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

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.

Check­list

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

Pic­tures: Su­san Kuro­sawa

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