Let’s revisit the transportation topic for a bit, shall we? This past weekend Gabe and I decided to check out the floating markets. Whereas this used to be a very viable form of market, thanks to local ‘wet’ markets and grocery stores they are not longer needed. They are, however, great for tourism and thus still exist. A floating market is exactly that – vendors paddle their longboats down canals selling all sort of food to anyone who waves them over and wants it. Some carry loads of produce while other have entire ‘kitchens’ on their boats (yes, wooden boats) where they cook up pad thai, grilled squid, noodle soup – everything!
Damoen Saduak is “the” market that everyone goes to, but I’d heard that it has gotten so touristy in recent years that it’s no longer worth visiting for anything more than a photo op. With a bit of research, however, I found that there was a smaller, much more local and much more authentic market called Tha Kha in nearby Amphawa (located about 100km from Bangkok). Of course there are buses departing every 20 minutes, every day to get there, but after stumbling across someone’s blog description of a ‘secret’ railroad in West Bangkok that also went to the area, we had to try it!
The Mae Klong railway is the shortest stretch of track in the country and isn’t connected to any of the other rail lines. It literally starts off the side of the road, hidden in a market, and runs once every hour to Maha Chai. Once you get to Maha Chai, there is a river. Instead of building a bridge, they decided to just end the tracks. Oh, these tracks also happen to be in the middle of another market, and the vendors have to move all of their stuff out of the way each time that a train comes in!
So anyways, supposedly this track ends, you get off, take a ferry to the other side of the river where the tracks begin again and take you all the way to Samut Songkhram (also called Mae Klong), the home base for going to Amphawa and/or Damoen Saduak. Now that you have an idea of what we had in mind, let me summarize our journey for you:
10:00 a.m. – We embark on the 25 minute walk to the Bang Po pier where we board a riverboat.
11:15 a.m. – We get off of the riverboat at the last stop in south Bangkok and get a tuk tuk to take us across Thaksin Bridge to the rail station.
12:15 p.m. - The 10 baht train leaves for Maha Chai; we enjoy rural scenery and try to ignore the incredible heat for an hour.
1:10 p.m. – The train pulls into Maha Chai and we manage to find our way to the ferry.
1:30 p.m. – We get on the 3 baht ferry along with some other people and a ton of motorbike drivers.
1:35 p.m. – We get off the ferry and ponder where to start looking for this mystery train station. My directions said ‘down a soi, near the 7-11′…
2:00 p.m. – Using trial, error and our 20-word Thai vocabulary, we find the train tracks at the very end of a soi, through a field, literally in someone’s overgrown backyard. There is a group of people hanging out at what I guess you could call a station, laughing and explaining to us that the other train wouldn’t come until 4:30. They try to get us to have a beer but we leave, finally understanding why the people who gave us directions kept shaking their head and holding up four fingers, and hoping that we can get a bus instead.
2:30 p.m. - After trying to communicate that we are looking for a bus to many different people (all of which keep telling us ‘rot fai! Ban laem, See!’ – go to the Ban Laem train station, train at 4), we finally find some motorcycle drivers who, with lots of pantomime, are able to inform us that there are buses back across the river! We are glad to finally have it make sense, because we KNOW that the buses exist! Apparently this town is waaayyyy too small for such a thing.
3:00 p.m. – After eating some delicious khao pad moo (fried rice with pork) from a woman who gets a kick out of the fact that foreigners have stopped to eat (this town doesn’t see too many), they can order in Thai and they like it spicy, we get back on the ferry and head to the other side again.
3:40 p.m. – After nearly an hour of asking about buses to Mae Klong and having everyone point us in all sort of different directions, we find one. Apparently there is a bus coming, which is why some people point one direction (wait down there) and other people point the opposite way (it’s coming from over there). Word seemed to have gotten out that the farangs need to go to Mae Klong, because by the time a taxi driver stops to inform me that we want bus 481, every person that we pass points to the end of the road and says “481, to Mae Klong!” Needless to say, people once again made sure that we got where we were going and we boarded the bus with no issues.
4:30 p.m. – The hot and sunny day has turned into a (wonderfully) cool and (unsettingly) stormy day. Luckily we’re on a bus and it has an inexplicable 20 minute stop at a gas station, which is just enough time for the worst of the rain to pass.
