Chatuchak Weekend Market

Chatuchak Weekend Market

Touted as the world’s largest weekend market, Chatuchak is one of those Bangkok “must go” places. I have been many times, and am always drawn back. Today I spent two hours there and bought nothing but an iced Thai coffee. My travel bags are already overweight, and I need nothing! But don’t be dissuaded by silly things like baggage limits, because there are shippers at the market who will gladly handle that problem for you.

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Almost every time I go through Bangkok, Chatuchak market draws me in. Having changed both much and very little in the last 10 years, there is the sense of returning to someplace well known, and the adventure, and sometimes disappointment, of the new – many more places selling tourist tchotchkes, and far fewer showing old Asian pieces. But the vibe is the same as ever, and remains very much Thai, just a much more modern version.

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A morning in Chatuchak, for me, takes some planning. I like to decide at least the day before, getting a good night’s sleep and a bit of a breakfast before heading out. A daypack keeps me hands free, and cargo pants keep my money and other essentials where I need them. It is not the time for a purse, for sure. Add a water bottle, and I am ready to head out for the metro.  Go dressed for the weather, within 20 minutes you will be sweaty, so don’t think about makeup and dress-up. This is the time for a backpack or a waist pouch. Segregate your big money from some small bills and change so you aren’t flaunting it when you only need 30 baht. The market is a prime spot for pickpockets, so use caution.

How to get there:

The sky train will get you there easily, but there are a lot of stairs involved, not for the weak of knee. The subway also goes directly there. The easiest way, of course, is taxi. If you take this option, insist on the meter. If they don’t want to use the meter, get another taxi. Another way around is the motor bike. The drivers wear orange vests.

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Motor bikes and drivers

If you take the sky-train, you want the Mo Chit station. Easy to remember, because you will probably have mo’ shit when you are done for the day. Get off at the station and follow the crowd. They are (almost) all going where you are. I envision myself being swept up by the crowd and not letting my feet touch the ground, but I don’t advise this.

When you get to a suitable entrance, take a photo of it! After you enter, take another photo, so you’ll recognize it when the sweat is pouring down you face on the way out.

Grab a map from the market office. You will find it on the street from the sky train to the entrance.

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Once you are there:

The best time to go is around 9-9:30 AM. Even then you will be there before most stalls open. Bangkok is not an early town, and the market is no exception. A lot of stalls don’t open till 10:30 or so, and then quite slowly. Getting there around 9:30 will allow you to get your bearings, and some coffee places and food stalls will be open. The lanes will be pretty empty, and moving about much easier than a couple of hours later. The only caveat is that there is a much shared superstition in Asia that the first buyer is good luck for the day, so if you start taking a serious interest in something, you will be expected to buy. Check things out from a distance and browse first, the added benefit of this is you won’t be hauling around purchases.

There are location signs at intersections. Again, a snap with your camera will help you find the place again.

Location signs. Write it down or take a snap.
Location signs. Write it down or take a snap.

It is always hot at Chatuchak, varying only by a few degrees, but there are cool oases here and there.

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When needed, give your feet a rest and have something cool to drink
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The market is a great meeting place for all of the cultures of Thailand

A word about Asian markets: There can be aggressive sellers, or at least very forward ones. Bangkok is way milder in this regard than Vietnam, but you will be pressed to at least look. If someone reaches out and touches you for your attention, please don’t be alarmed. No offense is meant. It is a much more hands on culture. Today I nervously swung around when someone touched me, and it was a female police officer, just saying hello!

Rest:

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Little coffee houses, eateries and bars pop up everywhere through the market, but the best place to look is in the rear of the market, where there are a lot of art stalls and some shippers, as well as a couple of convenient bathrooms. Pace yourself and take a break for a cold drink of some sort by a fan or in some air conditioning. Ice-cold beer in the AC with some nice jazz is a temptation, but in the heat I find that it will be the end of me. Good on you if you can hold up against it, but I’ll take mine when I am back at my place and don’t need to go anywhere.

Hot satay just off the fire is great. If it is sitting there waiting, back away.

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Be sure it is very hot!

