Samut Songkhram may be Thailand’s smallest province, but it sure packs in the punches. Yet despite being full of attractions genuinely befitting the tags ‘Amazing Thailand’ and ‘Unseen Thailand’, it rarely figures on the average tourist’s itinerary. In fact, an editorial in Thai Ways Magazine frustratingly dismisses the province, known locally as Mae Klong after the river that runs through it, as ‘not having many popular tourist attractions’.
There is admittedly some sad truth in that ‘not popular’ tag, since most travellers eschew Amphawa and make a bee line for the tacky, touristy-beyond-recognition Damnoen Saduak floating market, en masse in their tour group minivans – and if you told them that not too far down the road they could find a market that has 8 daily trains run right through it and a temple inside a tree, they would probably laugh right in your face. The truth is that, less than 70km from Bangkok, Mae Klong’s rural green, canal-studded landscape and laid-back lifestyle is a world away from the capital city, and then some. It is easily reachable from the capital by bus, minivan, train or by car if you’ve snagged cheap car hire. And the silver lining to so many others being oblivious to this treasure trove is, of course, that you have far fewer people to share it all with.
Mae Klong Railway Market The market that has been doing the rounds on YouTube for some years admittedly had many in disbelief at first. Could it really be that there is a market which eight passenger trains a day run through, where the railway track itself is both the footpath and the resting place for the majority of the stallholders’ produce? Well, the simple answer is yes, and seeing it in the flesh is even more surreal than the video version.
The short story is that the market existed first and that, in the absence of any laws allowing the government to seize the land, the new train line was simply built to run right down the middle. And so it has stayed – each day stallholders put up with it, pulling back their produce just in time for the carriages to pass, and replacing them a split second after the train has gone; so fast, in fact, that you would never guess anything had happened. Trains aside, this is a very nice fresh market with a good array of seafood in particular, and some tasty-looking frogs. The skewered frogs are a little dry, chewy and fishy tasting, having been grilled, but the take-home fresh ones would make a darn good stir-fry or curry.
Getting here Sure, you can cheat and take a minivan from Bangkok’s Victory Monument, but the only way to really appreciate this fascinating freak of a market is to ride straight through it on the train yourself. It’s a pleasant and very cheap, if fairly long, journey that kicks off from the capital’s Wongwian Yai station (close to the Skytrain stop of the same name) and involves two train rides and a hop on a cross-river ferry – get the details here. A trip in this way makes the perfect entrance to Mae Klong and sets the stage for a couple of days’ stay in this sometimes beyond-believable province.
Amphawa Floating Market Forget Damnoen Saduak. Forget Damnoen Saduak. Forget Damnoen Saduak. Got it? Really, forget Damnoen Saduak. The postcards may look nice, with their picture perfect traffic jam of boats on the river and toothless old women hawking fresh fruit – but the reality is somewhat different. If you do go, you can expect a morning of rubbing shoulders (it’s packed) with other foreign tourists and perhaps being shunted along the canal on a boat that struggles to move because of the number of other tourist-laden boats; the rest of your ‘fun’ will be had on the mainland, where most of the stalls sit and where locals will go hard-sell on you with those postcards. And this is meant to be a floating market? The alternative is Amphawa.
No one is pretending that it is some untouched rural market get-together, because it isn’t, and it too at times shows itself creaking under the pressure of corporate greed that threatens to turn it into something closer to Damnoen Saduak. But it is largely lower key, more relaxed and certainly more popular with the Thai crowd – largely Bangkokians out for a day trip or a couple of nights away, when coincidentally the guest house operations universally double their prices (you might think about coming mid-week, but the market is so much quieter it’s almost not worth the trip).
A wander along the canal and over the bridge, a glimpse at the old wooden houses that for now still line the waterside, and a few miniature bowls of cheap-as-chips 10 baht noodle soup are the real way to enjoy Amphawa. There is also good, if sometimes relatively pricey, seafood to be had at some of the bigger restaurant outfits that sit along the edge of the canal. 50 baht will have you on a short boat trip around the market and its surrounds, and at night, too, you can hop on a boat to go a little further out and catch a glimpse of the infamous fireflies that light up the sky.
Getting here From the Mae Klong railway market, catch a small blue songthaew here for 15 baht; a tuk-tuk will make the same trip for 80 baht. Alternatively, you can again take a minivan directly from Bangkok’s Victory Monument to Amphawa.
Wat Bang Kung You might well wonder what could be more fantastical than a market that has a train chug through it. How about a temple inside a tree? No kidding, Samut Songkhram has that to offer, too – and not so far from the railway market or Amphawa. Wat Bang Kung is a small-ish but impressive Buddhist temple, around which an entire banyan tree has grown, its roots and branches surrounding and choking the building’s structure. The Ayutthaya period temple is still in working order, and inside sits a glistening Buddha image – but even for Thais visiting, the real attraction seems to be having your photo taken in such a novelty spot, and to be able to say you’ve visited that temple in the tree.
The open, glassless windows at the sides of the temple are encircled by thick, twisted roots too, yet there is enough of a break to allow an incredible view past the wooden roots to a side-on profile of the majestic golden Buddha image. In the grounds, some rather odd statues appear to depict a battle of sorts, and just over the road is a low-key zoo that is worth a visit as much for the baboon, ostrich and other animals on show as for its pleasant riverside location – take a walk out onto the small pier and buy some food to throw into the water for the schools of fish who will thrash around for it.
Getting here Local songthaews ply the route to Wat Bang Kung. Alternatively, from the Mae Klong railway market you can take your bicycle or motorbike on-board the 3 baht cross-river ferry (the pier is just right of the very end of the railway track, slightly past the station building), from where it is only a short distance to Wat Bang Kung. A motorbike taxi will also take you here from the boat pier, or you can take advantage of the number of canals in the area and head to the water – find a boat and negotiate a ride to the temple from there.