Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Asiatique - Review of Bangkok's Riverside Night Market

renovated East Asiatic warehouses by

Attractions, food, directions for Bangkok’s shiniest night bazaar: Has Asiatique replaced the late, lamented Suan Lum market?

Updated OctoberTourists in town for a few days will find enough to buy, eat and be amused by at Bangkok’s newest, flashiest night market by the river.  Opened in spring 2012, Asiatique is shinier, more upmarket, than its chief rival, Siam Paradise Night Bazaar, or the defunct Suan Lum Night Market—and much more than the Onnuj night market. 

Yet Asiatique might not pull much in the way of weekend crowds away from Paragon or Siam Center malls, despite the glossy commercials for Asiatique. Featuring an Asian woman in 1920s garb and bobbed hair, they project a more upscale image than actual fact. Besides a lack of air-conditioning between the renovated warehouses--not that it's needed--Asiatique doesn’t boast Paragon's designer-label clothing shops nor a Gap, Giordano, Pena, Uniqlo, Zara or Forever 21.

Asiatique market layout

You can see a bigger version of graphic of the market’s layout at left on the market's website but, really, you don’t need it to get around. Asiatique claims to have well over 1,000 shops, but it doesn’t feel like that many. It doesn’t take long to make a circuit of the warehouses and figure out what’s there. Rest assured, Asiatique does not resemble the maze of the Chatuchak Weekend Market. The restaurants, shops and theaters are housed in about ten clearly marked, rehabbed brick warehouses.

From the late 19th century, during the reign of King Chulalongkorn, the property was owned by Denmark’s East Asiatic Company. The Italianate-style building in the "Factory" area used to be the trading company's office and is a little over 100 years old. (I'm confused, though: did it displace the earlier, more ornate Venetian building near the present-day Oriental Hotel? The Louis Leonowens trading company building is also nearby. ) For most of the period, there were few roads, and the Chao Phraya River was Siam’s major highway. Teak logs, rice and other export products were towed down here from the central plains by barges to be stored or processed in the “factories” until loaded on ships. TCC, probably Thailand’s largest private property owner, bought the property in 1987 and clearly has invested a great deal in refurbishment. TCC's owner also produces Chang beer and Mekhong whiskey.

Maybe too much: I’d welcome a photo exhibit of how the property looked in bygone days. There are bronze statues of an old pedal-powered rickshaws or pedicabs and of Chinese coolies squatting on their heels on a bench as they slurp noodles. Supposedly there's a tram circulating but it wasn't running the evening I was there. Of course there are still plenty of pedicabs in operation in Thailand, though not with a coolie driver. I have even seen them near the Nonthaburi pier not so long ago.

Shopping: Scarves, Handbags, Shoes, Kids Clothes

Night market shop in Bangkok

Shoes and hill tribe bags

For those attempting some quickie souvenir shopping, yes, the new market contains much of the same merchandise that made the old Suan Lum night market so popular. Pashima shawls? Check. Wallets? Check. 

Silk scarves, T-shirts, eyeglasses, sunglasses, casual dresses, shoes, jewelry, children’s clothing, toys, Buddha images and home d├ęcor items? Check, check, check. (Pirate DVDs? No.) And, yes, you can haggle for a discount. The bazaar is clean, safe, spacious and well-illuminated, a pleasant place to wander around without hassles or fear of pickpockets. Singaporeans will love it.

If I hadn't taken notes, I would not have estimated that so many products were on sale. Asiatique doesn’t offer the sheer variety of goods that the old Suan Lum market did or present-day, all-day, Khao San Road still does. If you’re looking for a large choice of t-shirts, beach shorts or cheap watches , you’re better off at Siam Square's low-brow MBK Mall. I spied one shop at Asiatique with shawls and scarves but any mid-range hotel will have a better-stocked shop on the premises. 

