Ban Tawai boasts of being the largest handicraft market in Thailand. Whether or not it really is the largest, it certainly is huge; even if you have no intention of purchasing anything we reckon it makes for a fascinating place to wander around. The “handicraft village”, as it’s often simply known, is located in Chiang Mai’s Hang Dong district some 15 kilometres to the west of the city. The village originally began life as a production centre for finished teak items, such as furniture and carvings, as woodworking families, some apparently Burmese, established themselves here to benefit from the region’s vast teak forests.
North Thailand’s huge logging industry expanded with European involvement during the 19th century, before being finally banned by the Thai government in the late 1980s after catastrophic flooding — the result of widespread deforestation. In theory, at least, any teak products you see these days must be made with either recycled wood or sourced from officially licensed commercial plantations.
Ban Tawai is much more than teak carpentry though, with a wide range of handicrafts and artisanal creations now on offer here, ranging from rough country style furnishings to meticulously crafted objets d’art, and from dusty antiques to modern designer products. All kinds of wood are now employed including bamboo and rattan for furniture as well as ceramics, silk, hemp, silver, cotton, plastic and glass.
Ban Tawai creations are now exported worldwide as well as throughout the kingdom, so objects you come across not only in Chiang Mai’s night bazaar and walking streets may well originate from here, but also plenty of stuff at Bangkok’s Chatuchak, for instance, as well. There is a chance that you’ll find these items cheaper at Ban Tawai, though being a popular spot with locals, expats and tourists, you still have to bargain hard.
The main concentration of markets and stalls lies three kilometres south of Hang Dong, off highway 108, though the entire length of this road is also lined with shops, warehouses and mini-malls varying from dusty old sheds to fancy ai-con galleries. Central Ban Tawai consists of rows of one-storey shopfronts, a bit like a spacious Chatuchak. There are also, as one would expect in Thailand, heaps of coffee shops, food stands and restaurants, with centrally located Pan Kled Coffee our favourite.
Plenty of foreign importers frequent the village too, and numerous shipping and transport agents are scattered among the shops, so if you are seriously thinking of fitting out your flat in Sydney or decorating your Manchester wine bar with some Thai-style arts or antiques, then arrangements can be made. Though shipping costs may well exceed the original purchase prices, there are still exceptional deals to be made if you check out say London or New York prices for similar imported items.
The market operates daily and while opening times vary considerably from shop to shop, most are open from mid-morning to late afternoon. Finally a word of warning: stallholders may be extremely sensitive about their works being photographed, and taking snaps is often banned.
Ban Tawai makes for a pleasant afternoon trip or you could combine it with other sights in the area, such as the excellent Dokmai Garden to make a full day. Another option, if you're already there, is to take a look around the local market.
The market is located in what passes for the centre of Hang Dong, on the north side of Highway 108, close to the turn-off for Ban Tawai. It’s housed in a new, spacious, covered market building — don’t expect quaint thatched roofs, but it does make it easier to walk around than some cramped downtown markets. It also means there’s more light for photographs.
Getting shots in say bustling Worarot can be tricky, since you can feel like you’re getting in the way — indeed often you are — but though Hang Dong can get busy early on, it’s generally far less hectic, with a relaxed feel to it. Vendors have got the time to chat — and even pose for photos.
Hang Dong is a wet and dry market so there’s clothes and household goods as well as all local farm produce on offer, plus an excellent range of prepared food dishes. You’ll find the usual chicken on rice and noodle soup vendors in the market while for more noodles, fried rice, phat kra pao (chicken with basil and chillies) and so on. A couple of basic restaurants face the market building in the sidestreets too — worth checking out.
To reach Hang Dong, you have several transport options. If travelling by motorbike or bicycle, avoid the direct but busy highway 108 and follow the more scenic route that follows the Ping River to Ban Pa Dua in Salaphi district, where a right turn onto the Hang Dong road takes you to Ban Tawai.
Otherwise Hang Dong is easily reached by the yellow songthaews that depart from Chiang Mai Gate and frequent the 108, but then you’re a bit stuck for the additional three kilometres of side road to the market itself. Hiring a tuk tuk or songthaew is an easy option but the price is going to vary considerably depending upon how long you wish to stay there and of course the mood of the driver. Around 400 to 500 baht ought to be fine for a return tuk tuk; songthaews which should be 600 to 1,000 baht and are a good option if you find some co-travellers.
Most guesthouses in CHiang Mai will also arrange transport and many offer Tawai as part of a day trip.
By Mark Ord
Last updated on 21st September, 2015.