Photograph by Carlos Nizam, Getty Images
Read Caption

A local villager sells goods at the Damnoen Saduak floating market in Thailand.

Photograph by Carlos Nizam, Getty Images

Exploring Village Life Beyond Bangkok's Floating Markets

Find an authentic experience on your next trip to Thailand by exploring this town just outside Bangkok.

Thailand’s like most places. When a train comes, you back away from the tracks. But in a town 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of Bangkok, locals do something unexpected.

As the train approaches Samut Songkhram (also called Mae Klong), dozens of locals hurriedly pull back tarp shades from over the rails, yet they leave behind bamboo baskets of dried mackerel and fresh mangosteens. Soon, a train rattles directly over them. When it’s gone, the vendors pull out their tarps again, meeting midway across the rails, and resume a shopping zone nicknamed the “folding umbrella market.” I watched the scene with an orange iced tea at a café so close I could almost touch the train.

Most visitors to the province of Samut Songkhram come on day trips to see different markets—floating ones. The most famous is Damnoen Saduak, a frantic scene where traffic police steer buses into parking lots, hawkers sell personalized souvenir photo plates, and long-tail boats zip along the canal-side homes on stilts. (A bit more low-key is Tha Ka, on weekends, with sampan boat rides.)

I’m here to see both—and it’s good fun—but my main focus for a couple days is something else.

Part of Thailand’s “7 Greens” plan of sustainable tourism, Ban Bang Phlap is a small village near the canal town of Amphawa. In the past 15 years, its residents have worked to maintain its traditions, like producing coconut sugar, and create new sustainable ones that can help young people find jobs locally. It’s working. During my visit, dozens of neighboring community leaders came to learn about the model.

Tong, hair parted low on his temple and wearing an old “Rudedog 1981” T-shirt, greets me at the Saengtawan homestay his father set up. Visitors come to explore the village by bike, and he leads me around. It’s hot and humid, but the ride on the mostly empty roads kicks up a welcome breeze. We pass a school where I hear kids reciting lessons, then coast past a towering temple glittering in gold paint to a dirt path that leads to our first stop.

Here I see a pair of seven-foot objects that are shaped a little like the shark dancers from Katy Perry’s Super Bowl performance. Turns out these are “star kites,” or chula. Few people know how to make them, but Uncle Udom is one of them. He’s done it since he was 14; he’s 70 now.

We find him sitting on the ground under a tarp shade, tying string to the thin bamboo frame of his next kite. Udom invites us to sit and says he learned this tradition, which dates to the 17th century, by studying kites as a delivery boy. Now he’s hoping he can return the favor.

I help glue on shiny blue cloverleaf designs on one finished kite as Udom ties another frame into place. Testing each by flying it is key before a sale, but there’s no wind today. It’s best, he says, when the “kite wind” comes after rainy season.

Back on the bikes, Tong leads me onto a small road and we stop at a fruit orchard. I sample dried mint-green pomelo peel and banana pasted in palm leaf. Drying in glass cases in the sun are jerky-size cut strips of sweet-and-sour santol, a fruit typically used in curries.

I always enjoy dipping into village life like this. And though my visit is planned, it doesn’t particularly feel rehearsed or set up, as I’ve seen on some village tours in Southeast Asia. And I’m certainly the only tourist I see.

We take narrow bike paths through a pomelo orchard, drooping palm leaves brushing against my shoulders, then park, and I uneasily tiptoe across a plank-board bridge above a mossy canal.

Here we reach the coconut grove and meet up with Tong’s dad, who’s retrieving plastic canisters of coconut sap collected from flowers 10 feet above the ground. This is the source of the village’s coconut sugar. Villagers boil the sap in cauldrons at home to create coconut sugar to sell. (It’s used in tasty snacks sold around the country.)

How to Do This Trip

Getting here: Reaching Ban Bang Phlap is best done with a driver. You can reach Samut Songkhram’s Maeklong Railway Market via various forms of local transport. Trains leave approximately once an hour from Bangkok’s Wong Wian Yai train station for Maha Chai, where you can ride a small ferry to Ban Laem to Ban Laem for three baht. From Ban Laem station, the train leaves for Mae Klong (Samut Songkhram) four times daily for 10 baht.

Where to stay: I stayed at Tong’s Khun Somsong Saengtawan homestay, which is a homestay in name, but is more of a rural, intimate guesthouse with clean bungalows, air-conditioning, and private baths that’s run by a single family. To reserve, you can try emailing Tourism Authority of Thailand, but you’re probably best off contacting an agency. EXO Travel in Bangkok or Siam Rise can help.

I stayed a second night near Amphawa at Asita Eco Resort. It has a pool, bike, and boats to use, seating areas by the canal, and bungalows with glass walls facing the jungle.

How to tour the village: You’ll need private transport to reach Ban Bang Phlap and a translator if you don’t speak Thai. The agencies above can help.