If you plan to shop in Thailand, save your money for Chiang Mai. Quality craft pieces and handmade, traditional items still sell for very little, and large outlets for fine antiques and high-end goods abound in and around the city. Many shoppers pick up an affordable new piece of luggage to tote their finds home and, if you find that huge standing Buddha or oversized Thai divan you've been searching for, all shops can arrange shipping -- or look for the UPS office in the basement of the Night Bazaar (Chang Klan Rd.; tel. 05382-0222; Mon-Fri 7am-10pm).
What To Buy
Thailand has a rich tradition of handicrafts, developed over centuries of combining local materials, indigenous technology, and skills from Chinese and Indian merchants. Drawing on such ancient technologies and the abundance of hardwoods, precious metals and stones, raw materials (for fabrics and dyes), and bamboo and clay, modern craftsmen have refined traditional techniques and now cater their wares to the modern market. Below is a breakdown of what you might find.
Tribal weaving and craft work is for sale everywhere in the Lanna capital and you can come away with some unique finds. Check out the highly innovative Sop Moei Arts, at 150/10 Charoenrat Rd. (www.sopmoeiarts.com), whose homegrown crafts and ceramics help sustain Pwe Karen hill-tribes, or the well-known Mae Fah Luang shops (a branch is at Chiang Mai airport), which is part of a different charity assisting hill-tribe communities and abused women.
Of late, hill-tribe embroidery crafts have been modified into more modern items; you'll find anything from chic shoulder bags and backpacks to pleated miniskirts and appliqué shirts. The hill-tribes' hand-woven textiles are rich in texture and natural tones, and dyed with natural plants dyes. Cool, ready-made cotton clothing can also be found anywhere for a song.
Some of the city's best art galleries and crafts stores are all clustered around Charoenrat Road. Pop into La Luna (tel. 05330-6678), for contemporary Asian art, ceramics, and art photography, while a few minutes' walk away are Vila Cini (tel. 05324-6246) and Oriental Style (no phone); both have racks of stunning silk collections and tasteful souvenirs, with some truly outstanding hand-loomed silk furnishings.
Fine silver works are synonymous with Chiang Mai, and the silversmiths working around Wua Lai Road occupy Chiang Mai's last remaining artisan's quarter. Early smiths are believed to have emigrated from Myanmar (Burma) with the coming of Kublai Khan, and skills have been passed from generation to generation. While silver is not a local resource, early raw materials were acquired from coins brought by traders. Traditional bowls feature intricate raised (repoussé) floral designs -- the deeper the imprint, the higher quality the silver (some up to 92.5%). Some hill-tribe groups are known for their fine silver jewelry -- necklaces, bangles, and earrings -- in unusual traditional ethnic designs or more ordinary Western styles. For all hill-tribe handicrafts, the best place to shop is at the Night Bazaar.
Jewelry items are crafted in delicate filigree designs in styles copied by many Western manufacturers. Modern jewelry can be found at boutiques along Nimmanhaemin Road or at La Luna. There are a number of outlets along Wua Lai Road, and several more on the Sankampaeng Road, to the east of town.
The early royals commissioned carvers to produce wood furnishings for use in palaces, thrones, temple doors and adornments, carriages, pavilions, howdahs (seats for riding elephants), and royal barges. The excellent quality of hardwoods in Thailand's forests allowed these items to be adorned with grand and intricate woodcarvings. The skills survived, and talented craftspeople still produce furniture, boxes, and all varieties of gift items imaginable. Woodcarving today is perhaps more influenced by foreign preferences, and most pieces are mass-produced.
Lacquer skills came from China with early migrants. Sap is applied in layers to wooden, clay, or bamboo items and can be carved, colored, and sometimes inlayed with mother-of-pearl for a very elegant finished product. Today it is acknowledged as a traditional Chiang Mai craft, having been perfected over centuries by the Tai Khoen people who live in communities outside the city. Lacquerware vases, boxes, bangles, and traditional items are lightweight gifts, practical for carrying home. Larger tiered boxes and furnishings can be shipped.
