I’ve heard of Thailand’s floating markets many times, and my mind had conjured images of a sprawling flotilla of water-borne stalls, loosely connected to create a labyrinth of alleyways where long tail boats jostle for space, rocking to the ebb and flow of the river’s passage. In fact, part of my picture of the scene was a broad lake, fed by a river where a trade hub had developed over time. While I was wrong on most accounts, Thailand’s floating markets were nonetheless a worthwhile outing during my week in Bangkok.
We had a free day before the conference that brought us to Thailand and we decided (based on multiple recommendations) to take the two hour trip from Bangkok to see what all the fuss was about. The journey, while relatively uneventful, was enjoyable as it was our first significant opportunity to enjoy the scenery. The cityscape eventually transformed to the familiar (albeit ever subtly different) south east Asian countryside. Our first stop was at a coconut plantation not far from the dock, where we explored the small market to witness sugar being extracted. Having spent some time in Asia, this was not particularly new to me, but it was a pleasant opportunity to stretch my legs and take in the village atmosphere.
Around 15 minutes further on from the coconut grove, we arrived at the landing where we would board our boat. It was here that the errors in my imagined floating market first became apparent. Rather than a riverbank, we boarded the boat onto a narrow channel, constructed from cement. It seemed to me to be similar in size to the irrigation channels often used at home in Queensland. These, however, were purpose-built as a means of transporting goods and produce to market during the 18th century (or so we were informed by our guide).
The captain deftly maneuvered the boat around tight corners where the canal intersected with other offshoots, and I was impressed that the diesel-powered rudder could be so efficiently utilized in such a tight space. Greenery loomed above us as we motored on with the rhythmic soundtrack of the longboat’s engine. As with any other country road, various farm houses and residences glided by and if it wasn’t for the splash of the boat’s hull in the brownish water, we could have been on a country highway. As we navigated each intersection, I could see other boats ahead, churning up the water and the captain did well to maintain the balance of our narrow vessel. The canal trip took about 30 minutes, and eventually we joined a wider canal where larger buildings replaced the earlier farm houses and greenery. We pulled along side a large, roofed space where tourist trinkets and local delicacies were displayed for sale. Floating vendors sold other snacks and wares from the water, and we could see market stalls all around the intersection of two main canals.
While I had expected a much larger market – completely on the water – the use of the canals and the balance between traditional stalls and floating vendors was both interesting and effective. We spent an hour walking between markets and inspecting the various items for sale. While there was some tempting food and a small amount of produce, the largest part of the market was aimed at tourists, which was slightly unfortunate, The crowds were fine, but the idea that the whole affair was constructed to relive visitors of their baht (untrue as that might be) cheapened the experience. Despite the inevitable cash-in, however, it was a perfectly worthwhile day out.