Last week I had the privilege of spending two days in a writing workshop with the legendary travel writer Don George. It was a wonderful experience and he taught me a lot. Here’s a travel sketch I wrote in the class after we went out to explore the local Thai market.
The hectic mess of the Thai market lay in front of me. Higgildy piggildy like young students jostling in the playground on their first day of school, shop keepers are grouped together, some sitting, others standing. A few men are horizontal, getting a few minutes shut eye in between customers.
A slightly plump Thai man sits on a rusty metal platform, delicately rolling the green beetle leaves between his sausage-like fingers. A waft of sewage burns the corners of my nostrils, curling up like tendrils from the green slime that lies on the road, startling my senses.
I lift the ends of my loose pants and step delicately around the puddles of water and past the beetle leaf rolling man as he works steadily, one eye on what he’s doing and another on the old TV set in the corner of his market stall that is playing a Thai soap opera, volume full bore over the bustle of the market noise.
Thai market exploration
I press further forward, into the shaded eaves of the stalls. A trader with his street food wares nudges past me, ringing his bell. A wide brimmed hat covers half his face and despite the heat of the day, he wears a long sleeved shirt and a shiny football singlet over his clothed torso to complete the look.
On his cart he is selling what looks like potato cakes, some half cooked and others blackened. One end of the cart is a counter top and the other half looks like the top of a barbeque plate, linked into the belly of his contraption by wires snaking intricately beneath a covered surface. Before I can take a closer look at the food, he’s gone, feet shuffling in his flip flops as he disappears through the crowd.
The differences shopping in the Western world
Seeing a glimpse of this food vendor, I think back to the brightly lit supermarket shelves of my home in Australia. The cleanliness. The sterile shelves packed tightly with washing powder, fabric softener and other cleaning products down one aisle, chocolates and sweets hanging from shelving racks down the next. Products laid neatly in rows displaying their brightly coloured packaging, everything perfectly in its place under the harsh fluorescent lighting.
Back in the market, as I walk deeper in to the bowels of the stalls and crowd, the light gets dimmer but rather than feeling oppressed, I feel liberated. I’m exploring a world unseen by many Australians and although it may assault the senses, it’s much more mysterious to me than a supermarket with all its items carefully labelled.
A distinguished gentleman walks towards me from the opposite direction. Brandishing his umbrella like a cane, he has his head held high despite his poor posture, bent over from his many years upon this earth. A top his head is a white turban, wrapped neatly and sitting tall.
I round the corner and the sewage smell is gone, replaced by a warm and gentle smell of baking bread. Two women, in their mid-30s and wearing t-shirts and shorts, sit high on a platform, almost like they’re upon a stage, preparing the Thai version of flat bread.
A large vat of dough lies next to them and one of the women takes the lead, dipping her fingers deep into the stainless steel container, lifting out soft clumps of the mixture and slinging it with precise control on to the hot plate. Her other hand performs a circling motion and using a flat cooking utensil she lightly pushes on the dough, creating a perfectly round circle. Seamlessly, she flips these breads over before passing them quickly to her accomplice, who stacks them on neat piles in front of her. Methodical organisation amongst the chaos.