Bangkok is many things, but is especially a city of temples and markets. Foreign visitors love to learn about Thai culture and religion in the former and spend their nights (and money) in the latter.
Among all the fascinating markets of Bangkok, there is one that in my opinion, and according to most locals too, stands out for its originality and charm: Rot Fai Train Market in Srinakarin.
Back when I was living in Bangkok, it was one of my favourite places to kill a Friday or Saturday evening, alone or with friends. Nowadays, I still believe it will be one of the most enjoyable experiences you can have in the city, no matter how many entertainment activities the city has to offer.
Displaying piles upon piles of shoes and hippie clothing, antique furniture, vintage cars, spare parts, advertising and road signs, Rot Fai is a huge open-air market.
As well as the unique, vintage goods and clothing the market is famous for, there are also normal shops offering everyday merchandise and typical items such as hats, socks and underwear; there are pubs and restaurants, hair salons, tattoo parlours and a skate park.
Last month, during a short trip to the Capital, I went back to Rot Fai to check out how it looked after more than a year in lock down.
On a Friday evening, after a very pleasant dinner at La Pala Restaurant (check it out for authentic Italian cuisine in a very central location, just next door to Asoke BTS), I decided to travel to Rot Fai Night Market to see how it looked following the forced closure caused by Covid.
After strolling the streets of Bangkok all day, under an April heat wave, I was exhausted, so instead of riding the BTS, I opted for a taxi.
7:30 pm is a risky time to cross the city by car, yet I reached Rot Fai in about 45 minutes, not bad considering the rush hour nightmare that is traffic in Bangkok.
Some Thai eateries, a few pubs, hair salons and barbershops flank Rot Fai’s main entrance.
A skate park was bustling with children and teenagers, but I hadn’t seen it during my prior visits, so I guess it’s a new addition to the market.
Although not jam-packed, I was pleased to see that the market was animated.
Rot Fai’s first district is dominated by shops offering trendy clothing, camping gear and handbags as well as popular Korean and Thai eateries and cafes located inside shipping containers, train wagons and trailers. Don’t be fooled into believing this is the only area to explore; keep walking around the vast plot of land until you come across the more interesting parts.
While you are strolling around, you can stop for a Pad Thai, a mango and sticky rice, some Pad Krapao, Fish Balls or BBQ Ribs that are sold in street food stalls.
If you feel adventurous and wish to try something beyond Western standards, there are several insect vendors that offer crunchy crickets, grasshoppers and silk worms.
In the first district, look for an old-style café serving juices, cold drinks and snacks.
In front of the shop there’s a vintage bicycle with the Coca-Cola logo on it, as well as a slew of old posters and advertisements.
According to a Thai acquaintance who was a child in the 1970s, this cafe looks exactly like the one she used to go after-school to buy snacks ad candies.
After a hearty Italian meal, I had little desire to eat at the market’s food stalls and instead headed straight for the second and third districts which house the market’s vintage cars and antique furniture warehouses.
In the second and third districts of Rot Fai Srinakarin, known as the Warehouses and Rod’ Antiques, you’ll stumble upon hard-to-find items such as 1950s Cadillacs and Volkswagen minivans, old record players and jukeboxes, tin children’s cars and scooters as well as one-of-a-kind vintage leather jackets and boots, 1960s Adidas sneakers and Japanese action figures.
The Carabao and the Beatles cafés that I remember from before the Covid pandemic are no longer there, but most of the other Road 66 style diners are still there and open.
The impression of walking in an abandoned mining town in the middle of the American desert is evoked by gas pumps and rusty lampposts and traffic lights. An American bomber has been placed on the roof of a two-storey building, its wings and cabin towering over the stores below, while a chopper is parked in between the warehouses.
The warehouses are my favourite place to shoot movies and take photos because the sellers are always welcoming and the selection of goods impressive.
If you have been watching Netflix’s “Strangers Things”, you’ll recognise vintage cameras, soda bottles, motorcycle parts and sneakers of that era, while in other sections of the market you’ll have the impression to have been transported back in time to the time of James Dean.
Some of the sellers are also collectors, so you never know what you’ll come across the next time you visit.
For copyright reasons, I was unable to record the music playing at the shops: a fantastic mix of jazz from the Fifties, early rock ‘n’ roll and traditional Thai folk tunes.
Among the stacks of Vance and All Stars shoes, Elvis recordings and life-size mannequins, I couldn’t help but love the music and want to dance with strangers.
You don’t see this kind of gathering in tourist areas or bars downtown, and that’s what I love most about Rot Fai Market: the laid-back attitude of everyone involved, from vendors to consumers.
At night, families with young children, teens on bikes and skateboards and senior folks sipping Singha all gather in the market area. We, the foreigners, are able to fit in and not to draw attention in such a diversified crowd.
Don’t forget that the vintage goods on show at this market are guaranteed to be original, so don’t bargain too hard: if the price is high, there’s a good reason for it.
Even if you don’t know much about vintage items, or even if you aren’t a fan, Rot Fai Srinakarin’s genuine charm and welcoming atmosphere will win you over.
It’s true that there is no easy way to return to Asoke or Silom in the middle of the night, after the BTS trains stop, but the night market is a must-see when you travel to Bangkok, it’s a lot of fun and a great place to pick some souvenirs, so don’t miss it.