If you are looking for Thai artwork to import into the US for resale, or want to decorate a very large home locally, Sanpatong offers some of the best markets in Thailand for finding the right pieces and for the right price. The markets may look rustic (and they are) but they are able to produce volume quality products that allow for export and resale with excellent profit potential.
About thirty kilometers south of Chiang Mai city is the little satellite village of Sanpatong. It is separated from Chiang Mai by some countryside of raw forests, rice fields and fruit farms. Because of its separation, Sanpatong cannot yet be considered a Chiang Mai suburb, but maybe in a few years that countryside area will fill up and unite the village with the others that make up the Chiang Mai area. This little known village is one of best places in Thailand for finding wood carvings. You won’t find tour buses and tuk-tuks bringing in loads of foreign shoppers, but you will find the savvy wholesale buyers making deals in the small woodcarving markets here. In fact, this simple village could be considered one of the “Mother Lodes” for high art wood carvings and rustic tropical wood furniture that you find in the most expensive Bangkok art markets and in galleries of London, Paris, San Francisco and other high-brow art markets all over the world. These little wood carver markets in Sanpatong are part of the “insider buyer secrets” for professional buyers all over Thailand and internationally.
Sanpatong (sometimes spelled San Patong) is perhaps known best for their Saturday morning farmer’s market where you can buy a water buffalo, cows, snakes and assorted farm animals, along with fresh vegetables and fruit from the local farms. The Saturday market is also known for used motorcycles and low priced furniture. Sanpatong is the nearest town to Doi Inthanon National Park, which has the highest peak in Thailand and is a good place for hiking with tropical forests and all the flowers, plants and wildlife you could expect. Sanpatong has actually been settled for even longer than Chiang Mai City itself, being the agricultural heartland for the former powerful Mon Kingdom of Haripunchai based in today’s Lamphun to the south.
Located on the western outskirts of Sanpatong are the amazing wood carving villages. These villages produce the wood carved artwork and hand-crafted furniture from tropical hardwoods. The artwork is done in framed pictures, or large poles similar to an Alaskan totem pole (but with Thai cultural themes),
wood panels, and large solid wood elephants. They will also design and produce specific artwork for special customer requests. Recently, we had a hand carved wood sign made for a travel office that we are opening up in central Chiang Mai. Beautiful, and with a cost of less than a hundred bucks US. We also bought some of the furniture for our home. I especially like the handcrafted small bars and wash sinks carved out of tree blocks. The grains of the wood add streaks of color shades throughout the pieces.
Pricing can be amazing as well — depending on your negotiation skills. As the sellers are the actual producers, there is greater flexibility than if dealing with resellers in the cities that have a fixed cost.
You won’t find Sanpatong on very many tourist maps for shopping. It is as if these small markets want to keep it low key and below the radar from the hordes of shoppers that find their treasures in Chiang Mai stores, or Walking Street markets in Chiang Mai, at Baan Tawai (the more well-known “insider market”) or the big markets of Bangkok. But if you are serious about buying quality wood carved artwork and handmade hardwood furniture, you should definitely get to know the Wood Carvers’ Markets of Sanpatong. It is the source, with the best pricing and quality directly from the producers.
Getting There: There is no public transportation to this area — no Songthauw trucks — and no tuk-tuk from Chiang Mai will go this far. You will need your own transportation. The road is good with little traffic for most of the trip. The best way is to travel west of Chiang Mai and enter San Patong from the western side, which is where the Wood Carvers’ Markets are located. Unless you want to go further into town, you will be avoiding central Sanpatong entirely.
Go west on Huay Kauw Road in Chiang Mai (that’s in the direction of the Wat on Doi Suthep). When you reach the Canal Road (the big Phucome Hotel is on this corner), turn left going south. This is the road that has a large canal running right in the middle of the road, separating those traveling south and north (also known as Hwy 121). You will stay on this road all the way. About 12 km out, the canal moves over to the left side of the road, but keep going down this highway. Eventually (after about 25 km from town), the road makes a sharp 90 degree left turn, and you are close to the markets, so keep a watch out for the first big highway sign directing you to the Yuwa Wood Carver Market, across a small bridge over the canal on the right side of the highway.
Understand that there is only a little English writing on the road signs in this area, so you have to watch carefully. There is little signage actually anywhere in the market — and nothing in English — and you may see from the road just some simple huts lined up on the other side of the canal. That’s the Yuwa Market.
When you enter the market, there will be a lot of chickens running around and roosters penned up in the small domed bamboo cages all over the place, so there will be a lot chicken crowing. Each hut is loaded with hand carvings done right there by the owners of the hut. You will see the carvers — often young ladies with an Ipod and ear plugs — carving away right there as the kids run around making a lot of kid’s noise. This is the real deal and not fixed up to appeal to tourists.
There are a couple of open air places in the market to buy coffee or a cool drink on a hot afternoon, but I recommend bringing with you a very cold water bottle (maybe put in the freezer the night before). It can get quite warm out here.
A few words about serious buying: few sellers here speak any language besides Thai; maybe just a few words of English, not enough to work out any kind of supplier arrangements. The smart wholesale buyers will have a Thai person working with them to negotiate buying. If you can have a trusted person working with you that understands the Thai way of negotiation, that person will more than pay for themselves quickly. Don’t just hook up with a tuk-tuk driver or someone you do not know; find the right person for this that understands what you are trying to accomplish with the buying.
Stroll around the workshops at your leisure; there is no pressure from a salesperson with order book in hand. If you like a piece, but would like it slightly different, perhaps a different color shade or another carved feature on the item, you can talk with the people that can give you the answer — the actual wood carver. You will find this place to be a very relaxed and plan on spending a long time examining everything and talking with the carvers about them.
Just down the main road a bit further — no more than 1 km, is another market, Kad-Sala. Besides the wood carving fare, this market has other products made in the area as well, such as paintings and small simple art items. There is a larger selection of furniture at this market than at Yuwa, and like the other market, you will see the carvers on the floor of their workshops making their products.
Exporting products from Thailand to the US on a small scale can be a lot of fun and profitable. A little import business can support travel back and forth to Thailand and can grow as much as you are willing to put in to it. Sales in special holiday markets or wholesale to shops in the US can be done to make a sustaining income flow. When my wife and I ran a Thai restaurant in the San Francisco Bay Area, we would display the carved wood artwork from the Sanpatong markets on our walls, and offered the items for sale with discreet tags next to the hanging pieces. These pieces generated decent sales augmenting our restaurant income quite well.
Feel free to email me at email@example.com or in the comments if you have any specific questions about importing Thai products and I will do my best to get you a straight answer. I am available in Chiang Mai to take people directly down to Sanpatong and other Northern Thailand markets, and my wife, an experienced buyer and a Thai, is available for assistance in negotiations with the sellers.
This video of Sanpatong markets starts off with some terrible music, but that bad music will go away in less than a minute. It can give you more ideas of how it is in these markets in Sanpatong: