One of the, very few, benefits of being underprepared while visiting a city in a foreign country is that, occasionally, the lack of preparedness gives you a rich experience; wrong turns lead to the right outcome, and you discover something unexpected about yourself and the city you’re visiting. So it was when I set off to visit Bangkok’s largest ‘wet market’, Khlong Toei.
I knew I had to take Bangkok’s shiny new metro line to the eponymous Khlong Toei station; I knew I was looking for an enormous fresh food market only a short walk from the station. When I arrived at the near-deserted station, there was even a sign in English telling me which of the two exits to take. How hard could it be?
Not as easy as I’d imagined is the answer. I arrived at street level and, confronted by a six lane highway with speeding traffic but no actual people to ask directions, I immediately took a wrong turn. Instead of Khlong Toei wet market, I found my way into a warren of small lanes and alleys that you’re unlikely to find recommended in any guidebook – not that that is a reason not to go.
Determined to believe, against the evidence of my own eyes and the disbelieving looks of local people, that I’d arrived where intended, I set off to explore. It was a poor area of ramshackle homes and dirty streets, but wherever I went people smiled and greeted me. Whenever I asked if I could take a photo, people burst into laughter and always said ‘yes’. This was old Bangkok, but nearby were signs of the new Bangkok.
A couple of towers of luxury apartments offering ‘modern city living’ cast their shadow over the maze of streets below, streets that house a community I could imagine being sacrificed to developers and more towers of glass. I’m not sure I always approve of progress.
As I wandered around snapping pictures of food stalls and people cooking, the realisation dawned on me that this simply couldn’t be the Khlong Toei market I was intending to visit. It was only 9am but it was incredibly humid walking amongst the narrow alleys. Some of the smells were making me feel pretty uncomfortable, not to mention some of the sights – a hangover I’d acquired the night before wasn’t helping.
Eventually, an old lady behind a stall took pity on me. Through the power of mime and sheer determination, she made me understand that the market I clearly should have been walking around was somewhere else. She pointed me in the right direction and I set off for the real Khlong Toei market.
It had been an experience, but as I walked away I had only the faintest idea of what awaited me at Khlong Toei…