Bangkok's best floating markets

Ronan O'Connell
Thai-style pancakes are prepared from the tight confines of a boat at Khlong Lat Mayom market. Picture: Ronan O'Connell

It is a regular feature of tourist itineraries for Bangkok. Along with admiring the city's gleaming temples, indulging in its wild nightlife and shopping to weariness at its mega-malls, most travellers are intent on going to a floating market.

Unfortunately, many of these visitors to Thailand's capital are shepherded to the same inauthentic water-based market.

Damnoen Saduak, more than two hours from downtown Bangkok in Ratchaburi Province, was once a traditional floating market where locals gathered on the waters of the river to trade and buy goods.

But the hordes of foreign visitors funnelled in its direction over the past decade have seen it morph into a tourist trap.

Prices are inflated, the products for sale are homogenous, the vendors can be pushy and touts are ever-present.

There is no need to make the long journey to this disappointing attraction.

Within Bangkok itself there are several floating markets which cater almost entirely to locals and, as a result, are cheaper, more relaxed and far more charming.

KHLONG LAT MAYOM FLOATING MARKET

About 18km west of downtown Bangkok. Open weekends from about 10am to 4.30pm.

Thai children grin and squeal as they lean over the edge of the boat to run their hands through the murky water of the canal.

Their audible delight gains the attention of diners at a waterside cafe, who wave at them before continuing to sip their iced coffees.

Khlong Lat Mayom is the only one of these three floating markets in Bangkok which offers boat tours along its canals. This popular activity is one of the main reasons why the venue heaves with locals every weekend.

Flanking its main canal are two huge food courts with dozens of stalls serving everything from fried squid to spicy salads, tropical fruits, pork balls, chicken kebabs, Thai curries and dried fish.

This delicious food can be partnered with smoothies, potent coffee, iced tea or freshly prepared fruit juice. But not all the food for sale is intended to be consumed on the spot.

Organic produce, baked goods and super-sweet Thai desserts are all packaged to be taken home and savoured at your leisure.

Beyond the food court is a warren of stalls selling handicrafts, artworks and clothing. The options for women's fashion are particularly generous and the prices are as low as you will find anywhere in Bangkok.

Similarly, handmade wooden ornaments, silk products and paintings are very affordable. More often than not you are paying local prices, as this market receives very few foreign visitors.

Unlike at the city's main tourist markets, the bargaining here is calm and the sellers are genial. It makes for an engaging experience. Despite the crowds, Khlong Lat Mayom has a gentle pace which provides a welcome contrast in this otherwise frenetic city.

TALING CHAN FLOATING MARKET

About 12km north-west of downtown Bangkok. Open weekends from about 9.30am to 5pm.

"Best soup, best soup," yells the cook from her makeshift kitchen in a small boat floating on the river.

Her competitors, moored to the same long jetty, are equally keen for an arriving boatload of Westerners to sample their food.

The smallest of these three markets, Taling Chan is also the most touristy, although still only to a modest level. This is because it can be reached easily by river from downtown Bangkok, unlike Khlong Lat Mayom or Bang Nam Phueng.

There are travel offices in the city's tourist areas which offer river boat tours that include a visit to Taling Chan.

These trips can be captivating as they wind along the muddy waters past neighbourhoods where daily life is carried out on the riverbanks.

But such tours typically do not provide the option of also visiting Khlong Lat Mayom, which is only about 6km away by road. Instead, get a taxi from downtown to allow you to see both. This is worthwhile as they offer different experiences.

Where Khlong Lat Mayom is a shopper's delight, at Taling Chan the focus is on food. Aside from the boat-based restaurants, there are scores of stalls selling Thai sweets, grilled or fried meats and home-made ice cream.

Consumers can also pick up DVDs and CDs, Thai souvenirs, incense and herbal medicines, art prints and mobile phone accessories.

Prices are slightly higher than at Khlong Lat Mayom or Bang Nam Phueng but are still very reasonable.

BANG NAM PHUENG FLOATING MARKET

About 10km south-east of downtown Bangkok. Open weekends from about 7am to 3.30pm.

As you wander amid the lush tropical environment at Bang Nam Phueng floating market, Bangkok seems a distant place.

Thailand's massive metropolis is famed for its sprawling CBD, which is punctuated by hundreds of high-rise buildings.

However, just 10km south-east of this steel-and-concrete landscape is the city's green lung, in the Phra Pradaeng district.

On weekends, thousands of Bangkok residents - who outnumber tourists at least 50-to-one here - are drawn to the pleasant Bang Nam Phueng market. They come to shop for fashion, accessories, art work and, most of all, for food.

Thai people have a passion for invigorating their senses with robust, often spicy tastes. As they stroll through this market, often they are holding a snack.

At Bang Nam Phueng, the array of foods is seemingly boundless. Served on skewers, in trays or on plates, it is always colourful and mostly very appealing fare.

Not to be overlooked are the hearty noodle soups doled out by hard-working cooks who prepare them from long-tail boats lined up in the market's main canal.

Once you have sated your hunger, browse the many handicraft stalls, which sell handmade products which are better quality and cheaper than those at Bangkok's major tourist markets.

There are also dozens of stalls selling T-shirts, dresses and pants, while the range of children's clothing is particularly broad.

Larger in size than either Taling Chan or Khlong Lat Mayom markets, it is worth setting aside at least two or three hours to explore the labyrinthine Bang Nam Phueng.

While it is not a traditional floating market where locals paddle up to buy and sell fresh produce - there are few such venues left in big Asian cities - it is an attractive and peaceful spot, well removed from Bangkok's ceaseless bustle.

FACT FILE

These three floating markets are only open on weekends. The touristy Damnoen Saduak is the only large floating market option for weekday visitors to Bangkok.

Bangkok's floating markets are best visited in the morning when they are at their liveliest and the city's infamous heat is yet to reach its peak.

Khlong Lat Mayom and Taling Chan floating markets are close together in Bangkok's west so they can both be visited as part of a day trip. The latter market tends to get quiet earlier than the former so it is best seen first.

Travellers to Bangkok planning a daytrip to the nearby ancient capital of Ayutthaya can visit its entertaining floating market, which is just outside its historic precinct.