For the Pi Rho Maniacs... our submission for the Floating Market Challenge!
This weekend, the Pi Rho Maniacs decided to go on a two-day trip to Amphawa Floating Market in Samut Songkhram. The town is less than 90 minutes from Bangkok, so most people go there as a day trip, but we thought it better to take a comfy van and spend a night in one of the many homestays.
Lynn had booked us a night at Ban Mae Arom Homestay, as there are no hotels in the area. There are quite a few homestays in Amphawa, but we were advised to stay at the ones at the far end of the market as they are a little quieter and they have their own exclusive veranda on the riverfront. The room we stayed in was 1,200 Baht, or about $34, and was pretty basic with a shared bathroom. Sue said the thin mats on the floor, that passed for beds, would be good for her back. The rest of us were not so sure! But the view of the river made the stay worthwhile!
During the evening, Marissa talked us into splurging on a firefly tour. This cost a whole 60 Baht per person, about $1.75. Ironically, we paid almost $20 for a can of mosquito repellent from our host – more than the combined cost of the tour! The first few groups of fireflies that we passed seemed more like cheap Christmas lights flashing in synch. To be honest, Lucy thought that they were fake lights! Later on though, our group photographer and tour guide, Vicki, was able to talk our boat captain into getting close to some trees where we could actually see them flying around. They weren’t easy to photograph, but she did manage to get this one!
One of the highlights of spending the night in a homestay is that you get to see the monks that row by early in the morning. Lori and Nan, the early birds, woke us all up in time to see them go by our balcony at 6 am. It was touching to see the Buddhist monks making their rounds by boat and the local people offering food and alms as they paddled by.
Although the floating market doesn’t open until noon, there were still a few longboats going up and down the canals. Along with several other guests, we bought a freshly cooked breakfast from them. I think it was a first for all of us – to eat red pork with rice and pad thai at 7 am!
Once we all had a chance to shower and get ready for the day, we made our way up the canal to Amphawa market. Although the floating vendors weren’t there yet, we spent our time visiting the charming teak-wood shops that line both sides of the canal and open right up to the water. The shops sell souvenirs, from the usual T-shirts to some more interesting creations. The handicrafts, fashion and art are locally produced, meaning we wouldn’t find many of these goods in Bangkok’s markets. So when we saw something we really liked, we snapped it right up!
The Thai people have a very sweet tooth, and in addition to the souvenirs, there were lots of places selling sweets, snacks and ice cream – even early in the day!
CANDY AND SWEET SHOP
Amphawa is the second most popular floating market near Bangkok, and its visitors are almost exclusively Thai. It’s not as large as Damnoen Saduak, which was built for tourists, but Amphawa is more authentic. The once small village was apparently already present in the mid-Seventeenth Century. The floating market offers a glimpse of how Bangkok looked when canals outnumbered the roads and people travelled by boat. The area is where the Mae Klong River meets the Gulf of Thailand and ancient canals still irrigate the region, which is chiefly farmland. People still live on the canals but it’s only on the weekend that the market boats come out. The floating market covers several city blocks, with the boats lining the shore on both sides of the canal.
Amphawa has become such a magnet for Thai weekenders that food stalls have grown out from the riverbanks and stretched far into the town. In all the streets radiating from the market, we found an incredible array of local food sold from small carts.
Boats sell fruit and vegetables from the local orchards and fields, and vendors offer colorful desserts traditional to the area.
Shortly after our souvenir shopping spree, having taken our prized goods back to the homestay, we began to see the boats making their way to the market. The main draw, of course, is eating seafood grilled precariously on the wooden boats moored around the famous central bridge, serving an appetizing array of huge prawns, shellfish and squid. From noon until late in the evening, the smell is simply irresistible and customers flock to each side of the river all day long.
In addition to prepared foods, the boats sold fruits and vegetables from the local orchards and fields. And of course, the requisite sweets! Most foods looked familiar but some looked very unusual or even funny. Rachel, Jackie and Debb made a game of who could name the most items for sale, especially the ones not common to our North American grocery stores. Among the fruits, we saw bananas, papayas, guavas, pineapples, mangoes, water apples, melons, coconuts, limes, passionfruit, tamarind, lychees, pomelo and starfruits. Among the vegetables were long beans, onions, chiles of all kinds, eggplant, cucumbers, squash, broccoli, cabbages, mushrooms, mung beans and sprouts, and root vegetables like jicama, cassava, yams, sweet potatoes, taro, and lotus root.
