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Trays, plates and cauldrons of food are stacked so high in Happy Land Market that it feels like one bountiful offering to the gastronomic gods. It should be a priority for food adventurists seeking to sample all of Thailand’s regional cuisines without leaving Bangkok — and then some.
Way out in non-touristy east Bangkok and accessible only by local bus, canal boat or taxi (an MRT extension will supposedly reach here around 2020), buzzing Bang Kapi finds its way onto few travel itineraries. Though perfectly worthwhile, local attractions like Bang Kapi wet market and BatCat museum don’t exactly draw travellers in droves.
Similar to Victory Monument, but with an added layer of grittiness, Bang Kapi is an unceasing swirl of colour, life and movement. When it’s time for the locals who tirelessly keep this hurricane spinning to replenish, they converge on Happy Land. As the name suggests, Happy Land delivers.
The day market boasts one of Bangkok’s most extensive food selections under one roof. Fans keep the pungent air moving in a central open-sided dining area that fills up every day with students, office workers and grannies. Dishes are scored both from the many vendor stalls within the market, and the many more that overflow into the surrounding alleyways.
Bang Kapi’s affordable housing draws urban immigrants from every corner of Thailand and beyond, and this diverse demographic is expressed in Happy Land’s food selection. This might be the best place in Bangkok to sample every regional Thai cuisine on one table — and we’re not talking just the basics.
The area has a large community of Thai Muslims from down south, so it’s no surprise that Southern Thai food steals the show. Happy Land’s vivid curry displays rival Krabi’s markets. You’ll find the usual fiery suspects like gaeng som (sour orange curry) and gaeng nuea (spicy beef curry), but also an array of lesser known curries that incorporate young banana (reminiscent of plantain) and gingko leaf among other obscure ingredients. This is also the place to score real, slow-roasted, daydream-worthy massaman.
Unlike southern Thai, Northern Thai food isn’t so easy to come by in Bangkok, but Happy Land hosts several vendors who have carried their distinctive cuisine from the cooler climes of Lanna. As if to contest the southerners, similarly eye-popping spreads of gaeng hang-lay (pork belly curry with peanut) and dry laap with a hint of cardamom, among many others, are offered by the northerners.
One northern Thai vendor does a fantastic version of khao soi along with the not-so-famous but not-to-be-missed khanom jin nam ngiew. This heavenly soup combines “Chinese” rice noodles (they’re actually a Mon creation) with chunks of chicken liver and pork rib in an aromatic broth tempered by chicken blood, tomato, cilantro and pink cotton flowers. Hard to find beyond the northern Thai mountains, the cotton flowers add a smoky undertone that makes the dish.
A handful of Isaan (northeastern Thai) vendors do the usual som tam and grilled chicken along with harder to find selections like suep khanuen (young jackfruit salad). Don’t forget the sticky rice to ease that spice.
Among typical favourites like pad Thai and tom yum, Central Thai food is represented by fried pla tuu (mackerel fish) and nam prik kapi, the sweet-and-spicy chilli-and-shrimp paste that Bang Kapi was named after. A number of vendors focus solely on seafood, including a few dishes common in Southeastern Thai cuisine.
Don’t forget to leave room for traditional Thai desserts like tup tim grob, a decadent “soup” of water chestnut, jackfruit, taro and other goodies swimming in a bowl of sweetened iced coconut milk. You’ll find many other desserts along with bite-size Thai sweets and fresh durian among other fruits. Fresh coffee, Thai iced tea, lemongrass juice and plenty of other beverages offer relief from those tear-inducing curries.
Unlike many Thai “food courts” that require diners to purchase tickets that are exchanged for food from individual vendors, Happy Land keeps things simple by sticking to a straightforward “cash and carry” system. Bowls, plates and cutlery are shared among all vendors and cleared by staff — so there’s no need to clean up after yourself.
How to get there
Take the San Saeb canal boat to The Mall Bang Kapi Pier, and either walk around the mall to the right or go inside through the parking garage and walk straight through the mall. When you emerge onto Lat Phrao Road, take the elevated walkway directly in front of the mall, and exit down the stairs to the left after crossing the street. Then take an immediate right into the side street and you'll see Happy Land's orange facade a short way in on the left. Alternately, any taxi driver will know 'The Mall Bang Kapi', but don't say only 'Happy Land' as the term is used for this whole area.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 14th May, 2014.