Founded in the thirteenth century as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, a powerful state centered in present-day northern Thailand, Chiang Mai still retains within the perimeter of its fortified moat the rich heritage of its glorious past as a cultural and religious center. However, its geographic and business center has moved eastward in more recent times, from the Old City to the area between the moat and the Ping River, where it is dominated by the famous Vieng Ping Night Bazaar.
A Nightly Tradition
A vast three-story shopping arcade under a temple-style roof filled with stalls bursting with crafts, clothing and antiques (real and fake), the Vieng Ping Night Bazaar tradition traces back to the Chinese trading caravans that traveled the ancient route from Yunnan to the sea ports of Burma. In front of the arcade, both sides of Chang Khlan Road are a gauntlet of street vendors hawking souvenirs and mass-produced articles of all kinds. Open from dusk until around midnight, the bazaar is not merely a place to shop but also one of the most popular tourist attractions in Chiang Mai.
Across the street, the less hectic Kalare Center is host to a more varied array of shops that range from artist studios, jewelers, upscale clothing and home décor outlets to tour operators. It also includes a vast food hall and entertainment area where traditional Thai dancers and musicians perform at random intervals throughout the evening.
The Kalare food hall is unusual in that it operates on a “coupon system.” The outside perimeter of the hall is lined with small stalls offering a broad range of choices. There are varied Thai specialties, but also but also Chinese, Indian, Japanese, seafood, vegetarian, etc.. Vendors have their dishes on display, usually about six to eight options, with the price prominently indicated, i.e. 20 TBH, 40 TBH, 60 TBH, etc. (yes, that’s fifty cents to one-fifty dollar U.S.!). You browse the offerings and purchase a handful of small denomination coupons from a central booth. Then you point at your selections, hand over the appropriate coupons, and your meal is cooked on demand by the time you’ve found yourself a place to sit at one of the many tables in the center of the hall.
In Chiang Mai, you don’t have to wait till dusk for a dizzying market experience. Just a few minutes’ walk from the Night Bazaar, the Warorot Market is where locals do their shopping. In Northern Thai (or Lanna) language, it’s called Kat Luang (big market). Warorot actually refers to the entire district, which also happens to be the city’s Chinatown.
The side streets are a pandemonium of shops, stalls and street vendors selling everything you can imagine, or not (fried insects anyone?). And in the middle of it all stands the covered market itself. It’s actually two city-block-size, three-story buildings, the Warorot and the Lam Yia markets, linked by a footbridge. Their offerings are similar, all manner of foodstuffs on the ground floor, with plenty of noodles and rice stalls thrown in. Then everything from household goods, clothing and beauty supplies to handicrafts, electronic gadgets, herbal medicines and fireworks are on the upper two floor mezzanines.
The covered markets are open from around 6:00 am to 7:00 pm, but in the surrounding streets the action keeps going well into the evening. And, by the way, the prices are some of the best in the city.
The Hmong are one of the most populous “hill-tribe” groups across Southeast Asia, and a number of them are settled in the mountains above Chiang Mai. They are famous for their vibrant costumes, the quality of their textiles and beautiful handmade clothes.
Just off the southwestern corner of the Warorot Market, the narrow “Hmong Lane” is the ultimate textile extravaganza. Mountains of elaborately pleated skirts, brilliantly embroidered tops, bags and accessories compete for space with bolts of colorful batiks, quilts of all sizes made from repurposed ancient fabric panels and bins overflowing with antique notions. The sky, or your airline’s luggage allowance, is the limit here.
Wat Saen Fang
After an overwhelming couple of hours in Warorot, you may long for the serenity of a Buddhist temple (of wat). At a busy corner of Tapae Road, Wat Saen Fang announces itself by a tall bright red iron gate sandwiched between two grubby storefronts. Through its elaborate latticework, two imposing Nagas (dragon-like serpents) show the way. Follow their undulating bodies to the end the alleyway and you find yourself in the flamboyant compound of Wat Saen Fang. The Burmese influence dominates here, especially in the spectacular whitewashed chedi (pagoda) with its rainbow of mirrored tiles. With its rambling buildings guarded by more Nagas and other spirits, it is not only a peaceful retreat but also a timeless photographers’ haven right in the heart of contemporary Chiang Mai.
Taking to the hills
A visit to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (of Doi Suthep for short) is the ultimate must of a trip to Chiang Mai. Built in the late fourteenth century on a promontory some 1,000 meters (3,200 feet) high, 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) from the city center, it offers scenic views of Chiang Mai and the Ping Valley. With its golden central chedi said to enshrine a relic of the historical Buddha, the wat is a flamboyant example of Lanna architecture and considered one of the most sacred temples in Thailand.
It is reached by a 306-step staircase guarded by a pair of imposing stone Nagas (or a funicular ride to the top for 20 TBH). A walk through the buildings of the compound reveals a number well preserved murals that depict everyday life in the Lanna Kingdom.
