Canals and rivers have long been key transportation arterials the world over. In the U.S., barges still sail up and down the Mississippi carrying commercial goods, while Venice continues to shuffle people and cargo around its narrow canals. No surprise, then, that Asia also has leveraged its waterways for commercial industry. Except, in the case of many Southeast Asian countries, the boats themselves have become ersatz markets. In fact, this tradition of the “floating market” dates back to the 1300s (if not earlier) when communities naturally sprung up around rivers — both sources of water and avenues for transportation. Today, several of these floating markets still exist; the most famous ones draw both tourists and locals in Thailand.
Here are the ones worth checking out:
1: Damnoen Saduak
Arguably the biggest floating market in the greater Bangkok area, Damnoen Saduak has become more of a tourist destination than an authentic Thai market. That said, it has deep roots in Thai history; once know as the Lad Plee Market, it served as the commercial highpoint of the canal of the same name. These days, sampans (or small, wooden boats) tote heaps of fresh fruits and vegetables through a maze of canals. Souvenirs and dry good are also for sale, though it should be noted that most items at this market are overpriced due to the increased tourist interest. If you want to bargain, however, feel free; this is a common practice. If you get hungry, keep an eye out for boat noodles — a traditional dish consisting of pork and/or beef, dark soy sauce, bean curd, sticky noodles, and sundry other ingredients. If you’re looking to avoid major crowds, come in the morning around 7am and leave before 9am.
Located near the Wat Amphawa Chetiyaram Temple in Bangkok, the Amphawa Floating Market offers visitors a closer look at the life of locals. This is actually a great market to enjoy at night, as fireflies are known to light up the nearby Lampoon trees — a magical touch while you’re hopping from souvenir shop to restaurant to clothing store. If you have an appetite, grab some traditional boat noodles or go off course and snag some freshly grilled seafood (prawns are our fave). Tropical fruits are abundant, too, and make for a healthy snack or dessert. If you have time, consider a boat or bike tour of the area, where you can see more of the river, the market, and the nearby temple.
3: Don Wai
About 25 minutes outside downtown Bangkok, Don Wai market is rung with traditional wooden houses and bustling with a mix of locals and tourists throughout the day. It’s especially busy on weekends and serves as a popular destination for cooked food, including tom yum soup, fish balls, pork satay, and Chinese stewed duck. This is also a great place to catch a trip downstream to the Wat Rai Khing temple (fares cost only $2 roundtrip) or enjoy a more extended tour of the Tha Chin River.
4: Khlong Lat Mayom
The main market of Khlong Lat Mayom is on terra firma, but there are boats adjacent to this market that sell various produce and souvenirs. Fortunately, this is not yet a major tourist attraction so you’ll see more traditional foods and ingredients on offer, including som tam (a must-try spicy-sour papaya salad). You’ll also have the chance to tour orchards and farms, giving you a better sense of the agricultural-based life the locals lead. This market is very close to Taling Chan (see below), so consider visiting them in succession.
5: Taling Chan
If you’re more of a schedule-be-damned traveler and don’t want to be restricted by the early morning hours of other markets, then head to Taling Chan. It’s only about seven miles outside of downtown Bangkok and is open all day, offering many of the same traditional and tourist-focused goods you’ll find at other markets. It also tacks on a few additional treats, like foot massages under the riverbank trees (about $7). Keep in mind, however, that Taling Chan is only a weekend market so don’t expect to get any shopping done during the week.
Tips for making the most of Thai floating markets
You can always go and experience a market on your own terms, learning as you go, but there are a few tips to keep in mind to make that can make your experience top-notch. To wit, we recommend:
- Bring cash (Baht) with you as ATMs are sometimes hard to find.
- If you want to avoid crowds, go as early in the day as you can and leave before lunch.
- Map out your trip to the market well in advance; some are hard to get to, especially by public transit.
- Most of the food prepared at floating markets is safe, but if you’re concerned, order only cooked food. You’ll also notice that many vendors boil utensils to sanitize them – if they don’t do it automatically, ask them to do it for you or request plastic utensils.
- Unless you’re dead set on getting a keepsake, avoid buying a souvenir; most are cheap. Instead, just enjoy the food — that’s really the highlight of most markets.
- If you want a bit more guidance, consider hiring a local guide to help you navigate the stalls and vendors. com offers several options that combine floating marketing tours with visits to local landmarks.