Long before the pandemic, I spent an enjoyable afternoon at a floating market on the outskirts of Bangkok where women in traditional dress paddled flat boats piled with fresh produce along a narrow canal.
It was a picturesque scene, based on the history of Ayutthaya, Thailand's former royal capital 80 km north of Bangkok, where floating markets were part of the cosmopolitan spirit. But it didn't take long to realize that the spectacle was a tourist trap. Hardly any Thais were shopping at the market, which was really a form of light entertainment advertised by posters fixed to the backs of taxi drivers' seats.
Fortunately, a more authentic and equally colorful alternative is available -- the city's wet markets, which are patronized by both locals and tourists, some introduced by the organizers of Thai cookery classes run for foreign visitors. I learned about the latter when I signed up for two classes some years after my floating market experience, joining travelers from Switzerland, Singapore and the U.K. to learn Thai recipes in half-day sessions.
One was in a working-class neighborhood of the city; the other close to Khao San Road, a haven for foreign backpackers. Meant for amateurs, both classes began with a visit to a nearby fresh market to buy the vegetables and herbs needed for the day's dishes. A mysterious herb I had noticed at one market was identified at the next: the green, serrated-edged leaf of the aptly named "saw coriander," an essential ingredient for tom yum goong, Thailand's famous hot-sour soup with prawns.
Bangkok is rich with this market life, which serves as a reminder of the city's trading antecedents. Wet markets can be found tucked away in residential areas, working-class neighborhoods and slums -- places that still seem to live at a different speed from slicker areas such as Silom, the business district, and the upmarket shopping district of Sukhumvit. A local think tank estimates that the capital is served by 389 wet markets.
Among the best known is Ratchawat market in Old Bangkok, an area known for its old-fashioned low-rise buildings, tree-lined streets and quietly flowing canals. A short walk from my apartment, this market is awake by 4 a.m., with vendors laying out their produce in its cavernous interior.
By 6 a.m., hungry customers begin to gather near the entrance for takeaway meals such as haw mok (steamed red curry custard served in banana leaves), or pla sam rod (fried fish in a three-flavored sauce). Just outside, small eateries and food vending carts dish out Thai savories and sweets to complete the street food vibe.
It is testimony to their charms that these modest Thai-style settings have continued to attract customers amid the capital's growing prosperity, with more modern shopping experiences emerging constantly for fresh produce and take-away meals. The city is now served by more than 60 large shopping malls, most with supermarkets, and umpteen 24-hour convenience stores dotted on street corners, such as 7-Eleven, which has more than 12,000 outlets across Thailand.
The rapid spread of COVID-19 has underlined the continuing relevance of these unassuming markets, which inhabit the backgrounds of the communities they serve but also shape their foregrounds. More than just sources of food, they are locations for community bonding and neighborhood chatter.
This role came into stark relief in mid-July, when the Ratchawat market had to close for nearly a week because of a coronavirus outbreak, joining a long list of other fresh markets that have had to close for similar reasons.
The impact was immediate. When the market went quiet, silence enveloped the streets outside, forcing vendors to abandon their familiar spots. "No supplies," the owner of one eatery told me with a resigned expression as I walked into his place seeking chicken and cashew nuts. Other vendors didn't even bother to open. The temporary closure had sucked the life out of my neighborhood.
Disruption like this is bound to test the loyalty of customers, who come mainly from Bangkok's older generation. They can be seen picking up a bag of shallots from one stand or a bundle of lemon grass from another in preparation for a home-cooked meal.
Retaining these ties will be crucial for the wet markets to navigate the irregular opening-and-closing cycles caused by COVID-19 clusters. But exploring the digital age may also offer a route to sustaining the markets' old style with a modern touch. More Bangkokians are turning to online sources for fresh produce, with Facebook groups emerging in some areas to bring together buyers and sellers of fruit and vegetables. That kind of virtual business could help to keep the wet markets alive as the enduring taste of Bangkok.
Marwaan Macan-Markar is an Asia regional correspondent for Nikkei Asia.