Then there’s the case when true quality alternatives to traditional bucket list items emerge. Amphawa Floating Market bears considerably less name recognition than its hyper-popularized counterpart Damnoen Saduak but offers visitors a more authentic opportunity to experience the Thai tradition of water-borne commerce.
The city of Bangok, and its storied predecessor Ayutthaya, is situated in a massive region of wet lowlands and expansive valleys, once covered by dense jungle. When the region was first populated, residents quickly settled along the riverbanks, opting to travel and trade via boat rather than trudge through the still-sprawling tropical wilderness.
As Bangkok developed as a capital city and international trade hub, the wetlands were drained by organizing an extensive system of canals – a feature that served to further entrench the budding floating market economies of the time.
Then into the 19th Century, the early leaders of today’s Rattanakosin Kingdom oversaw the construction of road and rail networks to replace many of these canals, but the longtime tradition along the city’s still-existing klongs never quite abated, and today floating market communities are considered a valuable cultural heritage.
In the late 1800s the 32-kilometre Damnoen Saduak Canal was constructed by order of the king to connect the Mae Klong and Tha Chin rivers. While the region’s new maze-like canal system remained active commerce channels for decades, modern infrastructure largely replaced most of this floating market activity.
Then in 1971, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) established the formerly bustling Lad Plee market as a tourist attraction for foreigners, constructing a new road for easier tour group access. Within a few years, about 20 private entrepreneurs – mostly community leaders and government officials – joined forces to run and promote what is known today as Damnoen Saduak Floating Market.
The market was used for years by the TAT as a promotional feature to attract visitors, and the local community reported that their quality of life increased dramatically with the arrival of these curious tourists. Soon, the community members began to realize that they could charge higher prices than usual and that their Western guests were highly receptive to things like high-level customer service and friendliness. Some experts even credit this “social experiment” with the development of tenets trademarked by Thai tourism, like the world-renowned Thai notion of hospitality and more controversial elements like farang pricing.
Today, thousands of tourists visit Damnoen Saduak every month to the tune of a THB$1,500 entrance fee and faced with nearly double the average prices for everything from food to souvenirs. While still widely touted as a must-visit bucket list item, and rarely disappointing with its energy and uncontested photogenic nature, other long-standing and truly authentic – that is, not government-established – floating markets are beginning to endanger this TAT charade.
This small community to the Southwest of Bangkok is one that has long flourished in trade and agriculture. Today, evidence of this water-based community’s land use, livelihoods, and ways of life remain strong, developed over centuries of existing in harmony with their local ecosystem of mangroves, seashore, salt pans, and orchards.
Whereas Damnoen Saduak is characteristically tourist-driven to re-create markets of lore, as is evident in the vendors’ historically traditional dress and style, and of course, the premium price tags, Amphawa, on the other hand, is frequented primarily by Bangkok weekenders. While visually, its historical accuracy may not be as comparable, this evolution of a centuries-old trading style into modern day is unique in and of itself. Along the 50-kilometre stretch of the Amphawa Canal, Buddhist monks still paddle in the morning to accept alms from villagers, residents patronise the floating markets for their produce and other groceries, and those settled along the waterfront continue to rely on its resources within routines of their daily lives like cleaning and bathing.
Because of this legacy, the canal continues to influence the community’s way of life. Its eponymous floating market is only open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 12:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m., in contrast to Damnoen Saduak’s daily public accessibility.
Amphawa has become increasingly popular among locals and tourists alike and so many hotels and travel agents are available to arrange transport or entire tour packages at no hassle. Alternatively, you can take advantage of the Transport Company Limited’s daily minibus service from its Sai Tai Mai, or Southern Bus Terminal on Borommaratchachonnani Road. The hour-and-a-half minibuses run from 6 a.m. – 6 p.m. and drop off right near the floating market.
While the floating market is only open Friday through Sunday, the sleepy town channels a charming laid-back vibe during the rest of the week, making it a great place to unwind and get acquainted with authentic aspects of daily Thai life along the riverside.
Those on a day trip from Bangkok will likely spend their time navigating the bustling marketplace. While canal-side stalls hawking trinkets and souvenirs are becoming more commonplace, the real draw is the enormous amount of food available. Its close proximity to the sea means Amphawa vendors serve up the freshest prawns, squid, and fish, offered straight up or in any number of classic Thai dishes.
Visitors can spend a good amount of time exploring the canal banks by foot, but the best way to take in the community is by boat. Traditional Thai hatthatara, or longtail boats, navigate out of the busy centre and cruise along the canal channels passing stilt houses, mangrove forest, palm plantations, and small rice farms. These hour-or-so tours typically also stop to visit Wat Bang Krung, a famous Buddhist temple constructed within the tangling branches of a sacred Bayan tree.
Nightlife in Amphawa is nearly non-existent, unless of course you count the enchanting nightly performance put on by the area’s beautiful fireflies. After dark, boats cruise the Mae Klong to witness Thailand’s best firefly show showcasing more than 100 species of firefly, all blinking under the silence of the river at night. Private charters or tours can be booked through any hotel or homestay in the area and usually last for about an hour of cruising. The show goes on all year, but locals suggest the best time to visit is between May and October.
The village’s small size and easy topography make it easy to explore on foot or by bicycle. Free route maps are available throughout town, featuring trails up to 10 kilometres in distance and passing landmarks like the Buddhist temples and cemeteries, orchid farms, and small museums.
History-lovers are in luck in Amphawa; the region is home to several interesting, quirky, and well-kept museums.
While you’re in the region, there are a number of other unique markets to complement your Amphawa visit.