If you've only got 24 hours in Bangkok and it happens to be at a weekend, you must go to Chatuchak market. Any tuk tuk driver will get you there for a small fee, and will drop you outside, hopefully near one of the entrances (there are only three; it'll be a long walk to the nearest one if you're between two). Chatuchak is the world's largest weekend market.
Chatuchak is divided into sections on a main 'road' that goes in a loop. Starting from the main entrance, turning to your right, you will find:
- Books and collectables
- Home decor
- Home utensils
- Plants and gardening implements
- Clothing and accessories
- Pets and animals
At each gate there's a map in English, but as you enter the market, you'll soon realise that the atmosphere is chaotic, and the order of the map seems to dissolve as you get deeper and deeper into the market. Most of the market is under cover, with stalls separated by alleys, so if you go in the monsoon season you'll be well protected. It's where Bangkok locals do their shopping, and where tourists stock up on the genuine article. You can find cooking woks, modern Thai art, bunches of vivid purple orchids, Chinese jade lucky charms and second-hand clothes that are far too small for any average-sized farang1 to get into. You can find anything in Chatuchak, so there's not really much point going to one of the city's many shopping malls, unless you're after genuine designer items or air conditioning. You'll find lamps that wouldn't look out of place in Habitat or Heals, and pots that the stall holder swears are 100 years old, when in reality they simply look ancient because they've been buried in his back garden for a week. Thailand's climate is inhospitable to all known materials except plastic. A combination of heat, moisture and insects corrodes everything within a few years, making fabrics mouldy and even metal brittle.
Food and Drink
Every few stalls there's a food stand, perhaps with a few plastic chairs jammed between one stall and another. If you ask for a coke or a Sprite (sapri-i in Thai), you may get a can, but you're much more likely to get your drink served in a bag. The café owner will fill up a small bag with crushed ice, pour over your favourite drink, stick in a straw and then, expertly, will do a twirly thing with an elastic band. It won't spill, in the elastic band there's a carrying loop and it will cost around 20 baht.
Stop for food here or get a snack from one of the street hawkers (kao p-at gai2 is always good). All that the street hawker requires to make a living is held in one of two baskets held by her sides with a yoke. In one you might find a simple charcoal barbecue, in the other ready cooked eggs, baked in their shells, or marinated chicken with sweet and juicy sticky bits, but your fingers stay clean: it's wedged between two slim pieces of bamboo, making it the equivalent of a chicken popsicle.
There's a fresh produce market next door, just as big. Stock up on greengrocery - strawberries and mange tout from the cool north of the country. You'll see familiar vegetables such as lettuces and potatoes - but remember that here, these are the exotic and more costly options available.
Not surprisingly local produce is more frequently seen. There's baskets of mushrooms that look like naked fleshy ears, green topped radishes, creamy white, rather than pink, and as big as a marrow. Look out for the biggest of fruits - the jackfruit (on the outside it looks like a large spiny, sludge-green lumpy bag, inside are handsized portions of golden sweetness) and wrinkle your nose at the stench of durian.
Stall holders may up the price if they see you're a Westerner and a tourist, but not by all that much, so don't assume that they're trying to rip you off. Always be polite, good natured and smile when you embark upon a haggle. Only ask the price if you are absolutely certain that you want the item - it's not unknown for the stall holder to follow you if you walk away, particularly if you're their first customer of the day. If you are the first customer of the day, and you buy something, watch what the stallholder does with the money. He or she will probably brush the stall several times with it, in various places, and perhaps do a wai. This is the stallholder's way of blessing the stall to give it luck, and of praying for many more customers to come that day.
Conversely, you'll lose bargaining power if the stall holder knows that you really want an item, so don't gush. Be cool. When told the first price, make an 'O' shape with your lips, shake your head, smile and say 'Paeng mak' - too expensive. The stallholder will very likely make the same face, replying 'Mai dai', literally 'cannot' - 'I can't do it'. They'll then suggest a slightly lower price. Your bargaining has begun.
If you're going with some friends, make sure that you've got an easily-found meeting point. The market is crowded and mad, and it's very easy to get lost. Also, if you see something you want, weigh up how much you want the item versus how confident you are about finding the stall again. You'll want to see as much of the market as you can without being weighed down by bags in the fierce Bangkok heat. As you go about the market, take care to keep your bag close to you, as there are pickpockets around. One more thing to remember, the antiques are very unlikely to be old. There is a healthy fake-making industry in Thailand, and items are expertly aged.
Bangkok's excellent Skytrain will plonk you down at Mo Chit station. Chatuchak is just across the road. There is a cash machine at the main entrance of the market, should you spend more cash than you have in your wallet.