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Everything sizzles and pops around you. Steam floats into the night sky like aromatic clouds carrying scrumptious smells of marvelous treats like various meats, or grilled vegetables, or spicy soups — all to the song from a lute; cracked leather-like fingers pluck the instrument, that long necked worn cherry-colored lute called the sueng, releasing a melody of ting-tang-tong-tang-ting to add sweet soundtracks amongst the chitter-chatter of the throngs.
Here and there and everywhere is food porn galore. From spicy papaya salad to buttered garlic bread, pork balls and chicken balls (not testes) to kababs with zesty yogurt — everything your tantalized taste buds can salivate over.
Needle and thread dive in and out of colorful fabrics with a delicate urgency under soft yellow light as young and old create intricate gifts before your eyes. Maybe you’re looking for a poncho, or a scarf, or a hat — whatever it may be, it can be found as far as the eye can see.
This is the Sunday walking street market in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Once you enter Ratchadamnoen Road; near Thapae Gate cutting through the center of Old Town, you are lost in the ebb and flow of the Thai and tourist slow moving river. And there is almost no turning back — though you probably won’t want to anyway.
Do what I call the Chiang Mai Market Shuffle: right foot slides forward two inches, left foot slides forward two inches, rock your body one way to glance at trinkets, rock the other way to fiend over drool-worthy food, and repeat. It’s packed in the market so you’ll have to do a little shuffle.
The Chiang Mai night market is a place bursting with people, but this river of buying and selling is a treasure trove of Thai and exotic street food and hand-made arts and crafts. Much of it that is rarely found cheaper or of better quality than here. There is a reason why even Thai people fight the current of bodies to shop here.
The Chiang Mai Sunday night walking street is definitely a busy place, but one of my favorite things in the city to do each weekend.
HOW TO GET THERE
The Sunday night walking street market is located directly across the from the Thapae gate on the eastern side of Chiang Mai, the entry into the old town. The stands begin to pop up in late afternoon and around dusk, and begins to get overly packed around 7:00pm to 9:00pm.
WHAT TO BRING
Make sure to come on an empty stomach and with smaller bills — many of the vendors cannot break 500 baht and 1000 baht notes. You will also be walking for quite a bit so wear comfortable shoes. Since the market is teeming with people, bring a back that has secure zippers and straps so you can keep your belongings safe.
WHERE TO STAY
Since the walking street market is in the heart of old town, most of the available hostels in hotels are close by and within walking distance. During peak season, Chiang Mai accommodation can fill up fast so make sure to book your hotel or hostel a few days in advance.
Have you ever been to the Chiang Mai Night Market?
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There is still a bad taste in my mouth. No, it isn’t from the beef on a stick which turned out to be liver that I had eaten for lunch in the market in Mae Sai this day. That bad taste in my mouth was from an experience that happened on my recent visa run in Thailand. An experience that may have very well tainted the country for me and my desire to return to teach English.
Confusion spun in my head, which eventually began to boil into anger. I was standing inside the passport control office in the great blue building — the exit gate of Thailand into Myanmar — and I was being yelled at for no reason obvious to me. The small Thai lady behind the counter had taken my passport, given a quick glance at it, and returned it to me with a stern “No”.
I had no clue why she was barring me from exiting into Myanmar which I had done numerous times before, so of course I asked why.
“Because you no leave. Go!”and she shooed me away with her hand.
So again I pressed for information, politely of course, stating that I had done this previously with no issues.
“New regulations, you no leave. Speak with my boss” she said, while waving over the next person in line. But I wasn’t going to just turn away and retreat without some clear answer as to why I couldn’t do the visa run.
“Okay, where is your boss?” I asked.
“Bangkok. You go speak to him.” she said without even looking up at me.
“What is his phone number?” I asked.
And that is when I got pissed off. After asking for the phone number to her supervisor, a different officer behind her laughed at me. The woman I had been speaking to shook head and said, “No, leave.”
I took a deep breath and a step back so I could see if there would be an issue with anyone else in the line. The next person to approach was a girl from Canada come to find out later. After she handed the same border guard her passport and the woman looked at it, she said the same thing as she did to me.
“No, cannot, new regulations.”
Obviously the girl was just as confused as I was, so she began questioning the reasoning behind this refusal as well. And she had the same luck I did. At this point, a crowd of failed attempts from foreigners trying to either cross into Myanmar or to do a visa run was gathering outside the gate. I was the only United States dude; there were also two Germans, one French, two Dominican Republic, and someone from the United Kingdom. And that Canadian girl now.
“They denied me as well” seemed to be the tune of the morning for everyone, and nobody had any information on why we couldn’t cross the border.
So with a dying phone I began scouring forums and Thailand groups on Facebook with a desperate message of something around the lines of “What the fuck is going on?!” In one group, comments began flooding in about some sort of sudden visa regulation changes that had dropped that very morning without notice.
