The mist-shrouded mountains of the cultural Chiang Mai Province have long enticed visitors to explore this southern slice of the great Himalayan mountain range. Initially drawn north by tales of elephants and vine-filled jungles, visitors are pleasantly distracted by the gateway city of Chiang Mai, a laid-back cultural capital.
Further piquing the imagination are the minority tribes who live among the high-altitude valleys, struggling to maintain their ethnically independent identities. But another allure of the northern Thai city is, and has been for hundreds of years, the shopping.
Chang Mai straddles one of Asia’s great crossroads – a southern spur of the Silk Road – fusing commerce and culture between points further north and west in modern-day China, Laos and Myanmar. Ancient caravan traders dealt in opium, silks and timber. Today, Chiang Mai’s infamous Night Bazaar is located a stone’s throw away from the original trade movements that bought silk, opium, tea, dried fruit, lacquerware, musk, ponies and mules, gold, copper, cotton, edible birds’ nests, betel nut, tobacco and ivory into the province.
It’s important to land in Chiang Mai before the weekend starts to get the best shopping experience Thailand has to offer. As the weekend commences, local vendors emerge from street after sprawling street with tempting, colourful displays of local arts and crafts, fashion and jewellery that will have your credit cards begging for mercy (if the locals only accepted them).
Watch out for the Sunday Walking Street, which has better-than-average products and a good dose of provincial culture. It is also a reminder of an itinerant merchant tradition of the ancient Chinese caravans. Arrive early to watch the vendors unpack their swollen packs and neatly arrange their product displays. The first sale of the night might be followed by a small ritual or prayer in hopes that more business will follow. Many of the products are handmade in and around Chiang Mai, including cotton scarves, leather sandals and wood carvings. Chiang Mai lets down its hippie hair at this market with lots of ethnic chic accessories, undyed cotton T-shirts and ‘save the planet’ canvas tote bags.
If you get hungry as you get lost shopping in Chiang Mai’s streets, the temples along the way host food stalls selling flavoursome northern Thai cuisine and other stamina boosts for the small change in your pocket. Near the grounds of Wat Chedi Luang on Th Phra Pokklao, look for earthenware bowls containing rich concoctions of kôw soy.
After dark has its attractions as well: buskers stake out small spots of the pedestrian path to serenade the crowd with old-fashioned favourites and new-fangled hits. When you tire of shopping, grab a massage chair where customers are stretched and pulled into angular lumps of dough.
What’s next? When everything else is shutting down, the Night Bazaar lights up. You won’t find anything mind-blowingly different here: avoid the stalls that run along the street and venture to the dedicated shopping buildings behind which are filled with antique and handicraft stores. Across the street is the Galare Night Bazaar selling upmarket clothes and home décor and the Galare Food Centre. The Anusan Market is less claustrophobic and filled with tables of vendors selling knitted caps, carved soaps and other cottage-industry goods. Deeper into the market is the Anusan Food Centre. The quality and bargains aren’t especially impressive, but the allure is the variety and concentration of stuff.
In contrast, the Saturday Walking Street is developing a reputation of having more authentic handicrafts and being less commercial than the Sunday Walking Street. This might be a bit of an exaggeration, as most vendors work both markets without exclusion. But the atmospheric old neighbourhood with its silver shops and old ladies wrapped up in Thai silk does impart a time-warp feeling.
One piece of advice: remember to bring an empty suitcase and have a suitable courier in mind when travelling to Chiang Mai because you could end up buying enough souvenirs to furnish an entire house. You've been warned!