Wherever you’ve travelled in the world, the most vibrant memories you take home are those that make a place unique and encapsulate its spirit. One scent, sound or snatch of local colour can evoke a people and their culture. Here in Thailand, it’s the vibrant markets, where people come together to work, play, shop and socialise that are most imbued with the essence of the nation – it’s very “Thainess”.
If you’re seeking a slice of “Thainess” for yourself, don’t miss out on Chachoengsao’s Talat Khlong Suan Roi Pi or the “100 year-old market”. It’s only a short drive from Bangkok but guarantees a giant leap into yesteryear.
The 100-year-old market grew up where locals used to wait for the boats to Bangkok and the teakwood waterside shophouses date from the reign of King Rama V the Great – many families that live there can trace their roots back even further.
While by a canal, this isn’t a floating market – it’s more like a street of shophouses with occasional bridges to cross the waterways. But one roof shelters the whole market community, so Khlong Suan Roi Pi feels like an eccentric family home. Indeed, visit at the weekend and you’ll find such a relaxed local vibe that many shopkeepers seem to serve you between snoozes or will invite you in for a drink and a chat.
Like any good market, Talat Khlong Suan Roi Pi invigorates the senses. Pungent spices tickle your nostrils, tasty fried dishes tempt you to snack and there’s always something going on, from metal workers making kitchenware to the devout locals making merit by releasing turtles into the adjacent waterway (already teeming with leaping fish and watchful storks).
Out-of-town visitors are welcomed with open arms at Khlong Suan Roi Pi but this remains a working market where locals shop. So it’s possible to grab a fish-trap, pick up a head for your hoe, or stop for a shave at the barbers. The day-tripping city-dwellers come to revel in nostalgia, and they are catered for with old-fashioned sweets, snacks, books and brands. A little museum tells the story of the market with displays of photos and old products as well as a beautifully detailed model of the market that shows the famous high bridges and adjacent temples.
It’s a great place for food, and there are many Sino-Thai treats (the area has a longstanding Chinese community) for which the market is famous. Chefs will appreciate the wide array of local produce including fruits, vegetables and herbs. But don’t miss the amazing salted eggs at bargain prices, dried fish and tasty pork (the tender cheek cuts, much loved by gourmets are a big seller).
Do stop to snack. Like any good market, Khlong Suan Roi Pi is perfect for people watching, and there’s no better way to do this than over a meal of soft-shell crabs or local duck served in noodle soup. For a more theatrical meal, drop into a canal-side stall selling Kuai Tieo Pak Mo. As you scoop the tasty broth into your mouth, the vendor prepares noodle envelopes each stuffed with a different blend of farm-fresh fillings, which are flipped into your bowl as fast as you can eat them.
Like any market, this one has its characters and misfits. For decades, the biggest personality here was a certain Pae Lee who, for nearly 75 years, refreshed shoppers with his perfect brew of Oliang coffee. Sadly Mr Lee passed away two years ago but knowing how much he enjoyed his celebrity statue, his family have placed a life-size cut-out of him in the entrance to his beloved shop so that visitors can still have their pictures taken with the market’s coffee king.
If you don’t have a car, Khlong Suan Roi Pi isn’t the easiest place to visit, (day trips that include the local temples are arranged by Bangkok’s tour operators though) but if you have a few hours free and are seeking a real slice of Thai life, it shouldn’t be missed. Markets are mirrors of the communities they serve and the vibrant, yet laid-back and friendly atmosphere at Khlong Suan Roi Pi epitomises all that makes Thailand so memorably unique.
The market is open every day from 9 a.m. till 5 p.m. but is in full swing at the weekend when locals come to sell their wares to visiting tourists from Bangkok.
If travelling from Bangkok, take the Bang Na – Trat Road and turn left at Km 35 to take the road towards the Thai Country Club (around 15 kms) Take a left turn at Route Chocho 3001 and the market is around 2 kms down the road and signposted.