When it comes to shopping in Chiang Mai the only thing more impressive than the price is the sheer variety of goods offered. From antique statuary to the latest video games, if you can buy it in Thailand you can find in Chiang Mai, and for a lot cheaper than you'd pay just about anywhere else.
With so much history close at hand, Chiang Mai is one of the best places to hunt for genuine Thai antiques. There are also plenty of places to get high quality reproductions for a fraction of the cost of the real thing. The sale, and especially the export, of real antiques is highly controlled and you will need to acquire a special permit to bring genuine pieces out of the country.
Although there are plenty of fakers around, the real thing will always come with a certificate of authenticity from the Fine Arts Department. The upper floor of Viang Ping Plaza in the Night Bazaar is a good place to start your search and there are also plenty of dealers located around the city, particularly the Tha Phae Gate area. Those truly serious about antiques would be sadly remiss without a visit to Ban Tawai, the craft and antique centre of Northern Thailand.
Ceramics and Celadon
The art of pottery has been practiced in Chiang Mai for 700 years and the local artisans are masters at creating the highly prized form of ceramics known as Celadon. Celadon is characterized by a rich green colour that ranges from grey-green to almost turquoise. Celadon and other ceramics are still crafted using traditional techniques at San Kamphaeng.
From extremely high quality Thai silk to the Red Bull vests that almost every foreigner seems to own, you will find some great deals on clothing in Chiang Mai. Quality can vary wildly but the prices are almost always low and there is no shortage of shops and boutiques.
Be aware that most clothes are made for Thais, who are fairly small in stature, and hulking westerners may have some trouble finding a good fit, especially in places with a more local clientele. There is always the option of having clothes tailored and shops in Chiang Mai can make a suit from scratch in 24 hours for about 100 USD. Shoes are also a good value and can be found all over. For the best quality footwear head to Central Airport Plaza or Kad Suan Kaew.
Camera shops are scattered all over Chiang Mai, particularly near the tourist areas. Most have huge signs that you can spot from a mile away. These shops can handle all of your film developing needs, digital or otherwise. If you're interested in purchasing a camera then head to Central Airport Plaza. The selection and prices will be about the same as anywhere else in the city but the staff at these upscale shops are more likely to be knowledgeable (and speak English). Although there are a few brands of camera manufactured in Thailand, they're usually not built to last and you're probably better off buying an imported brand for about what you'd pay at home.
DVDs, CDs, Movies and Music
There is a thriving industry in pirated CDs and DVDs all over Thailand and Chiang Mai is no exception. Although technically illegal, the practice is widely accepted by the authorities. Trying to explain copyright law to a Thai person is like trying to explain cricket to an Eskimo.
Whether or not you find pirating immoral it's hard to deny the allure of 100 baht DVDs. If you do decide to tell the angel on your should to get bent and delve into black market entertainment there are a few things you should know. First, the quality is often so bad as to make some movies unwatchable. Make sure to test all of your selections before you buy them. Most vendors will have a monitor and player set up so you can make sure you're getting what you want.
As a general rule, expect a DVD of a film that's still in theatres to be terrible, with the silhouettes of theatre patrons' heads in the frame. The other concern about pirated media is the regional codes installed in many DVD and CD players. You do run the risk of buying the entire Dennis Hopper filmography only to get home and discover that the only ones that work are Speed and Super Mario Brothers. Unfortunately there aren't many places to buy legitimate music or movies, and the few places that do sell legal media have a very limited selection. For the pirated stuff look no further than the Night Bazaar.
Gold and Jewellery
Gold is an important measure of status in Thailand and many Thais choose to invest in it rather than stocks or bonds. Quality is consistent, with 22 carats (99.9%) being the standard. Most gold shops are run by ethnic Chinese and are almost identical. The highest concentration of gold dealers can be found near the Warorot Market. Jewellery, too, is popular in Chiang Mai and many of the local hilltribes have wonderful silversmithing traditions. Look around at the Night Bazaar or the weekend market to get the best price and quality.
