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Fish vendors lug their buckets into the shadows. Photographers emerge from the woodwork to snatch a spot near the track. Men lower the umbrellas as pineapples and mangosteens tumble from their baskets. A lazy day at Samut Songkhram's Mae Khlong market has transformed into a chaotic scene. Turning around, we realise why: "That train's not going to try coming through here, is it?"
Set along the Mae Khlong river some 70 kilometres southwest of Bangkok the market is also known as Talad Rom Hub, or "Folding Umbrella Market." Another nickname is "Talad Sieng thay", which loosely translates to "dangerous but you have to go anyway market". At first glance, it doesn't seem "dangerous," but it is cramped. We could hardly push through the narrow tracks used as the market's main footpath; a full-size locomotive getting through seemed out of the question.
Our first impression was that it's a great place to pick up fresh fruit, vegetables and spices, and we found the market to boast a fine selection of fresh fish, including no shortage of the Samut Songkhram specialty pla tuu (Thai mackerel). Though most vendors sell fresh foods to be prepared later on, a handful offer ready-to-eat finger foods for munching as you walk.
Apart from its impressive selection of fish and curious setting around old train tracks near the river, Mae Khlong reminded us of countless other Thai wet markets: colourful, eclectic, pungent, hot and tight. From a Western traveller's point of view, markets like this are anything but ordinary.
Then, just past noon, something extraordinary began to unravel. Within a minute or two after the blow of a whistle, the entire market moved away from the tracks, squeezing adult, child, table and product into a dark inner network of corridors. It had echoes of a mediaeval village shuttering indoors to make way for a mob of pillaging hooligans. A local vendor yelled at a handful of photographers still on the tracks while flapping his arms like a pelican cleaning its wings: "Move to the sides! Move to the sides!"
Within 15 seconds of the first signs of something bizarre taking shape, we turned around and ...
Those narrow, ancient looking tracks that I was struggling to fit through minutes earlier were now occupied by a full-size steel locomotive. We stood no more than a couple of feet from steel wheels rolling beside piles of rambutan, durian and lychee.
The train was just going about its daily routine of picking up and dropping off a handful of passengers from the small rail station located directly on the banks of the river near the market. In less than one minute, the entire place goes from relaxed market, to chaos, to train, and back to relaxed market.
The entire spectacle repeated itself about half an hour later, when another train made a return trip through the market. This time, we caught a decent photo.
It's indeed a jaw-dropping experience to see a full-size train come cruising through a tight market. With that said, use caution if you go, and remember that you're not seeing things in line with reality when looking through the lens of a camera. The train moves fast for such close quarters and accidents have happened in the past (and we don't just mean a watermelon getting run over).
The easiest way to get here is to catch a mini-bus from Bangkok's Victory Monument to Samut Songkhram (make sure to tell them you're heading to "Talaat Mae Khlong"), which leave every hour from early morning to late afternoon and cost 80 baht one-way. Local regular buses may also be caught from Bangkok's Sai Tai Mai (southern) bus terminal (again, let them know where you're headed), and both regular and minibuses congregate at a bus stop near the market at the corner of Rattan Witthi Road and Ratpasit Road in Samut Songkhram.
The market can also be reached by train and a short ferry hop across the Cha Chin river in Samut Sakhon, in which case you would be in the train as it enters the market and would miss the photo-op from outside. With that said, the train -- which will eventually leave you at Wongwian Yai rail station near the BTS (sky train) stop with the same name in Thonburi -- looks to be a relaxing and picturesque ride back to Bangkok.
If looking to explore further in the area, an army of tuk tuks and songthaews in front of Rama II hospital near the market are always ready and waiting to take you to nearby Amphawa, Tha Kha and Damnoen Saduak. Although the floating markets of these destinations are only open on Saturday and Sunday, Mae Khlong market is open daily, with trains typically arriving at 09:30, 11:30 and 15:00.
Story by David Luekens.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 2nd May, 2016.