Ever since childhood, I have been fascinated by images of Thailand’s floating markets, or talat naam. What could be more exotic and inviting than the wooden boats filled with fruit, flowers and vegetables, floating through the narrow waterways? The vibrant colours of these busy market scenes are rich and evocative, especially to someone living in a cold, concrete city.
Finally finding myself in Bangkok many years later, traveling to a floating market was high on my list of priorities. Still being a bit green and speaking very little Thai, I decided to book a tour to Damnoen Saduak Floating market.
Early the next morning, I found myself being herded into a mini van and being driven 80 km with about a dozen other sleepy-eyed tourists. I watched in awe as the city’s concrete was gradually replaced by picturesque farms and palm trees.
After about two hours, we are taken to a small outdoor factory, where the sap from palm trees is turned into sweet, fudge-like sugar. My feeling of peace and tranquility quickly fades as I emerge from the mini van. Green as I am, I can still see that this site is entirely engineered for tourists.
Our guide gives a brief talk on how palm sugar is made, and we watch men boiling palm sap in huge woks. After being given a piece of the sugar to try, we are left to wander for twenty minutes. However, the only thing to see is a large collection of bowls and cooking utensils crafted from coconut wood. Tourists paw through the items, unaware and unconcerned about the inflated prices.
Soon enough, we are back in the mini van and after another twenty minutes we are herded into a long, wooden boat. The boat speeds along a network of narrow canals, churning up dirty water and spraying it onto passersby. Dozens of tiny houses fringe the waterways and I watch scenes of domesticity; women peeling vegetables and gossiping, dogs fighting and children playing.
Before long, we arrive at Damnoen Saduak and clamber out of the boat. As I take in the bustle of the market, my heart quickly sinks into my sandals. The entire scene is dominated by stalls selling trashy tourist treasures.
The rich colours I had been looking forward to take the form of cheap wooden umbrellas, glass elephants and plastic fans. Not quite the authentic Thai experience I had been looking for.
My group is shepherded onwards once again until we find ourselves crammed into a much smaller boat. The next half an hour is an extreme lesson in tolerance. As the boat is steered through the crowded canal or 'klong', we are shouted at from every direction. Cries of; 'Hey, you, look here, 'I have good price for you, many nice things I have,' fill the air.
There are so many boats crushed together that it is almost impossible for us to progress along the klong. The sellers take advantage of this, grabbing onto our boat and holding us hostage as they try to ply their wares.
Later that night, I am drowning my sorrows in one of Khoasan Road's busy bars, vowing never to take another package tour as long as I live. By chance, I get talking to a man from Germany, who tells me about the Taling Chan Floating Market. "Not many tourists go there," he tells me. "It is an authentic market used by Thai people. No rubbish souvenirs there."
Feeling slightly skeptical, I catch a bus to the Taling Chan District Office one Sunday morning. To my pleasant surprise, I am greeted by the sight of women in blue overalls, or "mor hom" and conical hats, slowly paddling boats filled with fruit, vegetables and flowers.
Before concrete covered the land, klongs were Bangkok’s main form of transport. People built their houses alongside the canals, and floating markets served those without the means to travel.
Once I have finished shopping, I sit alongside the klong, sipping a cup of sweet tea. I feel pleased that for once I have broken through the tourist barrier and seen the real Thailand.
Getting There: The Taling Chan Floating Market is held on Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m to 4 p.m. To get there, take bus 79 or 83, or telephone 02424 5448 for more details.
Here are some other floating markets around Bangkok:
The Tha Kha Floating Market is held six days a month from 6-12 on weekends, varying according to the Thai lunar calendar. Situated 10 kms past Damnoen Saduak, it is best to visit around 7 a.m. A return taxi journey costs around 700 Baht. Alternatively, take a bus to Samut Songkham from the Southern Bus Terminal and a mini bus from there.
Situated in the Bang Kruai district of Nonthanburi, the bang Khu Wian Floating Market is also worth a look. Visit around dawn and you will see traditional scenes of village life, untainted by modern values. To get there, simply take a boat from the Tha Chang Pier near the Grand Palace.