Westerners can be overly cautious (or not cautious enough, as I can attest) about food. While I’ve traveled, I’ve spent quite a few nights in the bathroom, but I have always been able to trace the source, and it was always a stupid mistake. Just follow the standard rules – look for busy stands and freshly prepared food per order. Do not buy fruit ices, though they look so tempting. I’ve eaten here often, and have never had a problem.  Freshly prepared, fast turnover and a bit of a crowd, and you should be safe.

Negotiations:

As the first buyer of the day is considered good luck, until you have browsed and gotten a feel for prices and goods, try not to engage the sellers. Once you are seriously interested, make some tentative inquiries.  Negotiate, but be kind and have a good humor about it. The banter and back and forth is fun if you start with the premise that what you are buying is probably cheap no matter what the price, and if you want it enough to bargain, whatever you pay will be a deal. I have seen people get agitated and aggressive over coins, over the equivalent of the change at home in the depths of your sofa. Don’t enter negotiations with the idea of “winning”. Some say that you should pay about 50% of the asking price. That is generally a poor starting position and likely to insult the seller. Again, start negotiations in good humor and good faith. You can tell when your offer is unacceptable. Sometimes the price is more than you want to pay. Thank the seller and leave. If she is earnest and the price is still negotiable, she will call you back and make her final offer. Otherwise, time to find something else.

Finito

This is my limit. If I arrive at 9:30, 11:30 is a great time to get out. The crowds thicken remarkably by then, and by noon getting around can be a challenge. Getting over-heated can sneak up on you, and searching for the exit through a thick crowd and glasses smeared with sweat will be frustrating. If the photo doesn’t work, and you feel lost, there are lots of police, and most vendors will point you in the right direction. The right direction can also be recognized at this point by the large crowds coming towards you as they are arriving. For me it is time to flee.

The Value and Costs of Travel on a Small Planet

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The Value and Costs of Travel on a Small Planet

By
ANDREW C. REVKIN
OCTOBER 31, 2007 9:08 AMOctober 31, 2007 9:08 am
Children sailing in the MaldivesChildren sailing in the Maldives. (Andrew C. Revkin)
National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel blog noticed Dot Earth, and particularly my narrated slide show outlining the learning curve that drove me to focus my career, and this blog, on humans’ evolving relationship with the home planet and with one another.

I’m wondering what experiences in countries other than your own have crystallized for you how human choices can make the world a better, or worse, place.

Then there’s the challenging question Janelle Nanos asked me for her post in Intelligent Travel:

Q. There’s an ongoing debate in the travel sector about whether tourism in endangered places should be limited. Some people say that stopping people from visiting precarious spots will help protect them, while others say that seeing these places will inspire people to save them. What do you think?

I answered this way: I do think places can be loved to death. But I also think it’s vital for people to experience this wonderfully variegated Earth, and human tapestry, to build an inner sense that we’re all really neighbors on a small planet. The most extraordinary ecosystems need careful monitoring and limited access. Slightly less extraordinary places can probably absorb more visitors. I haven’t been to the Galapagos yet, and I’m very eager to do so. That is a place where striking a balance between access and preservation is clearly vital, but particularly tough.

How would you answer? Are there places that should be off limits?

Joanne Bretzer October 31, 2007 · 12:40 pm
I agree with Ms. Busch that the best way to travel and to know a place is to go there for a long stay- either volunteering or working a job. As it is not financially possible for me to either volunteer or to travel for a long period of time, and as I want to see the world’s cultures and environments, I opt to work in other countries. Currently I am working in Saudi Arabia. I have just started exploring the Gulf region, and cannot wait for each holiday from teaching to travel to places close in. My travel adventures have mostly involved work, and they have taken me from Prudhoe Bay to Korea and Saudi.

I don’t ever envy those who can just holiday at five star hotels and jet about- when you work someplace you become a part of it, not just an observer. You can read about the separation of the sexes in Saudi, but living it gives you an understanding of the complexity of it. As for the environment- well, you don’t know Alaska if you don’t know 70 below zero, and you don’t know the deserts of the Middle East until you experience 130 above, or more.

But to rephrase Ms. Busch’s question: “Why should I stay? I’ve already been here- it is time to go there!”