Surprise Chiang Mai Night Market

Strolling around Chiang Mai, Thailand on a Sunday afternoon, I checked my shopping list- I needed new sandals, a sweater for these cooler mountains, and a few other things. I was surprised by how many shops were closed, but I continued to walk around the surrounding neighborhoods, convinced that perhaps Sunday is a day of rest here too.

Then, around 4pm, I noticed motorbikes dropping off loads of goods on the sidewalks, street stalls being set up, and carts hauled to the side streets. A night market! I decided to return to my hostel for a quick rest, and then to check out the night market for dinner.

The market in its early hours, just outside my hotel. The crowds were still minimal at this time, around 5pm.

When I left my hostel at 5:00pm, the streets I had quickly walked through a few hours ago were transformed: the Sunday night market in Chiang Mai is the largest market that I’ve ever seen. Vendors line every major road in the old part of the city, forming long aisles for crowds to push through. Buskers stake out different domains, performing music, singing karaoke, and dancing. Though many vendors sell the same mass-produced tourist wares, others sell original paintings, sculpture, and tailored clothing.

Photo taken while crammed in the center of the crowd

I spent the next three hours exploring the market. Stands sold handmade soaps, recycled Coca Cola cans made into toys, and traditional Thai outfits tailored for dogs. I saw fabulous motorbike helmets, literal piles of paintings, leather bags and sandals sewn while you wait, and glow in the dark tableware. The market had a festival feel to it, with clowns making balloon animals, artists drawing caricature portraits, and temporary tattoo booths. Unlike many other night markets that I’ve seen in southeast Asia, this was for the tourists and the locals. I had never seen anything like it in my life- and to imagine, it happens every Sunday!

Crowd waiting to cross the street back through the old city’s gate

Of course, the best part about a large market in southeast Asia is that every family with access to a food cart comes with their best dishes. The main roads were lined with fruit shake vendors, crepe makers, and juicers, but the side alleys, courtyards, and parks housed the best food. Turning off the main road, I would suddenly find myself surrounded by food carts, each offering a different dish.

One such food alley

This is the real scene of the market, where Thailand’s best goods are for sale. The first food stand that I approached sold different types of rice mixed with your pick of spicy sauces, slow-cooked meat, and toppings.

The food vendors, serving up quick plates of steaming, hot rice topped with meat that had been slow-cooked all day

I spent the rest of the night eating small dishes on every street- deep-fried noodle balls, pork BBQ kebabs, chocolate covered bananas, sweet tea with tapioca. After three hours of walking, I still hadn’t seen the whole market, but with my stomach stuffed, I went home to rest. It was a wonderful night, made all the more fun by being completely unexpected. Incredible scenes with good food: the best kind of surprise when you travel!

Sitting down to eat my first snack: spicy rice, fried shrimp, slow-cooked chicken, and a variety of raw and pickled vegetables. Delicious!

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