Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Damnoen Saduak Floating Markets

The floating markets of Damnoen Saduak come highly recommended…the guide books rave about it, travel writers blog about it, TV documentaries rate it as a must see….so without question, we knew we were going there…if nothing else, to answer the question – “is this another tourist trap??”

Located about 100 kms from Bangkok (about 2 hours by road), this is a very doable day-trip. The highway system in Thailand is very impressive. If you can escape the rush hour traffic in and around Bangkok, the peripheral highways zip you to your destination quickly and smoothly. There are several transport options, buses, trains or taxi to get there. We needed the flexibility and had a lengthy itinerary planned for the day. It made sense for us to hire a taxi for about $80 which would take us to the floating markets and beyond. In addition to the Floating Market, this trip also covered:
Commerce on a canal….or another tourist trap?

Of-course other tour companies cover similar itineraries for much less, and if you are on a tight budget, then you should exercise that option. The cons however, are being bound to a fixed time table with a bunch of other tourists leaving little or no room for flexibility (or for your legs).
Damnoen Saduak floating market is truly one of its kinds. Even though, you might have framed a picture in your mind (after reading books, watching TV etc)…you still are overwhelmed by the intensity of it all. Is it the smell, the sounds, or is it the scene…is it the trade, the taste, or another trap…or is it the means of a living, a way of life, everyday commerce on a canal.

One trip to the market answers all of the questions above. What we discovered is that there really are two entrances to this fanciful bustling commercial market.
The Tourist entrance: This is the option that most tourists take. I would describe the experience here to be …well… touristy. Of-course you do get to experience the market in its entire splendor. Disarrayed paddle boats carrying everything from fruits, fresh produce to noodle & fried rice flood the scene that enfolds in front of you. Loaded onto these canoe-like small boats are cooking stoves, tender coconuts, spices and brimmed hats in all shapes imaginable. And oh by the way, they even transport tourists! It’s a mad cacophony of sound, sight, smell that overload your senses.

Encroaching the canal banks, and sprawled all over the jetty entrances, are teems of souvenir shops selling everything and anything; throngs of arriving pharangs (foreigners) might possibly be enticed to purchase. As shopkeepers hawk their wares, elderly ladies adorning bright wide brimmed straw hats, deftly maneuver the slim and impossibly tight waterways. They are always watchful for tourists who beckon them to buy their goods. Generally, their boats would carry fresh fruits … tender young coconut, or have the best noodles & curry freshly cooked boat-side and served!!

The market itself is vibrant, energetic and lively, in fact its so dynamic…you wouldn't’t want to blink your eyes at the risk of missing anything. What amused me was watching tour groups wearing like-colored hats to be easily identifiable and distinguished from other tour groups. All purple-rimmed hats…”follow me this way” and the green ones …” that-a-way”!!

The Not-so-touristy(?) entrance: If you took this route (for a few extra bath), you get to see and experience all of the above (there is no way, you want to skip that)…plus more! This is where you get a chance to move away from the hub of all commerce….to the wider, much quieter, sparsely populated back canals and waterways of Ratchaburi (the name of the town).

Here you get to witness first hand the lives of the common people, catch a glimpse of their traditional Thai teak homes built on stilts, spot the colorful yet intriguing spirit house located at the corner, outside their homes. As our boatman, steered us through this part of town, we saw a women with her young baby tied to her back in a sling, doing her dishes waist-deep in the canal; an older man, sunbathing, chatting up over a cup of tea; large earthen pots meant to store drinking water placed beneath their homes (the shade keeping the water cool).

The gentle bends of the khlongs (water canals) take you amidst rice paddies and fruit farms; we spotted Jackfruit, Mango and Lime trees. There were signs on the “right” to a snake farm/show. My relationship with reptiles is a nonexistent one; needless to say, we turned “left” on that bend! Just knowing there is such a farm in the nearby vicinity, gave me the creeps. You get the general idea don’t you?
En route this trip was a pit stop at a “Coconut sugar factory” as the boatman called it…what it was we learned later, was an expansive area showcasing artifacts made out of all parts of a coconut palm tree. There was also a fire pit demonstrating how palm sugar was extracted from the sap. The factory uses the old dead palm fronds and husks to fuel the fire to boil down the sap to a delicious sugar. It was quite amazing to watch how different parts of the coconut gave way to creative lamps, toys, wooden animals, wall hangings, chandeliers, you-name-it. If you can bypass the tourist gimmick and resist your own temptation to buy, this is a good break, to stretch those limbs, take a walk and admire the talent of the local craftsmen.

Few tourists visit this part of town, which is why when we passed by, a curious old grandma peered out of her rickety 2nd floor room window and shot our way the most adorable toothless grin, we ever received!!
We were asked to pose for a picture before getting into the long-tailed boat (for our tour), which seemed like a kind gesture at first…but beware, for within 2 hours, upon our return, there we were, all photo-shopped, pretty and dolled-up pasted onto a photo plate ready for sale - 150B only!! Also, there were a couple awkward moments - once or twice when our boatman stopped by specific souvenir stalls even though we weren’t interested to buy anything (it was his family-run store).

So what’s the final verdict? Touristy or not? I’d lean more heavily on the touristy part. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to classify it as a trap!! It helps to know before hand, what these trips are priced at, and bargaining here is acceptable, even encouraged by the shopkeepers. Keep in mind though that this is the livelihood of people who live, work and raise their families here. Taking the extended tour opens your eyes to the fact that for them, this is commerce on the canal. Your visit translates to their income. Saying ‘no’ with a big smile to large items, and price-tags that go with it is a simple way to relax and enjoy this exceptional sensory experience.

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