I have probably been to about half a dozen different floating markets around Thailand. Out of all of them, Damnoen Saduak is undoubtedly the largest and best known among Thai and foreign tourists. Some people also say it is the biggest tourist trap. However, this can work to your advantage. Genuine floating markets are few and far between. When they do happen you will be lucky to see more than three boat vendors at one time. However, at Damnoen Saduak, there are so many boat vendors that it is a feast for your eyes almost in every direction you look. Yes, I know it is now almost exclusively set up for tourists. But if you look beyond this then you will get not only some beautiful picture postcard photos, but also a cultural experience of life in Thailand a hundred years ago. Follow my tips and you will have a more enjoyable experience.
The floating market at 7:45 a.m.
Damnoen Saduak Floating Market is in Ratchaburi Province, about 100 kms southwest of Bangkok. You can go there by bus 78 from the Southern Bus Terminal which is the cheapest method. The trip takes just under two hours. This goes via Nakhon Pathom on highway 4. A more expensive alternative is to share a taxi with some friends. This shouldn’t cost you more than 1,500 baht for the round trip. If you like, you could stay in Nakhon Pathom for the night and then catch an early morning bus to Samut Songkhram which passes Damnoen Saduak. Many people go here as part of a tour that then goes to the Rose Garden in the afternoon. When we first went in 2001, we went down the day before and stayed in a hotel at Damnoen Saduak. This has the advantage in making sure you are there long before the tour buses arrive from Bangkok at 9 a.m. For my trip last weekend I left home when it was still dark at 5:10 a.m. It is a long trip along the outer ring road and then onto Highway 35 which passes Samut Sakhon and then Samut Songkhram. However, due to the new Kanchanapisek Bridge over the Chao Phraya River, my journey was much quicker than back in 2001. It was so quick that it was still dark when I arrived at 6:15 a.m.! I was one of the first people to arrive although there were already quite a few boat vendors paddling along the canal.
As it was still too dark to take photographs I declined the offers of boat trips. I decided to wander around for a while. As the minutes ticked past, more tourists started to turn up. Some in tour buses and others in their own cars. However, at this early hour they were still exclusively Thai. It was nice and peaceful at that time. A kind of calm before the storm which I knew was going to happen in a few short hours. If you have ever been to the tropics, you would know that it gets light very quickly. By about 6:30 a.m. it was almost light enough to take some pictures. However, I decided to delay a bit more as it would be easier for me with a bit more light. While I was waiting I walked around to get an idea of the prices for the boat. Most of them seemed to offer boat tours for 400 baht for one hour or 200 baht for half an hour. I told one lady politely in Thai that I thought 400 baht was a bit expensive considering the boats were powered by paddle and that they didn’t have to buy any fuel. She then said, “Alright, I will give you Thai price of 300 baht for one hour” and quickly wrote the price down on a ticket. I am not sure if that really is the Thai price, but I decided to go with it. Seemed fair as it was for the boat rather than per person.
At this early hour, the boat vendors selling fruit and delicious meals far outnumbered the tourist boats. As we paddled away, I seemed to still be the only foreigner around. We passed many small boats where the vendors were offering me fruit or snacks. A bit further we turned a corner. Along the edge of this canal and the next one are rows and rows of souvenir shops. Most of them selling the same stuff. However, most of them were still closed. The lady paddling my boat asked me several times if I wanted to stop to buy something. I replied that I just wanted to enjoy the view. Up ahead I could see a lone monk paddling along on his alms round. Waiting on the banks were locals with food to offer the monk. This was more like it. Much better than the tacky souvenirs on offer. I was just reaching for my camera when the oarsmen started to turn left to go down another narrow canal lined with souvenir stalls. I quickly asked her if we could continue going straight on as I had no interest in buying souvenirs. I remembered from last time that they take you to a shop at the other end of the canal where they tell you to get out for 15 minutes to look around. Luckily for me she was sympathetic and she paddled on in pursuit of the lone monk.
To be honest, apart from the monk and some canalside activity, there wasn’t too much to see. However, the peace and quiet of the early hour was really worth it. She took me on a long circuit which eventually came out in the wider Damnoen Saduak Canal. The water here was more choppy. She told me that they had opened the floodgates and so the water was quite high. I asked her a bit about her average day. She said that this was her first trip of the day. At the wekeend, she probably would come out five or six times. For that she would get 100 baht per trip. During the week she would be lucky to do three or four rounds and she was paid only 70 baht per trip. I am not sure if she was playing on my sympathy, but it did make sense that she didn’t get all of the 300 baht. After all, she wasn’t the person that approached me at the start. So, when I got back, I gave her a 100 baht tip. I think in cases like this, always try to give people at grass level a tip as they often do the hardest work.
“The farang are coming! The farang are coming!”
After my enjoyable boat trip, I decided not to rush off but rather explore more of the area on foot. So, after a breakfast of rice porridge for 20 baht, I wandered around taking pictures and shooting video of the various canal side activity. I also went for a walk along Damnoen Saduak Canal which you can see in the above picture. There were a number of paddle boats coming along this canal heading for the area where I started my own tour. I was curious to see where they were coming from. Then I realized what was happening. When I drove down the road I kept passing signs that said “you have arrived” in Thai. In some ways these were deceiving people. They had boats you could hire, but you have to paddle along this canal to reach the main area where you can see all the boat vendors. As you can see, it was a bit of a bumpy ride for them as the water was choppy. It was made even worse as bigger long-tailed boats with motors were whizzing by. These were full of foreign tourists who were on tours. Their coaches had dropped them off at the main road in Damnoen Saduak and they continued to the market by boat. In the above picture, you can see at least four of these boats. A dozen had already passed me as I walked along the tow path.
Traffic jam on the canal at 9 a.m.
By the time I got back to the area where I had started it was already 9 a.m. And what a scene that greeted me. The canal was literally plugged with boats which were nine deep. It was a traffic jam of the worse kind. People were fast going no-where. Can you see the boats with awnings? These have engines unlike my paddle boat. Some of them had changed to a paddle for this section. But others kept turning on and off their noisy engines in order to move along. This is a new phenomenon. The last time I had come here there were no motorized boats. In fact, there is a sign now that says no engines are allowed to be started along here before 8 a.m. I still think it is worth your time and trouble coming here. But, please take my advice. DO NOT come on a tour from Bangkok. And make sure you finish your boat trip well BEFORE 9 a.m. If you do that then you will have a much more enjoyable trip. I left as soon as I had taken that picture. The place had become a circus and it was no longer my quiet little floating market.
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Latitude: 13.520101 (13° 31′ 12.36” N)
Longitude: 99.959278 (99° 57′ 33.40” E)