Maybe I’d been hanging out in Chiang Mai too long. When other touri, complete strangers, start turning to you for advice and directions, you need to rethink your demeanor. Maybe my appearance is starting to scream expat from too many trips to Thailand. Maybe I needed to pay closer attention to the dark scowl so many of the grumpy old men on Soi Twilight display. Too late to compose my face into a snarl, a young backpacker type American politely stopped me and asked where the night market was.
His assumption I was some kind of a tour guide gave me pause. Being asked where the night market was when we were standing on Chan Klan Road at 8pm in the middle of Chiang Mai’s famous Night Bazaar gave me reason to question his sanity. But he explained he’d been to Chiang Mai once before, had friends in tow, and wanted to show them the market but the one he’d been to had a different ambiance, a different feel, and different vendors. The best he could do was wave an arm at the high-rise hotels blocking out the stars and say, “The market without all these buildings?”
His confusion was understandable. Yup, the Night Bazaar is quite famous and attracts thousands every night of the week. But Thais are never satisfied with a good thing. At least not content when there is money to be made. Not when you can copy whatever is successful and possibly make another few baht. Chiang Mai is not home to a single night market. It has five. Well, five suitable for touri.
In addition to the nightly downtown bazaar, there is a Sunday night market originally held the first Sunday of each month and now overflowing with vendor stalls every Sunday night. There’s also a Saturday night market. And two Friday night markets. That’s a lot of markets, a lot of stalls, a lot of vendors almost all selling the exact same thing at each. You’d think that would be night market overload. But Chiang Mai is all about shopping. Well, at least from the touri point of view. From the Thai point of view it’s all about separating you from some of your cash. Hopefully lots of it. Yes, there are elephant camps to visit, treks to Disneylandesque styled hill tribe villages, rafting excursions up and down the Ping river, and other assorted outdoorsy-type day trips designed for the touri. But in reality, it’s shopping that sets Chiang Mai apart from the other major visitor destinations in Thailand.
While there are plenty of older and middle-aged touri around, the majority of visitors to Chiang Mai seem to be in the early 30s and under crowd, attracted to this metropolitan city of the north due to the numerous trekking excursions available and the opportunity of visiting exotic villages filled with unusual ethnic folk. At least that is the dream. The trekking will turn out to be along well travelled paths filled with all of the people you thought you left back in town. And the exotic villages are well-staged sets where your opportunity to mingle with the locals is limited to taking their picture (and paying for it) or buying some of their handicrafts, which you already saw in abundance at cheaper prices back in town. And which are now made in Viet Nam.
Partying the night away, however, has been handled well as there are several areas catering to the touri crowd filled with a plethora of bars, pubs, and seedier establishments where you can kill off brain cells to your heart’s delight. One of the Brits I hooked up with and spent a few days partying with noted that it’s nice that the tourist will never ruin Chiang Mai because the locales have already done so. But in a kinda nice way.
Out and about any night of the week, the market you can not help but not miss is the granddaddy of them all, Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar located along a few dozen blocks along Chan Klan Road. The market comes to life around seven at night with vendors operating out of 8 foot long carts that line the street offering every sort of local handicraft and knock-off you could possibly want. Don’t worry if you walked past the dubiously silver plated Tiffany jewelry booth without stopping because there will be another few dozen duplicate booths yet to come.
These ‘temporary’ seller stalls line the street side of the sidewalk while permanent stores and malls line the other side (offering the same wares as the nightly vendors and often only open the same hours). Prices are a bit less than in Bangkok, providing you bargain well. Though I noticed that these days the initial asking price seems to drop quickly with nothing more necessary on your part than a bit of silence. First time visitors will be enthralled with the goods offered; twenty years of visits makes you shake you head over the fact that the same crap is being sold that was available the first time you flew into town. Delighted or jaded, you’ll spend hours roaming the Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai.
As humongous as the nightly market is, it pales in comparison to the Sunday Market (uh, that’d be the one held on Sundays) along Rajdamnern Road starting by the Thapae Gate in front of the Montri Hotel. If you make the trip to Chiang Mai, make sure you include a Sunday night to visit this market. The locals come out for the Sunday Market, more Thais filling the street than touri. They close down the streets in this area for vendors to set up stalls along the sides and down the middle of the streets.
