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Dim sum, fish heads, gingko, shark fins, oolong, incense, Vespas, smoked duck, egg noodle, sala bao, tea cake, goji berry, fish maw, stinky fruit, salty people, pickled cabbage, pig intestines, pumpkin seeds, dried squid, Teochew great grandmums sipping lo-han-guo and the oldest Chinese shrine in Thailand — mix it all together and what do you get? It’s Bangkok‘s Talad Mai.
Given the ramshackle state of the hole-in-the-wall shops and the mind-boggling amount of stuff squeezed in to them, it’s hard to imagine a time before the market existed. We’ve always had the impression that the narrow alley is fully roofed, but in reality, it was the countless bags of fried fish maw (a fish organ used in Chinese abalone soup and other dishes) hung from the awnings of so many shops that made it feel like an enclosed space. Like the rest of Chinatown, the cramped quarters don’t stop Vespas piled high with fresh stock from driving inside.
It’s not uncommon for visitors to sneeze repeatedly thanks to the heady mix of scents. Several stalls sell fresh seafood by the kilo, including giant fish heads that drip from iron hooks inches from where shoppers walk past. Other shopkeepers have mastered the anatomy of swine, selling every last bit of the pig that will be put to some or other use in neighbourhood Chinese-Thai kitchens.
The market has enough raw and wriggling stuff to send the weak-stomached rushing for the nearest exit, but the majority of shops sell dried foods, tea and other products that — while exotic to Westerners — are everyday staples for Bangkok’s Chinese. Talad Mai is a go-to spot for a popular pickled cabbage known as kiam-chai, often sold alongside baskets piled high with gingko nuts, dried beans, shiitake mushrooms, spices, and at least a dozen varieties of flavoured pumpkin seeds.
As is often the case in Chinatown, an old, hidden-away shrine at the end of an alley that diverges from the centre of the market provides a chance to come up for air. According to a Chinese inscription that dates it to 1658, the Leng Buai Ia shrine happens to be the oldest Chinese shrine in Thailand. Teochew businessmen would have come here centuries ago to kneel before altars dedicated to the legendary second-century Han Dynasty warlord, Guan Yu, and the southern Chinese goddess of the sea and heaven, Tianhou (aka Mazu), both of which still stand unruffled amid burning sticks of incense.
Asian tea lovers who’ve had their fill of Thai-style milky iced tea will be pleased to discover several shops devoted to loose leaf tea in Talad Mai. Everything from low grade Chinese production green to fragrant jasmine pearls and upmarket Taiwanese ginseng oolongs in shiny vacuum-sealed bags is available. We’re big fans of the nameless tea shop situated just south of Charoen Krung Road. The friendly folks who run it can speak a little English, and their passion for tea is evident both in the fridges used to ensure freshness and their eagerness to let prospective customers sit down and sample.
Although you may not feel too hungry after a glimpse (and whiff) of those drippy fish heads, a handful of hole-in-the-wall eateries are sporadically placed amid the chaos. Two Chinatown mainstays run scaled-down shops in Talad Mai: Hong Kong Noodle is noted for its dim sum, Chinese sweet egg cakes and ba-mee-muu (egg noodles with roast pork), while Hua Seng Hong also churns out dim sum along with delectable sala bao — try the barbecue pork (muu daeng) variety. Also don’t miss the traditional Chinese tea cakes and dark brown lo-han-guo (aka ‘momordica’ or ‘monk fruit’) herbal tea drink. It tastes terrible but supposedly affords all sorts of health benefits.
How to get there
To reach Talad Mai from Ratchawong express boat pier, walk straight away from the river on Ratchawong Road, then take a right on Yaowarat Road, crossing the street when possible. The market covers the length of Yaowarat Soi 6, which is clearly marked by a blue sign. Alternately, Talaad Mai is a 15-minute walk west of Hualamphong MRT station. Right across Charoen Krung Road from the north of Talaad Mai lies the century-old Chinese paper-work village of Charoen Chai, and its famous "coolie" pork noodles.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 17th April, 2016.