There's a saying that if you really want to get to know a country, you should visit its local markets. In Thailand, that's certainly true; you can soak up a whole lot of local flavour – and eat some, too – just by walking around the local market (or talad in Thai).
Thai fresh markets are cornucopias of colourful fruit and vegetables, prepared snacks and food, chunks of red or green curry, dried foods, unrecognizable merchandise, dodgy CDs, DVDs and computer games, brightly hued T-shirts and jeans, hair accessories, handicrafts, and not to mention second-hand shoes, name-brand copies… all of which are offered at bargain prices.
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Fresh markets and weekly markets
Basically, there are 2 types of markets in Thailand. The first type is known as a talad sod (or fresh/wet market) which is a more permanent market. They always operate in the same place, at the same time and for 7 days a week.
The second type is talad nat ('appointment' or 'meeting' markets) which is like the weekend markets you'll find in many other countries where farmers bring their produce into town to sell. It is basically a community market. There are lots of them; almost every village, big or small, will have one. Local shoppers love them because the produce on sale is usually fresher than in supermarkets and cheaper too.
But then, like with most things in life, there is an exception. One of the most talked-about markets in Phuket is the weekend market called Talad Tai Rot on Chao Fa West Road near Central Festival Phuket. This is a typical Thai bazaar, featuring all sorts of items similar to those sold at the other 2 market types above.
In most markets, there's very little order to things. You may find barbecued chicken next to a second-hand shoe stall. Or, if you're lucky, you might find some sexy underwear for sale next to the seafood stand. Lobsters and lace – talk about exotic.
With Phuket being surrounded by fertile fishing grounds, the fresh seafood at most local markets makes for a fascinating sight. You can see huge groupers, big juicy tunas, red snappers, thousands of tiny silvery anchovies and shiny white squid all laying side by side on a bed of ice.
On top of the standard pork or chicken displays in the market, the most fun comes in seeing things you would never encounter on a hotel menu (think fried grasshoppers and some tasty silkworms).
Herbs and vegetables
Among the vegetable stalls, you’ll find a bewildering selection of greens (and reds, yellows, purples and pretty much every other colour of vegetable). Thais don't just eat the fruit and leaves of plants; at a typical vegetable stand you'll find on sale everything from the roots to the stems, the seeds and even the flowers. It’s a common sight to see mountains of garlic, aubergines – both long and short green runner beans – and bright-orange carrots, potatoes, shiny red tomatoes and glistening salads.
Many of the greens that you'll see will be herbs, which add the flavours and aromas that Thai food is so justifiably celebrated for. Herbs can also confer medical benefits. Trouble sleeping? Eating ta-krai (lemongrass) may help. And there's one variety that will keep the mosquitoes away if you rub the juice on your skin. Blogged-up dose? Sa-ra-nae (Thai mint), can be a big help. Embarrassed to wear dark clothes because of dandruff? The juice of ma-krood (kaffir lime) should help.
Cooked food (or Thai takeaways)
Thailand's markets are also a good opportunity to appreciate how rich in food the country is, and many shoppers take home an entire cooked meal wrapped and bagged along with their fresh veggies and fruit at the end of their shopping foray.
There are usually quite a few cooked-food stands in one market. If you look closely you will find all kinds of curries to spicy soups and salads, stir-fried dishes and more. Perhaps the most convenient item to sample is the barbecued seafood, chicken or pork that goes so well with sticky rice.
Local sweets should not be missed either. There are varieties of sweets and desserts to choose from those sweet stalls; bua loy (rice balls in coconut milk), khao niao mamuang (ripe mango with coconut milk on steamed sticky rice), buad faktong (pumpkin in coconut milk) and kha-nom mo gang (egg custard pudding), to name just a few.
Where to find markets in Phuket?
Many market traders move from site to site around the island selling their merchandise at talad nats. In reality, there are dozens of these markets that open daily in Phuket come rain or shine, and you won't have any trouble finding one. If you’re driving past one, slow right down as the traffic around the markets is at best unpredictable and at worst impassable. Park up the road and walk back a little to catch a glimpse of the 'real' Thailand and enjoy your bargain lesson in Thai culture!
Staff at your hotel should be able to tell you where and when the nearest one is open. Alternatively, see the list below for the locations of some of the markets, and the days on which they operate.
