A fruit vendor plies the canals around Damnoen Saduak.
Central Thailand is crisscrossed by a network of rivers and canals (called "khlongs" in Thai). The rivers flow from the low mountains north and west of Bangkok to the Gulf of Siam. Most of the canals were dug in the 19th century to connect the rivers, provide irrigation water to farm fields, and an early highway system to people living outside of urban areas.
Now the canals are used almost exclusively for irrigation, flood control and fishing. But back in the day they moved armies (the Siamese army dug a canal all the way to Cambodia so they could move an army to the border) and served as market places.
A boatload of tourists are paddled through the Damnoen Saduak floating market.
The floating markets of rural Thailand have become a tourist stereotype. Now most rural residents shop in the town markets - they get to the market by motorcycle or pickup truck. Now the only people who shop at the floating markets are the tourists searching for the authentic Thai experience.
One of the biggest and best known floating markets is in Damnoen Saduak, a bustling community in Ratchaburi province about two hours from Bangkok. I've gone to Damnoen Saduak a couple of times. Although the market is an over commercialized vortex of tourists, there's a lot to see in that part of Thailand. The salt fields of Samut Sakhon and Samut Songkram are nearby, the market on the train tracks in Samut Songkram is only about 20 minutes away. When I go to Damnoen Saduak it's because I have something else going on in that part of Thailand.
The canals of Damnoen Saduak before the tourists arrive.
The truth is though, Damnoen Saduak can be a nice town to visit. The trick is to arrive very early and leave early. When I feel the need the go there, I plan to arrive about 5.30 - 6.00 AM (depending on time of year and the hour of sunrise) and leave before 10AM.
At this hour, local vendors still go from home to home in their boats and canoes selling produce and curries. Monks pad silently through the community soliciting alms. Local people sit on the boardwalk in front of their homes gossiping and enjoying the cooler morning weather. They're inevitably surprised to see a farang (Thai for foreigner) and will frequently share a cup of coffee and patongo (Chinese doughnut or churro) with you. It's a delightful way to spend the morning.
A water taxi heads into Damnoen Saduak before the tourists arrive. The canals of the town are lined with boardwalks, making it easy to explore on foot.
The tourists come in giant buses from Bangkok. They start arriving a little after 8AM and by 8.30 the nature of the town has changed. From sleepy canal side village to bustling tourist trap. The later you go, the worst the tourist scene.
By mid-morning this canal will be gridlocked with tourist boats.
Damnoen Saduak was the first of the big tourist trap floating markets. The business model is being copied all over central Thailand. There is a floating market in Amphawa (about 15 minutes from Samut Songkram). In Amphawa, the market is an afternoon/evening thing. Food hawkers line the canals in town and sell freshly prepared curries and seafood. In the morning in Amphawa monks from the local temples go house to house in canoes. There are a couple of floating markets in Thonburi, across the Chao Phraya River from central Bangkok. There's one in Pattaya (that has the gall to charge admission, most of the other markets are free).
A woman takes her daughter to school in Damnoen Saduak before the tourists arrived. The canoe was a gift from Western Union, who provided people in central Thailand with thousands of boats during the floods in 2011.
I've photographed several of the floating markets in Thailand, those photos are in my archive.
Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.