Spending a weekend in the neon buzz of Bangkok, or in Chiang Mai’s soulful northern hub, is likely to feature high on your wish list for a holiday in Thailand. Both these bustling cities boast fabulous weekend markets which you can wander through, soaking up the sights, sounds and scents, and are a must for immersing yourself in local life. But if you’ve only got enough time for one market visit, which should you choose?
As Thailand’s northern nerve centre, Chiang Mai is a diverse melting pot of tradition and innovation, where old meets new in laid back, eclectic harmony. The city’s famous Sunday market is held within the old walled centre, starting at Tha Phae Gate and running for over half a mile down Ratchadamnoen Road. The street is closed to traffic during the market, so you won’t have to dodge any zipping motorbikes! As one of the city’s major attractions it can get very busy, but not oppressively so, and as there are always plenty of other tourists around it’s very accessible.
This market is a great place for picking up handmade keepsakes, as there are lots of little artisan stalls where you can find unique treasures. Chiang Mai is renowned for its woodcarving, and you can buy items of all shapes and sizes, from inlaid boxes to kitchenware to large figurines, all created from beautifully worked wood. There’s plenty of lacquerware too, as well as paper parasols and silverware, alongside oodles of knick-knack souvenirs, and colourful cheap t-shirts, should you wish to pick those up too!
With all the different food sizzling away at stalls throughout the market, your mouth will be watering from the moment you stroll in, and you can graze your way through a selection of the region’s delights. The temples flanking the street are transformed into makeshift food courts, where you can seek out northern Thai specialties like spicy laab salads, khao soi coconut curry noodle soup, and loads of fiery chili dips. There are many local restaurants and cafes that are a notch above the street food too, so if you want more of a sit-down eating experience you’ve got the option.
When night falls, the market really comes alive. Unlike the bargain-hunters' paradise across the city at the Night Bazaar, the evening vibe here feels more relaxed, and there’s a genuine sense of the city unwinding. The place fills with street performers, musicians, and locals socializing with an evening stroll. Although the night market is getting a bit more touristy than it once was, it’s still one of the best ways to spend an evening in Chiang Mai, and makes for a relaxing and interesting end to a day’s touring.
In Bangkok, everything is turned up to 11, and its ever-changing frenzied landscape of art, culture, commerce and community makes it one of the world’s greatest cities. Chatuchak Market, at the city’s heart, is truly vast. It’s the largest market in Thailand - often hailed as the largest open air market in the world - and is the riot of colour, sound and sensory overload you might expect. With a mind-boggling 15,000+ stalls spread over 35 acres, you can find pretty much anything you can think of here, and lose many hours wandering through its labyrinth of alleyways. Just grab a map from an information kiosk, choose a section and head in. Word to the wise: if you find something that you love, just buy it, as you may never find your way back to that exact same stall again!
Although it’s a huge tourist attraction, this market is very much for the locals as well, and there are always some wild and wonderful things to see. With that in mind, there may be things that take you out of your comfort zone. For example, there’s live butchery, the pungent smell of warm seafood, and animals in cages being sold for food. Although these are all part of the travel experience, it can be a bit of a shock if you are expecting to go handbag shopping and end up in a row of butcher shops.
One of the best times to visit is first thing in the morning, when the crowds are lighter and before the heat of the day kicks in. There are hundreds of traditional clothes and souvenir stalls, as well as boutique stands displaying chic homewares, tables of glistening glass, makeshift art galleries, jewellery shops and perfumeries. There are pet stores, automotive shops, butchers, bakers, and probably candlestick makers too… as well as many, many food stalls, from coffee roasters and spice sellers to seafood shacks and every kind of Thai streetfood you could ever crave. You can eat your way through as many crispy fishcakes, spring rolls and noodles as you can hold, and wash it down with traditional milk tea poured with flair. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, then save room, as the range of desserts is really something else…
Whether you’ve made a choice or want to visit both, chat with our Thailand Specialists about including a market visit in your itinerary, and leave space in your suitcase for souvenirs...