May 31 2013
Historic neighbourhood, heritage site, spirit shrine, wet market, prepared foods plaza and confectionery all at once, Nang Loeng market is one of a kind. It’s been around since 1900, making it one of Bangkok’s oldest markets, and probably doesn’t feel too different today than it did at the turn of the century.
Both the market and neighbourhood where it’s located were named after Mon earthen clay jars, known as e-loeng, produced in northern Bangkok and sold in the vicinity of nearby Phradung Krung Kasem canal in the 1800s. The term nang, a salutation that translates as “miss”, was later added to soften the name.
A stone inscription from the Royal Privy Purse Department dating from 1887 is written in Thai, Chinese and English and is still visible in the back corner of the market. The plaque’s message isn’t exactly compelling, but it highlights how Nang Loeng was a culturally diverse area where the city’s various ethnic groups — including several Chinese dialect groups and Westerners — interacted and influenced one another.
Adding prosperity on top of diversity, wealthy nobles moved into the area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the nearby Dusit palaces were built during the reign of King Rama V. A prince who is incidentally considered the father of the modern Thai navy, Chomphon Khet Udomsak, lived near Nang Loeng and was highly respected by the area’s residents, including the Chinese. After his passing in 1923, the community established a Chinese-style shrine to the prince inside the market, where residents offer prayers and flower garlands to this day. Nang Loeng is the venue of a festival held annually on Prince Chumphon’s December 19 birthday that includes parades and performances.
Built in 1918 a short walk away from the market, the Sala Chaloerm Thani Cinema is another reflection of the area’s hi-so stature during the early 20th century. Well-off people flocked to Nang Loeng to enjoy what was then cutting edge entertainment — silent films accompanied by a brass band.
The grand old theatre continued showing Thai films until 1993, when it finally shut down due to the need for renovations but no funds to pay for them. Visitors aren’t allowed inside, but vintage Thai movie posters still hang from faded powder blue outer walls and offer a hint of nostalgia.
Back at the market, the relatively large roofed affair is rimmed on all sides by heritage shophouses; many are home to families that have produced the same products for decades. A handful of vendors sell fresh produce, seafood and meat on one side, and several prepared food stalls cater to a food court with long stainless steel tables in the market’s belly.
Famous selections include curries from Khao Gaeng Rattana, pad Thai from Khun Gai Pornapha and homemade ba-mii egg noodle soup with duck from Sor Roong Roj around the corner. Rattana was on vacation when we visited, but we can attest to the deliciousness of both the pad Thai and ba-mii. The braised pig’s head with rice also looked, err, friendly.
Another highlight were bamboo trays of steamed rice flour buns (sala bao) from a very sweet elderly woman near the entrance. We have a serious sala bao addiction and found her savoury muu sai kai (pork and egg) and sweet taro to be some of the best buns we’ve tried.
Straight across from the sala bao, a traditional Thai finger food worth seeking out is sa-kuu sai muu, slightly sweet bite-size balls of translucent sago stuffed with pork, peanut and spices and hawked from a shop called Mae Sa-Ing. Two doors down, don’t miss the north-central Thai sausage (sai krog) with hard-to-find pla-naem, a powdery mix of dried fish, shrimp, pork skin, taro and spices. Plop a hunk of sausage on a wild pepper leaf, sprinkle on the pla-naem, throw in a bird’s eye chilli or two, wrap it up mini burrito-style and enjoy.
Confections were all the rage among Bangkok’s wealthy during the early 20th century, and Nang Loeng still enjoys the distinction of being one of the city’s finest places to score sweets. These are Thai-style goodies, or khong-wan (literally: ‘sweet things’), usually created from some combo of rice flour, mung bean, pandan leaf, palm sugar and fruit, especially coconut.
The best of the four sweets stalls we sampled was Mae Song Chit, located just outside the market on the way to the cinema. Her khanom ta-ko – bites of pandan-sweetened rice flour, coconut cream and water chestnut for a refreshing crunch — would make Willy Wonka proud. We’re not sure, however, what he’d make of the durian with sticky rice at the shop next door.
The best way to approach Nang Loeng is to arrive famished, do a little walk-and-graze, grab a rice or noodle dish (or several) and take a seat while soaking up the flavours and atmosphere. Then, mosey from one sweets stall to the next, accumulate an assortment of colourful bites and sit back down for dessert. Unless you’re more schooled in Thai sweets than we are, accept that you won’t know what they contain or what they’ll taste like until you try them. Some are excruciatingly sweet while others have a fishy taste (didn’t see that one coming), so snag a lemongrass juice or Thai iced tea to wash them down.
By this point you’ll probably have a bulging bag of random edibles in tow — but don’t let that stop you from taking a wander around the neighbourhood. Locals on vintage bicycles ding their little bells to warn kids and dogs (and foreigners) they’re coming through. Drying laundry hangs from porches of old wood houses that have been spruced up with bright coats of paint. Old shirtless men play a late morning round of cards. Time passes a little slower around here.
Nang Loeng market is located in Bangkok’s historic district of Banglamphu, down an alley off Nakhon Sawan Road and just west of Soi Nakhon Sawan 6 (see map). From the street, the main entrance is marked by a big grey gate with gold Thai script, but the market can also be reached by Soi Nakhon Sawan 2 or Nang Loeng Soi 1. Any Bangkok taxi driver will know the place by name — tell them talaat nang loeng (pronounced more like ‘lerng’).
Most stalls are open in the early morning and finish up by 15:00. The market is closed on Sundays, and on weekdays it gets crowded with local lunch-breakers at noon. For more on the market’s food selection, check out Austin Bush’s take.
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