UPDATE – 24 August 2013: See the end of the post for details of how to get here by public transport from nearby Taling Chan floating market (it’s the easiest way to make the trip).
Just when you think you’ve had your fix of Thai floating markets, along comes another one. In fact, Khlong Lat Mayom floating market has been on my list to visit for quite some time, after a rave review from Mark Wiens on his Migrationology site and more recently on the Travelfish blog. I finally made it there at the weekend, and I’m glad I did – it has very quickly become a contender for the top spot as my favourite.
It sounds like a cliché because it is, but Khlong Lat Mayom, sitting on the outskirts of the Thonburi side of Bangkok, is at once a million miles from the capital’s notorious hustle, bustle and traffic jams, and within relatively easy each of the city centre. I am always keen on finding ways to get to markets and other attractions by public transport if possible – because, while one or two Thailand-based bloggers get around by car and the others just seem to plump for the easy option of ‘the best way to get there is by taxi’, the reality is that most travellers don’t bring their car and those on a tight budget especially will probably want to avoid the cost of too many taxis.
On this occasion, though, I admit that I didn’t do a great job – Khlong Lat Mayom, while within reasonable distance of downtown Bangkok, is a little more difficult to get to than most (and that’s part of the reason it is still such a nice place to visit) and the truth is that taking a taxi probably really is the most convenient way to get here, if you don’t want to have to take at least one bus and another songthaew pick-up truck…and stump up the Thai language skills to make it happen. That said, you can get here by public transport if you want to (we did, though we went home by taxi) and I’ve listed a few ways to do so at the end of this piece.
‘Mayom’ is the Thai word for the star gooseberry fruit and the market’s name translates roughly as ‘canal with star gooseberries growing on its banks’, but we couldn’t see any evidence of the fruits being grown in the market’s vicinity. Even so, by the time you get off the main highway and out onto the lane that leads to the floating market, it is obvious that you are well and truly in the country. Skyscrapers and condominiums are replaced surprisingly quickly by rice fields, and though the road can become congested with visitors to the market of a weekend, it is easy to imagine it is dead mid-week.
It is always worth prefacing write-ups about floating markets by saying that there is a certain irony in that the more authentic, local-feeling floating markets actually have less of the ‘floating’ to them. If you want postcard-engineered traffic jams of old women with conical hats on paddle boats to blast to your Instagram followers as you rub shoulders (literally – not in the film premiere sense) with a million and one other western visitors, then somewhere like Damnoen Saduak floating market is where you need to be headed – and I won’t be the first or last person to tell you that. If that is what you are looking for then Khlong Lat Mayom, where the majority of stalls and eateries are very much on terra firma. Sadly the truth is that in all but a very few places the 100% genuine and original form of floating markets, with a bunch of boats paddling around and traders selling to other locals on boats, died out a long time ago. What you see at places like Damnoen Saduak is nothing but a tourist show. Markets like Khlong Lat Mayom – and others including Amphawa and Taling Chan – are to a certain extent also put on for tourists, albeit primarily Thai ones. But they are rather closer to the original point of a floating market, and resemble meat processing factories a whole lot less.
Khlong Lat Mayom, meanwhile, is above all else a foodie paradise. Positioned as something of a green-minded eco market, it is split by two separate trading areas – the ‘north’ and ‘south’ markets – which are cut through by the main road. The south market seemed significantly busier than its northern counterpart, the narrow walkways between the food stalls particularly difficult to navigate when packed with crowds over the peak lunchtime period. But the northern market, quieter and consequently rather more pleasant to walk around, also feels just the slightest bit more contrived, with a visible number of English-language signs giving prices and so forth, and staff more likely to say ‘hello’ than ‘sawasdee’ – all of which is totally (and refreshingly) lacking in the south market. In any case, the canal runs parallel to the south market, and it is possible to pass between the two areas by making like a hunchback (really, it’s low) and crawling beneath the road bridge that spans the water. It’s worth passing this way just to stop and have a look at the fruits and vegetables being hawked by a couple of old ladies from their boats – olden days style, and probably in the closest example of the genuine floating markets of the past that I mentioned earlier.