For stylish smartphone cases, little toys and cloth purses, you’ll find a greater range by strolling the stalls that sprout up in the evening on Rajadamri Road next to the CentralWorld mall or on Silom Road. Seems to me that Suan Lum also had more shops run by young Thai fashion designers targeting the middle-class female office worker. If you want to see a good sampling of those, the alley shops running south of Siam Square during the day are a superior place to go. Asiatique does have Minalmalistix, which sells its own cool designs in inexpensive sneakers and casual shoes in Warehouse 1. There as well is Green Cotton, with its all-white clothing line, but isn't it in every mall?

The shoppers bound to be most disappointed will be looking for the pricier items that made Suan Lum popular with time-pressed tourists. A few Asiatique shops sell furniture, cookware, prematurely-aged wood carvings and “antiques,” Buddha images, bronzeware, ceramics, cloth flowers, framed paintings, commercial art, pillows, lamps and lighting. But to attract return visitors, Asiatique needs the specialized city shops and home product exporters to regard Asiatique as a display window or calling card. Set Up is one company that recognizes this; it sells handsome stainless steel tableware and cutlery, both finished and made to order, at small outlets in both Warehouses 1 and 3. Perhaps more craftsmen will pick up on this idea as additional Asiatique facilities open. TCC has big plans for the next ten years. 

Food:  Capri, Irish Pub, Tappanyaki, Fast Food

Micro brewery at Asiatique night market Thailand

Belgian beer on tap 

Next priority for visitors and residents alike is food.  Supposedly there are 40 restaurants but, once again, there doesn't seem to be that many. The swankiest restaurants are on the river side of the market, Most are not directly on the river.These would be Capri, Brasserie 9 and Checkmate, the places to make reservations for visiting business acquaintances you want to impress. They serve Thai  and Mediterranean fusion food. An entree can run around 500-600 baht--quite high for Bangkok. Capri even had a chanteuse attempting a Gaga cover the evening I was there. Next there is the popular Kacha Kacha, serving Japanese teppanyaki, and Nikuya Japanese BBQ.  Hoegaarden isn’t a garden but does serve fruity, fluffy white draft Belgian beer. 

Along the wide promenade between where the boats dock and the warehouses, in the drier seasons open-air beer gardens sometimes pop up and there's Happy Fish@Asiatique, the choicest eatery if you want to be in the open air close to the water. Restaurant and wine bar, Happy Fish serves Thai and Italian food at price points a bit lower than Checkmate and Capri. On the weekends and sometimes on week nights, Thai bands entertain. I don't know if it takes reservations, but here's the phone number: 083 015 9988, a mobile number.  Best bet on a weekend: get there before 7.

Moving farther away from the riverfront, there’s the self-explanatory Flann O’Brien’s, which includes an outdoor dining area. If any place is going to become a sports bar, this would be it. There are a few “nicer” restaurants and coffee bars in this area.

As I progressed to the bazaar’s backside on Charoen Krung Road (“New Road”),   the foot traffic picked up. This is the side that seems to be a local hangout with the chain restaurants so popular in Thailand: Yum Saap (pretty decent, inexpensive basic Thai salads and the like with choice of heat levels), fast food stalwarts Chester’s and KFC, Pizza Company, Au Bon Pain, MK, Yayoi Japanese restaurant and, naturally, Dunkin’ Donuts. I somehow missed the open-air food court, called Food Circus, though from others' conflicting reports I wonder if there are some days when vendors or stalls are allowed to set up. There are a few of the usual streetside vendors along Charoen Krung Road.

informal breakdancing at bangkok night bazaar

B-boys breaking their heads

Among other temporary events that Asiatique needs to pull local crowds is a huge, tented beer garden. In fact, Siam Paradise (Punnawithi) night market is a better choice if you’re looking for an outdoor beer garden with a big screen to watch the major football matches. But Asiatique could do it; there’s plenty of open-air space here. The riverside promenade would be an ideal spot but there are also plenty of spaces between the warehouses and around what’s called the “town center.” 

Entertainment: Calypso Lady-Boy Cabaret, Thai Puppets

One Suan Lum favorite has moved to Asiatique. This is the Joe Louis troupe, a family that nightly performs scenes from the Ramayama (or, as Thais call it, the Ramakien) with a type of Thai marionettes called hun lakorn lek. The show now has its own theater. The family also makes masks for human khon dancers. This is a good place to buy well-made masks.

