To market, to market

My favorite thing to do in a new city is just to walk around. Observing the people, hearing the language and taking in all the sights and smells is a perfect way to get a sense of the the culture, the city and the people living in it. Throughout our trip, we have done quite a bit of walking. We have the blisters — and one pair of broken shoes — to prove it. But seeing the streets has been amazing, especially since many of them are covered in streetside markets.

We market-hopped extensively in Bangkok, and I was excited to see how the frenzied Thai streets looked up north. Our first visit was to Chiang Mai’s Warorot Market. The narrow alleyways packed with everything from raw meat to t-shirts to spools of ribbon were not dissimilar from many of the anonymous street markets we saw in Bangkok. Street signs are not so popular in Thailand. It was not uncommon for us to have no idea where we were, and though Chiang Mai and Warorot were more manageable than Bangkok, we would probably never have made it out of the maze of shops and tuk-tuks were it not for our trusty map.

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In Chiang Mai, the guidebooks all rave about the Night Bazaar. Every night, starting at about 6 p.m., merchants of every kind set up stalls inside a few freestanding buildings, as well as throughout the surrounding streets and alleyways. Hawking jewelry, scarves, housewares, food and every other possible item you could think of, they beckon to all passersby. Our hotel in Chiang Mai was just blocks from the Night Bazaar, and I had sort of assumed when we picked it that we would wind up walking through the market to go everywhere. As it turns out, the market was filled with more tourist junk than real items, and it was disorganized mayhem, not quite the organized chaos of Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market.

Nancy Chandler’s rendition of Chiang Mai’s night bazaar

On Sundays, everything is different. One of Chiang Mai’s most motorcycle-and-tuk-tuk-congested streets is shut down to traffic and from 4 p.m. until midnight, merchants line the sidewalks. The Sunday Walking Market, as it is known, is frequented by as many locals as tourists. Many of the stalls are staffed by representatives of retail stores, peddling their merchandise in a more visible arena. The stalls also seemed to have a more thematic organization, with jewelry in one place, pillows and posters down a particular side street, and Buddha statues down another. And of course, there’s a food court or two.

The market stretches for countless blocks and for several hours. After a little while, Chaz left to get a massage and I continued perusing the market stalls. This marked one of the first times on our trip we separated. In Bangkok, the logistics of relocating each other seemed too daunting. Even in smaller Chiang Mai, we had a very precise meeting place and contingency plan. That left me with over an hour to take in all that the colorful Walking Market had to offer.

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Walking through the market by myself, I observed an insane number of jewels and scarves. Like I learned in Hong Kong at the jade market, few items are what their sellers profess them to be. The jade is usually just green plastic and Thai silk is rarely more than shiny cotton. The mantra of “what you see is what you get” is an appropriate mindset for the marketplace. Though I picked up a shirt (discounted because I am “pretty lady”) and a Hello Kitty item or two, the focus of my market-going was less on shopping and more on seeing.

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The market was filled with performers, including an official stage with little Thai girls dressed in outfits remarkably similar to those I wore in my four-year-old tap-dancing performances. What was somewhat disturbing though were the young children playing musical instruments among the shops. These kids were working for tips, and it was hard to discern whether they had been put up to it by their parents and whether they would ever see the money. With all the fun and festivity of Thailand, it was at moments easy to forget the realities of the developing nation we were in, but these kids were a definite reminder.

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The other markets we visited in Chiang Mai were less official. Among them was the Eastern Fruits Festival, a series of temporary tents housing dragonfruit, durian and the other exotic specialties of the region. Because it was smack in the middle of the city, we cut through the festival to walk elsewhere during the daytime, when sellers were just setting up their produce, and at night, when traditional Thai dancers came out to shake their stuff.

One morning, as we paused in front of a pad thai saleswoman so I could discretely take her picture (it never gets old), a group of schoolgirls stopped us. Having been warned so many times about marketplace scams — and narrowly avoiding a couple of them — we had a pretty heightened level of skepticism about any natives who approached us, but the girls seemed totally innocent and authentic. Armed with a tape recorder and a list of questions, they told us that they were students of English and they wanted to know where we were from and what we thought of Chiang Mai, among other things. The whole encounter reminded me of an almost identical interview I participated in for English students in Barcelona. (Both times I told the natives I thought their food was delicious.) At the end of our Thai interview, the girls asked to take a picture with us and we agreed — as long as we could have our own copy too.

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Our final notable street encounter took place on the walk back to our hotel on our final night in Chiang Mai. A quiet nondescript street by day, the road linking our hotel to “downtown” Chiang Mai took a darker turn at night. Go-go bars lined the entire walk, and each seemed to be identical to the next: staffed by young Thai girls and frequented by older Western men. The whole thing was a little unsettling. But in the midst of the mayhem was a cute little stall that we passed most nights, advertising cheap, homemade wine by the glass. To his credit, Chaz suggested we stop there one of the first nights, but it wasn’t until the last night, when we were walking back to the hotel and noticed a young Western couple sipping their wine, that I finally agreed to stop.

The pair of Canadians was vacationing in Thailand before beginning the school year as teachers in Bangladesh. The girl, Kat, had taught for a year in Chiang Mai previously and used to visit the wine stall regularly. Run by a Thai couple, the stand offers strawberry, ginseng, lychee and longan wine, all of which are on the sweet side. We sampled three of the four flavors — the longan was my favorite — but Kat warned that the wines tend to vary from bottle to bottle.

The proprietors took our photo and took down our names, a tradition repeated with all of the stall’s customers. So once again, we decided it would be only appropriate to take away keepsake photos of our own.

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We also took away a keepsake bottle, but because of our concerns about continuing to travel with it, it had to be consumed.