Our final day in Bangkok brought us a singular experience.
Saturday (New Year’s Eve) was our only weekend day in Bangkok, and the Chatuchak Weekend Market seemed to be on everyone’s list of Must-Do things in Bangkok.
Shop? Well, if you insist.
Bangkok’s full of markets. Floating Markets, Wholesale Markets, Night Markets, what have you. Thousands of stalls with thousands of hawkers eager to take you. (I mean, “Offer you goods at very reasonable prices.”)
I’m not a good dickerer. Here’s my idea of dickering: “I give you—One Thousand Baht, very good price. You my first customer.” “Oh, gee, well, I can really only do 600.” “Oh no. These name brand. I can only do maybe 950.” “Oh. Well, gosh. 600 was really what I was hoping for. Can you do a little discount?” “Okay, for you 900. Very good price. You lucky to get.” “Oh, I got lucky! I am such a Very Smart and Savvy Western Tourist. I’ll take it. Smart Me!”
Clearly, I should not travel to any country where they sell camels.
I had read that the Chatuchak Weekend Market was on a larger scale than anything I’d been expecting. It’s not.
It’s a small city.
And it’s absolutely amazing. I can’t even describe to you the craziness of it. Much of it is arranged into cramped alleyways (Soi) of crowded little stalls, each arranged in a section of like merchandise. Somewhere around 40 sections of many Soi each. It’s roughly semicircular.
How to describe? Have you ever read Greek mythology? Remember when Theseus goes into the king’s Labyrinth on Crete to kill the Minotaur? No one has ever actually entered the Labyrinth and come out again, so King Minos’s crafty daughter, Ariadne, gives him a ball of string to unfurl behind him as he goes, so that he can find his way out again. Such was the technological advancement of the Ancient Greeks that a Ball of String was a veritable Pot Noodle of an idea.
(Theseus: “Wait… a Ball? Of String? What am I, a kitten?”
Ariadne: “No, no, you unroll it.”
“Then it’s not a ball anymore. It’s just a mess. Have you really thought this through? I’ve got this crazy Bull Man to kill, and you’re giving me string. Could I maybe have a sword?”
“Listen for a second, will you? Don’t be such a pain in the ass. I should just let the Minotaur eat you. Jesus!”
“Never mind. You WALK with the ball of string, and you unroll it as you go. Like one step, one turn.”
“Uh-huh. As I go.”
“And then you FOLLOW the string BACK.”
“To the outside.”
“But how can I… wait… OHHHHH!!!”
“I will never make fun of Cretans again.”
“So we’ve made some progress. Go kill the mutant. I have to go sacrifice some puppies to Hecate.”)
But I digress… The scale of Chatuchak is colossal. The breadth of its scope is unfathomable. Here’s a small sample:
You want silver? There’s a Silver Section. There are also sections for china, glassware, basketry, weaving, silk, clothing, clothing, clothing, luggage, “local crafts” (i.e., crap), paper goods, lighting, crystals, blown glass, religious crap, housewares, appliances, plastic fruit, real fruit, silk flowers, real flowers, buttons, baubles, bangles, beads, trinkets, real gold jewelry and gems, food, meat, little birds, puppies, kittens, tropical fish and bunnies in Little Dresses. (Not joking: look at the photo grid above.)
And much more.
These soi are divided by three major roads with a clocktower in the center. Somehow this is, I guess, supposed to be a beacon for the disoriented traveler. But the market’s so crowded that you can’t actually see it from anywhere else. So… not helpful.
We entered the market a the stalls were being set up—very early; Savvy Tourist I, right? Mom: “Where do we meet if we get separated?” “Here at the entrance.” Okay.
Ten minutes later: we’ve gotten separated. NO IDEA where the others are.
One hour later: still separated.
In the meantime, Much Shopping Is Done. A passel of T-Shirts that I find absolutely hilarious on an early Thai morning. Sunglasses. A bogus white Chanel watch for mom. (“Is not fake. Is real. You first customer of day—you lucky to get such good price.” “Uh-huh.”) A coupla bunnies in dresses.
Okay, no bunnies in dresses. I’m not that much of a goddamned idiot.
Plastic bags upon plastic bags. And more plastic bags.
Two hours later: we find each other at the clocktower. We’re all exhausted.
Shop shop shop. Bag bag bag. Socks, souvenirs, little tchotchkes. A vendor opens an umbrella for mom and peels her a Mandarin orange. For mom, this is like the scales dropping from the eyes of Saul of Damascus. The vendor is her new Guardian Angel. Buy buy buy. The vendor throws in two HUGE calendars featuring… wait for it… The King of Thailand. In a bookish pose. We offer profuse thanks before throwing them away. (Sorry, but where were we supposed to put TWO HUGE PHOTOS of an old Thai guy again?)
“Wait, I need…”
“Ooooh, look at the…”
“We want to stop here. No, we WANT to stop here…”
By noon, it’s stifling, the crowds are shoulder-to-shoulder, we have had to buy bags to hold our bags. The merch is dirt cheap, but we’re all dickered out. Frankly, it feels like we’ve just run a triathlon. 1) Wander. 2) Dicker. 3) Pant.
Around 1pm, we finally find the major food section. And the food! Noodles, seafood, barbecued skewers of ???, fruit, vegetables, puffy fried things, steaming boiled things, things that will melt your palate, sweet, salty, bitter, sour and spicy all jockeying for position.
Street food in Thailand is not fast food. It’s possibility. And it’s gooooood.
But by now we look like this:
For the sake of her vanity, I won’t even share with you what mom looks like.
It’s a combination of the wild postcoital look she gets after rampant shopping (think older Filipina Brigitte Bardot) and a more recent look that she’s developed that says, “I’m an old woman. What have you done to me? I’m about to have a stroke and it’s YOUR FAULT.”
So I slip the waitboy a 100 Baht tip (He literally does an openmouthed doubletake and looks at me like I’m J.P. Morgan. 100 Baht is… a little over three dollars.) and I say, “Taxi. Where taxi? Please. TAXI!”
He looks at me as though I’m Gracie Allen, but I’m in the body of a 6’2″ bald Westerner, and that confuses him. But he points, and of course there’s an escape route and a taxi stand not 100 yards from where we’re sitting.
For mom, I’m pretty sure that was like the Trail of Tears.
Bye bye, Chatuchak. I’m pretty sure that if I lived in Bangkok, we’d see a LOT of each other.
Many naps later, it’s time to say goodbye to BKK.
I have arranged a New Year’s Eve dinner cruise on the Chao Phraya. None of us has ever had a foreign New Year’s Eve, so I thought something special might be in order.
And it was special.
It was on a converted rice barge—a boat built entirely of teak, and shaped not unlike an inverted armadillo. (Have you ever inverted an armadillo? You really need to ask permission first.)
And we drifted up and down the river with several dozen other New Year’s Eve cruises. All the boats were decked out with lights for the holidays (The Thais celebrate the Solar New Year on Jan 1, the Lunar New Year later in the month, and the Thai New Year in Spring, so their holiday season is INTERMINABLE.).
There’s something amazing about a bunch of boats drifting on a river, glowing like luminaria. Magic. Haunting.
And impossible not to think of in metaphor.
All of us drifting down a river, separate but together. Some of us quietly floating. Others loudly singing karaoke. All vulnerable. But so wrapped up in the enjoyment (or the drunkenness or the seasickness) that our vulnerability is a secondary concern. It’s all about the ride. And we’re all headed in the same direction: into the dark and unknown. But there are lovely, bright things to look at all along the way.
And every once in a while, we all stop together to witness something truly amazing.
Have I mentioned that I love Bangkok?
Happy New Year.