During my first trip to Bangkok’s Amphawa Floating Market, as I watched the cook toss Pad Thai noodles in her sizzling wok, I tossed the following questions around in my head.
How did the wok stay so stable despite being on board a small boat that was bobbing around in the water? How did she manage to cook with an open flame and not set her wooden boat on fire? And how was she going to get this delicious noodle dish to me when I was standing four metres away on dry land?
After adding a splash of fish sauce, sprinkle of sugar and squeeze of fresh lime juice, she flipped the contents of the wok into a takeaway container, throwing in a handful of crushed peanuts. The steaming parcel was then placed inside a basket, carefully eased along a rope thanks to a pulley system, and delivered to me – the hungry customer – standing on the steps by the waterway. I placed my baht in her basket and the deal was done.
It’s true that some of Bangkok’s floating markets are now more for tourists than Thais, but if you love food and experiencing the colours and smells of a new country, you won’t be disappointed. Head to any of the country’s canal markets, and you’ll find a wealth of exotic fruit, sweet and savoury Thai snacks, and hot dishes made to order.
Damnoen Saduak Floating Market
If you check out the day trip itineraries of any Bangkok travel agency, you’re likely to find a stop at Damnoen Saduak – it’s the city’s ‘official’ floating market. If you arrive early enough, you can enjoy the perfect light of the sunrise as it illuminates waterways full of narrow wooden boats packed with fresh fruit and snacks. But if you leave it too late, you’ll be joined by hordes of tourists, all vying for the best angle for their happy snaps and jostling for the price of produce. If you’ve never experienced a floating market before, there’s still a lot to be in awe of, but be prepared to share the experience.
Amphawa Floating Market
When it comes to charm, you can’t really go past Amphawa floating market, located in a canal surrounded by beautiful traditional teak wooden houses where Thais go about their daily lives. Although many tourists frequent the market, its reputation for fresh and delicious seafood makes it very popular for Bangkokians who want to enjoy the quaint atmosphere while they feast on barbecued mackerel and shrimp. There is also a range of Thai arts and crafts for sale – and the buying and selling around the water continues after dark. It’s a bit of an effort to reach this market from Bangkok (it’s about 50 kilometres from the city), but it’s worth it in terms of an authentic floating market experience.
Taling Chan Floating Market
This small market is located close to the city and it has managed to retain tradition. Rather than a chaotic network of waterways teeming with boats, this is more of a riverside market where vendors park along the edge of the canal to sell their produce. There are boat trips on offer from the pier if you want to get down to the same level as the vendors – otherwise, pull up a shady seat by the water and feast on some local Thai delicacies as you watch market life pass you by.
Bang Nam Pheung Floating Market
One of the best things about this floating market is its location: inside Bangkok’s ‘green lung’. This pocket of nature is found on the other side of the Chao Phraya River and you can take a long tail boat there from Wat Klong Toey Nok, then hire a bike to go exploring. Bang Nam Pheung floating market is not very big, but the market is a good excuse to venture to a more peaceful area of Bangkok away from the skyscrapers and concrete jungle. And it’s a good excuse to tuck into a serving of spicy mango salad with steaming sticky rice.
While you’re there, make sure you sample a few of these delicious treats:
Octopus tentacles in sweet chilli sauce
Thais love their seafood and a popular dish at the Amphawa Floating Market is barbecued octopus, that’s been cut up and smothered in sweet chilli sauce. Be careful not to stab your hand with the wooden skewer that you’ll be given to eat these tasty tentacles!
Sticky rice parcels
You might wonder what’s inside the shiny little banana leaf parcels that are piled up at the markets. They’re full of sticky rice – sweetened by sugar and coconut milk with a piece of sundried banana in the middle – and they are very yummy. Make sure you have a wet wipe handy to clean away the stickiness.
When it comes to cooking meat, the Thais do pork ‘right’, and the best place to eat it is at the markets. Buy some marinated pork skewers, which have been coated in a sweet sauce and then cooked over hot coals until the sugar has caramelised. Yum! I always recommend buying meat that’s fresh off the grill, rather than anything that’s been sitting out in the open air on display.
Be ready to have your mind blown by the array of exotic fruit on offer at the floating markets – from the deep pink flesh of the dragon fruit, to the garlic-shaped sweet centre of the mangosteen. Even the everyday tropical fruits (like pineapple and watermelon) will impress your taste buds when it comes to sweet juiciness. For something different, try some green mango, usually sliced and served in a plastic bag with a sachet of sugar mixed with chilli powder, or a piece of durian (you may want to hold your nostrils so the smell won’t put you off!).
If you’re not feeling adventurous when it comes to your taste buds or if you have a sensitive stomach, the good news is that all of the floating markets around Bangkok offer up dishes that will satisfy tourists – from a steaming wok of Pad Thai noodles to a bunch of safely-wrapped-by-nature bananas.
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Feature photo by Sirikunkrittaphuk, Shutterstock