Chatuchak, Shopping At It’s Best

by Harold Stephens

In by book The Love of Siam I explain how Thailand has become the Mecca for shoppers

One of the first questions I am asked by visitors coming to Bangkok is, “Where is the best place to shop?” My impulse is to tell them that all of Bangkok is a grand shopping arena.

It’s true. By their very nature the Thais are shopkeepers and merchants. Walk along any thoroughfare in the city, such as Silom and Sukhimvit Roads (but not restricted to them), and you will find shops behind glass windows. In front of the shops vendors will have their portable stands set up and, in front of the stands, walking along the streets will be more vendors, carrying their merchandise with them.

Selling and marketing is in the Thai people’s blood. For centuries Thailand, previously called Siam, was the centre of trade in Asia. Overland trade and ships coming down from China unloaded their wares in Siam rather than make the hazardous trade route though pirate infested waters around the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. Ships coming from India and the West unloaded their cargoes and shipped overland across the Krai Peninsula to trading centres in Siam. Naturally, the Siamese became traders and merchants and it has been passed down to present times.

So where’s the best place to shop? Bangkok has some of the finest shopping malls you can find any place in the world. But what the rest of the world doesn’t have is a weekend market like Chatuchak. It’s a phenomenon.

The old weekend market was where vendors spread out their wares in an open field in the morning and took them home in the evening.

You might ask, what’s so special about Chatuchak? Let me put it this way. Can you imagine, going to a flea market to buy furniture? I don’t mean junk furniture. I mean top quality furniture. What about some priceless antiques or a pair of Siamese fighting fish? Maybe a bullock cart? Or clothing for trekking in the jungle or equipment for rafting the wild rivers of Thailand. There’s something else I must mention and that is prices. To be more specific, only last week I took two friends to Chatuchak to look for klagas, those Burmese tapestries. At one shop, a Thai lady was buying klagas and she appeared to be very happy with the prices. I asked her if she was a tourist, a visitor to Bangkok. She said no, she lived in Bangkok. She had a shop in town and was burying klagas for her shop. Enough said.

A few years ago, two Thai friends, a man and wife, said they were going to the flea market to buy furniture for their new apartment. I thought they were joking, but they weren’t. They invited me to join them.

The market is made up of alleys, and there is no end to them. It’s easy to get lost.

When we started out, I thought we were headed to the old Weekend flea market at Sanum Luang near the Royal Palace. I remember the place very well. Every weekend traders came to a large open area near the palace, pitched canvas tents for the day, and that same evening took down their tents and went home. The place was hot, cramped and chaotic and not much fun. But this time we didn’t head to the old grounds. The old flea market had, in fact, been closed down and relocated. We made our way to the outskirts of town on Phraholyothin Road toward Don Muang airport. Here the old flea market had relocated.

The first surprise was the size of Chatuchak Market. It covers almost 14 hectares, has many hundreds of booths and more than 5,000 vendors selling everything imaginable. They may still call it a flea market but it’s more like a ‘one-stop’ shopping mall.

Since that first visit I have been back countless times. When I want to show Bangkok to visitors, I take them for a cruise up the Chao Phraya River and a visit to the Chatuchak Weekend market. They are never disappointed.

The most beautiful alley is the one that sells flowers, and it always crowded. You must push your way through, but it’s worth it.

The best introduction to Chatuchak is to walk the perimeter before entering the maze of passageways. Here you find all kinds of farm and nursery products and lots of plants, including orchids and ferns. You can also see goats and sheep for sale and don’t be shocked if you come face to face with dairy cows and perhaps even a bullock.

Like a cartwheel, alleys lead to the central market area. Push your way into any one of the alleys and you enter another world. You can expect the unexpected at every turn. The alleys are narrow, and you will be amused by the sounds as well as the sights and I don’t mean the blaring noise of tape shops. The sounds you hear here are the sounds of venders extolling the virtues of their wares with sing-song chants and the voice of shoppers, bargain hunters, coaxing the best buys out of the hawkers, or calling to one another to “look at this” or to “look at that.” There’s also entertainment, and it’s free. You can watch craftsmen at work, artists or wood carvers, or even see a cockfight or witness two Siamese fighting fish battling it out.

Children of shop owners lean the trade early.

Not all the shops are open air. There are some glassed-in, air-conditioned up-market shops where salespeople sit in comfort selling fine jewelry, or animal pets. And if you get hungry, there are food stalls and even small restaurants.

The problem of shopping at Chatuchak is that you get side tracked too easily. I find myself stopping every few metres, perhaps to look at hill tribe handicrafts and antiques, and things like fake flowers and fruit, crafted from wood. Some pieces look so authentic that you wonder how they keep them so fresh.

There’s really a lot to see. It might be to watch a sign painter add delicate touches to a sign, or to stop to listen at all the various chimes at the clock shop section. I was tempted to buy a grandfather clock which I have always wanted. Fortunately, I didn’t. A few stalls away I forgot about the grandfather clock when I saw something else I wanted but also didn’t need. There’s the mistake we all make. We see something we like but decide to shop around to see if we can find the same thing at a better price. It usually ends up we can’t locate the original shop where the price was right.

Teak carvings come in all sizes with a variety of fine woodwork.

Shoppers who like ceramic wares will find plates, fruit bowls and finger bowls stacked in tiers, while figurines of miniature farm animals, dolls and doll houses are orderly arranged on trays. Intricate, inexpensive sets of ceramic teapots, cups and saucers are arranged on shelves out of the reach of wandering children.

Beautiful Burmese klagas are good buys. This sales girl opens a kluge for me to photograph.

There seems to be hundreds of stalls selling antiques. Some specialise in items like furniture and lamp shades, others in clocks and fans. Not all, however, are antiques. They are fakes but, nevertheless, very beautiful. Sculptural pieces, like old British made table-fans, little Victorian oil lamps, old fashion wall phones and sewing machines, are displayed with much creativity. Stall owners are knowledgeable with regards to their origin and background of their wares.

If you are a visitor, it’s not very likely you will want to buy furniture but you won’t be able to resist looking over the wares. An instant attraction here is the old furniture: black varnished hard woods with in-laid mother-of-pearl. Stalls with more spacious areas display brass beds, both new and old, and brass figurines. It’s then that you wished you lived in Bangkok.

Most Thai timber comes from the Northern provinces while bamboo and cane are widely spread throughout the country. Wooden furniture, from matching side tables to great dining tables, comes in fine variable wood grains. The luster and beauty of these natural patterns are highlighted when polished. Wooden chests with artistic carvings depicting local folklore are also available in the furniture area. Although furniture may be heavy in weight, it doesn’t mean the prices are high. Timber furniture at the market makes for some good buys.

What about Muslim cloths, with a pretty Muslim girl sitting quietly among her wares.

While bamboo furniture may be cheaper than other wooden ones, they are attractive in their own style and design. Bamboo furniture comes in a wide variety ranging from shelves, to beds, sofas and dining sets. Burnt markings create patterns on the smooth, plain surface of this material and some artistic designs are achieved. Cane furniture also shares the distinction of being classic furniture when it’s properly manufactured. Its flexibility allows the craftsmen to achieve some wonderful designs and curves, which no other materials can achieve.

I can’t resist spending time watching Siamese fighting fish and cock fighting. More than once I have lost my wife but she knows where to find me, watching the fighting fish.

You can tell what you might find at Chanukah, even a pretty girl like I found.

No, you don’t have to be a shopper to enjoy Chatuchak Weekend Market and bear in mind, to see it all would take a couple weekends.