Cooling Off and Filling Up at Chatuchak
Heading for Chatuchak Weekend Market – ตลาดจตุจักร – on the skytrain on a Saturday morning, I chuckled to myself, “I’m going to ‘church!'” It’s an inside joke Michael and I shared with my mother about a decade and a half ago when she was in her mid-70’s and still very active and mobile.
One of my brothers had converted to the Seventh Day Adventist faith in his youth. Following father’s death in 1997, whenever he visited from Singapore where he lived and worked, he would try to persuade mother to go to church with him on the Sabbath. Having been a Buddhist all her life, Mom disliked going as she found Christianity to be irrational and narrow. So, whenever he’s in town, we would hurry off to Chatuchak on Saturday morning before he arrived at the house. We would say “We’re off to ‘church!'”
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And what a ‘church’ it is, well-attended by people of all persuasions, happy and enjoying their time at the huge bazaar filled with sights, scents, sounds and delightful tastes where there is something for everybody. It’s our own kind of earthly heaven and a great way to spend a day without any goal.
This is the third June in a row that I’ve come to Thailand – not for business but to visit mother who is now in assisted living at Mission Hospital in Bangkok. In between trips to see her, I try to squeeze in visits to some of my old haunts to check things out and see what changes have taken place. So today it’s Chatuchak* (see below for inconsistencies in the spelling of the market’s name) – Southeast Asia’s, if not the world’s, largest bazaar.
I like to arrive early as the shops are just opening and many of the stalls are still being set up. It can get very hot here by mid-day, even during the cool winter months, when the crowds swell and the narrow aisles get stuffy. Although shaded, the ventilation is poor with the cubicle stalls packed so closely together and spilling onto the aisles. But it’s what makes this bustling bazaar exciting!. By early afternoon, the heat and crowds are usually more than I can bear and my feet are achingly sore from hours of walking about, especially if I have acquired a heavy load of goodies to carry. Then it’s time to take an air-con cab home.
This June is especially hot and I’m already soaking wet with sweat by mid-morning. An iced cappucino made to order from freshly ground coffee beans from one of many stalls is my first attempt at cooling down while at the same time getting a jolt of energy to continue on. Much better than any Starbucks can make! A half hour later, it’s time for an ice-cold roasted coconut! Very refreshing and rejuvenating! There’s no shortage of choices of cold drinks besides ice-cold bottled water. The problem is there are too many choices!
Grass jelly is cold and invigorating, made with an herb that has cooling properties for this hot, steamy weather. But wait a minute, there’s the tart, thirst-quenching roselle drink. made from a red hibiscus flower. Next to it is “bua bok” and I love “bua bok!” (pennywort, also labeled “gotu kola” – a very good herb for the capillaries in the brain and for internal inflammations). There’s also chrysanthemum with stellar cooling properties, especially when I’m this hot! A few steps further, my attention shifts from the innumerable jars of herbal drinks to a colorful stall with neatly stacked covered plastic glasses filled with various kinds of fruits. For a very cold and refreshing fruit shake, all one needs to do is select a glass with the fruit of choice for the vendor to put in a blender with ice and some syrup. I settle for a strawberry shake and it’s so cold my chest begins to ache!
The annex to the main market, called Jatuchak (their spelling) Plaza, has wider aisles and taller roofs and is less crowded, so I wander in that direction. It’s not quite as interesting a place to “window” shop though unless you are looking for home furnishings. I wish I could bring some of the beautiful teak furniture home but it’s too much trouble to deal with shipping. Beyond the plaza is the air-con JJ Mall which opens seven days a week unlike the main bazaar that’s open mostly only on weekends. I’ve never been in there before and decide to check it out – at least I can use some cooling off. It turns out to be a less-than-desirable move as the mall is waaaaayyyyy too boring. So after I’ve cooled off enough, I head back to the main bazaar area.
All along the walk from main bazaar to plaza to mall, there’s no shortage of cold beverages and tempting foods to cool off and fill up on. For a quick bite, the grilled pork on skewers is delicious! So is the crispy skin roasted pork belly with hot dipping sauce! There are lots of other quick eats that don’t require sitting down and wasting precious shopping time. For those whose feet are tired and prefer to sit down, there are plenty of stalls with sitting areas all around the bazaar offering various kinds of noodle and rice dishes, salads and grilled foods. Some are small and get very crowded by the noon hour. For cool, air con comfort and more refined decor, there’s, of course, Toh Plue (see Michael’s blog on Toh Plue Restaurant in Bangkok.) where the food is good but comes at a price for the comfort. It’s well worth it if you have the time.
On this trip, I forego sitting down for a leisurely meal by myself. After all, all along my walk around the bazaar I’ve acquired a big selection of irresistible ready-made foods to keep me well-fed for days. But before I leave, I cannot miss out on the fresh-made coconut ice cream with a choice of toppings, including peanuts, palm seeds, cooked pumpkin, young coconut meat and sweet corn. I sit down on a stool in front of the stall shaded by patio umbrellas and savor every mouthful with great satisfaction. It’s my last attempt to cool off in this tropical heat before hopping on a cab to head home, leaving my earthly “church” in a state of contentment.
* The official spelling of the market’s name according to the signs in the market is “Jatuchak” but this presents an inconsistency as the same Thai alphabet is used to begin both the first and third syllables. So if the letter “j” better represents the Thai alphabet’s sound, the spelling should then be “jatujak.” I prefer to use “ch” to approximate the sound of the Thai alphabet which is neither “j” nor “ch.” The particular Thai alphabet is often represented by ‘ch” in many other instances in proper names.
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- The Wikipedia entry on Chatuchak has some information on the market’s history and how to get there. (Offsite, opens in new window.)
- Here’s the Official Chatuchak Market website (Offsite, opens in new window.)
Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, June 2012