I can say with some degree of certainty, you should never visit the vast sprawling market of Khlong Toei with a hangover. I can say with even more certainty that, should you visit, it will take several days to get the smell out of your nostrils and to banish the sights from your mind. My advice for those determined to experience Khlong Toei, is to make sure you packed a strong stomach before arriving in Thailand.
At least I now know why it’s called a ‘wet market’. The bottom of my trousers were soaked and splashed in ice melt mixed with blood, guts and other, less savoury, things. My flip-flop wearing feet may never be the same again.
In a country as hot as this, it’s remarkable how much ice there is at Khlong Toei. Keeping mountains of fish, poultry, pork, frogs, snails, insects and a multitude of other unfortunate edible creatures fresh is no easy feat. As you move around the market porters rush past with bags of crushed ice, water running out of the sacks as the ice melts.
I found myself entering the market at a point where there were some meat stalls. My first sight of Khlong Toei was of a pig’s head being sliced up and laid out on display. I thought about turning back at that point, but then I spotted a group of women eating breakfast amidst the carnage. If they could happily eat, while two feet away a man sliced the fat from beneath the skin of a pig, I could stomach a stroll around.
Khlong Toei is as far removed from the so-called ‘farmers markets’ of modern Europe as it’s possible to get. Life and death are here in the raw. Fish, still alive, flip and flop around in bowls; live frogs are bundled into mesh sacks inches from some of their skinned and chopped compatriots; ducks, chickens and geese are crammed into cages, escaping momentarily only to be sent to the chopping board.
There were piles of insects – a nice man tried to convince me to share some maggots with him, I had to decline on the grounds that I didn’t want to vomit while people were shopping for lunch. Tortoises, terrapins and turtles awaited their fate while frantically trying to escape from plastic bowls; there seemed to be chickens, or at least bits of them, everywhere.
Elsewhere, mounds of apples, mangoes and jackfruit, chillies, lemongrass and spring onions added a sense of normality to proceedings. Amidst all this blood and gore, people go about their shopping unaffected either by the sights and smells of the market, or by a bewildered tourist photographing it all.
In the middle of row of stacked cages filled with poultry, I realised just how easy it would be to catch bird flu and, simultaneously, just how far removed from the reality of our food chain we have become in modern industrialised societies. There is very little at Khlong Toei that comes vacuum-packed in plastic, making it even more remarkable that there are so few few flies.
I didn’t need to be any more awake at this point, but I stopped to grab a coffee at a food stall. While I sat there watching the world go by, mostly with something dead clutched in its hands, the scene in front of me seemed like one that you might have witnessed at any point in the last thousand years of Bangkok’s history. There was something comforting about that, so I finished my coffee and plunged further into the market…