Floating markets are a big attraction for many travellers to certain South East Asian countries, none more so than Thailand. However, if tourist crowds aren’t your thing, and you’re willing to sacrifice the size of the market you visit for a better experience, there are smaller markets, catering to a mainly local clientèle, which can give you that truer experience of Thai culture and, most importantly, cuisine!
Whilst on a short working trip to Bangkok, a Thai friend of mine and my colleagues took us to Taling Chan Floating Market, a few miles west of the city centre, situated on a small river. When you arrive there are quite a few stalls on dry land, mostly selling fruit and handicrafts, as you meander your way through the warren of merchandise to the water.
Once you get to the river the sights and smells of food are almost too much for the gastronome – you’ll be salivating so much you’ll be tempted to order some food right away! The food is prepared on boats which float alongside the jetties and piers (where you sit to eat – sitting on the floor as the locals do is the best option, if your knees allow it!) but the boats move around in order to pick up extra ingredients from neighbouring boats or from the shoreline. Considering the size of some of the pans the ladies and gents use to cook the food, it’s a wonder the small boats don’t topple over – they must be experts at balance by now. One you’re on the jetty where you dine, don’t be put off if it’s completely packed – it’s a large area, so hopefully you’ll find some places to sit, especially down at either end, away from the bridges that connect to the shore.
I’m a big fan of Thai food, so, being in such an authentic setting, eating real Thai ‘street food’ was a treat! I had the staple menu item, pad thai, the stir fried sweet/savoury rice noodle dish that can be found all over the world. It was delicious (you could ask for how much spice you wanted), and I thought it was much tastier than I’d had in Thai restaurants in the UK. However, my friend claimed he preferred the Thai food in London! I was flabbergasted he could say such a thing when surely this is much more authentic than anything you’d find in London. We agreed to disagree…
To accompany the pad thai, a banana flower segment was served. I had no idea what it was and almost just started munching on it as a whole until my Thai friend explained. She peeled some petals off so then I knew what to do, and which parts to eat! Apparently, sometimes, the banana flower is chopped up and included within the meal, but as a side I think it’s designed to give you a breather from the heat of the dish.
Other Thai favourites such as satay, an array of seafood (the live prawns and crabs looked incredible) and even more unusual dishes (snake anyone?) were available from the various floating vendors, and the simple menus normally had pictures so ordering shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Apparently, Taling Chan is one of the smaller floating markets, so for more choice you could try the busier (and more touristy) Damnoen Saduak or Amphawa, but Taling Chan is more genuine and quiet than the others, allowing you to enjoy the traditional Thai music being played by local musicians. As Taling Chan is relatively close to the city centre, there’s no need to book an organised tour to a floating market which your hotel might advertise, and instead it’s an easy taxi ride away. Besides, arriving independently has got to be better than arriving with a coach full of fellow tourists, right?