FRUIT AND VEGETABLE BOATS
Some we’d never seen before, and we all got a laugh when our interpreter showed us something she called “stinky beans”!
There were dried and fresh herbs galore, including cilantro (coriander), ginger, garlic, curcumin (turmeric), lemon grass, various basils - (thai, sweet, lemon basil, holy basil!!!), spearmint, pandanus leaves, rice paddy herb, fingerroot, galangal. One boat had a beautiful selection of dried shrimp and various types of peppercorns and chiles.
We all thought we’d died and gone to foodie heaven! But knowing we had to travel back to Bangkok that afternoon, Lori was the only one who admitted to purchasing fresh produce – she wanted to make us a sweet surprise! We saw papayas, limes, and mint go into her bag. A little birdy told us that Lynn snagged some lemongrass plants for her herb garden back home - we wondered it they would make it through customs, and how disappointed she'd be if they took them away!
Surprisingly, the boats also carried fresh seafood, despite the heat and the lack of refrigeration. We saw many types of fish, huge prawns, squid, clams, crabs, mussels and lobsters. It made us wish we had a way to take it all home!
We noticed that the streets were getting very crowded towards noon, and decided to make our lunch selections. We made our way to a row of narrow concrete steps leading down to the water, where the food boats were waiting a few feet away. The customers all perch on those steps, and the food is brought directly from the boats and served on tiny little tables at water’s edge. We had an opportunity, being early in the day, to eat at a nice restaurant with tables and chairs, but Forever Mama and Vicki insisted we partake of the authentic Thai experience and eat right there with the gathering throng!
Thankfully, our interpreter ordered for us, and we shared an assortment of authentic Thai dishes. We greatly enjoyed our satays, grilled prawns, noodle and vegetable dishes.
STREET FOOD DISHES
Some of our entrees were distinctly spicy, prompting us to set off in search of a cold dessert to cool our mouths. We found a perfect ending at one of the street carts – a hollowed coconut filled with coconut ice cream, topped with shredded young coconut and salty roasted peanuts. A great ending indeed to our visit to the Amphawa Floating Market! Lunch and dessert came to around 300 bhat – about $9.
Most first time visitors to Amphawa take a tour on one of the many longtail boats and explore the surrounding canals and rivers. It's not as impressive as the Bangkok Khlongs, but after the heat of the market the breeze from the river would be a welcome relief. They offer a temple tour and an island tour. We chose neither, as our interpreter told us of a very special temple on the other side of the Mae Khlong River, called Wat Bang Koong, which definitely shouldn't be missed.
It's hard to believe, but some people go all the way to Amphawa and entirely miss the magnificent temple located a hundred meters from the river. We walked the short distance to the temple, and it was just like a scene taken directly out of an Indiana Jones movie; a whole temple entangled in the roots of an enormous bohdi tree! Only the door and the six windows were free from roots. The temple is not abandoned nor neglected, far from that... devout Buddhists are constantly walking in and out to pay respect to the golden Buddha seated inside the temple. It was a wonderful place to take pictures and the artwork inside the temple was jaw-droppingly stunning.
Amphawa is definitely the most attractive of all the floating markets in Thailand. It has managed to retain its authenticity and has not yet become overly touristy in an international sense. But Bangkokians love this place so much, that anytime after noon it becomes impossible to walk. We found that the best way to enjoy Amphawa is to arrive at the market before 10:00 and leave soon after lunch. Lured back by the promise of a frozen treat made with the ingredients we had just purchased, we went back to our homestay to pick up our belongings, and to enjoy the 90 minute ride back to Bangkok in air-conditioned splendor – our tummies full and happy, and one more thing crossed off our collective bucket lists!
Postscript: Back in our Bangkok rental, Lori made the most refreshing dessert of the day – made 100% with ingredients she had purchased at the floating market: a thick slice of fresh, ripe papaya – topped with a housemade lime sorbet and fresh mint.
Link to recipe: https://artandkitchen.wordpress.com/2016/07/21/papaya-boat/
PHOTO OF PAPAYA BOAT