John Krich Examines The Rise of Bangkok’s Farmers’ Market
It may not be something that modern Asia wants to take credit for, but I think it was the growing influence of Asian philosophies, food, and lifestyles that spawned the 1960s. There would have been no “hippies” without India’s gurus and holy men, and Thais’ Buddhism and “sabai sabai” mentality also helped create, and sustain, the movement that has spawned so many others around the world.
Whenever I want proof of this, I head of to one of Bangkok’s alternative farmers’ markets. On offer here are not just some of Thailand’s cleanest and healthiest produce, cakes and breads baked with love, chemical-free soaps and oils and candles and even mosquito repellents, but a hardy breed of self-starting entrepreneurs who effortlessly and unpretentiously put on display their lives’ devotion to concepts of living organically, simply, and close to the earth. It’s not surprising to stumble on this thriving scene here, since Thailand is both a country of farmers and of small businesses, so naturally this is where they can best meet. Yet never have I met individuals with such loyalty to that old adage about how “you are what you eat.”
The oldest and most original of these is staged in the back, outer courtyard of Sukhumvit’s upscale K-Village—as of last notice, the second weekend of every month. Hardly noticeable from the front of the mall, the market is nonetheless surprisingly large, active, and comprehensive. Arriving with my 11 year old daughter, whose appetites and consumerist instructs usually veer toward Swensen’s or Sunrise Burritos, I had to hold her back from attacking the reduced-sugar brownies and pulled pork buns. It was a challenge steering her toward the Chiang Mai strawberries or the bottled wheatgrass juices.
I was happy to bring home everything from feta cheese to lemongrass stalks from such small-time entities as Yogi dairy, the Grand Organic Co., Green Earth Farm, and the various organic mushrooms from Mayarat Farm. However, what cheered and excited me even more than the various bug-eaten greens were the idealism and life choices of two women, for example, who commuted each weekend from office jobs to keep their small fields thriving, retired experts on office automation and aviation security systems turned full-time Farmer Greenjeans. Most inspiring of all was the founder and self-appointed head Mom of Baan San Orphanage—begun to deal with children of parents lost in the tsunami and now expanded to some 70-80 kids, who support themselves in large part through the pure-of-purpose and purportedly organic papayas and pineapples, goats, and chickens they learn to raise.
Another belief held over from that time is a mistrust of top-down leadership, and here I found the young fellow identified to me as chief organizer, and current head of Bangkok’s chapter of the pro-diversity, anti-corporate Slow Food movement, refusing to give me his name or even accept credit for being in charge. He did at least steer me toward several mainstays of the market and veterans of the macrobiotic scene who tried to explain why so few of the producers were actually certified as “organic.” According to what several claimed, it’s bureaucratic and expensive (100,000 baht, some said) for a small operation to get labelled as “Bio-Agri”—required for exporting to Europe and such. In the meantime, I never quite got the difference between IFOAM, ACT, or USDA certifications. At K-Village, most items are indeed “self-certified,” on the basis of long-time familiarity and trust. As one vendor admitted, “We may not be entirely organic with our flour and such, but we are without preservatives for sure.” As another waxed eloquent, “We do as our grandfathers did, growing without any chemicals. The only thing we can’t measure entirely is the water we use, but we know fish can swim in it.”
Unfortunately, the farmers’ market movement has also been beset with exactly the sort of sectarianism and internecine fights that brought down much of the progressive Left back in the old days. As a result, the K-Village is but one rotating alternative food showplace that has been split into several competing events promoted by differing promoters. I’m not going to go into the details of all this, nor would I be able to chart the various factions or venues that have emerged.
Let’s just say it’s a good sign that there are now enough organic farmers and suppliers to spawn numerous weekend markets, including another staged at the Crystal Design Center. Look for the latest details on Facebook or the ‘Net, perhaps the only way to follow the various incarnations. One farmers’ market, with a slickly designed site hyping numerous classes for arcane subjects like how to grow mushrooms in old coffee grounds, told me all I needed to know about alternative Bangkok, except the address and times of the market’s existence—just a slight detail, probably subject to change.
It’s not so good a sign, however, that such a simple matter as finding healthy alternatives to Tesco or Foodland has gotten so complicated.
By John Krich