May 18 2012
In the concrete maze of Bangkok, colourful flowers brighten up the greys around every corner, but it’s not just because they look nice; flowers play a pivotal role in an ancient Thai tradition of making offerings to spirits and sacred representations as tangible expressions of kindness and generosity. Bangkok’s biggest flower market, Pak Khlong Talaat, is at the centre of this tradition, and it’s a fun place to soak up the colours.
Located near Memorial Bridge along the Chao Phraya River and near Maha Rat Road and Chak Phet Road, a busy market has operated at this locale since at least the mid 1700s. Pak khlong talaat means “market at the mouth of the canal”, and long ago it would have been a floating market.
In the 1800s it was largely a fish market before switching to produce and eventually becoming Bangkok’s flower epicentre during the mid 1900s. A few fish vendors can still be seen today, and the north side of the market is one of the best places in town to buy fresh fruit and vegetables along with traditional Thai sweets. A handful of street food carts also offer some outstanding authentic Thai fare here — coconut sticky rice with durian anyone?
If looking for something to hopefully put you back in the favour of your sweetheart, Pak Khlong Talaat has got you covered. A host of vendors specialise in classic bundles of roses and other bouquets in every possible colour. Most vendors are wholesalers, so it’s possible to pick up two dozen gorgeous, freshly picked red roses for just 80 baht (but you don’t have to tell your sweetie that).
While most of the flowers at Pak Khlong Talaat are grown in the provinces nearest Bangkok, rarer varieties like tulips are shipped from as far afield as the northern mountains of Chiang Rai, and you can even bargain for an awe-inspiring array of freshly cut orchids that will cost something like 1/50 of what they would in Europe or the United States.
Pak Khlong Talaat is most certainly where everyday Bangkok florists go to stock their shelves, but by far the majority of flowers found here are destined to be woven into phuang malai garlands and used as offerings. Some will be offered to images of Buddha inside temples or on the shrines of private homes. Others will find their way to ancestor spirit shrines, spirit trees, or one of the countless dedications to Hindu gods like Brahma and Indra.
Many phuang malai — perhaps even a majority — will be dangled from rear view mirrors of the taxi cabs and cars that brave Bangkok’s crowded streets. Far more than just a way to freshen the air, the garlands are placed on or near sacred Buddhist amulets and other spiritual items that adorn dashboards of cars and are believed to protect or bring good fortune to those who wholeheartedly respect them.
All of these offerings are made both in recognition of perceived ‘higher’ spiritual entities or powers, and in the belief that giving phuang malai to a spirit or representation of the sacred will increase one’s positive merit, hopefully leading to a fortunate rebirth in the next life and good luck in this one. Interwoven with a deep belief in karma, merit-making is also done by giving money and food to monks or anyone in need, or at a deeper level, simply by being kind. Yet, phuang malai is the most recognisable tool for signifying one’s generosity in a tangible way, and many of Thailand’s poorest people still find a way to offer them everyday.
Crafting phuang malai garlands is an age-old Thai art that entails patiently threading a needle through tiny jasmine buds and other small flowers repeatedly until something beautiful — something worthy of being offered to a god — has been created. Especially throughout daylight hours at Pak Khlong Talaat, skilled artisans create phuang malai for all to see, and an especially intricate garland can take several hours to create. If going in the evening you’re sure to catch glimpses of some of the most ornate flower garlands in the country.
Pak Khlong Talad is open for business 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year (so you have no excuse not to go), though it’s busiest in the evenings and predawn morning hours when shipments arrive (this can be a particularly photogenic time as well). The market is sandwiched between Chinatown to the south and Rattanakosin to the north, so it’s smack in the middle of Bangkok’s tourist trail. Despite this, it doesn’t attract all that many tourists, and it most definitely retains a local air.
To get here, you can walk a little more than a kilometre south from the Grand Palace area on Maha Rat Road, or take the Chao Phraya Express boat to Memorial Bridge pier. If by boat, exit the pier, take a left on the nearest road, then a right at the 7-eleven. You’ll start to see flower stalls along the foopath, and from there, just follow the smell of jasmine.
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