One of these women in particular sells gac fruit, which you probably won’t have seen elsewhere and which isn’t very common in Bangkok (I’m told it’s native to the south). With its knobbly exterior it resembles something close to a small version of a jackfruit, only orange in colour – the flesh tastes like a mix between a tomato, ripe papaya and passion fruit, only without the sourness of the latter. If you don’t want to take a whole fruit, you can buy a small bottle of iced juice for 20 baht – it’s refreshing and well worth trying if only to say you have. Amusingly, gac fruit is known in Thai as fuk kao.
In both parts of the market, stalls are sheltered from the blistering sunlight by open thatched huts, and trailing greenery dangling down from between the rooves of different sections gives the whole place a very natural, farm-like kind of feel – a prominent sign even boasts a ‘bamboo toilet’ (I’ll let you discover that one for yourself). Add to that a number of vendors selling a range of locally produced handicrafts, homeware such as mirrors and garden furniture and accessories, and you have an incredibly pleasant mix that resembles something like a large-scale farmers’ market in the west. In fact, for those living in Thailand, Khlong Lat Mayom makes a great destination to pick up furniture for in and out of the home that has rather more character than stuff from Ikea, but which equally doesn’t cost the earth. One vintage shop had a few interesting buys and is worth a look, while another beautiful little shop had a great collection of quirky, hand-shot postcards and magnets, with photos not so much of the local area (one was of Sangkhlaburi!) but pretty all the same. Plants, too, are plentiful – I picked up a small jasmine plant for 20 baht which I was very pleased with.
The seafood at Khlong Lat Mayom is cheap, as we had been reliably informed even before we arrived by the lady on the songthaew who we asked if we were going the right way (side note: the locals around here seem very keen to chat, so you should run into no problems if you get lost – particularly if you speak a little Thai). It is also bountiful: expect whelks, mussels, oysters, giant prawns and horseshoe crabs, ready to eat at one of the many tables with a view of (and the breeze from) the canal. We were also promised the somtum puu maa papaya salad with raw marinated blue crab was very good, but we didn’t get a chance to try it. The huge, whole gai yaang grilled chickens on sale nearby would go perfectly with a plate of fiery papaya salad (the chicken, too, came with a hearty recommendation from the woman on the truck!)
Seafood aside, there is a good selection of regional food on offer; khao mok gai from the south and khao soi from Chiang Mai – though the former was a disappointment. It is rare to be so let down by food made at a market by a vendor specialising in only or two dishes, but it was dry, with a sauce so rich and sickly sweet it tasted almost like marzipan, and with fried chopped onions on top that were so overpowering they diminished the taste of the rest of the dish. The accompanying cucumber was so dry I literally spat it out as I tried to bite into it – from how it tasted, it could easily have been sitting out in the air for a week. With as much choice as there is at Khlong Lat Mayom, though, it was no real biggie. On a more positive note, the three varieties of massuman curry with chicken, pork and beef looked delicious, and I am mentally kicking myself for having forgotten to go back and get some (or even a photo!) to bring home. It is unusual to see massuman, a dish of Muslim origin, made with pork, though I probably would have gone for the beef anyway – but all three looked stunning, a deep coloured curry made with less coconut milk than most and a thin layer of oil settled on top; just like they make it at Roti Mataba in Banglamphu. Elsewhere, another khao gaeng curry stall had something that looked distinctly like gaeng neua – definitely one to try on a future visit, though it will have a hard time matching up to the same curry I ate in Krabi.
Food to take home includes fresh purple seedless grapes and other fruit and sweets including luk chup – the taro-filled ones are particularly tasty – while drinks abound, including a homemade lemonade stand (western style; the sign even had pictures of yellow lemons on, rather than the small green ones more common in Southeast Asia!) and a couple of strawberry shake stalls. If you want somewhere to sit and chill, a small trendy coffee shop sits to one of the far ends of the market; decked out with dark, smooth concrete walls and floors, it reminded me of Graph Café in Sangkhlaburi, which I can’t believe I’ve not written about before. But the star of the show has to be the traditional hollow piece of bamboo, complete with yarn handle and a straw and filled to the brim with namtan sote, a palm sugar juice which literally translates as ‘fresh sugar’. A small one will cost you 25 baht, a larger one 30 baht and, while the juice is incredibly rich, if you can finish it and want seconds you can get a refund for an extra 10 baht; otherwise, the bamboo cup is yours to take home and do with as you please (ours will probably end up as a hanging planter on the balcony).
