Friday, October 5, 2012

The Market Where a Train Runs Through - Youtube Star Thailand

How to visit the market near Bangkok where the train drives 
straight through.

Mae Klong train drives through "folding umbrella market." 

After I saw one of the startling Youtube videos of a Thai market ebbing and  flowing over the tracks of a train, I had many questions. Where was the market? Could I visit it? What is the history of this line? The train line began running around 1905 as a freight line, hauling coal from the coast to Bangkok. 

As for the rest of the answer:  You can't reach it from Hualampong, Bangkok's central train station. Nor from Bangkok Noi, the small station on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, where the train to Kanchanaburi and the River Kwai departs.

The official name is Samut Songkhram, but it's better known to Thais by its old name,  Mae Khlong or Maeklong or Mae Klong. Although it takes two trains on two little-known lines and several hours to reach it, the journey makes for a pleasant day trip. Best of all, with little stress, you can escape the Big Smoke and soon be gliding through clean air, countryside and salt farms.

photo freeze from Maeklong market video
To see more of videos of the market, do a search at Youtube using “Bangkok (Maeklong) train market” or "Thai train market" or "Thailand railway market." 

This video's quality isn't great but hang on until the end; you will hold your breath as you wait for the baskets of vegetables to be crushed. Obviously, the "Bangkok" designation on some videos is wrong.  The small coastal town of Mae Klong is perhaps 50 kilometers to the south of Bangkok as the crow flies. Uh oh, looks like the odious Anthony Bourdain has even dragged a Food Channel crew here. You know it's a well-trodden trail when the man turns up.

The Mae Klong market is open seven days a week, from about 7 am to about 17:30 pm.

Wong Wian Wai's Two Railway Stations

The day trip begins at Bangkok's Wong Wian Wai station. Although this station may be obscure, Wong Wian Wai itself isn't. It's a large roundabout on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River. Like Bangkok Noi, that's across the river from greater Bangkok. With moderate traffic, it's less than 15 minutes from the Oriental Hotel, Royal Orchid Sheraton and other big riverside hotels. 

Best of all, the train terminal is walking distance from a BTS Skytrain's station, also called Wong Wian Wai or Wongwianwai. Not too long ago, this was the southern terminal station on the Silom line. In 2012, two more stations were added so if you're getting on this line at, say, Siam Square, you're now looking for the train heading to terminal station Talat Phlu. In 2013, supposedly two more stations will be added and the line will end at Bang Wa. 

Anyway, back to Wong Wian Wai station. Take the north side exit from the Skytrain station. Turn left and walk to the first major intersection about one block away. Asking for the "train station in Thai --"Sa-taa-nii rot fai fa"--is probably not going to work for most tourists. But  "Mahachai" coupled with the English "train station" might.

Turn right at the intersection into Phra Chao Taksin Road. The little station is about five minutes away, on the left-hand side of the road. If you come to the King Taksin Monument, depicting the first Bangkok king on horseback, you have passed it already. 

Taking the Train from Bangkok to Mahachai

The  small commuter train inside is like any third-class car on the regular train line. The fare to Mahachai was 10 baht but may have gone up slightly in the past few years. A train leaves about every hour for the one-hour, 31-kilometer trip to the fishing port of Samut Sakhon, better known as Mahachai. The first train of the day departs from Bangkok around 5:30 am; the final train leaves around 8 pm. Mahachai is major fishing port and processing area for the many tuna canneries and (environmentally destructive) shrimp farms in the area.

Richard Barrow describes his own day trip to Maeklong step by step. Richard runs the Paknam websites, probably the largest and best network of English-language sites and blogs in Thailand. It's certainly the most family- and female- friendly. Even Thais post on the forums! Unfortunately, it's hard to figure out how all the pages and websites link together.  Elsewhere, Richard describes homestays near Mahachai/Samut Sakhon and its attractions. The most interesting are probably the ocean-swimming monkeys.

