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Some people love to shop for food. Shiny foreign grocery store packed to the gills with Tetra Pak boxes of wine, bread by the metre, cheese oozing from a counter managed by an angry white-haired French lady? That will take a couple of hours to explore, minimum. Khlong Toei market in Bangkok is anything but shiny, but for sheer mass, variety and sass this market is something that food lovers cannot help but rhapsodize over.
Your correspondent will attempt to keep the rhapsody in check, but Khlong Toei market is an inspiring muse. Also, we’ve bought many things there, including a duck to roast that the vendor just handed us live. Did we mention that this is the largest wet market in the Thai capital, which makes it one of the largest anywhere?
Khlong Toei actually refers to the canal that was dug through the area in the 1850s, poetically named Canal of the Pandan Leaves. Pandan is a fragrant leaf, sometimes called screwpine in English, which flavours many Southeast Asian sweets — although today the canal might be renamed for something less pleasingly aromatic. Khlong Toei district has long been an important shipping point for Bangkok; it's home to one of the country’s two cargo ports. The district is also notorious for crime and poverty, but the market sprawls close to an MRT station and draws everyone from the most humble noodle lady to the high-end restaurant owner.
Opening at 02:00 and trading through the day to around 18:00, the market is more than just a place to buy eggs. Restaurant buyers walk through with lines of porters following, housewives pick up fresh fish or whole chickens, neighbours gossip over the latest. Even if you don’t speak Thai, the gist is easy to sort out: she’s being overcharged, that porter’s handsome, why don’t you buy more of my fresh fruit?
Don’t be afraid to snack while you browse, either: steamed dumplings, grilled meats and many Thai sweets are available. While the aisles are awash with innards, scales and scraps, the cleanliness of the food is well looked after. Khlong Toei isn’t on many people’s itineraries in Bangkok, which is a shame as it’s a satisfying reminder that our food doesn’t spring forth fully formed from plastic wrappings.
Best time to go is early morning for breakfast as it’s still cool, but it’s great at lunch time, too. Another great way to get a good overview of the market is a cooking class that starts in the market, like Khun Phuu’s Helping Hands Cooking School.
How to get there
To get to Khlong Toei market: Take the MRT to Khlong Toei Station. Exit on the south side of Rama 4 Rd and walk southeast until you cross under Rama 3 Rd Overpass. The market is bordered on the north by Rama 4 Rd and the west by Rama 3 Rd.