The Joe Louis website is operational but  doesn't have information about booking or performance times. You must email  ( or call landlines 02-688-3322 or 02-688-0909 or try mobile phones 081-731-4620/22.  I suggest a phone call. Those numbers are from the English contact page, so you should reach an English speaker. 

(And if you're still interested in Thai puppetry, the National Museum has displays of several types. This is a lovely book that also covers khon masks and can be bought at River Books in the old city.)

The market's other major theatrical presentation, also with its own theater, began nightly performances in late 2012. That's the Las Vegas-style Calypso Cabaret, which used to perform at the seedy old Asia Hotel.  The shows begin at 8:15 pm and 9:45 pm. If you want to book for an Asiatique show, information on this site is the most up to date. The Asiatique premises are supposed to be accessible to those in wheelchairs. You can also now book through Thai TicketMajor (click the "live show" tab). If you're wary about running a credit card over the internet, recall there are TicketMajor outlets at all the Bangkok Major cineplexes, where you can pay a human with cash or credit card.

Calypso's tall dancing and lip-synching performers, at least the female-appearing ones, are all transsexuals or transvestites, better known as "lady boys" or "kathoey" in Thai. Thailand being a major plastic surgery center, they have all had some work and began taking female hormones quite young. 

having portrait drawn at Asiatique night market
Portrait artist at Asiatique market
There are several of these kathoey cabarets at tourist spots in Thailand but Calypso is supposed to be the most accomplished. Even Lady Gaga dropped in during her April 2012 visit to Bangkok. The performers do Marilyn Monroe's diamonds, Vegas feathered showgirls, Bob Fosse, Tina Turner, Michael Jackson, geisha spoofs and Korean pop songs. Remember "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert"? It's not a strip show and some people do bring children but it's debatable whether young kids would prefer it to the puppets.

There are two nightly shows. Tickets run around 1,000 baht per person, including a drink. In the past, you could book and select a seat through the website or a travel agency. If you weren't picky about seat selection, you could just show up and get a ticket.

Besides a beer garden and a few transitory souvenir vendors, the Asiatique bazaar could be enlivened by some itinerant performers and musicians. There were two (no doubt permitted) street portrait artists on my visit and a few breakdancing boys (probably not permitted) fooling around at Asiatique but the accomplished group that sometimes practices on the walkways around the Stadium Skytrain platform should be recruited. There's plenty of their preferred hard spaces.  

I'm a little surprised that traditional khon dancing isn't among the theatrical offerings. Surely a dinner-and-dance combo would attract enough tourists? How about an occasional Chinese opera performance?

Entertainment 2: Ferris Wheel with Racist Pricing

The newest attraction, which doesn't welcome foreigners, is so-called Asiatique Sky, a 60-meter-high Ferris wheel. The entry price for Thai-looking adults is 200 baht; for other adults. 250 baht   Rather unusually, there is a single price for children: 150 baht. Welcome to one of the ugliest aspects of tourism in Thailand: dual pricing, two-tier pricing or "foreigners' prices". Pricing is actually based on skin shade, however: If you are Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese or can otherwise pass for Thai, you can breeze into any national park, government museum or private enterprise (e.g., theme park, the aquarium at Paragon mall, Crocodile Farm, Flight of the Gibbon, Madame Tussaud's, Tiger Temple) with dual pricing and pay the Thai rate. Probably most tourists are unaware they are being discriminated against because the "Thai" price is only written in the Thai language and, in some cases, with traditional Thai numerals instead of Arabic numerals (e.g., Chiang Mai Zoo).

If you don't have the right skin shade, it doesn't matter if you're a foreign resident paying taxes or doing volunteer work in a national park, rural school or refugee camp: you pay farang prices. Funnily-shaded foreigners that have become naturalized or the children of mixed couples often have to prove their bona fides. (National parks have among the harshest pricing: usually 20 baht a day for Thais and 400 baht for foreigners, though 29 parks are now charging 500 baht. Then there's the Royal Palace: free for Thai lookalikes, 500 baht for everyone else.) 

