If you are planning on visiting Chiang Mai, I would recommend that you include a Sunday in your schedule. That is the day when Thailand’s best handicrafts market spreads out in the streets of the old city – a perfect opportunity to buy souvenirs and presents. It stretches from Thapae gate almost all the way to Wat Phra Singh, and well into the side streets to Wat Chedi Luang and the Three Kings Monument, providing hours and hours of distraction even if you do not actually want to buy anything.
A couple of years ago, an ex-friend commented that the Sunday Market is “full of cheap junk”, which I took very personally. I vividly remember that it was the time when I really started to consider Chiang Mai my home, and all the unjustly negative remarks just strengthened my feelings. The Sunday Market is one of my favourite “playgrounds”, something I take for granted: I enjoy having some consistency in my life. I hardly ever do any shopping, though many of my household items come from here. If I was a genuine shopoholic, I would probably buy a couple of dozen paper lamps – they look so much better in large clusters than one by one!
Of course the market has some junk as well, but the majority of the vendors offer good quality or unique items on their simple stalls or from mats and boxes spread out on the ground. There is usually a row of OTOP labelled handmade clothes near the Three Kings, with beautiful Lanna designs and hilltribe-inspired patterns. The old Lanna style is definitely having a comeback as more attention is given to local culture and traditions at schools. Hilltribe patterns are often blended into more modern lines and designs and appear on accessories and household items as well.
Junior sales assistant
I also enjoy getting a massage in one of the temples when I get tired, listening to the music and all the people coming and going in the meantime. It is actually in one of these temples that I met a teacher who helped me get the job I have had for over three years now. I trawled through four years of photos to find pictures of my favourite place, but to my surprise, I only found dozens of drink stalls.
The temple yards are all transformed into open-air food markets, where vast quantities of mostly traditional fare feed the masses. The prices are very reasonable, and everything is on offer from insects to grilled fish, fresh fruits to phat thai. I am a creature of habits and I always have dimsum, coconut-filled dessert, and fresh orange juice.
It is not only the food vendors that always set up at the same spot: most of the stalls seem to be exactly the same as four years ago. The range of handricrafts changes and shifts, but if you remember a lampshade stall in this corner or magnificent desserts over there last year, you can almost be sure you will be able to locate them at the same place.
These elderly musicians play traditional Thai tunes near Thapae gate every week.
The temple buildings are usually open, and they are a good place to sit down for a while and relax. Wat Phan Tao, a wooden temple near the great chedi, is beautifully lit in the evenings, with floodlights outside and candles inside, and meditation music floats in the air. A couple of fortune-tellers set up their tables in the yard, and the queues never seem to get any shorter.
Of course, people-watching is just as exciting as the handicrafts. There are always large groups of youngsters collecting donations for their education projects. Musicians or wannabe musicians play guitar or Thai musical instruments and deliver inspired covers of classics. The source of inspiration is often debatable, but everyone seems to be having loads of fun. In addition, quite a few young girls are always out there in traditional Thai dress, dancing or singing, surrounded by foreigners. I am often wondering how they get up and go to school early in the next morning.
The large square in front of the Three Kings Monument is often the venue of cultural events. More often than not, there is a stage set up, and some kind of show going on: competition of school bands, beauty pageants, hilltribe dancing, lukthung music, game shows, Japanese culture day, merit-making – you name it. I have not been able to find a source or events calendar to tell me what is up next weekend so it is always a bit of a surprise. On the Sundays when there is no special event going on, skateboarding kids dominate the scene, and a couple of performing troupes such as fire-breathing school kids take over the area.
I sometimes see these puppet-dancers near Three Kings.
One would think that such a market attracts mostly souvenir-hunting foreigners, but actually most of the visitors are Thai. I cannot tell though whether they are locals or visitors from other provinces. It is absolutely not a tourist trap.
As you can see from some of the photos, the vendors start setting up their stalls well before sunset, some as early as 3 p.m. However, the road is only closed to the traffic a couple of hours later. More often than not, prices are clearly displayed and do not seem to be negotiable, but it is always worth a try, especially if you have experience in telling the normal price for certain things. Contrary to Chiang Mai’s daily tourist market (the Night Bazaar), the Sunday Market is not a vendors’ hunting ground and favourite rip-off spot: most prices are very reasonable, and if you start a fight over a few baht, you may end up embarrassing yourself. However, it never hurts to shop around. The vendors start packing up at around ten, or sooner if it rains, but then they do so with breakneck speed. This year, they have been lucky with the weather so far.
Overview of the area in front of Thapae Gate.
Parking is difficult, to say the least. Residents and even temples charge 10 baht or so for the privilege of leaving your vehicle in front of their premises or in their yards. However, it is always possible to find a quiet little soi nearby or plenty of free spots five minutes walk away – if you have a motorcycle. If you drive a car, either set off early to secure parking, or forget it.
I have posted some more photos of the handicrafts, foodstalls and people at the Chiang Mai forum.