Once upon a time in the Ayutthaya Kingdom, before the invention of cars and motorbikes, road travel was inefficient. Not everyone could afford a horse, and even then, how much could it lift? Like in many other countries, the main traffic of cargo ran on rivers – and wherever there wasn’t one, it had to be made. The entire area of Central Thailand is crisscrossed by a network of canals, from Kanchanaburi in the west to Trat in the east, and from Ayutthaya in the north to the sea down south. The remnants of this bygone epoch are the floating markets. Nowadays, when trucks take care of transportation, they have become cultural and culinary tourist attractions. One of those takes place on the Mae Khlong River in Amphawa near Samut Songkram every weekend. Due to its proximity to Bangkok, it has become a very popular holiday destination with middle-class Thais. This, in turn, resulted in more attractions being added, such as the night-time boat rides to observe the colonies of fireflies twinkling on the river bank.
Alas, the original purpose of the market – selling groceries and products of local craftsmen – has long been lost. If you’re after a real floating market experience, you’ve chosen the wrong country – even the famed Damnoen Saduak now mainly consists of souvenir sellers and café boats. In Amphawa, the target customers are Thais, not foreign tourists, and the market activity is centered on dining. Most boats cook on water; you can hire one to get closer, or sit on the bank of the river and wait for the paddling caterers to come to you. They will, don’t worry. It’s a good chance to get acquainted with local varieties of Thai food, snacks, and sweats. The ambiance is relaxed, and in the late afternoon the views are quite nice, too – especially from a humped bridge spanning the major canal near its confluence with the river. Both sides of it are lined with more cafes and shops.
Admittedly, this is not the most authentic experience. Truly Asian, no doubt, and definitely Thai, but hardly historical. If you’d rather explore, venture away from the tourist crowd. Amphawa is large, and the parts of it that haven’t been turned into a giant aquatic food court are quite authentic. Traditional wooden houses overhang the numerous canals, little temples hide in the greenery, and farmers tend to rice fields and vegetable plots. Walk, rent a bicycle in one of the homestays, or hire a boat and view it from water level. A cheaper option would be to hop on one of the shared tour boats departing from the main market area. By day, this provides a basic opportunity to observe the riverside lifestyle, but for something awe-inspiring, join a firefly tour at night. If you’re lucky, you will see whole trees, even entire small groves covered in twinkling living stars.
Samut Songkram can be reached from Bangkok by bus (from Southern Bus Station), train (from Thonburi Railway Station) or minivan (from Victory Monument). The railway option is probably the best – fast, immune to traffic jams, and it can be conveniently combined with a visit to the famous Railway Market. From Samut Songkram, regular minivans run to Amphawa. The floating market only functions on weekends, mostly in the afternoon, but life on the river can be observed any day, of course. Fireflies in Amphawa are the most active during the rainy season, from June to October. As always, the best bioluminescent show can be seen on moonless nights. Keep in mind that the last minivans towards Bangkok leave around 7:00-8:00 PM, and if you stay for the firefly tour, you may miss them. One solution is to stay overnight – Amphawa has plenty of homestays and cafes - or you can rely on hitchhiking. Alternatively, tourist agencies in Bangkok offer organized tours.
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