Feature Bangkok's markets make it one of Asia's best shopping destinations. John Brunton takes a tour.
More bang for your buck
Chatuchak looks like a football stadium, and the crowds teeming along the street to Bangkok's weekend market make me I feel like I'm heading to Stamford Bridge for Chelsea's Premier League derby with Arsenal. But the temperature is over 30 degrees, the humidity can't be far from 100 per cent. And the quarter of a million people streaming in here have only one thing in mind - shopping. Walking through the bare concrete entrance, I'm immediately assaulted by dozens of stalls selling colourful T-shirts, designer handbags, glittering jewellery, while tiny hawker stalls fill the air with the delicious aromas of bubbling tomyam soup and satay sticks smoking on a charcoal brazier. Thai pop music is blaring out, and I have the choice of dozens of narrow, maze-like alleyways, crammed with over 15,000 boutiques.
Welcome to the world's biggest weekend market. It is difficult not to be intimidated at first, as everything seems chaotic, claustrophobic, overwhelming, hot and sweaty. But it just takes a few minutes to get caught up by the buzzing excitement, and once inside, a detailed map is thrust in my hand, and it is quickly clear that the market is divided up into sections - 26 in all - each devoted to a different speciality: cutting-edge fashion designs (this is a favourite haunt of European and American fashion buyers, picking up ideas and new trends to show their designers at home, and selecting hip accessories that are shipped back and sold at dozens of times their Chatuchak price), antiques and bric-a-brac, precious stones, silver and gold, interior decor and contemporary furniture, silk and linen textiles, ceramics and ethnic handicrafts. And if that weren't enough, there are specialist sections selling exotic tropical plants and flowers, live animals from multicoloured fish to fighting cocks.
It used to take forever to get to Chatuchak by taxi, spending ages stuck in horrendous traffic jams, but now the Skytrain efficiently zips out to the northern suburbs in less than half an hour. Waiting at Bangkok's downtown Chit Lom station, the platform is crammed with passengers. But this is Saturday morning, and these are not commuters heading off to the office, but shopholics determined to arrive early for the opening of Chatuchak. I'm ready to cram myself into the carriage with them, and start looking for all the best buys too, because you really only need to go to see classic sights like the Grand Palace, the Emerald Buddha and Wat Pho once in your life; Chatuchak is filled with new tempting bargains waiting to be snapped up on every visit.
The "official" Chatuchak stop is Mo Chit, but Thai friends tipped me off long ago to get out at the station before, Saphan Khwai, which is not only nearer, but the route into Chatuchak is lined with a great impromptu flea market, with pavement traders selling everything from amulets to hand-painted Thai movie posters, vintage Rolex watches to ancient celadon vases. Once I finally get inside the Weekend Market, I resist the temptation of wandering down a soi, or alleyway, where I would only get totally lost in the maelstrom, and instead head straight for the centre, marked by a tall clock tower, the only spot where it is possible to take your bearings.
I kick off in section four, a labyrinth of streets specialising in the hottest young Thai fashion designers, such as Laboratory (Section 4, Soi 49/2) and Rain Dear (Section 4, Soi 47/1), where it is difficult to believe just how low prices are - cotton tops at 100 baht (US$3; Dh11), a one-off glitzy cocktail dress for 250 baht ($7.50; Dh28) - while nearby in Section two, Junk (Section 2, Soi 2) and Meen (Section 3, Soi 44/1), have to-die-for kid's outfits that make perfect presents to take home. The bulging plastic bags are already getting difficult to carry when I arrive at the minuscule boutique Lek (Section 3, Soi 45/1), which is filled with fashionistas bargaining over vintage 60s and 70s handbags and accessories by the likes of Fendi, Gucci and Chanel. It only takes the tailors back in the centre of town on Sukhumvit Road a day to whip up a shirt or jacket, so next stop is the textile section, where Pure Silk (Section 25, Soi 2/4) has reams of high quality Thai silk, linen and cotton in a myriad of colours.
The problem of carrying everything becomes more serious when I approach the antiques and home interiors part of the market. But in Chatuchak, everything is possible, and stall owners are completely organised to ship packages overseas. I'm a bit wary of the antique stores here, as it is hard to be sure if anything is really genuine. So I prefer to go to Maithai (Section 1, Soi 2), which may look like an Aladdin's Cave of antiques, but the owners are totally upfront that what they are selling is high quality reproductions of antiques. The craftsmanship is superb though, and often, ancient pieces of wood are used to heighten the artistic effect. So I end up leaving with a Buddha statue under my arm.
Buying precious stones in Thailand is tempting, but splashing out on rubies and emeralds can be a risky business, and a much better bet is chic silver earrings and necklaces at Thai Silver & Stone (Section 1, Soi 2) that are sold by weight. There are plenty of quirky traders in Chatuchak too, and one of the market's most well-known characters is Mr Aek, a larger-than-life character replete with Stetson hat and riding boots, whose Wild West Collection (Section 20, Soi 5) sells handmade buckskin pants, crafted belts and one-off design shoes and boots.
