Robyn Eckhardt delves into this often-overlooked corner of northern Thailand and discovers a thriving market community bursting with life, fresh produce and culinary delights.
Robyn Eckhardt

11 Jul 2012 - 4:31 PM  UPDATED 30 Mar 2021 - 7:47 PM

Sixty-four-year-old Kamtorn Chaitong is standing in his medicine shop Wang Heng Phor in Chiang Mai’s Gat Luang neighbourhood. Like many businesses in the district, Wang Heng Phor occupies a mid-20th century, Chinese-style shophouse. Its timber doors fold open like an accordion, with private spaces behind and above the shop. The sweetly camphoric air is scented by remedies that are stored in a medicine chest painted sky blue and in rows of matching containers shelved on the opposite wall. In the centre of the shop, a table displays wooden boxes filled with cumin seeds, black peppercorns, two varieties of prickly ash and other dried spices. On sunny days, its stoop is crowded with rattan trays of drying leaves and roots.

Khun Kamtorn (Khun is a Thai honorific term, used as a sign of respect) runs Wang Heng Phor with the help of his son and daughter-in-law. His father, one of many Teochew Chinese who settled in Gat Luang (which means 'great market’ in local Thai dialect) in the 19th and early 20th centuries, opened its doors almost 50 years ago after his first chemist shop burned to the ground in a fire. It looks much as it did back then, says Khun Kamtorn, and he plans no updates.

I have come to buy spices for gaeng hang lay, a mild northern curry that is lush with spices more often associated with Indian than Thai food. 'You can look at this place two ways: as 'not modern’ or as 'pretty old’ shop," Khun Kamtorn muses as he uses a long-handled ladle to scoop cloves, cardamom pods and curls of hibiscus-hued mace into a plastic bag. 'I don’t care. I want to keep it just like this."

Wang Heng Phor isn’t the only business in Gat Luang with a history. Sprawling over eight city blocks on the western bank of the Ping River, Gat Luang is Chiang Mai’s historic commercial heart. Anchored by three markets – riverside Don Lam Yai, Warorot, and wholesale centre Naowarat – and set within a maze of winding lanes and alleys, the neighbourhood is a trove of culinary treasures, architectural gems and old-style shops peddling everything from kitchenware to perms. I’ve been exploring Gat Luang’s nooks and crannies for years on regular culinary adventures to Chiang Mai, and recently spent three months documenting daily life in the neighbourhood for a book to commemorate Warorot’s 100th anniversary. Yet every visit yields a discovery – most recently, an artisan on Warorot’s third floor making old-fashioned fabric-covered buttons to order; the lovely and affordable copper pans sold out of a kitchen supplies stall in Don Lam Yai; and nearby, the century-old house with its fish-scale roof and teak façade.

Near Khun Kamtorn’s shop is a second-generation herbal pharmacy whose Indian owner, 81-year-old Saifudan Laatlamwaraa, specialises in Ayurvedic cures; and in an art deco shophouse next door, a Chinese chemist comes complete with a Guangdong-trained herbal physician. Circling Warorot market’s multi-storey façade and dotted throughout Gat Luang are Teochew family-owned jewellery shops. Along with the two Chinese temples, Namdhari Sikh gurdwara (worship place) and the Buddhist wat that serve its multicultural community, they’re a legacy of Gat Luang’s trading-post past.

Around 150 years ago, boats loaded with soy beans, silk and lacquer left Gat Luang’s busy port bound for Bangkok on the Ping River, returning with stationery, quinine and Western-packaged foods after an arduous two-month upstream journey. The commercial centre was a stop on a land trade route through Myanmar (Burma), Thailand and Laos plied by Chinese Muslim traders from Yunnan and a launching point for overland caravans to the southern Myanmar port of Mawlamyine.

In the 1800s, Gat Luang drew Shan (a South-East Asian ethnic group) from Myanmar and Thais from elsewhere in the north; many worked on British-owned teak plantations on the other side of the Ping River. Indians, primarily from Punjab, came to sell textiles and spices, while Chinese, mostly from Chaozhou and Guangdong, also arrived.

The first Don Lam Yai market was built in the early 1900s on a patch of land that served as the bathing ground for the elephants that hauled teak logs to the river for transport south. Originally a rectangle of double-storey timber shophouses with open stalls in its centre, the market has been rebuilt twice, the last time in 1968 after the event referred to in Gat Luang as The Great Fire, and is now a non-descript multi-storey concrete structure.