These are more the ‘umbrella over a mat’ type set-ups than the metal carts used at the Night Bazaar. The same stuff you’ve already seen there is readily available at the Sunday Market, too, but there is also tons of merchandise offered by local entrepreneurs that will be new to you. Lots of crafts, loads of food, art and paintings galore. Locales bartering with much more aplomb than touri (watch and learn), sidewalk cafes to rest a bit in and watch the people walk by, and monks! I can not tell you how big this market is as it also spills along several side streets and plazas. I can tell you that as big a fan as I am of night markets in Asia, after walking in one direction for over an hour I still couldn’t see the end of the market in front of me and started thinking, “Enough!”
A few tips: Bring your camera . . . lots of great shots available here; as they drive on the ‘wrong side of the road’, Thais walk on the wrong side too so the crowd will move in the opposite direction than your natural inclination (join them or be crushed). Prices, even on the stuff you’ve already seen at the Night Bazaar, will be cheaper here, so it’s a great time to actually buy some stuff. It is, after all, your duty as a touri to pass some of that cash along to the local economy.
Since its inception, the Sunday Night Market has spilled over and now starts in the plaza in front of the Thapae Gate. It’s a good place to start you visit, and a good place to grab something to eat before the crowds swell. Prices on merchandise in the plaza are higher than in the rest of the market, so it’s not the best place to actually buy goods. Food, however, is a good buy anywhere within the market and there are dozens of vendors offering an array of Thai delicacies within the plaza area. For a real treat try the barbecue at the streetside stall at the north end of the plaza, right at the end of the brick wall. The small cart is run by an old local lady and her middle aged daughter. Moms is a drunk and spends most of her time hitting the bottle while her daughter deals with customers. But the recipe for the barbecue sauce is hers, and it is sublime. Tangy and sweet, at 10 baht a skewer, she does a brisk business serving locals in the know. Grab a few to snack on as you head across the street and into the market.
Things don’t really kick off until after 7pm. By 8 you’ll be shuffling more than walking down the street. Whenever I bring new friends to the market I try and get them there a bit before 6 so they can experience a truly Thai moment. At 6 sharp an announcement (in Thai) plays over a set of loudspeakers, everyone comes to an abrupt halt, and then stands in silence while the national anthem plays. It’s amazing to watch the bustling scene come to a dead stop and then spring immediately back into life when the music stops.
There are several wats along the street, each opens its compound to food vendors and your best way of meandering through the market is to stop and pick up another bite to eat at each. Dishes run 10 to 20 baht and you’ll be able to snack your way into a state of gastronomical ecstasy. At the first wat you come to on your right, look for the fried banana booth; a 10 baht meal in its own right, the vendor there smothers the crispy fruit in a sweet coconut sauce. It’s pure heaven.
At the first set of crossroads, turning right will take you to two more wats, both lit for the night and overflowing with monks. Even if you’ve hit these temples during the day, a visit at night offers a whole new perspective. It makes for a nice break from the crowds, too. At the crossroads, if you wander to the left instead, you’ll find the biggest grouping of artists, mostly painters. And at the far end of the street, across from the Three Kings Monument, there is usually a set of puppeteers putting on a show and drawing a huge crowd.
Throughout the market you’ll run across street performers, an occasional Hill Tribe Child dancing a bit and posing for pix a lot more (just try and snap one without coughing up a tip . . . now there’s a Kodak moment!), gaggles of students lined up sitting in single file playing local musical instruments, and groups of old Thai folk playing local favorites.
Keep walking straight along Rajdamnern Road and you’ve got a long haul in front of you with even more vendors lining both sides of the street as well as a line of booths down the middle. The market dead ends at yet another temple, Wat Phra Singh, one of the biggest, finest and most famous temples in Chiang Mai; it’s large lit Buddha with worshipers massing in front is a great photo op. There is also a horde of tuk tuk drivers waiting and the far end of the market to whisk you back to your hotel. Forget about bargaining for the cost of your ride, the price is not negotiable and will be the highest priced ride you’ll pay for in town. They know they have a captive audience; pay up, or walk a long way back through the market loaded down with all the great buys you’ve purchased.
By the end of the evening your wallet will be depleted, your tummy will be full, and your feet will be worn, tired, a begging for relief. A long rest back at your hotel is a good idea. Tomorrow night you’ll be plodding along the length of the Night Bazaar. And then there are the Friday Night markets and the Saturday Night Market still to come . . .
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