While organizing photos recently, I realized I never posted about my three-day stopover in Bangkok en route back to New York in May. I spent most of the time shopping and eating up a storm, but I also took on a little bit of work — a hostel write up and a tour review. Another tough day in the office of a freelance travel writer!
“So, is this your first time in Bangkok?” My tour guide turned around to smile at me from the passenger’s seat as we fought through the snarling traffic of Thailand’s capital. I thought for a moment and responded that I had probably been to the city more than ten times, but that this would be my first trip to the Damnoen Saduak floating markets — a long desired tick off my travel wishlist. “Hmmm,” he replied, turning back to face the windshield. “Don’t expect too much.”
I laughed at his honesty in advertising. From what I could gather, he might be right. The floating markets were once an authentic produce marketplace for locals living on the outskirts of Bangkok, known for the sale of exotic fruits and longtail boat traffic jams. Travelers took heed of this vibrant version of the mall back home, and with popularity came a degradation in quality. Soon the market was more crappy souvenir shill than authentic experience extraordinaire.
The first stop on my guided tour to the market was to a countryside coconut sugar plant, where my guide Tawee handed my coconut sugar candy samples and told stories growing up in rural Thailand. In general it was a typical group tour pit stop with lots of souvenirs and silly photo ops, but it was a good excuse to get out and stretch my legs — and sneak enough samples of sugar candy to make myself physically ill.
I had an interesting epiphany on the car ride out. The group tour I was signed up for turned out to be a private one, which sounds fantastic at first. But I realized that like my private day tour in Manila, I found it was a bit tiring to be the sole subject of someone’s attention for such a long period of time. It’s a good thing to know about myself, and also a money saving one, as private tours tend to come with a hefty price tag.
Approaching Ratchaburi province, I was matched up with a couple that arrived with a different guide, and we were led onto a longtail boat to cruise the canals and arrive in style at the markets. While I’d been on longtail boats many times before, I enjoyed this back-door tour into the lives of those living along the canals, likely the very vendors we’d soon see hawking in the market. The houses looked beautiful and peaceful and a world away from the cramped residences in central Bangkok, and yet I can imagine it would get old to have to hop in a boat to ask your neighbor across the canal for a cup of coconut sugar.
Though our boat driver was silent and stoic, I could tell when we were approaching the markets by the amount of boat traffic we encountered – a monk glided by in a dugout canoe, while a fruit seller in a straw hat stopped paddled by with a longtail overflowing with ripe mangoes.
The boat dropped us off at a dock where my guide was already waiting. He explained that I would have a set amount of free time to explore, which I was pleasantly surprised by. As nice as it is to have a guide to give you background and explain context, I also treasure my mindless wandering time. I was given the option to pay extra to take a boat ride through the market, but I was wary of the inflated pricing and whether I really needed another boat ride, so I declined. Instead, I chose to walk along the canals and bridges in order to get better photography vantage points.
The markets are navigable by foot, though it is a little tricky. There are a lot of dead ends and sometimes you have to walk a ways away from the water in order to reach the next section. But there are many bridges and walkways that provide prime views and let you observe away from the chaos. I was really happy I had packed my telephoto zoom lens.
At first glance I was bummed to see so many vendors selling touristy junk – maybe the rumors were true. But looking a little closer, and walking out of the main tourist epicenter, I found plenty of longtails brimming with fruit, flowers, and other authentic goods. Sure, they were marked up to tourist prices and there farangs were the main customers, but there is still a strong sense of the past.
My main objective on this trip was photography. I had plenty of time to get creative shots and play with different lenses and angles. Actually, it was a nice challenge to get the shots I wanted and keep Singha t-shirts and tuk tuk keyrings out of my viewfinder.
Eventually, I did put my camera aside to flag down one of the boats and buy a mango sticky rice. I was pleased to see the prices weren’t outrageous; about the same inflated rate you’d pay on Khao San Raod. I sat on the dock, enjoying my favorite delicious Thai snack and drinking in the market I had waited so long to see with my own two eyes.
And to my own surprise, I did find myself doing some shopping! After several trips to Chatuchak and the Talad Rot Foi markets scanning for an authentic Thai license plate for family friends back home who collect them from around the world, I finally found one at Damnoen Saduak. I wildly overpaid but I didn’t care — I was victorious, and on my last day in the country no less!
Was my tour guide right, had I expected too much? The Damnoen Saduak Floating Markets have been changed forever by the face of tourism — both domestic and foreign. And yet I loved my morning there. My expectations had been low, granted, but they were exceeded by this peek into Thailand’s past. Photographically, I felt inspired and treasure the shots I took here. And hey — I’ll never turn up a scenic spot to inhale my beloved mango sticky rice.
