What’s the weather like today?
Today we’re heading to the Maeklong Train Market and it’s really warm here. Some would even call it hot with a high of 82°F/27.7°C and the humidity around 80%. The weather plays into our decisions about what tourist activities to undertake, and more importantly, what time of day to undertake them. The Maeklong Train Market tour seems to offer transit with air conditioning with brief forays into the heat followed by more air conditioning. We can do this!
It’s difficult to convey what it’s like to be here in Bangkok without factoring in the heat and humidity. We were forewarned by our tour guide that summer time temps are going to be around 37°C/98.6°F. Summer season is still at least a month or so away. This is still the cool season. When we’re walking down a street in the shade with a breeze blowing, it’s downright pleasant. When we turn in a different direction and the breeze is blocked and we’re in the direct sun, well, it’s really quite warm and we start looking for shade.
The smell of Bangkok
So I believe that you and I can come to an agreement that this is warm weather. Now let’s add in the smell of Bangkok. (Before I tell you what Bangkok smells like, as an example, let’s chat about Portland Oregon’s smell. To me the overwhelming smell of Portland is piss and weed. So, see, I’m critical of my own hometown.) Now, back to Bangkok. The humidity acts as an odor amplifier. Walking down the street, in the middle of day, with the humidity in the 70%’s, the smell can be anything from lemongrass, curries, fish, frying oil, fried sweets and shit. Yes, the smell of shit wafts gently through the air upon occasion. It’s very odd, the quick juxtaposition from “let’s eat that!” to “let’s move away from this area quickly!”
The railway market was an unusual tourist event for us. We’ve done a lot of tourist activities in Bangkok, that were just full of…tourists. The Maeklong Railway Market is a mixture of the local Thai’s and foreigners all thrown together into one location. As a result it’s a loud, stinky, chaotic and fun mess. I really enjoyed the mixture of local/tourist. So many heritage/parks/temples/Wat are just teeming with almost all tourists. Mixing in with the locals seems, well, more authentic. There’s something to be said for being a tourist though! Better hotels, better water pressure, hot water(!) and no rats in the walls.
What do we seek when we travel?
At the crux of our travels, the authenticity of the experience is what I seek. We’ve been fortunate enough to travel all over the world with our jobs and vacations. Yet I would hazard a guess that because much of our travel has been as “tourists” and much less as “travelers” we fall into a “tourist” bucket more readily than a “traveler” bucket. The PCT thru-hiking experience was incredibly authentic. I think that may be a reason I enjoyed it so much.
Much of Bangkok has been well defined by the tourist activities we’ve engaged in; packed together with the herd, shuffling from Wat to Wat, wandering the seemingly endless supply of shopping malls, cued up at the outdoor food markets, the endless line of Tuk-Tuk drivers calling out to us.
Tourist travel logistics
We’ve done our share of tourist activities in Bangkok where we’ve figured out many of the logistics of transport, ticket and food. That’s kind of how we prefer it. We’ve learned that taking the wrong train, while stressful in the moment, isn’t the end of the world. Walking down the wrong road may add a few extra paces to the scope of the day, but it’s still doable. It’s nice to have the luxury of stopping to take a break when we want to take a break and proceed at our own pace. Yet today we opted to take a tourist van and visit several sites. I was apprehensive that it would suck. The on-line reviews were so-so. The positive aspect of the tour van would be visiting five big tourist sites that were very spread out in slightly remote areas outside of Bangkok.
Maeklong Railway Market
We began our day at 4:45AM with quick showers, toast and juice. We arrived at the pickup zone, roughly one mile from our hotel, at 5:45AM, sweating from the early morning walk in 90%’ish humidity. The humidity spikes overnight, almost every night.
I wasn’t prepared for the sight of homeless mothers and children sleeping underneath the transit stairs. We’ve seen people begging for money, missing a leg, both legs, arms and/or hands and I guess I’ve slightly hardened my heart to the sight. Somehow seeing mothers with their children curled up next to them sleeping on the sidewalks was really disturbing. That may be a blog post for another day.
I enjoyed the aspect of crawling into the van and having someone else drive us to the destination. It was fairly stress free. The van just allowed us to just let someone else do the thinking, planning, logistics and driving! We both dozed on and off. I listened to music and looked out the windows. This is the first time I’ve really just listened to music since the PCT. I do miss the mindlessness of walking and listening to music.
We rode in the van for about 90 minutes before arriving at coconut processing center. Our tour guide advised us to “buy nothing, everything is cheaper in Bangkok”.
It was a nice toilet break. After another half hour in the van we arrived at Maeklong Railway Market. When viewed from the outside, the market looks very much like any other market we’ve been to in Bangkok.
