Sunday, 4 January 2009

Changing Years in Chiang Rai

Spending time in the Night Bazaar

Thai Dance
Thai Dancers entertain the diners in the Night Bazaar

Chiang Rai is in many ways the Newcastle of Thailand. It is right up there in the far north-east corner, located on the bank of a major river with hills in the near distance. A chill wind blows from the north in the winter and a market is the main nightly drinking venue. There, the similarities end. The river was never a centre of shipbuilding, the chill wind brings down evening temperatures to maybe 12 or 15 degrees centigrade and the Night Bazaar is a far cry from the alcopop-strewn excesses of the Toon's Bigg Market. Thais and farangs flock to the Bazaar in their thousands but no one shouts, no one throws up on the pavement and there are absolutely no gangs of women teetering in high-heels and very little else.

Fried in Thai
One of the many food stalls in the Night Bazaar

John Muir
Dining out at the Night Bazaar

The Night Bazaar is, in fact, a place for culture and as well as shopping, drinking and eating, a sort-of refined Camden Market or small urban festival. The core of the market is a stage flanked on two sides by rows of small eateries selling everything from stir-fries, Thai curries and beer, to tempura, fish, Indian curries and fruit shakes. The eateries corral a vast open eating area of yellow tables and chairs that are almost all permanently inhabited by groups of young and old. Many have ceramic pots above charcoal burners full of dark liquids brought to their tables for them to dip pork, fish or vegetables. The stage reverberates to an ever-chaning though seemingly always over-amplified sequence of comperes, singers, musicians, dances, comedians and drag artists. Some Thais laugh along to the comperes and comedians - but not very often. We met John Muir, a friend from Sheffield, in Chiang Rai on the 30th December 2008. John had just flown in for a two-week holiday in Thailand and Laos. We checked out the Night Bazaar for food on our first night in the city. The day after we began celebrating New Year's Eve in the Bazaar too, beginning with fruit shakes before moving on to a restaurant for dinner. John then left on New Year's Day to go to Laos.

Moustache Squid Dish
Some of the evocatively named dishes on offer in the Night Bazaar

A somewhat Zen-like approach to food menus can be found in the Night Bazaar. The moustache is tiny squid roasts and The meatballs fries, enter the wood sound more like wise sayings of Confucius rather than a few dishes. I think it is the use of English grammar that evokes a philosophical nature. Perhaps the last dish on the menu actually translates as fried meatballs on a skewer?

Music Eyes
Chiang Rai Youth Orchestra

The stage is only one of three in the Night Bazaar. A little stage in a corner features perfomances by the Chiang Rai Youth Orchestra. A smaller stage in another open-air piazza hosts the same artists as the main stage on alternating rotation, so you can catch your favourites or not avoid the bad 'uns twice - depending on your luck. This stage features a decent restaurant under a wide-canopied tree, a beautiful setting though the food varies from good to average. Fortunately, a mad waiter sporting a mullet speaks very good English to facilitate ordering from the extensive menu.

All around are stalls selling. Clothes and handicrafts are the main items on sale. Whether it is the latest street fashion or second hand trousers, or the typical range of Thai handwoven textiles and multi-coloured tribal hats, the Night Bazaar has probably has something to tempt your wallet or purse. There is also a speciality green tea stall and one of the funkiest shoe shops I've seen. All-in-all, there is enough to keep you in the Nigh Bazaar for a couple of hours and to make it a regular nightly haunt.

Chiang Rai Market
Chiang Rai day market

Happy Marketeers
Happy Marketeers celebrate the end of the day shift

As well as visiting the Night Bazaar, we called in at a number of historical temples sprinkled through the town like golden fairy dust. More on these in another post. There is also a great day market for fresh fruit and veg, where we found a group of stallholders dancing and singing while packing up for the day on New Year's Eve. The annual Flower Festival was being held on Chiang Rai beach so we took one of the many long-tail boats that were ferrying people to the festival. We only had a short time because we were being picked up to go to the Akha Hill House later that day, so we concentrated on the displays of orchids having never seen so many in one place before.

Host of Purple Orchids
When we came across a host of purple orchids

Chiang Rai is a very attractive small city because it is one of the few major centres in Thailand which is fairly tranquil. The streets are pretty quiet away from the town centre and there is very little noise at night. The suburbs, what there are, are very lowrise and wooded, with some big old rainforest trees left marooned in gardens and roadsides. Overall, if you want ro find a laidback Thai town then Chiang Rai is worth checking out.

Expecting a Shower
Expecting A Shower

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