Chatuchak is a football stadium-sized market in Bangkok with hundreds of stalls, selling everything from fully roasted pigs to endangered species. You can buy anything there but you have to find it first.
By David G. Allan
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in April 2002 on the website TheDharmaBums.com. David’s CNN.com column, The Wisdom Project, can be subscribed to here: https://tinyletter.com/wisdomproject
Your mission, should you choose it accept it, is to track down a rare photograph in a city of 9 million people. This is the highest priority, your girlfriend’s birthday, and Mission: Improbable. This web page will self-destruct in 10 seconds.
[Bum-bum, badda-bum-bum, badda-bum-bum. Badda-bum-bum. Diddi-doo, diddi-doo…]
My favorite restaurant in Thailand is the coffeeshop in the Atlanta Hotel, in walking distance to our apartment. The hotel itself has an old art deco style interior and back in the ’50s the Atlanta was the first hotel in the city to have a pool and even its own yachts for patrons.
The restaurant/coffeeshop boasts the largest and most delicious vegetarian selection in the city, highlighted by a savory mushroom-made meat substitute called “quorn” (recently approved by the FDA in the United States). It also plays an excellent soundtrack of jazz and big band music at night, classical in the morning. The patrons are farang, but a cooler class of foreigner, because, they have found the Atlanta. But the crown jewel of the restaurant is an old black and white photograph featuring the current King Rama IV playing his saxophone, jamming with none other than band leader Benny Goodman on clarinet, and Louis Armstrong on trumpet. On the far right, behind a bongo and enjoying himself, is a young and good-looking George Bush, senior.
We love Louis. Benny is the man. We live in the Kingdom. And George Bush knows Kate’s parents. In fact the former president wrote her a recommendation…to kindergarten. So for months now I’ve been coveting that photograph as a potential birthday present for her.
I started by practicing how to ask about the photo in Thai with my Thai teacher. We went back and forth until I had it down. My Thai teacher’s joke, when I would ask where I could purchase the photograph after explaining that I liked and wanted it, was to say, “Mai ruu.” (I don’t know.) She thought that was so funny.
Finally one night I went to the Atlanta and had dinner by myself and stuttered in my broken Thai how I liked the photo, wanted the photo and would they know where I could get a copy? “Mai ruu,” she said. Then I asked if I could take a picture of it with my digital camera. She reluctantly said I could.
A week later Kate and I had plans to go to the beach for the weekend with friends. I backed out saying I had too much work to do, mainly so I could try to find the photograph at the biggest, nuttiest, shopping Thunderdome experience in Bangkok: the weekend market of Chatuchak.
Chatuchak is a football stadium-sized market with hundreds of stalls, selling everything from fully roasted pigs to endangered species. You can buy anything there but you have to find it first. Popular with bargain-hunting tourists as well as Thais from around the country, the weekend-only market is the place for Thai shopping.
I went Saturday morning, hoping to avoid the crowds and the heat (we’re at the height of the hot season now), and found myself in the middle of both. If this all sounds like I’m setting myself up as some kind of boyfriend-hero-martyr: I am. Not because I missed a weekend at the beach or because I was on the hunt for the perfect birthday gift, but because, next to racism and football, I hate shopping. For me, it is an outer layer of Hell. (God: David Allan, you have sinned. Now you must shop for eternity at Chatuchak market, with racist football players.)
Things started promising enough. The fifth antique stall I found had postcard-sized photos of the King on display. There was the famous photo of the King with Elvis (our King). There was the King with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. The King as a young Buddhist monk. The King with a pretty dog his lap. The King sailing. Et cetera, et cetera, and so forth. I had my digital camera with me so I could pull up the photo I had taken at the Atlanta Hotel on the viewscreen and show them the photo I was asking about in my broken Thai. “Yes, yes!” the man said, “I think I have that one in the back!”
I couldn’t believe my luck. The man said he was helping another customer and asked if I could come back in a short while. I agreed and went off in a less focused search of other things I needed. Despite the crowds and the increasing heat and the madness of it all, I was overjoyed that my search had been so easy. I wandered for awhile among the stalls of cock fighting roosters, Hello Kitty clothing, and batik you-name-its. I even found one area that was an open-air hair salon. I showed the photo on my digital camera to a few more antique dealers all of whom didn’t have it and had no idea where I should go. I wasn’t too worried because I had the ace up my sleeve the whole time. Then I decided to go back…oops.
Forgot to drop the bread crumbs. I turned in the direction I had come from and ended up in a new place altogether. Then I backtracked again. Another new area. Panic. I went in a new direction and ended up in a place I had already been. I pulled out my handy Nancy Chandler map and then closed it; a map is useless, you see, if you don’t where you are in it nor where you’re going. I had found the photograph but lost myself. So then I made my way to the edge of the beast and took the long way back to where I entered the market’s belly and, at last, found the shop again.
The owner looked at his watch, smiled at my tardiness and said he had the photo. He then proudly held up a grainy 3x5 shot of the picture. “Oh,” I said. This was not what I had in mind. I knew how to tell him in Thai that I wanted a bigger one. He didn’t have one. He tried to sell me large pictures of the King petting the dog — “Very popular,” he said in English pointing to the dog. I asked him if he knew where I could get a big picture of the King’s jam session. “Mai ruu,” he said, laughing and shaking his head like it was a stupid question. I thanked him and bought the small photo, at least I wouldn’t have to keep using my camera.
The next couple of hours were miserable. The crowds got thicker. The temperature rose and no one had the photograph. The more I wandered, the further away I seemed from the right area. As Australians would say, I was “off the plot.” I kept drinking water to keep myself cool but I could feel myself getting delirious as I made my way through the shopping ant farm. I was dripping with sweat. I decided I must have been a materialistic person in a past life and this was how I had to work off my Karma. At one point I saw an exit and took it just to stand outside the market and relax, and was quickly besieged by tuk-tuk drivers trying to take me for a ride (in both senses of the word). One guy looked at me and said, “You like go shopping?” It was the only time I smiled.
Back in the fray I grew increasingly discouraged. Another hour of heat, crowd, shopping, heat, crowd, shopping. All stalls started to blend together. I was convinced that I had seen the whole thing and that no picture would be found. And frustrated at no one and impatient with everyone, I was about to give up. And then I saw it.
Or most of it. It was the picture. But George Bush was missing. (Just ’cause he was a one-term president…) The sweet 70-something woman who owned it said she could get it for me, with the missing president, in two weeks. I smiled. “Would you like my name or a deposit?” I asked. “No,” she said. And smiled.
I left, skeptical I would see her or the photograph in two weeks, but she was my only hope.
Two weeks later, Kate’s oldest friend, Rebecca, and her boyfriend Jonathan were visiting. Jonathan is a religious runner and I asked if I could use an imaginary invitation to run with him one morning as cover to pick up the photograph. He and Rebecca excitedly agreed to be in on the surprise and Jon and I took a cab back to Chatuchak. We got lost looking for the woman, naturally, but eventually found her and the picture was in good shape and with Mr. Bush in attendance.
We came back, not sweaty enough to have been running and after more time than it would have taken to run. But Kate was unsuspecting and fully surprised a week later when she opened it up the morning of her birthday.