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Blossoms brighten up the greys around every corner in Bangkok, but it’s not just because they look good. Flowers play an important role in the Thai tradition of honouring spirits, the Buddha, Hindu gods and the memory of ancestors. Thailand’s largest cut flower market, Pak Khlong Talad, is at the centre of this tradition — and it’s a fun place to soak up the colours.
Pak khlong talad means “market at the mouth of the canal” and it may have started as a floating market as early as the 18th century. In the 19th century it was largely a fish market before switching to flowers and produce in the 1950s, when authorities got tired of the fishy smell in central Bangkok. Some say that Pak Khlong Talad is now one of the world’s largest flower markets.
The name Pak Khlong Talad is used for the neighbourhood in general, which includes countless standalone shops along with several separate-but-related markets that combine to form one giant and loosely defined market. Blossoms burst from carts, stalls and shops along both sides of Chakphet Road, which runs between the Rop Krung canal in the west and Memorial Bridge in the east, and beneath various roofed sections stretching south towards the Chao Phraya River and north up Ban Mor Road.
With a similarly cramped and chaotic feel as the markets found in nearby Chinatown, first-time visitors will have little choice but to get lost amid the endless sights and smells. Buses, pick-up trucks, taxis, tuk tuks and motorbikes squeeze down Chakphet Road while trolley men rush their carts through the alleys — do watch your step while exploring.
Bangkok’s insatiable appetite for flowers ensures that Pak Khlong Talad stays active 24 hours a day, 365 days a year (so you no have no excuse not to go). If you’re up and about at around 03:00, the wee hours of the morning can be especially captivating when streams of trucks from the countryside rumble in to offload their loads of fresh-cut flowers.
Vendors spread along the north side of Chakphet Road specialise in classic bundles of roses, lotuses and other bouquets, including some flowers that are dyed to almost-neon colours. Most are wholesalers, but it’s possible to pick up a dozen fresh-picked red roses for just 80 baht.
While most of the blossoms on offer at Pak Khlong Talad are grown in the provinces nearest Bangkok, rarer varieties like tulips are shipped from as far afield as Chiang Rai and Loei. These are exotic to the locals, but most foreign visitors will be taken with bundles of orchids that often hail from the sprawling farms of nearby Nakhon Pathom.
Jasmine and other small buds are woven into phuang malai, artistic garlands used as offerings. Some are placed before images of Buddha, portraits of the king or ancestor shrines. Others find their way to spirit houses and trees or the depictions of the Hindu god Brahma that dot the city. Many garlands dangle alongside protective amulets from rear-view mirrors in taxis. You’ll even find them placed before images of the Virgin Mary at Thai churches.
Phuang malai is an ancient Thai art that entails tediously threading a needle through tiny buds repeatedly until something worthy of being offered to a god has been created. Pak Khlong Talad’s skilled artisans create the garlands for all to see, making it one of the best places on earth to glimpse this intriguing form of flower arrangement in action.
You’ll also notice many cone-shaped offerings known as baisri, made by adding chrysanthemum and other buds to rolled-up banana and pandan leaves. While they resemble mini Christmas trees, every baisri is in fact a representation of Mount Meru, the centre of the universe in Hinduism.
Pak Khlong Talad has more than just flowers. Wander into the more distant corners and you’ll find piles of fresh fruit, wholesale vegetables and even fresh meats and seafood. Poke around the shops towards the west end of Chakphet to find incense, candles, fake flower garlands and everything else you could possibly need to make an offering.
Pak Khlong Talad is also an overlooked street food destination. Especially after dark, vendors emerge to serve fried chicken, muu ping (pork skewers), som tam (papaya salad), tom yum and whole grilled fishes to the masses. One shop found among the fruit displays on Chakphet sells coconut sticky rice and durian alongside the brightly coloured sweets that collect on local spirit shrines along with garlands and red Fanta soda.
Just south of the market, the Yodpiman River Walk opened in 2014 as a “lifestyle mall” filled with chain restaurants and high-end shops that don’t sell flowers. With a faux-heritage design that does a poor job of blending into the local architecture, it stands in contrast to the century-old shophouses and humble vendors, some of whom have spent their lifetimes here.
In 2016, city authorities attempted to clear hundreds of flower vendors from footpaths 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 tourism appeal as reasons to let them stay. Now they have a deadline of June 2016 to leave — whatever happens, we hope that this iconic market does not fall victim to the push for development that has already displaced many small communities in Bangkok.
After exploring the market, you might walk north and stop at Farm to Table on the way to the Museum of Siam and other attractions of the Rattanakosin historic district. Or you could head south to Wat Ratchaburana before strolling across Saphan Phut (Memorial Bridge) to Santa Cruz Church and Wat Kalanayamit, or continuing down to Pahurat for an Indian meal at Toney.
How to get there
Pak Khlong Talad is located just north of Chinatown and south of Ko Rattanakosin — you can get here by walking a little more than a kilometre south from the Grand Palace area on Maha Rat Road.
Otherwise you can take the Chao Phraya Express boat to Yodpiman Pier and walk straight through the Yodpiman shopping centre. You’ll come out at the back entrance to one of the roofed sections of the flower market. From here you could take an alley into the roofed market or turn right and hang a left on Chakphet Road, which is the backbone of Pak Khlong Talad.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 4th July, 2016.