Samui Wining & Dining
BIG, BRIGHT,BOLD
Chaweng Lake’s Night Market is a feast not just for the eyes, but all the senses.

Chaweng Lake’s Night Market is a feast not just for the eyes, but all the senses.Saturday night has rolled round again. And like all Saturday nights, just across from Central Festival in Chaweng, dozens of trucks pull up; nimble passengers leap out and speedily unload tables, chairs, boxes, awnings, signs and so on. In minutes they’ll have put together fully-equipped stalls. Ready to go? Absolutely! These are vendors who have nigh-on military routines; most evenings, as night falls, they’re already set up and raring to sell at a different venue somewhere on the island.

          

In Thai-style English, these night markets are bizarrely known as ‘walking streets’ – the street being turned for a few hours into a pedestrian zone, where the only option is to walk. Highly popular amongst Thais, holidaymakers and foreign residents alike, a walking street is a chance to relax and enjoy the local atmosphere. It was Bangkok Governor Bichit Rattakul who first started the walking streets during an economic downturn, in an effort to perk up communities’ sluggish revenues and to help them promote their local goods. He certainly succeeded: on Samui, walking streets have an attendance of thousands every week, and can make fortunes for some of the more intrepid vendors. (A popular cocktail stall on Samui that I know of nets some 20,000 baht per night during high season!)

The walking street at Chaweng Lake, like all others, is an occasion to overload the senses. Each of the stalls occupies its own tiny but vibrant space. Colours whirl, ranging from bright pastel to the downright fluorescent. Over loudspeakers by the lake comes pumping music – on a stage brightly adorned classical Thai dancers pirouette to ancient rhythms that have been given a breakneck beat. Meantime, the smell of food underpins everything. People come hungry, grab bags of food and focus, if they can, on the tastes.

          

No two Saturdays here at the lake are totally alike. You’ll usually see the same selection of stalls, though there are always newcomers, while others may be taking a break. And depending on the season, the market can be packed or fairly quiet. Everything’s in flux, as shifting as a tide, but by midnight the entire area will be deserted again.

          

On the night I go, it seems relatively quiet, but is still buzzy. More and more people are arriving, crossing the road from Central Festival, where there’s plenty of parking for bikes and cars.

          

There’s food aplenty. First off, that old temple-fair favourite, fried bugs, though here they’re sold along with, of all things, crepes. The food is mostly Thai with vendors cooking and serving right on the spot. Over by the lake, people are forming a small but eager queue for seafood, while others are selling salted fish and still others are flipping dark carapaces on their backs to reveal many-legged creatures that you might imagine belong only in the cinema. Chaweng Lake’s Night Market is a feast not just for the eyes, but all the senses.The Thais are holding out money, the critters get bagged – good bargains all round, it seems. Non-Thais lean away, vaguely disquieted. This is the food, naked and raw, that’ll grace Thai tables and draw wows. When in Rome...

          

Pad Thai is an all-nation favourite, and two stalls are selling it tonight. There are also pancakes, which you can adorn in various ways, Nutella and banana, being de rigueur amongst kids. As cooking methods go, deep-fried rules all walking streets, and this one’s no different: everywhere you’ll see woks atop gas bottles, Thai staples sizzling, ready to go. Plenty of fried chicken awaits, along with spring rolls and the ever-popular spicy fish cakes. Don’t worry if you can’t speak Thai – simply point to what you want or use the tongs to place what you want on greaseproof paper. Prices are generally written somewhere on the stall, and they’re invariably cheap.

          

This being walking street, most people are indeed walking. And many are eating as they go. But here there are also – at least tonight – two sit-down eateries. Bright blue plastic chairs are the seating for the first and for the other, rattan mats in front of low communal tables graced with a variety of condiments, herbs and edible leaves. Sitting down here, you don’t need to make conversation with your neighbour and there’s no kind of ceremony involved. As space is limited, it’s not the place to linger. But you won’t want to, there’s too much to see elsewhere.

          

To offset a heavy dose of fried food, head for the fruit stalls, dotted around the market. You can find quite a variety, but you may have to look. At a stall, I spy a traditional raised round rattan tray packed with colourful goodies, and round them are woven a string of fairy lights. The delicate pink of dragon fruit, bright yellow bananas, a fat watermelon, waiting to be sliced up, and incongruously – did they run out of them? – a plastic pineapple.

          

I next head over to an ice-cream stall where the vendor regales me with how it is produced. I start taking a few notes, telling him I’m writing a story for a magazine, and he continues eagerly. But then frowns and I can see he’s getting edgy. Suddenly he stops altogether. “You can’t write that,” he says. His voice slows, looking at the paper. “Give it to me.” Still smiling, as if he’s going to perform a conjuring trick, his eyes lock on mine as one arm deftly reaches out taking the paper, while his other hand lifts the pen so gently from my fingers that it seems to be floating away. He gracefully puts a single line through a single sentence, peers at it. “You can’t write this,” he says again. And then he gets going. Each word now is now turned into sudden coils of biro. Everything is now hidden by the scribble version of rolled barbed wire. He gives the paper back to me, smiles and shakes my hand,Chaweng Lake’s Night Market is a feast not just for the eyes, but all the senses. declares we’re friends. I’m not sure what could be wrong about writing about ice-cream, but he’s definitely very concerned. I’ve heard of ice-cream wars and know that they can get triggered by seemingly innocuous moments. Is this one of them? Does he know more than I do? But it seems trouble’s been avoided, and I hear no warning warble of icecream trucks approaching.

          

The market fakes things at times, but clearly so. There are things here that are unexpected. The buggy, chicken-filled night is also a place to go shopping for a ‘Rolex’. A stall sells a good few rows of them. But the owner seems to have no worries at all about shoplifters. He has his back turned, busy on his cell phone as I head towards the watches. I ask the price of one. “1,200 baht,” he says, with quiet dignity. When I ponder the price he civilly asks, “How much do you expect to pay?” I’m not sure. I know a used one can be 2,000 dollars but for a new one? 5,000 dollars? I know also it depends on the country where you purchase it. But 1,200 baht seems to be ridiculously cheap, and the guy seems enthusiastic about bargaining. I appear to be looking at a perfect timepiece. I need a new watch but this isn’t it.

          

Some of the holidaymakers are buying souvenirs. There are many stalls with t-shirts of all kinds, and a variety of other places selling a diverse selection of products. How about a shoulder bag or a brightly-woven purse featuring hill tribe colours and motifs? Or a beautifully hollowedout coconut shell, that’s been inlaid with eggshell and then painted? None of these items could be easily found outside Thailand. And then there’s the more garish and international ... a pink light-up Hello Kitty doll, a radio-active green baseball, a mix of superhero figurines and an entire stall devoted to over-colourful Bob Marley memorabilia.

          

Some people are taking a respite from the walking street, sitting quietly and eating by the lake, in darkness now, while others are heading in the opposite direction, back across the road to Central Festival, a very different and more modern shopping venue.

          

Between lake and mall sits the night market, and while it may also have electric lighting, strung from trees and poles and may seem quite modern, its origins are far more ancient. There have always been night markets from the moment when mankind first learned to light up the darkness, and tonight’s walking street is direct descendant from some original, primordial market thousands of years ago. It’s in the blood to come to places like these, and no matter what kind of country you find yourself in, no matter if it’s exotic or not, there’s always something archetypally familiar about such places. And here it’s a heady pull that will tug you in to its own atmosphere. Just make sure you’re ready for sights, sounds and smells that are totally Thai and get ready to tuck into some challenging new foods.

          

 Dimitri Waring


 


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