Once upon a time, Maenam was a tiny fishing village. Over time it began to spread a little, and sprouted a side street. This ran up to and joined the main dirt road which ran along the north coast (and many years later became part of the ring-road). And then another, smaller track running parallel emerged from the village, making a kind of U-shape with the beach at one end and the main road at the other.
The years passed. Samui acquired a complete concrete road around the island and then an airport. Maenam began to expand, and stone houses were added in amongst the wooden ones. And by the time the new millennium came around, Maenam was a small town in its own right. The main ring-road now formed a crossroads with the original village street, named Soi 4, its status boosted by one of the first sets of traffic lights on the island.
Soi 4 was busy. A few of the older wooden buildings still survived, but now there were far more two-storey houses with shops underneath. And a great many more small international-style businesses: sports pubs, English, Swiss and German restaurants, a couple of guesthouses and a book shop – all sprinkled in amongst the Thai places selling silver-craft, clothes and knick-nacks, massage, plus one of the longest established tattoo shops on the island. And then, one day, two of the restaurants, together with some ‘friends’, set up stalls on the road outside. The friends simply put groundsheets on the pavement and spread used clothes or surplus household stuff on them, like a car boot sale. The next week there were more. Every Thursday traders were coming in from Chaweng and Lamai. The ever-present food carts which toured the island in the daytime turned up for a piece of the action. And then it all had to stop. Tax-paying businesses complained, the
police agreed that it was blocking the road, and it all went away more or less overnight.
Then someone in a local government office must have had a lightbulb moment. Suddenly it all came back again, but now you had to pay a traders’ fee if you wanted a stall. For a while it was mayhem as shop holders and food carts jostled for space with market traders from outside. Then it was quickly organised into set pitches, and the road marked with lots of
numbered boxes. The village mayor took it on himself to make long and important speeches every week over the PA system (soon replaced by a live band!), and established restaurants and bars joined the throng selling street side pizzas,
bratwurst in a bun, or Tex-Mex offerings – while tempting the crowds inside with a live performer or discounted drinks. The concept of ‘walking streets’ had arrived.
In Thailand the idea of a ‘food market’ is nothing new – the classic one in Nathon, for example, has been going for over 30 years. But with a walking street we’ve got a normal street closed to traffic for the night, with an edge-to-edge tangle of everything under the sun. There’s hand crafted leather and jade, silk goods, aromatic oils, and handmade soaps, Buddha images, toys and artefacts, sunglasses, shoes, underwear, electronic goods, glass ornaments, utensils made out of coconut wood, bedding, fingernail decorations, electronic goods and MP3 players, and all manner of other things. And then there’s the food.
Some advice for you – don’t eat anything before you head off to one of the walking streets! There’s every kind of food you can imagine, from simple chicken skewers to fried insects, to samples of international cuisine from the resident restaurants. Then there’s Thai chicken balls, shredded pork, noodle soups, curries, fresh crab, mussels, pad Thai, salted and sour pork sausages, chicken and pork sticks for a start; just about everything that can be fried, boiled or steamed is on offer. And then there are a scattering of diverse cuisines which makes the whole affair truly international, particularly when they’re stemming from established and nearby Indian, Japanese, Italian, French and Mexican restaurants.
Just one teensy word of warning, though. In one of these walking streets you’ll see probably 80% western walkers and 20% Thai. And I’ve been told that sometimes some vendors rely on this fact and use the cheapest and least succulent cuts of meat. Any stall selling crispy-fried chicken or meat skewers needs to be checked – if there are Thai people buying food here, it’s okay. But if not then you might well find yourselves with a snack that looks good on the outside but is full of bone and gristle when you bite into it.
So where can you go? Well, the Maenam Walking Street is every Thursday, and now spreads up into both the two streets with a live band, too, near the Chinese temple. But the one which most people seem to know is the big one at Fisherman’s Village, every Friday. Here the layout is equally energising, with the street side action heading away on both sides of the pier, and with enough space for at least two live groups to be playing. There’s also a smaller one based around The Wharf on Mondays.
Lamai has been equally fortunate: their walking street runs close to the beachside road – best accessed by heading to where Tesco-Lotus is and taking the beach-road turn that’s just before it, near to the gasoline station. You’ll see their
action appearing every Sunday night, in and around Lamai Night Plaza, not far from McDonald’s.
And then there are the people who are trying to jump on the marketing bandwagon and cash-in on this. Really, these are simply ‘night markets’. They’re not in a street but an enclosed area, and the vitality and interaction between the resident
shops and restaurants doesn’t exist: it’s simply a collection of stalls for the night. And you’ll find markets like this in Chaweng, Bangrak and Choeng Mon. There’s even now a ‘walking street’ on a beach somewhere! But in these places you’ll
find yourself simply market shopping . . . and not ‘street walking’ at all!
Rob De Wet