Picturesque wooden boats stacks with colourful fresh produce. Locals wearing traditional straw hats and authentic fishermen-style pants. Freshly cooked fish on wooden skewers roasting over open grills. Picturesque. Quaint. Old-fashioned. A throwback to another time. These were the mental images I had of a floating market in Thailand.
Sadly, when I inquired about the possibility of visiting a floating market around Bangkok, I was told by both travellers and Thai people alike that the popular markets had become overcrowded tourist traps selling poorly made knickknacks. However, my lovely hostel host Annie, recommended that I visit Bang Naam Phung Floating Market, a Saturday market on the outskirts of town that is popular with young Bangkok residents. When she explained the complicated, multi-step instructions to get there, I was convinced that few tourists would make the effort.
Getting to Bang Naam Phung Floating Market
When I set out to find the market, I was quite excited to see an authentic floating market frequented by locals. As I would discover, the reality would be unlike my expectations in nearly every way. First though, there was the matter of getting to the market which proved to be an adventure in and of itself. I was joined on my exploration by Lili, a girl whom I’d met at my hostel. Following Annie’s instructions, we rode the BTS to Bang Na station and walked along the road to “the 7/11”, which is an incredible ambiguous thing to say in a city with a million 7/11s! Choosing a likely looking 7/11, we waited on the street corner for a shared tuktuk to pass by.
Upon speaking to a local shop owner with an excellent command of English, we learned that we were at the songtaew (shared tuktuk) stop but the wait could be upwards of half an hour. Instead, he instructed a nearby motorcycle driver to take us to our destination, the pier, for a mere 15 Baht each ($0.50US). We both scrambled onto the same bike and shot off through traffic. It was a harrowing ride squeezing between 16 wheelers, cement trucks and public busses, but we arrived in record time. We quickly found the ferry and were able to walk right on. We were joined by several motorbikes and about a dozen other people who all appeared to be locals. The quick, 10 minute crossing cost 4 Baht each ($0.11US). Exiting the ferry we found another group of well organized motorbike transports waiting and we climbed on, individually this time, for a 10 minute, 1o Baht ($0.28US) ride. So far I was having a fantastic time!
The Reality of Bang Naam Phung Floating Market
We were dropped off at the edge of a dirty canal with no market – floating or otherwise – in sight. A friendly Thai man noticed our confusion and waved us in the right direction. We wandered over to what appeared to be a covered market running along the raised sidewalk, the length of the canal. As the stalls were set up with their backs to the water, we couldn’t actually see the canal at all. There were no boats, no floating market stalls, no picturesque scenes. There were plenty of bizarre and interesting items for sale including herbal products, arts & crafts and prepared foods. Even though it was a far cry from the pretty market I’d hope to see, I enjoyed the authentic atmosphere of Bang Naam Phung Floating Market. There were few other foreigners and most of the vendors seemed genuinely happy to show us their wares and exchange a few words.
My intention of capturing a beautiful, enchanting place was not fulfilled in the way I expected as the market was not a conventionally photogenic place. However, over the next couple of hours, we made our way slowly around the many stalls, sampled some new foods, walked along canal’s pedestrian paths, and generally enjoyed the laid back vibe. At one point as we walked by a monk, we inadvertently got blessed by the splash of holy water. Seeing our shock and laughter, he smiled broadly and repeated the gesture with enthusiasm.
At first I felt disappointed that the reality of Bang Naam Phung Floating Market was vastly different than my expectation. I felt I had missed out on a quintessentially Thai experience and wondered if I should have visited a different market. Then I realized that I hadn’t chosen the wrong market, I’d visited in the wrong century. I realized that since canals are no longer used as a practical means of transport, modern floating markets fall into two categories: artificial markets created to uphold the romantic ideas of tourists and utilitarian markets frequented by local shoppers but lacking in conventional charm. While visiting a more well-known market may have provided me with more pleasing photos, Bang Naam Phung Floating Market gave me a glimpse at how Thai families spend their Saturdays which I found extremely charming.
Have your travel expectations ever given way to an underwhelming reality? Did you find a way to enjoy it nevertheless? Share your story in the comments below!
Now It’s Your Turn! Asking a local resident where they do their shopping is a great way to learn about local markets. Next time you are out of town, speak to your hostel owner, cab driver or tour guide and you might be rewarded with an under the radar spot to visit.