We’re Only Happy When We’re Shopping

by Nancy Bestor

I’m fascinated with markets. Show me a market—any kind, anywhere, but especially overseas—and I am happy to wander aimlessly up and down aisle after aisle, perusing the goods on sale, watching folks make purchases, and getting a glimpse into how people in other countries live their lives. On our recent visit to Bangkok, Bob and I visited their Amulet Market, Flower Market, Talingchan Floating Market, Flashlight Market, Chatuchak Weekend Market, and the Wang Lung Market—all in just four days. Each and every market was mesmerizing, just like Bangkok itself.

When our frequent flyer tickets routed us through Thailand’s capital, on our way to New Zealand, we thanked our lucky stars, and arranged to stop over for five nights. We’d last visited Thailand 13 years ago, and had only spent two days in Bangkok, so we felt we were long overdue for another visit. We booked lodging in an out of the way neighborhood, which, although it required extra work to get to and from, proved to be a highlight of our trip. The Siamotif Hotel is an old wooden house, the hotel owner’s original family home. It is located in the traditional district of Thonburi, directly on the Bangkok Noi canal which is part of the Chao Phraya River. My is the proprietor of this charming nine room hotel, which cost us about $100 per night. Although not cheap by Thailand standards, our hotel was stunning in looks, service and accommodation, and included a full and delicious breakfast each morning. We could not have been happier. My and her sister Toon (two of seven daughters in the family) treated us as if we were family members, walking us to the bus stop, telling us to be careful, worrying when I felt unwell one morning, and making certain our experiences in Bangkok were everything we wanted. Staying at the Siamotif required us to take more local transportation to get where we wanted—including ferries and local red truck taxi buses— but in our eyes, this only added to its charm.

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We had no real agenda for our stay, other than to soak up as much Thai culture as we could, and there is no better way to experience Thai culture than at an open-air market. Markets in Bangkok are everywhere, and on our first morning, we took the taxibus to the Talingchan Floating Market, where we feasted on many Thai delicacies, including mango sticky rice and a whole fish—snakehead—with a delicious spicy green dipping sauce. Talingchan is a starting point for canal boat tours. We took a great one, semi-private (with just four others), for less than $5 each. The long boat toured us through the waterways, and for about an hour we saw Thai life from the river, up close and personal.

The Amulet Market was another hit that first day, where serious shoppers (all Thai, we were the only tourists) used loupes to closely inspect statues, buddhas and other talismans. The market was not well lit, and with statues and other talismans staring out at us as we strolled the aisles, it was quite atmospheric.

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The Chatuchak Weekend Market is likely the biggest market I have ever visited. The largest market in Thailand, Chatuchak has over 8,000 stalls, broken into 27 sections. Even with a map of the market, it is easy to get turned around, and from personal experience, if you see something you like, you should buy it, because you may never be able to find it again. We ate great Thai soups, then Pad Thai and papaya salad a little later (wandering in markets makes me hungry) and finally topped our meal off with coconut ice cream, which was the bomb. Our visit to Chatuchak Market was capped off with a foot massage. For 45 minutes, two very strong-handed Thai women rubbed and massaged our feet and lower legs, all for the low price of $5. I could definitely get used to that.

Another fantastic market was the Pak Klong Talad, or in words we can all understand, the Bangkok Flower Market. Although it’s open 24 hours a day, this market really gets going late in the evening and continues into the wee hours of the morning, as that is when fresh flowers are set up, and restaurants and hotels come to buy them. We were on a night bike tour when we visited (more on that in a future email newsletter), and were able to ride our bikes right through several of the market’s warehouses. Once we parked our bikes and walked along the market lanes, we were able to smell the tremendous variety of deliciously aromatic and beautiful flowers for sale. A visit to this market is a sensuous delight.

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Food stalls at all the markets produce an amazing variety of dishes that are both delicious and incredibly cheap. We got fairly good at ordering and eating small portions, so we could try more things more frequently. On our last trip to Thailand, one of our local tour guides told us that most Thais eat many meals out, because it is inexpensive (and dare I say delicious) for them as well.

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Another great window shopping experience was a visit to the religious shops block, Th Bamrung Meuang, which is one of Bangkok’s oldest streets. While not a traditional market, these two blocks house shop after shop of religious paraphernalia, including Buddha statues the size of a car, garb for buddhist monks, altars, and much more. This was fascinating, and again, we appeared to be the only tourists.

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We read in our Lonely Planet guide about a Bangkok neighborhood in which several families still make traditional monk alms bowls out of steel and copper. They are the only remaining folks that still make these bowls, as most monks today use inexpensive factory made bowls. The narrow street showcases a handful of different families working outside their somewhat ramshackle shops, hammering away at their creations. It was impossible for us to walk down this narrow alley and not buy a bowl. They are formed from eight separate pieces of steel, representing the eightfold path of Buddhism. The pieces are then fused with copper, and polished with black lacquer. They are beautiful, and we ended up carting home two of them in our suitcases. I highly recommend a stop here.

Try as we might, it’s virtually impossible for us to duplicate authentic Thai food at home. We can make good American Thai food, but it simply doesn’t compare to the real thing. Every once in a while, however, when I pull out some Thai seasonings, I smell something that reminds me of those Bangkok markets, and I smile. I’m ready to go back and wander the markets of Thailand some more.

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