Bang Kao, you might say, is a place that’s famed for its obscurity. While most holidaymakers are happy to stay in the north and east of the island, the south gets a scant look-in when it comes to visitors. And that’s precisely its main draw. Everything is slow here. The zippiness of the rest of the island seems bizarrely manic once you arrive in the southern districts. The peacefulness of Bang Kao and its environs may one day be a thing of the past, but not yet – the area seems keen to preserve traditional ways, and hasn’t seen the massive influx of population of the rest of the island. Recently it’s become a bit better known thanks to its night market, or ‘walking street’, as Thais call it. What’s a walking street? It’s in most cases a weekly event with a zoned-off area that is turned into an impromptu night-market of instant eateries, drink counters selling everything from fruit shakes to mojitos, and then a myriad of stalls selling clothes, souvenirs and a miscellany of goods that fall in a vague territory between knick-knacks and gadgetry.
If you’ve ever been to one of the ‘walking streets’, you’ll know that they can be dizzyingly packed-out: thousands of people converge on them all looking for a good time, whether it be eating, shopping or socializing – or all three, more likely. For some the sheer numbers are off-putting, and shouldering your way through a crowd isn’t everyone’s idea of fun.
If that’s you, then you should head for Bang Kao. It’s different. It’s accessible. It’s more local. No traffic jams as the market opens and closes. It doesn’t seek to max out on numbers of people/stalls/goods. Crowd overload is definitely not part of the equation. It is also quite picturesque, and that’s because it’s not packed along a road or lane but is held right on the beach, surrounded by coconut trees. The market is held every Saturday, and starts off at around 5:00 pm, though a lot of time is spent beforehand with vendors setting up their stalls and arranging their wares. The favoured method of transport is pick-up truck, and these start arriving in the afternoon to unload the stalls, which are quickly put together with almost military speed and precision. This is no place for perfectionism – the idea is to set up, sell and depart leaving no trace behind.
Bang Kao has something of a neighbourhood garage sale atmosphere; it’s very friendly and laid-back. And that goes for the vendors as well. Though it’s a tough job and one that requires the skills of camping, shop fitting and selling all at the same time. It’s also convivial. Vendors all know each-other, and there’s a lot of banter going on between them. How hard is it to be a vendor? Khun Lai, who runs a small clothing stall here, says that it’s much better than having a fixed job and having to do what the boss wants. It’s also more money, she says – well, most of the time. There’s a lot of thought that goes into what will sell, and if an idea doesn’t pan out, she and her friends have to think of something else, and pretty quickly.
One big challenge is the weather. All the stallholders here are well-versed in meteorology, and can read a sky quicker than the lottery results! It’s more than an individual reckoning; it’s a group prediction too. You’ll see a whole line of vendors reach for plastic sheeting almost in unison as a cloud starts to move in from across the sea, and their goods are already covered even as the wind whips up the sand into everyone’s faces.
For most of the night markets, Khun Lai is also dictated to by the tourist seasons, though Bang Kao is a bit of an exception. And that’s because relatively few holidaymakers have even heard about this place. “Everyone knows about Bophut,” she says. “Bang Kao is different.” She goes on to explain it’s a lot more for locals, how almost everyone is from the surrounding area. Relatively few come from further away, but she reckons more will come as word gets around.
At Bang Kao, as in the other night markets, there’s plenty of food to be had, almost all of it is Thai, and much of it is deep-fried. Try spicy tod man pla (fishcakes with a punch), or those eternal standbys of fried chicken or spring rolls. (Use the tongs provided and pick up the wing, leg or breast you’d like and place it on the paper.) Nothing’s expensive, and you’ll end up doing what most people do, grazing on the food. These are staples that will keep you going, though nobody’s proclaiming their healthiness.
You’ll also cut-price find clothes from dresses and tops, to t-shirts and swimwear. You can also pick up souvenirs – these tend to change quite often, depending on what’s in vogue – and usually a stall selling electronic accessories. More or less, the same things are on sale most weeks, but not always. You can never count on any one vendor to come the week after. Everything is moveable here, literally, of course. Meanwhile, bargain if you can and want to. Definitely bargain if you’re buying a couple of items from the same stall. When you’re both in agreement, then that’s the price; no going back. A nod, grunt or smile from both parties is the seal. Your word is your bond – it’s been the same at markets for millennia. The vendor may show you the price on a calculator, a modern touch. Increasingly some prices are fixed; bargaining may be fun if you’re new to it, but for a vendor, it can get too old quickly. Incidentally, the market here has probably the best prices for the island’s walking streets. The bigger the market and the more holidaymakers there are, the higher the prices go.
Around 10:00 pm, the market goes into a sudden reverse of the process that started in the afternoon; now all the goods are put away into giant bags and boxes and nimble hands dismantle the stalls. Then come the pick-up trucks. Everything’s loaded up and the vehicles trundle off down the road.
By 11:00 pm the street is virtually deserted. All the stalls are gone. Just a while after that, the last few people leave. The silence is complete. Lights are out in the houses, the day is done. No-one to witness the emptiness here. The waves lap on the shore, and apart from the tides coming in and out, nothing’s set to change till next week, when the pick-up trucks will again rumble down the road with their goods and the night market will kick off once more.