There are stories contained within the folds of a Hmong skirt, delicately painted with wax and lovingly embroidered for a special occasion years ago. Hmong costume is amongst the most vibrant and decadent in all of Southeast Asia, and Chiang Mai’s Warorot Market is the place to go if you want to ferret through truckloads of vintage Hmong fabric remnants, hand-stitched quilts, textiles, garments and baby carriers.
Warorot is the city’s main market area and apart from textiles, you can find just about every product imaginable being traded from the two undercover buildings, Warorot proper and Lamyai (which houses the famous fresh flower market at its rear), and the nearby Hmong Market.
Outside these designated areas, shopfronts selling herbal medicines and imported fabrics fan out across the streets of China Town, forming a never-ending outdoor shopping complex. If you’re hunting for textiles in Chiang Mai, this is a great place to start.
Equally, if you’re interested in experiencing one of Thailand’s most authentic markets that is still primarily the domain of locals (not tourists), Warorot is a must-visit. Early mornings on the weekend is when you’ll find the market is most alive, or time your visit for one of the quieter periods, such as Wednesday lunch.
Warorot Market (also spelt Worarot or Woraros) is known as Kat Luang (‘big market’) to locals. Big market is about right – from a three-storey undercover complex, Warorot extends out to countless street stalls and shopfronts on both sides of Chang Moi Road. As a result, the name Warorot is often used to refer to Chiang Mai’s entire downtown area, the patch of China Town that sits between Thapae Gate and the Ping River.
Start exploring at the northeast corner of the market, at the intersection of Chang Moi and Wichayanon Roads, where most songthaews make their passenger drop offs. The perimeter of the Warorot building is surrounded by covered clothing stalls and Chinese gold shops. You can enter the main building via one of the dozen undercover walkways that open up to the street along the eastern wall. Here is a good place to grab a morning snack of dim sum, steamed buns or rotisserie chicken before you enter the market proper. Turning left as you enter, you’ll come across a section labelled Area 4. The stalls in this part of the market mainly stock bamboo kitchen utensils, plastic crockery, and temple offerings.
When you’ve walked as far as you can go along the eastern edge of Warorot, you’ll notice a short staircase on your right that leads down to a subterranean food court. Here, tiny tables and chairs are set up in front of a number of khao soi and noodle stands. Contemporary boutiques surround the central court and sell a beautiful assortment of hill tribe clothes made from embroidered and appliqued fabrics.
Exit via the matching small staircase directly opposite from where you entered and you’ll find yourself on the main market floor. Resembling something between a herb dispensary, pick-and-mix sweet shop and green grocer, dry goods, packaged snack foods and a small amount of fresh produce (mainly barbecued meat) is all sold here on the floor. It’s usually a flurry of activity, especially on the weekend. Something to take note of is the huge amount of plastic packaging.
Warorot is somewhat lacking in the sensory richness typical of Southeast Asian markets, mainly because all the spices, dried fruit and dried fish are prepacked in shiny plastic bags. There are a few exceptions, and these stalls are worth hunting down if you want to see and smell fresh ingredients. One lady sells fiery chilli paste by the kilo, while a few other vendors stand behind stacks of intriguing banana-leaf pyramids. These little packages contain a traditional Thai sweet snack, and are filled with various combinations of molasses, soy bean paste and sticky rice. Other Lanna snacks worth trying are the pork rind, rice crackers and fresh tamarind.
When you’ve finished winding your way across the floor and observing some of the market’s eccentricities (like the ancient sets of kitchen scales that sit beside the public phones), rise above the chaos by climbing one of the out-of-order escalators up to the second level. The centre of the second storey is dominated by an open rectangular balcony that looks straight down onto the market below; it’s a great photo opportunity.
Think of Warorot’s second level as four discrete sections, each specialising in a different product category. At the southern end is the pharmacy section, which gives way to a row of clothing stores. On the far right and the far left two near-identical stores mirror each other, and both sell pre-cut lengths of Indonesian batik and other fabrics by the metre, which you can have made into clothing by one of the seamstresses who is set up at the very rear of this floor.
