Chiang Mai is located in northern Thailand, and very very very (you get the idea) popular with visitors. The region is known for its beautiful natural landscapes and elephants, and the town for its laid-back vibe and coffee culture. A bit (OK, a lot) touristy for my taste, but having missed out on Northern Thailand last time around we decided to check it out.
Chiang Mai: Millions of Markets
Pick up a map of Chiang Mai and you’ll easily see the area has a million (exact figure) markets. From the huge, overwhelming Night Bazaar taking over the entire downtown each night to the local Warorot with goods from bras to dried fish, there are many to explore. Here are only some of them, listed in order of how much I liked them.
Warorot Market (& Ton Lam Yai Market)
A more authentic, normal market; I saw no foreigners when I went in the morning (twice). This market is next to the Ton Lam Yai Market (the two almost feel like they’re connected), and also nearby to the flower market. Wandering around you can find anything and everything – snacks and meals, whole fruits/veggies, clothing, fashion accessories, flowers, cosmetics, and all the things in between. There are also some awesome bead stores outside this market, which I am partial to.
Oh and there is a restaurant that serves fried dough in the shape of dinosaurs and elephants!
Chiang Mai Gate Market (Talat Sao)
This market is open very early (5am) and winds down by about noon, only to pick up again around 5 or so for the evening. In the morning, it’s an amazing local market of vegetables, rice and supplies plus ready-to-eat foods. I wake up obscenely early so I went daily after my morning run for juice, cut fruit, sticky rice, and a variety of other delicious items – all at very low prices. You can also shop for cheap, random thrift clothes set up outside in the morning.
(Sweet sticky rice and some sort of tapioca – as delicious as they are pretty)
In the evening the stalls change over for night foods, and new carts with made to order rice dishes and pad Thai, fresh smoothies, meat sticks and the like wheel in, their smoke beckoning from blocks away.
Located near the Thae Phae Gate, this is another non tourist, local market. It is quite small and a bit more crowded late morning and midday. Lots of local snacks, tables to eat on – the usual.
It’s like any other night markets – full of elephant pants, tourists, and overpriced street snacks. Skip it.
Saturday Walking Street
Just when you think you cannot possibly set foot in another market. Bam! The Saturday Walking Street aka a giant market suddenly appears on, well, Saturday. At first it’s cool. Lots of food, cute items you cannot purchase because your backpack weighs 35 pounds already, fellow tourists – oh wait, we don’t want those. It seems like a good place to go. Maybe for some people it is, but for us it’s not. Twenty minutes in, we wanted to die of exhaustion and extreme market and elephant pants fatigue.
In case you haven’t had enough by Sunday, there is a massive Sunday Market that takes over huge blocks of street downtown. It didn’t seem as bad as the Saturday one..at first. Until we just wanted to get home but were trapped in throngs of tourists walking very very slowly, looking at the same goods from the Saturday Walking Street, and the Night Baazar, and stopping randomly for long periods. We tried to escape down a side road, but the side roads were markets, too (ahh!).
Chiang Mai: [Totally Touristy] Things To Do
One of the city’s two major tourist entertainment offerings is the Cabaret Show, performed by ladyboys nightly in a ramshackle tent (by ramshackle I do mean it’s ripped and open air). Performers are in the market dressed up and selling tickets, and you can also pay to pose with them. We declined to go as the show didn’t seem to match the price.
The other offering is the Muay Thai boxing fight, of which there are 3 arenas. One within a sketch sex bar area (see below), one in the Thaepe Stadium, and one in the “big stadium” out of town. After chugging a few beers on the road outside 7-11 (budget alert), we headed in. There were 100% tourists and the fight was 100% fake – at least for the most part. It was OK, not a great use of money, but what we expected. While inside, a sketchy tourist man frantically filmed the “ladies” fight, while another man in the front row facetimed someone back home, holding his camera up to the ring for an hour.
Lots of Wats
The city is also home to lots (over 40) of wats. We visited some, but after this long on the road and this densely-watted of a city, we didn’t spent too long.
Of course, in a place with a booming sex tourism industry there are places for people to participate, and to do so blatantly. There is one particular area (off Loi Kroh Road) dedicated to these “girly bars” – literally you walk by and see all the [mostly old] men and girls playing the requisite game of connect four as an icebreaker, as well as flirting and drinking before transactions take place. We grabbed a beer to watch – both horrified and fascinated – as this unfolded right in front of everyone’s’ eyes.
The obligatory stop in Chiang Mai, Doi Suthep is a large golden temple on a hill. We initially decided to skip it, but as the days went on I started feeling maybe I should go. A brochure screamed at me, If you haven’t tried khoi soi and haven’t been to Doi Suthep you haven’t seen Chiang Mai. “Oh no!,” I idiotically thought, “I haven’t seen Chiang Mai!” So, when we got stuck in town a day longer than planned, I went to see it. I headed to Wat Phra Singh to try to hail a shared songthaw to the top. After milling around and creepily watching people approach for 30 minutes, there were finally enough of us to drop the cost to acceptable level and head up.
It was as I thought initially (pre marketing brochure) – lame. Another beautiful golden temple swarmed by tourists among dozens of beautiful golden temples swarmed by tourists. Sarah smartly stayed behind and went to a hedgehog cafe (animal cruelty).
💲Budget Tip | Go to Wat Phra Singh and wait for a group of 8 (or more) to arrive. A shared songthaw is only 50 baht than – the cheapest you can get. You can hike, too, for free, but it’s over 5 hours so you have to be VERY ambitious.
Suthep (The University Area)
My highlight of Chiang Mai was walking down Suthep Road several miles from outside the city wall, past the university, all the way to the foot of the mountain. The area felt very authentic, and had lots and lots of amazing cheap local restaurants, bubble tea and coffee shops, stationary stores with cute pens, and amazing street food stalls in the evening. Wat Suan Dorg is also quite impressive, temple fatigure notwithstanding. Totally worth the 7+ mile round trip walk from the hostel to see this area. So worth it, I walked there and back two separate times.
Get Out Of Town: Other Offerings
Our other best times in Chiang Mai were leaving the city — visiting the Bor Sang (also called Bo Sang) Umbrella Village and the Elephant Poopoopaper Park (real name). Chiang Mai is known for the Elephant Sanctuaries, which I didn’t visit but are popular. **Stay tuned for the next post to read more!
Chiang Mai: Eating
The dish to try is the Khoi Soi, or curry in coconut milk with noodles and a leg of chicken. We did eat at one touristy place with a nice view – Riverside Restaurant – which was actually an exceeds expectations situation. We ate at mostly random local spots around town (Pickthorn’s was good), as well as the food market by the night bazaar (across from Hard Rock) which was surprisingly good. And at the Talat Sao, of course, because you cannot beat made-to-order dinner for 30 baht ($.90usd).