One of the greatest joys of living in Thailand, or traveling anywhere in Asia, is the opportunity to spend time in neighborhood markets. For me, the experience of wandering through the narrow aisles is at the top of my must see list of cultural events. The energy, sights, sounds and multitude of aromas envelope the visitor like a friendly embrace and don't let go until long after one leaves the carnival-like atmosphere.
Wandering through the maze of tiny lanes is the best way to get to know a people, their customs, their cuisine, and their social network. Nowhere else can one learn first hand and intimately the fabric that holds the Thai society together. It is the markets, not the town halls, that are the center of Thai--and as far as I can tell by my limited travels--Asian life in general. In the U.S., outside of major cities, the fresh markets sadly have disappeared, displaced by the air conditioned supermarkets where fresh means having just been flown in from South America. The farmer's markets are a bright spot, but lack the spontaneity, chaos, and delightful organic essence of Asian markets.
Forays to our local weekend market are always eagerly anticipated. Besides the vast arrays of fresh fruits and vegetables, we treat ourselves to special snacks and sample new food items that may ultimately be added to our shopping list, or in some cases, politely declined (some things just seem more suited to slithering through a natural area than ending up on my plate)!
One of the most satisfying aspects of shopping at the market is the familiarity that evolves between vendor and patron. We are often teased about buying fruit at another stall, or waved over so that we can be shown the pick of the lot, the juiciest or freshest, a vendor remembering our special tastes. In addition, there is the non-food section in which treasures await our serendipitous passing by: New designs from the jeweler, a new carving, or that special T shirt with the amazing artwork. We never fail to be surprised by some unique or amusing find.
People often ask, have I ever been sick? The answer is quite truthfully, not once in my five years of eating market food here have I ever caught a "bug." Food doesn't have to be wrapped in layers of plastic or sent through waves of radiation to be safe. Fresh from the gardens around Bangkok, food is the connection between people and serves as a social conduit. I love that part of being here.