Klong Toey market is a sprawling way station for something like half of the produce that reaches Bangkok’s restaurants every day, and no small amount of its meat and home goods either. Industrial-sized clear garbage bags full of limes are tossed from the backs of trucks, palettes of morning glory and parsley block the footpath, and whole pigs dangle freshly- swaying gutted at face level. It’s a bit horrific, not to mention a surrealist triumph of sorts.
Klong Toey is not at all for tourists. I saw no others and felt more than a few confused vendors’ eyes on me. The real action happens around four or five in the morning, with a noticeable slowdown by seven. As eight rolls around, the choice stuff is long gone. Some of the vendors, all but sold out, fold up their tables and enjoy a beer after a long night’s work. Come eleven AM, the place is a ghost town.
In addition to being gory and temporally inconvenient, Klong Toey is situated near one of the rougher areas of the city, a slum by the same name. The market is generally under the influence of the mafia and drug dealers who hold power in much of the slum. Every couple years, a bomb goes off late at night in the market, often with fatal results, as a warning shot in a turf war over stall position.
Given this humorlessness, it is undoubtedly a luxury to be able to aestheticize the sights and sounds of the market. And yet those dimensions are compelling. Like any tight and crowded space with a lot at stake, the vendors have refined a system of niche-based shouting to convey meaning amid the noise. What sounds like utter chaos to outsiders actually involves many layers of address – product pitches come one way, warnings to clear the path another, and machines another still. There is a kind of ecosystem at work:
In this, a woman who got her hands on a bunch of airline freebies – toothbrushes, toiletry cases, eye pillows – is selling them for rock-bottom prices near a cooler of cold drinks, aided by a tape-recorded advertisement plugged in to a little bullhorn.
The repetitive, mechanical voice of the recording occupies a unique niche adjacent to the warmth of human chatter. The vendor echoes and so punctuates her own tape.
Many vendors also keep pets in the market. Cats and dogs, just like on the side streets in the rest of the city, may or may not have homes, but people look after them as a good deed, a means of what’s often called making merit. (This commitment is motivated, to varying degrees, by Buddhist principles). Thus the market is filled with mangy, un-spayed or -neutered, but nevertheless well-fed animals.
In addition to cats and dogs, people keep songbirds in wooden cages above the front of their stalls. These are kept specifically for the beauty of their voices, as aural trimming:
The market, having been active for decades, is … seasoned. The people and objects that make it up have spent many years jostling for space (physical, political, sonic) until things have settled into a raging stasis. The result is not pretty in a conventional sense, save for the odd perfect pineapple, but there is grandeur in the coexistence of messy details, in the way that everything manages to work.
A vendor rolls coconuts into a basin: