With travel restrictions imposed throughout the world, we have launched a new series, The World Through Lenses, where photojournalists help transport you, virtually, to some of the most beautiful and interesting places on our planet. This week, Louise Palmberg shares a collection of photographs from markets and food stalls in Bangkok.
Earlier this year, to seek inspiration outside the world of food in New York (and not yet locked by the spread of Covid-19), I spent two weeks visiting and documenting life among new markets and street vendors in and around Bangkok.
It was made for impossible travel plans because tourists in Thailand often spend only one or two days in the capital before heading south to many of the country’s islands.
But, because I got energy from Thailand’s rich culinary heritage, I ventured – by train, motorcycle taxi and tuk tuk – into an endless array of scenes and exchanges.
What surprised me most was the mobility of various food operations. At the Maeklong Railway Market in Samut Songkhram, about 40 miles southwest of Bangkok, the active railway line cuts clean lines directly through the vendor station; their tents and umbrellas were pulled, with only a few inches, each time the train arrived and departed.
The aroma here is rich and spicy – smoked, cured, dried and fresh seafood, along with various forms of meat, both raw and cooked. Awnings above the stall create a dark atmosphere interspersed by thin lines of dancing light.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, which has been linked to wildlife sales on the market in Wuhan, China, the practice is on some of Bangkok’s markets has raised concerns about the potential spread of disease between animals and humans – although nothing too problematic has ever caught my attention.
The views of riding trains to and from the market are equally enticing. I watched my fellow passengers, their hair blowing in the wind, and staring at the steady stream of water sea salt farms glow in the distance.
At the nearest Damnoen Saduak floating market, traders paddle past wooden boats filled with goods: fruits, vegetables, noodles, spices, flowers.
One vendor, now in his 80s, says he has been serving noodles by boat here for 60 years.
At the Khlong Toei market, one of the largest and most traded in Bangkok, I was lost in a maze of small alleys – and, despite spending a few hours here, I experienced only a fraction of what was offered.
Observing the sellers themselves is truly amazing: their calm, their efficiency, the smoothness of their movements. I watched, stunned, when a woman wrapped fried spring rolls in a large skillet, expertly making three at a time. The dexterity and accuracy of the movements are truly compelling.
The market here attracts many tourists. But they are also important for restaurant owners and local chefs. It was common to see tuk-tuks and departed motorbikes loaded with vegetables, immediately displayed as fresh ingredients on plates and bowls throughout the city.
Even though I didn’t know it at the time, this trip will prove to be the last for a while. Lately I’ve found myself rethinking moments of closeness – squeezing through the aisles of a busy market, or sitting on brightly colored plastic benches in narrow street stalls, or drinking beer with new acquaintances. It’s hard to reconcile those times with my current reality, where I was stuck alone in my Brooklyn apartment for months, talking to anyone but my plants.
For a while, the dissonance made it difficult for me to look back at the photos and videos from my trip; I miss the warmth and sensation I just experienced. But because time has passed, I have been quiet in my quarantine, I can see it now with a certain fondness. In the end, there was no doubt that I left with a lot of creative inspiration – both from the people I met and the many food cultures in which I was invited to participate.
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