It’s hard not to stumble across a Thai food market while in Thailand. They make for an excellent place to get a glimpse of the locals in action and to discover unrefined whole food. While it’s fun to browse and watch the buzz from the sidelines, it’s an entirely different experience when you need to buy something! Here are things you can expect while shopping at a Thai food market and some tips for a more enjoyable and successful experience.
What to Expect at a Thai Food Market
Shopping at a Thai food market can be rather intimidating, overwhelming, and even a bit awkward at first. A simple trip to buy groceries can suddenly turn into an unsettling event, making it easy to succumb to a nearby grocery store instead. So, what can you expect if you shop at a local Thai food market?
You will be looked at more than you are used to, which may cause you to shy away. This is especially true for smaller markets or markets farther from touristy areas. It’s not uncommon to see a foreigner at a Thai food market, but it is unusual to see one shopping and carrying around groceries. All eyes are on you as you walk through the vendors with your rustling bags. The best things to do is look up and smile. You will ultimately receive a smile in return.
Fumbling with Cash
Thai food markets accept cash only, so get used to handling loose bills and change. Fumbling with notes and coins combined with bags of groceries slipping down your wrists can be a recipe for disaster when trying to pay a vendor.
Unless you are in a touristy area, expect prices to be given in Thai. This is where it gets tempting to go to a grocery store where you can use a credit card and see the total bill on an electronic display pad.
Eyes, nose, and ears will experience sensory overload. Prepare yourself for the shocking bits, such as internal organs, rodents, roasted insects, boggy stews, and whole fish complete with eyes and teeth on display. Your nose may be offended by the smells of drying seafood, fermenting pork, stinking drainage water, and souring fruit. People chatter away and all you can do is stare blankly at the vendor who just grunted a price in your direction. There will be a lot going on around you!
Be prepared for some unwanted surprises. Whether it’s because you’ve purchased something out of sheer curiosity or because you recognized it as something else, you may end up purchasing something that turns you off.
We’ve purchased sweet coconut sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf, but a second seemingly identical leaf package turned out to be a putrid egg and vegetable mixture. Surprise!
Gone are the days where you silently browse the aisles when shopping for groceries, avoid eye contact, and barely say a word to the cashier before making an exit. There is far more human interaction at a Thai food market!
Expect there to be different vendors for whole fruit, cut fruit, vegetables, chicken, eggs, pork, curry pastes, rice, grilled goods, take-home noodles, or fried meats. This can easily cause a half-dozen different transactions in a single shopping trip, so be ready.
Different Level of Hygiene
For a lack of a better way to describe the circumstances, the level of hygiene is probably less than your favorite grocery store back home. Flies land on meat and are lazily swatted away; hands handle cash and immediately touch raw produce; dirty water runs through open troughs in the sidewalk; bowls of prepared food are left uncovered. It’s the darker side of the market, but even with these practices in place, they continue to successfully operate day in and day out.
Thai Food Market Shopping Tips
Shopping at a Thai food market can be more gratifying and productive if you are better prepared. These tips should prevent your from stumbling during your visits.
Bring Small Bills
This includes 20, 50, 100 baht notes. It is difficult to break 1000 baht notes simply because everything is so cheap! For a smoother and faster transaction, avoid paying in coins.
Listen for Thai Numbers
Although some vendors will give the price in English, those farther from touristy areas will rattle off a number in Thai. Learn your Thai numbers so that your payment transaction is smooth.
If you didn’t catch it the first time, a simple “Arrai nah?” (“Pardon me?”) will do. If you are still unsure, your best bet is to hand over a 100 baht note and collect the change. Chances are, you didn’t make a large enough purchase and you’ve handed over enough.
Bring Your Own Shopping Bag
There aren’t grocery carts or baskets available at Thai food markets. After several purchases, you may find shopping increasingly difficult due to the collection of cumbersome and heavy bags hanging on your arms and wrists.
Invest in a reusable shoulder bag or even a backpack and bring it with you. Freeing up your arms and hands is practical and makes shopping more enjoyable. This also makes the ride back home easier if you are walking, or are riding a bicycle or a motorbike.
Make Eye Contact with the Vendors
There is no need to yell in abbreviated English or wave your hands in a produce or meat vendor’s direction when you want to buy something. Instead, be patient (they may be busy!) and after making eye contact, the vendors will hand you a small basket to use to fill with your choices. Otherwise, small plastic bags are often laid alongside the goods so that it is easy to choose what you want and then hand the bag to the vendor to be weighed and priced.
Buy Meat and Eggs Last
There is a good chance that you will be exposed to raw meat juices if you decide to buy meat at an open-aired Thai food market. Some vendors make an effort to use a different hand to touch the meat than they do with money. However, others will accept your meat, weigh it, bag it, and then reach for your money – all with the same bloody gloved hand. Try your best to give exact change, and carry a bottle of hand sanitizer just in case.
Eggs are sold in bags or flat cases. Without the familiar half-dozen or dozen egg carton packaging, be careful handling them. Saving their purchase until the end reduces the risk of breaking them before getting home.
And the Cost?
When shopping for fruit and vegetables, some items can be purchased by the bag (chilies, garlic, scallions, pre-cut fruit), others by the bunch (greens, long green beans, herbs, bananas), but most are purchased by the kilo. Prices are often on display, but sometimes items are unmarked.
Here’s a few examples of how incredibly cheap fresh produce is from a Thai food market:
- Small bags or bunches of vegetables are 5-10 baht (15 to 30 cents each)
- Fruit ranges from 30-50 baht per kilo (50 to 75 cents a pound)
- Chicken is 80-100 baht per kilo, ($1.25-$1.50 per pound)
- Small bags of prepared rice or noodles are 10 baht (30 cents)
- Ten pack of large eggs are 40 baht ($1.30)
- Bags of prepared meals (30 baht) ($1)