Bangkok's Chatuchak MarketT. SHER SINGH
Monday, October 29, 2012
Chaos and confusion are the hallmarks of the streets and markets of Bangkok. The same goes for its most famous fair, the Chatuchak Weekend Market.
But, lest that deters you in any way, let me quickly add that those are the very ingredients that make it so much fun.
Open all day Saturday and Sunday, it is conveniently located off Phahonyothin Road, right across from the northern bus terminal.
Nancy Chandler, an enterprising woman, has daringly charted out the general locations of the various trades which constitute more than 5,000 vendors spread out over 30 acres of the market, as part of a colourful Map of Bangkok.
But nothing prepares you enough for the anarchy.
Virtually everything that is produced in Thailand can be bought in this market. The challenge, however, is in grappling with the heat and the humidity. The narrow laneways run deep into the covered markets, with no ventilation or cross-breezes.
Every now and then, you need to surface into the open air in order to replenish your lungs.
It is also an open challenge to you to joust by bargaining. The gloves are off the moment you walk in, and you’re expected to participate in the sport if you wish to win any respect.
Regardless of your degree of success, however, you know you will pay more as a tourist than what the locals will. But, believe me, you’ll still pay a fraction of what you’re used to back home.
The fun, of course, is in finding things you like as well as in getting bargains when the odds are stacked against you: the weight of the weather, the language barrier, and the versatility of modern technology which can produce a reasonable imitation of anything, at a fraction of the cost of the original.
Is it cotton or is it polyester? Is it stone, wood or resin? In fact, the most beautiful flowers you see in the market are made of silk!
Even though Chandler has color-coded her map with the type of goods you can expect to find in certain areas, the stores and wares intermingle with no rhyme or reason.
We dove into the melee at random at one point, and found ourselves amidst plants, paintings, old photos and fruit milk-shakes. We crossed the lane and plunged into another complex … of shoes, cosmetics, sarongs, musical instruments, knives, masks, batiks, leather goods.
Then, army surplus, jewellery, books and magazines, antiques, amulets, silks, ceramics, paper crafts, wood carvings -- and oh, the elephants!
They looked so real, you expected them to come alive but for the debilitating heat.
Stamps and coins. Clothes, clothes and clothes. Imitations and originals. Jeans and exotic wraparounds.
We saw a café and suddenly realized we were famished.
Thai cuisine makes your taste buds come alive, all of them. I went for a bowl of boiling noodles, worrying about the hygiene, of course, and was in heaven as I uncovered the layers of spices and condiments that had been piled on the heap.
On to watches, furniture, pottery, dried fruit, household goods, crystal and glass, vegetables and fruit. Baskets, artificial flowers, mats, stamps, toys.
And then, pets. Live ones.
There were whole rows of stores devoted to entire species. Every kind of pet you can imagine.
Well, let’s start with insects. The crawling, the leaping and the flying kind. They had their own little cages, for single and multiple occupancy.
Squirrels, hamsters, mice, rabbits, cats and dogs, big and small. Birds of every colour and stripe. Fish that made funny faces, and sad ones too, as you walked by.
They would all have been awfully cute had they not been so sadly, so obviously, uncomfortable. The heat and the humidity didn’t sit well with the animals. Shackled and enclosed in close quarters, they were all exhausted.
I am glad my daughter wasn’t there; she’d have wanted to set them all free.
We didn’t linger in the area, although their predicament lingered with us for days to come. The sight of all those beautiful creatures so helpless and voiceless was particularly poignant within the context of the eastern belief -- subscribed to extensively in Thailand itself -- in the concepts of rebirth and the transmigration of souls, covering the full gamut of creation.
Amazing, isn’t it, how we espouse these fancy bundles of beliefs but lift not a finger to live by them!
The mundane and worldly pleasures of shopping having been tempered by the weather and the sight of suffering, we suddenly felt drained of energy.
Five hours in the market that had so fully fed each of our senses, had proved such a perfect introduction to this extraordinary country. It was a microcosm of all that Thailand has to offer.
We fled with our thoughts, captured camera images, and bargains, to the oasis of the Oriental Hotel which, air-conditioned and perennially colonial, gives solace to the traveller who is spoiled by the dulling luxuries of the material world.