“Don’t you ever get tired of going to markets? It’s soooo boring. It’s like going to a grocery store. You know they are all the same, right?” I have heard this from Brad on a weekly basis.
Well, to answer that first question, no, not really. How I ever enjoy markets, and if the past tells anything, I will never tire from them. I usually go through the motions of writing a “grocery list” for Brad’s sake, but in reality I’m just using it as my admission ticket, showing the “need” to go. Lists are useless anyways. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a market that had everything I was looking for, or that didn’t have something that I’d never seen before. As frustrating as it may be sometimes, that is the beauty of them. They are regional and seasonal, with a continuously changing mix of produce, flavors, spices, textiles and faces. I always have the overwhelming desire to go to every stall, upturn every bag of unknown, unwrap every banana leaf to reveal its hidden contents, and sample every fruit and vegetable. My senses are overwhelmed and I can only image that this is what it’s like for a child going to Disneyland for the first time. Even if I have nothing to buy, I still want to go merely for the visual exploration. It is for many, the closest they will get to interacting with the locals while watching their daily routine and way of life.
It should come as no surprise then that given my absolute love for these places, I often plan a particular route to coincide with them. This is usually my little secret until we arrive within vicinity, leaving Brad little chance to devise some sort of “emergency” Nacho maintenance project that takes precedence.
It just so happened that we were to arrive in Bangkok on a Saturday, and it just so happened to be the same day in which a number of weekend floating markets were taking place. We stopped at Bang Noi, which for more than 100 years, was the gathering place for locals on the 3rd, 8th, and 13th day of the waxing and waning moons of the lunar calendar [Brad note: do you understand that my wife is insane?] With the building of roads, the market nearly died off but was recently revived by the government, keen on holding onto tradition.
Upon entering the shop houses, local women sat on the sidewalk with their blankets laid out, proudly displaying their produce for the day. This was the most authentic part of the market, with true commerce occurring from one local to another. As we walked to the water’s edge I braced myself, expecting to see something extraordinary, like a swarm of colorful boats, women with cone hats, and maybe a pig or two being transferred from one boat to another. I wanted to see that, yet all I saw was the murky brown water of the canal and bunches of hyacinth floating by. These hyacinths are actually a huge problem, growing so quickly that they clog the canals and impede the flow of water. It’s actually some people’s job to remove the hyacinth from the waters, cutting them at their roots and leaving them to float on elsewhere. Nowadays, much of it is collected, dried and made into the latest and greatest in new trendy woven furniture.
Instead of a true floating market, we had come upon a simple marketplace on the river, and lining the canal were old wooden shop houses filled with cute cafes and restaurants, souvenir shops, handicraft stores and vendor stands. It was really nice despite the inaccuracy of what the name implied. We entered and split up quickly. Brad was drawn to a small café where a man played his guitar and I continued on, strangely overwhelmed by the uncanny peacefulness in the air.
While he shared a table with a few locals and enjoyed a beer, I searched for unique foods.
One woman roasted tightly wrapped tubes of banana cakes on her charcoal grill and another sold pairs of neatly arranged fish in bamboo bowls. One Chinese woman pinched off silver dollar sized pieces of rice flour dough, placed them in a pan, patted them down, and gently flipped them until lightly brown. She layered the stretchy pancakes between sheets of plastic wrap until her sister, who worked the second half of the process, topped them generously with crushed peanuts, brown sugar, and sesame seeds. She then rolled them into bite sized burritos and neatly stacked them in pyramids in small origami like banana leaf trays. They were sweet and nutty, perfect alongside the complimentary shot glass of green tea.
I continued walking, eventually crossing over a bridge that led to the other side of the water. The silence in the air was broken up intermittently by young Thai men racing their longtail boats, oblivious to the disruption they were causing. For a moment’s time, the murky water would slosh back and forth between the buildings and the talking amongst people would come to a brief pause; waiting until they could hear their own voices again.
Once I had made the rounds, Brad and I reunited. On our way out we ventured to a stand where a sweet looking couple made ข้าวเกรียบปากหม้อ, or pork steamed rice parcels. They looked like little wrinkly dumplings and were made using a cooking method I had never seen before. It began with a thin pastry mix poured onto a small round surface and quickly covered with a metal cone-shaped lid. In less than a minute, the dough had turned from transparent to opaque and a dollop of sweet pork filling was added to the center. Using two spatulas the stretchy dough was pulled and twisted over the meat topping. After showing me the technique, they handed me their spatulas. I added a few deformed looking ones to their collection.
Back in Nacho, we headed just a few miles south until we arrived at Amphawa Floating Market. This market was so insanely huge that I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was no way we’d make it through in a few hours as thousands of vendors ran alongside the elevated banks of the canal for half a mile. If that wasn’t overwhelming enough, they also spilled out onto the streets that surrounded the main thoroughfare. This was THE market that local Bangkokians went to for their floating market experience, and surprisingly, out of all the faces, I hardly recall seeing another Westerner. The whole place was quite atmospheric; the steps that led down to the canal were packed like bleachers with Thais eating seafood. All eyes were on the cooks who floated in the boats below, who split their time between prepping and cooking on their grills. We ordered our grilled squid and pad thai and sat there on the banks, just two individuals in a crazy maze of food and people.
Here’s some audio that Brad captured of a local musician while having a drink at the Bang Noi floating market: