The International Writers Magazine: Thailand
The Floating Markets of Bangkok
The Top 10 Places to Haggle in Thailand, and Don’t Forget Your Platinum Card
John M. Edwards
“Night Markets” are a misnomer in Bangkok, Thailand.
In fact, most of them are open throughout the day, and not all of them properly “float.” Always, the stalls are full of sleeping proprietors crouching like baseball umpires in front of their plates, occasionally moving their charcoal briquettes with tongs and adjusting the hypnotic flames on ersatz Bunsen Burners ™.
Here haggled the huddled masses of itinerant cooks and souvenir desperados.
Most of the so-called Floating Markets are located on or near the expansive ribbon of the Chao Phraya River, which undulates like the typewriter-ribbon tongue of a Wikileaks mouth-cancer victim, so they often include fabulously Oriental boat traffic, with almost anything up for sale. I guess I need this tea cozy?
So here I was at a veritable floating night market, impromptu. I found it unlikely that all these energetic food suppliers, leaning back on their legs like the typical standard poses in front of Siddhartha images, now replaced by affluent German backpackers in loose-fitting Thai textiles and Flipflops, were used to sitting Indian-style: the lotus position, you know, when local colors bend their legs into pretty uncomfortable pretzels, ruled the day and conquered the night.
||For years during my frequent travels as an “Old Hand” in Southeast Asia, I made it a point of pride not to eat any street foods. Some sneering travel snobs would regard this as sacrilege, since impecunious backpacking dirtbags don’t fly all the way to Bangkok just to eat Chicken McNuggets at McDonald’s or attack the salad bar at Applebee’s. That’s right, they are here for cheap sex, as well as food and drink. Although they find all the sights interesting, they tend to group in backpacker havens such as the famous Kho San Road, adopting native dress and showing off their piercings and tattoos.
And then, thwam! Even cultural antiquity doesn’t mess with American Express.
But I lightened up on my maxim, and decided to go native myself, especially when I was craving “chicken sate” (originally a Malay dish, not Thai) and Singha beers. After all, if all of these apparently homeless shiftless cooks had nothing else to do, maybe they had the time to whip up something special? With all the baddy bacteria boiling in the caldrons full of what is euphemistically called “Jungle Curry” (meaning: no idea what is in it), somebody has to eat it?!
At one impromptu food emporium called Klong Toey Market, I watched everyone close up shop at nearly midnight, only to discover that the chefs ate the leftovers themselves, or dumped it for the cat-size rats to bicker and dicker over, dishes resembling cannibalism on rice.
But the very next day I noticed that many of the street chefs had brought along with them “prepared” foods. Which made me wonder whether it was worth trying, even though I had been inoculated for everything from yellow fever to diptheria, dengue fever to guardia, dysentery to diarrhea. But mostly I was afraid of getting in alphabetical order Hep 1, Hep 2, and Hep 3.
Thank god for my chewable Pepto Bismol pills, which since childhood I have called “Doctor Pismo”!
But then I spotted a bronzed Siamese seductress in a “Paid Advertisement” native folk frock, with a secretive smile soldered on her face, a similar look of contentment to be found on such Siddhartha statues as “The Reclining Buddha” in Wat Po.
Hell, why not!
“Tom Yum Goong!” the beauty enthused.
“Sorry I don’t speak Thai,” I said, flipping through my Berlitz phrasebook. “Uhn, Sawat dii!”
Anyway, my eyes felt like weepy green peppers as I lowered my snout into the caldron of coconut and curry, with chunks of scrawny poultry resembling pigeons or sparrows in it. I haggled a little bit, but then I decided, to get more bang for the baht, to offer more than the price she had quoted.
She giggled infectiously with her hand politely covering her mouth.
I could tell that this had never happened to her before, exactly the obverse of what you would expect when haggling, for anything from Buddha statues, to Siamese prozzies, to dirt-cheap Pad Thai.
Neither am I sure that I had ever been so financially foolhardy except for when I lived in France, not quite getting what “prix fixe” meant?
Nor, “VAT” (Value Added Tax).
We waied each other, our hands pressed together like cymbals on articulated wind-up monkey toys, and I retreated into a shady corner to inspect my new dish. Straight off the bat, I removed all the miniature shrimps (with the shells still on), since shellfish go off quickly in the tropics. Also, I wondered what kind of magical mushrooms were in the thick broth. . . .
But then a little later while I was doing desserts at Damnoen Saduak Floating Market (my personal fave), I tried a “durian” for the first time: the putrid smell was enough to put anyone off. With nothing else to really compare it with, I decided it was like the welcoming scent of death.
