(THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Sprawling across 27 acres and usually baking in the sun, Bangkok’s Chatuchak Weekend Market can be an endurance test for even the sturdiest shopper. And yet it draws tens of thousands of people every Saturday and Sunday, including many tourists there to see one of the great wonders of the retailing world.
The selection of goods on offer is vast and the prices are often a bargain, and in recent years changes have been made to shed the market’s reputation as an overheated, overcrowded hub of unpleasant mayhem. It now boasts a slew of attractive, semi-sophisticated food and beverage outlets that can turn sweaty shopping sprees into enjoyable outings.
It was reform-minded Prime Minister Chomphon Por Phibunsongkhram who introduced the “weekend market” concept to Bangkok in 1948 in a bid to stimulate a laggard economy. The location chosen was historic Sanam Luang.
In 1978, though, his successor Kriangsak Chamanan oversaw the market’s move so that Sanam Luang could be restored as a wide-open public park. The new location, still in use today, was in the city’s north end, on State Railway of Thailand property (formally donated in 1982). The market adopted the name Chatuchak from the adjacent public park.
The claim has been made that it is the world’s largest weekend market, and its 1,000-plus stalls divided into 27 sections make that hard to dispute. It is also said you can find anything at all there, from fresh farm produce to all kinds of clothing, furniture and other home decor, plants and pets and, yes, even an endangered animal if the cops aren’t watching and you have such wicked inclinations.
While getting to the market used to be a hard slog by car or bus, getting there now is easy by Skytrain or subway, making a visit even more of a regular weekend ritual for Bangkokians of all ages. The younger crowd in particular seems to enjoy browsing or just hanging out there more these days.
The other major change seen at Chatuchak is that people now commonly spend many more hours in the grounds. It used to be that shoppers spent only as much time as was absolutely necessary. You would get in and get back out again as soon as you got what you came for. Dining options were limited and cooking hygiene was dubious anyway. There was no place to eat that might be called pleasant.
Then, around a decade ago, along came the Viva 8 Bar (on Twitter as @Viva8JJ, the “JJ” for Jatujak, as the market’s name is sometimes spelled). Suddenly the crowd and the heat were easier to tolerate.
From the MRT Khamphaeng Phet station, you follow the market road heading towards Chatuchak Park and listen for the thumping music. It’s coming from a stall with a bar serving cold beer, basic cocktails and paella cooked in a massive pan. The DJ cranks out electro-tunes for patrons cooling off in front of fans.
For years the Viva 8 Bar was the only place at Chatuchak Market where you could “chill”, both literally and figuratively. And if the music was too loud, you could (and still can) just buy a cold drink-to-go from a cart and find someplace else to rest your feet.
This isn’t hard to do. Off the same main road, past the stalls in Sections 2 to 6, walk parallel with Khamphaeng Phet Road (on the other side of the market wall) until you are among a bunch of places selling hip clothing and accessories. There are several peaceful little havens along the way.
Tropical Swell (@TropicalSwell) in Section 3 is a beach-themed dessert bar with a thatched roof, tall inviting stools and a few low-rise tables. Cooling down amid the chaos becomes a lark with bingsu – the Korean shaved-iced desserts made with tropical fruit, also available to carry away, with prices starting at Bt100 (S$4.01).
If it is food you’re after, just a little further along is the lower-temperature habitat of At 345 by Yor Wor (@At345 by Yorwor). It has comfortable outdoor seating with huge fans, while the air con is blasting indoors. Popsanova tunes add to the enjoyable environment.
Lunch can be anything from simple stir-fried Thai dishes to elaborate Italian fusion meals, going for Bt100 (S$4.01) to Bt300 (S$12.04). Desserts and iced drinks also ward off the heat. (The iced coffee comes in neat bamboo receptacles.) This is an ideal spot to recharge your batteries or wait for friends to gather.
Also in Section 4, the Thai-Vietnamese restaurant Din Pao Cuisine is a long-time favourite that’s recently had a facelift. No longer do the tables wobble, and the comfort-denying stools have yielded to spacious benches suitable for stretching.
The food is as good as ever and everything looks a lot cleaner.
Din Pao gets busy from about noon to 2, so you might need to wait a bit for a spot.
“I come here for lunch whenever I’m at Chatuchak,” a faithful patron declares. “I like the northeastern Thai dishes and the Vietnamese food, but I also like it because you can actually sit down and enjoy your meal.
“Even before the revamp it was better than getting something on the go and eating it among the crowds. And now I really love this place. It’s very pleasant and still very affordable. Sometimes I come to Chatuchak just to eat here!”
At sundown, as most shoppers head for the exits, there are outlets just coming to life.
Further along in Section 4, close to Gate 3, is Buckingham (@BuckinghamClub), a cosy, friendly, no-frills bar that’s great for smoothies, beer and whisky and rounds out its appeal with live music. Prices start at just Bt100 (S$4.01). The place stays open well after the market stalls are closed at 8pm, but keep in mind that all the market gates close at 8 too except for the main one, so you’ll have a long walk to the MRT.
Another decent joint for live music is Mouth Z G2, all the way down in Section 7, close to Gate 2 where the artsy stalls are.
You can’t expect much from the basic kitchen of this small kitsch bar (popcorn and a few marginally more complicated dishes), but the bands certainly pull in the customers. In the early afternoon there’ll likely be American pop standards and later on it’s be the big-band sound of a six-piece ensemble.
What’s best about Mouth Z G2, apart from the low prices, it’s that it’s close to the main gate, public toilets, the MRT Chatuchak and BTS Mor Chit stations and a sizeable car park. So go ahead and stay late.
Chatuchak Weekend Market is open every Saturday and Sunday from 8am to 8pm.
Check out the amusing English-language website at Chatuchak.org.