Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Additional photos courtesy of Thailand Authority for Tourism
Thailand’s Floating Markets
This press trip took place well before the COVID travel restrictions.
Many of Thailand’s cities are built on both sides of a river, just like many of the older European cities where a major river flowing for miles was used to transport goods to trade centers established on the river’s banks. In Thailand, Bangkok being the most prominent city, it is built on both banks of the Chao Phraya River. The river flows south, through the fertile central plain to the Gulf of Thailand.
Thailand's capitals, past (Ayutthaya) and present (Bangkok), have been both situated on the Chao Phraya.
Floating markets are an essential part of Thai life. The river has been, for hundreds of years, the trade highway where initially farmers brought their produce to the city’s markets in rowboats; the city was built around the Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddah and is where the aristocracy and the more affluent Thai lived. They would purchase produce from the farmers, rather than growing them themselves. Once that method of commerce was established others, like fishermen and shepherds started bringing their goods to the city as well. Eventually someone with an entrepreneurial bend thought that if they purchased raw ingredients and cooked them onboard a boat, buyers shopping for raw foods and other goods at the market, might purchase their cooked dishes for immediate consumption; and that’s how the present floating markets of Thailand developed and prospered. Floating markets are mainly found in Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.
Be sure to bring cash (baht) when visiting any floating market – the vendors don't accept credit cards or foreign currencies; a few speak some English and some also speak French, but having with you someone who speaks Thai is very advisable.
Many foreigners consider floating markets as, essentially, tourist traps with fascinating food and souvenirs. But how many times do you get to buy lunch on a boat while floating on a canal or a river? Still, in Bangkok the chief buyers are local Thais, therefore I consider these markets as an essential part of the couleur locale.
There are several floating markets around Bangkok open all day. Some of the ones easier to visit are:
Amphawa, a very popular floating market located south-west of Bangkok. It is very authentic, with many little wooden houses lined up along the canal that sell mostly souvenirs and sweets. Make the visit a morning trip and have an early seafood lunch on the banks of the river because later it gets incredibly crowded!
Taling Chan is one of my favorite floating markets near Bangkok as it has just the right amount of everything you could ask for and offers an exceptional kaleidoscope of photo opportunities. It is open all day on the weekends and has just the right number of boats, plus a large local market attached to it with all kinds of sweets, fruits and snacks you could try. The entrance to the Taling Chan can be deceivingly ordinary thanks to a plastic roof protecting mostly gardening material. Head further in to find the real market.
You can't miss the wooden boats along the riverbank, many of them cooking seafood on small hibachis. Others prepare the famous savory Thai papaya salad (som tum) for customers sitting on the shore at low tables. Most places are already full by 11 am; the central area is packed, but you’ll find smaller crowds as you continue past the first group of boats. Eating a seafood freshly cooked lunch by the river can be fun!
Near the dining area, there’s an never-ending stream of long-tail boats moving along the river. The boats are very recognizable because instead of a regular (western-style) outboard motor, they use small, used car engines attached to long propeller shafts to thrust and also steer the boat. For a small fee you can ride on one for a quick tour around the neighboring canals. It can be an interesting and fun addition to your experience, as you'll witness the life of locals living by the water.
There are numerous canals joining different neighborhoods in Bangkok called “khlongs”. Many small floating markets, with only a few boats, ply those khlongs.
Khlong Lat Mayom is the first floating market I was exposed to in Bangkok, taken to it by our guide from the Oriental Hotel in 1989 when tourists were a distinct minority. It is a medium-sized floating market located very close to the city. As it's located near the Taling Chan Floating Market, it might be better to combine both markets on the same morning. It's still a really local market and you will probably be one of very few foreigners. The main market is on solid ground but there are boats selling fruits and sweets that are interesting; this market is most famous for its cooked food. What makes this market stand out is a variety of dishes such as som tam, pork satay and pork ribs. Also, try the charcoal grilled cuttlefish and the grilled or fried shrimp.
Bang Nam Pheung is one of the best floating markets in Bangkok. It’s located on the outskirts and like Khlong Lat Mayom, it isn’t as large and touristy as some of the more prominent ones. One of the best ways to spend your time there is to stuff yourself on some of the best dishes of Thailand. Order a bowl of whatever catches your fancy from the food vendors on the boats. Make sure to include this place in your floating market tour and enjoy!
Tha Kha Floating Market attracts a much smaller amount of tourists and it's protected from overdevelopment, so its modest size and local atmosphere are likely to remain unchanged. The market has older Thais in their rowboats selling farm-fresh fruit and vegetables, plus local dishes and sweets. The main buyers here are Tha Kha inhabitants themselves, many also in rowboats.
A purpose-built tourist attraction is in the ancient city of Ayutthaya, the early capital of Siam as the country was known in the past. The Ayutthaya Floating Market mainly consists of shops alongside the river shore. It’s not really a floating market, as there are only a few sellers in boats most of whom cook traditional Thai dishes. An assortment of goods is available to buy from the adorable wooden shops, built alongside wooden walkways over the water, and there’s a fairly large seating area surrounded by several restaurants and cafés.
A day trip to the market can also be a starting point for a visit to the ruins of the ancient capital city of Ayutthaya. Once an important center of global diplomacy and commerce, it was founded in 1350, and was the second capital of the Siamese Kingdom. It flourished from the 14th to the end of the 17th century. It was destroyed by Burmese raiders in the 18th century. Its remains, characterized by the many prangs and stupas (reliquary towers), gigantic monasteries and the ruins of the palace, give an idea of its past splendor.
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