July 31, 2016 1:00 pm JST

No knockoffs allowed at Thailand's hippest night market

TAMAKI KYOZUKA, Nikkei staff writer

Shoppers peruse the stalls at Artbox in Bagkok.

BANGKOK -- For Thailand's young and fashionable set, there is nothing quite like an evening out among the shipping containers.

A roving night market called Artbox, where vendors peddle their wares out of freight containers, is drawing visitors by the thousands. While the country's markets typically feature traditional crafts and local specialties, the emphasis here is on design and originality. To secure space, sellers are required to have unique products and concepts. 

By bringing together creative types of all stripes, Artbox is quickly becoming known as a place where new trends are generated.

Artbox is open for limited periods, and the location changes each time. The hours are around 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., Friday through Sunday. The latest edition was held in Phrom Phong, an upscale residential area of Bangkok, in late June. 

One visitor, 25-year-old Supatchawee Tonkaew, said Artbox is "more interesting" than its traditional counterparts. "You have musical performances, you have uncommon foods, and the shops are replaced frequently," she said. "You never get bored just strolling around."

Supatchawee said she has come to Artbox several times with her friends.

Most visitors are in their late teens to their 30s. "I wanted to create a market where the focus is on young people's lifestyles," said Phanarat Muenoi, the 29-year-old founder of Artbox. She came up with the idea while selling bags and other items she designed at Chatuchak Market -- a popular weekend destination in northern Bangkok.

"I thought a market with a modern twist would attract a lot of people," she said. These days, when Artbox opens, it draws as many as 40,000 people daily.

Phanarat decided to use shipping containers for stalls after seeing a Uniqlo casualwear shop operating out of one in Japan. Unable to convince friends to invest, she spent about 2 million baht ($57,000) of her own money to buy 32 containers and opened the first Artbox in June 2015.

Phanarat was not wealthy -- she simply believed in her idea. "I didn't mind spending the 2 million baht," she recalled. "It was necessary for starting something new."

Finding a venue was difficult at first, but the Artbox buzz has changed that. A department store, clearly recognizing that the market brings plenty of foot traffic, asked the organizers to set up shop nearby.

Phanarat and her staff screen all sellers, to ensure they clear the originality bar. Counterfeit fashion products -- often found in traditional markets -- are not accepted. 

The market, Phanarat said, "serves as a place where young creators are encouraged to develop."

Outdoor markets have long been a staple of Thai culture. The country is home to weekend markets, night markets and even floating markets. But since the 2014 coup, the military government has been tightening its control of these bazaars, which also have a reputation for selling knockoffs and overcharging unsuspecting travelers.

Food markets near downtown areas have been forced to relocate, and nighttime souvenir stalls face new limitations on their business hours. Amid the turmoil, though, Artbox is giving the word "market" a hip new meaning.

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