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Kwan Riam floating market

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Back when rivers and canals served as Thailand’s highways, floating markets provided farming communities regular opportunities to trade and mingle. Today, an ever-growing modern floating market phenomena draws off the same old spirit of local bounty and community, but in forms that fit the times. On the outskirts of Bangkok, Kwan Riam is an excellent example of the modern Thai floating market — and it’s a lot of fun too.

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Spanning either bank of the San Saeb canal between Wat Bamphen Nuea, on one side, and Wat Bang Peng Tai, on the other, Kwan Riam joins Khlong Lat Mayom and Thaling Chan as one of the only floating markets found within the borders of Bangkok province. Opened in June 2012, it’s also the city’s newest.

Welcome to Kwam Riam.

Welcome to Kwan Riam.

We were immediately struck by the market’s modern design. Most of the land vendors are spread over stylish two-floor open-air structures made of dark hardwood and polished concrete. Lifts allow people who can’t otherwise climb stairs to comfortably reach the newly built bridge that spans the canal. Fans spray chilled mist over the crowd. Mainstream hip hop music plays from a coffee stand’s thumping soundsystem. Bathrooms even boast cutting-edge toilets operated by control panels with settings like “Oscillating” and “Rear Cleansing”.

Floating market with a lift -- welcome to Thailand in 2013.

Floating market with a lift — welcome to Thailand in 2013.

But the modern style doesn’t mean that Kwan Riam is charmless. It’s set to the backdrop of centuries-old temples, and most Thai visitors make it a point to be blessed with holy water by the resident monks. Near the Wat Bang Peng Tai entrance, when we visited, an old man and his accordion provided the soundtrack for a series of shops filled with bits of vintage curio, toys and wears.

While not in the same league as Don Wai or Khlong Suan, Kwan Riam is no slouch when it comes to food, and the wide array of edibles can be enjoyed in a variety of settings. On land, vendor stalls hawk smoked duck, fried pork belly, grilled chicken skewers, Thai iced tea, steamed curry fish cakes, Thai sausages, chilli pastes and countless types of Thai sweets.

No shortage of colour around here.

No shortage of colour around here.

Ice cream comes in flavours like pandan, taro and lychee, and coconut sticky rice is offered with a choice of mango, jackfruit and durian. A corner stand sells fantastic buea loy, a traditionally decadent concoction of soft flavoured rice flour balls swimming in sweetened warm coconut milk.

Bagging up the sweets.

Bagging up the sweets.

Several vendors churn out classics like noodle soup, curries with rice and khao man kai, all served to tables in spacious seating areas. Found throughout the market, the ample table space makes it a breeze to wander, taste, buy, sit, eat and repeat.

Spacious and no motorbikes allowed: double bonus!

Spacious, cooled by mist fans and free of motorbikes: triple bonus!

On the Wat Bamphen Nuea side of the canal, a line of “proper” restaurants serve made-to-order dishes in some chic dining areas on pontoons.

Someone knows how to set the mood.

Someone knows how to set the mood.

While some of these floating establishments cook up a wide range of Thai standards, others focus on specialties like Vietnamese-style soups and spring rolls, boat noodles, rice soup or Isaan food.

All the fixings for boat noodles.

All the fixings for boat noodles.

Still others revolve around grills from which the irresistible scent of fresh prawns, squid, whole fishes and stingrays billows into the air.

Time to get the hands dirty.

Time to get the hands dirty.

Interspersed among the floating restaurants are platforms for feeding the fish and floating homes for ducks and swans.

There's even room for the ducks.

There’s even room for the ducks (and they’re not being held for the duck soup stall either).

The usual standard that sets ‘floating markets’ apart from ‘river- or canal-side markets’ are vendors who prepare food or sell produce on wooden rowboats. Kwan Riam lacks these, but its lines of larger woven bamboo-roofed wooden boats are unique in the floating market circuit. These serve as makeshift kitchens, but they’re also big enough for visitors to hop on board and enjoy a floating meal.

Coffee on a boat -- what better way to spend an afternoon?

Coffee on a boat — what better way to spend an afternoon?

For lunch, we pulled up a stool in an atmospheric little boat with a khao gaeng kitchen and open-air windows perched directly over the water.

Chicken tom ka and stir-fried pumpkin, with a view of the swan's house.

Chicken tom ka and stir-fried pumpkin, with a view of the swan’s house.

Keeping with modern floating market custom, short boat trips on the San Saeb canal are offered for 20 baht per person. These include a guided tour (in Thai) by teenaged students from Wat Bamphen Nuea school, and while the scenery is confined mainly to housing developments and perhaps the odd monitor lizard, it’s a good way to support the local school.

Cruising past Wat Bang Peng Tai.

Cruising past Wat Bang Peng Tai.

Kwan Riam seems to attract a mix of east Bangkok suburbanites and students of Ramkamhaeng University; we saw only a few other foreign faces mixed into the crowd. Lam Phaya and Tha Kha are far better choices if you seek a true rural floating market experience, but Kwam Riam is a gathering place for the local communities and its vendors do sell locally produced products. Of the 12 (and counting) floating markets we’ve visited so far, it’s also the most comfortable.

Check out the complete list of floating markets that can be hit out of Bangkok.

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