As the sun sets in northern Thailand the bustling streets of Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar market fills with scores of shoppers and travelers. Located on the popular Chang Klan Road, the renowned market offers visitors a vibrant and unique shopping experience. Everyday at 5PM Chiang Mai vendors set up shop throughout the long bazaar corridors selling a variety of goods and edibles. Metal roll-up-doors slide open to reveal fish spas and souvenir shops. Assorted table vendors sell cheap sunglasses, elephant pants and Thai souvenirs that are set up along the bustling road. Hundreds of merchants and vendors occupy the vibrant Night Bazaar as they supply travelers with the unique northern market experience that they crave.
These merchants and vendors, however, have disappeared.
COVID has ripped through Chiang Mai and has taken the jobs of many of the city’s locals. The virus’ effects on Chiang Mai’s working class has taken its toll and the aftermath has left the famous Night Bazaar in disarray for months. The lively market has been transformed into a deserted commercial labrinth that feels more like an apocalyptic zombie film set. A creepy aura radiates from the warm memories of yesterday. Dusty Muay Thai boxing posters and foot massage fliers litter the walls and floors of the dingy market halls. Rusty storefront doors remain shut and padlocked. Yellow caution tape and ‘Do Not Pass’ signs decorate the area producing a haunted house ambiance. The Night Bazaar’s drab new form has remained this way since the outbreak.
But, while much of the bazaar lies in still darkness, a faint light remains. While out walking and photographing the darkened market one evening I noticed a single shop owner’s stall-light illuminating a small stretch of darkened market stalls. With gray hair, a plaid shirt and arms placed neatly on the counter, he stood in wait for customers. “My shop is called Tib-Tee Shop,” he said from behind a disposable surgical mask, “We sell glass and ceramic souvenirs. Please let me know if I can help you with something.”
The warm shop owner told me that he was known simply as Mr. Suwan. ‘I am 70 years old,” he said, “I was born in Ayutthaya City and I moved to Chiang Mai about 10 years ago. I have had the shop here ever since.” He stood behind a glass showcase containing rolling papers, novelty lighters and interesting glassware.
Mr. Suwan described the effects that COVID has had on his small business, “Business is very bad. Because of the COVID virus no customers come to Chiang Mai.” He described how tourism was a huge driving force behind his unique business and that he has had to adjust to the circumstance and cater to his existing customers, “I only sell from 6PM to 8:30PM and I only sell to 2 or 3 people a day. I sell to my customers because they are my members. Only my members buy from me right now. When they order from me I send it using GRAB.”
A family man at heart, Mr. Suwan spoke on the challenging livelihood he and his family had been experiencing, “It’s difficult. I only spend a little money. Not too much right now. We only eat and drink a little. Not too much. I have 3 children and 1 wife.” He smiled with his eyes behind his mask as he spoke, “No business now. All closed. Only one shop left in the night bazaar. Only one shop. We are waiting until COVID is gone.”
With the vaccine more available than ever in Thailand, Mr. Suwan had a bigger message for the rest of Thai people. “I have the vaccine already and my wife too. All Thai people should get a vaccine because it’s healthy. It’s healthy because it’s easy to die with COVID. The vaccine can help with that,” he concluded wishfully, “If COVID goes away and the tourists come back then the economy can come back, too.”
With the end of COVID a continual unknown, Mr. Suwan said he would remain strong, “I don’t know when the Night Bazaar will reopen. I am a little bit sad. I never cry, but I always try. Su-Su.”
With sightseers, travelers and potential bazaar customers slowly on the return, the Night Bazaar’s reopening would seem inevitable. As of November, smaller souvenir tables have slowly started popping up around Tib-Tee. November 1st marked the welcoming of vaccinated tourists to the Kingdom; A big win for the Thai tourism industry. Vaccinated tourists from over 60 countries are now welcome in Thailand quarantine-free. Easing of restrictions like November 1st’s from The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) promises a brighter future for the Night Bazaar and other Thai markets.
While waiting on the return of the vibrant Night Bazaar market stop by Tib-Tee to see Mr. Suwan for all your glass and ceramic souvenir needs, “We are open every day,” Mr. Suwan said, “But, please remember, I speak English only a little bit, not very well.”
Contact Bong Chiang Mai by Tib-Tee: https://www.facebook.com/bongchiangmai/