Celadon pottery is elegantly simple in tones of the palest gray-greens. The distinctive color of the glaze comes from a mixture of local clay and wood ash. Chiang Mai has some of the largest and best celadon factories in the country. The best places to purchase celadon are at the beautiful Lanna-style compound of Baan Celadon (www.baanceladon.com), 10km (6 1/4 miles) out of town, or at the large factory outlets.
Authentic antiques, except for furniture, are virtually extinct in the tourist areas of Chiang Mai. Most furniture is from China. Some shops may offer certificates of authenticity, but as anywhere, the rule is "buyer beware." If you do get your hands on the genuine article, you may have a problem getting it home.
For many, the Night Bazaar is the city's premier attraction, and hours spent wandering amid the cacophony of hawkers, noisy haggling, and all manner of traditional goods and electronic gadgets are part and parcel of the city's charms -- but for those who know Bangkok or Phuket's night markets, there will be little variety in goods sold.
Located on Chang Klan Road, between Thapae and Loy Kroh roads, the market starts around 6pm each night and slows down at about 11pm. The actual Night Bazaar is a modern, antiseptic, three-story building, but the indoor and outdoor market extends south to Sri Dornchai Road and far beyond. Many shops and stalls remain open throughout the day and evening too, especially along Chang Klan Road.
The stalls have grandiose names, such as Harrods (with the familiar logo), and most carry poor counterfeit copies of international brand-name clothing, watches, and luggage. Follow this adage: You get what you pay for. If it falls to bits in a week, count yourself lucky. Despite many countries cracking down on them, illegally pirated DVDs -- usually of very shoddy quality -- are widespread, together with so-called "antiques," such as opium pipes or opium weights. You name it; nothing here will be real -- or last much longer than the homeward journey.
Inside the Night Bazaar, there are mass-manufactured Chinese goods such as low-cost fashions and souvenirs. More interesting are the tribal bric-a-brac stalls or items sold by wandering vendors dressed in hill-tribe get-up. The top floor has booths selling locally produced handicrafts, fake antiques, and decorative arts.
The Anusarn Night Market, down Charoen Prathet Road, south of Suriwongse Road, carries more hill-tribe goods in authentic traditional styles.
The Warowot Market, on Chang Moi and Wichayanon roads, opens every morning at 7am and stays open until 4pm. This central indoor market is the city's largest. Produce, colorful fruits, spices, and food products jam the ground floor. On the second floor, things are calmer, with dozens of vendors selling cheap cotton sportswear, Thai-made shoes, and some hill-tribe handicrafts and garments: It's fun and inexpensive.
The Sunday Walking Street takes place along Ratchadamnoen Road (btw. Tha Pae Gate and Wat Phra Singh, in the Old City), which is closed to traffic every Sunday evening between around 5pm and midnight, rain or shine. It's a great place to mingle with locals and other tourists (as long as you don't mind crowds -- it can get packed sometimes) as well as pick up a few cheap but unique gifts.
City Center & Old Town
Small shops and boutiques line the areas around the market and Old Town, luring visitors from the many nearby hotels, but many local designer boutiques have moved out to Nimmanhaemin Road. Ginger (199 Moon Muang Rd. Soi 7; tel. 05341-9014) is a Thai-Danish affair selling gorgeous contemporary day wear (large European sizes are sadly limited), fun accessories, and fabulous twinkly costume jewelry. Nova Collection (201 Thapae Rd.; tel. 05327-3058; www.nova-collection.com) carries a unique line of decorative jewelry in contemporary styles with Asian influences. They make custom pieces and even offer courses in metalwork and jewelry making. Princess Jewelry (147/8 Chang Klan Rd., near the Night Bazaar; tel. 05327-3648) offers customized and ready-made jewelry, and good personalized service. Mengrai Kilns (79/2 Arak Rd., Soi Samlarn 6; tel. 05327-2063; www.mengraikilns.com) is in the southwest corner of the old city and specializes in fine celadon and decorative items. There are lots of silk dealers and tailors in and around town of varying quality. Try City Silk (336 Thapae Rd., 1 block east of the gate; tel. 05323-4388) among the many for its good selection and affordable tailoring.
