We love that there is always something new to do and experience here in our new adopted home in Thailand. Be it new foods to taste, cultural events to experience, natural attractions to visit, or new locations to tour and explore. Our latest outing had us visiting two very different and captivating markets and learning about some mighty warriors in the township of Amphawa in Samut Songkhram province just 145 km north of our home in Hua Hin and only 70 km south of Bangkok.
The area is characterised by a network of more than 300 canals (Klongs) jutting out from the adjacent Mae Khlong river. The region is also naturally rich with an abundance of seafood, fruits, vegetables, salt fields and coconut palm sugar.
Amphawa has managed to retain its classic rural Thai charm. So much so, the town received an award from UNESCO in 2008 for its efforts to conserve the centuries-old teak wood homes and temples that line Amphawa’s central canals.
We decided to make it a weekend trip so we had a reasonable amount of time to explore Amphawa and surrounds. Our first stop was to the Mae Khlong (Railway) Market.
The original Mae Klong Municipal Food (Wet) Market in Samut Songkhram town backs onto the Ban Laem Train Line which terminates just a few hundred meters away at Mae Klong Railway Station.
The market sits within a purpose built building and is said to be a great place, in particular, to shop for fresh local seafood. Somehow, over time, it seems that the market has grown out the rear of the building and onto the sides of the railway track immediately behind.
This second market that has sprung up is nicknamed (Talat Rom Hup), meaning the “umbrella pulldown market”. And that’s exactly what happens when the trains come through. Overhead awnings that cover the train tracks and the produce on display along the sides of the railway line are retracted so the train may pass. Produce has been so strategically placed that most of it does not need to be moved – even though the sides of the train come within centimeters of the stalls offerings! A remarkable sight and a practice that happens for all incoming and outgoing trains from Mae Klong Station.
This is not a speeding train – it’s progress through the market is heralded by a State Railway of Thailand (SRT) staff member – whistle in mouth and flag waving to move people out of the trains way! And given that this market has become quite a tourist attraction the SRT staffer has quite a crowd to move off the tracks as well as the retracting awnings from the market stalls!
Another major attraction in this region is the Amphawa Floating Market. The market itself sits on the quaint Amphawa canal. With elevated banks boasting teakwood heritage houses and canal-side seating, it really is a picturesque spot that feels like it hasn’t changed all that much over the past century.
Amphawa’s market operates from 12noon to 8:00 pm Friday through Sunday only. And in contrast to the exceptionally tourist-laden Damnoen Saduak floating markets a little further north –the atmosphere at Amphawa feels very local. From our experience on this trip, Bangkok Thais do flock here to enjoy the town’s famous floating market food offerings – but we farang (foreigners of European descent as the Thais describe us) were definitely in the minority.
Hundreds of vendors sell prepared foods and artsy souvenirs, some on the footpaths beside the canal and others on anchored boats within the canal itself. It feels like the market truly overtakes the entire town; there are no clear lines as to where it begins and ends. It’s a very photogenic scene and a phenomenal place to sample the area’s food specialties.
Amphawa is known for Khanom – and a broad selection of these Thai sweets are available throughout the market. In fact, Amphawa even boasts its own “Thai dessert museum” for those who want to explore this area of Thai cuisine further. Wandering the banks of the canal you see people stopping frequently to sit on benches and chow down on dried pork, sweet sticky rice grilled in bamboo and all manner of colourful treats made from rice flour, coconut, mung bean and more.
On weathered Teak timber steps leading down to the water, groups gather to buy whole steamed crabs, fried mackerel, grilled prawns, and som tam (Green Papaya Salad) from sellers in their wooden sampans. Unless you ask otherwise it’s served on disposable plates ready to be eaten on the spot! Most dishes are priced around the 100 Baht mark or even less making for a very economical and tasty afternoon/evening out!
The slim walkways along the canal’s edge do seem to magnify the sense of crowds, yet it’s easy to pop into a little coffee shop or eateries for respite if feeling overwhelmed. And when your feet are ready to give up totally, like us on our second visit in two days, there is always the forever therapeutic Thai massage!
On our final morning in Amphawa we ventured out to what we understood was an even more authentic floating market at Tha Kha about 10km north of Amphawa. They only operate Saturdays and Sunday from 6 am – 12noon. From the market, we took a 45-minute ride in a local sampan for a tour of the local canals. It was a great way to see the local farms, and traditional Teak houses built on stilts – presumably to avoid flooding if the canals break their banks. Our sampan stopped at a local coconut plantation to show us how the nectar of the coconut seed pods are harvested and heated to become Palm Sugar. Overall, a fun and educational morning.
On the western bank of the Mae Khlong river six kilometers north of Amphawa sits Bang Kung Camp and Wat Khai Bang Kung where history and nature collide. Wat Khai Bang Kung dates back to the Ayutthaya-era of Siam’s history. This was the site of a fierce 18th century battle between Siam and invaders from Burma.
From what we read, the temple turned naval fort remained a stubborn Siamese stronghold after Ayutthaya was overrun by the Burmese in 1767. Despite seafaring Burmese forces having blockaded the mouth of the Mae Khlong river some 20 kilometers south, the Siamese general (and later king) Taksin managed to gather hundreds if not thousands of warriors — many of them Chinese — at Khai Bang Kung. Burmese naval and land forces surrounded the fort and an extended battle ensued, but Taksin’s Warriors held strong and Khai Bang Kung never fell. It was a victory that turned the tide of the war towards the Siamese side.
When the Burmese retreated for good in 1768, Khai Bang Kung was forgotten and banyan trees re-claimed the land including Wat Khai Bang Kung. As part of bicentennial celebrations in 1967, the Thai government initiated a restoration of the site and erected memorial statues to King Taksin and the Chinese soldiers who fought for him.
The banyans that have risen up around Wat Khai Bang Kung’s thick stone walls giving it an appearance of being larger than it actually is. So thick are the roots and branches of the banyan that from 20 meters away it’s difficult to decipher any structure at all. Roots have snaked through open-air windows as green foliage soars high above the roof. Within the temple, a seated Buddha covered in twinkling gold leaf from a constant stream of worshippers keeps this temple a very active place of worship.
In the surrounding gardens are dozens of life-size concrete statues presumably demonstrating the fighting skills that ultimately caused the Burmese army to retreat. There are also depictions of what look like Burmese prisoners being dealt with by their captors.
Today, Khai Bang Kung is at once a Buddhist temple and a memorial to warrior heroism and well worth the visit.
Amphawa certainly kept us busy and in our view, is definitely worth the visit!