Pak Nam

Explore Bangkok's underbelly

What we say: 3.5 stars

Wedged between Bangkok and the mouth of the Chao Phraya River in Samut Prakan province, the small but colourful city of Pak Nam is home to one of Thailand’s largest fresh seafood markets. Combine that with a boat ride to the historic Phra Samut chedi across the river and it’s an enjoyable day trip that takes you well off the tourist trail.

A usual scene in front of Pak Nam market.

A usual scene in front of Pak Nam market.

Samut Prakan province tends to be thought of merely as the “area south of Bangkok” by those unfamiliar with it, but the province is home to locals who take much pride in their land. Samut prakan means “ocean fortress” in Thai, and this area of the Chao Phraya was once lined with military embankments ready to repel anyone trying to invade the Thai capital by boat.

In 1893, French ships barrelled their way through Thai defenses during the so-called Pak Nam incident, which effectively won the the Franco-Siamese War for the French and led to Chanthaburi and Trat provinces temporarily falling into French hands. Today, the war ships and canons have been replaced by ocean-liners transporting tons of freight to and from Bangkok.

“Are those French canons thundering?” “No, they’re cranes.”

Thanks to it being the first city you see after entering the Chao Phraya river from the Gulf of Thailand, a wealth of fresh seafood — much of it still wriggling — consistently arrives at Pak Nam market in the heart of town. Prices are dirt cheap compared to markets further up the river, and the assortment of seafood is breathtaking. Or is that just the smell causing us to hold our noses?

Not sure I want to know what all of that is...

Not sure I want to know what all of that is…

Piles of still squirming prawns are dumped over ice on an hourly basis; rays and small sharks lie next to fat, arms length fish that we couldn’t tell you the names of; and the countless types of shellfish probably couldn’t all be identified by a trained biologist. An octopus vendor was quick to strike a pose for our camera, but don’t get in the way of the musclemen who haul gargantuan bags of seafood and ice off the boats all day.

Fishy friends.

Fishy friends.

After a peruse of the market’s slimy selections and a stroll through its similarly well-stocked produce, fresh fruit and prepared foods sections, pay your three baht and hop on a ferry to Phra Samut Chedi, which depart from a pier that extends from the market itself. The 15-minute cruise isn’t exactly scenic, but this stretch of the river is so wide it feels more like a lake.

Just before reaching the western shore, you’ll pass right by the 38-metre-tall, bright white Phra Samut Chedi, just as 19th century sailors would have done as they made their way up to Bangkok. The chedi and its surrounding temple were first constructed on a small, sandy island within the river by King Rama III in the 1830s. Foreign traders and explorers once marvelled at this graceful white spire hovering over the water and welcoming them to Siam territory.

Phra Samut Chedi as seen from the river.

Phra Samut Chedi as seen from the river.

Over time, the river silted up, causing the island to become just another part of the western riverbank and the chedi to lose much of its dramatic allure. However, along with the surrounding temple and its large bronze seated Buddha, the Sri Lankan-style chedi, believed to contain relics of the Buddha, is still an impressive sight.

The chedi and temple as seen from the land.

The chedi and temple as seen from the land.

The ferryboat docks at a pier on a narrow tributary in the small town, also named Phra Samut Chedi, that lies just west of the temple grounds. A desolate and depressed feel pervades the town, its old temple structures scattered amid a flat and dusty landscape being radically re-developed. It seems to be preparing itself for some sort of industrial boom, which wouldn’t be out of place in a province with no shortage of factories, ports and refineries. It’s easy to imagine the area filled with trees in the not-so-distant past — another stark reminder that Thailand is very much a developing country.

A shot of Phra Samut Chedi village from the slightly inland pier. The chedi is in the background.

A shot of Phra Samut Chedi village from the slightly inland pier. The chedi is in the background.

Apart from the chedi itself and a handful of street restaurants where panting dogs take shade under stainless steel tables, any semblance of charm this village once had has now vanished. Yet we were intrigued to find one large workshop where the welders construct Buddha images rather than structural supports for the next block of development.

Freshly made Buddhas.

Fresh Buddhas.

The village around the chedi may have an odd ghost town feel to it, but Pak Nam town is a charming and welcoming place that sees few travellers coming through. Combine the market and chedi with other Samut Prakan sights like Erawan Museum and Ancient Siam, and Samut Prakan is indeed more than just the area south of Bangkok.

More details
How to get there: The closest BTS station is Bearing, from where it's a 10-kilometre taxi ride to Pak Nam market. Many local buses that can be caught anywhere along Sukhumvit Road terminate right in front of the market; just ask to make sure it's going to talaad pak nam before hopping on. Taxis are readily available in Pak Nam town and along the main road between there and Bangkok.
Last updated: 18th June, 2014

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Usually found exploring Bangkok's side streets or south Thailand's islands, David Luekens is an American freelance writer & photographer who finds everyday life in Asia to be extraordinary. You can follow his travails here.

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