Pre-dawn risers shop for fresh fish and produce in Don Lam Yai’s tai din (cellar), which is naturally cooled by the waters of the Ping River. Upstairs, sellers of flowers, meat, poultry and vegetables interspersed with a few noodle and curry stalls occupy a damp, concrete-floored open-air section opposite the river. In stark contrast is a recently refurbished part of the market just behind, which enjoys good lighting, improved ventilation and music that segues from northern folk tunes to Western 1970s pop music. Here, rows of stalls display salted fish, dried fruits and nuts, accoutrements for Chinese and northern Thai religious ceremonies and uniquely northern Thai foods – such as leathery buffalo skin and tua nao (dried discs of fermented soy beans that are to local dishes, what fish sauce is to other regional Thai cuisines). Beyond that is a row of shops and stalls peddling kitchenware (brass woks, clay mortars, enamelled metal plates and cups) and, as if as a memorial to the days when the Ping River ran clean and clear, all manner of fishing tackle.

Wanna Kietthisaat, a petite, impeccably dressed octogenarian, is one of Don Lam Yai’s oldest vendors. 'I’ve been here even before The Great Fire, since I was 22 years old!" she tells me proudly one morning as she hangs strings of maak (dried betel nuts) and arranges nests of dried tobacco at the front of her stall. She still lives in the house where she was born to Teochew parents, and started out selling vegetables to traders from Lampang (a town south-east of Chiang Mai) who transported their purchases via train.

'I did well. My two kids and my nephew graduated from university because of Don Lam Yai," she says. When revenue took a dip, Khun Wanna began selling dried longans (a local tropical fruit) and then, 10 years ago, switched to tobacco, betel nuts and related paraphernalia. Maak garlands sell well, she says, but business is down overall. 'The market’s not like it was in the old days, when there were so many people you could hardly walk."

Similar sentiments are echoed by other Don Lam Yai vendors. In the market’s front aisle between kitchenware and fishing supplies Ananyaa 'Gui’ Wittigangamchon sells the city’s most delicious ruammit, an addictive sweet soup of fresh coconut milk studded with sliced jackfruit, pandanus-flavoured rice noodles, bits of water chestnut enrobed in red jelly, young coconut shards and taro dumplings ladled over shaved ice.

Every day, Khun Gui rises before dawn to press coconut milk and make each of her ruammit’s components by hand. The cost of raw ingredients has gone up, she complains, yet falling demand forces her to keep her prices low. 'Twenty years ago, I sold four tubs of ruammit a day. But people don’t come to markets like this much anymore, and now I can only sell two."

Adisorn 'Chi’ Sucharaitruk hopes that innovation will help turn Don Lam Yai’s fortunes around. Early last year, the 33-year-old management and law graduate returned from university in Japan to work with his father Apichaat, manager at Don Lam Yai for more than 30 years, on the market’s refurbishment. For traditional markets in Asia, refurbishment often means a loss of character, but rather than scour away Don Lam Yai’s past, Khun Chi wants to capitalise on Gat Luang’s history to improve business for vendors. 'If these people can survive, the market can survive," he tells me.

Khun Chi hopes to lure shoppers to Don Lam Yai by retaining all its old vendors while freshening up its environment and adding tourist-focused retailers in neglected corners. His dream is to open the market to natural light and fresh air by demolishing its hulking multi-storey car park. The eyesore was built by the Chiang Mai municipality years ago; it provides cover for Don Lam Yai’s front section but visually separates it from the Ping River, right across the street.

Khun Chi believes a pedestrian thoroughfare here would increase foot traffic and draw people into the market itself. 'This whole area has a history. Yes, there are hypermarkets and grocery stores, but markets like Don Lam Yai offer something special: a relationship between seller and customer, the opportunity to bargain and have a conversation and a chance to have fun."

Just across the street, Warorot market appears to be thriving. On any given day, its ground floor, a labyrinth of gastronomic temptations, is buzzing. A hot spot is Boon Sii, a corner stall offering all things pork, including northern Thai specialties like gaeng hang lay curry, lemongrass and chilli-laced sausage called saikrawk, and tight curls of crisp fried pork skin to eat with naam prik num (a dip of pounded grilled green chillies). Turnover is brisk, with workers bearing replenishments in plastic-lined rattan baskets arriving constantly from a kitchen on Warorot’s second floor.

