Neon-lit and sprawling, Bangkok is a sensory overload for even the most seasoned traveler. Everything here—the markets, the traffic, the heat—is big and brash, and sleep is but an afterthought to many. Seeking refuge from the midday heat, I stayed up late to visit the Pak Khlong Talat, the city's biggest flower market, in the wee hours of a weekday morning.
Pak Khlong Talat technically runs 24 hours a day, but it gets busiest in the pre-dawn hours, when deliveries arrive and hotels, restaurants, and florists stock up on blossoms at wholesale prices. Taking over a narrow stretch of Chak Phet Road near the Memorial Bridge along the Chao Phraya river, the market is a maze of narrow corridors and cavernous warehouse spaces, every square foot lined with dazzling fauna from across Thailand: delicate orchids, exotic roses, and pearlescent lotus buds, kept cool on ice. Above all else, there are orange-hued marigold blossoms, woven into garlands called phuang malai, sold here literally by the bushel. The garlands symbolize good luck and respect, and all across Thailand, they adorn everything from Buddhist temples to taxicabs.
I took a city bus south to the Bridge, stepping off into a night air perfumed with smell of fresh plants. A ring of streetside flower vendors lines the actual market complex, and tuk-tuks and pickup trucks crowd the pavement, loading in (and out) industrial-sized plastic bags full of flowers. Women sat perched on tiny stools, threading individual marigold and jasmine buds into circular wreaths, laughing with each other while their fingers danced with mechanical precision.
Shirtless men in rubber galoshes raced dolly carts full of bamboo flower buckets up and down a narrow footpath, somehow avoiding careening into each other. Through the passageway, the market opened up into a great hangar-like covered space, with petal-strewn men chain-smoking and yelling at each other. Trays of crushed ice from the lotus buds were scattered everywhere, leaving the air cool and the floor slick with water. I stood dazed, in the middle of a corridor, until a vendor angrily nicked my ankle with his cart and scowled at me. This is not a place to gawk, his expression read. Pony up or get out.
Back in the relative safety of the sidewalk, I wandered the outdoor booths. Leafy ferns, neon-tinted daisies, and banana-leaf cigarettes that are popular as temple offerings: they were everywhere, spilling out into the street, traffic at a standstill while motorbikes tied on bags of the things. Some of the vendors slept, perched atop a fragrant mattress of marigolds, oblivious to the bustle around them. Fishball and grilled pork vendors rolled their pushcarts through the crowd, ringing tinny-sounding bells to attract customers.
Hectic and harried as the scene was, the sweet scent of the flowers still floated over the asphalt, perfuming everything with a subtle sense of calm. A vendor gave me a tiny purple-and-white phuang malai for free, shooing away my cash. I wore it on my wrist the whole ride home, feeling lucky indeed.
: Photo Credits: Market: Tamara Kushch / Shutterstock.com by Tamara Kushch via Shutterstock.com; Lotus Buds: Lotus Buds Snowwhiteimages/Dreamstime.com; Thai Flower Garland: Thai Flower Garland in market via Shutterstock.com