It’s hard not to smile at the irony of the name Khlong Toei when you’re walking around the vast market for which this district of Bangkok is famous. Khlong Toei, or the Canal of Pandan, gets its name from the fragrant leaves of the pandan plant, an ingredient that is used widely in many foods across Thailand and Southeast Asia. The pandan leaf is known for its sweet fragrance. Khlong Toei market is not.
Khlong Toei is home to Bangkok’s largest fresh food market, and by fresh I mean still twitching, if not actually wriggling. It’s a place that feeds tens of thousands of people each day, and is home to a cornucopia of foodstuffs that would be hard to find in most places on the planet. What it isn’t, however, is fragrant.
The canal from which the district takes its name has now largely been filled in and built over. The Rama IV road runs along the same route, but instead of carrying boats it now carries speeding cars. The market still has a canal running though it though, the sort of canal that would definitely attract the attention of the health and safety inspectors in many countries.
Like the canal, the market is a remnant. The district of Khlong Toei is located on the Chao Phraya River and was once Thailand’s most important port. The district grew around the port, and a notorious slum grew up in the district. The big ships have now gone, thanks to a new port built on the Gulf of Thailand in the 1980s; but the slums remain, and this area is one of the poorest in Bangkok. It comes with a reputation for crime and poverty. Drugs, alcoholism and gang-related violence are common.
Khlong Toei market is a powerful reminder of the history of this area, and still attracts thousands of people shopping for fresh food each and every day. If you eat street food in Bangkok, there’s a reasonable chance it came from Khlong Toei; and if you eat at an upscale restaurant, there’s an equally strong chance the raw ingredients in your food originated here as well. Khlong Toei is a republic of food.
The sheer rawness of the market is breathtaking. There is no pretence here about what happens to the food you eat. Large pieces of animal are sliced and diced in front of your eyes; chickens pulled live from their cages are dispatched with a sharpe knife on a nearby chopping block; live fish slither and slide over each other in large plastic bowls; and all manner of other creatures are to be found here awaiting the cooking pot.
This is not a place for the squeamish. Although it may look unhygienic, the whole area is regularly washed down, most stalls keep everything on ice to keep it fresh, there aren’t many flies and I didn’t see a single rat. In the midst of all this activity, there are plenty of small food stalls selling freshly cooked meals and, if you’re here around lunch time, it’s a great place to get good, cheap food.
I spent a good couple of hours walking around Khlong Toei’s market. People were friendly, if a little bemused to be asked for a photo. Occasionally I’d be offered something to eat. Mostly I figured this was a joke at my expense. I could have spent much longer wandering the narrow aisles, but the temperature was rising and it was already uncomfortably hot and humid amongst the market stalls.
Leaving the market behind, and heading back to the nearby Khlong Toei metro station, felt like leaving one universe and entering another. The quiet bustle of the market contrasts with the cars whizzing past on the Rama IV highway nearby, and even more so with the modern new metro station a short walk away. Khlong Toei is steadfastly in the old world.