Shopping in Chiang Mai
Shopping is almost irresistible pastime in Chiang Mai, a hotbed of traditional cottage industries offering generally high standards of workmanship at low prices. Two main tourist shopping areas, conveniently operating at different times of the day, sell the full range of local handicrafts.
The road to San Kamphaeng, which extends due east from the end of Thanon Charoen Muang for 13 km, is the main daytime strip; also known as the ''Handicraft Highway'', it's lined with every sort of shop and factory, where you can usually watch the craftsmen at work. The biggest concentrations are at Bo Sang, the ''umbrella village'', 9 km from town, and at San Kamphaeng itself, once important for its kilns but now dedicated chiefly to silk-weaving. While it's a worthwhile trip to watch age-old crafts in process, the main problem is getting there. Frequent white songthaews to San Kamphaeng leave Chiang Mai from the central Lamyai market, but it's difficult to decide when to get off if you don't know the area. You could sign up for a tour or hire a tuk-tuk for a few hundred baht, but the catch here is that the drivers will want to take you to the shops where they'll pick up a commission. The best way to go is by motorbike, which allows you to stop where and when you please, but take care with the fast-moving traffic on the narrow road.
The other main shopper's playground is the Night Bazaar, sprawling around the junction of Thanon Chang Klan and Thanon Loi Khro, where bumper-to-bumper street stalls and several indoor market areas and multi story arcades (including the original Chiang Mai Night Bazaar shopping centre on the west side of Thanon Chang Klan) sell just about anything produced in Chiang Mai, plus crafts from other parts of Thailand and southeast Asia, as well as counterfeit designer good; the action starts up at around 5pm, and there are plenty of real bargains to be had there. Even if you're not into shopping, there's lots to see here, including rock climbers is action at The Peak, a climbing wall surrounded by shop and café, and traditional dancing at the Kalare Food Centre.
During the day, bustling Warorot market, along the river immediately north of Thanon Tha Pae, has lots of cheap and cheerful cotton, linen and ceramics for sale on the upper floors. In the heart of the market, you can watch locals buying chilli paste, sausage and sticky rice from their favorite stalls, and maybe even join the queue. There's also a flower market here which is open late at night until the early hours of the morning.
Another place worth knowing about is Thanon Nimmanhemin, especially its northern end towards Thanon Huai Kaeo, which savvy locals sometime tag Chiang Mai's Sukhumvit for its services to well-to-do expats. Here, as well as upmarket clothes shops, you'll find some notable outlets for contemporary Thai design, fusing various of the crafts described below with modern, often minimalist elements. On Nimmanhemin's Soi 1, behind the Amari Rincome Hotel, Gong Dee is full of wood and lacquer vases, boxes, lamps and bowls, much of it gleaming gold and silver, while Ayodhya opposite sells stylish fabrics as well as funky bowls and boxes covered in dried water-hyacinth stalks, woven liana lampshades and lots of other novel woven accessories and furniture. Over on the east side of the river at 35 Thanon Ratanakosin, Aka Walai shelters thoroughly modern celadon, rich clothes and taxiles and cutting-edge home furnishings.
Fabrics and clothes
The silk produced out towards San Kamphaeng is richly colored and hard wearing, with various attractive textures. Bought off a roll, the material is generally less costly than in Bangkok, though more expensive then in the northeast- price are around 400-600 Baht a meter for two-ply (for thin shirts and skirts) and 700-800 Baht a meter for four-ply (suitable for suits). Ready-made silk clothes and made-to-measure tailoring, though inexpensive, are generally staid and more suited to formal wear. About 5 km out from the centre of Chiang Mai, Piankusol is the best place to follow the silk-making process right from the cocoon. If you've got slightly more money to spend on better quality silk, head for Chiang Mai's oldest silk manufacturer, Shinawatra (7 km out, with a shop at 18 Thanon Huai Keao; www.shinawatrathaisilk.com), which was once graced by no less a personage than the late Diana, Princess of Wales.
In Chiang Mai you'll find plenty of traditional, pastel-colored cotton, which is nice for furnishings, most of it from the village of Pa Sang southwest of Lamphun. Outlets in the basement of the main Chiang Mai Night Bazaar shopping centre on Thanon Chang Klan have good, cheap selections of this sort of cloth at around 200 Baht per meter, plus hand-painted and batik-printed lengths, and ready-made tablecloths and like.
