With an evening to spare on my recent business trip to Chiang Mai, I decided to go where most locals would on typical Saturdays – the Wua Lai Walking Street.
I asked my concierge for direction to this popular bazaar, where the old city of Chiang Mai once stood. He told me to grab a Jeepney to reach my destination within 15 minutes. I heeded his advice and paid S$4 for the ride.
Stretching some 2km, Wua Lai (or ‘Saturday’ in Thai) is the largest and most popular Saturday-only market in Chiang Mai.
Here, thousands of stalls sell sought-after indigenous collectibles like lemongrass soaps, handicrafts and beautiful hand-painted umbrellas.
Most were set up by the time I reached the Chiang Mai Gate around 3pm. The weather was nice and breezy, and so was my mood.
My first photos of Wua Lai came from a stall that sells soft toys and local inspired jewellery.
Street Food Galore
Local specialities and bite-sized street food of every imaginary shape and colour dazzled the open-air eateries and stalls that lined the two-way street.
Their makeshift menu included local tea time snacks like grilled pork (yummy), mango ‘sticky’ rice (yummy), and crunchy bugs and grasshoppers.
Snapping pictures as I ventured deeper into the heart of Wua Lai, I was immobilised by an aroma that lingered in the air. I traced it to a pushcart selling Phat Thai (stir-fried rice noodles).
The stall was manned by a couple who looked no more than 20.
With a gracious ‘Sawadee Kap’ they began speaking to me in Thai, probably asking if I wanted to try a plate – to stop my salivation.
My reactive nods and smile, which they perceived as a Yes, kicked off their business that evening.
Like a kung-fu expert, the lady grabbed a handful of noodles, threw them in her wok and started stirring and tossing over high heat.
She artfully jerked the wok in small circular motions and threw in a diversity of ingredients while I watched my dinner dance around orange flames. They were eventually transferred to a large preheated tray where the flavour was fine-tune.
There were shrimps, squids, eggs and lots of bean sprouts. Nice! Wok fragrance soon filled the street.
My attention was diverted to a small gathering of Caucasians who began forming a queue. They were looking in one direction – in deep trance.
There was only one thing on their mind, though they did not drool.
I sneaked towards a nearby seat and savoured my piping hot Phat Thai, served on a Styrofoam plate. The portion was just right.
It came with a packet of sugar and chilli powder. At 30 Baht, it was surprisingly tasty.
Tap into my dark side, and you will concur that munching smoking-hot Phat Thai, by a makeshift stall in a foreign land, surrounded by strangers in near twilight, can be incredibly sexy!
Anyway, lesson learnt for the day: When in doubt, just nod and smile like a pro.
As dusk swallowed the last light of the day, buskers and percussionists had begun performing their numbers – in the middle of the streets.
The scene was squeezy, a little humid and bustling with smiling tourists. It was somewhat like a livelier but more relaxed version of Petaling Street on typical Saturdays.
Performing till the wee hours of the morning, these folks inject a dynamic buzz to the night scenes of Wua Lai Walking Street.
Some of these street artistes looked as young as 10 while some appeared to be over 80. Many among them have special needs.
Standing by the roadside, I was mesmerised by their performances. There, I watched the world stroll by while registering this chapter of my stay in Chiangmai.
I especially admired the showmanship of a young girl who strummed her ukulele as she sang and earned her living, amidst a sea of tourists.
I was perhaps more impressed by her display of courage and optimism. The sincerity exuded from her songs touched many hearts that evening.
Well… my 20 Baht encouragement may not have brightened their evening as much as they have brightened mine, but I did receive some gratifying glances in return.
I realised that open-air markets like Wua Lai are important social and business settings for the indigenous. This is THE PLACE where they live, breathe and earn their livelihood.
An endearing part of Chiang Mai’s century-old traditions, these markets have very much preserved their quintessentially sociable and unassuming nature.
I met a happy-go-lucky chap by the name of ‘A’ who – with his smooth salesmanship – persuaded Mr Skeptic into buying a bottle of Gac Fruit juice.
What can I say? I mean… look at what his signboard claimed.
But I thought… nothing ventured nothing gained. I gave my curiosity one more chance to prove it’s worth. Of course, not without first asking him to pose for the camera!
Very much to my surprise, my first taste of Gac Fruit juice turned out better than I had expected!
It has this refreshing sour tang of Passion Fruit, which I can relate very well to (i’m a big fan of undiluted Passion Fruit juice, which is practically non-existent in Singapore).
I did a google search back home and realised Gac Fruit is actually classified as a superfood thanks to its high antioxidant properties. Heavenly!
A, in his chatty self, said he works as a full-time IT professional, but sets up his fruit juice business on Wua Lai and other streets over the weekends.
Like a long lost neighbour, we chatted about everything under the sun, including his interesting encounters in Singapore and the results of the recent SEA Games, which was held in the republic.
A’s candour and outspoken persona left a deep impression in my memory.
It dawned on me that most Chiang Mai folks would readily welcome a friendly chat or two. Most would pose for photographers with little hesitation.
During my midpoint ‘dessert stop’, I entered K Mango and ordered a plate of fat, juicy mangoes with fruit toppings and scoops of coconut ice-cream.
K Mango was a quaint little family-run cafe sitting by a quieter corner of Wua Lai.
Could I have been really thirsty or were the fruits that delicious? It could be both.
Happily satiated, I asked the owner if i could take a photo of the shop.
With great spontaneity (and to my utter delight) the family happily gathered in front of the camera.
This shot became my first overseas family portraiture. It turned out fairly well.
Not only were their mangos juicy and unbelievably cheap, their smiles were the most beautiful and genuine I had seen that evening.
As I scanned for souvenirs, I met Bird, a mild-tempered man in this early-thirties, who sells hand-painted keychains of comic superheroes.
In a city that attracts renowned artists, composers and designers to its annual music and arts festivals, I wasn’t surprised to see that little spark of ingenuity in Bird’s keychains.
There were the all-time favourites Batman, Spiderman, Ultraman and even Doraemon in Bird’s collection.
“This Doremon is special. I added the heart-shape behind, it’s the only piece in the world,” he said with pride, recounting his painstaking efforts to paint every fine detail in each of his key-chains.
This man is very proud of his mini art. As his customer, I felt good buying from him.
I eventually chose Ironman and Doraemon (that rare piece with a heart). Though pricey, at 150 Baht each, I am happy to bring home these exclusive memorabilia.
While walking back to the Chiang Mai Gate, I saw how a 70-year-old weaving master and his disciple brought dragons, phoenixes and horses to life with their magical hands and coils of sisal ropes.
I also stopped to chat with a man who sells hand-made porcelain coin containers, created by his brother.
I could not recall his name, but I remembered his one-liner sales pitch: “Good saving, money cannot come out, no hole below.”
Clever. I bought one. And at a ‘special’ price.
With a morning flight to catch, I left the Wua Lai Walking Street tired, somewhat reluctantly, but fairly contended.
Inspired by its sights, smells, tastes and human touch, I made a mental note to return for more on my next vacation.
I believe you would too.
See my Changmai collections here