Apparently the only information was in the form of an article posted in the newspaper, but otherwise there was no prior warning. Rumor and speculation flooded the forums, but it seemed as though visa runs (crossing the border and coming back in for an extension of time) were being axed for people with three previous Thailand stamps in their passport.
As I was giving updates to the group outside the gate, it caused even more confusion. Granted I had done 5 visa runs already, the girl who had approached after me had just flown into Thailand and had never received an exit stamp so that wouldn’t apply. Others were on their first or second stamp as well and were being denied.
Knowing that my bus was going to be leaving in the next hour and that my visa was expiring that very day, I was desperate to figure out the issue. I approached the window again behind an older Quebecois woman who was just being denied through as well. The Thai woman in the window gave her as much explanation as me, so when the woman started complaining about them not telling us more information, a male Thai guard came to the window and with a raised voice said, “No! Go! No visa runs, no visas for you!”
The Quebecois woman was pissed, and responded by saying, “I don’t want to stay anymore, I just want to leave Thailand now because of you, you are being very rude!”
Then the guard got aggressive and got within inches of her face.
“Ok. Thailand not your country. You go back to your country!” he shouted at her. I was shocked, never seeing Thai people be so adamantly rude and unhelpful.
“You wont let me leave!” she retorted, and stormed of after flashing a middle finger.
Knowing that things were getting heated and becoming angry would help nothing, I approached the window sincerely apologizing for the woman’s reaction (though slightly warranted I feel) and pleaded for them to help or explain the situation.
And they ignored me. They wouldn’t even look up at me. Most of the guards in the office were now chatting amongst each other, snickering, and occasionally glancing our way with a smirk.
“Fuck this shit” I said to myself and pushed my way back through the line and out into the gate. Everyone was still gathered outside venting about the whole situation, but it was clear this visa run wasn’t happening for anyone today.
Frustrated beyond belief, I gave up and decided to return to the bus station.
What was the reasoning for this? Why were the border guards, who are normally friendly, being so rude? What the fuck do I do about my visa expiring today?!
Even more so I was pissed at myself for not going with my friend on his border run the day prior — right before this random regulation was placed. But there was no way I could have known these shenanigans were going to take place.
The fact that I had taken the bus 5 hours there, sat at the gate for 2 hours confused, and had to return 5 hours back to Chiang Mai empty-handed added to the frustration of the day as well. I messaged my friend who was living in Thailand with me and told him everything that had happened that day.
“I’m leaving Thailand now. As soon as possible.” I told him.
“Don’t blame ya’ after that, I figured you would.”
My phone died, so I sat for the next 5 hours trying to figure out a plan of execution while fuming with anger.
I had planned on crossing over that day for an extension just until the end of the month, and then I had to leave Thailand to attend a friend’s wedding in Slovakia. I just needed of. And I wouldn’t get it.
What really did it in for me was that since they unexpectedly dropped this new regulation on a Saturday morning, the immigration office was closed until Monday. So even if I was to go get an extension, paying 1,900 baht at the immigration office, I would already owe another 1,000 baht in fines for an overstay.
It seemed to me like it was a planned slight.
Imagine hundreds of people needing to cross for their visa extension that day, just doing something that had been normal to do each month for the past few years, and then being denied. That is at least 1,000 baht per person before they can scramble over to a neighboring country to apply for a visa or apply for an extension at the immigrations office.
All that passed through my head was that, “those fuckers did this on purpose for a quick dollar.”
I can’t personally come up with any justifiable reason why they would drop a swift new regulation without warning on a weekend.
As more information surfaced later that night, it seemed as though the regulations would get even stricter. Soon, starting later that August, they would be barring flying out of the country and back in without acquiring a visa for Thailand in another country preemptively. Making it harder to stay long-term in a country many love.
I spoke to many, many travelers later that night about the slight at hand — about being screwed over last-minute. Some were in the same situation as I was. A small amount of others objected to or dismay, mostly uppity ones on forums who combated everyone’s panic and complaining with thanks and praises for a regulation that would “force out the teachers and freelancers exploiting Thailand’s loopholes“.
Older expats who had Thai wives and had been living there for 10+ years were ridiculing would-be teachers and freelancers for “living off Thailand’s easily avoided immigrant laws” — as if they didn’t fucking come to the country to exploit loopholes. How old was your wife when you found “love” for one another? How many times had you done visa runs?
I didn’t come to exploit anything, but clearly much of the older crowd making this argument had.
A country should accommodate my needs?
Some spoke of tightening regulations for entering the country as just enforcement for long-standing laws. Sure, the standard was that after 3 visa entries you would have to acquire a different type of visa. But what about those forced away while I was there that only had one? And though these regulations, in some form, may have been in place — the norm embraced by Thailand, travelers, Thai merchants, Thai companies, expats, teachers, and the like was the visa run.