Practical Info: It is possible to visit the markets independently, though the early start and logistical difficulty is what kept me away for so long. Organized tours like the Floating Markets of Damnoen Saduak Cruise Day Trip from Bangkok provide not only door to door transportation but also the colorful commentary of a local guide.
Do you have a favorite locals market in Bangkok?
I am a freelancer for Viator and participated in this tour in order to write a review for their site. They did not request a favorable view on either their site or my own. All thoughts and opinions are, as always, mine.
I forgot how pretty Thai writing is! Lovely photos. (Killer selfie)
I know, it’s beautiful! And yeah, gotta love that iPhone selfie cam!
I love mangos.
This has been on my list for a while too and I had the exact same concern (touristy junk) good to know there are still some interesting things to see and do.
Ha, actually more so than the tourist junk, the early start and long distance from central Bangkok kept me away for a while! So glad I finally went on assignment — totally worth it.
I thought the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market was pretty fun, despite the touristy-ness. We were lucky enough to be taken by some Thai friends. Afterwards, they took us to a smaller floating market , where many of the locals shop to avoid the tourists. It was definitely interesting to see the contrast between the two.
Jessica, that sounds like an awesome experience! Going with locals is always the way to do it if possible. There were tons of domestic tourists there, so it’s obviously still a popular experience with Thais.
Love your photos! I need to go out and explore more with my different lenses. I always keep the same “basic” one on so I never really remember to try my telephoto (zoom?) one. Thanks for the reminder! 🙂
OMG, tell me about it. I lugged that thing for five months and I think used it three times. I’m considering selling it. I just don’t know if I use it enough to justify keeping it.
I did it and had a great time. Usually touristy stuff is touristy because it’s so awesome. 🙂
I couldn’t agree more! I find myself saying that quite often to defend “touristy” stuff. It’s only a bummer when the original experience becomes degraded (ie: a produce market turning into a t-shirt one!)
Great write up, and really lovely photos – you did a good job avoiding the Singha t-shirts and tuk tuk keyrings 🙂
Thanks Lily! So glad you enjoyed.
Great series here, Alex! I love markets! I couldn’t fit Bangkok floating market to my itinerary a few years ago. Your pics show me how much photography I had missed 🙁
It took me years to finally fit it in! Don’t worry, it will still be there when you get back 🙂
Somewhat miraculously despite 1 year in Asia, we have managed to completely neglect any and all floating markets during our time here! I have no idea how we’ve made it through Thailand, Vietnam, & Cambodia without visiting one, but we have! Every time we here about one, we shrug our shoulders and say that we’ll go see the next one, only for the cycle to repeat itself! Soon we’ll have missed all our chances… need to find out if there are any here in Indonesia!
This was my first one too! I did go to a floating village in Cambodia, which was a more authentic experience but also quite remote and a bigger commitment of time and money.
Beautiful photos! I didn’t see a single Singha T-shirt or tuktuk keychain 😉 I think it’s worth it to visit, you seem to have found it’s not *just* touristly junk. I guess that means that it’s purpose as a market (it’s reason for being in the first place) hasn’t been lost!
While I don’t think there are many locals buying produce there anymore, there must be some? Or else the few tourists buying fruit as a novelty as wildly inflated prices makes it still worthwhile to paddle around with a boat full of mangoes 🙂
I had a similar experience at the floating markets in the Vietnamese Mekong Delta. They were also quite touristy, but not as bad as the one you went to. I still enjoyed it though as it showed me a completely different lifestyle and as you said, markets like this are just so photogenic.
No shame in doing things for the photos sometimes 🙂
There are still “authentic” floating markets, but adjusted to today. Of course there are many brand new floating markets. And even the latter can be a joy to visit. It all depends on the way that you visit. And in that regards a guide can make or break a trip.
To be honest my guide actually didn’t hang out with me once we got to the market, which I kind of liked! I wanted my space to explore solo. Still I enjoyed getting the background from him en route and having someone to chat to about all things Thailand.
As soon as I here floating market the first thing that comes to mind is “tourist trap”.
I lived in Thailand for a whole year and I never any urge to see them, the pictures look nice on all the websites, but I always think it will be like chatchuk market.
See, the funny thing about that is I LOVE Chatuchak market… check out my many posts about it 🙂 And while these floating markets are quite touristy, Chatuchak definitely has a higher ratio of locals!
Nice photos, floating markets are always good spots to take pictures. I really enjoyed the ones in Hua Hin and Ayutthaya because it was less busy than in Bangkok.
I’ll have to check those out sometime! I’ve been to Ayutthaya and didn’t even know they had a floating market.
I’m OBSESSED with your necklace!!!!! I live in thailand and would LOVE to have one too! Please tell me where you got it!
Chatuchak Market 🙂 I replied to your other comment with more details!