration,” according to its Facebook page, and all ten cats are named with the café’s outer space theme in mind. There are Luke and Leia, the twin Scottish folds; Luna, a white kitten with mismatched blue and green eyes; and Apollo, a husky fellow with a penchant for standing up on his hind legs.
I arrive in the evening, which is the cats’ most active time, and meet the café’s friendly owner Noon, who traded in her office job with a piping company in Bangkok to go full time cat lady after visiting a cat café in Japan. Today, she and her expat boyfriend run Catmosphere full time (even staying with them at night to avoid the mass destruction that ensues when ten cats are left to their own devices) and plan on opening a cat cinema upstairs in the near future.
Mink, an American short-hair with a coat of beautiful grey swirls (natural) and a blinged-out crystal collar (acquired), saunters by. “She’s named after the first Thai astronaut,” says Noon. “We think she’s pregnant!”
Catmosphere serves a variety of hot and iced beverages as well as snacks and heartier dishes like spinach cheese bake and spaghetti carbonara. The prices are a bit higher than average, but unlike the cat cafés in Japan and Taiwan, those in Chiang Mai charge no cover or hourly cat cuddling fee.
The cats here at Catmosphere come mostly from breeders (and, as Mink’s slightly swollen belly suggests, soon from within the Catmosphere family), but Noon tells me about another new cat café just down the road with a decidedly different spin.
For the Love of Cats
Welcome to Love Cats House, the brainchild of feline fanatics O and Nampeung, who have dedicated their lives to saving Chiang Mai’s cats, and changing the attitudes of its humans.
“Some people throw their cats away,” says O with a sigh. “A lot of people.”
Love Cats House is unique amongst Chiang Mai’s other cat cafes in that all the cats here are rescues, former street cats given another chance thanks to the loving dedication of O and her partner Nampeung. While the café opened just this past April in the space above Catnip Wine Bar at The Harbour, O’s mission began 12 years ago, when she found a badly injured street cat who had been hit by a car. She took the cat to the doctor and then to her house, where Tootoo (an orange tabby who is now the official mascot of Love Cats House), recovered and lived out the rest of his days in peace.
From there, O had found her calling, and one by one she began picking up sick, injured and abandoned cats from around the city, and taking them back to her 100 square metre house in Sankampaeng, which features a cat shack out back with three separate rooms and outdoor space. At one point, she and Nampeung had a whopping 180 rescued cats living there.
“That…was too much,” says O, laughing and sighing at the same time. “But once I started, people just kept giving me more and more cats. We also have ten…no, 11 dogs now. People just keep dropping them off, even when I’m not home. But even though I get tired, I just can’t stop helping them. That’s just my bad luck, I guess!”
Today, O has the cat population in her home down to a relatively more reasonable 72, and takes several (anywhere from four to ten, depending how many can fit in the car) to the café each day where they romp around to the delight of a growing number of customers. However, she does not strike me as the crazy type one might see on an episode of Hoarders; rather, she seems like a person who is just too dedicated and too kind to say no, trying to tackle a large problem with minimal assistance. She and Nampeung are not an NGO, but simply a two person operation (with occasional help from friends and volunteers) who have made it their mission to not only to rescue as many cats as possible, but also to educate Thai people about cat care.
“There are three things I try to teach people,” says O. “One is to stop throwing cats away when things get difficult, when the cats are more than just lovely little kittens. Two is about sterilising and vaccines. Three is that all cats should be inside cats. This would end the street cat problem.”
Kiwi the Siamese cat cuddles up against my legs while a rambunctious, mustachioed mix named Gangsom shows off his skills in the cat wheel _ which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, a cat-sized version of a hamster wheel. O serves green tea and ice cream sundaes and shows me around the shop, where there is a wide variety of merchandise on sale, including a variety of cat supplies and cat-themed gifts for humans. O’s brother paints cat portraits and a friend named Jao teaches yoga classes on weekend mornings in the café (10am-noon every Saturday and Sunday). All proceeds go to the cats.
When I ask the various café owners about rivalries, it seems there are none; the cat café community in Chiang Mai is a tight-knit and supportive one. O tells me about a breeder in Doi Saket who runs yet another local cat café, Ka-fé and the Gang, and has helped her raise money for street cats.
“Cats want to own the world,” says O. “Before, people were more into dogs, but now it’s all about cats!”
Maewmoth Cat Café
Open daily, 10am-8pm (closed Tuesdays)100/2 Soi Wat Umong, off Suthep Road http://www.maewmoth.com
Tel: 086 672 9802
Open daily, 10am-9pm (closed Mondays)Panna Project, 223/5 Huay Kaew Road http://www.facebook.com/catmospherecafe
Tel: 092 273 1011
Love Cats Café
Open daily, noon-8pm (closed Mondays)The Harbour, above Catnip Wine Bar, 16/1 Huay Kaew Road http://www.facebook.com/LOVECATSHOUSEchiangmai
Tel: 086 919 2499
Originally published in the Sep 2014 issue of Chiang Mai Citylife.