Not that there isn’t a crowd here too. In fact, Rajdamnern Road, which traverses the city’s old town and along which the market opens, becomes a packed stream carrying happy shoppers along.
However, with all vehicles banned from the network of old leafy streets for the day (unlike JJ, where cars still squeeze along), the already-leisurely pace of the northern capital slows down even further.
It’s a day for country artisans to bring into town their week’s work of wooden carvings, painted decorations, handcrafted textiles, and musical instruments, usually arriving early to take up their favourite selling spots, sometimes under the bows of a spreading tree or against an old temple wall.
As evening approaches, local artists spread out their gaudy, slap-dashed canvases, and musicians strum their guitars, next to a table full of CDs of their music for sale – if you like what you hear.
Indeed, as the unofficial book capital of Thailand, with its streets full of secondhand bookshops, there is clearly no shortage of creative people in Chiang Mai.
Music students from the large school for the blind sit in a row in the middle of the street, one behind the other, singing, strumming and hitting a drum, collecting money to fund their studies.
Two lone young girls, glittering in their Thai dance costumes, dance abstractedly by themselves in different parts of the main street to recorded music, as passing shoppers drop coins in their bowls.
A big band of white-haired traditional musicians, sitting on a platform near the brick Ta Pae gate, saw away with whining notes and clink in time on little brass cymbals, playing music older than they are.
In the middle of an intersection, a mime artist, covered with white plaster, imitates a stone statue. He bows his head and smiles when someone drops a coin in his plastic bucket, then ‘freezes’ again.
When lumyai (longan) and linjee (lychee) are in season, these delicious native northern fruits, sold in large piles here, are just about given away, so cheap are their prices. And as in all Thai markets, there is food galore of all sorts at all times, the air full with the smoke and aroma of barbecued meat.
Ancient temples on either side of the main street even join in the commerce for the day, putting tables and chairs in their shady courtyards and letting vendors sell food and drink to crowds of diners.
Among the happy foreigners, with bags full of handicrafts, French phrases are heard in the cool evening air. Many visitors to and residents of Chiang Mai are indeed from France, content to strolling sedately along the moat that encircles the old city, as they no doubt did on the banks of the Seine in Paris.
Others happily knock shiny metal pétanque balls around on the shaded gravel ground of the Alliance Française, as the nearby wide Ping River flows on its relaxed way.
– Norachai Thavisin
How to get there
Thai AirAsia (airasia.com), Bangkok Airways (bangkokair.com) and Thai Airways (thaiairways.com) all offer daily direct flights between Phuket airport (HKT) and Chiang Mai airport (CNX) for around B9,000 to B15,000 return. Check websites for current deals.
Where to stay
Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai (fourseasons.com/chiangmai) offers spacious Lanna-style pavilions overlooking terraced rice fields and the mountains in Mae Rim Valley, minutes from the artistic and cultural heritage of Thailand’s northern capital. Alternatively, the award-winning guesthouse Secret Garden Chiang Mai (secretgardenchiangmai.com) has reasonably priced rooms in a great location.