Water buffalo for sale at the Saturday market in Sanpatong.
I love the markets of Thailand. They're full of life, loud, sprawling and sometimes messy. Whether it's Khlong Toei in Bangkok or a small community market in an upcountry village, they're great places to photograph.
One of my favorite markets has to be the Saturday market in Sanpatong, about 45 minutes outside of Chiang Mai. It's huge - one of the biggest markets I've been to outside of Bangkok - and amazingly diverse. You can certainly buy tourists schtick there, that's available in almost every market in Thailand, but this is a real working market.
Buddhist novices walk through the Sanpatong market on morning alms rounds.
There's a lot of everything in the Sanpatong market. Clothes and food, shoes and farm implements, music and movies, this market has it all. Most of the people who shop in Sanpatong are locals from greater Chiang Mai. I've been to Sanpatong a couple of times and seldom see foreigners there and then only later in the day. Sanpatong market is open all day Saturdays but like most markets it's best seen early. I usually get there about 6:45AM and have the place to myself (well me and several thousand Thais). By 9:30 or 10, the tourists who have heard about the market start to show up. By then the light is terrible and the heat has set in.
My favorite part of the market has to be the livestock section at the back of the market. Thai farmers stuff their water buffalo and cattle into the back of their back of their pickup trucks and haul them down here to sell them. People walk among the tied up critters examining them in great detail and make offers. Negotiations follow and everyone goes home happy.
There was a time when water buffalo (or carabao as they're also known) were ubiquitous in Thai fields. They were the beasts of burden that pulled the plow, the muscle on the farm. No longer though. Tractors have replaced water buffalo in the fields. Mechanization is the muscle of Thai agriculture now. Now the water buffalo are almost all sold for meat.
It's always seemed a little off putting to me that water buffalo meat is sold right next to the pens and corrals where the live water buffalo are for sale. I'm not sure why it bothers me - it's no different than eating a burger while you watch rodeo bull riding or going out for a steak after a bullfight in Mexico, but it does. Maybe it's the immediacy of the market and the fact some of the water buffalo dishes at the market are served raw. While I eat street food all the time here, I don't eat at the buffalo market. The idea of ordering a big bowl of buffalo soup or raw buffalo meat with chilies and onions in the midst of the dust and flies just doesn't whet my appetite.
Water buffalo wait to be sold.
There's a lot more the market than water buffalo and cattle. There's also a lively market for selling fighting cocks and poultry. Buyers ask to see the bird's mettle and sellers pit a couple of closely matched birds against each other for a few minutes of chicken boxing. There are no organized fights in the market but it's great chance to see impromptu cock fighting without the gruesomeness that accompanies some organized cockfights.
A man selling a fighting cock show off his bird.