Published: 26th August, 2017
Sampeng Lane is a riot of people, colour, noise and smells. This is the place to come for unusual souvenirs, but be warned: It's also the sort of place you come to buy one thing, but leave having bought a whole stack of other things you didn't realise you needed.
The area was first settled by migrant Chinese traders around the turn of the 19th century, with Sampeng Lane conveniently running parallel to the Chao Phraya River, and little alleys connecting the two. The main lane became famed for its opium dens, gambling halls and brothels—it's the capital's original red-light district—but these days it's all about the shopping once more.
Sampeng Lane consists of a narrow footway that stretches for about a kilometre, with shops and their produce spilling onto it along both sides, plus little alleys running off the main lane, all of which are worth exploring as well. Interestingly, like Hanoi's Old Quarter streets, some of these little secondary lanes (trok) have names that indicate what they are said to have originally sold. You really are likely to get lost, but that's really part of the whole experience. It used to be absolutely stifling and sweaty and unpleasant to shop along Sampeng—we'd be in and out as quickly as we could—but a plastic awning now covers most of the main stretch of market, and with so many of the shops air-conditioned inside, the coolness spills into the little thoroughfare. Watch your achilles heels, as some things never change: The trolley-pushers stop for noone.
While it's often referred to as a wholesale market, and wholesalers do indeed come here to snap up items they'll sell elsewhere, we found most shops more than happy to sell individual items—just know that it's possible some won't, and you'll get a better price, and be in a stronger bargaining position, when you buy more of a particular thing. If prices are marked though, don't bargain. Sometimes there's simply a retail and wholesale price, with no bargaining entered into.
We started our last visit walking from the far eastern end (the market is very convenient to Loy La Long), where you'll find shoe shop after shoe shop selling flip-flops, runners and dressier shoes. These are more to local factory than international designer style, but you really never know what you'll uncover—that's the beauty of Sampeng. This is also the stretch to find luggage, handbags and umbrellas.
Continuing on to the west, the stalls gradually shift into selling stationery and toys, and you'll find a sprinkling of traditional medicine shops, then sparkling costume jewellery shops, then fabrics. In between you'll find absolutely everything else: haberdashery items, fairy lights, keychains, glitter, selfie-sticks, hand-powered fans (these are great!), watches, eyeglass frames, stickers, fidget spinners and so on, and so on. Heading west, eventually you'll hit Chakpet Road; cross over the pedestrian bridge and you're on Pahurat Road, or Little India, where there are even more fabric stalls and shops.
Bear in mind that the target market of Sampeng Lane is Thais, not tourists, so you won't find stuff styled to more international tastes, like you do in places like Chatuchak or Asiatique. We find browsing here far more interesting and fun than tourist-oriented markets. Be warned that shop owners won't like you taking photos of their products, which is somewhat ironic as at least some of the stuff here is very likely ripped off from other designers. Watch out for pickpockets, and try to avoid weekends, when the market gets even busier than usual, though if you're there around 09:00 like we were, it's not too bad.
While the glitz at eye-level will keep your attention, remember to occasionally look up—this is a beautiful historical district, and some of the buildings are really quite stunning.
Sampeng Lane runs from Songwat Road to the east through to Chakraphet Rd in the west, parallel to Yaowarat Rd.
Samantha Brown is a reformed news reporter. She now edits most of the stuff you read on Travelfish.org, except for when you find a typo, and then that's something she wasn't allowed to look at.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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