Temples and marketplaces
I had an amazing experience visiting Chiang Mai’s Sunday Walking Street Market last week, which included buying many things I didn’t expect to, and finding myself truly immersed in the creativity of the local people and their products. You can tell this from all the photos I’ve crammed into this post! This Chiang Mai institution starts about 4pm, and continues until about midnight every Sunday. One of the main streets of Chiang Mai city is shut, with several tributary streets also closed, so the entire event is pedestrian only, where both locals and tourists come to shop and enjoy the fun.
I decided to start early, after a visit to one of the largest temples in Chiang Mai, Wat Phra Singh, which is at the end of the road where the Walking Street Market is situated (I do have to keep stopping myself calling it the ‘Street Walking Market’, which I suspect would be something quite different!). New Year is a time when many Buddhists visit the temples, and give gifts (alms) to the Monks and listen to Dharma. The shops are full of baskets of useful things (food, cleaning supplies?!) which can be helpfully given to the monks, but money is also accepted – you can buy a streamer which you essentially fill with notes, and then hang up. Decorative and charitable…
It was quite an amazing sight to go into the temple and see it so active and lively, with locals being blessed by the monks, listening to them in groups, or just offering alms and praying in front of the Buddha statue. All shoes are taken off at the door, and Westerners are charged 40p to enter, which given it is a holy time for Buddhists, seems fair enough to me. It was an interesting combination of spiritual and festival, which I really liked. There was also a very lively atmosphere in the temple grounds, with many stalls set up – it felt a bit like a village fete. Once the Sunday market was up and running, many of the temples en route also had stalls within them, with commerce and spirituality comfortable bedfellows. You can buy food, crafts or even have a massage in temple grounds.
My guidebook had said earlier in the day was easier if you actually wanted to buy things at the market, as there would be more time and space to negotiate with the stall owners. Having visited the temple and enjoyed a fruit juice in a café to prep my blood sugar levels, I set out. It seemed pretty busy to me already…
The number of items that can be bought at the market is huge, and all were of a surprisingly (to me, having grown up near Harlow market in Essex, anyway) high quality. There were a lot of arts and crafts type items (such as handmade paper, knitted caps – because everyone gets cold in 30 degrees – coloured lights, lanterns, and a strange amount of Angry Birds related merchandise – bun that looked like an Angry Bird anyone?!) plus all kinds of clothes and food items.
For example, I wanted to buy a coin purse. There were coin purses of all colours and types, starting at 20p. After browsing many styles, I eventually bought one for 20p with little flowers on. And felt quite pleased as that was on my list – tick! Also early on in my shopping I was looking for (another – stationery is a weakness) handmade books and paper, having been quite jealous of a handmade paper book which my friend was using. This was a little more expensive at (after a small amount of bartering) about £3.80, but I was really pleased with it.
By now it was just before 6pm, and I had spent more time shopping than I can remember in a long time, and I was really enjoying the colour and craft of the market. It was simply a joy to look at all the different stalls, not knowing what type of product was coming next – there seemed no rhyme or reason to the stall placement. I felt it was definitely another right-brain enhancing experience. Continuing with that came a surreal (for a Brit) moment at 6pm, when the national anthem started to play, and every single person moving stopped dead, and all the people sitting stood up, and waited for the anthem to finish. They didn’t sing mind, just listened. It was a bit spooky – you don’t often see so many people silenced. Apparently the anthem is played twice a day, and everyone in a public place stops, every time…
All this standing around patriotically had given me an appetite, but I decided first to take advantage of the on-street massage (as I feel a bit like I am collecting massage experiences here!). This was very strange from a Western perspective – many massage chairs lined up in a row on the street, sometimes 20 or 30 in a group, with masseurs working on people, head, feet, or sometimes body. I chose a slightly more discrete group, off the main road in one of the temples – however, when you see the view I had from my massage space you’ll see I was on full view! I went for the full body massage (well, why not) and was inches away on either side from two Thais, a man in his twenties who was texting through most of his massage, and an older woman to my right who had her eyes closed and looked like she was having a religious experience. Mind you, I’m sure I looked equally odd trying to keep my eyes both open and closed at the same time, balancing looking all around me and pretending that I was somewhere else.
By the time I came out of the massage about 7pm, things had really hotted up, both in terms of atmosphere, numbers, and therefore humidity. It was still early evening, so the cool (such as it is) hadn’t really started, and there were a large number of people crowded together. It’s hard to get across the compressed nature of the humanity there, but also the good-naturedness of the people – the stall holders were polite and deferential, enjoying some haggling when it came, but not at all pushy about their products – no one was shouting about their wares, they all waited for people to approach.
It was time for some food after the massage, and after I dismissed the many meat-on-a-stick stalls (this is so popular here, and so unappealing if you’re a vegetarian!), and had considered a freshly blended fruit juice – they look like jewels in a cup – I finally went for…a waffle! These have the advantage (for the seller) of smelling lovely, and I was completely drawn in. I went for an original, with some chocolate sauce, but banana, coconut or sweetcorn as well as many others were available. Mmmmmm….
On the way I’d managed to buy some more trousers. Those who know me in a suit or formal dress would definitely be amazed at my look here in Thailand, which mostly consists of flip-flops, vests or t-shirts, and loose cotton ‘traveller trousers’ – the most recent ones looking particularly MC Hammer-ish. But they are very cool (as in hot) and as one of the signs at the market said ‘baggy is sexy and in’! They also have the advantage of fitting anyone, male or female, short or tall, fat or thin (within reason!). So they’re easy to buy as you don’t have to try them on. No, they probably wont make it home with me, and no, I’m not putting up a picture of me in them.
I also bought a couple of loose thai style tops which are good for keeping mosquitos at bay, which I was able to haggle down the price of because I was buying two. In a similar vein, I bought two bags, one for day to day activities (which I love and have used every day since) and a bigger one for laundry. And then right at the end, as my feet were turning in the direction of home, and I gave in to buying a bottle of water (30p) to rehydrate, I saw some silk scarves on sale for £2, and bought a beautiful light blue one. Scarves are actually surprisingly useful here, and I always carry one in my bag – you can sit on them, put them on the seat of a scooter to keep it cool while you have coffee, or cover your shoulders with them in the Buddhist temples so as not to offend (I look forward to a ‘Whose line is it anyway’ style ‘100 things to do with a scarf’ in the comments!).
When I finally left the market, exhausted, at about 10pm, it was still in full swing, the streets were still packed, and it showed no signs of abating. The many buskers were still all there, including the reasonable (traditional thai music) the dreadful (a 6 year old boy who had a hula hoop/talk on his – pretend – mobile phone ‘act’) and the random (a blind quartet playing rock, all sat on the floor one in front of each other as if they were ‘dancing’ to Oops Upside Your Head in a club in Leeds…). OK, maybe just me that one.
At home, I spread my loot on my bed, and counted up my spend. Two pairs of trousers, two tops, a coin purse, a notebook, two bags, a silk scarf, some incense and a hideous-but-brilliant little elephant incense holder, and some tags which I thought would look good in a frame – all for about £32. Not a bad evening’s work.