One of the world's greatest markets
Published/Last edited or updated: 1st June, 2018
Every Saturday and Sunday, more than 200,000 shoppers peruse some 5,000 stalls spread over 35 acres at Chatuchak Market (pronounced “ja-too-jak”, or JJ for short), which is reportedly the largest outdoor market in the world. One of Bangkok’s top tourist attractions and a must for shopping enthusiasts, it’s also hot, crowded and confusing. Go early, and pack your patience.
This is not a made-for-tourists destination, with hordes of locals making the pilgrimage to JJ as well. Though the gargantuan pavilions are partially open to the air, the tight maze of roofed lanes can feel like an underground labyrinth. No matter the season, JJ always seems to be 10 times hotter and 10 times more crowded than the rest of Bangkok. It can feel like you’re trapped in a maze of leather shoes and ceramic bowls, yet perpetually distracted by more things to buy. (And just when you think you've found a whole new area, you realise you're back at the stall where you started. It's bewildering!)
From wholesale bamboo mats to one-of-a-kind works of art, JJ is absolutely stuffed with stuff to buy. Both men and women come for the unparalleled selection of cheap clothes, used and new, including conservative lace tops for Thai grandmas, straightforward dress shirts for office workers, and vintage shoes, handbags and jeans for the hip young things.
Though some designers have moved to the air-con confines of Siam Square and Terminal 21, JJ remains a cornerstone of Bangkok’s fashion scene. Far from the pretentious boutiques of New York and Paris, many of JJ’s stalls are staffed by the designers themselves, and items rarely cost over 500 baht. You’ll find graphic tees, funky jewellery and floral jumpsuits among wears meant for the street rather than the catwalk.
Chatuchak also supports a strong community of Bangkok-based artists, with roughly 10 alleys devoted to galleries displaying different mediums, styles and price ranges. The artists are usually on scene, putting final touches on a project or having lunch on a stool outside. Modern works by local artists like Pariwat A-nantachina make one-of-a-kind gifts and souvenirs. Small prints often go for a few hundred baht while larger original works can run into the thousands.
You’ll find an entire section devoted to home goods and furniture, including gorgeous teakwood bedframes, silk drapes and handmade lamps sold at a fraction of what they cost at import stores in the West. Many shops dabble in antiques, like Tibetan bureaus and faded Buddha sculptures dug up from some corner of the continent. On Friday mornings, Bangkok’s serious art collectors gather to see what treasures might emerge from the latest shipments. If something big catches your fancy, a host of international shipping companies have offices at the centre of the market.
Other goods sold at Chatuchak include Benjarong porcelain; toys that are both Chinese-mass-produced and handmade in Thailand; wholesale knives, chopsticks, pots, plates and other dining/kitchen goods that draw restaurant owners from around the world; herbal soaps, incense and oils; and more typical tourist trinkets like mini tuk tuks made out of Chang beer cans. And that hardly scratches the surface.
Especially along the fringes and clustered near the clock tower at the market’s centre, dozens of food vendors sell grilled pork skewers, Thai-style popsicles and ice cream, deep-fried chicken wings and pork belly to satiate the shopping masses. Countless more sit-down spots dish out noodle soup, pad Thai, som tam and khao man gai. For more food, head over to Or Tor Kor market, just across Kamphaeng Phet Road.
Now that you know what to expect, on to the logistics of tackling this behemoth market. Firstly, Start with a map. The Nancy Chandler map of Bangkok is one of the best, and includes a hand-drawn and painstakingly detailed map of JJ’s 27 sections and stalls. It’s best to use this map as a reference to the general areas. Don’t spend your day searching for one specific stall just to bypass all the rest, as the stalls change often and a lot of the products are sold by multiple vendors. JJ’s own official map (also posted at strategic points throughout the market) is numerically mind-boggling, but categories like “Clothing & Accessories”, “Amulets”, and the ambiguously fun “Odds & Ends” are colour-coded.
Come early. We'd aim to be there no later than 09:00. Crowds are thin for the first hour or two and as it heats up and they thicken, you'll be glad you had a clear run of things at the outset. Some stalls are not fully set up until 09:30 or 10:00, but you'll find plenty open at the official start time. You'll be more likely to get a "morning price" from vendors, too. On the other hand, if you come late, you may get a good end-of-the-day deal. The market closes at 18:00; while some vendors start packing up around 15:00, others stay open well past the official closing time. If you're not ready to call it quits by closing time, pop over to the nearby JJ Green night market.
Whatever time you arrive, choose your entrance carefully. Once you know which section you’d like to go to, pick the entrance that will get you closest rather than walking through the market to get to your destination. We find the stalls right near the Mo Chit BTS entrance tend to be mostly cheap items targeted at tourists and are swamped, so we walk around the periphery of the market to Gate 3 for trendy clothes, or take the MRT to Kamphaeng Phet.
Once inside, keep track of where you are and what you've found. Found a necklace you just have to have but don’t have the money? Make a note of the stall number and section, or ask the vendor for a business card.
Remember to eat. Take periodic snack and water breaks. There are plenty of places to pull up a chair and sip on a coffee or munch on something to keep you going. You'll also find a few foot massage joints, another fine way to break up the day. Do watch your wallet, too. Narrow walkways, hordes of people and shopping bags make for a perfect scenario to get pickpocketed. Besides watching out for the typical shopping scams, keep your money safe and be discreet when pulling out the big bills.
Haggle hard. Haggling is the law of the land at Chatuchak, though food and the occasional fixed price stall being the only exception. A good rule of thumb is to start by offering half of the listed price or what the vendor quotes, and take it from there. Always haggle politely, with a smile, and enjoy the art of it.
Our last tip: Beware of contracting “JJ syndrome”. Many items are cheap by Western standards, and those pink 100 baht notes can seem like play money once you’ve been overtaken by JJ syndrome. It usually starts with an innocent purchase of a T-shirt or scarf. Within an hour, it turns into, “Ooh I’ll take that… And that… And I just have to have that,” until you’re weighed down by massive bags of random stuff, wondering where that 12,000 baht went. If you’re on a budget, bring only the cash that you can afford to part with.
Chatuchak Market is located next to Chatuchak Park (one of Bangkok's largest green spaces) in north Bangkok and can be accessed from either Mo Chit BTS station, Kamphaeng Phet MRT station or Chatuchak MRT station.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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