With travel restrictions in place worldwide, we’ve launched a new series, The World Through a Lens, in which photojournalists help transport you, virtually, to some of our planet’s most beautiful and intriguing places. This week, Louise Palmberg shares a collection of photographs from the markets and food stands in Bangkok.
Early this year, in search of inspiration beyond the food scene in New York (and not yet locked down by the spread of Covid-19), I spent two weeks visiting and documenting life among the fresh markets and street vendors in and around Bangkok.
It made for an unlikely itinerary since tourists in Thailand often spend only a day or two in the capital before heading south toward the country’s many islands.
But, energized by Thailand’s rich culinary heritage, I ventured — by train, motorcycle taxi and tuk-tuk — into an endless array of scenes and exchanges.
What struck me more than anything was the mobility of the various food operations. At the Maeklong Railway Market in Samut Songkhram, about 40 miles southwest of Bangkok, an active rail line slices a clean path directly through the vendors’ stations; their awnings and umbrellas are retracted, with mere inches to spare, each time a train arrives and departs.
The aromas here are rich and pungent — smoked, cured, dried and fresh seafood, along with many forms of meat, both raw and cooked. The awnings over the stalls create a shadowy atmosphere that’s punctuated by thin streaks of dancing light.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, which has been linked to the sale of wildlife at a market in Wuhan, China, the practices at some of Bangkok’s markets have raised concerns about the potential spread of diseases between animals and humans — though nothing overtly problematic ever caught my eye.
The views on the train ride to and from the market were equally enthralling. I watched my fellow passengers, their hair billowing in the wind, and gazed out at the steady stream of sea-salt farms aglow in the distance.
At the nearby Damnoen Saduak floating market, vendors paddle past in wooden boats overflowing with goods: fruits, vegetables, noodles, spices, flowers.
One vendor, now in her 80s, said she’d been serving noodles by boat here for 60 years.
At the Khlong Toei market, one of Bangkok’s largest and most trafficked, I lost my way in a maze of tiny alleyways — and, despite spending several hours here, I experienced only a small fraction of what was on offer.
Observing the vendors themselves is breathtaking: their poise, their efficiency, the fluidity of their movements. I watched, transfixed, as one woman fried spring roll wrappers on a large skillet, expertly crafting three at once. The dexterity and precision of her movements were truly mesmerizing.
The markets here draw a fair number of tourists. But they’re also essential to local restaurateurs and chefs. It’s common to see departing tuk-tuks and motorbikes that are fully laden with vegetables, soon to be featured as fresh ingredients on plates and in bowls throughout the city.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, this trip would prove to be my last for a while. Lately I find myself thinking back on all the moments of closeness — squeezing through alleyways in a crowded market, or sitting atop brightly colored plastic stools in narrow street stalls, or drinking beers alongside new acquaintances. It’s hard to reconcile those moments with my present reality, where I’m stuck alone inside my Brooklyn apartment for months on end, talking to no one but my plants.
For a while, that dissonance made it hard for me to look back at the pictures and videos from my trip; I longed for the warmth and the thrill I’d just experienced. But as time has passed I’ve settled into the silence of my quarantine, I can view them now with a certain fondness. In the end, there’s no doubt that I left with an abundance of creative inspiration — from both the people I met and the many food cultures in which I was invited to participate.