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Bangkok offers sensory stimulation at every turn, and Chatuchak Market may be the place where you can get the biggest dose of it—outside of adult entertainment venues, I suppose. Bright colors are everywhere at Chatuchak, in the form of fruits, clothing, sugary drinks, toys, cars, plants, even pets (or whatever those animals for sale are intended to become). Smells of street food mix with the aromas coming from the pet section, the scented candles area, the vintage clothing stalls, and all the other swaths of merchandise.

It’s loud there, too. Music blares from radios. People shout to each other in a variety of languages. Cars and tuk-tuks beep their horns. Performers play and dance. Some of the animals even make a racket, though the majority of pets for sale are of the non-vocalizing variety.

People warned me against venturing into Chatuchak Market (also called Jatujak or JJ) on Saturday afternoon. The crowds, they said, would be overwhelming. Masses of people in a maze-like 35-acre flea market on a hot day would create extreme claustrophobia. Go in the morning, they told me. Preferably the early morning. I visited Chatuchak Market several times while I lived in Bangkok, and I never once managed to go in the early morning. Really, most of what I did in Bangkok would’ve been easier if I’d done it about four or five hours sooner.


My first time at Chatuchak was eye-opening. I hadn’t been in Thailand very long and I didn’t know about the full range of snacks available. People eat bugs here, by the bagful. You don’t find bug sellers on every street, but you do find them at Chatuchak Market. I’d heard about this, but never before that day had I seen a food cart serving five varieties of insects for consumption. They looked pretty good, too. Fried and crispy with kaffir lime leaves and lots of salt—but were you supposed to eat the whole bug? I didn’t know, so I didn’t try any that day. Weeks later I sampled crickets, which were salty, greasy and edible in their entirety. I found it weird to eat bugs, but I could imagine myself getting used to it.

Entomophagy, or the practice of eating of insects by humans, has a long and distinguished history, and quite possibly a bright future. Many argue that insect consumption can solve our food security problems with less impact on the environment than is caused by raising larger animals like cows and pigs. In 2013 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization released a report recommending eating bugs to fight hunger and save the planet.

It used to be mostly poor people in rural areas who ate quantities of insects, but things are changing. Thailand is the world’s largest producer of insects meant for human consumption, and bug-farming businesses there are expanding as the appetite of city dwellers for insects increases. Our evolutionary precursors certainly practiced entomophagy; it’s probably just a matter of time before our own species gets back on track. Perhaps Thailand will lead the way in the insectivore revolution. 


Animals featured heavily in my first visit to the market. I spent most of it in the pet section, being at once horrified and intrigued. Creatures for sale here are kept in wretched conditions, and plenty of them look like they’re being sold illegally. I got the impression that just about any kind of animal could be purchased here. If it wasn’t on display, it was probably available in a back alley somewhere nearby. Come to Chatuchak Market to buy your favorite endangered species!

I learned later that Thailand is a major hub of illegal wildlife sales, and many of the animals sold here come from outside of the country. Thailand does have regulations to protect many native wild species from being sold domestically, but that law doesn’t apply to non-native species, except for at the country’s exit and entry points. It’s just such legislative loopholes that make this kind of market possible, and of course it’s the potential for profit that encourages vendors to exploit those loopholes. Read this article if you want to know more.

Many signs forbade photography of the puppies, kittens, sugar gliders, and exotic birds, but nobody stopped me from taking pictures of the turtles and fish. I concealed my camera in a tote bag and brought it out for just a few seconds at a time to photograph critters and the people who bought them. Not that it would’ve been strange for a farang to stand around taking pictures, but this farang usually tries to avoid being too obvious about it. The pictures turn out better that way.

As I wandered, I was consumed with curiosity. Who were these youngsters purchasing pre-packaged fish and tiny white turtles? Who were the sellers in these questionable transactions? Part of me wanted to run away from the scene, but another part wanted to lurk about and pick up clues. Very soon all parts of me were lost, stumbling into the wilds of Chatuchak Market, completely disoriented—a fate which befalls almost every visitor. Except for Thai shoppers, of course. They know their way around. 


The labyrinthine nature of Chatuchak Market is not just a problem for hapless tourists like me. The fact that shops in the middle of this market are extremely hot, cramped, hard to reach, and easy to get lost in means fewer customers venture there. Yet the official rent is the same for every location at Chatuchak. The stalls near the outside, where people can shop in more humane conditions, make the most money. Tenants of the less desirable center stalls don’t think this is fair, of course.

I learned about this and other issues facing the market in this article, originally published in the Bangkok Post. Though rent is uniform, there is a complex system of subleasing and transfers of ownership, which means it can actually cost quite a lot to rent a stall in a prime spot near the perimeter. Some owners find it more profitable to sublease their stalls year after year, without the risk and overhead costs of opening a shop of their own. The market can be a vehicle for economic mobility and there are always people ready to pay a stall owner for a chance to try opening their own store.

Chatuchak Market hasn’t always been located here next to Chatuchak Park; since its creation as a market in 1942, it has moved several times and had at least one other name. For many years it was visited mostly by wholesale buyers, but in recent decades it’s become more popular with consumers, both foreign and Thai. People like the variety of goods, many of them handmade, and the low prices, though things are getting more expensive here as the costs associated with operating a shop go up.

Market stuff is still way cheaper than products found in Bangkok’s giant malls. I didn’t bring my camera for any other visits so I can’t show you the incredible artwork I saw, or the gorgeous handmade clothes. I don’t usually have enough patience for shopping, but if I’m in Bangkok again I will definitely make more purchases at Chatuchak. No endangered tortoises, though.


I remember how strong the sensation of culture shock was on my first visit to the market, how it felt like new things were coming at me from all directions, with backstory and undercurrent and hidden meaning in everything around me. I would never know the full truth of anything I was seeing. But I was getting a lot of useful information in a short time. It felt like a big leap forward.

Chatuchak is obviously less formal and structured than the shopping malls; there isn’t the same branding and pricing, and what I saw there was mostly free of the corporate stamp and the particular uniformity that goes with it. The market gave me a sense of the city and the people in it, and let me observe masses of shoppers, both foreign and Thai, interacting with Thai vendors. This was people-watching on a magnificent scale. Hundreds of people interacting with each other, with animals, with objects, and hundreds of nonverbal cues to unconsciously analyze. I was learning how familiarity with such tiny things can lead to feeling more at home in a place.

Maybe it was because I spent so much time lost in that maze, trying to be invisible as I took pictures, but after a while I started to feel like I was losing my identity and blending into the crowds around me. I felt my aura crash into those of so many others. I was miles away from anyone I knew, or even anyone I’d ever seen before in my life, and my personality seemed far less vivid and important here. It was beautiful and humbling to see how things operate without any assistance from me whatsoever: this giant sprawling marketplace, the country of Thailand, the entire universe. Kind of like being in the desert, but with 100% more skewered octopus.



Reader Comments (1)

Another fascinating post. You have such a skill with blending your own observation and your factual research about a place. I found the bit about the rental spaces in the market fascinating. When I was in Morocco, I was too overwhelmed by the sights and smells to really ask myself how it was run. I appreciate your relentless curiosity and beautiful images.

Thursday, March 9, 2017 at 12:35 PM | Unregistered CommenterJoye

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