Jun 13 2013
Pungent stewed mackerel, heady Thai curries and mounds of chilli paste mingled as we bent and ducked through the crowd. Dozens of whole boiled ducks lined up as if just called into battle. Great uncles and aunties from the countryside rubbed shoulders with trendy urbanites, all with bulging sacks of goodies dangling from their fingers. Don Wai market is as dizzying as it is delicious.
Exactly half-way between Bangkok and Nakhon Pathom at the most easterly point of the Tha Jeen (aka Nakhon Chaisi) river, the century-old market’s strategic location allowed for farmers to sell their goods direct to city folk in the old days. It’s similar to Khlong Suan market in this regard, and a handful of antiques at the market’s centre hint that this was once an important meeting point for farmers, travellers and traders. Although the boats have mostly been replaced by cars, trucks and buses, not all that much has changed today. Produce funnels straight from farms to the chefs at Don Wai, and city folk still flock here to get a taste.
Don Wai market is a sprawling, labyrinthine affair. A large part of it is reached only by a very tight corridor that gets uncomfortably crowded during peak weekend hours. After the market was affected by the 2011 floods, villagers raised the walkways upwards — great for avoiding future flooding but not so good for those who stand more than 175 cm tall. Ducking under low-hanging wood beams while bending and contorting to get through the crowd felt like being part a record-setting game of Twister.
Thankfully, the market eventually opens into a more spacious walkway with a high roof. If you need a breather from the crowds, wander into the garden section to see and smell a lovely selection of orchids and other potted plants. Just beyond that is Wat Don Wai, the old village temple that’s also worth a stroll through.
When it comes to food, Don Wai boasts one of the most impressive spreads we’ve seen anywhere in Thailand. While fresh fruit and vegetables are plentiful and a handful of toys and quirky knick-knacks can be scored, the market is best known for prepared foods. It’s long been famous for whole ducks boiled in enormous cauldrons with herbs and spices — a tradition that shows no sign of slowing down.
This is also an exceptional place to try old-style central Thai food, like gaeng bon, a curry made with the stems of taro plants and sweetened with local palm sugar, and tom pla khem wan, sweet and salty stewed mackerel fish. After a night-long soak with whole raw sugar canes, the naturally salty fish emerge with a rustic sweetness.
If you’re feeling really adventurous, sample mini spoonfuls of the many central Thai style chilli pastes on offer. Be warned — some are infused with the essence of giant water bugs.
Don Wai also features countless sweet things, including colourful Thai-style rice flour, coconut and palm sugar confections, Chinese tea cakes, Western-style cakes, hand-made lolly pops and homemade ice cream in flavours like pandan, Thai iced tea and taro. We were growing impatient with the crowds, but like little kids coerced to stop pouting by the promise of sugary treats, an outstanding bowl of durian ice cream turned our attitudes around in a hurry.
While Don Wai is often referred to as a “floating market,” “riverside market” would be more accurate; we didn’t see a single vendor selling or cooking by boat. Several large floating seating areas are found at the market’s centre, though these seemed to be controlled by “proper” restaurants with their own menus. It’s fine to bring food in from outside, but you’ll want to at least order drinks from the restaurant.
At least two different companies offer river cruises, some on converted rice barges, to nearby attractions like 230 year-old Wat Rai Khing and its sacred Buddha image that’s said to have magically appeared floating down the river. The boats have tables and chairs suitable for a relaxed lunch to go with the countryside scenery. On Saturdays and Sundays, boats depart hourly from 10:00 to 16:00 and cost 60 baht for adults, 30 for kids, for a one-hour cruise.
By the time we made it out of Don Wai, we were weighed down by bananas, mangoes and rose apples, an orchid plant, three types of curry, fried chicken feet in Chinese spices, a pouch of bright yellow Thai sweets, a string of specialty central Thai sausages and a hand-carved wooden boat with little smiling rowers. Even so, we couldn’t pass up a vendor near the parking lot selling chaw muang, purple rice flower bites filled with ground pork, peanut and spices, and the hard-to-find ruum, more or less the same thing but with a delicate wrapper of thin pan-fried egg with holes that make it look like swiss cheese. The ride home was a tasty one.
Don Wai is located off Route 3316, reachable from Bangkok by either Phet Kasem Road (Route 4) or Route 338 (see map). You could take a taxi round trip for around 600 baht, but bus number 556 passes the market and can be caught from Democracy Monument (tell the bus driver you’re going to talad don wai). A handful of Bangkok taxis pass this way, so while you may have to wait around for a lift, you won’t get stuck out here.
There is no sign for the market off the main road — look for the parking area next to Wat Don Wai in the heart of Don Wai village, which is about two kilometres north of the huge Wat Rai Khing complex. The market is open daily 06:00 to 18:00. To avoid the weekend crowds, arrive before 09:00.
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