Floating markets are most prevalent in the south of Thailand and Vietnam, all along the Mekong and its tributaries. Over the years I have spent in the region I have managed to visit more than my fair share of water based markets, from purely local shopping mornings to full-scale tourist attractions. They all have one thing in common however; rickety, wooden boats that take in too much water and lean worryingly to one side.
Perhaps one of the most famous floating markets is the Damnoen Saduak Market in Bangkok. Actually located approximately 110 kilometres west of the city, it is a major tourist attraction and filled with as many Westerners as Thais. However it is great fun to go up and down the klongs or small canals early in the morning and not only see the produce for sale but also traditional teak houses and orchards while pottering along.
The long-tail boat does rather pack the tourists in and usually comes as part of a package tour which includes a trip to see the largest pagoda in SE Asia in Nakorn Pathom. Even more fun is to find a local boat owner who will take you out in his half-capsizing open boat to really get among it all. It is chaotic and confusing, with half of the exchanges taking place seeming to be more about bartering than actual money changing hands.
My favourite floating market in Thailand has to be the afternoon market in Amphawa. Ive now been to this market three times and every time I go I find new things to marvel at. Again, it is very much a tourist destination, but in this case it is as much for local Thai tourists as for Westerners. From early afternoon there is a line of cars waiting to park, and when you finally find a space it isnt time to relax. You need to join the throng of people heading down the tiny main street of the town and over the pedestrian bridge. The sides of the street are jam-packed with stalls selling souvenirs, locally made goods and excellent food.
The market itself is spread out along the river and there are a number of companies running boat trips, forcing you to wear the bright orange life-jackets that provide more of a sense of anxiety than security. As an actual floating market I found it has less to offer produce wise than other markets, but the boat trip is the highlight. The canal is pressed on both sides by traditional wooden shop houses, now selling handicrafts and other goods. You then come out of the town itself and slowly meander along the river, with the full glorious panoply of tropical flora and fauna creating quite a display. But it doesnt stop there, for if you take this trip in the evening when the light has all but disappeared you may be treated to the amazing site of fire flies dotting the trees along the bank. They blink in unison so it really does look like someone is sitting behind the trees turning the Christmas lights on and off.
Vietnam also has floating markets in the south of the country. One of the best ones I visited was near Can Tho in the Mekong Delta. The Phung Hiep Floating Market is right in the middle of the agricultural hub of the region and once there you start to appreciate the amazing variety of fruit and vegetables that Vietnam has to offer. This is not for tourists and every day, starting at 5am the local population brings their produce to the river and sells it to large companies who then pass it on for resale in the larger towns. Everything is sold here, from fish to chickens and pigs, household items and even petrol. The bargaining isnt as good natured as in Thailand as the exchanges represent peoples livelihoods and are sharp and to the point.
Floating markets are a great way to explore Thailand and Vietnam. Whether set up as a bustling centre of or more as a tourist attraction, they still represent a way of life that has been going on for generations along the Mekong Delta. They also provide a different mode of transport for your shopping than you might be used to.