After decades as an accountant at a bank in Bangkok, Nantaporn 'Toom’ Soonphron purchased Boon Sii last year from its original owners. Other than eliminating chemical preservatives and substituting brown sugar for white ('It’s healthier," she explains, as if in answer to suspicions that what Boon Sii peddles might be less than good for you), she hasn’t tampered with their 50-plus year-old recipes. She estimates that the kitchen goes through 400 kilos of pork a day.

Beneath a staircase at the opposite end of the same row, Arawan Phuchalan fusses with a display of khanom (sweets) almost too pretty to eat. Born in Sukhothai, north central Thailand, Khun Arawan followed an older brother and sister to Chiang Mai at the age of 21 and began selling khanom thuay fu (steamed rice flour muffins) from a basket in Warorot straight after The Great Fire. How did she master the notoriously difficult art of making Thai khanom, I wondered. 'I learned by myself!" the bubbly, bespectacled 64-year-old insists as she hands a customer two bags stuffed with maw gaeng thua (bread pudding-like mung bean custard) and pandanus-flavoured sticky rice bars slicked with a thick layer of coconut cream. 'I love sweets. I just taste a khanom and imagine what ingredients should be in it."

Over the decades, Khun Arawan’s enterprise – known around Gat Luang as khanom tai bandai or 'the sweets under the stairs’ – has grown to employ 12 people, including herself and her husband. In the morning, her single table displays at least 15 different types of khanom including woon (jellies), layered and button-shaped, in flavours such as coffee; saa lee (weightless steamed sponge cakes); khanom man, (pale yellow balls of tapioca flour rolled in freshly grated coconut); and marzipan-like miniature fruits called look chup. By 3pm, stock is mightily diminished by Gat Luang shoppers grabbing a little something on the way home, and lunchers swinging by for dessert.

If you can’t find it in Gat Luang, you probably don’t need it. I think of the area as Chiang Mai’s original hypermarket, although that’s not an entirely accurate comparison; the web of ties that bind the neighbourhood aren’t solely commercial. Just after dawn, Wichayanon Road, which separates Don Lam Yai and Warorot, sees monks from Wat Saen Fang collecting alms, local business owners breakfasting together at an alleyway stall on fried pastry sticks and naam tauhu song khruang (warm fresh soy milk with barley, kidney beans and strips of tofu skin), and tri-shaws ferrying goods and shoppers to and from the markets. Later in the day, those tri-shaws will be parked behind Warorot in an alley that runs alongside Pu Pia, a temple devoted to the goddess Guan Yu, their drivers napping or eating lunches gleaned from the alley’s row of food stalls.

Taken together, those vendors boast more than a century of experience cooking and serving the neighbourhood and its visitors. If I’m lucky enough to score a seat at one of the two tables fronting Som Tam Rot Saep (Tasty Som Tam), I can watch Gat Luang’s ebb and flow over a feast of sup naw mai (warm salad of tangy fermented bamboo shoots pounded with fish sauce and dried chillies served with fresh snake beans and wild pepper leaves) and grilled chicken from a smoking grill just down the row. Dessert will be pae kuai, a sweet longan soup with ginkgo nuts, dates and pinwheels of lotus root, made from a recipe given to the middle-aged sisters running the stall next door. As I eat, I see shop owners nipping out for a bite of som tam (green papaya salad); a tailor from Warorot’s third floor on her way to the old beauty salon Raan Duang Jai for some gossip and a hair wash; a jewellery shop employee negotiating a purchase at one of the Sikh-owned textile shops; and the wife of a sundries shop owner and her daughter-in-law carrying sticks of incense into Pu Pia temple.

In September last year, I was in Gat Luang for a day of charity on which, after rounds of ritual, both solemn and wildly raucous, donations of food and cash were given to anyone young or old, from within or outside the neighbourhood, who cared to queue. The annual occasion is sponsored by the members of Pu Pia and Gat Luang’s other, grander temple Pung Tao Gong, but is attended by mostly anyone with a connection to the area. It seemed that everyone was there, many faces I can now attach names to and even more that I can’t, offering prayers and dropping off goods, pitching in to serve food and distribute donations and keep queues orderly.

It was a display of market as community and business centre – as a node of relationships not only mercantile but personal as well – and of what keeps drawing me back to this overlooked corner of Chiang Mai.

Photography by David Hagerman.

Northern Thai curry (gaeng hang lay)