Thursday, 19 July 2012

Amphawa Floating Market, Thailand

June 20th -  June 21st, 2012

Songwoot, our host in Bangkok, suggested an overnight side trip to Amphawa's floating market.  Damnoen Saduak is the famous floating market about 40km along the coast, where the tourists flock whereas Amphawa, according to Songwoot, is almost unknown to tourists and is where the Thais like to go for a weekend away.

A 12 seater mini bus drove us out of Bangkok, arriving in Amphawa two hours later.  We had no map and every large scale map on the street with exclusively in Thai with no apparent 'you are here' indication.  With no idea of which was was north and which was south,  we wandered the local area in search of accommodation options.  As we walked down the boardwalk next to a river (its name unknown) I just about fell into an elephant.  I gasped as a young man handed me a small bag of food offering me the opportunity to feed it;  the young elephant lifting its trunk, pointing to its mouth.  Having never been so close to an elephant I seized the opportunity, the elephants trunk searching my outstretched had eagerly accepting my offerings.  His head stood about level with mine as I ran my hand across its thick skin.  I looked into his eyes and felt my soul touch his for a brief moment.  

Seeing no options for accommodation we headed back towards the main road and noticed a five story building resembling a hotel.  Julian suggested we check it out.  To me, this hotel looked far beyond our budget but followed him across the street.  We entered the reception area and were greeted by a Thai gentleman who spoke impeccable english.  He informed us that he had no rooms available, then promptly offered to show us the rooms.  Confused, we then noticed that the reception was covered in sawdust, plastic coatings covering brand new tables and chairs; this hotel having yet to be opened to the public.  Understanding now, we accepted his offer for a tour around this brand new hotel.  Taking us to the fourth floor we were lead down a beautifully lit hallway and shown two of the completed guest rooms.  A place where rustic meets luxury, we 'oohed' and 'ahhed' in all the right places.  As they were walking us out thinking of suggestions of where we should go for this evening, I asked to use the ladies room and was escorted back upstairs into the guest room they were using as an office.  

There were obviously conversations going on amongst the hotel staff whilst we used the facilities and when I emerged we were taken next door to another room and humbly asked if we would consider being their first guests.  Weary of our budget we hesitated and asked how much and were amazed when they insisted it was complimentary. Obviously the services such as the kitchen and bar were not up and running, but in exchange for a bed and testing out the room, payment would be made by giving their first guest review in the morning. 

Blown away at the situation, they left us in our suite to freshen up.  After showering under multiple shower heads and allow ourselves a bit of time to digest this uncommon taste of luxury we dressed, refreshed and feeling like a million dollars we walked back through the lobby where one of the assistants personally escorted us to the floating market.  We emerged from a small alleyway onto the boardwalk in the midst of activity; bright lights illuminated shop fronts, people walked with ice creams in hand as long tail boats floated by the wayside looking for passengers and small paddle craft offered an array of freshly caught local seafood cooked on the spot when ordered. On these small wooden boats, large woks sat over hot coals or gas burners before the women in straw hats amongst plastic containers of live crabs, shrimp, mussels and scallops.  Still practically unknown amongst western tourists we were the only white faces that entire evening.  People greeted us, one women not bothering to mask her surprise as she gasped in surprise and enthusiastically voiced her greeting with a huge smile on her face.  

We explored the shops; merchandise here far more appealing than the tacky knock offs of Bangkok.  The atmosphere was alive with local culture and finally I was getting a taste of authentic Thailand.  Its places like this I long to explore.  A place we never would have known about if it wasn't for Couch Surfing. 

Julian found his Thai fisherman pants and chose a pair in hunter green (That would be British racing green of course - ed).  Whist making the transaction the man operating a tiny food stall opposite offered a wrapped package to our vendor, who in turn handed it to us.  This elderly Thai man wanting to share the local culinary delights with us, accepting no offer of money in return.  We sat and peeled back the thick green banana leaf browned by the heat of a fire revealing a tightly packed gift of sticky rice.  Biting into it we found sweet dehydrated fruit surrounding a mild sausage.  Julians eye lit up as he devoured this treat stating it was the best thing he had eaten in weeks and eagerly purchased another two packages to be kept for breakfast.  We explored a small museum behind the man selling the fisherman's pants and the vendor approached us again with another unknown gift wrapped in banana leaf.  "Local food, fish, you try free." He insisted with a smile.  
I placed it in the bag to be consumed later, feeling satisfied and full by previous delicacy. 

We wandered the market all evening enjoying the lively atmosphere, welcoming smiles and sweet wine coolers. The market shut down earlier than expected and we were disappointed the festivities were over so soon.  Having only a couple hours here we both were not fully satisfied with the experience so opted to alter our plans slightly to allow ourselves the entire following day here before returning home in the evening. 
We sat on cushions at low tables on straw mats at the waterfront and enjoyed (or forced down) a 650ml bottle of local brew alongside the Thais, fully relaxing with them.  Some jumped off the dock into the brown, muddy canal; half tempted to join in I refrained, remembering the warnings in Lonely Planet about the potential health hazards that may come with swimming in these polluted waters.  My peace usually comes from dramatic natural landscapes void of people.  I don't remember ever feeling so peaceful and content amongst crowds.

Back at the hotel I unwrapped the banana leaf revealing a tightly wrapped fish packet and bit into the hot spices dancing with coriander and lime, pleased that Julians palate would not enjoy such tastes I devoured the entire thing. 
Used to very hard sleeping surfaces (which I have come to enjoy) and hot, humid air it took a while to get used to the soft surroundings of the king size bed and air conditioned room.  We woke the next morning, enjoyed the warm shower once again and met the owners of the hotel before sitting down with the concierge who spoke excellent english for a full guest review.  We took out our notes and over the next hour offered our suggestions for improvement as well as sources for marketing towards the western tourists.  

Leaving our bags behind for the day we strolled around the markets seeing much the same stuff as the previous evening.  More elephants were being paraded down the street, one with a bleeding ear from the hooks their tamers use.  As I watch them I begin to see past the romanticism and feel sad for these wild creatures which should be wandering free in the jungles rather than lead down the street with hooks for the amusement of the tourists.  

As the sun reached its highest point and the heat became too much we boarded a long tail boat for a two hour tour.  With no expectations the boat left the market area, crossed the main river through to the other side then followed a series of smaller canals.  Wooden homes on stilts lined the banks and large monitor lizards swam amongst people searching the river bottom for shell fish.  We visited half a dozen temples within these two hours, the most impressive of them being Wat Bang Kung, a small chapel almost completely enclosed within the roots of a banyan tree; like the tree itself is the pillars of the temple.  WIthin the womb of the tree one can pay their respects to a cast image of Buddha, for which gold leaf can be purchased by worshipers to be placed upon the image.  
At each of the temples visited that day a man spoke over a microphone which bellowed intrusively over loudspeakers in Thai.  Asking a Thai couple what kept being repeated they informed us that they were continually encouraging donations be made.  I couldn't help but shudder as the intrusive voice penetrated the air so loudly, very much distracting me from the experience.  

We were returned to the centre of the market by our dutiful boat pilot and wandered the boardwalks for an hour or two more, but we were by then on our third loop of the stalls and the wait for our bus back to the big city was becoming a clock watch. Eventually we collected our bags from the hotel, said our goodbyes and made our way to the bus, returning to Songwoots home glowing with the cultural experience we never would have found without him.

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