Off the Beaten Track in Bangkok: Part 4
Klong Toei Market
I first noticed Klong Toei Markets about three years ago. I’d been out on the town and was heading back to my apartment in On Nut, via Rama four, and even at three am in in the morning there was a bustle of activity around what looked, for all intents and purposes, like some kind of slum or shanty town. I was intrigued and asked my girlfriend what it was.
“It klong Toei market. Open twenty for hour. Everything mai paeng (not expensive).”
A year, or so, later I moved down to Thong Lor and figured out that getting to klong Toei market would be a relatively simple exercise using a combination of the BTS and MRT. For the first couple of visits I was a bit lost in amongst the cramped little vendors laneways but eventually worked out where everything was. The in your face lack of hygiene was compensated by the low cost of the fruit, veg, eggs and fish on sale. It made me realize how overpriced things were, even for local produce, at the supermarkets. During one of my regular lunch meet ups with a buddy I mentioned the idea of heading to Klong Toei for an afternoon outing and a photo opportunity. He saw merit in the idea and the following day we met at the Sukhumvit MRT, cameras in hand, and boarded the underground bound for the Queen Sirikit Convention Center. A few minutes later we were off the train and heading up the escalator of exit number one. The market sits on the intersection of Rama four and Rama three roads.
The traffic, at most times of the day, blasts down Rama Four so the city planners have been intelligent enough to put an overhead walkway across the whole intersection, thus enabling the hordes of shoppers avoid being mowed down as they try crossing the road. The walk from the underground exit, to the pedestrian overpass, is a couple of hundred meters and as you ascend up the stairs you get a nice panoramic view out across the acreage of the market. As an added bonus, especially if the wind is in the right direction, you’ll pick up the distinct aroma of the place well before you enter.
Being a bit of an old hand at the market I led the way as we entered at the very corner of the road junction and made our way into what I would call Isarn lane. Isarn lane borders the outer side of the klong and is a mass of vendors stalls selling produce, alive and dead, that swims, crawls and hops. The distinct smell of Pla raa permeates the enclosed environment from the large vats scattered along the way. Live eels, turtles, water beetles and skinned frogs abound and, oh look, those mesh bags are moving. No problems, it’s the live frogs waiting to meet their fate. A kindly vendor gives them another spray of water and the frogs settle down into their uncomfortable, silent vigil again. The vendor looks at us with a wide smile. “Aroy mak maak,” she says enthusiastically. My buddy’s not that impressed and we continue on to an area that can only be described as foul. Yep, it’s chicken and duck alley. I make the comment, as we work our way in amongst the packed cages of feathered livestock, the RSPCA would have heart failure if they ventured in here.
The cages, either side of the laneway, are jam packed with clucking, squaking birds. Up ahead another vendor has pile of freshly skinned carcasses that she’s charring on one of those clay pot barbecues. The half roasted bodies are then lined up along a bench and ready for sale. Eighty Baht a pop; salmonella included. We turn right, move past more cages of flapping fouls and then cross the narrow bridge over the Klong. The colour of it indicates that a body would probably dissolve if it fell in. We stop to bang off a couple of shots and move towards the inner market area. Just when we thought the smell couldn’t be any worse, it is. We’ve arrived at the seafood section and, just off to one side, is the creme de la creme of stinkiness; it’s som tam corner. The fish, for the most part are semi alive and living out their last gasps in the the stainless trays before they get the chop. Those that didn’t see out the day are in pieces on a table a couple of meters further on. To be honest I’ve bought fish here on a number of occasions and it’s always been good. The price? just one hundred and twenty Baht for two fish. The vendor will gut and scale them on the spot for you. After a few minutes spent checking out the fish market, and getting photos, it was time to have a closer inspection of som tam corner; the epicenter of smell along this lane. There were buckets piled high with those small, freshwater crabs and, as we got the cameras to work, a couple of ladies were busy ladling out generous amounts of pla raa from a line up of large enamel basins. Perhaps pla raa comes in different grades of fermentation? As we stood there getting more shots, and gagging on the smell, the only thing running through my mind was that the average Thai must have a cast iron stomach to be able to ingest this muck.
The heat, of the early afternoon, combined the smell was becoming a bit too much so we decided to make a bee line for a part of the market where there was less smell; the fruit and vegetable area. On the corner of the fruit and veg lane there was a stall displaying lumps of raw pork. With the number of flies buzzing about in the heat we both agreed that pork was certainly not on the shopping list. After getting a couple of shots we continued up a wide lane lined with an abundance of fresh garden produce. A cursory check of some of the prices revealed that it was all very cheap; cabbages going for eight baht each, a kilo of very nice carrots for twenty baht and potatoes at twenty five baht a kilo. When I’m in town I usually get down to Klong Toei at least once a week for my fruit, veg, eggs and fish. Good size eggs are about thirty six baht for ten. When compared with prices in the supermarkets it’s a no brainer, Klong Toei market is far cheaper. The only drawback being the apparent lack of hygiene but if you stick to non meat (including foul) produce then you’ve really not much to worry about. For those interested I’d recommend wearing a stout pair of shoes, particularly in the rainy season, as there’s dirt and muck covering the walkways. The following is a few shots of the produce, and prices, on offer.
The small sois and lane ways of the market are a hive of activity with buyers and sellers jostling in the cramped conditions to conduct their sales or make a purchase. We were continually having to move about to avoid the constant stream of porters (barrow boys) pushing trolleys full of goods up and down the lane ways. At first glance I thought they were motorbike taxi drivers because they all had coloured vests with numbers on them. It made me realise that there must be a semblance of organisation about the place; the numbered barrow boys probably needed a license to operate.
A couple of hours into our exploration the mid afternoon heat was beginning to take it’s toll on me. My buddy was still happily snapping off shots of some the lovelies working at the vendors stalls while I was looking for some shade and a cold drink. After another twenty minutes aimlessly wandering around the laneways further inside we decided we’d seen enough and made a bee line for the nearest exit. A latte in the airconditioned comfort of Terminal 21 was beckoning. All in all it was an interesting afternoon and well worth the trip down there for something completely different in Bangkok. If you’ve got a sensitive nose then it’s better not to get off the beaten track.