- Baanzan Fresh Market. Located right behind Jungceylon Shopping Mall - Daily from 9am to 7pm
- Nanai Road Fresh Market. Not far from Baanzan Market - Daily from 8am to 8pm
- Talad Nat near Chalong Circle. Heading south toward Rawai Beach, the market is just about 200 metres from the circle, on the right-hand side of the road - Sundays from 6am to 12pm
- Talad sod opposite Villa Mall, Chalong - Daily from 6am to 12pm
- Talad Nat near shell museum on Viset Road - Daily from 2pm to 8pm
- Talad Nat in Soi Saliga on Viset road - Wednesdays and Sundays from 2pm to 8pm
- Talad Nat opposite Friendship Beach on Viset Road heading to Rawai Beach - Tuesdays and Fridays from 3pm to 7pm
- Talad Nat opposite Vijitt Resort & Spa on Viset Road - Wednesdays and Sundays from 3pm to 7pm
Karon and Kata Beach
- Talad Nat on Patak Road - Mondays and Thursdays from 12pm to 8pm
- Talad Nat at Wat Karon - Fridays from 4pm to 9pm and Tuesdays from 4pm to 11pm
- Kamala Talad Nat on the back road, on the way to Patong Beach - Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays from 2pm to 8pm
- Kamala Friday Market is a bigger market than the one above, located at the coconut plantation opposite Phuket FantaSea - Fridays from 2pm to 7.30pm
Bangtao Beach and Cherng Talay area
- Talad Nat opposite the Cherng Talay Police Station - Wednesdays and Sundays from 1pm to 8pm
- Talad Nat next to Tesco Lotus Express - Mondays and Thursdays from 1pm to 8pm
Nai Yang Beach and Phuket Airport area
- Talad Nat at Wat Nai Yang. Toward the airport using the old road (road no # 4031), you'll pass by the Nai Yang Temple. The market operates inside the temple - Saturdays and Tuesdays from 2pm to 8pm
- Talad Nat opposite Shell Gas Station is 200 metres past the Blue Canyon Golf Club on Thepkasattri Road (Airport Road) - Sundays from 2pm to 8pm
- Muang Tong Fresh Market. Coming from Cape Panwa on Sakdidet Road, at the first traffic lights (look for a 7-Eleven shop at the corner), turn left and the market is about 200 - 300 metres from the turn opposite a Tesco Lotus Express Shop - Daily from 7am to 10pm
- Fresh market at the Heroine’s monument. The market is located in a simple building with a tin roof on the right-hand side of the monument if you're facing north - Daily from 5am to 10am
- Talad Nat at Wat Pra Nang Sang. Located inside the well-known Pra Nang Sang Temple, before Thalang main traffic lights - Tuesdays and Fridays from 2pm to 8pm
- Baan Kian fresh market. Turn left at the Thalang main traffic lights. The market is a few metres after the turn - Daily from 7am to 5pm
- Talad Nat at Suan Pa Bang Kanun Park. Thepkasattri Road opposite Mung Thalang School and not far from Mea Juh Phuket Souvenir Shop - Wednesdays and Fridays from 2pm to 8pm
- Pa Klock Talad Nat. From Heroine’s Monument, turn east toward Pa Klock, the market is about 7 km from the monument and located just a few metres past the Old Age Home and the Phuket Special School. Best to look for the signs - you can’t miss it - Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from 2pm to 8pm
- Ranong Road Main Market. Phuket Town's main market on Ranong Road has been operating since time immemorial. Although the market itself has recently been completely rebuilt this is the same site that pirates, traders and adventurers would frequent for their business dealings. Many vendors open up shop as early as 4am and close around midday.
- Talad Tai Rot. The biggest market in Phuket, with over 1,000 stalls. On Chaofa West Road from Central Shopping Mall, heading south toward Chalong Bay direction; turn left at the first traffic light - Saturdays and Sundays from 4.30pm to 8.30pm
- Talad Nat at Soi Samkong. If coming from Tesco Lotus on Bypass Road, keep going east and go straight through the Samkong traffic lights and the second set of traffic lights. The market is a few hundred metres from the lights - Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 2pm to 8pm
- Talad Nat at Soi Panieng. If coming from Tesco Lotus on Bypass Road, head east and turn left at the first traffic light and continue for about 500 metres. The market is on the right-hand side in a very busy community - Daily from 2pm to 8pm
- Kwang Road Talad Nat. The market is located south of Phuket Town, on Chao Fa East Road opposite Siam Commercial Bank and not far from Phuket Villa California Housing Estate. The market is located just before the Kwang Road traffic lights - Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays from 2pm to 8pm
- Baan Na Kok Talad Nat. Located next to the TOT office, by the side of Land & House Housing Estate on Chao Fa West Road before reaching Wat Chalong - Daily from 2pm to 8pm
A note on money
It's wise to carry small change and some low denomination banknotes when you go to a talad nat. After all, the vendors are not generally related to the Rothschilds or the Vanderbilts, and they won't be carrying lots of cash to make change.
So don't expect to be very popular if you want to buy a 20-baht bunch of bananas and then ask for change for a 1,000-baht note.
And another note on feet
When you're going to the market in Phuket, put away your Jimmy Choo sandals and wear solid shoes that protect your feet. In some markets, especially after rain, you might even want to wear rubber boots – the ground may be wet and muddy.
If you insist on wearing flip-flops, do be careful where you step. Bashing your toes against a piece of wood or concrete is likely to take all the fun out of your shopping experience.
Take care, and enjoy your bargain lesson in Thai culture!