A man zips by on a longtail boat, gliding through the clumps of water hyacinth that drift along the canal. At the Hua Takhe market on the outskirts of Bangkok, the sight of locals travelling by boat is no surprise, unlike in downtown Bangkok where most canals have long been filled in to give way to choked roads.
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Hua Takhe, an old community in the east of Bangkok and not far from the city’s main Suvarnabhumi airport, once boasted a bustling local market alongside this canal, which long since fell into decline. But in recent years a group of locals has worked to reinvigorate the area, launching an art market one weekend a month at which students seek inspiration for their paintings, and then sell and exhibit their artwork.
Getting here from central Bangkok involves taking a local train, headed to Chachoengsao in Thailand’s east. The train chugs out from Hualamphong railway station and shopping centres give way to open fields and rice paddies – yet remarkably we never leave the capital.
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The elderly man opposite me recounts tales of his childhood, when he tells me porters worked at Hua Takhe train station, carrying the heavy loads that passengers had brought back from the capital’s markets to sell locally. “They carried everything for three baht per person,” he enthuses. A little further down the line, London’s infamous Big Ben clocktower bizarrely appears in the view from the train window; it reaches above all else from its spot at the new London Street community food mall on Pattanakarn Road.
A short motorbike ride from Hua Takhe railway station, the old market is really just a line of shops on a boardwalk alongside the canal, and really it qualifies to be called a floating market as much as any of the more popular ones such as Amphawa and Khlong Lat Mayom. It is pretty quiet on my visit – it’s worth checking that the art market is running (see www.facebook.com/lovehuatakhe), since at other times there is little going on – though a former hairdressers remains open as a kind of museum of antiquity, as do a couple of local convenience stores.
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Two cafés also offer the opportunity for refreshment, one decked out with objects from a typical Thai childhood, and another, Na Lat Krabang (open 9am-7pm, closed Mondays; www.facebook.com/nalatkrabang), at the far end of the market and with seats right along the water’s edge. It makes for a pleasant spot to enjoy an iced tea in an oversized pickling jar (35 baht), served with a glass of rose-scented water, while watching life go by slowly on the canal.
The café, the name of which means ‘at Lat Krabang’, and which also has the tagline ‘Coffee & Khlong’ (canal), boasts a cute two-storey interior with chalkboard menus and a speciality in drip coffee. As is obligatory in design-led coffee shops like this, they also sell postcards (20 baht each or 50 baht for three) showcasing vibrant photography of the local area.
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Next door, a large wooden house also fronting the water is framed by green shrubs. It lacks an English name, but promises coffee, drinks, ice cream, snacks and rooms in its guest house (open 12-7pm, closed Wednesdays); this would be a very tranquil place to spend the night.
When the art and craft market is running, activities include Thai-language classes in clay firing and other crafts, while art houses display local collections. Yet even when the market is dead, Na Lat Krabang and the rest of the old market still make for a wonderful spot to which to escape, relax, drink coffee, admire the brightly colored architecture, watch the world go by and just breathe.
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To get here, take a commuter train from Bangkok’s Hualamphong station to Hua Takhe; there are more than 14 daily services in each direction, but conveniently timed trains for the outward leg leave Bangkok at 8.00am and 10.10am, and at 2.35pm, 4.10 and 5.06pm on the way back. The journey takes just under an hour and costs 7 baht (free for Thai citizens on production of ID card).
Motorbikes and taxis are few and far between directly outside Hua Takhe station, so either make the short walk to the main road (turn right out of the station) or expect a short walk. Take a 30-baht motorbike taxi to Lat Krabang Soi 17; note that our motorbike taxi driver did not know the soi by number, but was familiar with Hua Takhe market (Talat Hua Takhe), so asking for that may be a better bet. Walk through the bustling local fresh market and turn left at the end of the soi; cross the bridge immediately in front of you over the canal and you’ll enter the old wooden market.
Alternatively, take an Airport Rail Link city line train from Phaya Thai to Lat Krabang, and then take an inexpensive white songthaew share taxi to the top of Lat Krabang Soi 17, or a taxi for around 60 baht. Most conveniently, it is possible to make the trip by taxi from central Bangkok; the closest Skytrain station is Udomsuk, from where a metered taxi should cost in the region of 200 baht.