Mention floating markets, and the place that comes to mind is Thailand. During the olden days in the country, most communities built their homes alongside the rivers and canals– which made it possible for trade, and thus, floating markets to thrive. A floating market is a market where most of the products (i.e. food, fruits, vegetables, and even cooked food) are sold from boats. The locals would stack up their boats and paddle from door to door along the river to sell their wares, and then congregate at the marketplace– where the buyers would come by in their boats as well.
However, throughout the years, land transport developed and many floating markets cease to exist. There are of course, a few still running to this day. Some are bigger than others, and some are pretty touristy. During my visit to Bangkok, I made it a point to visit one– and I chose the most popular one in Damnoen Saduak.
The Damnoen Saduak floating market is a huge market located in the Ratchaburi province, about 100km from the capital of Bangkok. It is the named after the canal that was ordered by King Rama IV to be built in the mid 19th century to connect the Taachin River and the Maklong River, and thus connecting two provinces together.
The canal is still being used to this day– providing water to the local villages along the river, where agriculture is a still a huge source of livelihood. It is also a tourist attraction, where tons of long-tailed boats (with engines) laden with tourists make its way along the waterway each day, heading towards the floating market. The market opens from about 7am to 11am daily.
Getting to Damnoen Saduak
Due to the distance of the floating market from Bangkok, it is advisable to start your journey as early as possible. By 9am, the market is usually overcrowded with throngs of tourists on boats.
The cheapest option to get to Damnoen Saduak is by bus– but I didn’t want to go through the hassle of finding my way around, so I decided to hire a private car from Rat Service. I contacted Rat (that’s her name) via email, and she replied immediately with the details I needed. A half-day tour (6 hours) of the floating market, plus a couple of stops cost ฿3,600 (US$100) per car. The maximum number per car is 4 people. They have vans too.
My driver cum guide, Sam, came to pick me up at exactly 6am for my 1.5 hour journey to Damnoen Saduak. It was still pretty early when I arrived, so I first did a quick stop at the Maeklong Railway Market.
Side Trip: Maeklong Railway Market
Now this market would be a sight to experience if the trains are running through it. The Maeklong Railway line is currently undergoing some extensive renovations and has been closed for months– so at the present moment, the market on the tracks is just one of the largest fresh seafood markets in Thailand.
However, when the trains are running, the Maeklong Railway Market is a must-visit, just to see how the local vendors move their shop fronts and awnings away from the train tracks as a train approaches. It passes just inches away from their shops! After the train moves on, they casually set back their shops on the tracks. Also known as the ‘Folding Umbrella’ market, it is a unique (and dangerous) market– I don’t know why they don’t put up shop somewhere else.
Since there was no such excitement during my visit, I just walked through the market and on the train tracks. It was still interesting peering at the fresh seafood on display, and smiling at the friendly locals and sellers.
Journey to the Market
By 8am, it was time to make my way to the Damnoen Saduak floating market. My guide, Sam, brought me to the pier to board my long-tailed boat, which is my transport to the market. There are a few companies running these boats– and mine was managed by a ‘farang’ (local name for Westerners) from Belgium. I had a whole boat to myself, which I (of course) had to share with Sam, and the boatman. You can head straight to the market and skip the boat ride, but where’s the fun in that?
I enjoyed my journey along the canal, as there were so many things to see– wooden houses and souvenir shops by the banks, plantations and farms, little children playing in front of their houses, locals loading their boats to head to the market, and some were already selling their products on the water. They called out to us as we passed by.
The Damnoen Saduak Floating Market
The floating market is a vibrant and exciting place in the early morning, with boats along the water piled up with fruits, vegetables and food. There are also shops on dry land inside the market– they mostly sell souvenirs and trinkets (the prices are jacked up quite high, so you’ll have to really test your bargaining skills).
I would like to think that I was the first visitor into the market that day, as there were no tourist boats plying the waterway in between the market when I got there. It was nice watching the locals opening shop and wishing me a good morning, instead of persisting I buy stuff from their shops. I also passed by a few monks on their boats, collecting their daily alms from the locals.
View from Above
Most of the time, if you take the long-tailed boats from the pier, they will only pass by the floating market once. Now that is not nearly enough for you to experience the hustle and bustle of the market. Thankfully I was early, and my boatman could find a place to dock his boat– allowing me some time to roam around the market on foot.
I took a walk up to the bridge across the canal, which overlooks two sides of the floating market. I managed to get a couple of pretty shots of it from above. The bridge provides a different perspective of the market, and is also the best place to view the daily activities going on along the waterway. If you prefer, you could also grab a cuppa at one of the shops along the market, and watch the boats filled with either food, or tourists pass you by.
Food at the Market
For me, the best part of the floating market has got to be the delicious Thai food! Everything on display seemed to catch my attention– I think my boatman had to make a stop every few seconds so I could catch a glimpse of what was on board the food boats. The combined smells of fried noodles and grilled meat were wafting through the air, making me extremely hungry.
In the end, I settled for roasted pork, grilled bananas, mangoes, some coconut desserts, and a plate of freshly fried seafood pad thai. One of the boat women peeked into my boat and chuckled at my feast of Thai fares. She said something to her fellow boat women and they all giggled and waved as I passed them by. I wish I knew what she said.
Attractions along the River
There are a couple of interesting places along the Damnoen Saduak canal— just ask the boatman if he can stop at a few of these sites for you to have a look around. My first stop was at the Coconut Sugar Farm, where the locals process sugar from the coconuts grown on their coconut plantation. There is not much to see here except a couple of tools to extract the sugar from the coconuts. The shopkeeper gave me a coconut rock sugar to chew on– it had a light sweet taste, and of course, is all natural.
I also stopped by Wat Prok Charoen, a small temple along the waterway. Though the pretty temple is worth a short look-see, most people come here to feed the huge fishes that gather near the temple. My guide, Sam, told me that no fishing is allowed within the vicinity of the temple– allowing the fishes to grow and thrive in the area. I guess the fishes probably come here to feed on the huge amount of food thrown into the water everyday.
Other Side Trips
Aside from my visit to the Damnoen Saduak floating market and the Maeklong Railway Market– my half day trip with Rat Service also includes a stop at the Chang Puak Camp. The Chang Puak Camp is located just a few minutes away from the pier where I boarded my boat to the floating market; and is mainly an elephant camp, with shows, as well as riding and feeding opportunities. They also offer other animal-related experiences like crocodile shows, snake shows, tiger milk feeding and photo-ops; as well as archery and massages. Each activity has its own individual charges and fees.
I personally do not condone animal camps; and after walking through the camp and observing the conditions of the place and its animals– I was extremely sure this was not a place I want to support. Of course, this is my personal opinion.
My Floating Market Experience
I had a great time at the Damnoen Saduak floating market. I especially loved zooming along the canal on my long-tailed boat, and walking around the busy marketplace. I also had a fun experience buying food from boats like the locals, and talking to them in whatever way I could (this includes hand gestures) while they patiently cook my food… and then of course, indulging on my delicious hauls on the boat ride back.
After my visit to Damnoen Saduak, I slept the entire journey back to Bangkok— I was sleepy from the early wake-up call, tired from all the excitement, and satisfied from the yummy food. It was noon by the time I got back to the city, and since it was almost time for lunch, I asked Sam to drop me off at Siam Square to look for more food! Well, that’s what you do in Thailand, right?