Good to Know
- Getting There – Chiang Mai is easily accessible from Bangkok via multiple airlines with flights scheduled throughout the day. The flight takes about 70 minutes.
- Getting Around – Like the Old City, the downtown area is fairly compact and easily walkable. But if you don’t feel like walking or are loaded down with your purchases from the markets, rickshaws are for you. These traditional man-powered tricycles are everywhere and quite inexpensive. Short hops are between 10 and 20 TBH, or you can hire one to show you the sights around town, (100 to 150 TBH for a half day). If you prefer motorized transportation, three-wheel open-sided tuk-tuks are lined up near all the tourist areas. The cost varies with your destination and bargaining talent and can be anything within the 50 to 150 THB range. Lastly, the ubiquitous songthaews (two rows), canopied red pickup trucks with twin bench seating are Chiang Mai answer to a bus service. The price is 20 THB within the Old Town and downtown area. Then it increases the farther you go.
- Getting to Doi Suthep – My preferred option to reach the famed wat on the hilltop is to hire a taxi for half a day to go to the site. Negotiate the price before the trip. It should be between 500 and 600 TBH. It will wait for you while you visit, and you do not pay until the end of the trip. Guidebooks give a number of public transport options that usually involve taking a songthaew bus to either Chiang Mail University or the zoo, then another one to Doi Suthep. These budget solutions may save up to 200 TBH (or five dollars U.S.), but considerably increase the complexity of the operation and the waiting time.
- Where to stay – With tourism now a major economic growth factor for Chiang Mail, a vast array of lodging options have developed throughout the city, from traditional guesthouses to slick new hotels. My personal favorite in the downtown area ist he dusitD2 Chiang Mai, or simply D2as it is affectionately called by the hip local community and visitors alike. Located right across the street from the Night Bazaar, this ultra-modern property combines the highest standards of traditional hospitality with avant-garde East Asian décor to create a chic urban retreat in the midst of the city’s bustling downtown. The restaurant, Moxie, is nationally acclaimed for its eclectic fusion of western and Asian cuisines. dusit D2 Chiang Mai,100 Chang Klan Road, Amphur Muang, Chiang Mai, 50100, Thailand. Contact: e-mail e-mail, Tel: +66 (0) 5399 9999
- Where to Eat – Moxie, of course, and the Kalare food court, and everywhere! Thailand is famous for it cuisine bursting with flavors and spices, but Chiang Mai is a foodies’ Nirvana. From street food, noodle and rice stands to the new extravagant fusion dishes from a new generation of chefs who add intriguing touches from the world over to traditional cooking, it’s easy to eat your way around Chiang Mai.
- Visiting – Most wats are open from early morning to late afternoon. Whenever you pass a one that looks interesting, just take off your shoes, step over the threshold (not on it) and you are welcome to walk in. You may find that monks and novices are often glad to speak with foreigners. Make sure to dress appropriately (no tank tops or shorts). And don’t forget to leave a few coins in one of the offering bowls lined near the entrance.
- Bargaining – You are expected to bargain for your purchases. Good-humored bargaining is practically a national sport in Thailand. Even though the prices may appear quite reasonable by your normal standards, you should always bargain and try to get at least another 20 to 25 percent off the asking price. It’s part of the fun.
- What to avoid –There is a Hmong village located a short drive from Doi Suthep. Most packaged excursions and chartered cab drivers will offer to include it in your visit to the wat. While the scenery is lovely and worth the detour if time allows, it is now little more than a staged commercial attraction site with a nominal entrance fee. You may notice credit card logos in the stalls of the sprawling textile market at the entrance of the village (variety, quality and prices tend not to measure up to those of the downtown market). For an additional fee, you can visit the small museum perched in a “typical” garden where you can take selfies in full Hmong regalia in front of an opium poppy patch. The Kayan, or “Long Neck Karen” Village is arguably northern Thailand’s most contentious “tourist attraction.” The opportunity to visit the famed “giraffe women” presented me with a dilemma. After researching the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and other reputable displaced persons organization files, I concluded that the village was irreconcilable with any principles of responsible tourism and I did not visit. In a nutshell, the Kayans are one of the minority tribes from Burma (now known as Myanmar) displaced by the brutal conflict between the country’s ruling military junta and its ethnic minorities from 1962 until 2011. Because of their tourism value, ring-wearing “long neck” women and their families were granted “conflict refugee” status by Thailand. Today, approximately 500 Kayans live in guarded villages near the northern Thai border. The villages are managed by local businessmen and said to be sustained by the revenue brought by tourism. A second major area of controversy are the rings themselves. Traditionally, only girls born at certain auspicious times were required to wear the rings. Today, the tourist trade is encouraging all the girls to wear them, a practice that must start at the age of 5 or 6, and will severely limit their option to ever leave their current living conditions. For more information about plight of the long-neck women, see Epicure and Culture-Thailand Long Neck Women.