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The Times Shopper: Bangkok

A Whiff of Rich Scents and Hundreds of Items

November 22, 1987|JENNIFER MERIN | Merin is a New York City free-lance writer .

Just after dawn on Saturday, the early morning light outlines the suburban cityscape and glints off some serpentine railway tracks and an eerily quiet car barn.

The light sweeps over an expanse of blacktop, still-shuttered shops on both sides, that stretches from downtown Bangkok, Thailand, to this commercial district in the northern reaches of the city.

Hundreds of vendors have already arrived at the large empty lots off Jatujak Road. The barren earth is still soggy from yesterday's downpour.

The vendors have traveled from downtown or from surrounding areas, or from faraway "up country" provinces. Those who have come on foot are laden with bundles of produce and other wares strapped to their backs.

Some sellers have pulled up in shiny new vans and are unloading their cartons of merchandise; others arrive in old and rattling vehicles that grind to a halt and discharge passengers and cargoes onto the damp ground.

Words of Welcome

All around, vendors set up tables and tents. The humid air echoes with the high, nasal tones of the Thai language as opinions are shouted about where and how to assemble booths and display merchandise. Soon we hear chanted words of welcome and alluring come-ons to attract buyers.

By 6 a.m., space that was empty during the week has been transformed into a densely populated city of stalls. The atmosphere is charged with the excitement of commerce.

This is the opening ritual of Bangkok's weekend market, thriving here since it moved from downtown in front of the Grand Palace about two years ago.

The market, open Saturdays and Sundays from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., attracts thousands of bargain hunters, both Thais and tourists. There's no need for browsers and casual buyers to arrive before noon, but those eager for the finest antiques or freshest fish arrive early.

For some items such as clothes, leather goods, small appliances and less perishable foodstuffs, shopping may be best on Sunday afternoons about closing time, when vendors will sell their merchandise at reduced prices rather than cart it away.

Narrow Passages

All day, shoppers thread their way through the web of narrow passages between stalls and stands, amid overflowing supplies of gadgets and knickknacks, bolts of fabric, old swords ($6 and up) and modern cutlery ($2 and up).

You'll find everything from ripe mangoes to jockey shorts ($1.10), from cassette tapes ($1 each) of Thai music to antique tea sets, from feather dusters (50 cents) to peacock and parchment fans ($2), from plastic tablecloths ($1) to hand-carved teak trays ($4 and up).

The hundreds of stalls are divided into sections. The gigantic food market has dried and fresh fish and meats, beans and grains, and an array of fruits and vegetables common in Thailand but exotic to anyone from elsewhere. Such fruits as durian, mungkut, jackfruit and langsat are refreshing to sample on the spot.

The area is richly scented with Thai spices--curries, gingers and chilis--selling here for a fraction of what they cost in the United States. Spices and processed foods may be brought home; fresh meats, fish and produce may not.

Flowers and greenery are not importable, but looking at them is a pleasure, especially around stalls where jasmine scents the air and rare orchids delight the eyes.

Flowers sewn into delicate garlands are so beautiful and inexpensive ($1 or $2) that it's difficult to resist buying several arrangements with which to sweeten hotel rooms.

Porcelain Figurines

Also for sale are attractive accessories: variously sized and shaped clay pots (75 cents and up) baked red or decorated with floral and geometric motifs. Miniature porcelain figurines of Oriental elders, water buffalo and arched bridges ($3 to $8) are used to adorn bonsai plants.

Clothing stalls are in another section. Men's undershorts, shirts and women's panties (50 cents to $1.10 per item) and cotton paisley scarfs (80 cents) sell well. There are batik dresses ($4.10), tie-dye shirts ($4) and kimono ($3) as well as embroidered vests ($11) and crocheted blouses ($6).

There's a range of Thai army surplus including camouflage T-shirts ($2), cotton shirts ($7), belts ($2) and carry-alls ($7). Cotton casuals include trousers ($7), shirts ($3) and Hawaiian shirt and short sets ($7). German swimming trunks cost $2. Dresses are priced at $6 to $15.

Shoe stalls have great buys in leather footwear including women's traditional and punkish pumps ($8) and men's oxfords ($8), moccasins ($9) and tasseled loafers ($9). Snakeskin sandals cost $10, leather espadrilles $9. Leather and snakeskin handbags ($20 and up), hats ($10) and watchbands ($5) at a stall called "Caboy City" are exceptional.

Other alleys are lined with stalls offering well-worn paperback books and illustrated coffee-table books, mostly in Thai.

Monster Masks

The weekend market offers toys and handicrafts. Charming handmade rag and yarn dolls cost $1.50. Monster masks, rubber hands and individual fingers (on key chains for 40 cents) are convincing enough to be scary.

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