Juicy Mangoes, Massages And Transvestite Art – Markets Bangkok Style
BANGKOK’S CHATUCHAK WEEKEND MARKET | Darrin Henry
We have been swallowed up by the heat, the noise, the smells and the buzz of a hundred thousand people who are visiting Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok, Thailand. This is unlike any market I have experienced before. Anything goes when it comes to stalls: elaborate tents with electronic cash registers; unseen AC like cooling in some places, bare bladed stand fans in others; one man sales counters on wheels that take up little more than standing room on the crowded pavements; a single plastic lawn chair under the shade of a patio parasol; roll up garage doors in the semi-permanent central structures; goods laid out on rugs on the floor; it all qualifies.
This is full on Thai culture; the street market. Spread over 35 acres are 8,000 stalls, which are visited by 200,000 people per weekend. It’s the mother of all markets, the largest in Thailand.
Food vendors seem to be first as we shuffle though the gates with the crowd that has trooped from the Mo Chit Sky Train station 100 metres away. Large, steaming, silver pots are being stirred. Little fold out tables arranged behind the food sellers’ counters to create instant restaurant seating space complete with laminated picture menus and waiters trying to tempt us in.
Tuk tuks and scooter taxis line the side of the road, parked between shiny Nissan Navara six packs which tells me these stall holders must be doing alright. The sun is still creeping up, it’s only 10am, but the air is already thick with heat and I am sweating.
The tented stalls are tightly packed creating a warren of walkways that almost need a map to navigate. At first glance it looks mad. But as we venture deeper into the chaos we discover order; a precisely laid out shopping mall of a market.
After a few minutes we just have to try some of the delicious looking fruit. Sharon picks a packet of freshly cut water melon slices, I choose mango. Using the plastic fork that’s included we continue our browsing while munching on our fruit.
We stumble gratefully into the art section, and are both blown away by the creative collections on display. You could easily imagine these artists exhibiting in a top London gallery, yet here they are plying their trade under the tented city of Bangkok’s market. I feel guilty not to stop and spend some time appreciating the artwork as they are that good, but there is just so much of it that I have to keep moving otherwise I will never get out.
Like a huge magnet the next stall grabs me and pulls me in. I have been hooked by the red gun, art nude photography of Wisamunmuang Sitthiket. The hypnotic obscenity of the naked lady boy with luscious, upturned female breasts contrasting against a very male penis and scrotum hanging below. The picture captions in some cases are as provocative as the images themselves, statements of political rebellion, promotion of equal rights and defiance of conventional stereotyping. The models’ faces are hidden by gas masks, paper bags or face painting which serves to invite open enjoyment of the images’ anonymity. I spend ages chatting to Wisamunmuang before Sharon drags me away – but I walked away inspired.
I’ve never been a big fan of ornaments for the home, you know, the porcelain dogs, sequin dress dolls, glass snow globes and fur animals with shiny beads for eyes – you know what I mean? But it was fascinating seeing the volume of ornaments available to buy. The more simple items are there as you’d expect; china animals, 3D hologram picture frames and etched mirrors with inspirational messages. But there are also fascinating handcrafted bamboo water towers, fish made from mechanical nuts and bolts welded together and motorcycles made entirely from wood that had been carved and bent into impossible shapes.
We have been drinking our bottled water but the morning was wearing on so we gave in to fruit slushies. Sharon opted for water melon flavour again while I chose a delicious coconut.
A large abandoned concrete building is at the back of the market, covered in huge grey fabric that has obviously torn and rotted over the years. We dubbed it the ‘Mad Max’ building – it had that desolate future world look about it.
Back inside the tented city we explore the corridors again. Rugs and carpets of all shapes and sizes; metallic jewellery, trays and trays of it; earthenware pots and vases; and we came across a wall of mail box style cubby holes containing every type of silk flower you can imagine – more ornaments – and these vendors are being kept busy.
The presence of police and security personnel everywhere is reassuring. Even with the heaving crowd of people there’s a peaceful, friendly atmosphere. The whole market is designated non smoking with heavy fines for offenders.
Don’t worry if you run out of cash – there’s a bank of ATM machines at the far side of the market.
There’s a litter of Labrador puppies for sale. Leather goods being sold out of a car cut in half, Hard Rock Cafe style.
Walking through one of the corridors a woman makes a welcoming gesture for me to come in for a massage. A glance at a couple of the other customers receiving foot massages makes me think my sweaty feet in my socks and trainers in this heat would not be pretty. I politely decline and she laughs back. Must have seen the horrified look on my face.
Sharon finds some dresses that have warranted her full attention. It looks a bit shapeless to me but what do I know? The stall is full of western women in ‘the zone’ with husbands or boyfriends hovering nearby. Sharon buys a dress but seems even more chuffed it comes with a little drawstring cloth bag. I read somewhere you should always barter in Bangkok, but we’re terrible at it and 300 baht didn’t seem so bad.
Eventually we have to leave after about four hours, other plans for the afternoon. But it would have been easy to spend the whole day.
Anyone visiting Bangkok, you must include the Chatuchak Weekend Market on your itinerary. It’s up close and personal, no frills Bangkok. I loved it.