Outside the Maeklong Railway Market
Our tour guide walked us through the initial section of the market. I don’t want to say that if you’ve seen one market you’ve seen them all, but there is a certain kind of familiarly to the markets in Bangkok. Chaotic. Smelly. Shop owners who engage with you. Shop owners who look like they wish you’d go away. Sleeping dogs and sleeping people.
Once we left the safe confines of the indoor market we went out near the train tracks. The Maeklong train rolls into the station three or four times a day. What makes this market different is that the train market occurs right next to the train tracks. When the train is just about to roll into the train station the vendors retract their awnings and pull all their wares back into their shops. Once the train has crept by, the vendors bring all their wares right back out.
Inside the Maeklong Railway Train Market
We wandered down the train tracks prior to the train arriving. I was surprised at how low the awnings were! I was often ducking and scooting my way through certain parts of the market. My fear of low hanging awnings isn’t new to the train market though. It’s definitely a Bangkok “thing“.
So down the tracks we wandered. Our pictures don’t do it justice. The place was teeming with tourist and locals. The locals will travel into the market to pick up supplies and then return to their homes in more remote locations. I don’t recall that the weekend market we went to in Bangkok had anywhere near the amount of fresh seafood that the train market contained.
I like how bored the guy is while he’s descaling a fish. Just staring off into space while he scales. His hand is a bit of blur in the image but you can see the fish scales flying through the air.
We saw one section of the market where fresh/live eels were being slaughtered. They were sliding and wiggling all over the place as the shop owner systematically whacked them with a kitchen cleaver. The market workers were very much aware of the presence of the tourists and cell phones.
Quite often at the markets we observe food items that we’d like to try eating. Try like, “I want to purchase one“. Thus far we’ve been unsuccessful with purchasing “one” and end up with a full order. That’s great when we like the food item, but problematic when we have a handful of food that we don’t want. Have I mentioned that trash cans are in short supply in Bangkok?
The feedback from our tour guide was to walk to towards the “end” of the market and then stop and have a cup of coffee and just sit and watch as the train rolled in. That’s what we chose to do. (It’s impossible to miss the coffee shop.) We ordered two milk teas, with bubbles, and sat down to watch the show. Our timing was very good, a benefit of using a tour company with a tour guide.
The Yellow line picture: When I snapped this picture we were sitting on benches at the very front of the coffee shop. There are benches in front of us that other coffee shop patrons sit on while they’re waiting for the train to arrive. The train tracks are on the other side of the benches. The train will roll right by us. Provided we stay behind the yellow line, we should be OK.
The Maeklong train arrives
Very shortly before the train arrives, the vendors begin retracting their awnings. I would liken it to holding your hand out, palm up, and curling your fingers inwards. It’s a quick gentle movement that seems very natural. In the image on the left, above, you can see that some vendors have already retracted their awnings and others are in the process of retracting them. The view looking down the train tracks as the awnings are retracted is similar to seeing a row of dominos fall.
Right before the train arrived the coffee shop vendor took all the benches from next to the train track and moved them into his store. Everyone sitting in our row of benches was told to stand up. A second layer of tourists was placed/stood on the benches we had just vacated. There are two rows of very skittish tourists roughly one to two feet from the train.
As the train came closer and closer I became more and more apprehensive. The guy next to me kept saying things like “If you fall in front of that train you’re definitely going to die!” Well…no kidding. “My God! The size of that thing! There’s no way it can stop if one of us falls on the train tracks!” Uh, keep talking buddy. Now in all fairness, the train was creeping along. There is no way on God’s green earth I’d stand that close to train that was going full speed. No way at all!
And then the train was right upon us. I think I slightly leaned back away from the train and that was OK, I think that everyone else was leaning back too! Tourists were hanging out the train windows capturing images with their cell phones. Big cameras, small cameras, one fellow was even slapping out high fives!
The train heads into the station
Just as quickly as the train arrived, it was gone and all that was left was the slack jawed tourists and bored shop owners. One smart fellow followed right behind the train. It was a smart way to make good time retreating to the train station before the awnings were extended, sagging once more in the mid-morning humidity. The train continued down the tracks for another few hundred meters and then stopped at the official Maeklong Train station to disgorge the riding tourists.
So, would we go to the Maeklong Train market again? Absolutely. We spent a great deal of time in the van being shuttled from one location to another during this day of sightseeing. If we were to do it again we might try building our own itinerary and catch the train(s) out Bangkok…but it was very nice to just sit back and allow someone else to do all the thinking, planning and scheduling for a day.