Floating markets near Bangkok are the most popular half-day tours out of the city. In a morning you get whizzed to the countryside by mini-van and get a taste of life on the river, but when you decide where you want to go, it’s important to think about how genuine you want your time to be.
The first floating market I ever went to was Amphawa Floating Market almost 18 months ago, accompanied by my Thai teacher. It was great to experience the market with someone who could speak the language and help me explore in a way that no-one else did, but it wasn’t very picturesque. Everyone coming to Thailand has seen the images of the famous floating market at Damnoen Saduak, and those are the same snaps people want to show their friends to make them jealous, pretty boats selling bananas and coconuts, ladies in straw hats – basically a huge photo opportunity. There is no doubting that this is exactly what Damnoen Saduak delivers. My trip there in late October was great for my companion, a keen photographer who spent at least half an hour standing on a bridge, camera focussed on the small canals below. Her pictures are amazing.
But when you are walking around, the atmosphere is lacking charm. Apart from the occasional boat selling food, most of what is on offer is tacky touristy items – t-shirts and plenty of elephant themed trinkets that you can find in Central Bangkok. Once I had got my half a dozen shots of the floating market, I was bored. I didn’t like being hassled by people trying to sell me Tiger Balm for my mother, I didn’t want to hold a big scary snake and whilst I was happy to taste a coconut pancake (they are really good), I didn’t want to take 50 home to my family. During my visit to Amphawa I was able to buy plenty of bags of fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs and nuts, not so great for tourists, but fantastic for someone based here. I also got an amazing tour of the temples nearby, where my teacher and her colleagues went to make merit. You don’t get a better introduction to Buddhism and Thai food than I got during my trip there, but I realise that not everyone is lucky enough to have their own personal guide. For most tourists Damnoen Saduak is handy, being open every morning, whereas Amphawa can only be visited at weekends.
Damnoen Saduak may be the floating market that everyone talks about, but it feels disappointing. Like Christmas, the build up was far more exciting. I really enjoyed my trip to the coconut sugar factory, even though it was really just a shack by the side of the road. The smell and taste was fantastic and it was interesting the centuries old method of extraction. The ride through the canals was great fun, shooting through the water on a long-tail boat seeing the people who live on and around the area, but sadly going so fast that my photos didn’t come out very well. It’s once I got there that my bubble burst. Below are some other snapshots from the morning to give you an idea of what it looks like.
I think that as long as you manage your expectations and have enough time on your hands it is worth experiencing Damnoen Saduak, but if I had to go back to one of the two floating markets I have visited (there are more!) then I would pick authenticity over photogenicity and go to Amphawa.