In Bangkok, shopping is not a necessity or even a pastime – it’s an obsession, but while megamalls are popping up like mushrooms, markets are still going strong.
“How many Louis Vuitton stores does one city need?” I ask my guide incredulously as we pass Bangkok’s glittering new Central Embassy shopping mall, its outdoor red carpet an invitation to six-star opulence.
“Lots. One in each mall.” Suree replies cheerily. “People from Bangkok love to shop!”
That’s an understatement. Malls stay open until 10pm each night, and there seems to be a new monolith under construction on every street corner.
Unfortunately, the unquenchable thirst for air-conditioned shopping complexes has come at the expense of some of Bangkok’s most iconic street markets. In 2011, the popular Suan Lum Night Bazaar in Lumphini was shut down to make way for yet another megamall, despite cries of derision from stall owners, locals and tourists alike.
But when one market closes, so another opens – and Bangkok’s market scene is as healthy as ever, with stalls operating day and night in some of the most interesting and vibrant pockets of the city.
Chatuchak Weekend Market
Located on the outskirts of Bangkok, but easily accessible by MRT (Kamphaengpecth Station) or Skytrain BTS (Mochit Station) from the city centre, this is the granddaddy of all markets – one of the largest in the world, covering more than 10 hectares of land and attracting up to 200,000 people each weekend. There are more than 15,000 booths in this chaotic, sweaty maze, selling everything from handicrafts and homewares to pet rabbits and pythons. The market is divided into 27 sections in numbered alleys (or sois), so you can tailor your shopping to what you are looking for. There are also plenty of food vendors, and you can literally ‘shop till you drop’ – straight into a chair for a well-deserved foot massage. It’s open weekends from 9am–6pm.
JJ Green Night Market
Located in Queen Sirikit Park adjacent to Chatuchak (and a great add-on if you have the shopping stamina), this new night market – also known as the Siam Gypsy Market – has more of a local vibe, attracting an eclectic hipster crowd with its vintage fashions, retro collectables, classic bikes and flea market bargains. It’s worth the trek out to enjoy the atmosphere, feasting on street food or enjoying live music in the cool bars. It’s a short walk from the Mochit BTS station and is open Thursday to Sunday from 5pm–1.30am.
Patpong Night Market
One of the better-known markets in Bangkok, this is – like the area it is located in – somewhat trashy … but that’s part of the appeal. This is where tourists come to buy rip-off handbags, Singha T-shirts and fishermen pants before heading off to a girlie bar and other such tawdry activities. A must-do for first-timers in the city, despite not being the most authentic market experience. Bargain hard – the vendors here can take advantage of inexperienced tourists with over-inflated prices. Patpong is a five-minute walk from Sala Daeng BTS station in Silom, and is open 6pm–1am daily.
This riverfront entertainment complex, opened in 2012, is a unique combination of air-conditioned shopping complex and night market, with 1,500 boutiques, high-end sit-down international restaurants, a beer garden and food court, plus attractions such as a Ferris Wheel, cabaret show, puppet theatre and a 4D cinema. The fixed market stalls – many of which are located in a converted 100-year-old warehouse – offer classy home furnishings, handicrafts and clothing; many of the prices are fixed, though some stalls still allow bargaining. Catch Asiatique’s free shuttle boat from Saphan Taksin bridge BTS station. It’s open 5pm–midnight daily.
Once the most authentic way to buy handicrafts and fresh produce on the waterways that criss-cross the City of Angels, the few remaining floating markets are now operated largely for tourists. However, they are still a must-see; colourful, lively and providing great photo opportunities. The largest and most touristy floating market is Damnoen Saduak, located an hour from the city and usually visited via an organised tour. It’s a fabulous sight as longtail boats jostle for space, hawking carved wooden elephants, t-shirts, coconut juice, fresh fruit and delicious, freshly cooked skewers. Further out but a little more authentic are the smaller Amphawa and Tha Kha floating markets (often visited in conjunction with the Railway Market – see below). Visitors usually combine a boat journey along the klongs with some market shopping, topped off by a fresh seafood feast enjoyed on the steps of the canal. Most floating markets operate early morning till lunchtime. Check out the list of day tour options at bangkok.com
Maeklong Railway Market
Imagine a market that has grown so large it has crept onto nearby railway tracks … now imagine the train pulling into the station, and the frantic disassembly of stalls, removal of crates and bodies pressed against the wall as the train descends. This hilarious piece of theatre occurs four times daily at the local market at Maeklong, a 90-minute drive from Bangkok. The market – nicknamed Talad Rom Hoop, meaning Umbrella Pull-down Market – sells mostly fresh produce and home essentials, but the curiosity factor alone draws international visitors, turning an otherwise dull local event into an entertaining tourist attraction. Although usually visited with a tour group or private driver, independent travellers can travel by train from Bangkok to Samut Sakhon, changing to a local line to Maeklong. It’s open daily, so check the timetable to make sure you are there when the train arrives. •
Photography by Julie Miller
• Jetstar flies direct from Melbourne to Bangkok with easy connections from other major cities. jetstar.com
Where to Stay
• Peninsula Bangkok: peninsula.com
• Centara Grand at Central Plaza Ladprao Bangkok: centarahotelsresorts.com
• Tourism Authority of Thailand: tourismthailand.org