Alternative Shopping, Alternative Food
You’re probably all thinking, there’s already so much variety, how can there be alternatives to food and shopping?
Well, it’s sort of like Nana Plaza is different from Cowboy, and is different from Patpong – even though they’re just a loose collection of similar bars and gogos. Then you have the open-air bars of Pattaya and Patong (Phuket). The last time I was in Chaweng (Samui Island) it was only just starting up, but I hear they’re quite similar (and just as mercenary) these days. Then, of course, you have establishments that cater to a specific group – where two ladies are more fun than one. Not forgetting the barbershops where you can get more than just your hair cut, and the massage places that massage every muscle…
So why not alternative food and shopping?
Not everyone who visits the Land of Smiles necessarily indulges full-time of the nightlife; many people do want to bring back souvenirs of their trips. To many people, the food and the shopping IS the highlight of the trip, as Thailand is considered cheap even within Asia itself.
So, where do people go? The shopping centers around town are popular with both locals and tourists; many people also appreciate the air-conditioning. The larger ones also have food courts where a lot of the local fare can be found, and it’s not expensive either.
Pratunam is known for clothes – this however is more of a wholesale place with three-tier pricing. Bobey – also known for clothes – although on the lower end of the scale – is catching up pricewise. The favourite shopping center is still Mah Boon Krong (also known as MBK center), and all the assorted shops in the nearby Siam Square.
Panthip Plaza – I remember this as a sleepy shopping center with mainly amulet shops on the ground floor and very little else – is now a bustling IT center. Close by, there is Fortune Towers, also dealing with IT. Other places are too far out of town to merit more than a mention here – ZEER Rangsit is similar to Panthip in that it caters mainly to the IT sector. Then there’s Future Park, even further out past the airport than ZEER, that’s larger than Mah Boon Krong and is very popular with the locals.
The similarity of the places above is that they are air-conditioned, there is parking available, and you can get most of what you want – at shopping center prices. That is, the rents, overheads etc have been factored into the profit margin. I’m not one to quibble over a few baht more, but one of the problems of these places is that the product ranges are quite limited. It’s something like walking into Nana during peak hours – everything looks the same but different.
The Chatuchak weekend market is a little different – a flea market on a fairly large scale. It is on many tourist’s agendas, and if you haven’t been, it’s considered a missed opportunity. Sort of like Patpong. I find both to be crowded and overrated. These days, the variety that could be found in Chatuchak is not there any more, and the goods are no longer cheap. Many large factories now rent a stall or three – take ceramics for example. They have a very high turnover, so they can afford the rent as opposed to the smaller ones that used to add the variety to the place before they got priced out.
So what are the alternatives?
One of my favourites is the Ban Moh area. This place teems with cheap electronics; you can get almost anything from component level – resistors, capacitors and IC chips, all the way to complete disco lighting systems. The area is in the Phra Nakorn district, and spans the general area around the Old Siam Plaza between Pahurat Road and Charoen Krung Road, all the way down to Asadang Road. This is paradise for the hobbyist, as they sell all kinds of electronic kits from light sensors to amplifiers. If you aren’t quite into building it yourself, many vendors also sell built-up amplifiers, albeit without a brand name. I bought quite a nice example – twenty watts output with a built-in AM/FM receiver and three additional imputs, all in a nice case – for the equivalent of fifty-five US dollars. It has yet to break down after almost two years of constant use.
Many stalls have CDs and VCDs for sale; a couple of them offer speaker cone repair while you wait. On the main road, others are rewiring fan motors; just bring your old one and it’ll get fixed in about two hours. You’re free to roam the other sois while you wait.
Going a little further East, you’ll get to the Burapha Road area. This is where many of the gun shops are located. Not quite my cup of tea, but I’ve seen some things in the shop window displays that would make an M-16 look like a toy…
On the other side of Pahurat Road there is a fairly large collection of Indian vendors. Here you can get all those aromatic spices and blends, colourful sarees and many shops just selling buttons. Yes, buttons. The sheer variety and amount would astound you. Also, if you’re into Indian food, this is also the place to roam.
