Shopping has never been a reason for me to go somewhere, but in Bangkok it seems that visiting shiny malls is part of one’s tourist duty. The malls are very pleasant, air-conditioned and full of tempting refreshments.
However they are full of seductive consumer goods too – hand-stitched leather wine carriers and designer lighting and French bed-linen – all of which is awakening my consumer lust, and I try to cool my flaming passions while reminding myself that this is why I avoid department stores.
However I am happy to see that aromatherapy is doing well here, as I need to find some essential oils. With joy I discover them almost immediately, along with pleasing ranges of Thai skincare products by Thann and the similar but more upmarket Harnn, which apparently can be found in at least 25 countries. You can follow your nose with this kind of shopping.
For a uniquely overwhelming browsing experience with a wide variety of aromas, the Bangkok visitor should venture to Chatuchak, or JJ, weekend market. It can get a bit hot there, but it is full of snacks and has thousands upon thousands of stalls within its 35-hectare expanse selling almost anything that has ever been produced in, or crossed Thai borders. Best of all, it’s not even hard to get to.
H is listening to Asian pop music and wants to go in the evening. When I tell him for the third time that it is a daytime market, he agrees to go in the daytime. I’ve been there many times, and he’s the one who still needs to buy Buddha statues and elephant purses, so he should really get with the programme.
To find Chatuchak, hop on the Skytrain and get off at Mo Chit, the northern station at the end of the line. Then follow the crowds. If for some reason there are no crowds, take the exit facing the park and turn left. Within 30 seconds you will see people on the road selling things. The stuff outside the market is almost a market in itself.
Chatuchak novices should note which gate they enter at, as they may be able to find it again when they want to leave. Small tip: to avoid being caught up in a post-stadium mega-concert style crush, aim to leave by around 5pm, then you will miss the madness that occurs at the 6pm closing. Unless you enjoy that kind of thing.
Aromatherapy has reached Chatuchak too. Every now and then there is a pleasing scent of lemongrass, and whoa, there is another shop selling candles and oils and soaps. Prices are cheaper at the market, though the quality is more questionable, and I wouldn’t buy oils stored in a hot environment.
Apart from maybe French cheese and sporrans, you can buy almost anything at Chatuchak, from a pet snake to dining furniture. Sculptures, CDs, combatative roosters – they’re all here.
H buys T-shirts, small silk bags and keyrings, and I tell him to buy coconut icecream. I buy an iced coffee and a bottle of lemongrass oil because it’s so cheap (100 baht). Later we meet the man behind more smelly things, at Thai Butterfly Perfume. I quickly discover he is inspired by Jo Malone of London, and his citrussy Pomelo gives her Grapefruit Cologne a good squeeze for your money at about a tenth of the cost (www.butterflythaiperfume.com).
H meanders off, but I grab him and and because for once I am not lost in this vast mega-market, we escape before the hordes trample us.
Next stop is the Kathmandu gallery, the only one devoted to photography in Thailand. We attend the opening of a mini-retrospective of work by Pornsak Sakdaenprai, regarded as one of the nation’s forgotten photography masters.
The fascinating images displayed were taken during the Sixties, on a camera Pornsak still possesses. He doesn’t speak English, but he seemed happy that visitors were appreciating his compelling photographs of ordinary Thais doing their best to look cool with cigarettes, shellacked hairdos and Country & Western props.
Yes, the beehive was even big in Thailand. I never thought much about Sixties culture penetrating SE Asia, though I knew it reached Hong Kong, but here is evidence that it was important enough to be commemorated in a studio portrait.
The photographs of young Thai men as monks and in ordinary life are interesting too, a ‘before and after’ in the same frame is a strange juxtaposition that nonetheless seems to make sense here. These young people look so serious and older than their years – I imagine being photographed then was a serious matter.
In attendance was a true member of Thailand’s artistic avant garde – Pisarn Patanapeeradej, the actor who played Macbeth in the film Shakespeare Must Die, which was banned in its home country earlier this year to stop it stirring up societal unrest. It’s not easy to view the film, but ironically enough he’s probably getting a lot more attention as a result. In a country where political discussion is not encouraged, a banned film is a hot topic.
For more information on art events in Bangkok, find a copy of the free Bangkok art map, or visit http://www.bangkokartmap.com
The exhibition continues until August 27.