Trains from Samut Sakhon (Mahachai) to Mae Klong

Once you reach Mahachai, exit from the left side of the train, pass by market vendors with their baskets of fish and pink-shaded shrimps. Look for the clock tower, which is near the pier ("tha"). You must take a 5-minute, 2-baht ferry trip across the Tha Chin River. 

The landing area is called Ban Laem. From here, ask the locals for "Mae Klong" or "rot-fai pai Mae Klong"  but they will most likely guess that's where you're heading. It's only a few minutes walk to the train's departure point. Four daily trains depart from here for the one-hour, 33-kilometer journey to Mae Klong. They depart at 7.30 am, 10.10 am, 1.30 pm and 4.40 pm.  

Mae Klong is sometimes spelled "Maeklong." To make matters more confusing, Mae Klong's newer, official name is Samut Songkhram.  Mae Klong remains the more popular name.

Although the trip to Mae Klong only takes an hour, if you want return by train to Mahachai/Ban Laem on the same day, the last train you can catch from Mahachai to Mae Klong is the 1.30 pm. 
The last return train from Mae Klong to Mahachai departs at 3.30 pm.

There are only four trains from Mahachai to Mae Klong each day--departing at 6.20 am, 9 am, 11.30 am and 3:30 pm.  Bear in mind, though: schedules could well change with little in the way of public notice. Check the schedule upon arrival at a new station. Regardless, rhe upshot is: you must start from Thonburi early if you want to do the entire day trip by train. 

Sightseeing in Mae Klong and Train Market

Once on the train and on the way, enjoy the coastal scenery and clean air and look out for the conical piles of salt at the salt farms along the way. Arriving in Mae Klong by train, you don't get much of a view of the scurry that has taken place only moments.  You have to wait around in the market for the next arrival to get the full effect. 

As you can see in some of the Youtube videos of Mae Klong station, the first scene resembles any other open market in a small Thai town: shoppers stroll a narrow aisle bordered by open stalls selling clothes, kitchen implements and colorful tropical fruits. Then, in unison, the display tables on either side pull back (they’re on wheels) as the vendors yank up their awnings and the shoppers melt away. 

The train charges through that center aisle, coming within inches of the vendors and retracted stall tables. It’s over in a moment: the tables roll forward, awnings flap --back in place and shoppers drift back onto the railway track. You now know why locals call it talaat lom hap which word-for-word is "market umbrella fold"--or less literally, "the folding umbrellas market."

In between waiting for trains, Mae Klong provides some modest sights, notably a Kuan Yin shrine and an Ayuthaya-era temple, Wat Phet Samut Worawihan. That means it predates the establishment of the Thonburi and Bangkok capitals and the present dynasty, whose origins are late 18th century. The location link at the bottom of this page points you to Mae Klong, more or less. But I think you get a better sense by scrolling down to the close-up Google map of Mae Klong town on this train buff's page. (He is wrong, though, when he writes that the train runs through Mahachai market.). As for the Google map that the "location" link below leads to ... I know, it's crazy: it links to a spot in the middle of the river. Scroll up and to the left and you'll see Maeklong marked on the riverside.

From Maeklong to Bangkok by Bus and Mini-Vans

As noted above, to return to Bangkok by train in one day, the last train from Mae Klong-to-Mahachai train departs at 3:30 pm. There's no need to panic, though. 

While they aren't as much fun as trains, many daily buses travel between Mae Klong and Mahachai. Some even travel from Mae Klong directly to Bangkok's Southern bus terminal, which is on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River. The bus trip should take about one hour. Slightly quicker, mini-vans also travel directly between Mahachai and Bangkok's Victory Monument. In Mahachai, you could try asking for the rot (vehicles) that go to 
  anu-sa-wa-ri chai sa-mo-ra-phum but I think few tourists could manage it. A better option: before the start of the day, get someone at your hotel to write that in Thai.

An alternative is to continue down along the coast to the major beach resorts of Cha-am and Hua Hin.

The shaky video below presents the view from inside the offending train:

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