Yaowarat Road is not far away, and this is what is considered the Chinatown area. Almost anything chinese – herbs, medicines, and fruits can be found. The chestnuts being roasted on the roadside smell great. There are also shops specializing in just sharks’ fins or bird’s nests. I find it amazing how some people will pay so much for a swallow’s nest that is made out of the bird’s dried saliva… Yaowarat is also a favourite place for your female companion of the past few nights to bring you shopping – as this is where all the gold shops are.
Another favourite place of mine is the Klong Thom area. It is not too far from Ban Moh, but I would recommend some form of public transport as it’s a little too far to walk. I’d say it’s loosely centered around Charoen Krung, Mahajak and Worachak Roads. My favourite start-off point is the Klong Thom Center. There are lots of small shops selling electrical goods, car accessories and … Well, you’ve just got to go by yourself. As a friend said, ’If you have two thousand baht, you’ll find a way to spend it all. If you had five times the amount, you’d still find a way..’. Things I have bought range from a dozen LED flashlights that you have to keep charged with a sliding magnet incorporated in the barrel, two Gameboy cartridges that my son wanted (yes, I do bring him sometimes) at half the shopping center prices, a halogen spotlight for my house, special tools you can’t find anywhere else (I like special tools – like the flexible 3/8 inch drive to get at the more difficult parts of the car). There were a couple of shops just selling radio-controlled toys (battery-operated), others with home-security equipment – absolutely great! I have been approached on occasion while roaming the adjacent sois by some fellow with a brochure for battery-operated appendages of the male kind… makes me wonder if some of the more adventurous ladies from the Pong or Nana have been out this way? The stun guns other vendors kept demonstrating (zaaaap!!) did have me worried, though.
The main disadvantage of these places is that traffic is horrendous, and parking is virtually non-existent. The lack of airconditioning does not bother me, as I do tend to lose track of time while I’m out here.
As for food…
I’m a bit of a gourmet, so the Thais don’t worry about me finding something to eat if I’m out in the boonies with them. Sometimes I think they’re playing games with me. After all, I’ve tried a fried cricket or two, but it doesn’t tickle my fancy.
I do like the Tom Leud Moo, literally ’Pig’s blood soup’. It is a typical breakfast meal consisting of pork intestines, spleen, liver and cubes of congealed blood in a clear soup. This is eaten with a bowl or two of boiled rice and is standard fare almost anywhere.
I’ve tried freshwater turtle soup (from what they referred to as a ‘jungle’ restaurant), ‘pad prik moo paa’ wild boar fried with chili, and ‘pad prik ngoo hao’ cobra fried with chili. Frankly, all I could taste was the chili…
I sometimes get the company driver to bring me to places where I’m too lazy to drive myself, and need the truck as opposed to the car. When this happens, I’ll usually buy him lunch on the way to wherever we’re going or coming from. I do have some favourites that I have found on my own, and he quite liked the ‘kway chap’ – a flat square noodle served with pork organs in a Chinese spice flavoured gravy that is also quite standard fare, that I found way out near Putha Monthon.
One day, we’re off to Ban Moh to get some electronic spares. We’ll get there a little before lunch so I brought a map and the name of a place I heard about that is well known for it’s food. After going around a bit, we finally find the place, go in and sit down. He’s giving me a strange look. Someone comes to take the order, and it’s probably one of the family members that run this small business. ‘Two with everything?’ I nod. ‘Rice?’ another nod. While we’re waiting, I look around. There are some people in ties, others from the nearby government offices slowly drifting in. There are no empty tables. Our order arrives. The driver looks at me, so I just say, ’After you.’ It’s considered good manners. He lifts a spoonful of soup to his mouth and takes a sip. His eyebrows go up. ‘Good?’ I ask. ‘Good’, he smiles. Yes, after trying it, it was good. It was made in the same style as the pork blood soup. But as he admitted later, ‘I’ve never tried pork brain soup before.’
I’ve heard there’s another shop somewhere near Chinatown serving something similar…