December 24-31, 2012. About thirty years ago I was flying back to Australia from Europe and had a half-day stopover in Bangkok – just enough time to go into town and do a quick tour of the floating markets. I’m fairly sure I found a lady to paddle me around the many boats loaded with produce and other things for sale. It really was a market on boats, on the khlongs of Bangkok, right in the city. It was a fascinating experience and has been a lasting memory.

I knew Bangkok would not be the Bangkok of thirty years ago, and had heard that most of the khlongs had been covered over in the relentless forward movement of “progress” and development. But I was still hankering after seeing that Bangkok, of thirty years ago, and tried to find if any of it remained.

We read about Damnoen Saduak floating market, someway out of the city and very touristy. We decided not to go there. I also found out about Bangnoi and Amphawa “floating” markets, again someway out of the city and more “local” in flavor. Don found out about the khlongs of Thonburi, right in Bangkok itself, but we couldn’t figure out how to get there – until we did.

To get to Bangnoi and Amphawa we took a crowded mini van for an hour or so, and then a tuk tuk to Bangnoi. Bangnoi is a small market along the boardwalk next to the khlong. There were tables along-side the water, and shops that were the front rooms of homes, facing the tables across the walkway. Jewellery, and fruit and vegetables, clothing, and all kinds of trinkets, and food, for sale. Kids hanging out, a small country monastery at the end of the boardwalk. And this lady selling fruit:

And then we came across this lady

and her house, which was on both sides of the narrow boardwalk at the end of the market area. She wasn’t selling anything. She just lived there, right next to the khlong, her house on the landside, and an open-air room above the water on the other. I guess she liked collecting things – every surface was covered in dolls and all kinds of bits and pieces both inside and out. She was happy for us to take photos of her front room, and the walls along the boardwalk laden with all her treasures.

At Amphawa we found someone to row us down one of the side channels away from the market. We went down and down, sometimes the khlong so narrow there was foliage touching the boat from both sides, but mostly there was housing along the way, some of it tumble-down, old and worn, some of it obviously quite new. We felt like explorers, sitting in the silent boat, gliding along, getting a glimpse into life along the canal.

As we slowly made our way back to the market area after exploring the side canal we saw many “restaurant” boats also heading to the market.

At the market things were hopping. There were stalls all along the boardwalk selling everything from cakes to crafts, fruit and vegetables, sausages, and big bags of “popcorn” to feed the fish. Along the waterside were small tables and stools to sit and eat. The “kitchens” of these restaurants were all in boats pulled up alongside the boardwalk. It was crowded, and busy, and full of energy, a day out. Everyone came to the weekend market to shop and eat. A time to do weekly grocery shopping and have lunch by the water and visit with friends.

We ate these really good large prawns for lunch.

We returned to Bangkok in the same crowded minivan at the end of the day. I felt as if I’d found a little taste of the same Bangkok I’d seen years earlier, even if it was now way out of town.

And then we found a way to get to the khlongs right in Bangkok. They’re in Thonburi. It’s not easy to access by public transport. We actually booked a day tour that included cruising the canals, a visit to a forest monastery and a floating market, and a truly fabulous puppet show. It was only afterwards that we realized it was all in Thonburi, the place we knew about but couldn’t figure out how to get to. The tour was just Don and myself, and two lovely Thai women who took us everywhere, answered all our questions, and left us alone when we needed it.

We cruised up and down many canals, some wide, some narrow, most with housing either side, and it was easy to see that the canals were “streets” for the people who live there and that travelling by boat was as natural to them as travelling by car is for those who live on regular streets.

And one from Don

Clean up time at the monastery in the forest

The Market, on land, and on water. It was very busy and crowded with everyone doing their local shopping, stopping for lunch, and visiting with friends.

I don’t remember what she was selling, but I love her hat!

Finally we were taken to a place called The Artists’ House for the puppet show. I’ll write more about it in a later post – it was so good we went to see it a second time when we returned to Bangkok a few weeks later.

It was a good day. I’d finally seen the Bangkok that I’d remembered, the Bangkok that’s so unique. It still exists. Right in the city in Thonburi, and out of town in Amphawa.

Next post: Cambodia.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.