Carry-on Adventures Episode 3: Bangkok’s Floating Markets

A culinary tour on the waterways of Thailand's vibrant capital city

STORY BY DAVE SHIVELY
PHOTOS BY J.P. VAN SWAE
EDIT BY GRINDSTUDIOS

Presented by Expedia.com

Few travelers venture all the way to Thailand just to explore Bangkok. The bustling city of 8 million seems to merely act as temporary stopover, a frenetic means-to-an-end gateway to more exotic and relaxed island locales. This overlooked Eastern travel hub was the perfect place to launch our next unlikely Carry-on Adventure.

As a paddler, my instinct is to head to the water. With a casual Google Image search, I honed in on Bangkok’s famous floating markets. As the crazy idea to paddle though the packed markets began gestating, I took it to our magazine group’s staff photographer, J.P. Van Swae, a guy who never says no to crazy.

He was immediately hooked. A taste for spicy Thai was apparently in his DNA. He told me about how he grew up in Thai restaurant in Kona, Hawaii. We locked in plans to access the markets and find the ultimate bowl of proper and authentic tom kha kai, Thailand’s famed hot, sour, and savory coconut chicken concoction.

Twenty-two hours and six in-flight movies later, we arrive on the banks of the Chao Phraya, standing under highways and sky-rise hotels. We enlist a longtail canoe to taxi us to a riverside eco-lodge on the city’s industrial southern edge. After surviving a scooter shuttle in on 4-foot-wide concrete causeways running above the tidal mud flats, we finally assemble our loaded Oru kayaks and take to the river.

Hitting the closed lock on the industrial end of Bangkok's Chao Phraya River.
Hitting the closed lock on the industrial end of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River.

Paddling past barges and supertankers, tugboats and ferries, we hit a closed lock which blocks off our target canal. We hop out of the boats and onto the network of jungle planks to continue up the canal, only to discover that this Bangkok floating market is a weekend-only affair.

No dice at the closed Bangkok floating market ..
No dice at the closed Bangkok floating market ..

We change tack and head upriver to Ayutthaya, Thailand’s historic former capital, hoping for calmer water in the so-called Venice of the East. Paddling around an island surrounded by rivers and bisected by canals, we assure ourselves that we’ll find our floating market.

Into Ayuttaya
Into Ayutthaya …
Hyacinth hell circling Ayutthaya.
… and our road out through a wall of hyacinth.

Or so we think. Halfway around our island circumnavigation we hit a dense river-wide web of Hyacinth lilies too thick to paddle through. Trying not to think of the crocodiles that the friendly family at the Baifern Homestay had warned us about, we claw our way out and emerge at the Pom Phet Fortress. We portage to a café where cold Chang beers and our first dose of spicy tom kha kai help beat the 100-degree paddling. That afternoon, spent circling the island’s UNESCO world heritage site, we end with a sundown stop at the surreal 400-year-old temple ruins of Wat Chaiwatthanaram.

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We still need to find our floating market, however, so we route back through the canals of downtown Bangkok in time for an authentic Thai cooking class, where we gain a few secrets for homemade pad thai, as well as the proper tom kha kai we’d be hoping for (hint: fresh ingredients grown and prepared on site, especially the coconut milk, go a long way).

Finding the savory coconut chicken concoction.
Finding the savory coconut chicken concoction.

After a three-wheeled tuk-tuk ride, plus local commuter trains, a ferry, and another train, we are within sight of the Amphawa floating market. Another longtail canoe taxi drops us and our Cotopaxi backpacks full of gear off at a homestay right on the canal. We cruise the market stalls lining the narrow canal, rapidly filling with weekend foot traffic, as we scout the boat vendors with the most promising goods. The murky brown tidewater rises slowly in the canal as motorized canoes carrying tourists zip by the canoes carrying goods into the tightly congested channel.

Cruising into the market ...
Cruising into the market …
... and sampling the shellfish for sale.
… and sampling the shellfish for sale.

“How safe do you think it is to paddle in there?” I ask J.P.
He points to an elderly woman plying her overloaded canoe calmly into the melee, each J-stroke of her wooden paddling plank hitting a wok precariously balanced on her stack of goods.
“She’s got a deep fryer in her lap,” he says. “If she’s OK, we’ll be OK.”

When we return to assemble our kayaks, the skies crack and a torrent of rain, the first in four months, begins to slowly shut down the market. Restaurants and stalls shutter their windows, canoes, huddle under bridges, tarps going up over their goods.

Shut down by rain.
Shut down by rain.

The sun is long gone by the time the rain clears and the market re-opens. We decide to make our launch, pretending to ignore the retriever-sized water monitor that slithers from underneath the stalls and into the water beneath out boats. We enter the market, stalling and then charging, timing our advances around the ebb of flow of motorboats cruising in and out of the main channel. Each driver deftly rudders through the crowded space by working a small propeller on the end of a swiveling 6-foot-long drive arm, often lifting and swinging the still-spinning props across our bows as we try to carefully find the food-vending canoes.

In the thick of the floating market, seeing the blur of boat lights, the crowds of selfie-stick-totting tourists on the bridges above us, and the smell of gas mixed with grilled shellfish wafting from the canoes, I realize just how weird and wild, and yes, crazy of an experience this is. “Nobody you know, or probably ever will know, has done this,” J.P. says, before we paddle away from market’s busiest transportation docks. We pull up to long canoe of four guys busily serving grilled squid who gladly take our order. They laugh at the novelty of serving the opposite side of their canoe, bringing us full plates and cold Chang. With my first warm, spicy, rubbery bite, bobbing in the choppy waters next to their steaming grill-boat, I immediately realize that any time from this day forward that I taste squid, I will return right back to this moment.

Street squid never tasted so good.
Street squid never tasted so good.

The next morning, with the market traffic calmed and the water glassy, we paddle up past a Buddhist monk making his way upriver to a noodle-vending boat for much more relaxed breakfast. We return to the homestay, and kick back in Kammok hammocks hung above the canal, relaxing before the mid-day heat. Before the hot and frenetic stream of boats, trains and taxis and planes home, I take a moment to appreciate the chance we’ve had to experience a well-trod place like the locals, and to separate from the crowds, by doing it our own way, from the water.

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— Plan your own adventure to Bangkok at Expedia.com

— Watch Carry-On Adventures Episode 1: Escape from Las Vegas.

— Watch Carry-On Adventures Episode 2: Lake Nicaragua’s Forgotten Islands.