The rest of the second level is devoted to clothes and accessories, mainly imported work wear and school uniforms (western wall) and backpacks and carry bags (eastern wall). Head to the northern balcony for a good view down over the vendor who sits inside her stall below, perched on top of a pile of produce and packaged foods. Behind the few clothes shops here on the northern side is a network of ramps, which you can also use to go up and down. Two split floors branch off the main second level. Downstairs you’ll find a nice selection of hill tribe clothes, bedding, and what appears to be a huge industrial kitchen. Upstairs there are a few good fabric stores, but the remainder of the floor space is set aside for storage, including a parking area for vendors who ride their motorbike up the ramps each morning.
From here, you can climb another set of stairs to access Warorot’s top floor. Also open in the middle, the shops around the northern balcony have the best clothing, mainly cut from indigo cloth. One shop on this floor stands out among the crowd. Umbrellas, drums, woodwind instruments and an assortment of curios, including temple bells, wood carvings and peacock feathers, are among its offerings. The southern balcony is home to a small, mostly empty food court.
Make your way back to Warorot’s main second floor. Hidden behind the uniform shops on the western wall, you’ll see a small staircase that leads out into the open air. This is the bridge way and your connection to the Lamyai building, the second of Warorot’s undercover areas, which lies directly across the street.
Cross the walkway into Lamyai’s top floor and you’ll notice how similar it is to Warorot in terms of layout. A giant balcony overlooks the market floor here too, but Lamyai is distinctly quieter than Warorot. Finished with white-painted concrete, it appears newer and slightly cleaner, and conforms to a different quadrilateral shape. Along the shortest side of the top storey you’ll find winter clothes, cheap shoes and bags, and more school uniforms.
The longer end of the floor – which looks to be open and split by a labyrinth of ramps – is the market’s most tourist-friendly section. Inside you’ll find a good selection of colourful, lightweight clothes and souvenirs such as key chains.
The stall on the far right of this area sells a beautiful range of carry bags. The owner, who goes by the slightly unfortunate nickname of ‘Shit’, showed me how he stitches the bags using antique textiles. The ones made from hill tribe shirts, stitched at the neck and sleeves, are a particular favourite of mine.
Take the few steps up to the top split level. Most stores here carry a samesy range of hill tribe-style kids clothing, but the two adult apparel shops on the far right use more subtle fabrics and natural fibres for their garments.
Ton Lamyai’s market floor is comparable to Warorot’s, but with more aromatics on display, including dried shrimp. Here, you can buy hill tribe Arabica coffee and locally grown tea leaves by the bag. Another shop sells fantastic homewares and utensils, including quirky wooden teacups, and another woven rice baskets. The northern end of the floor breaks off into a wet market (which must back right onto the Ping River), and a food court.
Exiting Lamyai via a pass on the western wall will deliver you out onto Wichayanon Road, which transects the two undercover markets (you’ll see the pedestrian overpass above you). There are a lot of tuk-tuks and three-wheeled trishaws parked around here amongst food stalls, fresh flowers and fruit and veg. With Warorot on your left, turn left away from the river and walk a few metres to arrive back at your starting point.
If you keep walking the perimeter of the market you’ll come across stalls selling cheap clothing and fabric by the metre. Directly opposite the Chinese temple is the mother of all fabric stores. Note the narrow laneway just before the temple that is packed with busy food stalls.
Another small laneway opens up at the southwest corner of Warorot and takes you directly to the Hmong Market. Less permanent than Warorot and Lamyai, the Hmong Market mostly consists of transient tarpaulin-covered stalls and bins loaded with cloth. As a result, it’s dimly lit and rather stuffy – but if you’re at all interested in textiles, you’ll brave the heat and spend some time in here rummaging. Antique notions, fabric swatches and Akha hats are arranged in beautiful stacks, and there are literally mountains of batik and embroidered skirts to look through, as well as quilts and antique fabric panels of all shapes and sizes (once used for different costume purposes), and rolls of both raw and indigo-coloured hemp fabric.
Don’t stop there – there are countless other shops of a similar ilk dotted around the Warorot area and on the other side of the Ping River. Another spot worth visiting is the clothing market set up at the intersection of Soi Kuang Men and Thapae Roads. Two shops of note are Le Leezu, which sells incredible handbags made from leather and antique textiles, and Parichart Design, with it’s collection of made-in-Chaing-Mai women’s wear.
Being the textile fanatic that I am, Warorot is one of my favourite places to spend a day in Chiang Mai. No matter what you’re interested in buying (or browsing through), it’s well worth setting aside a few hours at least to explore the Warorot area.