Traffic is bumper to bumper on Srinakarin Road. Horns cry out as mall lights flicker to life against the backdrop of blue-gray sky. In parking lots, families file out of their Hondas and Hilux in their Saturday clothes. The streets are packed, the sidewalks more so, and people keep spilling out of little red songthaew parked in front of Seacon Square like office workers at the end of business hours.
Near Soi 51, the regiment of shoppers march past an auto body repair shop and into a tunnel bordered by denim stores, dog groomers, and bars the size of karaoke lounges. The familiar chorus of Jason Mraz cover songs and loud, nasal chatter echoes against brick walls. Yellow bulbs illuminate the shops like individual theatres. At the end of the tunnel, the vista suddenly swells, unveiling a city-like expanse of open-air boutiques and food stalls —Talad Rot Fai, the now-famous train market.
On weekends, the train market draws teens and tweens, expats and antique hounds, beer geeks, music lovers, and skateboarders alike. What started as a site for antique shopping has run the gauntlet and come out the other side as a destination for every shade of the rank and file.
Five years ago, the market was little more than one man, Phirot Roikaew, and a tract of land in Jatujak owned by the State Railway of Thailand. In that abandoned zone of red dirt and dried grass he set up his shop, Rod’s Antiques. Then, some of his merchant friends, who also dealt in antiques, asked to join him. Others soon followed. Before long, a colourful, Chaucerian world of a market had formed, where street food and used shoes were as abundant as turn-of-the-century antiques and Japanese figurines. The laid-back vibe of its unpretentious bars appealed to more and more visitors, and so it earned a reputation as a relaxed spot to spend a night in the company of friends with a soundtrack of cover songs and soft indie rock. After the market was unexpectedly evicted, it reappeared on the eastern limits of Bangkok on a plot nearly twice the size of its original location.
On any given Friday or Saturday night — even in monsoon season, despite the threat of impending storms — thousands of pleasure-seekers (or gluttons for punishment) fill out the market’s 60 rai. Past the introductory food and shopping zone, which could standalone as a market, Talad Rot Fai opens into the massive bazaar which attracts its regulars and rookies. Here, the narrow lanes of vendors incorporate elements of the modern Thai night market. For sale are smart phone accessories, sweaters and shirts for small pets, cheap graphic tees, and all manner of chintz. To one side of the canopies sits the new home of Rod’s Antiques, a brick-walled treasure trove of goods. On the other side is a covered food centre that extends along a driving range, where everything from ice cream to fried chicken and pla pao form a potpourri of pungent aromas.
The main attraction, however, is the “Warehouse Zone,” through which an open concourse runs where teens ride BMX bikes and skateboard between cigarette breaks. The shops here house a hoarder’s attic of antiques — vintage bar signs from America, thread bare dolls, random spare car parts, scooters, chairs, clocks: even, occasionally, old parking metres — and the bar restaurants provide extra space for live bands to perform. Special events are often held in this zone, including concerts featuring relatively big-name Thai bands, like Paradox. The warehouses continue the traditions set forth by the original venue, giving outsiders a different view of Bangkok’s nightlife.
The escalators are practically empty. From the platform to the ticket booth, the path is open and clear. White light and a smell like vinyl and lavender perfume may give the MRT all the splendour of a hospital corridor, but it’s an appropriate comparison — the entire train system is sterile and organized, a foil to the intimate, sweat-inducing songthaew and buses that link Sukhumvit Road to Srinakarin. There are even signs pointing the way to Talad Rot Fai Ratchada.
Emerging from the underground offers a stark contrast to the antiseptic MRT. Smoke rises from the grill of a sausage vendor parked on the sidewalk at the mouth of the exit. From there, traffic grinds to a halt as the footpath further congests. Flowers, fresh coconut water, plastic toys. The vendors capitalize on the thousands who pass by Wednesday through Sunday, but also clog the artery. Though it’s only been around since January, the latest incarnation of the train market is already a hit. Mimicking the mystique of its sprawling big brother, this smaller, second version deals in cheap and vintage clothes, stunning and occasionally creepy antiques, and lots of food and drinks.
An array of colourful canopies — red, orange, yellow, green, sky and navy blue — lit up from the inside like circus balloons distinguishes the flat concrete surface behind the veritably Himalayan Esplanade. The bric-a-brac section (i.e. the canopy zone) is flanked by a glass-encased building selling niche home décor and antique sat one end, and a line of brick-and-mortar shops dealing clothes, haircuts, tattoos, and even more memorabilia on either side of it. One shop in particular, Oh!! Antique, draws a coterie of discerning collectors; its centuries-old goods are one-of-a-kind.
While the shopping options follow a tried and true formula, the food and drinks differentiate this train market from the other. A community of bars and restaurants line the perimeter of the market. The smorgasbord of options includes Holy Cheese, which serves Asian-inspired grilled cheese sandwiches on homemade bread, and its neighbouring garden café, where Italian-style soda swash down all the cheese; a couple of pop-ups pushing American food, like burgers, ribs, and pizzas; Thai street snacks and meals to share; and sushi. Tables are low, or old oil barrels, or the hoods of vintage cars. The crowds fill them early and then flock to the bars. The expected VW pop-ups, as well as more permanent, two-story structures, offer happy hours and buy-three-get-one deals that suggest the market might be just as comfortable if it were to evolve into a nightlife district.
From one night to the next, from the suburbs to the city centre, the two shades of Talad Rot Fai continue to transform the city’s recreational possibilities. Whether they’re window shopping, on the search for a good meal, or simply hanging out, the masses can settle in to one dynamic destination.