Peddle and paddle
Susan Kurosawa ventures out of Bangkok to a market that is always on the move Each sampan is a small mercantile universe, equipped with scales, cash tins, plastic bags
OARING along flyovers, past salt and shrimp farms where white wading birds highstep in the early-morning haze, we are bound for Damnern Saduak floating market in Ratchaburi province, 110km southwest of Bangkok. It was here that Roger Moore belted about in a longtail boat in the 1974 James Bond movie TheMan with the Golden Gun. The network of narrow waterways made a perfect grid on which Agent 007 could weave and wind in his gadgeted-up craft, cutting sampans clear in half and outwitting dastardly crooks.
My progress is much more sedate. I have booked a driver and guide via the concierge desk at The Metropolitan hotel. Although a pricier option than a group tour, it seems a more local way of approaching the markets than boarding a big coach. There are several floating markets amid Bangkok’s landscape of klongs and rivers but Damnern Saduak is the biggest and best-known. Pensri, the guide, will do some shopping, will haggle and take her time, and so will I.
Our driver deposits us at a busy jetty and we clamber aboard a motorised hightail boat and head for the market. We pass neat little canal-side houses with their own jetties, usually prettied-up with potplants. Most residents here have no road access to their houses and little children play in scary proximity to the water. A skinny tabby cat walks along a slender plank as if negotiating a tightrope; its head is as haughty as the average feline’s but its stiff swaying gait hints at a terror of the murky green wetness below.
Canals have long been used as waterways of commerce in Bangkok. This little Venice-like precinct in Ratchaburi province was built in the 1860s at the behest of the then king to improve communications. So the waterways are lifelines as well as trading arteries; and they are racetracks, too, or at least our longtail boat captain believes so as we bounce along at such an almighty roar that a police boat stops us.
With a fine duly paid, pesky paperwork completed and the captain now in a glowering mood, we continue. The width of the waterways progressively diminishes over the next 10 minutes until we are all but funnelled into another jetty on the perimeter of the market. From here we will walk around for about an hour via the bridges and piers that connect the canals and the driver will return by car to pick us up. It’s a timetable that seems quite circular and organised, with enough opportunity to really get among all the activity.
The variety of produce and the level of industriousness is almost overwhelming. On one little sampan, arranged in enormous wicker baskets, there are perfumed rose apples, mangosteens, clusters of lychees, rambutans, pretty pink dragonfuit and pomelos the size of bowling balls. It’s such a robust cargo that the sampan looks in danger of sinking; its owner, a wiry woman in a jolly orange headscarf, holds on to a beach umbrella anchored in the shallow water, just in case.
Coconuts have been freshly topped to reveal their white fleshiness; add a straw and you have the most delectable morning pick-me-up. One sampan sells nothing but bananas; another deals in mangoes, in seemingly infinite varieties of shape, size and hue.
This was a wholesale market until about 40 years ago, Pensri tells me, and now it’s almost as much a tourist attraction as it is a floating supermarket. On the cement piers linking the canals are stalls selling T-shirts, cheap souvenirs, teak carvings and snacks and drinks.
The sampans are all poled along by women and each is a small mercantile universe, equipped with scales, cash tins, plastic bags and rubber bands. Those craft selling prepared food, such as char-grilled chicken, fried rice or wok-tossed noodles, are equipped with little gas stoves. As the boats bob and rock, the air sizzles with steam and the irresistible aromas of punchy spices. Pensri points out several vegetarian boats with signs announcing no meat spring rolls’’.
The smell from the shrimp paste sampans is such that we both hurry past, taking refuge in the floating market’s equivalent of the greengrocer. Pensri purchases several knobs of ginger and four green tomatoes.
The life aquatic: Damnern Saduak floating market in Ratchaburi province, 110km southwest of Bangkok, buzzes with activity Like most housewives, she shops daily, and says the market is much cheaper than conventional stores.
I buy orchids for my hotel room, finger bananas for my bedside fruit bowl and we snack on almond jellies and too-sweet coffee made with condensed milk.
If the sampans are not bobbing alongside, ingenuity comes to the rescue; little plastic buckets on long sticks are passed to and fro with the desired purchases, the customers’ money and return change, if needed. Bargaining is the order of the day and prices drop towards closing time. But we have no time to dally. It’s 10am, the sun is high and Bangkok beckons.
Best time to visit Damnern Saduak is between 6.30am and 8am; vendors are packed up by about 10am. Tour desks at all hotels can book excursions; for a driver and guide in a private car for a tour of several hours, expect to pay the equivalent of about $80. British Airways has just launched a special return World Traveller economy-class fare of $969 from Sydney to Bangkok (check website for fares from Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane). On sale to March 2; departures until April 2 and from April 24 to June 30. More: www.ba.com.
Banana boat: A woman sells fruit from her sampan