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How to bag a bargain in a Thai bazaar

How to bag a bargain in a Thai bazaar

story by: Anna Sarjeant

Skinned frog anybody? Surely that’s exactly what your mother-in-law craves from your trip to Thailand? Then again, a nice ceramic bowl could also be a hit. 

From souvenirs to gifts, keep-sakes and local delicacies that may or may not be insects (the crunch of vertebrae is often a giveaway) as well as experiences that you’ll never forget, the traditional Thai market is not to be missed. Here’s our definitive list of things you’ll want to seek out, pick up and take home.

A foreword
NB. Practice your haggling beforehand. We find bartering at Countdown a little fruitless but nailing a few key lines of negotiation always proves worthwhile.

1. Collectables
You may not believe in time-travel but it’s certainly possible to return to the golden days of yesteryear with a trip to Rod Fai Night Market; a hidden hipster village located just behind Seacon Square Shopping Mall in Bangkok. Boasting a formidable collection of vintage goods, this open air-bazaar is open from 5pm until midnight, Thursday to Sunday and can found in an abandoned Railway Station owned by State Railway Thailand.

Packed to its station rafters with all sorts of classic fare, you and your foraging fingertips will come across everything from vintage leather jackets to chandeliers and Coca Cola collectables. As long as you have a keen eye for curiosities, you’re bound to leave with a bargain. Split between three market zones, the memorabilia spills out across brick-walled caves and glass-doored stores, with cool bars and live bands interspersed between the rare antiques and second-hand kitsch.

Offering everything from pop-up food stalls and the most happening of hang-outs (with cool hipster-types to match), every inlet, pit-stop and dusty glass cabinet offers a little more character than the last.

From vintage vinyl players to niche nicks and knacks, the third and final zone in Rod Thai is a little more high-brow; ‘Rod’s Antiques’ – a market come museum kitted out with age-worn cars, bikes, scooters and juke boxes, vintage shop signs, furniture and gas pumps. Rare finds with an eye-popping price tag to match, it might not be the wisest idea to squeeze a 1950s Cadillac into your suitcase, but for sheer visual indulgence alone, Rod and his antiques are well worth a nosey.   

2. Souvenirs

How’s your shopping-stamina? We only ask because Bangkok’s Chatuchak Weekend Market covers a colossal 27 acres and holds the title as one of the world’s largest bazaars. Certainly not a stop-off for the time-starved, you’ll want to spend at least half a day here. A mecca of mayhem, an estimated 15,000 stallholders sell every type of trinket, treat and Thai souvenir imaginable, with furniture stalls, clothes stores, suit makers and silk, traditional medicine, ancient books, instruments, crafts and spices. To name but a few (or should that be phew!?)

So huge is this labyrinth of narrow alleys and cramped lanes, there’s a complimentary electric train to take you from one district to the next; weaving between floor-to-ceiling fabrics, lanterns and the most curious of curiosities. By midday your stomach will be growling from shopper’s fatigue.

Top up your depleted energy levels at food courts selling fragrant Pad Thais and gargantuan fruits. Hydration comes in the form of fresh fruit shakes and a cold glug of beer. Take a breather, find some respite and then pick up your feet for some more. If you didn’t know how to haggle before Chatuchak, you’ll be a bartering master by the end. 

3. Seafood & shellfish

Granted, fish isn’t a practical ‘take-home’ purchase, but for a market with a difference – a death-defying difference – head 45km out of Bangkok and visit the Mahachai Market in the Samut Sakhon province of Thailand. As one of the largest fresh seafood markets in the country, you’ll smell it before you see it. It won't soothe the nostrils like the sweet smell of fresh flowers but take a hearty inhale anyway - it’s all part of the experience.

Now follow your nose to the railroad station, for this is where the main hub of the market flows – straight through an active railway track. That’s right, active. Let’s hope your ears are as sensitive as your nasal passage because if you don’t hear the faint tinkering of a rail bell, there’s a good chance you’ll get run over by a moving train. Albeit slow, you still don’t want to be standing in its path. Fortunately the vendors (who nonchalantly arrange their stalls across the train line) will periodically busy themselves with awnings and baskets – pulling them all back into alleys and doorways. Take this as a warning to squeeze yourself into any available spot and wait for the train to pass.

Some would argue it’s an ill-placed venue for a market, and a busy one at that, but as yet no one has suggested a relocation. And who are we to judge?

​4. Exotic fruits
If you don’t know your rambutan from your rose apple, you’ve clearly never been to Thailand’s Saphan Khao Fruit Market. And more to the point, you very much need to! A fruit education at its fructose finest, the streets are literally awash with nature’s juiciest creations. With so many species of fruit for sale, you’ll be dreaming in pips and pith for the rest of your life.

The word ‘species’ seems appropriate here, as it's uncertain if half the produce is of earthly origin or not. Google a rambuten and you’ll see what we mean. To get to the fruit’s flesh you’ll first have to battle a lengthy display of tentacles; you’re in for a good tickling before a taste! Worth the fight for sure, fruit from Thailand is some of the most delicious on the planet (which planet is still up for debate) even if they’re not the prettiest, they more than make up for it in flavour.

Open daily from 6am to 6pm, you can descend on Saphan Khao for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Ask the vendors to slice up thick wedges of jackfruit or lock your lips round a world-renowned mangosteem, said to be the healthiest fruit of them all. And if you’re feeling parched, lock lips with a glossy young coconut, they’re green and hairless, unlike their brown and hairy elders, and full to bursting with coconut water, which is packed with essential electrolytes to keep you zippy.

A definite must-do market, what these vendors don’t know about nature’s home-grown sweetness, doesn’t mean jack…fruit.

5. Heaps of memories

We couldn’t round up an article on Thailand’s best markets without mentioning Damnoen Saduak Floating Market. You’ll know it already - it’s the canal market with long-tail boats, ladies in bamboo hats and more tourists than strands of sweet sticky rice. And there lies the problem. Damnoen is busy.

For a smaller, but more relaxed and authentic canal market, venture to Amphawa in Samut Songkhram province, just 50km from Bangkok. Frequented by more locals than tourists, Amphawa is part of a network of 300 canals escaping from Mae Khlong River.

You’ll experience all the same pleasures as you would at Damnoen Saduak, minus the constant battle to out-manoeuvre fellow tourists. Open every weekend from noon until evening, the banks of the canal are lined with old wooden shops constructed from teakwood and charm, while the long boats are laden with food and farm produce. Try all kinds of cuisine, from steamed crabs to sticky pulled pork and seafood that’s grilled on boats moored around the great central bridge. Sample traditional fruit and local delicacies or haggle for vintage toys and artsy postcards.

Amphawa might not be as picture-perfect as Damnoen Saduak, but the small family businesses are equally impressive and the feeling of community is infectious. You’ll take home a lot more than a bag of banana leaves, or a pretty picture to post on your timeline.

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