Chiang Mai – lying with tigers, Muay Thai madness, and a massive Sunday market

I left Pai and headed back along the 762 curves leading to Chiang Mai, Thailand’s biggest northern city and my last destination in Southeast Asia.  Chiang Mai is famous for its large Sunday night walking street market and I just happened to be arriving on Sunday.  Good timing for me because I had kept to my tradition of putting off my Christmas shopping until the last minute and the market would have more than enough potential Christmas gifts to choose from.

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The market begins at 4 p.m. each Sunday and technically goes until midnight, though most vendors start closing their stalls around 10:30 or 11:00 p.m.  I wandered out right at 4 p.m. when the vendors were just starting to set up their stalls and lay out their wares.

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I had seen massive markets all over SE Asia but the Chiang Mai Sunday night market took the cake.  It was the biggest (surface area-wise) market I’d been to in SE Asia, stretching all the way along Ratchadamnoen Road from Thapae Gate…

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…through the heart of the Old City.  The market is almost purely handmade artisan craft – woodworking, metalworking, scarves, and t-shirts.

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My personal favorites were the intricately carved soap flowers, each in their own personalized box.

I watched one of the vendors carving the flowers in front of me.  He would start with a block of soap and after some neat carving work and some dye, he would end up with a pretty flower that would never wilt, preserved in its hard soap form forever.

I watched one of the vendors carving the flowers in front of me. He would start with a block of soap and after some neat carving work and some dye, he would end up with a delicate flower that would never wilt, preserved in its hard soap form forever.

About two hours into shopping the Sunday market had an interesting surprise for me.  I had known national anthems were played at political events, military events and of course sporting events, but I had never heard a national anthem played at a market. 

Around 6 p.m. the speakers set up around the market started playing Thailand’s national anthem and just as at any other event where a national anthem is played, the entire crowd stopped in their tracks to pay their respects.

It turned out my decision to come to the market early was a good one – I had been able to quickly hop from vendor to vendor, do a little haggling, and walk away with gift after gift. Three and half hours later at 7:30 p.m., it was a different story.

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Walking 50 meters took five minutes and trying to wait in line to haggle with a vendor took even longer.  I decided to go back to my guesthouse and wait until 9:30 pm to return to the market to finish my shopping.

When I returned the market had thinned out a bit and I was able to finish my shopping, as well as grabbing a bite to eat at a food stall that seemed eerily similar to one of my favorite fast food chains in the United States.

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The next day I wandered around Chiang Mai for a temple-viewing extravaganza.

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If hadn’t seen enough temples in SE Asia yet (I had), Chiang Mai has about 20.

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In my opinion the most impressive of these is Wat Chedi Luang because of its incredible size.

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Chedi Luang was the original home for the Emerald Buddha, an impressive green jadeite (not actually emerald) Buddha that I had seen in Wat Phra Kaew (Bangkok), its current resting place.  The upper pagoda on Chedi Luang suffered earthquake damage in 1545 but was reconstructed in 1995.

Sitting outside and enjoying the temple, a young Thai business student named Sombat started a conversation with me. Sombat has big plans for building a new Thai fishery near Chiang Mai once he finishes business school and once better transport infrastructure is made available (with help from China) in Thailand.

I discussed this in an earlier post but China has interest in creating rail networks all throughout SE Asia, all of which would, of course, lead back to China.  I’m starting to wonder where in the world China isn’t investing – seems like it has its hands in everything.

Sombat and I

Sombat and I

Sombat also suggested that a population shift from Bangkok (Thailand’s biggest sourthern city and capital) to Chiang Mai was starting to occur.  Bangkok is under threat of flooding as our world’s oceans rise due to global warming, thus potentially causing the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand to spill up and over Bangkok.

According to Sombat thousands of folks have already sold their property in Bangkok and fled north to Chiang Mai.  If you remember my buddy “Bob”, the guy who showed me around his golf course in Chiang Rai, he was one such example – sold his property in Bangkok and moved north.

The population shift is good and bad for Chiang Mai.  According to Sombat more people means more business and more opportunity for people like Sombat who can forsee the shift and take pre-emptive advantage of it.  But overpopulation is not necessarily good for everyone, particularly the lower classes in Chiang Mai who will now have more competition from migrated Bangkok residents.

Right near Wat Chedi Luang is a Monk Chat Program which encourages locals and English speakers alike to come in and have a chat with a Monk.

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I regretfully did not take the time to do this but I observed a courtyard full of folks sitting and chatting up monks.  Next time…

Some of my favorite parts of Chiang Mai’s temples were the lifelike monk models set inside some of the temples.

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From a distance of 10 meters it is hard to tell they are models and not actual monks.

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Another more well-known temple in Chiang Mai, Wat Phra Singh, housed a reclining Buddha, though much smaller than the massive one at Wat Pho in Bangkok.

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On my way back to my guesthouse I observed a rental shop that was clearly aimed at younger, English-speaking, male backpackers.

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How can you go wrong when renting from Mr. Beer Bigbike?

I also observed a sign advertising Muay Thai, Thailand’s famous kickboxing sport.

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Even without the sign it would be hard not to know there are Muay Thai matches going on every night in Chiang Mai because there are trucks with loudspeakers rolling around the city announcing it on an hourly basis.  This should have been a sign as to who would make up the crowd later that night.

There is some debate about the legitimacy of these matches and rightfully so.  When I was at the fighting ring earlier in the day picking out my “VIP Section” seat (read: 5 meters closer than the rest of the seats) a guy from the states, who had been living in Chiang Mai for two months, was there practicing backflips and kicks in the ring.