West Side Of The Old City
On the lanes off Nimmanhaemin Road, around the Amari Rincome Hotel, are boutiques selling crafts and designer wear. These make for good one-stop shopping, if your time is short. Soi 1, next to the hotel, is especially good for textiles, homewares, and candles. Look for Gong Dee Gallery (tel. 05322-5032), which has an extensive collection of gifts and original artwork. Wit's Collection (tel. 05321-7544) is a truly sublime, all-white boutique featuring a treasure-trove of fantastic contemporary furniture, ceramics, and homewares. Opposite the Amari Rincome, at 6/23-24 Nimmanhaemin Rd., Gerard Collection (tel. 05322-0604) features beautifully made bamboo furniture.
Chiang Mai's silver industry is just south of Chiang Mai Gate. Siam Silverware (5 Wua Lai Rd., Soi 3; tel. 05320-0003) tops the list of many offering fine crafted jewelry and silver work.
Shopaholics will be thrilled by the many outlets along the Chiang Mai-Sankampaeng Road (Rte. 1006, aka the Handicraft Hwy.), particularly since you can wander around the workshops and watch the craftsmen at work. There are several shops, showrooms, and factories extending along a 9km (5 2/3-mile) strip here. Talk to any concierge or travel agent about a full- or half-day shopping tour. Important: Do not arrange a day of shopping with a tuk-tuk or taxi driver, as they will collect a commission and drive up the price of your purchases.
The many shops along Sankampaeng feature anything from lacquerware to ready-made clothes, and from silver to celadon pottery. Among the many, try Laitong Lacquerware (140/1-2 Moo 3, Chiang Mai-Sankampaeng Rd.; tel. 05333-8237), which carries a host of fine lacquer gifts (among other items). Some of the smaller items, such as jewelry boxes, can be quite lightweight, so you won't have to lug tons home with you. Saa (mulberry bark) paper cards with pressed flowers, stationery, notebooks, and gifts are not only top quality, but perfect for light travelers. There are plenty of outlets along the Handicraft Highway, with a particular concentration in Bor Sang.
To view a large selection of olive-green celadon, for which North Thailand is renowned, in traditional Thai as well as modern designs, head for Baan Celadon, which has a lovely rustic compound at 7 Moo 3, Chiang Mai-Sankampaeng Rd. (tel. 05333-8288). Smooth and lustrous vases, jars, bowls, and decorative objects spring to life, and even the salt and pepper shakers catch the eye.
Jolie Femme Thai Silk, 8/3 Sankampaeng Rd. (tel. 05311-6777), weaves traditional silks in rich colors and they style much of their stock into modern ready-to-wear creations. But for truly exquisite woven silk, head to Vila Cini's branch at Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi (on Sankampaeng Rd.); a bigger selection is available at the Charoenraj Road shop. Though focusing less on fashions and more on silk furnishings, this homegrown silk merchant outdoes even Jim Thompson's for creativity and sumptuously stylish designs, all following traditional Lanna hues and inspiration.
Many of the handicrafts you'll find in town -- and out at Sankampaeng Road -- are the fine work of local villagers around Chiang Mai. They welcome visitors to their villages to see their traditional craft techniques that have been handed down through generations. Purchase these items directly from the source, and you might save.
East of Chiang Mai, Sri-pun-krua (near the railway station) specializes in bamboo products and lacquerware. Near Sankampaeng Road, the village of Tohn Pao (about 8km/5 miles outside the city) produces saa paper products; Bor Sang (10km/6 miles outside the city) is a nationally renowned center for painted paper umbrellas and fans; and Baan Tohn Pheung (13km/8 miles outside the city) makes fine woodcarvings, in addition to umbrellas. Just to the south, Pa-bong (about 6km/3 3/4 miles down Superhighway 11) manufactures furnishings and household items from bamboo.
South of the city, Muang Goong (along Hwy. 108) is a center for clay pottery; Roi-Jaan (about 8km/5 miles along the same highway) weaves cottons, dying them in natural colors extracted from natural products; while Tawai (14km/8 2/3 miles south) employs families that craft carved wood antique reproductions.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.