Saturday at Bangkok’s Chatuchak market
Some cheerful and persistent bartering can bag you a bargain. (Oliver Strewe/LPI)
There are many things – some wonderful, some wayward – that bring visitors to Bangkok. The sumptuous Thai food, the luxury hotels, the stunning temples, and not too far from the city, there is access to gorgeous white sand beaches.
But there is one particular place in Bangkok which surpasses almost all others of its kind across the globe. Huge, chaotic and confusing, suffused with tempting scents, whirligig colours and the strains of music ranging from classical Thai to dub reggae, Bangkok’s weekend Chatuchak Market is the market to end all markets.
Spanning an incredible 35 acres of shopping, most stalls tucked into tiny narrow sois (lanes) overflowing with produce, the weekend market attracts some 200,000 shoppers, browsers and buskers each Saturday and Sunday to its roughly 8,000 stalls. And whether you are looking for a customised motorcycle helmet, a pair of six-inch crushed velvet stilettos, a pampered puppy, a fake Fendi, a set of Beatles cushion covers, a shark’s-tooth amulet, or something else entirely, you are almost certain to find it (in a selection of colours, sizes and prices).
There are three simple rules to shopping at the market: first, know where you are headed since, though wandering is half the fun, dedicated shoppers will want to make sure they hit their targets. Divided into 27 colour-coded sections, those seeking clothes should head for market sections 5 and 6, and then onward to sections 10 to 24. Anyone interested in decking out their home in Eames-inspired furniture or hand printed bedspreads should make for sections 2 to 4, and, to peruse the antiques – of varying authenticities and provenances - on offer, 22 to 26. If you are seeking a rhinestone collar for your poodle or Pomeranian, check sections 8 or 9 (where you will also find baby chipmunks, tropical fish and songbirds galore); green-fingered visitors, meanwhile, might be keen to stroll through sections 3 and 4, where tropical plants run riot.
Second, should you find something you absolutely cannot live without, do not make the mistake of deciding you will pop back for it later. Many a sorrowing weekend market shopper has found — to their peril — that upon attempting to retrace their steps through the labyrinthine lanes, that perfect little floral dress or hand-made candelabra has apparently vanished into the heady market air, never to be seen again. And though landmarks such as the central market clock tower may help you orientate yourself somewhat, chances are a map of your exact wanderings after a day out at Chatuchak would resemble most closely a plate of pad thai noodles.
Third, the seasoned Chatuchak shopper knows it is crucial to embrace the art of bartering. Keep your bargaining cheerful, smiling and light-hearted, and the gentle back-and-forth of price negotiation (however much you might initially cringe at the idea) can become one of the most enjoyable elements of the entire experience. Keep plenty of cash in reserve (ATMs are few and far between) since that perfect pair of vintage Nikes may suddenly be available at a 50% discount; those cute bubblegum-pink sandals might become as affordable as they are covetable; and you may well be able to negotiate two pairs of exquisitely-aged Levis for the initial asking-price of one.
Meanwhile, once all that commerce has worked up a decent appetite, visitors to Chatuchak are faced with an equally bewildering selection of dining and drinking options. Slurp down a noodle soup with locals in one of the open-air stalls on the market’s perimeter, where dishes are served up still bubbling from vast cauldrons. Alternatively cool off with a pint of local Singha beer and a som tham (spicy papaya salad) in one of the market’s equally cool bars, or ask around to seek out a well hidden Thai tapas-style joint run by an ex-Thai Airways stewardess, whose yellow curries, sweet and sour soups, and fried catfish are simply out of this world. Vegetarians, on the other hand, should make for organic-heavy Healthy Spice, whose rice noodle bowls are a perennial hit, or Wishing Well, whose macrobiotic meals can frequently be accompanied by a tarot reading. Carnivores will have their fill perusing the manifold satay sticks, fried fish, barbeque rib and meatball stands stationed market-wide: perfect fuel for another few hours on the go, before heading homeward, arms heavily laden, to refresh, relax, and perhaps regroup for a second Chatuchak shopping spree on Sunday.