Of all the markets in Thailand, perhaps one holds more novelty value and intrigue for visitors than all the others. The Mae Klong railway market, in Samut Songkhram province just south-west of Bangkok, is the stuff of traveller’s tales and countless YouTube videos.
With word having got out in recent years and the market consequently having grown in popularity, the market is now a regular stop for tour companies whisking clients on cookie-cutter excursions to Damnoen Saduak floating market in neighbouring Ratchaburi province, and perhaps also the nearby weekend evening floating market at Samut Songkhram’s own Amphawa. All that said, it’s still well worth visiting the railway market in Mae Klong – and doing so by train to get the full experience that those who are bussed in and out truly miss.
At its heart, the market known to locals simply as Talat Mae Klong (Mae Klong market) is a regular fresh market close to Mae Klong railway station (albeit an interesting market in itself for the wide selection of produce, especially seafood from the coast in Mae Klong and neighbouring Mahachai, or Samut Sakhon, province).
But what makes it fascinating from a tourist’s perspective is that, every day, trains rumble right along the track that runs a path through the middle of the market – forcing vendors to collect in their wares, roll up their awnings (hence the market’s colloquial name, Talat Lom Hup, or umbrella/awning market) and stand back to allow the carriage to pass.
Needless to say, it’s a fascinating and at times hair-raising sight! These shenanigans take place eight times a day, with the line’s one train making four return journeys along the single track between the terminal station in Mae Klong and Mahachai at the other end of the route.
That’s the question on everyone’s lips, and the answer is simple – while the railway has along history in the area, the market was there first. And in the absence of laws enabling authorities to forcibly buy up and clear the land to make way for the train tracks when they were laid, the market stayed where it was and the two have simply learned to co-exist.
Nowadays, an alarm is sounded a few minutes before the train approaches from either direction, to give vendors time to collect in their produce and make way. In fact, some items like small trays of vegetables are left on the ground the whole time, and the train carriage simply passes overhead – a reminder to always wash your tomatoes!
This railway line, too, is something of an oddity. It started life in 1905 as a privately operated train route designed to carry freight goods from Mae Klong’s coast and up towards the Thai capital. It was then, and remains to this day, completely independent and disconnected from the rest of the mainline train network that runs around much of the country – even if its operations have since been absorbed into the government-run State Railway of Thailand.
The route running from Samut Sakhon’s Ban Laem to Mae Klong is one of two similar lines, the other just across the Tha Chin river from Ban Laem, and running between Mahachai (Samut Sakhon) and Bangkok’s Wongwian Yai station. Even in Bangkok the line is utterly disconnected from the other mainline routes, operating along just the one track from a very local, single-platform station a short way from Wongwian Yai Skytrain station.
Nor are these two independent, standalone routes physically connected to one another in any way. In fact, continuing your journey from Mahachai towards Mae Klong involves disembarking from the first train, taking a ferry across the river, and then boarding another train a short walk from the pier – and it’s not even as if the timetables align! Alas, though, that’s all part of the mystical, doesn’t-make-sense appeal of the market and everything surrounding it.
The popularity of the market’s bizarre setup has inevitably led to a certain degree of commercialisation – you’ll now find tacky T-shirts and other tourist trinkets available for sale at a couple of stands. But local people by and large still come here to buy and sell fruit, vegetables, meat, seafood and other fresh and dry produce just as they did for decades, perhaps centuries, before Talat Lom Hup achieved viral fame on YouTube and word of its semi-uniqueness (in truth there are a couple of other markets that have similar setups – Mahachai, just along from the other end of this railway line, is one) made it around the world.
Thankfully, that also means that today you’ll likely still receive a warmer, more smiley welcome from produce vendors at Mae Klong railway market that you might be accustomed to from tourist-jaded stallholders at the likes of Bangkok’s Chatuchak weekend market and elsewhere. That’s especially true if you make the effort to engage with the vendors here, and perhaps buy some fruit or a snack from them – something we would encourage responsible tourists to do anyway since, for all the growth in popularity of the market, those doing day-to-day market trade otherwise see little benefit from increased visitor numbers.
While it’s certainly possible to take a bus or minivan independently from Bangkok to Mae Klong – or even to book yourself onto an organised tour that takes in a few other tourist-geared attractions as part of a half- or full-day trip – we’re of the mindset that by far the best (if not always the quickest or most comfortable!) way to see the Mae Klong railway market is right there in its name. That, is that you should come by train.
The easiest way to make the return trip involves setting out early from Bangkok’s Wongwian Yai mainline railway station, which can be reached by taking a 20-baht motorbike taxi from the Skytrain station of the same name, or on foot in around 15 minutes. From Wongwian Yai train station, take the 8.40am train to Mahachai, which costs 10 baht and arrives at 9.30am. Turn right out of Mahachai train station and market (it’s a similar setup to the one in Mae Klong!) and keep walking straight until you reach the river ferry pier, through a car park and alongside a temple.
Take the three-baht ferry across the river, then take a right out of the pier and keep walking along the main road until you reach Ban Laem train station (locals know full well where most visitors are headed, and will be happy to point you in the right direction if you get lost; alternatively, take a motorbike taxi from the pier). Finally, take the 10.10am train from Ban Laem all the way to the terminus at Mae Klong – it arrives at 11.10am, and just before it enters the final station you’ll have the thrill of being on-board the very carriage that passes through the market and causes all that upheaval!
For the best vantage point, it’s then worth watching the same train go back towards Ban Laem 10-15 minutes later – find yourself a good spot along the market stretch to get some photos, but do stand well back when the train comes through, no matter how slowly it’s going! You should then have a couple of hours to look around the market, and perhaps have something to eat at one of the handful of simple street stalls and restaurants in the area, before seeing the train come back once more, and then reversing your journey all the way back to Wongwian Yai in Bangkok. If you get impatient, fast and inexpensive buses and minivans back to Bangkok leave from stops within walking distance from the market. Or if it’s the weekend and you want to explore further, blue songthaew share taxis depart from the Mae Klong market for nearby Amphawa floating market; the ride costs eight baht.
Have you been to the Mae Klong railway market? Let us know in the comments!
All photos by Chris Wotton.