A shop worth a root around is Pa Ker Yaw (closed Sun), near the Downtown Inn at 180 Thanon Loi Khro, a weather-beaten wooden shop house stuffed with a selection of rich fabrics from Thailand, Laos and Burma, as well as hill-tribe jewelery and basket ware and other crafts. For the all-over ethnic look, Classic Lanna Thai, on the first floor of Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, sells classy ready-to-wear clothes, made from local fabrics, Paothong, at 66 Thanon Charoenrat, has lovely, elegant garments in silk and cotton, mostly for women. Flower Earring, 6 soi 1, Thanon Nimmanhemin, specializes in stylish, tastefully chosen women's clothes and traditional fabrics from Northern Thailand, Burma and China, including some gorgeously colored skirts. If you just need to replenish your rucksack, try Ga-Boutique at 1/1 Thanon Kotchasarn (opposite the Tha Pae Gate), which sells ordinary casual clothes of resonable quality at low prices.
To make sure more of your money goes to those who make the goods, take your custom to one of the non-profit-making shops whose proceeds go to the hill tribes. These include the Hill Tribe Products Foundation, on Thanon Suthep in front of Wat Suan Dork, which sells beautiful lengths of cotton and silk, silverware and variety of hill-tribe gear; Thai Tribal Crafts, 204 Thanon Bamrungrat with Thai students, are particularly good here; and Golden Triangle Mountain People's Art and Handicrafts.
Chiang Mai has a long traditional of woodcarving, which expresses itself in everything from salad bowls to half-size elephants. In the past the industry has relied on the cutting of Thailand's precious teak, but manufacturers are now beginning to use other imported hardwoods, while bemoaning their inferior quality. Carl Bock, who travelled through the region in 1882, observed a habit which is still common today: ''The woodcarvers have a quaint taste for inlaying their work with odd bits of colored glass, tinsel or other bright material: such work will not bear close inspection, but it has a remarkably striking effect when the sun shines on these glittering objects.'' Wooden objects are sold all over the city but the most famous place for carving is Ban Tawai, a large village of shop and factories where prices are low and you can watch the woodworkers in action. One of Thailand's most important woodcarving centres, Ban Tawai relied on rice farming until thirty years ago but today virtually every home here has carvings for sale outside and each backyard hosts its own cottage industry. To get there, you'll need your own transport: follow the Highway 108 south from Chiang Mai 13 km to Huang Dong, then head east for 2 km.
Lacquerware can be seen in nearly every museum in Thailand, most commonly in the form of betel-nut sets, which used to be carried ceremonially by the slaves of grandees as an insignia of rank and wealth. Betel-nut sets are still produced in Chiang Mai according to the traditional technique, whereby a woven bamboo frame is covered with layers of rich red lacquer and decorated wit black details. A variety of other objects, such as trays and jewelery boxes, are also produced, some decorated with gold leaf on black gloss. Lacquer ware makes an ideal choice for gifts, as it is both light to carry, and at the same time typically Thai. Just about every other shop in town sells lacquer ware: Laitong, 6 km out towards San Kamphaeng, is a good place to see the intricate process of manufacture, though prices are lower elsewhere.
Celadon, sometimes known as greenware, is a delicate variety of stoneware which was first made in China over two thousand years ago and later produced in Thailand, most famously at Sukhothai and Sawankhalok. Several kilns at 79/2 Soi 6, Thanon Samlarn. Sticking to the traditional methods, Mengrai produces beautiful and reasonably priced vases, crockery and larger items, thrown in elegant shapes and covered with transparent green and blue glazes.
Umbrellas and paper
The village of Bo Sang bases its fame on souvenir umbrellas-made of silk, cotton or mulberry paper and decorated with bold, painted colors and celebrates its craft with a colorful umbrella fair every January. The artists who work here can paint a small motif on your bag or camera in two minutes flat. The grainy mulberry (sa) paper, which makes beautiful writing or sketching pads, is sold almost as an afterthought in many of Bo Sang's shops; it can also be bought from Bang On and Tonpao, in the basement of the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar building, which sell a very wide range of sa paper in the form af albums, notepaper and so on.
Silver and jewelery
Of the traditional craft quarters, only the silversmiths' area on Thanon Wualai remains in it original location. The oldest factory in Chiang Mai, Siam Silverware on Soi 3, a ramshackle and sulfurous compound loud with the hammering of hot metal, gives you a whiff of what this zone must have been like in its heyday. The end results are repoussé plates, bowls and caps, and attractive, chunky jewelery. Silver is often priced by the gram, with current rates at about 20 Baht per gram, so a thin sterling-silver bracelet costs around 400-500 Baht and a large, chunky bangle around 1200 Baht. A good general jewelry store is Nova Collection at 210 Thanon Tha Pae, which has some lovely rings and necklaces blending gold, silver and precious stones in striking and original designs, as well as running workshops in jewelery-making.