It's almost impossible to spend a week in Chiang Mai and not end up buying some sort of random doo-dad. Well, why not? Chiang Mai is famous for its handicrafts and they do make great souvenirs. As with all items of this nature the quality can be inconsistent but when the items are offered at such low prices you can afford to take a risk.
The Night Bazaar is the best place to find handicrafts in Chiang Mai but the Weekend Market is another great place to look. You don't even have to go looking for handicrafts if you don't want to; they will come to you in the form of peddlers working the bars hoping to talk you into a drunken impulse buy with their irresistible sales pitch of "Hello, you buy?". If you're thinking about starting your own importing business or simply Christmas shopping for a small army go out to Bo Sang village in San Kamphaeng or Ban Tawai, where fantastic handicrafts are available in bulk at rock bottom rates.
The Lanna people were renowned for the beauty, style and grace with which they approached every aspect of their lives. Nowhere is this attitude made more apparent than in northern style home decorating.
From elegant teak furniture to handmade lacquerware boxes to brilliant peacock feather fans, Chiang Mai has everything you need to turn your house into a Lanna palace. The craft district of Ban Tawai has the widest range of items on offer and by going direct to the source you get some great deals. Ban Tawai also has an excellent shipping and logistics network in place to get your purchases back home.
A fine tradition in Chiang Mai, the art of lacquerware was imported into the area by the Burmese. The intricate and delicate process of dyeing, engraving and painting used to produce lacquerware trays, boxes and vases has been perfected over several centuries. Today you can find magnificent examples of this timeless craft, especially at The Night Bazaar and San Kamphaeng.
Purses and Accessories
Thais love their accessories and handmade rattan purses, 'designer' handbags and even funky little carryalls made from coconuts are popular items all over the city.
Additionally there is probably no better place in the world to look for mobile phone accessories - in Thailand they are a national obsession that borders on the absurd. Central Mall has an entire accessories market of its own on the third floor and the Night Bazaar is flooded with stalls selling these items.
With a stronger weave that can withstand heavier dyeing, Thai silk is considered to be as good as (if not better than) any in the world. There are two types of Thai silk: smooth and rough. Smooth Thai silk has a satiny, lustrous finish and is perfect for clothing and interior decoration. Rough Thai silk has a coarser weave but is still very soft. Rough Thai silk is more suitable for blankets, curtains and other heavy duty uses.
There are two methods to telling real Thai silk from polyester imitations - fire and light. When burned real Thai silk produces a fine ash and smells like hair burning. Also it stops burning the moment the flame is removed. Polyester gives off an acrid black smoke that keeps burning even after fire is no longer being applied to it. Of course most market vendors would have a fit if you went around happily torching their wares, so most people use the other method - light.
Thai silk is weaved with two different colours of thread to produce an iridescent sheen. When held up to the light, a piece of real Thai silk will change colours depending on the angle, while polyester will always reflect white light. Finished Thai silk products, including clothing, blankets and tapestries, can be found all over the city but for the widest selection the Night Bazaar once again takes the noodle. For raw silk - both machine made and hand woven - head to San Kamphaeng.
When walking along the street in a market area don't be surprised to find your ankles under attack from plastic robots, electronic dogs or bizarre species of remote controlled car.
Thais love to spoil their children and there are tons of little toy and hobby shops in Chiang Mai. Most of the toys are made in China (who would have thought?) so the prices are very low but they may not last. Take a look around Central Mall or Central Airport Plaza for some cool plastic stuff.
One of the most famous and distinctive northern crafts is the Sa (mulberry) Paper umbrella. Each one of these brightly painted pieces is a unique work of art. The paper is made from the bark of a tree similar to the mulberry and is thin and light but waterproof. The designs are often floral or bird motifs and are brilliantly rendered. These umbrellas make wonderful home decorations as well as being functional for keeping the water off.
Other products made of Sa Paper are decorative fans and screens. San Kamphaeng is the best place to buy Sa Paper products and you can watch them being made from start finish.