Although it’s just over 70 kilometres from Bangkok, a visit to the riverside hamlet of Amphawa feels like being transported to a bygone era. Farming and fishing have never gone out of style in Amphawa, and life unfolds amid the town’s canals and teak wood homes much as it has for centuries. Amphawa is best known for its weekend floating market, but those who stick around are rewarded with a glimpse into the relaxed lifestyle of what is possibly Thailand’s most enchanting destination.
Upon arriving in Amphawa, visitors first notice the many small boats that ply the town’s canals and the vast Mae Khlong River. Narrow canals weave through every corner of Samut Songkhram province, many of them lined by family farms that produce lychee, pomelo, coconut, watermelon and a wealth of vegetables. Despite it being home to just 5,000, Amphawa attracts nearby farmers who arrive each morning by boat to sell their stock.
Not surprisingly, fishing is also a way of life both in Samut Songkhram communities along the river and the Gulf of Thailand some 20 kilometres to the south. Even in the canal that runs through the heart of Amphawa, residents often drop a line or toss a net in the hopes of catching a meal.
Amphawa is especially noteworthy for its salty mackerel (pla tuu), which teem in the brackish waters of the Mae Khlong and are considered a highlight by Thai visitors to the area. Fresh seafood from the gulf is also in abundance, exemplified by the enticing frontage of the dozen or so barbecue joints that open on weekends.
Visitors are often intrigued by the Amphawa community’s respect for all things old and vintage. Centuries-old teak wood homes have been preserved and restored rather than replaced, their walls decorated with antiques and faded portraits of Thai royalty hung with care. On weekends, you can watch village elders demonstrating how to use hand tools that have long since been replaced by electric appliances. And on one nondescript lane, a very old tamarind tree has been lovingly adorned with bright ribbons.
A market of some type has continually occupied the area in and around the canal near the river for at least 400 years. Today, Amphawa floating market has become a major draw for weekending city folk and foreign travellers seeking something more genuine than heavily visited Damnoen Saduak floating market some 20 kilometres north.
Thanks to its newfound tourist destination status, Amphawa now walks a flimsy tightrope between tradition and greed. A large-scale luxury hotel development project recently levelled several historic houses towards the east of the main canal, and swarms of tourist motorboats now detract from the town’s low-key atmosphere on weekends. Sadly, most of the fireflies that formerly emerged every evening at dusk have disappeared due to the dozens of consistently snarling engines.
On the bright side, the development project instigated much reflection (and distress) in the Amphawa community, which received a 2008 award from UNESCO for its efforts in conserving its traditional architecture. It appears residents are increasingly aware that protecting the town’s architecture and traditions is vital if Amphawa is going to continue to prosper.
Indeed, it’s these very traditions that make Amphawa the enchanting place it is.
One pleasant aspect of the community is its openness. The large front doors of homes are usually wide open for most of the day so that all who walk past can smell the boiling rice, listen to the Thai oldies playing on radios, and peek at children finishing their homework so they can join friends for a pre-dinner dip in the canal.
More than a dozen temples are found in the immediate Amphawa vicinity, and these same households still make it a point to rise before dawn each morning and prepare food to offer the monks on their morning alms rounds. Some monks walk, alms bowl in hand, while others row.
While Amphawa’s floating market makes an excellent day trip out of Bangkok, we feel it’s worth worth settling in for a few days so as to fully appreciate the town’s relaxed pace of life. Arriving on a Sunday while the market is going strong and staying for the early part of the week would be a great way to see Amphawa both in its busy market mode, and when it lets its guard down mid-week. In any case, a handful of homestays and low-key hotels are waiting to welcome you.
*Third photo down by Chinnapatt Chongtong.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 29th January, 2015.