Floating markets are often a rightly a prominent fixture on the itineraries of visitors to Thailand. They offer a unique insight into the lifestyles of past generations of Thais – even if today they’re largely tourist attractions rather than bona fide local markets – and, perhaps more importantly, they’re fun, relaxing places to indulge in a spot of shopping and taste a variety of delicious Thai street food. And there are enough floating markets in and around Bangkok to make it easy to arrange a visit to one, whether for the day or overnight.
Many tourists choose to visit Damnoen Saduak floating market in Ratchaburi province – perhaps because it’s the one they have heard the most about. But while it’s certainly true that Damnoen Saduak does offer the postcard-worthy photo opportunities that everyone’s after – provided, at least, that you’re there at the crack of dawn – all too often it’s actually more like a traffic jam of little wooden boats carrying tourists around to shop for souvenirs.
As we said, few modern-day floating markets in Thailand are actually genuine shopping venues for the locals, but some remain slightly more authentic than others – and Damnoen Saduak, unfortunately, is probably the least authentic of the lot.
Amphawa floating market, on the other hand, offers a very different ambience. Located not far from Damnoen Saduak but in the neighbouring smaller, and much lower-key, Samut Songkhram province (also known as Mae Klong), Amphawa has long been known as a more chilled-out market with an artsy atmosphere.
Over the years, it’s grown enormously popular with Thais – especially those popping out for a day-long escape from Bangkok – and it’s crept onto the radar of more and more foreign visitors, too. Yet despite that, it retains a pleasant semi-local vibe.
As well as a smattering of canalside stalls touting cute handicrafts, the focus on Amphawa is firmly on eating, drinking and being merry – in particular with a big spread of seafood. Amphawa operates later in the day than most other floating markets – things get going from around midday and run through to the evening – families and groups of friends come out here for a long, leisurely lunch.
We’ll just say that if your idea of a good time is plates and plates of grilled prawns, steamed crabs, and fried mackerel, then you’ll be happy here. Amphawa is also famous for its noodle soup – see how many small, inexpensive taster bowls of the numerous different varieties of noodles you can get through! And of course there’s the usual selection of other popular Thai market staples – like papaya salad and skewers of grilled pork – plus an endless choice of local desserts for which the area is renowned.
It’s possible to take an inexpensive boat tour around Amphawa floating market and the neighbouring canals during the day – but the real fun comes at night. For many, a highlight is hopping aboard a small boat and heading out into the further reaches of the neighbourhood’s waterways in order to spot some of the large population of fireflies that live in the trees on the canal banks.
Though Amphawa is a million times quieter than the likes of Damnoen Saduak, there’s still no denying that it gets busy during weekend mid-afternoons and early evenings. That only adds to the fun and friendly atmosphere, of course, but there’s another side to Amphawa floating market that’s worth hanging around to see.
When the market isn’t operating – that’s every morning, and also on weekdays – the area returns to its humble origins as a much more peaceful local neighbourhood. Though you won’t get the buzz of the market’s goings-on if you’re only here at one of these times, what you will get to experience is an Amphawa ambience that most visitors miss.
One way to experience this is to stay overnight at one the many small guest houses and homestay operations that now line the Amphawa canal (we recommend supporting one of the lower-key and locally owned options, rather than the larger hotels whose very presence in many ways threatens the preservation of Amphawa’s old-style architecture and local way of life).
Doing so will also give you the chance to see the local monks going about their morning alms round to collect food from local residents – in much the same way as they do across the country, except here it’s done from a rowing boat instead of on foot. For many visitors, it’s a highlight of an overnight stay in Amphawa.
Amphawa is ideally placed to allow you to combine taking in the floating market with visits to numerous other nearby attractions. The famous Mae Klong railway market – with a real-life commuter train passing right through the middle, forcing vendors to collect in their produce to make way – is just a short ride away.
The market is known in Thai as talat lom hup for the umbrella-like awnings that vendors quickly fold back out once the train has made it safely through. In fact, one memorable (and dirt-cheap!) way to get to Amphawa is to start out at Bangkok’s Wongwian Yai railway station and take a combination of two trains and a ferry, landing you in the middle of the Mae Klong railway market, from where you can grab a songthaew shared truck taxi to Amphawa.
In the vicinity, too, is Wat Bang Kung, a small temple so old that the roots of a banyan tree have grown up around it, enveloping the structure of the Ayutthaya-period temple itself, complete with impressive Buddha statue. It’s a sight to behold, and a charming and atmospheric place to take in. Amphawa is also not far to the even more low-key and local-feeling Tha Kha floating market, which has a real quaint vibe and until recently only operated during the full moon each month.
The easiest way to get here is to take a minivan from beneath Victory Monument BTS station, for around 90 baht. Buses to Mae Klong (Samut Songkhram) also run from Bangkok’s southern bus terminal for around 50 baht. These will drop you in Mae Klong town near the railway market; to reach Amphawa from here, you’ll need to take either a songthaew for 8 baht or a tuk tuk for around 80 baht.
If you’re one for the maxim that it’s as much about the journey as the destination, you can alternatively take a 10-baht train from Bangkok’s Wongwian Yai station to Mahachai. The journey takes around 50 minutes, and you’ll then need to catch the 3-baht ferry across the Tha Chin river, jump on another 10-baht, one-hour train from Ban Laem station all the way into the Mae Klong railway market terminus, and then finally take an 8-baht songthaew or 80-baht tuk tuk to Amphawa floating market. Phew!
If you want to go with a local guide to this or any of the other floating markets in Bangkok and the surrounding areas, we can arrange a custom tour for you – combining markets, food, and a little unique adventure! Find out more about our private and custom tours and what we can do for you.
Have you been to Amphawa floating market? Let us know in the comments!
All photos by Chris Wotton.