Most people living in Thailand and doing visa runs are, from my experience, people who want to stay in Thailand because they love the culture and people. And they spend their money in the country. Freelancers being paid by other countries spend their money IN THAILAND. English teachers, who aren’t talking jobs from Thai people, are spending their paychecks IN THAILAND.
Sure, you might just say, “stop complaining and go the proper route to get a visa” but that isn’t why everyone was pissed. Or why I was pissed. I don’t think for one moment that a country should bend rules or accommodate rules just so I am comfortable. But when I arrived, the regular thing to do was to take visa runs until you got your work permit from a school you are teaching at, or do visa runs while exploring the country until you find a place you would like to settle. Then you can head on over to Laos and try to get a 90 day visa which takes a few days at least.
The reason everyone was pissed was because they established this new regulation without warning, without information, without explanation, and on a weekend while immigration offices were close.
It’s not only foreigners complaining…
Think travelers were the only ones complaining? The Thai apartment building owner my friend rented from saw a mass exodus of travelers who had been renting a room the following day.
“I don’t know what I’ll do…everyone is leaving. I won’t have a business.”
Sure, Thailand businesses may do okay during busy season, but we were entering the slow rainy season, one where most of these businesses are helped by spending from expats, teachers, freelancers or slow travelers staying longer.
How about all of those businesses that relied on the daily flow of packed buses full of travelers on visa runs? Those companies specifically offering visa runs are done for. Also, the shops those vans force you to stop at on visa runs rely on daily flow of backpackers for business.
I even heard about new protests in Bangkok solely about this new regulation. Whether that is true or not, I heard it from a Thai person.
Trust me, it isn’t just “freeloading” backpackers complaining if you decided to call it that, it was a vast majority of Thai people I spoke with confused and angry as well.
Again, I have no worry ever about going through the proper methods to enter and stay in a country, but the way this was executed without warning was something that will leave a mark on me, many travelers in Thailand, and Thai businesses as well.
So, was I really forced out of Thailand?
Yes and no. I was forced to make a quick decision that in no way made it plausible to stay in Thailand. I’m sure whoever “they” are would have loved for me to stay longer and pay more in fines.
I had just over two weeks left in the country before I had to leave. For me to jump over to another country like Laos and apply for a visa would take a few days in addition to costs of the application, transportation, and accommodation. I would have already been at a loss of 1,000 baht ($30 which is a lot for a backpacker) and I would be paying for a 90 day visa only to return to the country for a couple of weeks. It didn’t make sense to me.
I know that the gate I was attempting to cross through was a trading post and not actually a border crossing. From there, without being able to re-enter Thailand, you would be stuck. It is basically for good and Visa runs. But I had heard this was the story at most borders around Thailand, be it one for visa runs or not.
And the longer I stayed, the more money I’d be fined.
Why not move on to another Southeast Asian country?
According to the border guards, I had to fly out since my visa expires and the regulation restricted me from crossing by land. So, to spend $50-$100 on a last-minute flight to another country close by, then to spend $700-$800 last minute to fly to Slovakia, would be a waste of money on flights.
Instead, I decided it was just my time to leave Thailand and Southeast Asia (for now) and just take an earlier flight into Europe. My accommodation and daily living costs may be more expensive, but at this point I just wanted to get away from Thailand unfortunately. And though I had been planning to go to Slovakia, the plans changed again.
Knowing each day I stayed in Thailand would be another $15 tacked on to my fine, I took the next bus down to Bangkok to fly out the following day. I switched my plan to fly to Slovakia because I found a cheaper flight last-minute to Italy ($500) and I also had a voucher worth $250 with a flight booking company that I could use. Taking that cheaper flight to Italy, I could finally live out a childhood dream as well, and then take a budget flight for $50 to Slovakia for the wedding at a later date.
Expenses wise, it would obviously be more expensive in Italy than it would be to stay in Southeast Asia, but with the turn of events and how it played out with flights, it seemed as though the travel Gods were telling me it was finally time to visit the country I always yearned to see. Fernweh was pulling me — that longing for a place you have never been — and it was pulling me to Italy.
I had spent 6 months in Thailand setting up roots for myself to teach English after the wedding…roots that would have given me the proper visa to stay long-term, but the experience at the border and the way the new regulations were handled really pushed me away. And it is a shame. I really love Thailand. But seriously, from my local friends, Thai merchants and business owners I know, and backpackers around the Land of Smiles — someone fucked up with this.
Will I ever return?
I think there is a good possibility that I could return. After all, I never did explore much of the southern islands. But to live long-term and teach English there after this experience? Before flying out I had to pay 2,000 baht ($60) in fines to someone at the airport that had a quick chuckle after saying, “oooh, overstayed? Not good”. I can’t say for sure, but it Thailand isn’t on my radar anymore to live in.
*UPDATE* I have heard whisperings that Thailand has returned the policy back to the way it was. Still hasn’t changed how I feel about the experience.