Bangkok Post reviews
Boats of bargains
- Writer: Bangkok Post Editorial
- Published: December 13, 2012 at 8:24 am
Introducing Bangkok's newest floating market
She's only nine but she's already doing a grown-up's job. Strictly part-time, though, and there's no pay involved because she's a volunteer. When I first saw Intira Kasemsri, standing there on the sightseeing boat with another girl of about the same age, my eyes were drawn to the Thai lettering on her white T-shirt. Highlighted by the fetching pink of her traditional jongkraben pants, the text read, "A youth guide from Wat Bamphen Nua School". Every weekend and most public holidays, Intira and her classmates are to be found at Bangkok's latest attraction, the Kwan-Riam Floating Market in Min Buri, holding forth on the history of Saen Saep Canal.
"I like being a guide. It's fun," she piped up. Although she looked rather tired and sun-frazzled _ it was pretty hot out that day _ she still managed a big smile.
To boost self-confidence and public-speaking skills, her school recruited pupils from Prathom 3 to 6 to work as tour guides. These nine- to 12-year-olds take turns giving a running commentary about the origins of this man-made waterway and snippets of information about things passengers can see along its banks. Although there's precious little of interest along this 2km stretch of Saen Saep, nothing more than the walls of Bang Chan Industrial Estate and rusty, corrugated-iron fences around the houses of local residents. Three wooden boats, each with seats for about 30, ply this route, taking market visitors on short pleasure cruises. And the boats are nearly always full, apparently. Perhaps it's because the fare is so low _ adults pay only 10 baht and children ride for free _ or maybe it's just the novelty value.
Muslim food is also available.
Khlong Saen Saep was dug 175 years ago, during the reign of King Rama III, to link the Chao Phraya and Bang Pakong rivers. Its primary function was to facilitate the transportation of soldiers and their weapons eastwards towards what is now Cambodia, where Siamese forces fought to reassert control over a vassal kingdom for nearly a decade from the mid-1830s onwards.
Once a vital commercial and communications artery, the canal fell into disuse after a network of sealed roads was built around Bangkok, but _ thanks to a long-tail boat service operated since 1990 by a firm called Family Transportation _ commuters can still get from Phan Fah Bridge (off Ratchadamnoen Avenue) all the way to Bang Kapi in a fraction of the time it would take by car or bus. There is no regular ferry service from Bang Kapi on to Min Buri, so that part of Saen Saep is still relatively quiet.
It was here, on a section where two Buddhist temples, Wat Bamphen Nua and Wat Bampheng Tai, face each other across the canal, that Chaowalit Metayaprapas, founder of Family Transportation, got the idea of constructing a floating market.
"When I laid eyes on this location for the first time," Chaowalit recalled, "I thought, this is really great!" Now 60, the entrepreneur still acts as an adviser to the Thai Boat Association, a body promoting cooperation among boat-service providers of which he was president for two terms.
"I talked to the abbots of the temples and they both agreed with my idea," he said.
Imported species of fowl, including these Mandarin ducks, are raised on the canal.
His initial plan, he said, was to revive the close-knit community atmosphere of yore by making it easier for residents to offer alms every morning to monks from local temples.
"So I organised two big boats for the monks and arranged a regular alms round along the banks of the canal. But then I realised that, this being the capital, people might be too busy to wake up early in the morning to cook [food for the monks]. So I thought, why not offer food for sale as well? That'll make it more convenient for those who want to offer alms."
This, he said, was the nucleus of an idea which later expanded to become the present floating market.
Devout Buddhists who go to the temple regularly tend to bring the whole family along, so Chaowalit realised there would have to be lots of food and snack options plus opportunities to buy other things like gifts, fashionable clothes and Otop (One Tambon One Product) goods.
For the elderly and infirm he has installed lifts big enough to accommodate wheelchairs at both ends of a newly built bridge which links the two temple compounds.
So far he reckons he has invested in the region of 40 million baht to set up the market. It boasts a total of 170 shop units on dry land plus several restaurants operating from old wooden boats permanently moored to the banks of the canal. The latter are proper sit-down establishments which serve hot meals.
"I love boats," Chaowalit said, "I've been collecting them since I was a young man and now I have so many types. So I decided to use a few of them for this market." Another of his hobbies is raising fowl, especially imported species of duck like the colourful Mandarin. These are displayed in a fenced-off section of the canal and will soon be joined by six swans. "I want to show people who always say that Saen Saep is polluted that the water around here is not that bad," he explained. "The fact that I'm able to raise these ducks in the canal is visible proof." But the main draw at this as in any other market is, of course, the goods on sale. The vendors here are a friendly bunch and hail from many different parts of the country. The quality of most of their products has been certified by Otop, with items usually garnering four or five stars. Many sell specialities from various provinces: dried noodles made from flour and fish meat, a popular souvenir from Nakhon Si Thammarat; grilled chicken from Betong, the southernmost district in Yala; naem neung (Vietnamese-style pork balls wrapped in rice paper, served with fresh herbs and vegetables) from Nong Khai; extra-large roti from Satun; khao kriab pla (fish-flavoured crackers) from Pattani; cloth bags and purses from Bangkok's Lat Krabang district; and earthenware pots from Koh Kret in Nonthaburi.
"This market has helped me increase my income by at least 50%," enthused Wanna Saetun, who runs the Roti Yak stall selling that supersized Satun delicacy. She said she's happy to have a designated spot where she can cater to her regular customers every weekend.
Srisomporn Sonthidech, a potter from Koh Kret, is of the same opinion; she says having an outlet here has helped her find new customers for her earthenware utensils. She has set up a potter's wheel in front of her Rak Din shop and she always attracts a large group of onlookers whenever she gives a demonstration on how to transform a lump of wet clay into a vase or container of any size, her smallest piece being no larger than a 25-satang coin.
In fact there's so much to see and buy here that you could easily spend half a day wandering around. Be sure to bring lots of cash, though, because vendors don't take plastic and there are no ATMs.
- Kwan-Riam Floating Market can only be reached by land. If you turn down Soi 60 on Seri Thai Road, you’ll arrive at Wat Bamphen Nua. Alternatively, take Soi 187 on Ramkhamhaeng Road which leads to the second temple, Wat Bampheng Tai. Both roads have small signs indicating the direction to Kwan-Riam. The market opens on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays from 7am to 8pm. On those days, people who want to to offer alms to the monks usually start gathering on the banks of the canal at 7.30am. For more information, visit www.kwan-riamfloatingmarket.com or call 087-701-2878 or 081-635-1491 or 089-124-7879.