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Colourful flowers brighten up the greys around every corner in Bangkok, 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 statues. Bangkok’s biggest flower market, Pak Khlong Talad, is at the centre of this tradition -- and it’s a fun place to soak up the colours.
Located near Memorial Bridge just north of Chinatown, a busy market has operated at this area for well over a century. Pak khlong talad means “market at the mouth of the canal”, and it may have started as a floating market as early as the 1700s.
In the 1800s it was largely a fish market before switching to produce and eventually becoming Bangkok’s flower epicentre during the mid 1900s. Some claim that it's now the largest flower market in the world. 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. A handful of street food carts also offer some nibbles here; coconut sticky rice with durian anyone?
A host of vendors specialise in classic bundles of roses and other bouquets in every possible colour. Most 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 how much they cost).
While most of the orchids and many other blossoms are grown in the provinces nearest Bangkok, especially Nakhon Pathom, rarer varieties like tulips are shipped from as far afield as Chiang Rai and Loei. Pak Khlong Talad is where everyday Bangkok florists go to stock their shelves.
Many of the flowers, especially jasmine, are woven into phuang malai and baisri, artistic garlands or banana-leaf pyramids that are usually used as offerings. Some will be placed before images of Buddha inside temples or on the shrines of private homes. Others will find their way to spirit houses or one of the countless dedications to the Hindu god Brahma.
Many phuang malai — perhaps even a majority — will be dangled from rear view mirrors of the taxi cabs and cars that brave Bangkok’s streets. More than just a way to freshen the air, the garlands are placed on or near sacred Buddhist amulets and other spiritual (or superstitious) items adorning dashboards of cars.
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 worthy of being offered to a god has been created. Especially throughout daylight hours at Pak Khlong Talad, skilled artisans create phuang malai for all to see. 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. In 2016, city authorities attempted to clear vendors from footpath space as part of a wider effort to tidy up the city. Many vendors resisted, citing a lack of other places to sell and the market's worldwide fame as reasons to let them stay. Whatever happens, we hope the market doesn't change too much.
How to get there
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, aka Saphan Phut. 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. Note that only the 15-baht orange-flag express boats stop at Memorial Bridge, so be sure not to get on one of the blue-flag tourist boats.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 17th April, 2016.