On our first day in Chiang Mai we visited the namesake market, Thalat Chiang Mai, which straddles the south gate of the Old City. Around 9am we were the only tourists there to witness the excitement. A band of young men and women wielding drums, clarinets and flutes marched through the muddy aisles of the busy market blaring dance rhythms. The vendors responded in kind by dancing on tables, twirling their neighboring hawkers and bouncing babies to the beat. "Where the hell are we?" I asked myself as we followed the band around the tables full of fresh veggies and between piles of sweetened sticky rice. I had barely roused myself from bed, but the market was already literally swinging. Growing up, going shopping was a hassle for my family, certainly nothing like the joyous occasion we were witness to at Thalat Chiang Mai.
Food shopping is an interactive activity in Thailand, and it starts in the smaller hours of the morning. Well before most Thais have had their khao tom for breakfast, the stoic, salt of the earth vendors have their scales calibrated and their haggle ready. The visitors to the open air morning markets are mostly locals, some seeking breakfast before school or work, some shopping for households, and others gathering supplies for their restaurant. The blend of personalities, the abundance of delicious food and the chance to partake in local culture, is what kept us going to the markets most mornings while we lived in Chiang Mai.
As a westerner, there is no denying it, some of the markets are dirty and far from aesthetically pleasing. It can be hard to ignore the pools of filthy water, the flies and the acrid smells that leap into your nostrils unexpectedly. But make no mistake, these markets supply the most chic restaurants down to the humble street vendors. They are also home to some of the best, most authentic Thai food in Chiang Mai. The cooks here aren't slinging hash to tourists, they cook for the people working hard beside them, people who know good Thai food.
For the best selection of goodies, the earlier the better is usually a good rule. Many vendors show up with one pot of food. When it's done, they are gone. The popular ones are usually done very early, sometimes within an hour or two of setting up. Between 6:30am and 7:30am have been the best start times for us.
Thalat is the Thai word for market. These are the ones that became dear to us.
Thalat Muang Mai
By far the city’s largest single market, Muang Mai is the size of an entire neighborhood. Traffic jams involving trucks stacked high with durian, motorbikes with piles of steamed blood cakes in tow and young boys dragging carts full of cabbage are a regular occurrence. Plaa raa, Isaan fermented fish sauce, perfumes the air. 20 foot piles of jackfruit (a single jackfruit can weigh more than 25 pounds!) are patiently broken down by women armed with tiny knives. Elsewhere, trucks with tanks of water mounted on the back deliver live fish to the market. It's a thrashing, wet spectacle when the strapping butchers offload the fish for sale. In the smallest spaces between stalls or in the bed of a truck, weary hawkers nap amidst the shouts, car horns and roaring engines. There is beautiful, lively chaos everywhere you look at Muang Mai.
Thalat Muang Mai is truly the beating heart of Chiang Mai's food supply. Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, it's the first stop for food coming from nearby rural areas to the city and the premier wholesaler. For a break from the madness, there are many restaurants and coffee shops set up in and around the market.
Its huge so its hard to say exactly where it is. It borders the Ping River to the east and sits north of the American Consulate.
The first time we went to visit this market, we had a really hard time finding it. That's because it's also known as Thalat Siriwattana on maps and signs. Whatever you call it, by contrast to the other markets in the city, it is the cleanest and most orderly. The tile floor stays much cleaner than the unfinished concrete floors in the other markets around town. However sanitized the market infrastructure may be, the experience is not. The spread of prepared foods at Thanin represents the ethnic diversity of Chiang Mai. Burmese curries, Isaan salads, and northern Thai specialties can be found in abundance and at a high level of quality and freshness. There's also live local fish for sale, fresh produce, and even organic eggs. For a slightly less in your face introduction to market culture and food, Thalad Thanin is a great destination. There is also a food court next door that serves classic Thai street food, if you need to sit down and take a break.
Just west of Chang Puak rd., north of Mercure Hotel. Look for a small sign that says “Siriwattana Market” that points west down a small street.
Only on Friday mornings, this market is across the street from Baan Haw Mosque in the historic Muslim district of Chiang Mai. Ciin Haw refers to the Chinese Muslim population of that neighborhood but it is not a strict halal market.
