Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Shopping in Bangkok

January 20th in Bangkok was a Sunday. And on weekends the number one thing to do in Bangkok is to go shopping. Or, to be specific, one goes to the Chatuchak market. Yet another of the 1000 Places to Go Before You Die, which is rather a morbid way of planning one's travel.

In the morning I awoke, did a little blog writing (I do hope someone is reading these, because they have taken far too much time) and picked up Colleen a coffee from the local Starbucks. I know, we should be eating local cuisine, but having something warm and familiar is a nice way to start the day. We got Colleen breakfast from the local English cafe and I left her to head out to Chatuchak. Colleen can think of no worse way to spend the day than at a huge, crowded, smelly market. She may have a point, but I was curious.

I caught a taxi to the main shopping area, then caught a Skytrain several stops to the market. (The Bangkok Skytrain is remarkably similar to what we've got in Vancouver.) When I arrived at my stop it was clear where to go. First, the masses of people getting off with me all headed in one direction. Second, from the Skytrain you could see a massive metal roof covering a huge area of park.

Chatuchak is one huge market. It is the largest in Thailand, and from what I understand it may also be the largest in the world. The market space covers over 35 acres and has over 15,000 stalls. I read that between 200,000 and 300,000 people shop here every weekend. As you can guess from those numbers, you can probably buy just about anything here. It is chaotic, loud, confusing, hot and a lot of fun. There are sort of sections, that supposedly dictate where certain types of stalls should be located, and these guidelines are occasionally adhered to. Other than that, you're on your own. If you get lost, there is no lack of food vendors throughout, selling everything from the farang friendly pad thai to some seriously scary looking fried bugs and worms. Just to give some idea of scope, I was trying to find the end of a row of stalls when I found myself in the fish and aquarium section. It took me 15 minutes to find my way out.

Since Colleen wasn't with me my shopping options were limited. I couldn't buy anything for the house, and real fashion selection without her input is always very dangerous. I limited myself to looking for another bag to bring things home in and t-shirts. On the former item, I had no luck. There were dozens of bag shops interspersed between everything else, so it was a good target item to explore the larger market, but no one carried the specific North Face duffel that I was looking for. On the latter item, t-shirts, I went a little crazy. There were so many little design shops, set up in 10x15 ft. stalls. Some sold industrial produced products, some factory knock-offs, and some sold their very own designs. I had a wonderful time searching, trying on, and negotiating for a bunch of items.

Negotiation in a market like this is a real skill. The variation in pricing is amazing. I'd often try to see what Thai's were paying, as I assumed that this was more likely the real market value, but they often seemed to be overpaying as well. Sometimes negotiations would break down over the difference of 10 baht, which is less than 50 cents. And sometimes both sides would just smile and do the deal anyway. It's sort of fun, but it also runs so much against our Western culture that it can be challenging. After a while it simply becomes tiring.

I spent several hours in Chatuchak. It was time to go when the stalls started to put up their shutters. I joined the mass of humanity heading for the exits, caught the Skytrain back to the new part of town, then another taxi back to our hotel. As I passed a sidewalk cafe near our place Thomas called out my name. He and Bridget had arrived that afternoon. I joined him for a few beers, showed off my acquisitions and recounted my tales of adventure from my day of shopping.

Colleen, T&B and I all headed out for dinner together than evening at a sidewalk cafe on Khao San. The food was dodgy but the atmosphere was entertaining. Then we did a little bit of a pub crawl, enjoying the spectacle that surrounds an evening out in Bangkok.

A word of advice - a bucket full of mojitos is never a good idea.

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