[A quick note: this post is definitely sappier than the usual fare, but this is my internet space, and I can do what I want. Also, I'm posting from Laos without access to the photos I had intended to use for this. I'll publish photos of the market when I return to Chiang Mai.]
A person much wiser than me once said something about travel. That we do it for two reasons: 1) to learn about the world and 2) to learn about ourselves. At the Chiang Dao Morning Market, I was acutely of the lessons on each count.
Each Tuesday morning, the main road through Chiang Dao awakens from its usual slumber to host a weekly market that draws the whole community with its promise of fresh produce, tools, clothing, and home goods. Tents pop-up in a dusty field and vendors arrange tables and tarps to spread their wares, starting as early as 6 am.
It was the mention of this market, that allegedly draws hill tribe folks down from the mountains, that provided the impetus to visit Chiang Dao for 24 hours. Imbued with a sense of purpose, we woke early–7 am!–and headed to the market with empty stomachs and a charged camera battery to absorb all we could.
We found coffee, pineapple, fried bananas, and coconut custard popovers, and ambled between the stalls, occasionally stopping to discuss the merits of purchasing a machete. Eventually, ladies in ethnic clothing showed up, toting babies tied to their backs in slings. The women perused vegetables, poking for firmness and chatting with their friends while little old ladies from the town picked up baskets of tomatoes and bushels of lychees. They walked slowly, and wore the blouses, pants, and shoes of little old ladies in rural areas nearly everywhere.
A page from my Grandma’s global costume sketchbook from the 1930′s.
Honestly? I was underwhelmed; the market felt entirely familiar from the goods sold to the friendly smiles of the vendors. We rode two hours on a motorbike to go to a small pop-up version of Wararot Market in Chiang Mai. Same shit, different place.
Aside from their dress, and the preference to squat on the ground rather than sit in a chair, the people from the hill tribes were exactly like the people from the village on this particular morning. The behavior of women picking up goods at an outdoor morning market apparently doesn’t vary that much according to their location or their cultural identity.
This scene was not just similar to what you might find at a green market in Chiang Mai, but also to the weekly Sales Barn held in my Dad’s hometown of Pine City, Minnesota on Wednesday mornings in the thawed seasons. My desire to see the Chiang Dao market would be akin to a foreign person living in Minneapolis driving up north with the intent of observing farmers, little old ladies, veterans, and maybe, just maybe, some Amish or maybe someone of Native American descent among the shoppers.
It’s kind of an absurd thought. Not because the Sales Barn isn’t an important window into life in small town Minnesota, but because these markets showcase our similarities, rather than our differences. It’s a story of urban and rural, agricultural and commercial, not American and Thai or Thai and Hmong/Akha/Karen/Lahu/Mien/Lisu. The flea market and farmer’s market hybrid makes sense in Pine City, as it does in Chiang Dao. Kumbaya.
My grandparents in San Francisco after their wedding.
After a few moments of meandering among eggplants under the glow of the red tents and the morning sun, I was sad. Not holding back tears, but just sad as I watched little old ladies pick out tomatoes and squash in their cotton, button up blouses, chatting with the vendors. I imagined those women going home to their houses with gardens, planning out meals, and pickling peppers for condiments. They would make rice and a stir-fry with fresh vegetables for lunch, pausing after the first bite to smile and say “aroi.”
I saw my grandma, with whom I share a full name, in those women, and I grieved and mourned my opportunity to tell her that I went to the Sales Barn equivalent in Thailand. I grew envious of native Thais whose belief structure accommodates the spirits of the dead, who provide protection and luck in exchange for reasonable housing and offerings of treats, especially Fanta. My memory seems such a feeble substitution for ritual.
I lost the three grandparents I really knew all within a short time, over a year ago. I think it happened so fast that I processed the losses as one event, rather than the loss of three people important to my life and to my family. Instead the grief pops up unexpectedly in seemingly unrelated situations and in unlikely settings, like a flea market/farmer’s market in Northern Thailand.
Have you ever been caught in a moment or a place that seems so exotic on paper, but feels intimately familiar? Has travel ever sparked a moment of grief for you?
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