Walking Street in Chiangrai
Chiang Rai offers up a definitive answer to the explosively popular “walking street” phenomenon originating in sister city Chiang Mai.
The original Walking Street from Chiang Mai’s Tapae Gate to Wat Phra Singh began in 2006 as a promotion to boost tourism and enhance that city’s image as a quaint Northern capital. Shunning the splash and dash of the Night Bazaar’s cheap Thailand T’s and copied DVDs, the walking street offered up handmade and traditional craftwork as well as (shock!) art, all in a quiet lamp lit atmosphere.
Four years later, Chiang Mai’s walking streets (on each for Saturday and Sunday) are going strong and have produced copycats, but sometimes the imitation turns out to be better than the original. Walking Street just comes off better in Chiang Rai, which really is a quaint Northern city while Chiang Mai is a booming metropolis pretending to its own quiet past.
The name should really give you a clue as to what to expect. Every Saturday from about 5:00 in the evening until after 11pm, Thanalai Road in downtown Chiang Rai is closed to vehicle traffic and is quickly transformed into a kilometer-long market, 2 km if you count walking down one side and back up the other. The atmosphere is slow and dreamy, with handmade-paper lanterns providing illumination and soft traditional Northern music as the audio backdrop. This is not the local morning vegetable market! Be prepared for a slow, relaxed pace with time to haggle, take in some street performances, and sample the inevitable extravaganza of food and drink on offer.
What’s for sale? Clothing, jewelry, stationary, toys, handbags, bedding, home decorations, candles, incense, original art pieces. Down from the mountains come treats like coffee, strawberries (in the cool season), silverwork, and clothing and bags based on traditional hilltribe patterns. Funky city folk offer dog clothes, tie-dyed rasta wear, and modern Thai lamps and furniture.
But it’s not all about strolling around and buying stuff. Sellers are happy to have a chat and a friendly bartering session, and since it’s the place to be on a Saturday evening, chances are you’ll meet someone or everyone you know in Chiang Rai. The highlight for the evening though has to be the giant circle dancing (ram wong) area across from Cabbages and Condoms restaurant, where hundreds of middle to well aged Thais and a smattering of light-footed foreigners shake their thangs to Thai big band music, sometimes with a latin twist.
A close second is what can only be termed massage alley, with quick foot and Thai style massages available for rock bottom prices, as low as 59 Baht for half an hour, to relieve that tension in the lower calves caused by plodding along with an ever lightening wallet.
Drawbacks? The street is long, and after a while things start to look the same so it’s hard to pick out the real gems. Following the usual Thai style, you’ll carry your plastic cup or package for several hundred meters before stumbling on a bin, or at least a sizeable pile where several others got fed up and declared squatter’s right for their garbage. The street also gets really busy packed during the cool season, to the point of being a bit much. Crowd-phobes stay home! Not a lot to complain about, really, and quite a lot to enjoy so get out there next Saturday.