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Bangkok’s Chatuchak: A market force

Jeremy Simon

Even after spending three full hours in the sprawling, open-air Chatuchak Weekend Market on the outskirts of Bangkok, I still didn’t know which end was up.

For the past 10 minutes, I had been trying to find my way out of “Fish,” a section of several hundred stalls that sold way more than your standard PetCo assortment of fishbowl supplies and underwater critters – including Siamese fighting fish and other seafarers I’d never seen outside a big-city aquarium. For a bug-eyed tourist such as myself, these stalls certainly merited an extra look. But I’d already had my extra look, and there was no way I was going to buy any of this stuff. I couldn’t imagine sneaking a Siamese fighting fish through Customs. And I was all out of space in my brand-new $60 North Face backpack – which I’d bought for about $14, after a bit of haggling, expressly to carry all my crap from the market.It was starting to feel like an inveterate shopper’s version of Groundhog Day. Just when I thought I had found a path to daylight, there I was back in the same alley I had already passed through twice.

I was, as a poker player might say, on tilt: beyond the capacity for rational response, addled and numbed by the magnitude of this unique, monumental market.Even in retrospect, this seems to have been a reasonable reaction to Chatuchak. It’s one of the world’s largest markets, a bargain bonanza of authentic stuff, bootleg stuff, living stuff, antique stuff, delectable stuff, unpalatable stuff – all crammed together amid 15,000 stalls, 35 acres and a weekend visitor count upward of 250,000.In a way, Chatuchak is a microcosm of Bangkok itself. One of the Far East’s most cosmopolitan and chaotic cities, and Thailand’s largest city by a magnitude of 45, Bangkok overflows with gustatorial and sensory pleasures. Its cheap eats (squid kabobs for 50 cents, or an opulent five-course meal for $15) and omnipresent massage parlors are legendary.

But so is Bangkok’s traffic and its general unruliness. You think New York’s streets get crowded? Imagine its roads covering not 24 percent of its surface area (as they do), but 9 percent. That’s Bangkok. Writer Steve Van Beek of Salon recently described Bangkok’s traffic as follows: On a good day, nothing moves. On a bad day, it doesn’t move – but slower.The Thai people seem to handle this with implacable calm, and without violence. There’s certainly poverty in Bangkok, but there are no decidedly “dangerous” districts, even though all of America’s more prosperous cities have such areas.

Thais are disarmingly friendly, almost without exception as far as I could tell. They love a good conversation with a Westerner. Or even a bad conversation with a Westerner. In several conversations with Thais, I would reach a point at which it was clear neither of us understood what the hell the other was saying. This was usually my cue to go find another conversation, but my new friends would consider it a minor conversational stumbling block and prattle on.Maybe they were so voluble because I was a Westerner, and therefore presumably had money. Maybe it’s because 94 percent of the country is Buddhist. But I was hyper-impressed by the Thais’ general demeanor. Even at Bangkok’s Muay Thai kick-boxing matches, the boxers spent the minutes before the fight prostrating themselves on the canvas in honor of their coaching mentors. With the exception of Chatuchak, where the amicable calm bugged the living hell out of me.

“Can’t these people walk any faster?” I muttered to myself. The alleys of the market were only wide enough for two people abreast, and I was desperately trying to get past. In most American high-traffic spaces, there is a “move forward or move aside” mentality. But trying to rush a Thai is a recipe for frustration.Chatuchak is open-air but covered, a necessity due to Thailand’s heavy rains and the semi-permanence of the merchandise in the stalls. Each of these retail spaces is actually a walk-in mini-store, far more spacious and self-contained than a mere table at a flea market.I only had four days in Bangkok and was hoping to zip through Chatuchak in a couple of hours. But if you truly want to see the entire market, you’re talking an eight-hour day, and even at that pace you’re mostly browsing.

The market is loosely divided into some 30 sections that reflect the organizer’s good-natured effort to impose some order. The section I was trying to escape this time was “Crafts/Images of Buddha/Miscellaneous.” In reality, every section contained a large dose of “miscellaneous” and “crafts” was a catch-all term that could mean virtually anything made by human beings.And because – unlike at your local mall – most goods at Chatuchak are either handmade or knockoffs (at any rate, they’re not marketed by any corporate entity), the door is wide open for haggling. Of the dozen or so things I bought, the North Face backpack was the only “branded” item I bought, and it still merited a 15 percent talk down.Nearly everything I bought was bargained for, at least to some degree: the cute clock that looked like it was designed by some Cracker Barrel crafts designer with an Asian fetish, the handmade greeting cards with intricate paper butterflies attached to them, the microsuede shorts, comparable to the $35 Izod shorts I’d just bought, for $6.

Despite the absurdly low prices (at least by American standards), I haggled everywhere I went – as all the guidebooks tell you to do. To me, “knowing I didn’t get ripped off” is a far more important element of shopping than “not spending a lot of money.” The exchange rate of the Thai currency, the Baht, is about 40-to-1, which helped to obscure the pettiness of most of this haggling. Whittling a price down from 120 to 100 Baht makes more sense when you can forget that you’re only talking about 50 cents.When the rare-coin stalls and the insect-carcass vendors and the Dolce and Gabbana knockoff jeans got tiresome, Chatuchak abounded with an amazing array of food. There were stands selling calorie-laden fare such as hot dogs wrapped in bacon or waffles (how the hell can these people be so thin?) or, for sit-down dining, there were rustic, wall-less cafes situated directly and inconspicuously amid the market’s pedestrian flow. These “restaurants” offered curry bowls with dozens of fixin’s to customize your dish, or at least attempt to blunt the extreme spiciness that characterizes native Thai food.

By the end of my day at Chatuchak, I had spent only about $100 but had all the goods I could possibly carry out of there – almost entirely things I wouldn’t have gotten in America, almost entirely things I didn’t need but that would help me score points with my girlfriend (who received a gift each day for the week following my return). In a sense, the Chatuchak shopping experience mirrored the very feeling of vacationing. It wasn’t about anything I needed or had planned, but simply about what looked good – or weird or, at the very least, amusing – on a whim.And did I mention those hot dogs wrapped in bacon?

Jeremy Simon is a freelance writer and publications manager for the Aspen Music Festival and School. He also took the photos for this article. Simon can be reached at jsimon@aspenmusic.org.


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