The spread of lifestyle markets

Pop-up bazaars are the latest disturbing trend in Bangkok

As the city's iconic bazaars like Khong Thom, Sapan Lek and Pratu Nam have been cleared out for "peace and order", a new breed of market has changed the way some Bangkokians perceive the meaning of good old talat. "Lifestyle market" has popped up in Bangkok's empty lots and squares almost every weekend over the past year. They're usually well-organised, balmy, and clearly targeted at the middle class or higher. The last two months of 2015 alone had 16 events, all run by different entities, including big names such as The Great Outdoor Market, Art Box, Noise Market and Area Five Art & Market Fair.  

There's really no one name to call them. Suggested names have included "flea market", "vintage market", "creative market", "outdoor festival", or "slow-life market." However, an easy and all-encompassing name that best describes them would be "pop-up lifestyle markets".

Feeding the ever-growing hipster scene, pop-up lifestyle markets are characterised by their renegade and nomadic nature, cool locations (usually an abandoned lot), well laid-out and photogenic Kinfolk-style decor (fairy lights and straw bundle chairs), a front area with a pretty backdrop to take photos and check-in on Facebook and Instagram, a main stage area for musical acts (usually cover bands or famous local indie bands), and, of course, a multitude of booths, selling items from local designers, craft makers, collectors, cooks, bakers, and your average Joe looking to make some money from his side-hobby. Malls are still here, but the eventification of "market" is the sign of our times.

Yet as more of these markets are mushrooming around the city, people are already noticing an upsetting pattern. Unlike traditional flea markets such as JJ Green and Rod Fai Market, which have their own unique atmosphere, these pop-up lifestyle markets have become something of a one-trick pony. The same vendors, decor, and musical acts are being recycled and copied in every new market. This month alone will have seven more pop-up markets organised for the public.

So has this new trend finally reached its peak, barely a year after it has caught on?

Vudi Somboonkulavudi, creator of America-inspired vintage flea market Made by Legacy, is starting to see it that way. "This trend will disappear, for sure," he says. "Made by Legacy might also disappear."

Many cite Vudi as the catalyst that triggered the lifestyle-market movement. Starting out in 2012, the core purpose of Made by Legacy was to create and bring together a community of like-minded vintage lovers to sell, trade and exchange items and knowledge with customers of the same lifestyle.

Organised at the State Railway of Thailand for two days, on a biyearly basis, Vudi purposefully selects the most interesting vendors, selling items from antique kimonos to submarine parts, to draw in an eclectic crowd of young and old vintage enthusiasts. Even with an entrance fee -- a market that you have to pay to enter was unthinkable before -- their seventh market, held this past January, drew in a crowd of almost 5,000, compared to a mere 800 for their first event of 2012.

With its success, it's easy to see why others would try to join in on the game. Vudi calls the situation a "spreading disease".   

"This is the nature of Thai people," he says. "To do as the Romans do. People see that this might be a new trend, they think they can do it, and they can. In reality it's very easy. People organising markets now aren't just community leaders. There are now private firms doing it for money, using their own space and property to create markets. They're losing money from businesses, so they have to find other ways to use their property and assets. Notice that every mall has opened its own market in front of its building."

The Bangkok Docklands 2015 outdoor market.

Still, there's no denying that these markets are surging, with thousands of visitors dropping by no matter how non-conceptual, repetitive, and corporate they're becoming. It mirrors a wider struggle that Bangkokians have been facing for decades: other than malls (which most people are already sick and tired of), there are no quality outdoor public spaces where people can gather, mingle, and feel a sense of community.

Projects like GoodWalk Thailand and the Yanawa Riverfront Project have been working to create quality public areas for Bangkok and its people, but it seems like pop-up lifestyle markets will be an easy alternative in the meantime, especially for those who can afford them.

"In terms of The Great Outdoor Market, it shows that Thais want more public outdoor areas," says Ponpat Sahacharoenwat, co-organiser of The Great Outdoor Market. "But there's just nowhere for them to go. Every weekend, people just go, 'OK, let's go to the mall'. When there are events like this, it creates an interest towards people's lifestyles. In reality, it's not that people are scared of the heat or the sun -- there's just nowhere to go, and if there's actually a space, they will go. 

The Great Outdoor Market is organised by urban designers Ponpat Sahacharoenwat and Dalee Hoontrakul with the purpose of uncovering and drawing people into unknown hidden spaces within Bangkok. Their Bangkok Docklands market, started in 2014, introduced Bangkokians to a never-before-seen riverfront area at The Bangkok Dock Co. dockyard in Yannawa. 

Their latest three-day event in December had the typical fairy-lights/straw-bundle-chairs/indie-bands combo, but people got to eat, drink and hang out inside the dry docks and right on the riverside, experiencing a completely new public space. It was a huge success, and their upcoming "Pop-Up Experimental" event at the end of this month plans to introduce the public to another riverfront area, at Tha Din Daeng East Pier. 

Vudi has a similar take on what the market craze represents. With big corporations trying to turn Bangkok into a tourist city by building, society is sending them a message back. "They're saying, 'Actually, we're Thai, and we like walking in outdoor markets. It's been this way since our ancestors. We actually miss walking in places like old Siam Square and Saphan Phut.' Just because you build a lot of malls doesn't mean that Thais are going to accept it."

But Arm Sirisook, a vintage lover and flea market scavenger, believes these markets are taking advantage of this issue. "They're playing with the fact that people don't have a choice anymore, so they end up going to these markets. Traditional markets are disappearing from Bangkok, as well. I go to what's left of them. Sometimes I have to go as far as Ayutthaya, Nakhon Prathom and Chon Buri. Once Khlong Thom closed down, everything was lost."

In the end, Arm wonders if this is just a signal of what the new generation of markets will be like, or whether it'll be a repeat of the rise and eventual fall of the community-mall craze that hit Thailand a decade ago. Only time will tell.

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