He told me that almost every “fight” he had gone to in Chiang Mai was rigged.  But it was my last night in SE Asia and I couldn’t leave Thailand without watching a Muay Thai fight, real or not.  Later that night when the match started I realized there might be some truth to the guy’s story because over half the people there to watch the matches are tourists and backpackers, the the background-music-musicians do add a nice touch.

Another telling sign was the “bookies” working for “the house” and walking around the ring taking bets from naïve tourists on who will win each match – “red or blue”?

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I witnessed one tourist in front of me make three bets on three different matches.  He actually won two of the bets and only lost one, making you wonder how the scheme works.  Here is how I think it goes down…

All the bets are placed in the first round – one of the “bookies” will come up to each row of spectators and ask them (I always declined) if they’d like to make a bet on either the red or blue fighter, a simple bet with 1:1 odds against the house.  Getting my choice on who will win the match with 1:1 odds against the house seems like pretty tempting bet at first glance. You have to look a little further though.

After quickly taking one or two bets in the early goings of the first round from the row of people in front of me the bookie near me would wander away, seemingly to look for other bets to take.  Sometimes he would walk over to another table to take some more bets but sometimes I would observe him going over to a (house) table on the side to talk with someone about what bets had been placed.

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After all the bookies have collectively communicated to the house all the bets that have been made, the house determines how much money people have bet against the house for blue to win vs. how much money people have bet against the house for red to win.

And the fix is in. This is pretty simple math – if people have bet more against the house for red to win the red fighter will inevitably go down in the third or fourth round.  Take a look at the video below and decide for yourself whether it is really a true “knockout punch” or just a convenient time for the red fighter to go down.

The minority of folks in the audience that bet on blue will feel like they’ve won and they have, but the house will always win money overall because more money was bet on red that round.  During each fight the fighter’s trainers participate in the ruse by hooting and hollering with feigned gusto for their fighter from each respective corner.

If you were really smart you could figure out a way to bet against the majority of the audience.  Then along with the house, you would win every time.

Me, I just declined and chose to enjoy the fighting.  Even if fixed the Muay Thai was still intense and the punches and kicks definitely looked painful.

Perhaps the most bizarre spectacle of the evening was the gimmicky “filler” round, analogous to halftime entertainment at a basketball game.  Except this halftime entertainment wasn’t dogs jumping through hoops – it was six Muay thai fighters blindfolded in the ring in an all-out-free-for-all.  It was absolutely hilarious – I laugh every time I watch this video. Please have a view…

As I left the fight I paused to greet a fellow Hawkeye – what a small world!

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In response to my “Go Hawks!” she just gave me a bewildered stare.  I’m guessing she couldn’t tell Kirk Ferentz from Kirk Herbstreit – the hat was just a hat to her.  But she was donning the black and gold so I could not be too upset with her.

My final day in SE Asia I started out with another great Thai dish I had grown quite fond of – some good old fashioned Pad Thai.  After that it was off to the Tiger Kingdom near Chiang Mai.

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The tigers at the Tiger Kingdom near Chiang Mai have been raised in the presence of humans.

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From the moment they are born they are taught to interact in a friendly, non-violent manner around humans.

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At the compound I witnessed some of this training – if the young cubs got unruly and started to bite or claw at any of the tourists in their pen, they were quickly reproached.

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In this manner they are made to be friendly towards humans so even when they reach weights of more than 200 kg and have the potential to be vicious killing machines they are instead friendly, like a house cat.

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At least this is all what I told myself when girding myself to get in the cage with the big guys…

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Despite all my self-reassurances I could not shake the knowledge that these things were still wild animals.

Tigers don’t see fingers or hands, they just see “toys”

Tigers don’t see fingers or hands, they just see “toys”

A wild animal can never truly be tamed, and these guys were frisky…

I’m not sure if was a good thing or a bad thing to see the tigers so active before we got in the cage with them…

On the one hand I was more than sure that they were not drugged.  On the other hand, seeing them so energetic was a reminder of how easily they could turn that energy on me.

Contrary to all good reason and rational thought, when the trainers taunting the cats in front of us asked me if I wanted to come in, I willfully obliged.   But not without hesitation.  Before I got in the cage I made sure to thoroughly commit the posted rules to memory.

Never have I wanted to obey a set of rules more

Never have I wanted to obey a set of rules more

As I got in the cage the trainers calmed the cats down a bit and got them to lie down so I could sit down beside one of them.

Good kitty

Good kitty

It was a bit unnerving to be next to such a massive predator but the cat was calm and breathed slow and easy while I petted it.

The next cat enjoyed my petting even more.

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I could tell because its tail kept reflexively whacking me every couple seconds.

It was a powerful experience to be able to interact with such awesome creatures.  But just as I was about to leave the cage I was reminded just how dangerous the situation could potentially be.  One of the cats started walking towards me and just as it got a bit too close me one of the trainers rushed over to divert the cat’s course.

Close call I guess.   But I made it out unscathed and in the end was glad I had got in the cage with them.  Despite the fun I had at the Tiger Kingdom and despite knowing that these cats are treated very well, it is always somewhat saddening to see an animal in a cage.

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After the Tiger Kingdom I boarded my last tuk-tuk in SE Asia for a ride to the airport.

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It was bittersweet.  I loved SE Asia and was sad to leave. At the same time, I was glad to get home.

But I know I will be back to SE Asia and this will not be my last tuk-tuk ride.

After a week at home in December I boarded a flight bound for Colombia to begin a 14 week trip south through South America.  And that will be the subject of my next post.

One thought on “Chiang Mai – lying with tigers, Muay Thai madness, and a massive Sunday market

  1. Glad that you seems to like Chiang Mai, my home town. Be our guest again any time you’d like. Always welcome. 🙂

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