When you travel through Asia you realise one thing: Asia is a big place. And full of people. What happens when a place is crowded, even for Asian standards? You have Bangkok (with its 16 million people) and its weekend-only Chatuchak Market.
Also called JJ Market (a translitteration from Chatu-Chak), it is the biggest marketplace in Thailand – and someone says, in Asia – but I wouldn’t know. In a country where every district has to have a marketplace by law, that’s some record. And it’s not hard to believe, with its boasted over 32 square kilometers of official surface (and probably, just as many un-officially dedicated to the same purpose). It’s half the size of the Republic of San Marino!
The area was once property of the Thai State Railways, which abandoned it and donated it to the city to host the humongous market. It is divided in 27 sections more or less organised by the cathegories of goods. “More or less” means that Pets, for example, belong to sector 13 but can also be find in 15, 8 and 9. Go figure.
Asking for direction can help, but only if you are lucky. Also, don’t expect to be treated like a guest of honour. The market is huge and it’s open since 1946, and attracts a huge number of visitors – 200,000 on an average day – from all over the world. Only a minority of which are farangs (“westerners” in Thai).
You can make some very good deals – or not. Depends on your luck and your ability to bargain hard. Remember that your biggest weapons in negotiations will be: a big, warm smile and the ability to be friendly, but firm. Don’t ever ever take the first price as definitive. Answer by proposing half of it, then evaluate the reaction. The game is on… but don’t forget to smile!
Now, the thing that strikes about Chatuchak is that you can find anything. It was seriously astounding: stalls full with every possible thing line next to each other, in covered sections and in the open air. Visitors make their way browsing through home decor to handcraft and antiquities, from pets & accessories to second hand clothes, from food to musical instruments…
As I said, the whole thing was honestly an unexpected, shocking experience for me. And exhilarating!
Imagine, music and all sorts of noises filling the sois (alleys) between the different sections, and people from every corner of the world trying to buy, sell, bargain or just looking around. I could hear bits of conversations held in every language I am familiar with, including Hungarian and Slovak, plus many others that I couldn’t honestly identify. Really interesting!
And the food courts of course! Every variey of thai cousine can be tasted in the market streets, and more. Some cooked,
And some… more exotic than others.
I am especially happy I tried the fresh coconut-and-durian ice cream, anyway. What is durian? I didn’t know before visiting Thailand. It’s a tropical fruit with a hard, spiky shell and a soft pulp.
It is considered by many Thais as a delicacy, although there is a funny fact about it: when mature, the outer peel smells so bad, that many hotels forbid to bring the fruit inside.
Some fruit looked so fresh that could have been fake.
Of course, some parts are very controversial. Like the “pets” section (of which I didn’t take photos), which is said to sell also rare or endangered species, under the counter.
But it was a relief to see that awareness is mounting, and there is in Thailand a strong campaign to disencourage people from buying ivory in any product or form. Elephants are really loved here.
The “fish” section of the market is not the right place to go if you are planning to invite some friends over for a gourmet dinner. Instead, it’s for aquarium lovers
and proposes a wide variety of fishes, all carefully bagged and priced for sale, from the more common
to many exotic and tropical varieties.
Chatuchak is not only a marketplace. It’s of course also a huge meeting place, perfect for all sorts of social events. It’s the place for fund raising campaigns
or to promote your next big product
or ideal for street artists and their performances. Some better than others of course.
and some, just unlucky.
The market also hosts an extensive art section, with an impressive number of artists and galleries, each promoting their creations.
Contemporary art is also well represented
Plus: second hand books, from all over the world! It was really curious to find a Leonardo Da Vinci’s artbook in Thai language, Van Gogh in Chinese, and just next to it a university textbook on mechanical engineering and the latest edition of “Grey’s Anatomy”, in English.
And more and more and more… flowers, real and fake
And uh… stuff
All meet in the streets of the JJ Market.
It can be a very demanding experience. We were lucky it wasn’t a very hot day – it actually rained a bit, so the weather was really ideal. Otherwise I imagine it can be the perfect setting for a “shop until you drop” experience. Literally.
Of course, as eeeeeverywhere in Thailand, you can have a break and enjoy a massage treatment, maybe to recover after so much hardcore bargaining.
And for those who can’t resist, there is always the option of taking a nap.
Some merchandise, I have to say, was more bizarre than other. Like this… uh… phallus-shaped pets? Really?
But other sections made up for the beauty in display.
In conclusion, I found myself wondering over and over: “How can you explain a place like this, without seeing it?”. I don’t think words can describe it. The abundancy, the variety, the diversity of the place
and its sheer vastness (remember: 88 football fields lined up! Imagine walking through them!)
And the sounds, the smells, the tastes – the spice and food section is particularly attractive in this sense
Or the soaps, spa and incense (which you can find in section 27, but also… everywhere else)
All this make Chatuchak market a really unforgettable experience, one that hits all the senses. A huge place of social, cultural and historical interest. Not to mention, if you like shopping!
And in JJ you can find anything for anybody. Seriously recommended if you happen to be in Bangkok on a weekend (friday afternoon to sunday evening) day!