As the epicenter of northern Thai and Lanna culture, Chiang Mai has endless tourist opportunities. There are mountain treks, beautiful temples, and loads of culture at every turn. However, I think near the top of any must-see list in Chiang Mai are the markets that are a cornerstone of everyday life. Many cities in Asia are known to have bustling street markets, but so far I think Chiang Mai does them the best.
One key factor is that they are everywhere throughout the city. As the sun sets each night, markets pop all over and stay open late into the evening. No matter where you are or what night it is, there will be a huge market selling anything you can imagine. Even right in front of our apartment sits a massive outdoor market designated for Chiang Mai University students with food stalls, stylish clothes, and as many ‘blinged’ out iPhone cases as you can handle.
Other Chiang Mai markets include the tourist friendly, yet suffocating Night Bazaar, the frenetic Saturday Night market, and best of all, the Sunday Night Walking Market.
The Sunday Night Market:
Every Sunday, rain or shine, the market begins to take shape at around 4pm with people constructing stands and tents through the heart of the ‘the old city’. The vendors set up on the outside of the street as well as directly down the middle so that traffic can flow in both directions. Electrical cords run everywhere, lights are turned on, and no two stands are decorated alike. I can’t imagine there are any zoning rules but there does seem to be unwritten agreements, as you often see people in a similar places each week.
The market provides a key forum for local artists, cooks, craftsman, and just about any type of good you can think of. There are flower shops, hat shops, soap shops, leather shops, and shoe stores. You can get pad Thai, mini donuts, popcorn, or crickets. Unlike many of the other markets in Thailand, the focus here is much less consumer junk (think fake BEATS headphones), and more craftsmanship and creativity.
The items for sale are sold my Chiang Mai residents and many things are made in the city. This is ‘buying local’ without the hipster connotation. I love that that although it is a huge tourist draw, the market is full of local Thais casually walking next to hippy backpackers and white haired Europeans. The Thais come here to support their community and just have a good time. Those that come each week seem to really know the vendors and like to see what new things are available. On any given Sunday, and especially the busier nights, it feels like the whole city is there and there is an overwhelming feeling of community and neighborhood in the crowd.
Also, the market is just a really great place to buy stuff. It is a perfect place to buy more meaningful and nicer tourist gifts to bring home and for locals, it is a cheap place to get home decorations or unique clothing. It’s also a great place to practice your haggling skills. Outside of a few expensive items, everything is up for negotiation and it is a great way to interact with the locals. As long as you keep it light and smile, haggling usually ends with both parties happy. It helps if you learn your Thai numbers and Sarah and I have gotten ‘Special speak Thai’ price more than once. One thing to remember is if you start to haggle, it is customary in Thai culture to eventually buy something. If you hear the initial price and you don’t think you would be happy buying it for say 25% less, don’t start haggling or it will seem rude when you walk away empty handed.
Last but not least is the food. A I said, you can buy just about anything you can imagine to eat here. Sarah I personally are in love with the Pad Thai a young Thai woman whips up at one of the stands, its a must buy every time we go. Other highlights include some unreal mini donuts and a strange pastry thing that has marshmallow and unknown orange and yellow fruit shavings inside. Plan on going on an empty stomach and just eating your way up and down the street.
More than anything else, I think the relaxed charm of the Sunday night Market is its real draw. Leisurely walking through the many stalls and chatting with new friends is a fantastic way to finish off a weekend while in Chiang Mai and is a must see for locals and visitors alike.