Fresh spices for sale at Muang Mai market, Chiang MaiI sit on a weathered bench overlooking the Ping River. In front of me a traditional-style wooden building of modern construction is protected from closer inspection by a high hedge of deep purple bougainvillea, its glowing blossom reflected in the murky brown of the river. The property to the left, a grand house of porticoes, pillars and shaded balconies, has an even higher hedge, its top manicured into crenellations, behind which carefully trimmed cypress trees stand, tapering to the top like a row of green carrots stood on their fat ends.

This bucolic riverside scene is in total contrast to the raucousness of Muang Mai, the wholesale vegetable market behind me, for which the phrase hustle-and-bustle could have been invented and which makes every other market seem as sedate as a Sunday stroll in the park.

From well before dawn until late at night the market buzzes, with a brief respite during the heat of the afternoon. When I arrived in the early hours I saw a day labourer curled up in a floral duvet in the large hooped two-wheel trolley he’ll use for work, undisturbed by the changing coloured lights of Narawat Bridge as they cycle through red, yellow, blue and green behind him. He’ll spend his day trollying produce from trucks to small pickups and motorcycles.

On the footpaths along the river on either side of the road small traders, mainly women, sit under parasols and garden marquees wrapped in thick coats and scarves, chatting and laughing with the other ladies going about their business in a way that men never seem to, taking companionship in the cold and dark and the tedium of long hours waiting for buyers for their five kilo bags of tomatoes for 50 baht, small eggplant at 40 baht a bag, fish packed in twos and threes, film-wrapped over polystyrene trays, tiny garlic the size of a fingernail, bundles of lemongrass, snow peas at 60 baht a kilo. Cabbages and onions, cucumber and kohlrabi line the roadside, packed in clear plastic bags; red, green and yellow bell pepper laid in mounds alongside each other, winter vegetables brought from the north to serve the restaurants and tables of Chiang Mai.

In the main market of Muang Mai movement is constant. Porters wait by the entrance with their looped iron panniers, hovering hopefully as pick-ups loaded to the gunnels with fruit and veg arrive. Large green umbrellas shading the small external stalls that ring the market are raised and lowered so the high-barred sides of the pick-ups don’t knock them over. Hangar after hanger of trucks piled to the top with veg stacked in rows or seemingly thrown on, sorted into large plastic bags on the tailgate. Almost any vegetable I can name and many I can’t. For 30 baht I can buy five kilos of tomatoes, tiny cherry toms will cost 10 baht more for 500 grams, 70 baht gets me 5 kilos of courgette.

While some trucks unload a single product others load up with a market garden assortment of vegetables, as kids scuttle around the rough stone floor as if they were in the school playground. Bundles and bags are pitched up to catchers in the body of a the pick-up as it slowly fills with a Technicolor display of veg, tight packed for the onward journey to smaller markets in out-lying villages, satisfying the needs of those who can’t make the early morning clamour of Muang Mai. Mopeds with sidecars shuttle larger orders than the porters can carry in their trollies.

Creamy white cauliflower, limes of all sizes, purple shallots, pumpkins by the hundred, chopped open to show their deep orange flesh, a rainbow of peppers, tomatoes and chilies, lemongrass and galangal, holy basil and ginger. Bundles of morning glory wrapped in newspaper (ubiquitous in Thai cooking, banned in the US) are hand-balled from the back of a pick-up and stacked beside a stall. As they are being off-loaded on one side the stall-holder is selling them in bundles of five and six on the other. In the bed of a pick-up a lady sporting a purple T-shirt with the message ‘I’m not perfect, never have been, never will be’ rapidly selects chilies in a bamboo tray while laughing and chattering with the lady on the truck next door who’s sorting bunches of yard-long bean. She looks up at me and her big wide grin turns on like a lighthouse beam.












An impatient driver backs up at speed, screamed at by customers buying their half-kilo of mushrooms and vendors selling a sack-full of lettuce. At a T-junction at the back of the market he does a 16-point turn to line himself up with the exit into a narrow alley, barely wing mirror-wide. But he’s still having no luck because there’s a heavily laden vehicle coming toward him. There’s so little clearance that porters stack up behind him, inhaling his exhaust fumes, so it’s no surprise that they are almost all wearing face masks. Bottle-neck it may be, but within minutes everyone’s on the move again.

Keep moving and you come to the spice stalls, packets or fresh blended scooped out of large aluminimum bowls. On the periphery of the produce stalls are those selling household goods – ladles, pans and plastic containers, a single toy stall to keep the kids entertained, food stalls to keep the workers fed, mixed grocery stalls with jars of pickles, bottles of soy sauce, packets of noodles, and the ubiquitous Carnation condensed milk; a tiny coffee stall made of sheets of chipboard, so narrow that the young girl has to shuffle in sideways, but with a professional level coffee machine any barista would be proud of.

Further into the market you come to the fish and meat stalls. Choose your live fish from a red plastic box of oxygenated water the size of a small bath and it’s scooped out for you, thrown on the scales, its fins still flapping, then bonked on the head and gutted before it has time to realise it’s dead and the temperature has suddenly got warmer than it’s cool, fish flavoured watery home. Chicken, pork, mince – mounds of them being prepared in the heat of mid-day, the fans with a tassel of thin plastic strips being the only thing to keep the flies away, but nothing keeps the heat away from fermenting the piles of meat.

I watch a couple of ladies strip and clean slippery sections of beef, and by the look of which I’d rather not hazard a guess at which part of the animal they came from but the fat to meat ratio must be around 4:1. A porter arrives with a trolley filled with plastic bags, opens three and upends the contents on the aluminium counter. The ladies barely break stride in their cutting. We banter a bit and a couple of other stall holders join in. The meat stall holder points to her assistant, a short lady with an amazing array of buck teeth and says ‘nice Thai wife’, although given the way she’s handling her carving knife I’d have been wary of her even if she was the gracious epitome of the marketeer’s ideal of the ‘Thai smile’.

Muang Mai market is a health inspector’s worst nightmare when compared with western standards, but western food markets bear no comparison to the ‘stinky’ market, with their sanitised services and ‘nanny state’ rules, something we should all rejoice in – while probably avoiding the fermenting chicken, pork and mince.




Muang Mai Market, Wichauanon Rd. GPS 18°47’47.2″N 98°59’50.9″E