“Where are you from?” the old man asked as the crowds jostled me doing battle with each other for a position at the head of the pack. I inched closer, giving up far too much more personal space than I’m usually comfortable with. But it was the lesser of two evils; I was tired of the continual bumping and occasional small hand pushing against my back and it seemed I was not going to get away with just making a purchase at his stall; no, we were going to have a conversation too.
When I lived in the islands, I’d try “Honolulu” or “Hawaii” as an answer to that question often having to resort to a none too graceful pantomime of a hula dancer to get the idea across. Now that I’m back in my native state, I can get away with “California” as a reply, but that brings on visions of palm trees, long sandy beaches and movie stars – not my version of the state – so I usually say “San Francisco” instead. Everyone knows San Francisco. The old guy did too and started playing ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’ on one of the cheap wood flutes I’d been bartering for. And he was quite good. Anywhere else he’d have drawn a crowd of admirers. If I’d been with one of my friends who I love dearly but am embarrassed by often, they would have started singing along. I settled for a smile while he played, one that may have come across more like a grimace. But it was hot. Humid. Crowded. And I just wanted to hand over my damn baht and get back to somewhere that offered at least a fleeting chance at grabbing a small slice of circulating air.
Unfortunately for me, I had three nieces and nephews to buy for. That meant three flutes. And in the old man’s world, three songs as each instrument had to be demonstrated, each had to be properly tested to ensure they were up to snuff. I’d have liked to tell him not to bother, my entire family is tone deaf and the flutes were not being bought to encourage musical talents but for the satisfaction of the loud piecing off key blasts the youngster would be blowing, ear splitting screeches to drive my brothers crazy. I love my niece and nephews. They are the perfect vehicle for pay back, hostility built up over the years from a host of indiscretions when my brothers and I were kids.
The old man’s booth was a cornucopia of cheap wood musical instruments, some familiar, some obviously of native origin, similar enough in look to the more familiar that I could determine if they were supposed to be banged, strummed, or blown into. Exotic guitarish looking instruments may have been a better memento from a SE Asian holiday, but the flutes looked to be more up to their intended purpose. The musician masquerading as a market vendor played an additional two tunes he felt I needed to hear, rejecting several of his flutes during the process. There was pride at work, he wanted to make sure I had only the best of the lot. Or maybe he was just bored and wanted to fuck with me a bit.
I’ve tried to describe Bangkok’s Chatuchak market to others before. But it’s like the Grand Canyon. There are plenty of adjectives you can string together in an attempt at painting the right picture in someone’s mind, but words will always fall short. It’s one of those places you have to experience to understand. But that brief musical interlude may have come close. It’s got the entire range of sights and sounds you’ll experience at Chatuchak: the heat, humidity, and sweat; the crowds, the pushing, and the constant battle over place in the herd; the non-stop babble of dozens of different tongues; the exotic shopping, bargaining, and surprisingly familiar interaction with merchants . . . shit, forgot the food . . . and the restrooms . . . and . . .well, let’s try again.
Chatuchak, or Jatujak, or JJ, or the Weekend Market is one of the few places in Bangkok that routinely make it onto the Top Ten lists of things to do and see that I have to agree with. Even if nobody can agree what it should be called. It’s an incredible shopping experience, but also great for people watching, for trying out some truly local food, and to be grandly entertained. They say there is absolutely nothing you could possibly want that is not available for sale at Chatuchak, which is probably true. Finding whatever it is you are looking for is a different story. Not getting lost an even more difficult task.
I made the trek out to the market with my friends Helena, Dee, and Chris – and Noom, too – one Saturday morning, having warned them earlier in the trip not to buy any of the little trinkets they’d fallen in love with in town as they’d be half the price at the Weekend Market. Of course they ignored me and then bitched that at Chatuchak the asking price on stuff they’d already bought was less than they paid . . . and they hadn’t even tried to barter yet. I’d also told them there was nothing they couldn’t find there and Chris decided he wanted to buy a leopard.
Forget legalities, forget logistics, forget having a brain, Chris said he always wanted a leopard and had his little heart set on finding one. I don’t think a farang can buy a leopard at Chatuchak; a local with enough money probably could. So I went with the Thai custom of ensuring he was happy for the moment and assured him he’d be able to make that purchase. He had a map of the market. If you know anything about Thais and maps you’d know how worthless one of the market maps are. But the map showed a pet section, the obvious spot to go leopard hunting. So I handed him my cell phone and sent him off on his quest while Noom, the girls, and I wandered off in the opposite direction.
