Since the calamity which struck Bangkok’s Talat Rot Fai vintage market back in the summer of 2013 – vendors who had for some time been discussions with the state railway authorities who own the land and intend to build on it as part of a new extension to the city’s Skytrain system, were surprised to find the plot suddenly approached by bulldozers intent on tearing the place to shreds – its fate has been somewhat uncertain. The market had grown increasingly in popularity since it first made its way onto the radar of Bangkokians in 2011, but the chain of events following the bulldozing threw things into chaos.
Firstly vendors were granted a reprieve to continue trading at a warehouse near to the old site in Saphan Khwai; but before they could register to do that, black-clothed figures began threatening railway employees, warning them to stay away from the land and preventing them from letting the traders in. Though the railway authorities later insisted it had all been a misunderstanding with former sub-tenants who didn’t realise their own contracts on the land had long expired, Talat Rot Fai’s organisers ultimately decided the uncertainty was too unsettling and opted instead to relocate to the other side of Bangkok, behind the Seacon Square shopping centre on Srinakarin soi 51.
Things got off to a shaky start for the market’s new venue (which apparently handily already existed, but was only in the early stages as a spin-off), with noticeably lower numbers of traders and customers and a very different feel to the place. The latter remains – partly made up of fixed shops in a covered area and partly good old stalls pitched up on the floor and out of the backs of camper vans as it used to be, the market nevertheless has a much smoother-round-the-edge image than before, with its neater rows of vendors, its own sales office and even clean toilets. It’s all in stark contrast to the early days of the former Saphan Khwai location, where things took place only semi officially on the pretty much squatted former railway land, with access initially only through a hole in the fence at one end of a car park.
Business is picking up, though, which helps bring back some of the buzz that made Talat Rot Fai what it was in its glory days – the more down-to-earth side of the market is expanding at breakneck speed, and food options are perhaps even more plentiful than at the old site. The camper vans and in particular the old retro cars doubling up as makeshift bars are still as much in evidence as ever, though the focus on genuine retro goods seems to have been lost in part (and they’re somewhat pushed to one small corner of the space) – you’re far more likely to come across cheap tack during your wander than you ever were before. That’s a dangerous direction for the management to be letting things drift if they want to retain some differentiation from the myriad of other markets on offer in this city (see how much things have changed? I’m talking about ‘management’ at a market that used to at least appear as a pretty much free-for-all affair). The demographic also seems to have shunted slightly – Talat Rot Fai was always young at heart, but it’s got even younger if the number of school-age kids wandering the lots is anything to go by; whether that’s the cause or effect of the plethora of mass market goods on offer is up for debate.
While the old location gifted the market with ready-made railway sleepers that were the real deal and made the perfect home for bars or just as side props, over in Srinakarin they’ve had to be creative. In part that means knocking up replica buildings and sleepers based on what there was before; and in part it has meant pretty impressively bringing in actual decommissioned train carriages – just to ram home the message that this is a railway-themed market in case their slightly irritating translations of ‘Train Market’ on the everywhere-you-look branded banners doesn’t get through to you (perhaps it’s just me, but ‘Talat Rot Fai’ has more appeal and isn’t a nightmare for non-Thai speakers to remember; in truth, the name is but a hint to the market’s now more distant heritage, and what goes on there every weekend actually has very little to do with trains at all).
Talat Rot Fai has yet to regain the same atmosphere that made it what it was over on the JJ side of town – and perhaps it never will, because it was the edgy and ramshackle, spontaneous and unofficial-verging-on-downright-illegal side of it that was the real appeal, after all – but it’s now at least a little bit closer to achieving that. For all that it now lacks in public transport connectivity, it’s still a relatively off-the-radar spot (it’s more foreigner-free now that all the outdated guidebooks have tourists headed to Saphan Khwai in vain) to spend a chilled-out Friday night chowing down on something cheap and tasty, then browsing the wares with a cold beer in hand. There’s actually more variety in the shopping experience now than before and, while you might now end up with a run-of-the-mill t-shirt or cuddly toy, chances are you might well still stumble over that vintage jewel of a clonked out typewriter or 1950s glass Coke bottle. Just what you’ve always longed for.
Talat Rot Fai runs on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings from sundown. It’s located behind Seacon Square shopping centre on Srinakarin Road soi 51; you’re best off asking a taxi or tuk-tuk driver to take you to Seacon as they may not have heard of the market, or more likely be just as confused as everyone else about where it actually is these days. Buses run past but there’s no direct Skytrain or subway route; to come by BTS, jump off at Udomsuk station and take a motorbike taxi to avoid the traffic – expect to pay around 50 baht for the ride. The market is well signposted from the right-hand side of Seacon Square as you’re looking at it; you need to head round the back as there’s no direct access from the shopping centre. For the journey home, there’s a huddle of motorbike taxi drivers at the entrance to the market, or it’s easy enough to pick up a taxi on the road outside.