The famous night markets of Chiang Mai are among the biggest draws of the walled city. These markets open at dusk and close around midnight every day of the year, and even in near-typhoon conditions you’ll see some hardy merchants setting up their stalls. If you’re unsure what to buy in Thailand as a souvenir, the night market is a one-stop shop full of great ideas. Here are 10 items to snag at the market.
The bazaars are famous for carrying bootleg or knock-off designer clothes at bargain prices, but if you want something of better quality, look for the vendors of authentic Northern Thai clothing. For something traditional, you can wear the famous moh hom top, which comes in the form of a short-sleeved shirt for men or a long-sleeved blouse for women. This is accompanied by the sador, a pair of pants that stop just above the ankles for men, or the pha zin, a traditional long skirt for women. To blend in with a more modern style, try a sarong.
Essential oils are highly concentrated liquids made by extracting either the fragrance or healthful compounds from plants. You can buy the essential oils of plants like lavender, peppermint, and lemon balm just about anywhere, but if you’re looking for something special and regional, start with the local coconut oil. The two main uses of coconut oil are for skin beautification and cooking, and if you’re going to be using it for the latter, make sure that it is of an appropriate grade for consumption. Just be careful to buy from a reputable vendor, as knockoff oils are common.
The ‘singing bowl’ is Tibetan in origin, but it has become extremely popular at the night markets. Users of the bowls ring them with various objects to produce a tone that aids in meditation. The bowls used at temples are often very large, but the ones sold at market for personal use are usually five to 15 cm in diameter. The bowls designed for Buddhist practice contain a special mix of metals that are considered important to the faith. These bowls are able to produce a range of different tones depending on where they are struck, how hard they are struck, and with what type of instrument.
Old mural paintings found throughout Northern Thailand indicate that triangle pillows were made at least as early as 1850. They seem to have been used widely in temples, where even the gods were seen reclining against them. These pillows are essentially a stack of triangular strips arranged in a pyramid shape and are usually combined with a traditional mat for sleeping or relaxing. The pillows you will see at market are authentic, as there are no mass producers of them in the region at present. They are instead produced by local farmers during the winter months when agricultural activity is low.
As the name indicates, the rice box is traditionally used to store rice. However, the colorful and intricate hand-painted designs make them popular with visitors as a souvenir for storing just about anything, or even as a decorative piece. Authentic Thai rice boxes are made by hand from bamboo. Just keep in mind that if you’re actually storing rice with them, they’re meant only for storing uncooked rice — putting hot rice in them can destroy them!
Thailand is home to a unique type of silkworm that farmers raise on a diet of mulberry leaves. The silk produced ranges in color from gold to light green. Thai silk is usually costly, as each individual thread is too thin to be usable, and multiple threads have to be combined by hand to make a strong fiber. A way to tell if it is authentic is to hold it up to a strong light source and look at it from different angles, which should cause the silk to appear to shift colors. Real Thai silk can also be pulled smoothly and easily through a ring on a finger.
Sky lanterns are small and simple hot air balloon-like contraptions and are commonly seen throughout Asia. The Thai variety (khom loi) is made from lightweight rice paper and bamboo and is powered by a small candle that will stay lit even when the wind is strong. Obviously, these can present a fire hazard and many areas have laws against releasing them except at certain festivals. If you’re looking to buy one as a visitor, it’s probably best to keep it unlit until you get home.
Thai umbrellas feature unique and colorful designs that are instantly recognizable. They are usually made from a combination of mulberry paper, bamboo, and cotton, and some also use silk. Umbrellas made entirely from bamboo are usually meant for use in the rain, while those that employ mulberry paper are decorative and should not be exposed to the elements.
Thailand is known for adorable ceramic statues and bowls that usually feature human caricatures or animals. You can usually find these statues in the areas of the market that sell garden items.
You can find soap carvings all throughout Thailand, but the north is particularly known for its elaborate and varied designs. The Chiang Mai night markets are the center of trade for these intricately carved little pieces of art. Flower designs are by far the most popular, with the artists carving the shape from regular soap before applying a watercolor paint. These make for beautiful gifts, especially as part of a Thai-themed gift basket.