Central Thailand, particularly the area between Ratchaburi and Bangkok, is full of floating markets. This region historically relied on rivers and canals for moving merchandise, and selling it right on the water made sense. Yet, most tourists have only heard of one gathering on weekends in Damnoen Saduak. Why? Well, partly, it is the mysterious self-sustaining popularity principle seemingly driving all modern commerce, including mass tourism. Partly, because of all those aquatic food courts and souvenir bazaars, Damnoen Saduak is the last one that actually sells some agricultural products. Mainly fruits, of course, since most clients are tourists, unlikely to buy raw tofu or bitter green gourds. It is a classic attraction, and it can be quite spectacular, but do not expect an authentic experience: the days of riverine trade are gone, and the nearest real floating markets are in Kalimantan and Kashmir.
Before the days of cars and trucks, rivers used to be the easiest way to transport cargo – barges had much greater capacity than oxcarts and did not require much power to move, at least downstream. Since a settlement would depend on water supply anyway, most towns were next to one river or another. To connect various tributaries, it was common to dig canals between them – Imperial China was particularly famous for this, constructing hundreds of kilometers of artificial waterways. Still, most other countries would do it too, even if not on such a grand scale. Damnoen Saduak canal was ordered by Thai king Rama IV in 1866 to link Thachin and Mae Klong rivers and took two years to complete. Chao Praya, and therefore, Bangkok, could be then easily reached via Mae Klong. The canal also provided water for irrigation, especially crucial when the main crop is rice, attracting new settlers to Ratchaburi. Trade, both local and centralized, flourished, and the former was often conducted from the same boats that were used to ferry goods and vendors anyway. Floating markets formed sporadically all over the area, and the tradition is remembered and mimicked nowadays, even though the real thing has not survived the advent of roads and pick-ups.
Unlike most other “floating markets” in Thailand, essentially food courts where the visitors sit behind picnic tables on the bank, while ready-made dishes are sold from passing boats, Damnoen Saduak still maintains a bit of old-school appearance. Many of the vendors, for example, wear mo hom, traditional costumes, although edges of T-shirts often stick out from underneath. Aside from kitchen boats, a lot of the sampans are laden with fresh fruits. And souvenirs, of course. Buying anything there makes little sense, since in addition to the usual “tourist price” you can expect an “attraction surcharge”, plus every random rip-off the seller could think of. Boat tours are still pushed with great persistence, despite the fact that walkways have been built of both sides of the canal, with bridges spanning it here and there, and no boat is necessary to visit it anymore. If you do take one, negotiate for a longer ride, past the touristy market area, and into the agricultural communities nearby. There, the lifestyle is still quite authentic and significantly depends on the waterway. Other entertainments include photo ops with captive animals, often with a slow loris, which do not survive well in captivity and should have been left alone.
Damnoen Saduak floating market runs on weekend mornings, roughly until noon. For the most intense activity, visit it between 08:00 and 10:00 AM. There is almost no chance to get there in time by public transport from Bangkok. The most common ways to visit it are either minivan or long-tail boat tours. While the former is cheaper, the latter will give you a chance to observe a lot of beautiful scenery and some real village life of Thailand before reaching this classical attraction, famous, but reeking decidedly of a theme park. To see the floating market on your own, spend the previous night in Ratchaburi town or Damnoen Saduak village. The most spectacular photos are usually taken from bridges, picturing a mosaic of colorful sampans directly from above, but even then, you will have a hard time framing your shot to exclude all the tourist boats. All in all, Damnoen Saduak is worth an hour or two if you have never seen a floating market before.
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