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Endangered Thai Treasure

“This is one of the great old markets in Chiang Mai,” says medical researcher and civic activist Wilaiwan Petsophonsakul, sheltering herself from northern Thailand’s hot season sun under a mango vendor’s umbrella as we look out over the market neighborhood of Gat Luang. “It’s like the history of the city is right here.”

Established by a wife of Thailand’s King Rama V a century ago on the west bank of the Ping River, Gat Luang (“great market” in the local Thai dialect) sprawls over approximately six to eight city blocks. Within its boundaries lie two food markets. Directly facing the river is raucous Don Lamyai, with one section devoted to meat, fish, poultry and fresh vegetables, and another filled with dry goods, salted and preserved fish products, spice, tobacco and religious goods stalls. Directly across the street and behind a ground-floor facade of gold shops is Warorot, whose narrow aisles are mostly crammed with sellers of packaged and prepared northern Thai foods.

Gat Luang also includes several alleys of wholesale dry goods, kitchenware and sundries shops, as well as two Chinese temples. Hidden behind modern signage are mid-century and pre-World War II architectural treasures, including a large teak structure next to Don Lamyai and several long, narrow Chinese-style “shop houses,” whose owners run businesses (herbal pharmacies, textile and shoe emporiums, and casual eateries) downstairs and live above.

Gat Luang isn’t merely a commercial center. The area is also a repository of social and political history. Japanese troops occupied the area during World War II and Chinese triad trials were once adjudicated in one of its temples. It is a temple to the local cuisine, chockablock with ingredients and prepared foods particular to northern Thailand, and most of all, a lively community.

Construction or destruction?

Now Gat Luang is imperiled. Over the last decade its businesses have suffered as customers migrate to Western-style grocery stores and hyper-marts such as Tesco Lotus, Carrefour and Big C, on the city’s outskirts. Now the district faces a new and potentially more serious challenge: a municipal road-widening scheme that would enlarge its two main arteries. As of now, plans call for widening each road by at least 16 meters (52.5 feet) which would require either demolishing a row of shop houses, or lopping off the front halves of two rows along the proposed thoroughfare. Either way, the project would shear off significant pieces of Don Lamyai and Warorot and drastically alter their pedestrian-friendly character.

Cars now share Wichayanond Road, which runs between Don Lamyai and Warorot, with a row of vendors selling everything from pickles and crispy water bugs to seasonal fruits, bicycle pedicabs and tuk-tuks, porters pushing upright carts laden with produce and basket-toting pedestrians moving from one market to the other.

Come dusk, more vendors descend with barbecues, chopping blocks, mortars and curry pots, transforming Wichayanond into a grazers’ paradise. Late into the night tourists and residents dine at low wooden tables under a pork-scented haze, feasting on regional specialties like kanom jeen nam ngiaow (rice vermicelli topped with a ragu of pork or beef, tomatoes, shallots, chilies and fermented soybeans), ep muu (sliced pork coated in a mixture of pounded herbs and spices and grilled in a banana leaf), and green papaya salad made with bplaa raa, a supremely odiferous fermented fish sauce.

Into the din

Petsophonsakul leads the way into Don Lamyai, where we descend a flight of stairs to its din, or cellar, a unique architectural feature that capitalizes on the proximity of the Ping River for natural cooling. This is where the market wakes up, beneath ceiling-mounted fans humming above the heads of workers scaling and gutting fish, still-flopping, pulled from lidded wooden boxes. The bracing saltiness of the fresh catch mingles with an herbal perfume rising from tiled counters where female vendors arrange mint, dill, three types of basil, cilantro and its cousin, culantro, a dark green serrated-edged leaf that lends an earthy flavor to local curries.

Growing up in Warorot above her family’s gold shop, Petsophonsakul remembers nipping from the kitchen down to the market whenever her mother needed one more stalk of lemongrass or a head of garlic. Though no longer a Gat Luang resident, she is still stopped by old friends as we make our way from a snack of ruammit (iced coconut milk “soup” with tapioca, jackfruit and cassava) to a stall heaped with sai oua (spicy pork sausage), crispy pork skin, and rubberband-secured plastic bags of nam prik num (a dip of pounded roasted green chilies).

We’re perusing the offerings at a 30-some-year-old business popularly known as kanom dai bandai (“sweets under the stairs,” a reference to its location in Warorot) when Petsophonsakul is approached by a decades-old acquaintance, a woman running a nuts and dried fruits stall. When she and Petsophonsakul were young, before Chiang Mai’s sprawl swallowed up the agricultural land around it, her father farmed just outside the city limits and sold his vegetables at Don Lamyai. “So you see,” says Petsophonsakul, “it’s not just the people who live here who have a connection to the market.”

Wider roads will precipitate Gat Luang’s demise, thinks Nooi Chairat, a 56-year-old resident of Wat Gate (a district directly across the river from Gat Luang). She is a member of Rak Baan Rak Muang (Preserve Our Community, Preserve Our City), a group campaigning against the plan to enlarge a total of 27 roads in Chiang Mai. “Widening the road opens any area for development,” she says, calmly but with visible emotion. “That’s the beginning of the end of the people’s daily life. It’s the beginning of the end of the community.”

Eighty-year-old Saifudan Laatlamwaraa, who still lives in the shop house in which he was born, runs Gat Luang’s only Indian herbal pharmacy on its ground floor. He is perplexed as to why the municipality would allow the destruction of such an important neighborhood. The area “belonged to the royal family,” he says. “It’s a famous site. And it sells northern Thai products for locals.”

As we talk, Laatlamwaraa prescribes a turmeric-based powder for my cough, brought on by the dry season’s dustiness, and offers packets of pre-mixed curry spices. On the worn wood bench just inside the entrance to his narrow, cluttered shop sit customers who’ve made their purchases and will linger a while to chat.

Later this year Warorot Market will celebrate its 100th anniversary, and community members have already begun making plans. It’s hoped that the festivities will draw attention to Gat Luang’s significance and its endangered future.

Fifty-nine-year-old Chuanploen Khunasirin, speaking in her husband’s sundries shop on a narrow lane behind Warorot, bemoans the potential destruction of her tight-knit neighbourhood, where residents still look after each other. “Always, you cook in a big pot so you can give some to your neighbors,” she says. “We want to conserve that.”

Zester Daily contributor  David Hagerman shoots for the New York Times, Travel+Leisure and Saveur, among other publications. To view more of his slide shows, go to davidhagerman.photoshelter.comRobyn Eckhardt is a food and travel journalist based in Penang, Malaysia. She also is a contributor to Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia and has been published in Saveur, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal Asia. Her last article for Zester was a double book review, Veggies and Grains Deluxe.

Photo: Goods for sale at the Gat Luang market. Credit: David Hagerman
Slideshow by David Hagerman

Zester Daily contributors based in Malaysia, journalist Robyn Eckhardt and photographer David Hagerman collaborate for publications such as New York Times Travel and Wall Street Journal Asia. Their food blog EatingAsia was named Editor's Choice for Culinary Travel in the 2014 Saveur Blog Awards. "Istanbul and Beyond," their first cookbook, is forthcoming from Rux Martin Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Follow them on Twitter at @EatingAsia and @DaveHagerman and on Instagram at @davehagerman.

  • Namtip Aksornkool 8·5·12

    I have known your father as a writer who frequently spoke at the FCCClub in Thailand.
    Are you related to him ?
    Thank you for your article !
    Former PROAP UNESCO staff member

  • Robyn Eckhardt 8·5·12

    Hello Namtip, No, I am not related to the Eckhardt that you have in mind (or Hagerman?) to whom you refer. Thanks very much for reading.