Wedged between a freeway overpass and the port, splayed on either side of the railroad tracks, Klong Toey is Bangkok's oldest squatter settlement. Home to 'upcountry' (rural areas beyond Bangkok) migrant workers, it's most readily associated with the drug trade and prostitution. But as this site makes clear, Klong Toey is also a community, with struggling families and schools and small businesses.
A stone's throw away sits the district's market, Dalat Klong Toey. It is vast, confusingly organized, chaotic, maddeningly crowded, and very, very wet - just the sort of market to pull us from bed before dawn.
As we arrive, the sun rises over a battalion of tuk-tuks parked on Rama IV Road.
Klong Toey is already awake. Heading into its maze, we find a pair of popiah wrapper makers. Ball of dough in one hand, razor in the other, this woman churns out at the paper-thin soft 'pancakes' at the rate of about one every 2 seconds. Barely touching dough ball to hot griddle, she moves it clockwise and then lifts, leaving the barest coating of batter, then scrapes-peels it off with her razor-spatula. Dough-razor, dough-razor, dough-razor. She works at lightning speed (stopping only to wave at two gawping farang). When we leave the market four hours later she's still at it, and the stack of wrappers next to her is more than a foot high.
There's much at Dalat Klong Toey to boggle the mind - an extensive Isaan and northern Thai produce section, wild boar meat, and mounds of fragrant prepared curry pastes - but we're particularly enthralled by the extensive covered seafood section, especially its fresh, in-the-shell scallops.
Not to mention the seafood vendors, most of whom scale, gut, and otherwise prep fish shirtless. Many chests proudly display impressive amulet collections.
As we're browsing the market's inner aisles, snippets of music drift in from outside. We follow the drums to a side street and find a loud, merry procession in progress.
A full phalanx of musicians includes a piano player,
and several guitarists (some more inclined to lengthy solos than others),
and there's even bulky amplifiers on wheels.
An afro-wigged dude at the center of the procession pushes a cart holding a kaa-tin, a sort of 'money tree' - a means of collecting donations as the group moves through the market.
The celebrants are tambun, or making merit, by collecting money for Wat Chon in Lopburi . A photo of the wat rests at the base of the money tree.
Anyone who joins in the procession or donates money gets on Buddha's good side. The participants are in high spirits and there's no shortage of whooping, clapping, dancing, and clowning.
Some individuals supplement donations by collecting on their own, in bowls or with 'mini', handheld kaa-tin.
Dalat Klong Toey's sprawl straddles a major six-lane, divided street. That doesn't stop the merit makers. They proceed into the road, stop traffic, and hoist the kaa-tin cart and amplifiers over the concrete median.
A stopped bus means more potential donations, and several passengers hand down 20-baht notes.
One might encounter a tambun like this one anywhere in Thailand, but donators beware: we're told that some are scams, and the donations will end up nowhere but in the participants' pockets. Some merit-makers work on a percentage basis, keeping money aside for themselves.
This tambun seems genuine, or at least we'd like to think so. If we were taken, then we were just two among the ranks of all the shoppers and vendors who donated as much, or more, than we did. A small price to pay for an entertaining break in the day-to-day market comings and goings.
For the better part of an hour we trail the band (and are sometimes pulled into the action), through the market and back to its starting point. The music stops, the musicians put away their instruments, participants disperse, and vendors who danced the last hour away return to their stalls.
We duck back into the market.
Right place, right time. Sometimes we get lucky.