Bangkok’s Taling Chan Floating Market
As I bite into the pastry, the warm custard filling oozes over my hand. “Real Macau egg tarts,” the sign reads. Well, this is better than anything I ever had in Macau. Licking my fingers, I wonder how I could get my hands on the recipe. But the sensory onslaught distracts me – the smell of grilled fish, the exotic scent of orchids, an old Thai man playing a traditional stringed instrument. I turn just in time to jump out of the way of a speeding motorcycle. A blast of exhaust fumes hits me as the driver plows through the crowd. Clearly, this guy is even hungrier than I am!
Taling Chan Floating Market in the northwest of Bangkok is small, not especially traditional, and usually appears as an afterthought in most guidebooks (if it appears at all). But as hordes of tourists flock to the larger commercial floating markets, travelers in the know realize that Taling Chan is an exceptional opportunity for excellent, inexpensive Thai food in the company of friendly and inviting Bangkok locals. It also provides the perfect launching point for a boat tour of several typical Bangkok neighborhoods that gives visitors a glimpse of what Bangkok used to feel like when the city was more water-based.
Awesome Food for the Masses
Finally catching sight of the floating street-food area at the end of the busy street, I work my way through the fruit and orchid stalls over a small bridge onto a serious of connected platforms floating on a khlong, one of the many mud-colored canals crisscrossing Bangkok. I glance down to witness a truly bizarre sight – what must be a million catfish writhing and wrestling in the water fighting over scraps of food being dropped by giggling Thai school-kids. It’s like a mad storm of piranhas devouring a cow! I make a note NOT to fall into the water.
Recovering from my fish angst, I catch my first glimpse of the culinary chaos. The platforms are surrounded by boats doubling as floating kitchens with vendors in traditional straw hats preparing a thousand tasty treats. Thai families are sitting around knee-high tables covered with piles of food. I hear spitting, smacking, tearing, cracking, and lots of laughing. It’s a street-food lover’s dream.
I head straight for a boat where a young woman is preparing my favorite dish som tam, green papaya salad. While I’m waiting my turn, I see Tony on the other side negotiating for seafood. Off to my left, I notice a woman selling beautiful multicolored sweets which look like small pieces of glazed ceramic art. Minutes later, we plop down at a squat table, the platform rocking gently as a wooden longboat zooms by behind us on the khlong. This is the real Thailand!
Sitting in a sea of steaming bodies, we admire the food in front of us: gorgeous grilled river prawns, fried spring rolls, chicken sate, salted catfish, green papaya salad, sticky rice with mango, and – of course – a plate of the delicious glazed sweets. The table is covered with dishes and associated condiments, including spicy hot fish sauce, peanut sate, a piquant green-chili dip, and a thick mixture of honey and orange rind. Wow! So much food, and all at bargain prices.
So what do you do after stuffing yourself to the point that you can barely move? You hop into a motorized khlong boat, of course.
Boat Tour of Bangkok’s Khlong Neighborhoods
We line up on the dock with tons of Thais for the two-hour tour of the area’s traditional khlong neighborhoods. A woman shrieks through a megaphone in Thai herding the people ahead of us into a wooden boat. We have no idea what she is saying. The boat fills and pulls away. We step forward towards the edge of the dock and wait for the next boat. The experience is not unlike waiting for a ride at Disneyland… if Disneyland were a floating dock below an underpass on a canal of muddy water filled with ravenous catfish.
The next boat pulls up and we cautiously step in. (I don’t trust those catfish!) Once we are all seated the boatman rockets out into the canal as our tour leader, once again, screams into a megaphone. The loud motor, booming narration, gas fumes, crowded boat, and splashes of less than pure khlong water might prove challenging for some visitors. For us, it represents the chaos and fun that makes large Asian cities such a blast. But I’ll be the first to admit, it’s not for everyone.
But for those who dare, the tour reveals the water-side of many Thai neighborhoods that most visitors never witness from the streets. The khlongs function at an alternate road system filled with long boats, canoes, impromptu rafts, flat boats, and anything that floats. Our boat slides by porches and yards open to the khlong with Thai families eating together, fishing, and swimming in the khlongs (eew!) Occasionally, the overly loud boat gives way to tweeting caged birds, the sounds of school children playing, and monks praying in the temples.
The tour actually makes a stop at one of those temple as well as an orchid farm filled with beautiful floral specimens, but the real attraction is the hidden water-world lost within the city’s suburbs. And never fear, should you still happen to be hungry after your feast at Taling Chan, our boat made additional stops for local snacks along the way. We even snagged an amazing glutinous rice with beans steamed in bamboo from a guy in a canoe. Now that’s my kind of street food… or should I say khlong food?
How to Get to Taling Chan
We highly recommend a visit to Taling Chan or one of the other smaller boat markets in Bangkok. Taling Chan is accessible by bus from central Bangkok, but it does take about an hour to get there. When we visited, the easiest way to get there was to take the air-conditioned bus 79 either from Banglamphu or from downtown Bangkok from Central World Plaza.