The industrious Richard Barrow,  though a faithful booster of Thai tourism, nonetheless questioned the policy on Asiatique's Thai-language Facebook page and was promptly banned from the page. For some months, the operators of the Ferris wheel dropped dual pricing in favor of a flat 250 baht for most adults and 100 baht for senior citizens. Then it resumed the practice.

How to Go to Asiatique Night Market 

Other than a taxi, easiest way to get to The Asiatique is to take the Skytrain to Saphan Taksin (Taksin Bridge) station. From there, it's a few minutes' walk to the pier with the free shuttle boat, which runs from about 5.30 pm to midnight. A word of warning: pay attention to the floating docking areas at the pier. There are three places where boats stop and the Asiatique shuttle boat changes its departure spot at 8 pm. It's not well identified, so ask someone in uniform or, if it's a weekend, simply follow the youthful Thai crowd.  

The ride on the free shuttle boat from Saphan Taksin pier to Asiatique takes about 15 minutes. Being night-time, it proceeds cautiously. The last return boat from Asiatique departs at 11:30 pm but try to take an earlier one or opt for a taxi from Charoen Krung Road. That final boat can be very crowded, especially on weekends, and, sad to say, Thais aren't known as sticklers for safety.

Unfortunately, the Saphan Taksin Skytrain station won't exist much longer; it's being eliminated to enable two-way train traffic across the river. (I'll update when I learn more) When it shuts down, passengers heading to the pier will need to get off at Surasak station; the plan is that a moving sidewalk will then convey them to the Saphan Taksin station area. 

Beware: you can't take one of the usual "taxi express boats" that ply like city buses along the Chao Phraya in the day unless you head to the night market quite early.  Asiatique starts operating around 5-5:30 pm and these taxi boats halt services around sunset. However, if you get to Saphan Taksin pier or another pier early enough, an orange-flagged boat will get you to the Asiatique pier for 15 baht or 20 baht.

Google Map and Hotels Near Asiatique

The upmarket riverside hotels shuttle their guests to Asiatique in their own boats. I'm referring to the likes of the Anantara, Mandarin Oriental, Marriott, Shangri-la, Sheraton, Millennium Hilton and Peninsula hotels. So too, the Chatrium and Ramada Menam hotels, which may not be as posh but, located south of Saphan Taksin bridge, are much closer to the Asiatique. (Closest of all is the budget hotel Panasiri.) Some of the evening dining river cruises so beloved of tour groups sometimes drop by as well. For what it’s worth, there is plenty of parking space at Asiatique.

I have marked Asiatique on the Google map--click "Location" at the very end of this post. The marker symbol is now in the middle of the market, if the other markers (for Joe Louis, for example) are correct. The market is south of the Wat Rachada pier. That wat and pier are very clear in the satellite terrain view. Taxi drivers are catching on to foreigners attempting "A-si-a-tik ta-laat".

Hours:  Daily, 5 pm – midnight 
Address: 2194 Charoen Krung Road, near Charoen Krung Sois 72-76
Phone:  02-108-4488 (only during office hours 9.30 am - 18.30 pm, Monday - Friday )
How to get there:  Take a free shuttle boat from Saphan Taksin pier, next to Shangri-La Hotel.
BTS: Take Skytrain to Saphan Taksin station, then follow directions to the nearby boat pier. 
Buses: 1, 15, 17, 22, 75, 163.  All stop on Charoen Krung Road on the backside of Asiatique
Nearest hotels: Panasiri, Chatrium, Ramada Menam Riverside

The following is a promotional video made by TCC for Asiatique. Very CGI'd. I tried to make it start at 3:26 minutes, where the landscape map appears, but it won't obey. At 4:53, you can see the Joe Louis puppets, followed by a glimpse of Calypso. At 7:43, there's a sense of how the river approach appears.

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