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A Needle in the Chatuchak Haystack

One of the most fascinating ways to learn about a foreign city is to stroll through its markets. You can see what people buy, what they eat, how they buy and innumberable other details of life. Anne Marie ruff went on a mission recently to Bangkok's Chatuchak Market. By taking the city's ultramodern skytrain to the end of the line, she reached the phenomena known as the weekend market, and lived to tell about it.

A Needle in the Chatuchak Haystack
by Anne Marie Ruff

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It all started because a button fell off a pair of my shorts. The one needle in my trusty travel sewing kit had rusted beyond recognition in Thailands tropical humidity, so I needed a needle-and I knew I could find one at Chatuchak Market. But finding such a thing among the thousands of stalls at the giant market, is harder...forgive me...than finding a needle in a haystack. It is like trying to find a needle in all of the chaos Asia has to offer.

A Needle in the Chatuchak Haystack

Chatuchak bears no resemblance to the orderly geometric malls of America. It is more like an amoeba, pulsing with life. There is no proper entrance, people just seem to seep from the street into the cramped aisles between stalls. There they are to be swept up into the flow of buying, selling, shuffling and sweating that are the life processes of the market.

As I flowed along between towering stacks of platform shoes and plastic toys, I ran into Jennifer Gampbell. She has been living in Bangkok for seven years, and coming to Chatuchak since she arrived.

Gampbell: "I used to come like once a month, now I come like every other week. It's like in America I went to flea markets, now in Bangkok, I go to Chatuchak.

She didn't know where I could find a needle, but she did proffer a warning about shopping at Chatuchak.

Gampbell: "If you see it and like it, buy it now, because you will never find it again."

Armed with this knowledge, I flowed into an open space between the corrugated metal roofs of the market. I discovered various signs listing market section numbers and contents in both English and Thai. Clothing and Agriculture Products read one, Decorative Rocks and Bonsai read another. No needles.

The walkway lead to rows and rows of water filled jars each containing two fighting fish. Thais have a national weakness for gambling, and men gather around, placing bets on their preferred fish. They watch the match with the intensity of Italians watching soccer.

The fish led logically enough to stalls of roosters. If you want to take your gambling elsewhere, you can buy a fighting cock and carry it off in a neat little cardboard box with an opening for the roosters head to peek out.

A Needle in the Chatuchak Haystack

But if you prefer your animals as pets, I discovered that those are on the other side of the walkway. There are the usual dogs, cats, and guinea pigs. But there are also snakes, iguanas, parakeets, parrots, ducks, crabs, turtles and dozens of kinds of squirrels all sporting the same half dead appearance.

Peppered among the animals were other vendors selling things like towels and dishes. The closest I could find to a needle was the one being used by a tattoo artist.

So I kept walking - or rather, bumping - past thousands of other shoppers through a maze of used Levis, leather goods, and silver belt buckles that would make a Texan blush.

Next came a section I understood to be only used books and magazines, that is until i saw a life size statue of a green alien among rows of Buddha heads and images of the king. My head was swimming, and I needed some air.

I made it back out to the walkway and found a young Canadian sitting on a curb. His name was Jordy McCloud. I asked him if 'he had found anything he wanted in this material madness.

McCloud: "Yes, I found something, but then I thought I would go to have something to drink and think about it. When i came back, I couldn't find the store again. So I'm still searching, just taking another break at the moment."

I wished him luck and plunged into a plethora of plants, orchids, trees, roots and seeds. All the pots and windchimes you would need to outfit an urban garden were here.

I wanted to buy bulbs and baby ferns, but stopping to bargain in this part of the market was like trying to swim upstream, so on I went on to piles of silk, wicker, and hand-painted copies of European masterpieces. I managed to duck behind a glass door into an empty shop, attracted by a tiny silk shoe.

I learned that it was only a bound and broken foot - as in China of Old - that would have worn this little beauty. My own feet were beginning to hurt, but I still hadn't found my needle. When I spied two tall woman bargaining intently with a silverware vendor, bags of goods piled around their feet. These were successful shoppers. I had to know their secret. One of them - Anne Marie Wheeler from South Africa, gave me a clue.

Wheeler: "Oh boy, you must have a very good sense of direction, I wouldnt have found my way on my own, and as I say my friend has been coming here for a couple of years. I don't know how she did it, but she knows. So I just follow, she leads. So that makes it easy for me."

My spirits were buoyed - finding things here was Possible! I watched Anne Marie and her friend disappear into army surplus goods shop, and felt myself pulled in the direction of tools, hardware and fried noodles.

A Needle in the Chatuchak Haystack

Then I knew I was in the right place. A young Thai couple sat imperiously at the top of a pyramid of household goods. brooms and sponges, scissors and hangers and miraculously, needles. Unable to leave their perch, they lowered a basket attached to the end of a broom handle. I dropped my needles, they retrieved the basket, inspected my needles, and quoted me a price. They lowered the basket again. I put a few coins in, and took my needles out.

I spilled back out onto the street and up to the skytrain. I relished the train's air conditioning and smiled to myself. Mission accomplished!

For the Savvy Traveler, this is Anne Marie Ruff in Bangkok Thailand.


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