Banjo-plucking cowboys, lipstick-wearing coffee pourers, puppy-hugging hipsters, Birkenstock-clad tourists, they’re all here. Along with plenty of simple eateries serving tasty Thai food, countless little shops selling cool home-grown fashion, the biggest range of Thai handicrafts and souvenirs in Bangkok, and a few funky bars that come alive after dark.
Chatuchak Market is where I like to head when we first arrive in Bangkok, simply to soak up the atmosphere at that point in our stay. It’s also where you’ll find me on our last day in the city, frantically buying gifts for family and friends.
If I’m going to JJ Market to shop, I’ll head there first thing in the morning, as it starts to get super-crowded around noon, and, on a steamy day, some of the interior sections can be suffocating.
If I’m dragging Terence along to just take in the scene and snap some photos, then we won’t go until as late at 3-4pm, we’ll have something to eat, do a lap of my favourite sections, then finish with a few drinks at the big branch of VIVA’s (Section 8, near Gate #2, on main drag), the chic interior décor shop that turns into a jumping bar after dark.
The original, smaller, VIVA’s is in section 26 near the antique shops and eateries. It’s laidback and low-key by day and is a terrific spot for a cold beer or coffee, depending on your mood, i.e. whether you’re done for the day and need to relax or whether you need a pick-me-up to continue trawling the fabulous little shops selling stylish clothes, shoes, accessories, bags, and jewellery in nearby sections 24 and 23.
Some of our favourite eateries are in this part of the market also, including a few excellent places specialising in food from the north, particularly from Thailand’s vast Isaan or northeast region.
There’s one eatery we really like in Section 26 that you can identify by its tables, made from renovated antique sewing machines, ladies in green aprons, and earthenware pots of curries, and sausages and fried chicken in baskets. We like to order the tasty pork sausage, som tam (spicy papaya salad) with crab, a couple of servings of sticky rice, and perhaps some cold noodles. They also do a delicious rosella drink. The last time we ate here, my notes tell me that all of the above cost us 225 baht or about US$7. A bargain.
Note that most of these places don’t have signage in English, so look for those tables and aprons! And just to be sure you’re in the right spot, it’s opposite the homemade coconut ice-cream stand – that’s where you should get dessert.
Officially, the JJ Market closes at 6pm, so if you’re here to shop, plan accordingly so that you’re done by this time. That doesn’t mean it’s all over, however… in fact, that’s when things start to get interesting if you’re here more for the atmosphere. We like to pull up a seat at one of the wooden tables at VIVA’s on the main drag and wait for the fun to start…
This is when the young Thai hipsters you see at a lot of Bangkok’s markets begin to arrive with their wares to sell – everything from screen-printed t-shirts they’ve made themselves and retro collectibles to counterfeit Polo shirts and big knock-off sunglasses, to an eclectic array of things they seem to have brought from their own bedroom. They spread their stuff out on sheets on the bitumen road that they quickly scoop up and disappear with when the cops show up.
After dark, the DJ at VIVA’s turns the volume up, and a steady stream of traffic passes by: crunchy insect sellers, Thai sweet vendors, and tuk-tuk drivers here to collect shop owners carting their stuff home or to another night market somewhere. Sitting back and sipping a cold beer or glass of white and watching the action is for me easily as satisfying as going home with shopping bags full of bargains.
AT A GLANCE
Getting there: take the MRT/Subway to Chatuchak Park or BTS/Skytrain to Mo Chit (exit 1) then follow the crowds through Chatuchak Park; hang a right past the foodstalls, cross the road (take care!), and enter at Gate 2.
Getting around: by foot, so wear comfy shoes and cool clothes as it can get sweltering inside. There’s a silly tram that runs from Gate 1 to 2 when you’re done with walking.
Opening hours: Saturday and Sunday 6am to 6pm; Friday (same hours) is wholesale day.
