The very idea of Samut Songkhram’s railway market is so bizarre that some people simply refuse to believe it, assuming instead that it must be a prank created for YouTube. Mention the place to someone and chances are they will have seen or heard something about it, whether online, from a friend or on some ‘freakish wonders of the world’ TV show – but believe it they often won’t. So let me start with this – yes, it’s bonkers, but it is very real.
The concept is this – every day, eight times a day, a passenger train passes right through this Thai market. But dispel any thoughts you might have of safety fences, warning lights, guards keeping customers and vendors a happy distance from the passing locomotive. Oh, no – here, the market takes place on the track. And when the train roars through, it is touching distance from anyone and everyone who is there.
Why is there a market on a railway track in the first place? Quite simply: because the market was there first and, in the absence of any compulsory land purchase laws that would have enabled the state to procure the site for their planned, originally private railway line, they simply went ahead in 1905 and built the track through the market anyway – and the market just stayed put.
Nowadays, stallholders sell their meat, fish, seafood, vegetables, fruits spices, curry pastes and all manner of other produce – plus the odd pile of flip flops – in what, train track or no train track, is actually a beautiful market in its own right. Fresh frogs and eels are among the more novelty items here, but without a shadow of a doubt and very pleasingly sold for a local, authentic clientele rather than being put out for the tourists (of which there are very few – I was the only westerner the day I visited, though an incredibly talkative local told me there were a fair few the day before).
A lovely selection of fresh speciality produce local to Samut Songkhram province is also available, like the chak-am vegetable that I tried last month while at a mud-ski homestay in the Mae Klong basin (post to follow!) That I recognized this vegetable, was able to tell it apart from the similar cha-om and had even tried it, impressed the stallholders no end.
This market’s stallholders are, in fact, worth a mention in themselves. Just a week or so before I had made a trip, certainly not for the first time, to the infamous and heavily touristed Chatuchak Market in Bangkok. While wandering through the live ‘pet’ section, I had missed the hardly obvious ‘no photo’ sign above the cages one vendor was keeping a giant tortoise and a creature that looked like a cross between a fox and a dinosaur.
Judging by her reaction to my photo opportunity, coming out all guns blazing and banging on the top of the poor dinosaur’s cage so hard that it nearly jumped out of its Jurassic skin, I can only assume they were endangered and probably illegal. She shouted a bit, I apologised and wandered off wondering what had happened to the idea of ‘jai yen’ (‘cool heart’) and that prized Thai habit of not losing your temper.
My point here is that the stallholders at the market in Mae Klong are about as much the opposite of those at Chatuchak as they could possibly be. I admit that I was a little cynical about the comments I read online before my trip to Mae Klong, where one blogger claimed that stallholders were even happy to offer tips on where was best to get shots of the train passing through the market – but he was right.
Though, as I have said, I was the only westerner at the market on my visit (I went with a Thai friend), there were other tourists there, of other Asian origins, and the stallholders are certainly well aware that there is a tourist interest in what goes on there. But while those at Chatuchak (or at least some of them) are completely jaded by the tourist trade, in Mae Klong they still seem to be at the stage of taking pride in this – which makes a trip there all the more enjoyable.
The market is located just a few hundred metres from the Mae Klong railway line’s terminal station, which runs to Ban Laem in Samut Sakhon. The line is unique in itself, in that it has never been linked up to the State Railway of Thailand’s main northern, northeastern, eastern and southern lines, which themselves all start from Bangkok.
Rather, it was originally opened as a private railway to transport produce from the fishing trade in Samut Songkhram, back to the markets of Bangkok. It later closed but is now operated by the SRT to provide a transport link to the area’s rural communities, which by and large seem to be based alongside the track and in places do not have road links to other villages and towns.
Reports online suggest that the route suffers from an eternal funding crisis and is forever being threatened with closure that never seems to actually happen. But the damaged train that is documented online, with one-time crash-inflicted large dents and cracks to one end of the carriage patched up in about as DIY a manner as is imaginable, appears to be no more, and has been replaced by something in slightly better shape. The train also runs as a free service for Thais (and it is only a bargain ten baht for foreigners), so their finances can’t be in too bad health.
The train passes four times daily in each direction; market stallholders know the timings and begin to rather lethargically fold down their awnings about five to ten minutes before it is due, also dragging in those racks of produce on the floor which might get in the train’s way. On the other hand, anything that is low enough for the carriage to pass right over the top – think rows of vegetables laid out on the floor, baskets of fish etc – stays right where it is.
The contrast in speed between folding down the awnings and putting them back up is striking; before the train’s arrival, everything happens at a snail’s pace and with little enthusiasm, yet as soon as the train has passed everything is back out and in normal operation within the blink of an eye. The train rolls on into the distance and market life carries on as if nothing had ever happened.
Minibuses run directly to the Mae Klong market from Victory Monument, and cost 70B for the hour-long journey that takes the expressway into Bangkok; but it’s worth making a day of it and taking the train for the real experience.
First, take the fifty-minute, 10B train from Wongwian Yai station (also not connected to the mainline and a rewarding visit in itself, just to see the thriving community of homes, shops and food stalls that revolve around the small platform) – it’s a fifteen minute walk from the Skytrain station at Wongwian Yai, or 20B on a motorbike taxi from outside the Skytrain station.
The train from Wongwian Yai will take you to Mahachai – then walk to the right out of the station and straight through the market to take the 3B ferry across the river to Ban Laem. From here, walk through the market and turn right at the entrance to the street. Keep walking down this street for about ten minutes to the station – locals will be more than happy to point you in the right direction.
The Chinese-style Wat Chong Lom is also worth dropping by on the way for a glimpse of its giant statue of the Chinese deity Kuan Yin – a motorbike taxi will get you there for 15B, and you can then catch the train from the tiny station opposite the temple grounds, a couple of stops down the line from Ban Laem.
Either way, the 10B train takes about an hour to get to Mae Klong – get your camera ready after about 50-55 minutes as you approach the market before the final station at the end of the line.
To make the most of a day trip to the Mae Klong market and see the train passing through from within the market, take the 8.40am train from Wongwian Yai, arriving into Mahachai at 9.30am. You then have a more than ample fifty minutes to cross the river in time to catch the 10.10am train from Ban Laem, which reaches Mae Klong at 11.10am.
You can then see the train passing through the market on its way back to Ban Laem at 11.30am, and again returning to Mae Klong for an arrival time of 2.30pm. Finally, make sure you are on the 3.30pm departure from Mae Klong to Ban Laem as it is the last train of the day (though buses and minibuses are available if the worst happens) – after crossing the river you can connect with the next hourly departure from Mahachai back to Wongwian Yai in Bangkok (the last train leaves Mahachai at 7.00pm).