The main reason we attended this market every Friday was mohinga; an essential Burmese fish soup. Large chunks of onion and potato give it a comforting character and a handful of fried shallots add great depth. A cheeky old woman slings bowls and to-go bags of the tomatoey, viscous fish broth. She goes nonstop until her steaming cauldron has been scraped bare which may happen between 9 and 10am. She also sells a fried lentil cracker, known in Thai as pan dua, by the piece or by the bag, for dipping in the soup or crumbling on top, which I highly recommend. Mohinga is well worth getting up early for. We took a bus across town just to eat it.
Besides mohinga there are a ton of other things to eat here. Try Shan warm tofu; a velvety tofu made from chickpeas served like a soup. Be sure to pile on plenty of pickled mustard greens and toasted chili oil, which you will find table side. Also try: black rice donuts soaked in molasses, Muslim sweets (there is a big round cookie stuffed with sweet black bean paste that we love), samosas, halal curries, shrimp fritters, grilled rice cakes with sesame paste and pretty much anything else you see that's edible. Ciin Haw market gets started around 6am and ends by noon, plenty of time to grab breakfast, lunch and snacks for later.
Chang Klan rd. just a bit south from Thapae rd. If walking south on Chang Klan look for the mosque, its right across the street.
Gat Luang is actually a market area/neighborhood sometimes referred to as Chinatown in English. It's the oldest market in Chiang Mai and has seen traders and migrant workers from all over Asia, arriving on the shores of the Ping River, for more than a century. It consists of multiple markets selling textiles, souvenirs, jewelry, herbal remedies and religious items. You can find just about anything there, but we were focused on food.
Warorot is the most famous marketplace in the area, a three story concrete building housing multiple food courts (top floor and basement) and famous for its selection of Thai sweets. Just before lunch (10-11am), on the ground floor, there is one stall selling fried meats and sticky rice that is mobbed daily. The draw is the freshly fried sai ua samun phrai (usually referred to as just sai ua), Chiang Mai-style fresh sausage laced with lemongrass, chiles and kefir lime leaves. The version here is memorable for being rich and juicy with very well-balanced seasoning.
Go early in the morning to taste Chinese donuts served with hot soy milk, in the lanes surrounding the concrete market buildings. This breakfast is the equivalent of France's croissant and latte, a very good way to eat breakfast like a local, but by 9am, they may already be packed up. One gentleman makes them into the shape of an alligator, originally for his sons amusement, but now for the general public’s, as well. Also in the morning, look for Muslim women selling samosas.
At night, a small outdoor market sets up on the west side of Warorot selling snacks, sweets and sugary drinks. While some of that stuff is tasty, tucked behind those brightly lit stalls are a few candlelit tables serving the real prize: Kanom jeen nam ngiaw or fermented rice noodles with curry. This dish is a favorite for Thais any time of day. The women here serve very local styles of curry, prepared expertly, possibly being the best version in Chiang Mai.
Just strolling through the endless lanes of the Gat Luang is a form of cultural immersion. Do me one favor: ignore those elephant pants.
Near the intersection of Ratchawan and Chang Moi, tell your driver Get Loowung, they might understand.
Thalat Chiang Mai
It's wet, grubby, unorganized and a little bit smelly, kind of like Chiang Mai city. And like Chiang Mai, it does not apologize for its humble appearance. A woman dressed in pearls casually stirs a vat of kep muu, fried pork skin, among a pile of dirty dishes. Despite the appearance of the market, she presents herself and her food with pride as she offers Paige and I a few samples of her treats.
Thalat Chiang Mai focuses on northern food. Everything you need for a great northern-style picnic can be purchased from one or two vendors: grab a bit of kep muu, some sai ua, a bag of naam prik noom - green chile dip -, some sticky rice and steamed vegetables. These are finger foods, so they can be eaten anytime, anywhere. It is hard to miss the line of men and women displaying their meats and dips along the southern edge of the market.
Pa Lek (Auntie Lek) sells her traditional Thai coffee across the street from the meat hawkers, on the south side. From 6am to 11am, the gaunt woman hustles small cups of Thai coffee, served with jasmine tea on the side, to the consistently busy tables set up next to the road. The option of buttered toast and a soft-boiled egg with the coffee makes for a very elegant little breakfast.
Just Northwest of Chiang Mai Gate inside the Old City
Thalat Tom Payom
If you find yourself this far west, Tom Payom is a great local market. Great laap aside, Tom Payom also offers some delicious northern food (very good sai ua here as well). If your hiking up Doi Suthep, stop here first to get your snacks.
Corner Canal Rd. and Suthep Rd.
These are the traditional markets that we became very familiar with. To find out about the organic markets check out our piece on organic in Chiang Mai.