4:45 p.m. - We pull into Mae Klong and the bus driver points across the street at a blue minibus, saying “Amphawa!” We nod and as soon as we step off there are motorcycle drivers pointing at the same bus, making sure that we know. We head over, taking their word for it and deciding that we’d rather get to this market before it’s over than find a place to stay.
5:15 p.m. – The packed minibus finally leaves. I know that we’re on the right road, because I checked out a map beforehand, but am not quite sure how to know when to get off. A few minutes into the trip the driver pulls over to collect money and asks where we’re going – I tell him Tha Kha market and he seems to understand, nodding and confirming “market!”
5:45 p.m. – Everyone has left the bus except for Gabe, myself and an older couple. They look concerned and the woman asks where we need to go. I tell her and she definitely understands – she’s able to tell me that the Tha Kha market was a looonnnggg way back. The driver seems confused, but we decide to just get out (we are at a market, in front of a Catholic church of all things!) and figure out what to do. It’s looking as though we are NOT meant to make it to Tha Kha!
6:00 p.m. – After a few minutes of wandering, realizing that small jungle towns don’t have taxis zipping by, we talk to a motorcycle taxi guy who is hanging around the church. Luckily there is street sign above our heads, pointing the way to our (wishful) destination and it’s easy for him to understand where we want to go. He says to wait, that he knows how we can get there…
6:10 p.m. – Sure enough, here comes the same minibus, running the reverse route! The motorcycle guys waves him down, telling him where we need to go. We climb in, embarrassed, and the driver gets such a kick out of it that he takes us all the way back for free, smiling and enjoying a Leo beer as he drives.
6:25 p.m. – We arrive at the market! It is packed and seemingly impossible to have missed along the way. Luckily it didn’t really get going until 4, so we haven’t missed much. We have enough good light left for some great photos, then eat delicious food, stroll around and enjoy being nearly the only foreigners in attendance.
9:00 p.m. – After a course of snacks for dinner (dim sum, skewers of chicken/veg, som tom and beer) we get a snocone-esque dessert and sit on a curb to enjoy it. A very nice waiter with good english invites us in, saying we don’t need to buy anything, just to make ourselves more comfortable. We decline the offer, but talk to him afterwards about places to stay. I am starting to feel a bit worried about accomodation…we are in a tiny town and things are going to shut down, quickly.
9:20 p.m. – We are in a tuk tuk headed back to Mae Klong. This is the result of the waiter telling us that Amphawa has no hotels, just homestays (expensive!) but that Mae Klong has plenty. He then sends a girl to help us find a ride, make a call to a hotel and tell the driver where to take us. She does all of this, again going above and beyond to make sure that we’re taken care of. I had jotted down a list of cheap places that I’d seen online and the driver obligingly takes us to the Mae Klong Hotel.
10:00 p.m. – We open the door to room 304 and realize that the Mae Klong Hotel doesn’t employ maids. The pillowcases seem clean, there is a sink and it only costs 200 baht - this is about the end of the good points! This is a room that would easily fall into the “crackhouse” category in the U.S. (though without the danger factor). By this point there is no way that we’ll try to go somewhere else, so we laugh and make the best of it. After some snacks from 7-11, a bit of reading and lots laughing about our ridiculous day, we go to sleep (Gabe is sleeping on top of his rainjacket).
6:30 a.m. – We get up, are ready to leave in 15 minutes and get out of that place! We want to go to Dameon Sadouak, knowing that the tourists start arriving around 9 a.m. Miraculously, there is a taxi from Bangkok driving by and he is happy to take us there. A direct trip!
7:15 a.m. – We get dropped off and start wandering around, taking a few photos and brushing off the boat-ride sellers. We eat some breakfast – noodle soup and pad kaprow – then continue photo-taking while the light is good. It is fairly empty, which is nice but also made us the ONLY targets for the souvenier hawkers.
8:30 a.m. - The place is filling up with tour buses and it’s getting pretty miserable. It is incredibly touristy, everything is overpriced and the vendors are relentless. Lots of big white people packed into overpriced boat rides, buying tacky souveniors and snapping photos.
9:30 a.m. – We are ready to go! Having enjoyed our morning pre-crowd experience, we jump on a songtaew to the main road where we take a big air-conditioned bus straight back to Bangkok. The normal way, if you will.
When it was all said and done, what took us 8 hours and 9 legs on Saturday took only 2.5 hours and two legs on Sunday. Was it a case of doing it the hard way? Maybe so, but what’s traveling if there’s no story?