Aside from its beautiful landscape and cool climate, Chiang Mai, the cultural capital of Northern Thailand, is also known for its vibrant night markets and friendly folk.
With an evening to spare on a recent business trip, I decided to visit Chiang Mai’s Wua Lai Walking Street, a popular bazaar near the Chiang Mai Gate, where its old city once stood.
Stretching some two kilometres, Wua Lai (or ‘Saturday’ in Thai) is probably the largest and most popular Saturday-only market in Chiang Mai. Thousands of stalls selling sought-after indigenous collectibles, such as lemongrass soaps, delicate handicrafts and hand-painted umbrellas, are set up as early as three in the afternoon. There are also stalls selling contemporary gears such as mobile phone casings and locally inspired jewellery.
Street Food Galore
Local specialities and bite-sized street food of every imaginable taste and colour can be seen at open-air eateries and stalls lining the two-way street. Grilled pork, mango ‘sticky’ rice and crunchy grasshoppers are common teatime snacks found on their makeshift menus.
Snapping pictures as I ventured deeper, I stopped by a pushcart selling Phat Thai (stir-fried rice noodles). The stall was manned by a young, cheerful couple who looked no more than twenty. After a friendly ‘Sawadee Kap’ they began speaking with me in Thai, possibly asking if I wanted a plate. My reactive nods and smile—which they perceived as a ‘Yes’—helped kicked off their business that evening.
In a swift move, the lady grabbed a handful of noodles and started stirring and tossing them in her pre-heated wok. Throwing in a variety of ingredients, she then jerked the wok in small circular motions as I watched my dinner dance over the flame. There were shrimp, squid, eggs, and lots of bean sprouts. Wok fragrance soon filled the street.
My focus soon shifted to a small gathering of Caucasians in the queue. Looking in the same direction, there could only be one thing on their minds. I settled at a nearby table and savoured my piping hot Phat Thai, served on a styrofoam plate. It came with a packet of sugar and chilli powder. At 30 baht (US$0.8), it tasted surprisingly good. Lesson learnt: When in doubt, just nod and smile.
As dusk swallowed the last light of the day, buskers and percussionists had begun performing their numbers in the middle of the bustling street. Usually performing till the wee hours of the morning, they add an exciting buzz to the dynamic night scenes of Wua Lai Walking Street.
Some of these street artistes looked as young as 10 while others looked over eighty; many had special needs. I was surprised by their musical talent and skills, and perhaps more so by their display of courage and optimism. The sincerity exuded from their performances have touched many hearts. Though a 20 Baht (US$0.6) encouragement may not have brightened their evening as much as they have brightened mine, I did receive some gratified glances.
Open-air markets like the Wua Lai Walking Street are important social and business settings for the indigenous, where they live, breathe and earn their livelihood. An endearing part of Chiang Mai’s century-old traditions, these markets have preserved their quintessentially sociable and unassuming nature.
I met a happy-go-lucky chap by the name of ‘A’ who convinced me into buying a bottle of Gac Fruit juice. I was initially sceptical, especially with regard to what his signboard claimed. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. My first taste of Gac Fruit juice turned out better than I had expected—it had the refreshing sour tang of passion fruit, which I was familiar with (I found out later that Gac Fruit is classified as a superfood with high antioxidant properties). Heavenly indeed.
A, who was in a chatty mood, told me that he works as a full-time IT professional, but sets up his fruit juice business on Saturdays. Like a long lost neighbour, he continued to share with me everything under the sun. A’s outspoken and candid persona left a deep impression in my memory.
I realised that most Chiang Mai folk would readily welcome a friendly chat or two, and they would even pose for photographers with little hesitation.
During my midpoint ‘dessert stop’, I got more than I asked for when I casually requested a snapshot of a young helper at K Mangoes, a family-run café where I had delicious mangoes and coconut ice-cream.
With great spontaneity, the family happily gathered in front of the camera. It was my first family portraiture overseas and it turned out well. Not only were their mangos juicy and unbelievably cheap, their smiles were the most beautiful and genuine I had seen that evening.
As I scanned for memorable souvenirs from Wua Lai Walking Street, I met Mr. Bird, a mild-tempered man in his early-thirties, who was selling hand-painted keychains of comic superheroes. In a city that attracts renowned artists, composers and designers to its music and arts festivals annually, I wasn’t surprised to see the creative worth in Bird’s keychains.
There were the all-time favourites Batman, Spiderman, Ultraman and even Doraemon in his collection. “This Doraemon is special. I added the heart-shape behind, it’s the only piece in the world,” he said with pride, before describing his painstaking efforts to paint the fine details on each of his keychains. This man is indeed proud of his mini art; as his customer, I felt good buying from him.
I eventually chose Ironman and Doraemon (that rare piece with a heart). Though pricey at 150 Baht (US$4) each, I felt good bringing such exclusive souvenirs back home.
While walking back to the Chiang Mai Gate, I chatted with a 70-year-old weaving master and his disciple, whose magical hands could bring dragons, phoenixes and horses to life using sisal ropes. I also stopped to chat with a man who was helping to sell his younger brother’s hand-made porcelain coin containers. Though I could not recall his name, I remembered his one-liner sales pitch: “Good savings for you, has a slot but no hole at the bottom.” Clever. I bought one—at a special price.
With a morning flight to catch, I left the Wua Lai Walking Street somewhat reluctantly. Inspired by its sights, smells, tastes and human touch, I decided to return for more on my next vacation and revisit this street that had changed my perception of a Saturday Night Market.