Anyway, at a nearby Chinese restaurant right on the water and next to a stand where I bought a “Tintin in Tibet” T-shirt, I asked for the “WC” and was given unreliable directions from a pokerfaced “Fu Manchu”-like waiter pointing vaguely in the distance. Once found, I braved the ubiquitous squat toilet and no paper, resorting at last to the “southpaw swipe” (no one shakes with their left hands for sage reasons of hiegene).
Then I was off on the free-for-all of the Chao Phraya River--filled with canoes and catamarans, junks and sampans, dhows and kayaks—to really do business with the Floating Marketeers, many of them in Hill Tribe costumes and maniacally flogging everything from flowers to Phish T-shirts, alien crayfish to Frisbees, fresh coconut juice to Ken Dolls.
I couldn’t resist: I bought a Ken Doll for considerably less than it would cost back home, used.
On the banks of the muddy river, the boats crowded together, knocking against each other like phallic Lincoln Logs amidst hawkers calling out their wares and grabbing baht for their barter.
One of them, greeting me like a Roman Centurion with his arm across the chest, was holding an antique machine (meaning: Amex, no problem).
I don’t know: the scene was pretty exciting.
Plus, I could pay some of them via Platinum Card!
While I was dreaming with my eyes wide open and in motion on the river, I decided to try to make it onto one of Thailand’s hidden waterways, the San Saeb Canal. Here once the famous American expat and silk trader Jim Thompson built his attractive reconstructed teak house in 1959, himself becoming a fable of the missing foreigner. Also, I was running out of pretty polly and needed to make a quick break to change money anywhere, including among the trucks of the Thai Military, who make a mint off currency exchanges with farang travelers who all smell to them like dairy products.
At the apocalyptic Chatuchak Weekend Market, with well over 8,000 stalls, I balked and didn’t buy anything. I passed by an old man somehow resembling both Charles Bronson and Manny Paquiao grilling meat on an enormous skewer. Jeez, I thought, was he cooking a cat?!
Everybody flitting around like flighty vampire bats looked capable of pickpocketing or bagsnatching. Many of us mistake smiles for grimaces, especially unemployed Import-Export experts with lame Maple Leaf patches on their backpacks, sure signs that they are actually Americans fearful of both international terrorism and upscale tourism.
Next on my list of tops, was, of course, Tha Pra Chan Market, where I bought a garish amulet from an obvious opium addict. The whites around her bloodshot eyes resembled pocket lozenges of candycane.
As an afterthought, at the nearby “House of Gems” (which sold no gems, only “coprolites”) conveniently located near one of the ferry stops, I then bought a piece of petrified Jurassic poop, real dino dung, often referred to as “The Holy Dung of the Lord Buddha’s Cow,” from a devout fellow named Boonman Poonyathiro. Nicknamed “Professor Poop” and “Dinosaur Daddy,” Boonman pointed out that the vegetarian dinosaur dung, say, Brontosaurus burgers, are much lighter than that of the carnivores, say, T. Rex turds.
Finally at the marvelous Pak Khlong Market, I was surrounded by fresh flowers and fruit and vegetables, as well as the inspired oohs and aahs of other paraiah “pretend” expats (one year tops), which was a much-need respite from the very stinky pollution of unrefrigerated fish twinkling like silverware in the sunlight, a passion scent which follows us around this city like a tuk-tuk taxi without a muffler.
And, of course, don’t forget the bags of poo to fertilize your own plots back home, as well as the grave sites of complete strangers.
After this last close encounter of the turd kind, I decided at the airport to drag my extra bags of pungent souvenirs through customs myself, my eyes rolling like hardboiled eggs in their sockets as they asked me if I was carrying any “drugs,” shaking my prescription medicine in its caramel-colored RX bottle, like unlucky Charlie Brown and his Halloween bag. . . .
**Here are my top 10 favorite traditional floating night markets in Bangkok, not all of which occur at night or even float, and which you need directions to from knowledgeable genius guides pretending to be local colors:
1. Damnoen Saduak Floating Market: Bangkok’s most popular floating market.
2. Patpong Night Market: Bangkok’s most touristy night market.
3. Or Tor Kor Market: Bangkok’s most mysterious market.
4. Pratunam Market: Bangkok’s most trendy market.
5. Rod Fai Market: Bangkok’s most vintage market.
6. Tha Pra Chan Market: Bangkok’s most obvious amulet market.
7. Pak Khlong Market: Bangkok’s most lovely flower market.
8. Ratchadapisek Night Market: Bangkok’s most punk
9. Khlong Toey Market: Bangkok’s most delicious food market.
10. Chatuchak Weekend Market: Bangkok’s largest market.
© John M. Edwards, July 2013
P.S. I just won 5 NATJA Awards for 2012. (Last year I won 4 NATJAs.) I also won 2 Transitions Abroad Narrative Essay Contest Awards (2010 and 2012), as well as 2 Notable Essays nods in The Best American Essays (2011 and 2012).
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