A vendor makes som tam papaya salad at Taling Chan, one of Thailand's floating markets — Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis
Thai floating markets are some of the most photogenic and iconic images of the kingdom, and they've been around for ages. In the days of minimal roads, townships in the area around Bangkok were connected by water, and most social life and commerce took place on boats and in houses built on stilts.
While roads now rule supreme in Thailand, and a majority of folks do their shopping in supermarkets and malls, the floating markets have not died out. Some have survived solely as tourist attractions, while others have become big hits with locals, serving up great food and making for a fun weekend escape, and others are being visited by both young and old as something of pride, of a stalwart of Thai tradition.
Here are some of the top places to row your boat around Bangkok:
Bargaining at Damnoen Saduak — Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis
Damnoen Saduak, located near Ratchaburi, is named after the canal which it sits upon, built in the 1860s by King Rama IV to connect the Mae Klong and Tachine Rivers.
While the river was the lifeblood of the communities here and goods were traded along the waterways, in the past decade the market became the poster child of Thai tourist brochures and guidebook covers. Today, it has evolved into a mass tour bus affair.
Though Damnoen Saduak can be pretty crass and commercial, if you come early in the morning before the tour buses arrive, there are still plenty of photo ops. Hiring a longtail boat to take you around some of the smaller canals will still give some picturesque glimpses into village life.
Giant shrimp for sale at Amphawa — Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis
Fruit and vegetable growers used to trade their produce along the Amphawa Canal years ago, and Thai Tourism revived this tradition, putting in a great local market that runs through the evening.
Boats laden with some fantastic seafood line the entire canal, and you can get giant shrimp, crabs and sea bass in abundance here, as fresh as they come. (Most families selling here are in the fishing business the rest of the week.) Additionally, walkways along the water are lined with all sorts of cute cafes and shops selling food and souvenirs.
Amphawa runs only on weekends and stays open at night, with a big draw being boat rides to see hundreds of fireflies lighting up the canal under the stars.
Bang Noi, where tradition reigns — Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis
Bang Noi and Tha Kha
Other nearby markets like Bang Noi and Tha Kha are very traditional old-style markets near Amphawa, also occurring on weekends and on a very small scale. If you come early to these, you'll be almost alone.
Here you'll see mainly produce and vegetable vendors quietly plying their trade alongside the canals.
Thai floating markets, an age-old tradition — Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis
For a real feast, head over to Taling Chan, not far from central Bangkok, which is famed for its fresh seafood. Charcoal-grilled snakehead fish and giant prawns are the bestsellers here, with entire fish plates served piping hot to the small waterside tables.
Mostly Thais attend this market, which feels far more traditional, and you can take boat tours on the canal here that pass by orchards, gardens and traditional wood houses on stilts, giving a glimpse as to what life was really like in the Bangkok of old.
Talat Nam Peung
Finally, over in Bang Krachao, just across the river from central Bangkok, you can find the Talat Nam Peung market, which is also only on weekends.
While the vendors don't "float" here, they do park on the water. And diners can sit on bamboo mats next to the canal and enjoy som tam papaya salad, grilled chicken and sticky rice, all popular favorites at markets like these.