DJ friends in Europe had made me promise not to leave before I'd hunted down a boutique that they discovered on the internet, the Phichitpon LP Store (Section 3, Soi 3), an incredible selection of pristine collector's records that go back as far as the 1950s, ranging from mainline Beatles to offbeat Haitian jazz and Ghanian high life. Eventually, after several exhausting hours, I finally find myself at the exit, laden down with dozens of bags, and suddenly the thought of an aircon taxi seems a much more tempting option than joining the long queue leading to the Skytrain entrance.
Yet weekend markets in Bangkok don't begin and end with Chatuchak. Tourist brochures invariably promote Bangkok with enticing photos of the city's famous floating market. This has been a myth for years, and travellers that sign up for the 100km drive out to the floating market at Damnoen Sudak, find themselves in nothing more than a sticky tourist trap. But to recover from an exhausting day in Chatuchak, I hire a long-tailed speed boat on Sunday morning - 10 times cheaper than a gondola in Venice - and spend an hour whisking through a maze of picturesque klong (canals) to Taling Chan.
This is a floating market with scarcely a tourist in sight. The flower, fruit and vegetable stalls are all on terra firma, but a series of floating piers on the klong are transformed into casual open-air restaurants surrounded by around a hundred traditional flat boats, each one cooking a different speciality that is carried up to diners. Sitting down for a meal here, it almost feels like a traditional European Sunday lunch, surrounded by dozens of extended Thai families enjoying a day out, doing some shopping and settling down for a long lazy lunch. But late in the afternoon, back at the hotel, I still have a big problem to sort out. How am I ever going to pack everything I bought and not get hit by excess baggage at the airport?
Street markets are an integral part of daily life in Bangkok, with Chatuchak (www.jatujak-market.com) just the tip of the iceberg. If you cannot stop off at Chatuchak on a Saturday or Sunday, there are still a host of enticing street markets to discover during the rest of the week. Here is a selection of some of the best: Sampeng market Soi Wanit (known as Sampeng Lane) After Chatuchak, this quintessential Chinatown address is the best market in town - crazy, chaotic, exotic. Just walking through this never-ending narrow lane is like taking an assault course, with thousands of people rushing back and forth, ancient Vespas loaded up with merchandise madly zooming between shoppers, food sellers hawking everything from roasted bananas, fried quail's eggs, grilled octopus and tasty deep-fried crab and fish. You can find anything and everything in Sampeng, from funky flip-flops to designer shoes, toys and stationary, sunglasses and jewellery.
Pahurat market Corner of Chakkaphet and Pahurat Road Just a short walk on from Sampeng, an ancient escalator, which hasn't worked in decades, leads up to this maze-like Indian textile market. Hundreds of stalls, run mainly by Sikhs, sell every fabric imaginable - not just local Thai silk and cotton, but high quality linen, wool, seersucker, satin, denim, velvet. Carry on right to the murky back of the market and there is an Indian shrine and a small food stall where a Thai lady prepares the best - and spiciest - som tam, green papaya salad, you will taste in Bangkok.
Pak Khlong market Corner of Chakwarat and Ratchini Road You may not end up buying anything in Bangkok's biggest flower market, but it is an unforgettable experience of the senses. Each seller has his own speciality - orchids, frangipani, jasmine, roses - so the fragrances and colours change as you walk along the street. The best time to come is either early morning or at sunset, when locals flock here to buy extravagant bouquets or just a single flower for temple offerings, ceremonies, birthdays and weddings. While the flower stalls line the main street, hidden behind is a huge fruit and vegetable market, packed with mountains of multicoloured chillies and pungent durian fruits.
Pratunam market Corner of Phetburi and Ratchaprarop Road Just outside Bangkok's tallest building, the Baiyoke Tower, Pratunam is fast-becoming a rival to Chatuchak for uncovering the latest fashion trends. Essentially a wholesale market, many traders can still be persuaded to sell individual items, and, if not, you'll find most items at slightly higher prices just across the road in the brilliant Platinum Fashion Mall. With 2,000 shops spread out over five floors, this mall is for determined shopaholics who inevitably end up lugging home huge suitcases or holdalls packed with bargains.
Suan Lum night bazaar Corner of Witthayu and Rama IV Road Situated just by Lumphini Park and the famous Thai boxing stadium, Suan Lum is a vast modern market that tends to be dismissed by guide books as being characterless. It may look a bit like a concrete jungle, but with almost 4,000 stalls, but this is immensely popular with local Thais. There is a large section dedicated to home interiors, plenty of young fashion designers, fun retro and antique boutiques, and scores of food stalls and restaurants as most people have dinner here to take a break between shopping.
Amulet Lane Phra Chan Road Just a couple of minutes walk from the immense Buddhist shrine, Wat Pho, this specialist amulet market is wonderful for observing, but difficult to find bargains if you don't know much about the value of these precious objects. Saffron-robed monks pore over tiny amulets with magnifying glasses, then pop out a mobile phone to check what the value should be. Look hard, though, and you may find some tempting bric-a-brac among these expensive talismans.
Khao San night market Khao San Road In the heart of Banglamphu, Bangkok's backpacker paradise, this seething street market is packed with modern-day hippies looking to get their hair plaited, downloading music onto iPods, picking up pirated DVD's, stocking up on cheap T-shirts and baggy pants, and trying out the latest spa craze - fish massage, where hundreds of tiny fish nibble your feet. The whole place is really not Bangkok, but it can still make for a fun night out. firstname.lastname@example.org