It’s hard to imagine that Bangkok with its perpetual traffic jams and spewing exhaust fumes, was once known as the Venice of the East. This was because the main form of transport around the city was once the humble boat, utilising a network of canals and waterways known as khlongs fed by the great meandering River of Kings, Chao Phraya.
Street food began here on the waterways, evolving into floating markets, invented to capture passing trade. Imagine instead of static stalls, a flotilla of long tailed boats clustered near the banks, bobbing in the wake of moving traffic, heaped with all manner of food and paraphernalia, lost in the haze of smoking charcoal burners and the steam from boiling noodles and rice.
Chao Phraya is still the lifeblood of Bangkok, but of the little arteries it once fed, few remain. Most have been filled in to make way for roads, but some find a way to re-invent the ancient system. A great example are the fast motor boats which offer an express ‘ferry’ service up and down the city canals, whizzing past riverside homes and under vine-tangled bridges.They move fast, churning up quite a wake, and only stop briefly for passengers to get on and off at designated piers, but they are a great alternative to a tuk tuk or taxi if you don’t mind getting splashed and are nimble.
Floating markets have these days become the preserve of tourists, offering a glimpse of times past, when the khlongs were what the bustling Bangkok streets are today, but it is possible to find a more authentic experience only 30 minutes taxi ride from the centre of Bangkok.
Khlong Lat Mayom is a small floating market with few foreign visitors, selling mainly fruit and vegetables to the huge number of eateries spread out on the land-side of the canal. This is a gargantuan food market, exotic and sensual, with hundreds of different stalls selling thousands of colourful and aromatic foods, nestled under cover, lit by a myriad of glowing lightbulbs. It’s possible to be lost for hours, just taking in the enormity of it, the variety……
What to choose is a wondrous dilemma – we can only eat so much!
In the end, we collapsed at a bamboo table overlooking the canal, clutching flattened, skewered chicken breasts (Gai Galae) with sticky rice wrapped in palm leaves. I adore sticky rice, it’s so easy to eat with your fingers:
For dessert we chose pineapple hearts. Carved from a whole pineapple, these ‘lollipops’ on stalks are mouthwatering. Just the thing after spicy and BBQ style chicken.
Of course it’s inconceivable to visit a khlong and not get on a boat. It’s possible to hire one for very little so we bought tickets at 35 Baht each for a trip in a long tailed rowing boat rather than a motor boat, thinking to prolong the sense of peacefulness before returning to the mayhem of Bangkok.
We drifted gently past wooden houses elevated on stilts, and peered enthralled into a world governed by water – fishing nets were hanging from every beam and motor engines cluttered verandas beside the hulls of upturned boats.
The whole network of khlongs has a suburban feel, almost a sub-culture shaped by the unique environment – every now and again we were overtaken by small buzzing motorboats driven by fishermen and women, carrying landing nets. But the water isn’t just a byway, it’s a playground too – children dive and splash, and play chase around their homes – and for a communal recreation ground, there are the lily ponds!
Khlong Lat Mayom is a 30 minute taxi ride from the centre of Bangkok, although you may have to persevere as not all taxi drivers want a trip outside the city that isn’t a ‘tour’ and as Khlong Lat Mayom is not a tourist spot, there’s no guaranteed return trip for them. We found getting a taxi back to Bangkok easier than persuading a taxi driver to take us. Another option is to take the BTS Sky Train from Bangkok to Bang Wa station from which you can grab a taxi to the market (for a family though it’s pricier and hotter).
Huge thanks to our Twitter friends Charlie and Christina @maptrotting and Mark Wiens https://migrationology.com/best-floating-market-in-bangkok/ for all the tips!