Chiang Mai Night Bizarre

by Kenneth Champeon, Dec 12, 2003 | Destinations: Thailand / Chiang Mai

One of the first places I had the pleasure to visit in Chiang Mai is its Night Bazaar or Night Market, which is situated roughly between the city's central Thapae Gate and what is essentially the reason for the city's existence, namely the placid River Ping. Having lived in Bombay and waded through its astronomically large and stupefying markets, I was prepared to be unimpressed, much as I had been unimpressed by Chiang Mai's tiny, spotless, nondescript airport. Instead I was overwhelmed, not because the market is so very large or spectacular -- though it is both -- but because it is so very pleasant. Unlike the Indians (and for that matter the Indonesians), the Thais are not aggressive vendors; to the contrary they could probably benefit from being more so. But their aloofness greatly diminishes the hassle of shopping or browsing. And what is more, most of the products on display in Chiang Mai are beautiful, locally produced handicrafts that would fetch ten times as much were they being sold (as they are being sold) in stores like Pier 1 Imports; they are also more expensive in Bangkok. On the other hand it should be said that some of the same things on offer at the Night Bazaar can be had more cheaply outside of the city, e.g. in the handicraft village of Ban Ta Wai in the suburb of Hang Dong.

To get to the Night Bazaar it is enough to say the phrase to the driver of a red truck taxi or a tuk-tuk (though you may be misunderstood if you do not pronounce it like nai ba za). Or you can stroll down Loi Kroh Road past the city's largest concentration of iniquitous dens until you are standing at an intersection whence can be seen those two icons of globalization, good or bad: Starbucks Coffee and McDonald's. And next to Starbucks is Le Bistrot, at whose roadside tables I love to sit and watch the world go by. And what a world it is. It is at this corner that you will see representatives of Thailand's several hill tribes as they -- in native dress and not -- try to press on you everything from flower garlands to bracelets to stylized pot pipes. Some of them carry babies on their backs, ostensibly to make themselves look more pathetic; and of course some of them are children, barefoot and no taller than a chair, and with no more Thai on them than the phrase sip baht, or 10 baht, which they repeat over and over again as they proffer jasmine or a rose.

Portions of the night market do open before sundown; from where I presently write at 4pm I can see vendors unpacking and arranging silk sarongs, pillow cases with elephants embroidered into them, and gift packages of candles and incense. One woman is even doing some weaving. Moments ago I bought sunglasses, and the man who sold them to me ran my money over his wares for good luck, which probably means I was his first sale of the day. And because everybody here seems to know each other after working side by side for so long, the chatter is continuous and -- for me -- oddly comforting: it is the sound of the Thai language (usually I hear it on the incoming airplane) that indicates to me, and to my great relief, that I have returned to the Land of Smiles.

One of the more striking things on sale at the Night Bazaar are charcoal portraits produced on site and before your very eyes. Admittedly the subjects do not vary all that much, popular ones being the famous National Geographic portrait of a terrified-looking but gorgeous Afghani woman with piercing green eyes, as well as various tribal people -- Native Americans even -- who are either as wrinkled as raisins or are surrounded by clouds of illicit smoke. The artists, usually long-haired and addicted to nicotine, will also do portraits for tourists if asked, for anywhere from one to nine thousand baht. And nearby you can be photographed wearing traditional Lanna clothing, which will transform any plain-looking Thai woman into a veritable princess.

The Night Bazaar is changing fast. Starbucks appeared only a year or so ago, and it is not the only multinational to have capitalized upon the extraordinary tourist traffic. KFC and Burger King are here; so are Baskin Robbins and 7-11 (called "seven" by Thais); and there is also an assortment of Starbucks copycats. A few years ago Chiang Mai's first ever climbing wall appeared here, and it spawned a whole new collection of gift shops and billiard bars. And yes, there is something sad about all of these changes, at least to those of us who have the luxury of wishing that everyone who is not rich would stay that way to enhance our traveling experiences. It is often forgotten that most American franchises abroad are not owned by Americans: immediate casualties aside, only the Thais will suffer if some crank throws a bomb at the Night Bazaar McDonald's: a possibility that, since the Bali incident, often crosses my mind.

And in any case, if it's local culture you want, then you can head over to Galare Food Center on Changklan Road, which cuts straight through the market and over which is a dazzling illuminated archway. Galare sells all kinds of Thai food, and it also offers free Thai music and dance shows, as well as Thai boxing and transvestite cabaret. These entertainments can be kitschy, and if you've seen one you've seen them all, but they are a damn sight more enriching than the other forms of entertainment that have sprung up around the market, namely brothels, beer bars, and pole dancing. Indeed, where there are beer bars there will be foreigners and vice versa: in Thailand this is virtually an inexorable law.

It would be tedious to write (and no doubt even more tedious to read) even a partial listing of what is sold at the Night Bazaar, but such a listing would not include, say, fresh meat or refrigerators. Mostly it sells mementos or things that travelers actually need, like luggage or film. But there are some curiosities that bear mentioning: glass cases containing several specimens of local insects including scorpions and butterflies; weapons of mayhem including slingshots, Chinese stars, brass knuckles, switchblades, handcuffs, and finely wrought swords replete with scabbards; enormous packets of spices and teas; tailor-made clothing; an extraordinary variety of wooden game boards and toys; phalluses of various materials, some of which could conceivably double as dildos; woven chopstick holders; the rattan ball ta-kraw used in the Thai sport resembling volleyball played with the feet instead of the hands; erotic Lanna paintings; stylized elephant tusks ("not real", says the vendor); embalmed snakes, swordfish, and starfish; wooden elephants evidently preparing to copulate; amulets and crucifixes; xylophones, drums, and gongs; miniature wooden galleons and Chinese junks; life-sized scrap metal statues of Star Wars characters; several varieties of puppets (both Thai and Western, e.g. Pinocchio); Greek columns; and, neither last nor least, ashtrays in the shape of a woman's body. You'll just have to use your imagination.

At Le Bistrot now, I am watching the sun set behind the mountain of Doi Suthep to the west, and the sky is a blaze of orange (accentuated perhaps by the fact that the lenses of my new sunglasses are yellow). The hill tribe ladies are congregating; they still strike me as almost incredibly small, and some of them are smoking hand-rolled cigarettes (how fetching!) Most of the shops are open now, beneath a thousand points of electric light, while sound systems compete with drum beats and Starbucks vainly plays jazz. The market will not wind down for another five or six hours and then this welter of noise and motion will be replaced by the sound of metal doors crashing down and stalls being collapsed and rolled to their nocturnal homes. And the streets will then resemble those in the aftermath of a storm.

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