After hours: a small quasi-legal ‘market’ selling second-hand gear, hipster clothes and cheap knock-offs of whatever’s been knocked-off (see main text) operates on the main drag between gates 2 & 3 from 6pm until around 8-ish; VIVA’s bars are also at their most happening at this time, as this is then the traders let their hair down.
When to go: go early in the morning to shop, late in the afternoon to soak up the atmosphere.
For how long: this is a monumental market with 27 sections housing 15,000 stalls/shops on 27 acres of land, so allow at least half a day if you’re heading here to do some serious shopping or a couple of hours if you just want to have a look around.
Navigating your way: an official brochure with a map is available at the info stands at the main gates, however, Nancy Chandler’s Map of Bangkok has an excellent colour-coded section on Chatuchak Market.
Getting your bearings: it’s easy to get lost the first couple of visits. I like to use the gates and the Clock Tower at the centre of the market to get my bearings.
Money: some articles/guidebooks apparently say ATMs are few and far between. Wrong! There are ATMS everywhere: at Gates 2, 3 and 1, and there are almost a dozen on the route between Gates 1 and 2 (where the tiny trams).
Where to eat: there are plenty of food stalls along the market perimetre, especially on Paholythin Rd and Kamphaengphet Rd, and along the edge of Chatuchak Park. In the market, stalls are dotted along the main drag between Gates 2 and 3 and Exit 2. Our favourites, including the eatery I mention above at the edge of Section 26, are between Exit 2 and Gate 1.
Where to breathe: take some lunch to Chatuchak Park and sprawl on the lawn.
Where to drink: we love VIVA’s (see main text) and our favourite branch is the large bar-cum-furniture store in Section 8 near Gate 2. The original, diminutive VIVA’s inside Section 26 is perfect for a cold beer in between bursts of shopping. It can be a tricky to find; it’s behind the eateries and if you start from the Exit 2 end, it’s about the 12th row of Section 26.
What to buy & where to buy it:
The guide below assumes you’re starting out at Gate 2. Note that JJ’s sections aren’t as clearly delineated by product as we all wish they were – for instance, there are cheap clothes and souvenirs dotted throughout the whole market – so this is just to give you an idea as to what dominates some sections:
Sections 5 & 6: retro heaven – used clothes, including worn-in jeans, sneakers, denim jackets, and cowboy boots.
Sections 8, 9 & 10: souvenirs galore – Thai handicrafts, ‘Oriental’ lacquerware, silk pillows, textiles, ‘antiques’, along with a lot of tourist tat.
Sections 12, 14, 16, 18, 20: plenty of cheap clothes and shoes, especially beachwear, hippy gear, t-shirts, army surplus stuff (good for cargo pants/shorts for travelling), sandals, handbags, beach bags, etc.
Sections 21, 22 & 23: lots of tiny ‘boutiques’, some ran by aspiring young designers, fresh out of fashion school, and hippy clothes.
Sections 24, 26 & 25: Hill tribe clothes, textiles, bags, jewellery, and ‘antiques’.
Section 1: used books and magazines, musical instruments, amulets, Buddhas, and both reproduction and authentic antiques.
Sections 20, 19 & 17: handicrafts, Asian home décor, ceramics and souvenirs, some kitschy.
Sections 15, 13 & 11: pet heaven! Mainly puppies, pussycats and bunny rabbits, some birds, and the occasional oddity, though don’t expect the bizarre and illegal wildlife that was once notoriously sold here.
Postage and shipping: there’s a post office near Gate 1 (Thailand Post is excellent – I’ve used it loads of time and it’s cheap, fast and reliable); there are also tiny courier offices, such as DHL, scattered about the market, on the edge of 26 (near our favourite eatery above), near Gate 2, and there’s a handful along the route between Gate 2 and Gate 1 (where all those ATMs are).
Getting home: go the way you came; otherwise, if you’re so exhausted you can’t even be bothered working up the stairs to the BTS you’ll find plenty of tuk-tuks (negotiate!) and taxis on Kamphaengphet 3 Rd beside Chatuchak Park.