Skip the touristy floating markets such as Damnoen Saduak if you’re a fan of street food. Instead, make a beeline for these comparatively off-the-tourist-radar spots which we believe are the best Bangkok floating markets for foodies.
A birds-eye-view of a canal crammed with narrow wooden boats, laden with tropical fruits, fresh vegetables, fragrant flowers, and aromatic herbs, being rowed by smiling women wearing woven hats may be Thailand’s most iconic image. Yet, sadly, the reality on the ground – or water – these days at Damnoen Saduak, the Bangkok floating market featured time and again in tourism advertisements, is far different.
Boats now brim with tacky souvenirs, Singha beer t-shirts and other tourist tat, you’ll see more foreigners posing for photos with oars in hand than locals let alone vendors plying their trade, and the food is terribly disappointing.
Fortunately, Bangkok’s floating markets aren’t merely tourist attractions. They have been an integral part of Thai culture, commerce and social life since the 1782 founding of Bangkok, a city built upon water. Waterways and canals or khlongs, man-made and natural, formed the main transportation system until 1851 when roads were established.
Serving as highways and back-roads, merchants moved goods by barge and boat, selling their wares and produce to riverside dwellers whose stilted wooden homes perched precariously atop the water. Marketplaces formed on and around the busiest bits, on the water and docks, while on more tranquil sections, vendors rowed to homes like door-to-door salesman or home-delivery guys.
What this means for food-lovers visiting Bangkok is that within an hour or two of the chaotic centre, there are scores of floating markets operating on quiet canal-sides and riverbanks of Bangkok’s outer village-like suburbs, provincial towns and semi-rural communities surrounding the capital.
Trading primarily on weekends and frequented mostly by locals and Thai tourists, these floating markets remain relatively off the beaten track for most visitors to Bangkok, which is why they make such a wonderful alternative to the tourist-driven markets. Get there before the secret is out and the big travel companies start including them on tours.
Here’s our guide to the best Bangkok floating markets for foodies:
Tha Ka Floating Market
At the entrance to this low-key local market, between vendors selling traditional folk music CDs and Thai orchids, the sweet aromas from a smoky barbecue should lure you to your breakfast: grilled skewers of bananas doused with coconut sugar sauce, made to a secret family recipe.
Once you reach the shaded waterfront, prettily decorated with flowerpots, you’ll find smiling women set up to trade on the concrete and timber boardwalks, and sheltering from the scorching sun beneath big umbrellas on their wooden longtail boats.
As at all of these markets, there’ll be a mix of vendors selling fresh local produce from surrounding farms, hot pre-prepared food they rose in the wee hours to make, or meals and snacks they’ll cook to order. Each woman will specialise in one, or at most, two or three, particular dishes or treats.
Try the pan-fried mussels, simmered so that they’re warm, plump and soft with a sticky texture different to the crisp-fried mussels typically found in Bangkok, and sprinkled with crunchy sprouts and served with chilli sauce.
The best photo opportunity is from the top of the diminutive wooden bridge, from where you’ll see boats for hire, disappearing down canals for a pleasant tour through lush tropical jungle. Here you’ll see women rowing their mobile eateries door to door and get to taste a caramel-like coconut sugar at an artisanal family factory.
Bang Noi Market
Slightly larger than Tha Ka, this charming laidback market has more character too, with wooden stilted boardwalks support traditional wooden houses that are home to grocery shops, funky cafés, a handful of chic boutiques, and even a few home-stays that draw locals and Bangkokians alike.
You’ll find food stalls clustered at the entrance near the temple where the tuk-tuk will drop you, as well as dotted around the boardwalk.
Where the canal meets the coffee-coloured river, you’ll find the characterful ‘Coffee Bang Noi’ café and at a stall opposite my favourite dish of all: mackerel fried rice served with fermented shrimp paste.