Food aside, there is plenty to do at Khlong Lat Mayom – enough, in fact, to easily end up spending the whole day here and still want to come back because you’ve missed something. Pick from activities including horse riding for 80 baht per hour, a terracotta pot throwing class for 250 baht and plaster model painting for the kids. More traditionally associated floating markets, you can indulge in a cheap Thai-style massage – 150 baht per hour for the whole body, 120 baht for a foot massage or 80 baht for a half-hour neck and shoulder rub. Or take to the canal for a dirt cheap 20 baht ride around the block to see the immediate vicinities of Khlong Lat Mayom.For 50 baht you can go further out on a longer tour; either way, boats leave when they are full, which was pretty frequently. These boat trips are popular with Thais but seemed to be the biggest attraction for foreign tourists. In fact, within the first couple of hours there I had only seen five westerners but, as we sat down on a footpath just past the main market and the postcard shop, and between the canal and the nearby houses (you wonder how long they will stay as houses, and how soon they will go the way of similar places in Amphawa and turn into guest houses or ‘homestays’ as tourism takes hold), our feet dangling over the water, every other boat that went past seemed to be packed with white faces – amusingly all on roofless boats, compared to the Thais who mostly shied away from the sun on covered boats.
Even with the few foreigners who do make the trip out to Khlong Lat Mayom, the place remains largely off the tourist radar and so retains a local feeling, even if it can never be totally authentic. The huge array of prepared food ready to chow on will have your head spinning for choice; perhaps that’s the reason as our bags got heavier that I found myself, thinking about how we were going to get home (we had come by bus), concerned that a taxi back to Sukhumvit was going to cost the earth – forgetting that, however remote and rural Khlong Lat Mayom may feel, it’s only a short distance from the big city and its Skytrain connections.
With Khlong Lat Mayom still firmly off the mainstream tourist map, there are as yet no minivans or direct bus services to get you there. Instead, the easiest and quickest way to make the trip is to head to Wongwian Yai BTS station and hop in a taxi – tell the driver you’re headed to ‘Talat Nam Khlong Lat Mayom’ and expect a fare of around 100 baht each way. Alternatively, take bus 511 (it runs along Sukhumvit, past Central World and down Ratchdamnoen Avenue near Khaosan Road) and ask for a ticket to Taling Chan – it’ll cost you a little more or less than 20 baht, depending on where you board the bus and whether or not it takes the express way. Jump off when you start seeing signs for Sai Tai Mai, Bangkok’s southern bus station, and hop on a dark red songthaew converted passenger truck – the ride here (it runs all the way from the nearby train station to the market, and then on further) costs a flat rate of just 7 baht. Alternatively, make your way to the southern bus station, take bus number 146 to the same area and take the songthaew from there.
UPDATE – 24 August 2013: On a recent re-visit, I discovered that the red songthaew mentioned above passes nearby Taling Chan floating market on its route towards Khlong Lat Mayom. Perhaps the easiest way to get to Khlong Lat Mayom is therefore to follow the instructions here to take bus orange-coloured, air-con bus number 79 from Central World to Taling Chan floating market (the conductor can tell you where to get off) and then grab the red songthaew from outside the grocery shop on the left hand side as you are facing the entrance to Taling Chan floating market. Check with the songthaew driver or a fellow passenger that it’s going to Khlong Lat Mayom (someone on board will know it, even if the first person you speak to doesn’t) as there are a couple of routes run by the same red songthaews. Get someone to tell you when to get off – though you’ll likely see the market once you get there. The ride costs the flat rate 7 baht.