Well over an hour later he called, lost, frustrated, and leopardless. It was Noom’s phone so I let Chris chat with him for a bit first which got Chris nowhere other than more frustrated. Noom’s English is fair, but he picks up a lot of clues from body language. So on the phone, well, even I keep my phone conversations with Noom to a minimum. Then, because that’s the kind of guy I am, I let Chris talk with Helena so the two could figure out where they each were and attempt to reunite.
Chris was in the pet section by all the fish. We were also by all the fish, but in a totally different part of the market. They didn’t know that. They assumed they were within aisles of each other. And spent the next half hour directing each other up and down various aisles, taking rights and lefts, doubling back, using specific fish tanks as landmarks . . . which accomplished nothing more than getting them both further lost. And raising Chris’ frustration level even higher. God that was a fun day at the market!
The lesson here is if you go with friends, stay in a group. And if you pick up a market map, its best use is to fan yourself while you are walking down the humid aisles packed with slow moving Thais. (There’s probably a lesson here about choosing your friends wisely, too. But that’s no fun. For me.)
If I remember correctly, the market comprises twenty-six large open-aired buildings with tin corrugated roofs, each numbered and each dedicated to a specific type of merchandise. And each filled with a few hundred stalls. Originally, the buildings’ merchandise designations probably held true. Now, there are numerous other types of stalls mixed in with the ‘official’ merchandise offering, so your best bet is to ignore all that and just take a stroll. You’ll be surprised at what you find. And if you run across a booth selling leopards, drop me an email.
You really can’t see the entire market in one day. Spreading out over 35 acres, it’s just too big. And if you get close to that goal, well, there’s actually three sections to the place. The old market, with the corrugated roofed buildings and tons of stalls spilling out and along the perimeter paths is the main section. Slightly behind and off to one side is another section mostly filled with plants, fish, some jewelry, and of course tacky souvenirs to please any touri who wander out that way. To the far side of that section is the new market. Here the aisles are wider, the crowds thinner, and many of the shops are enclosed and air conditioned. There are not as many vendors, and the selection of merchandise is smaller too, but it is a more comfortable shopping experience. And if that’s not enough shopping for you, the JJ Mall is next to the new section offering an additional three floors of stores.
Visitors who have been to the Weekend Market before and are too stupid or lazy to know better will give you the same advice as the guidebooks: get there early, like by 9 am, to avoid the heat of the afternoon. You will avoid some of the crowds; the heat and humidity is a constant and the few degrees difference is negligible. What you will avoid is half the merchants as most don’t open their stall until 10 am or later. Those that are there for the savvy early shopping touri are selling the crappy souvenir stuff that if bought as gifts won’t be appreciated and if bought as a memento of your trip will eventually end up packed away in some box or sold cheap at a garage sale. Your best bet is to get to the market around 11 when it is in full swing, then zig zag across the width of the buildings rather than down their long length. That way you’ll hit the perimeter often and catch a bit of a breeze to cool you down.
You’ll also find numerous food booths along the buildings’ permitters so you can eat your way through the market. It’s all cheap, and all yummy even though you’ll have no idea what half of it is. Your other dining option at the market is to hit one of the larger air conditioned restaurants. These places cater to the touri crowd, offering overpriced, bland, pseudo-Thai food. When you walk in, the air conditioning will make you think you are in heaven. No longer acclimated to the heat outside, when you leave you’ll think you just entered hell. Finding a shaded spot at an outdoor restaurant where you can catch a bit of a breeze, and then ordering at least one dish of spicy local food will do much more for your comfort level than a half hour in an air conditioned place. And the food will be better and cheaper, too.
The BTS Mo Chit station, at the end of the Sukhumvit line, is but a short walk from the market and at most will run you 60 baht for the ride. The MTR has a station right inside the market, so it’s an even closer ride. (Exit at the Kamphaengphet station, not the Chatuchak station . . . which would make too much sense.) Both are a better option for the trip; the traffic is horrendous around the market and a taxi will take forever to get you there. I usually take a taxi back to the hotel, however. Loaded up with purchases, hot, tired, and my feet threatening to go out on strike, plopping into the backseat of an air-conditioned taxi and being delivered to the door of my hotel always seems to be the best plan.
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