A specialty of Samut Songkram province, which is renowned for its mackerel and shrimp paste, it’s sprinkled with crispy slithers of garlic and shallots and served in an eco-friendly banana leaf bowl. Wash it down with a spring bitter cucumber juice.
On the opposite side of the canal, at the end of the boardwalk, sit yourself down at a long timber table for a bowl of hot kuay tiew moo nam dang or red noodle soup. More pink than red in colour, the slippery, silky noodles are handmade from a family recipe using pink tofu and that locally produced coconut sugar.
Amphawa Floating Market
Big, buzzy and artsy, Amphawa heaves with diners and shoppers in the late afternoon, becoming uncomfortably crowded for some, but the lively atmosphere is part of its appeal and the food second to none. Attracting a mix of local families and friends, Bangkok hipsters and Asian tourists, it’s Bangkok’s Chatuchak or ‘JJ’ Market on the water.
While the other markets can be visited in an hour or two each, Amphawa with its dozens of funky shops and cafés, busy eateries, atmospheric home-stays, and, more importantly, floating food stalls, warrants a few hours of your time.
Eating is a more organized affair here with boats bearing signs, prices, menus, and photos of dishes, and low benches running alongside the water’s edge with tiny plastic stools. Chilled music wafts from nearby cafés and live Thai country music and jazz bands perform at the bars, encouraging you to linger with cold beers.
In the yard at Charn Chala shophouse (ask for directions if you don’t spot it), try the mee krop or crispy deep fried noodles served with tamarind sauce, which has a distinct flavour due to its key ingredient, rosella flower. Wash it down with their butterfly pea drink, made to a recipe created by the king’s daughter, Princess Sirindhorn.
Like most of these markets, seafood is a specialty due to the waterside location and proximity to the sea. Choose a boat with a busy cook, sweating over a smoky barbecue and order whatever appears to be the most popular dish.
Our recommendation is a plate of grilled seafood doused with spicy sauce, preferably river prawns or cuttlefish or Sumut Songkram’s famous stir-fried razor clam or hoy lord pad cha. If you’re finding the miniscule plastic stools a challenge, settle into a seat at Chao Samran restaurant right by the water.
Save room for dessert at Sri Ma La Ice Cream, which specialises in homemade icecream flavoured with tropical fruits and flowers. Sugar apple, salted plum, lychee, butterfly pea, guava, and lotus milk are all scrumptious. Thais top theirs with sweet syrups like ma muang nam pla wan, mango with sweet fish sauce.
If all that eating has worn you out, enjoy a revitalizing massage on one of the spa boats, savouring the sunset from a bridge, then take to the water for a cruise to see the fireflies before you sleep your way back to Bangkok on the bus.
Getting there and away
The easiest way and the most fascinating for foodies is to visit all markets on Bangkok Food Tours’ Offbeat Floating Markets tour. The guides are friendly and knowledgeable, groups are small, and you’ll get to try lots of dishes including some we’ve written about, and more!
Note that the tour calls into the touristy Maeklong ‘train market’ on the way, where vendors with stalls skirting the tracks frantically move their produce each time a train trundles through, and also takes in a couple of other sights.
If you prefer to travel independently, you could hire a car and driver in Bangkok for the maximum comfort or take a mini-bus (90 minutes; every 20 minutes) to Amphawa from the mini-bus station beside Victory Monument BTS. Bus signs are in Thai so ask the ticket-seller to let you know when your bus is departing and point you in the right direction. (They are used to doing this.)
Once at Amphawa drop-off point, buy a return ticket (last bus back is at 8pm), so you don’t miss out on a place. The ticket-seller is also happy to call you a tuk tuk to the other markets. Start with Tha Ka in the morning, Bang Noi around midday, and leave Amphawa for the afternoon/evening. Negotiate for the driver to wait and return to you Amphawa.
If you wish to stay overnight, there are charming homestays at Amphawa that need to be booked in advance, though we’ve not tried these yet, and a boat tour to see fireflies to occupy you in the evening.