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Market is a real squeeze
John Borthwick Market is a real squeeze

The Thais call it Talat Rohm Hoop - the Closing Umbrella Market - but foreigners know it as the Risky Market for good reason. And right now a large train is bearing down upon me as I stand way too close to its tracks.

My guide Sam suggests in his polite Thai that "maybe, Khun John, maybe you move back some little bit more". Just a suggestion, mind you.

"Back some little bit more" amounts to me flinging myself against a wall, flat as pressed duck, as the train rumbles past. With a shave this close, who needs razors?

Two minutes before this level-a-tourist crossing event, I was in the middle of a full-on Thai market. Mackerel, brassieres, rambutan, sneakers, schoolbooks, prawns, chilli and nail clippers - all the vitals of daily life - are arrayed in a 100m-long stretch.

Down the middle of the melee run, almost unnoticed, the tracks of a narrow-gauge railway. Canvas awnings from stalls on both sides overhang the tracks, shading the shoppers. With goods of every kind stacked to within inches of the line, shoppers have no option but to spill across the tracks.

The train, a two-carriage electric service, rumbles through here four times a day but the marketers wait until it is almost upon them and sounding its horn before they stir themselves to action. Support poles are rapidly pulled back to retract the awnings while goods get shuffled marginally aside. It's all done with such lack of urgency that the tourists awaiting some dramatic spectacle, not to mention a warning, are barely aware that the train is now almost upon them.

Looking around, I'm glad I'm not an elderly, plump Russian or a slow(-er) Aussie. Stand 20cm too close and you have to leap for your life - as I did.

One day though, someone will ... well, you know what I mean: a big, fat, lumbering loco meets a tourist who's framing a tray of rambutan through a lens - and, as Sam says imperfectly, "The train got no wrong".

The whole market parts before the train like the Red Sea before Moses. So too, it closes magically behind the last carriage. Within seconds, the canvas awnings swing back and the goods, sellers and buyers spill back to where they were just moments before.

In half an hour, when the train passes through on its return run, the seas of commerce will part once more and some tardy farang no doubt again will have to leap like a lizard.

All this happens at the morning market in the fishing port of Samut Songkram, also known as Mae Khlong (or Maeklong), about 80km south-west of Bangkok near the mouth of the Mae Khlong River.

The tiny Mae Khlong-Mahachai railway line is just 33km in length. It starts in west Bangkok at little-known Wong Wian Yai station and terminates at Mae Khlong, the "capital" of Thailand's smallest province, Samut Songkram.

Other than a few leaping-lizard foreigners, the market is Thai to the max, offering durian, fresh crabs, hand-made coconut sugar, steamed mackerel, fried crickets and silkworms, plus roasted, two-frog satays for only 35 baht (about $1) - as opposed to 100 baht in Bangkok, according to Sam.

Samut Songkram and its surrounds compose a region of rivers, canals, temples, orchards, coconut plantations and markets.

The most famous of those markets is Damnoen Saduak Floating Market but, with up to 5000 foreign tourists visiting each morning, its authenticity is long gone, even if the T-shirt hunting and photographing the vendors' sampan jam is still fun.

Instead, we drive to the much quieter, smaller and "still Thai" Tha Kha market beside the khlong, or canal, of the same name. Women in sampans are dishing out bowls of steaming noodles to Thai visitors on the stepped banks.

Others paddle by, nudging their craft to the shore to sell their fresh vegetables, fruit and fish. Doing the weekend circuit of local talat sod, fresh markets, is a favourite get-out-of-town escape for Bangkokians who, with their love of food, go from market to market sampling local specialties such as mackerel and pigs' feet, drinking local coffee, and stocking up on raw condiments such as palm and coconut sugars.

"You should consult the heavens before you go to Talat Tha Kha," a Thai friend advised me in Bangkok. Thais can be immensely superstitious, always checking their luck with fortune tellers but consulting an astrologer before going to market? No, she explains, "The market is held on only six days a month, according to the lunar calendar."

That is, on the 2nd, 7th and 12th days of the waxing and waning moon. I'm looking very baffled. "Don't worry," she says. "Just remember it also operates every Saturday and Sunday morning."

We hire a sampan for a leisurely trip around the water hyacinth-strewn khlongs facing Tha Kha market. An oarsman propels us at a leisurely pace along palm-fringed canals, past plantations, orchards and traditional teak homes where rainwater is still stored in massive ceramic urns.

Very snoozy, but Sam keeps us awake with the tale of Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, who were born in Samut Songkram in 1811. After touring the world in a curiosity show, they settled in North Carolina and married two sisters, with Chang and his wife producing 10 children, and Eng and his wife 11. The twins died on the same day in 1874.

Ampawa Floating Market is becoming the touristic alternative to the crowded Damnoen Saduak Market, but we bypass it for our final stop, the non-floating market Bang Noi village.

Here, century-old teak Chinese shop-houses balance over the canal and now play host to weekend visitors. Locals still shop at its general store which sells everything from bobby pins to phone SIMS. "Traditional Seven-Eleven," Sam calls it. I find an overwater cafe and settle down for a lunch of pla tu boran - jasmine rice with mackerel, greens, garlic and shrimp paste. Delicious.

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  • fact file *

·A full-day tour by car with guide to three markets, the railway Risky Market, Bang Noi village and Tha Kha floating market, costs $59 per adult, $30 for kids.

·To book, contact your travel agent or call Thai Airways on 1300 651 960 or visit thaiairways.com.au.

The whole market parts before the

train like the Red Sea

before Moses.