Night Markets in Thailand: Bangkok, Koh Samui, Chiang Mai
One of the must-do, charming, hot and sweaty, touristy (yet enjoyed by locals too!) activities on everyone’s Thailand list—Night markets! You can’t, and shouldn’t, avoid them. Here’s some things they have in common: DELICIOUS and CHEAP Thai, Chinese and fusion street food, authentic and junky souvenirs alike- at a variety of bargaining “price points” (Highest of all being the “selling to a white tourist” price!) and the feeling that you’re bathing in your own sweat (and the people’s sweat who you are rubbing against). Here are some things that set them apart.
Chatuchak (JJ) Market, Bangkok: Ahhh, the first and most overwhelming market, which I attended while failing to recover from jetlag and no sleep. Bad idea, but interesting market. Chatuchak is a tightly packed maze that actually has an organization system, but I wasn’t able to figure it out even with Nancy Chandler’s map (GET her Bangkok map if you’re going!! Basically ... get all of her maps they are great!) Thailand residents can furnish their homes and buy the latest fashion while tourists have a variety of souvenirs to peruse. But everyone can eat their way through the market. If I went again, I’d learn how to navigate so I could find the best food. As it was, the Kebap sandwich and iced latte hit the spot just fine. And yes. I was immediately covered in sweat while the locals looked gorgeous and dry.
Friday Walking Street, Bophut (Fisherman’s Village) in Koh Samui: LOVED the vibe at this market! I arrived at 4:00pm as the Internet suggested, but realized that the party isn’t in full swing until around 6:00pm. NBD- Whenever you have time to kill in Thailand, what do you do? Get an $8 massage! I found a great place at the end (or beginning?) of Friday Walking Street, but to be honest I’m not sure which end. I can say that it was an open room, painted light green with lovely flowers all around and even more lovely people. It was a great way to begin another chaotic and steamy evening. Though it’s just along a street (with shops along a few cross streets also) vendors really pack it in. Well, let me tell you- this is the moment I fell in love with street food. Crab and shrimp balls, the best Kebap sandwich (yes, that again- it’s an obsession), coconut ice cream, spinach ravioli, meat skewers and grilled corn on the cob. And oh so much more. The shopping is just fine, but if you’re headed to Chiang Mai after, don’t buy too much in Koh Samui! It’s a much better value in Chiang Mai. But if you see something you fall in love with and they have only one, BARGAIN. Trust me when I say that you will get things for 50, 60 or 70% off if you play hardball. But bargain with a smile. Just be ready to walk away, and shop around so you know what the going rate is. It rained and poured that evening, but I had the best $2 Mojito so I didn’t mind a bit.
Sunday Walking Street, Chiang Mai: This is one of the greats! I’ll just be honest. Being there was a bit overwhelming. As the night progresses, more and more people come until you’re practically carried through the crowd by the moving bodies around you. And this was in low season (July!) I can’t imagine high season. However, it’s busy for a reason. I saw much higher quality and variety of goods here and even better street food. They still have the mass produced tourist items like the pants (get some! I don’t even care, they’re comfy and great in the climate!) and trinkets. But Chiang Mai is also a town of wood, silver and jewelry trade, and most importantly, great food. We highly enjoyed the spicy fried chicken, omelette Pad Thai (a bit bland but still tasty), the fruit shakes, ground pork balls in spicy broth, and wished we had more room for the other delicacies there. You know everything is fresh because every booth is packed, and the food is moving. Fresh fruit shakes for a buck. Go for passion fruit, or a passion fruit/ mango mix. Yum! This is where my “smoothie a day” fix began.
If you are still having trouble getting the whole picture just how packed this place is, think of the Ann Arbor Art Fair and then times that by ten. You move with the people. It's like little China up in there.
Night Bazaar, Chiang Mai: While this market is along a busy street and lacks the charm of the Friday, Saturday and Sunday walking streets, it was a great place to buy souvenirs. They start a little lower here- I found the same pants for $4 here that they tried to charge me $15 for in Bangkok. Bargain, and look for some nice massage balm (Tiger balm is the best!) A fun area of the night bazaar is in the less crowded Anusan market area. They have well reviewed restaurants and bars (I missed out on the fresh seafood one which was pricey but looked GREAT! You pick out your live seafood and they cook it for you… if you can get over the sadness of being personally responsible for the death of a crustacean.) Another regret is that I didn’t get to visit the Boys Blues Bar, which was closed for a holiday. But if you go, look it up because I hear it’s a highlight!
Saturday Walking Street, Chiang Mai: I heard that Saturday Walking Street was more authentic and less busy then Sunday Walking Street. Nope. It’s like… the same thing. Same busy crowds, same people entertaining on the street for money, same vendors selling the same things, and the same (if not slightly better) street food. Check out the street food located in the intersection directly at the beginning of walking street- they had some delicious and fresh choices. It was just as enjoyable, hot, crowded and overwhelming as Sunday Walking Street, and worth visiting if you want another dose (but OK to skip if you maxed out on the other markets). A note about the street “entertainers:” They will break your heart. We saw a 7-year old boy with Down’s Syndrome hula hooping for cash (with his guardians watching from a distance), blind people and people without legs with Karaoke machines and instruments, and lots of children helping pull money in for their families. Lots of sad stories at both Saturday and Sunday walking streets, which is a bit disquieting, but part of the economy for these folks. We had enough by the time rain started pouring, the only benefit being that the street cleared out enough for us to navigate through to a Song-thaew (red truck) for the return trip.