The amorphous clutter of Greater Bangkok doesn’t harbour many attractions, but there are a handful of places that make pleasant half-day escapes, principally Chatuchak Weekend Market, the cultural theme-park of Muang Boran, the rather more esoteric Prasart Museum, the upstream town of Nonthaburi and the tranquil artificial island of Ko Kred (see map).Read More
Chatuchak Weekend Market (JJ)
Chatuchak Weekend Market (JJ)
With over eight thousand open-air stalls to peruse, and wares as diverse as Lao silk, Siamese kittens and designer lamps, the enormous Chatuchak Weekend Market, or JJ as it’s usually abbreviated (from “Jatu Jak”), is Bangkok’s most enjoyable – and exhausting – shopping experience.
The market also contains a controversial wildlife section that has long doubled as a clearing house for protected and endangered species such as gibbons, palm cockatoos and Indian pied hornbills, many of them smuggled in from Laos and Cambodia and sold to private animal collectors and foreign zoos. The illegal trade goes on beneath the counter, despite occasional crackdowns, but you’re bound to come across fighting cocks around the back, miniature flying squirrels being fed milk through pipettes, and iridescent red-and-blue Siamese fighting fish, kept in individual jars and shielded from each other’s aggressive stares by sheets of cardboard.
Where to shop
Chatuchak is divided into 27 numbered sections, plus a dozen unnumbered ones, each of them more or less dedicated to a particular genre, for example household items, plants and secondhand books, and if you have several hours to spare, it’s fun just to browse at whim. The market’s primary customers are Bangkok residents in search of idiosyncratic fashions (try sections 5 and 6) and homewares (sections 2, 3, 4, 7 and 8), but Chatuchak also has plenty of collector- and tourist-oriented stalls; best buys include antique lacquerware, unusual sarongs, traditional cotton clothing and crafts from the north, silver jewellery, and ceramics, particularly the five-coloured bencharong. For handicrafts and traditional textiles, you should start with sections 22, 24, 25 and 26, which are all in a cluster at the southwest (Kamphaeng Phet subway) end of the market; sections A, B and C, behind the market’s head office and information centre, are also full of interesting artefacts.
Foodies will want to check out Talat Or Tor Khor (the Agricultural Market Organization), a covered market that sells a fantastic array of fruit, veg and other produce from around the country, as well as prepared dishes to take away or to eat at the food court; it’s on the south side of Thanon Kamphaeng Phet, next to Kamphaeng Phet subway station. There are a number of other places to eat and drink inside the market.
The naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, eulogizing the taste of the durian, compared it to “rich butter-like custard highly flavoured with almonds, but intermingled with wafts of flavour that call to mind cream cheese, onion sauce, brown sherry and other incongruities”. He neglected to discuss the smell of the fruit’s skin, which is so bad – somewhere between detergent and dog shit – that durians are barred from Thai hotels and aeroplanes. The different varieties bear strange names that do nothing to make them more appetizing: “frog”, “golden pillow”, “gibbon” and so on. However, the durian has fervent admirers, perhaps because it’s such an acquired taste, and because it’s considered a strong aphrodisiac. Aficionados discuss the varieties with as much subtlety as if they were vintage Champagnes, and treat the durian as a social fruit, to be shared around, despite a price tag of up to B3000 each. They also pour scorn on the Thai government scientists who have recently genetically developed an odourless variety, the Chanthaburi 1 durian.
The most famous durian orchards are around Nonthaburi, where the fruits are said to have an incomparably rich and nutty flavour due to the fine clay soil. To see these and other plantations such as mango, pomelo and jackfruit, your best bet is to hire a longtail from Nonthaburi pier to take you west along Khlong Om Non. If you don’t smell them first, you can recognize durians by their sci-fi appearance: the shape and size of a rugby ball, but slightly deflated, they’re covered in a thick, pale-green shell which is heavily armoured with short, sharp spikes (duri means “thorn” in Malay). By cutting along one of the faint seams with a good knife, you’ll reveal a white pith in which are set a handful of yellow blobs with the texture of a wrinkled soufflé: this is what you eat. The taste is best when the smell is at its highest, about three days after the fruit has dropped. Be careful when out walking near the trees: because of its great weight and sharp spikes, a falling durian can lead to serious injury, or even an ignominious death.