Mar 01 2008

What’s on the Menu at Bangkok’s Chatuchuk Market?

Published by at 11:05 am under Bangkok,Thailand

Assorted seafood on sticks at Bangkok's Chatuchuk MarketDonuts, vipers, and neckties. You’d really think you’d need to visit three separate stores to complete that shopping list. Not so in Bangkok’s (in)famous Chatuchuk Market. The best piece of advice that Lonely Planet ever gave us was to set aside an entire day for the market experience.

We arrived at 10:00 on Saturday morning to find an area the size of a fairground full of shoppers elbowing for room in the innumerable rows and columns of shop stalls. It is certainly madness, but there is a semblance of method. The grid is (mostly) categorized into clusters of similar stalls. To your left might be toy stalls, then clothes stalls, followed by an illegal cock-fighting ring. On the right, art stalls, food stalls, and pet stalls. Those last two overlap more than I’d prefer.

Speaking of tasty meals, I was intimidated by the food stalls at first, and not just because I’d already seen how cheap the puppies go next door. I was hesitant because none of the food stalls seemed to have any means – be it menu, sign, or pictures – to indicate what they serve. It seemed to me that, somehow, the customers simply know. But standing around awkwardly gawking outside the food establishments was quickly becoming tiresome and embarassing, so I finally selected a stall with table seating, and we plopped down in two empty chairs at a table full of diners. The waitress hurried over to take our order, and rattled off something in rapid-fire Thai. I shrugged and pointed at what the old lady across from me was eating. She looked pretty frail, and I figured if it wasn’t killing her, I could probably handle it.

My meal appeared quickly, and turned out to be some kind of noodle soup with white balls. The old lady whose meal I’d copied tried to assist me with the proper Thai method of meal preparation. Cackling toothlessly, she handed me different condiments from the center of the table, and motioned for me to add them to my soup. I recognized the soy sauce, chili peppers, and salt. By the way, isn’t soy sauce basically liquid salt? And before you assume that they are both present so that one can choose their preferred salting method, I’ll tell you that the Thais definitely pour both into their soup. Home-made MSG! A fourth condiment bottle contained a mystery element, which an impromptu taste test failed to identify. I added it to my soup anyway, at which point the old lady’s granddaughter revealed herself to be English speaking. “Fish sauce” she happily volunteered. I still can’t figure out what that means (is it FOR fish? FROM fish?) but it was a welcome addition to the cauldron. I must have looked like I was enjoying it, because when some Korean tourists replaced the old lady and granddaughter at our table, they ordered by pointing at what I was eating.

Bunnies in dresses at Bangkok's Chatuchuk MarketWe didn’t end up leaving Chatuchuk Market until sometime after 6:00 in the evening, when lots of the stalls started shutting down. Eight hours sounds like a long time to spend in the market, but we could have easily spent longer. Between the contagious frenzy of the Thai shoppers, and the novelty of being able to BUY THINGS after five penny-pinching months in Europe, the day flew by. The only exception was when we managed to get lost in the reptile aisles, deep in the bowels of the sprawling pet section. Squeezing my way through dark rows of grossly over-crowded snake and lizard terrariums, finding new horrors around every corner, and wondering if I’d ever see daylight again, I reflected that the speed of time seems to be relative, rather than absolute. More to come on this soon though – I’m working on something of a theory to summarily express this discovery.

Concerning the following day, I must here record an observation for the benefit of all interested foreign investors. I can personally attest to this shocking truth: on February 17, 2008, it rained in Bangkok. I’m sure you’ve been reading lately about Bangkok’s recent ground-breaking innovation: a suspended ceiling of smog over the city to protect its residents from precipitation, spy satellites, and nuclear warheads. A great deal of controversy surrounded the project from the outset, due in no small part to the mysterious motives of its biggest financial contributor, the reclusive and rarely-photographed Mr. Donut. While the project was denounced as “frivolous” by a spokesman for the League of Anti-Thailand Southeast Asian Nations (LATSEAN), several Western European capitals have expressed more than a passing interest in the progress of what has been widely dubbed Operation Sponge. I can’t speak to the cause of Sponge’s failure (although the upcoming press conference is sure to address it) but I can estimate that it was off-line for about one hour. While Sponge’s lead designer has continually stressed that the project’s lack of precedent will necessitate on-the-job troubleshooting for weeks and months after its launch, this system failure must still be regarded as a disappointment for the city, at a time when all eyes seem to be on Bangkok.

It only rained for an hour, but five minutes in that acid dip will surely leave you looking like the Joker, so we locked ourselves inside until the danger passed. In the middle of the afternoon, an abrupt end to the torrential rain signalled that Sponge was back on-line. I opened the window to breathe the comforting fumes that were already returning to the air. As I sat there watching Bangkok’s newest deformed denizens run dripping and screaming to their homes, I knew, for once, exactly what I had to do: get fried chicken.

We were in luck. While Europe would never tolerate such a foreign abomination as fried chicken, the Thais know how to eat. Thai fried chicken is a street food staple, and we’d even read about one restaurant known around town for its take on the down-home classic. We found the joint right down the street from the U.S. Embassy (location, location, location) and ordered up a big plate with lots of sticky rice on the side. With quality fried chicken like this so readily available, I can’t understand who’s keeping all of Bangkok’s 3-story KFCs in business. Which reminds me: the coveted award for Most Irrelevant U.S. Chain That Has Inexplicably Managed to Become the Starbucks of Thailand goes to… it’s a tie! Between KFC and the ubiquitous 7-11. The Thai government has famously cracked down on the drug trade, but you won’t hear the people complain. Their crack is the Colonel’s secret recipe.

Actually, I think that sums up that day. It rained and we ate fried chicken. Bangkok can drive you up the wall, but some days, you just gotta love it.

NEXT: Going out with a Bangkok! »



4 responses so far

4 Responses to “What’s on the Menu at Bangkok’s Chatuchuk Market?”

  1. ScienceMelon 02 Mar 2008 at 8:56 am

    Hi B&B,

    I’ve done the point-to-order more times than imaginable… Did you ever figure out what you were eating? Would have been fun with noodles. =)

  2. Greg Wessonon 07 Mar 2008 at 4:58 pm

    Interestingly, I once had a conversation with a well travelled older couple in a bar in Atlanta, GA. They stated that they had eaten KFC in 4 continents (North America, Europe, Asia and Africa – apparently there is one in Egypt). I added that you could for sure get it in South America, as I had it in Chile in Puerto Montt. I will state for the record that I was the ONLY North American in the place – the rest of the folks were locals. KFC is universal.


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