On my first full day in Bangkok, I woke up to grey skies and drizzling rain. It didn’t inspire a strong desire to go exploring. I already knew I wanted to skip Khaosan Road, but choosing between the many other interesting attractions in Bangkok was difficult. Luckily, I’d read about the Chao Phraya River commuter ferry from Pam at Savoir Faire Abroad. I headed over to Sathorn (Central) Pier and boarded an orange flag boat. For only 14 Baht ($0.51), you can travel as far north as Nonthaburi, a town on the outskirts of Bangkok. As I cruised along surrounded by local people going about their daily lives, I felt that familiar flutter of excitement that only travel can bring.
Forty-five minutes later, I disembarked feeling hungry and meandered down the main street in search of food. A few minutes of walking led me to a vacant lot colonized by an odd assortment of vendors selling plants, dried herbs, natural beauty products and wood handicrafts. I wondered if it was the remains of a daily market I had read about but as it lacked food, I kept moving and quickly found myself in the midst of a covered market. This market ran the length of the main street taking up the majority of the sidewalk and appeared to be fairly permanent. The varied stalls sold every imaginable item including shoes, jeans, lottery tickets, flowers for religious offerings and gold jewelry. It was dark, claustrophobic and hectic. My eyes simply could not rest on one item but were constantly drawn to the next pile of merchandise. After several blocks of this, I was very hungry but utterly transfixed by the sheer volume and assortment of things on sale.
Eventually, I found a couple of prepared food stalls, and while I was definitely ready to try some of Bangkok’s much lauded street food, I cautiously chose something that seemed relatively harmless – a green onion fried pancake for 7B ($0.25). It was delicious, simple, and freshly made. I munched as I continued to walk along.
A few more blocks went by before I suddenly found myself at the edge of a large, open air food market. It felt like stepping back in time. My love of markets is clear, and this market was exhilarating. As I walked around the maze of never ending stalls, I truly felt the wonder of the unknown wash over me and I couldn’t keep a smile off my face. Exploring the rows upon rows of stalls was a sensory experience. The sights, the sounds and certainly the smells made this market utterly unlike the farmers’ markets of home. For me, this was the moment I felt I had arrived in SE Asia.
There were stall specializing in every kinds of fresh food including vegetables, fruits, eggs, meats, fish and grains. The incredible variety of items was overwhelming and intensely satisfying. Mountains of leafy green vegetables spilling off tables, stacks of herbs neatly arranged, baskets of starches in near infinite variety cut open to display their colourful flesh. Piles of sweetly smelling fruit attracting swarms of flies. Durian with it’s love it or hate it smell. Pineapples, mangos, papayas, dragonfruit peeled and ready to eat. Dried items of all shapes, sizes, colours and flavours: chillies, mushrooms, noodles, spices, rice and mysterious powders as far as the eye could see.
Fish that defied description: Huge. tiny. Alive. Barely dead. Whole. In pieces. Huge, live, squirming, black carp-like ones. Tiny, thin, long, eel-like ones. Seafood of every kind: Clam, squid, crawfish, and so so much more. And then there was the meat. Piled in disarray of every part of what I think were chickens, pigs, cows, and frogs. Oh the frogs! Frogs which were so recently dead they wriggled, and yet had already been completely skinned. Let that one sink in. I chose not to photograph the frogs as I knew I would be doing so with a look of horror and disgust on my face and that to me is disrespectful to the hardworking vendor.
As I took it all in, I flashed back to my days as a vegetarian and I honestly don’t think that three years ago I could have even walked through Nonthaburi market. Today I was able to appreciate this cultural phenomenon and its messy, raw reality. In working closely with farmers, I have learned the value of real food, of intimately knowing where our food comes from, of facing the truth that meat comes from living beings. These are lessons that many Westernized societies seem to have forgotten, to our great disadvantage.
Later, as I walked back to the ferry, I choose to follow another route, still looking for lunch. There were a few restaurants that smelled simply amazing, but I couldn’t see menus from which to order, so my shyness kept me at bay. Eventually, I came to a restaurant with prepared food out front and I simply had to smile at the owner for her to hold up two fingers and said the word rice. Understanding this instruction, I pointed to two of the dishes and she pointed to a table near by. I pulled up a chair and her husband brought me a plate with a pile of rice and the two dishes, as well as a bottle of water. He even helped me find the utensils – the classic spoon and fork of Thailand, never a knife – hidden in a box on the table. The staff were so kind and helped me in spite of my lack of Thai language skills.
The food was amazing. I had what turned out to be pork with a lot of spicy red peppers and mixed vegetables in soya sauce. Ordering two dishes is really a great idea if you are eating from a stall where you don’t know what you will get. I had chosen one very spicy dish which paired nicely with the non-spicy vegetables and if either had been a disaster, I had the other as backup. The total for the whole meal including rice and water was 40B ($1.50). It was the perfect introduction to street food in Thailand and one of the best meals of my four week stay.
From what I could tell during my day of exploring, Nonthaburi market is not a popular destination for tourists. The shopkeepers and vendors spoke little English, the food was exceptionally spicy and I didn’t see a single pair of elephant pants for sale. In my opinion, that’s exactly what a market should be.
Do you have a favourite local market – either at home or on the road? I’d love to hear about it below!
Now It’s Your Turn: Visiting Nonthaburi market take the orange flag, commuter ferry from Sathorn (Central) Pier. You can buy your ticket on board for 14 Baht; try to have exact change. I wouldn’t recommend buying a tourist boat ticket as it is 150 Baht and visits fewer stops. Ride the ferry until the final stop, Nonthaburi, then walk along the main street for approximately 10 minutes until you find the wet market on your left. Your nose will be your guide. I suggest getting lost along the way and stopping to snack at a variety of food stalls! Don’t feel like visiting Nonthaburi? There are hundreds of wet markets throughout Bangkok, any of which would be an adventure to explore.