What to know about (and how to navigate) fresh markets in Bangkok
We are based in Bangkok's famous Pak Khlong Talad Flower Market, so we know fresh markets pretty well!
However, for the uninitiated, fresh local produce markets in Bangkok and elsewhere across Thailand can be overwhelming. These places can be an assault on the senses, not to mention that as a first-timer you might well not know quite what you can buy here anyway, or indeed how to go about it. Whether you’re simply exploring Bangkok’s fresh markets for an authentic insight into local life or you’re on the hunt for fresh ingredients to whip up a Thai feast at home, we’ve got you covered – here’s what you need to know about shopping at your local Thai market in Bangkok or elsewhere in Thailand.
Know your basic kinds of stall
Few, if any, Thai markets have generic stalls where you can pick up everything you need like you would be able to in a supermarket. Instead, local markets are a collection of often a large number of stalls, each specialising in a different kind of produce.
There are stalls selling herbs, others selling vegetables, and yet others selling everything from fruit to curry pastes and fresh coconut milk to eggs to chicken to pork to beef to rice to fresh noodles to fish and seafood – and we’re likely forgetting one or two along the way there.
All but the smallest local markets will likely have at least a couple of stalls in each of these categories, but don’t expect them to be clumped together – different stalls are mingled in amongst each other, and half the fun is trekking through the market to find out what’s on offer.
Most markets will also have one or two ‘grocery’ stalls, as close to a generic all-in-one as you’re going to find, stocking store-cupboard staples like sugar, flour, oil, bottled sauces and seasonings, and perhaps rice, eggs, and a smaller catch-all selection of vegetables and herbs.
Of course, none of this is even counting the large spread of stalls selling ready-prepared dishes that are also woven in amongst the fresh produce at most Thai markets – they really are a treasure trove for serious foodies who don’t mind a challenge.
Don’t wait to be served
Just like at 7/11 counters and local-style street food stalls and restaurants, you’re not going to get very far at Bangkok’s fresh market stalls by standing around and politely looking into the air while you wait to be served. These markets are the stomping ground of local wok-master grannies and grandpas who know what they want and aren’t afraid to go out and get it – and for whom the narrow lanes of your local market have been their natural territory for decades.
In the local market, throw away your manners – within reason, of course – and, when you get to a stall and know what you want, pick it out from the display and either hand it over to the vendor, or place it on the side making clear that you’re buying it. It’s common practice to do this even if the vendor is in the middle of serving another customer, or someone else is picking out their produce at the same time – you’re staking your place in the queue, so to speak.
How to purchase and how much things cost
Different products are priced and sold in different ways at fresh Thai markets, and prices are usually displayed either on a placard wedged in alongside the produce itself or, in the case of bagged items, written in thick marker pen on the clear bag itself.
Herbs are often sold by the bunch or by the bag – you might pay 5 baht for a bunch of krapao holy basil leaves, for example, and 10 baht for a small bag of chillies. Fruit and vegetables are often sold by weight (usually by the kilogram, but sometimes also per 100g), but again you may also find some produce pre-bagged and priced (or per piece in the case of small fruits like limes) – the same is even true of seafood, especially towards the end of the trading day when things like prawns are often divided up into portions on individual plates and sold at a knock-down price in order to clear leftover stock.
Otherwise, fish, seafood and meat are almost always sold by the kilogram, half-kilo or on occasion per 100g (you might also find some fish sold by the piece). Eggs tend to sell in 10s rather than the dozens you might be accustomed to elsewhere; fresh curry pastes are often sold per 100g, while freshly made coconut milk tends to go by the kilogram.
As is the case anywhere, the price commanded by different products can vary wildly – a hundred baht may only get you just over half a kilogram of minced pork, but buy five baht’s worth of beansprouts and you might wish you had brought a wheelbarrow along to carry it all home in.
Picking out your produce
At most stalls (including fruit, vegetable, herb and egg stalls, among others), you can just go ahead and pick out the produce you want, and have the vendor bag it up and tell you the total. If that's not practical owing to the kind of item you’re buying (curry pastes that will be spooned out and weighed from large vats, for example, or coconut milk that’s extracted from coconuts to order), simply explain to the vendor what it is you need.
It’s normal to pick out your own eggs from the various sizes on offer, while at pork and beef stalls you tend to tell the vendor the cut and amount you would like. Chicken stalls, on the other hand, tend to have their wares out on display for you to pick out your wings, legs, feet and so on yourself and place them into a metal dish to be weighed. Many stalls have tongs to make this a less messy procedure, or failing that plastic bags turned inside out and fashioned into makeshift gloves – but most people just go right ahead and select produce with their hands, and stalls usually have a bowl of hand-washing water on hand with precisely this in mind.
If you can’t see what you want on display (and assuming you’re at the right kind of stall to fulfil your desires), do ask – you’ll be surprised at how much more stock is hidden from view, simply due to lack of display space, but readily available on request. Stroll past a pork stall, for example, and it might look like they only have pork belly, mince, and a few ribs, when in fact right behind the scenes there’s a fridge loaded with all manner of meaty cuts for the discerning cook who knows to ask.
Other money matters
It’s not customary to haggle at fresh food markets, at least certainly not when buying produce in the kinds of quantities most householders require – the price displayed is the price you’ll pay, and that’s almost certainly a lot less than you would expect at your local supermarket.
It goes without saying that local fresh markets are cash-only trading environments; most vendors do a roaring trade and so have plenty of change available, but it can still make things easier if you come armed with a wad of small notes to use as you dash between the stalls.
Bring your own reusable tote bag if you can, too – local markets get through heaps of plastic between pre-bagged produce and plastic carrier bags handed out with each purchase from a different stall, so any contribution you can make to lessening that wasteful practice is going to be worthwhile.
Expect varying levels of English to be spoken at different markets depending on the number of non-Thais in the local population – needless to say, being able to speak at least basic ‘survival Thai’ is going to make your life a lot easier but, if not, chances are you’ll still get by just fine with lots of gestures and pointing.
If you want someone to show you around a fresh market, then you can check out our market tours of the flower market. Through a market tour you will not just discover more about what is for sale, but a lot more about the local culture.
What are your tips for shopping in local fresh markets in Bangkok? Let us know in the comments!