If you ever find yourself in Bangkok, Thailand, with a day to spare, one unique experience you might want to add to your ‘to do’ list, is to try river-shopping. Not by a river, or near a river, but IN a river canal (while on a boat)!
It will require travelling out of the huge and populous city, for about 100km in a South-westerly direction, to get to Damnoen Saduak District. Here you’ll find your way to the maze of canals along which traders sit in boats and sell all sorts of wares set up on wooden displays or shelfs, creating the largest and most famous Floating Market in the world!
And it’s booming business for the community. They’ve built their floating shops along the banks of a river canal, to make it convenient for both seller and buyer to haggle and trade, in comfort.
The locals were the main target market years ago, but now it’s inundated almost entirely by tourists.
You’ll need to get into a small wooden boat that can fit 5-8 people, in addition to the guide who’ll steer you along. What’s intriguing is that due to stiff competition amongst sellers, some of them are carrying out their business on the move in their boats, their wares spread around them for company and balance. They drift alongside customer boats to get a little closer to the target market, interfering with access for their competitors who are more or less stationery, in boats moored on the side displaying their wares.
Top of the range items on offer are a variety of souvenirs in form of colourful shawls, T-shirts or blouses, straw hats, cloth bags, etc. Each stall is well organized with small items like little carvings or trinkets neatly arranged beside the seller (also sitting in), while the tops, hats and larger items like bags are hung securely on hooks above them for better display, as well as for easier viewing for shoppers passing by in their boats.
There are also kiosks and vendors selling food from their boats. Some offering local cuisines like seafood, rice, chicken or fish (served hot), or a variety of fruits, while others sell cool fizzy drinks, fresh juice or ice-cream.
The fun is in the actual purchase process. Once you spot an item of interest, you motion for it and the attentive boat guide will bring it to a bobbing stop nearer to the vendor boat, so you can trade. You then point out the particular shawl or curving or whatever you desire and the seller passes it on to you. As soon as it’s in your hands, or you’ve confirmed your item of interest, then haggling is set to begin.
You initiate negotiation by asking how much the item costs. The seller proposes a price with the expectation that you’ll give a counter offer. If you try to return it, then he/she offers another price (slightly lower) or asks how much you are willing to pay. This goes on until you reach an agreement. It isn’t easy for them to accept it back, until you are firm in your resolve not to buy. The good thing is that if the boat has other passengers, someone is likely to buy something from the same vendor. Eventually you’ll depart, drifting on in peace whether you buy or not.
For the blouses or shirts that need a fit-check, it’ll have to be done in the sitting position, because standing is precarious for both you and passengers and everyone nearby. The boats are small so any shift of weight may cause imbalance and it could tip over. (No, swimming or getting dunked in the river isn’t in the plan for sellers or shoppers alike)!
Then there are vendors calling out an offer of hot food or cold drinks, as they row their boats alongside, gliding by at a much slower pace for your benefit. The appetising looking buffet is arranged in an enticing array of colourful dishes, with the aroma calling on you to succumb, if only just for a taste. Woe unto you if someone else buys and it’s served while you watch, you’ll soon be next!
It’s a fascinating spectacle for you the visitor, as it’s a peculiar experience of familiar activities done differently. And for the Thai people, this has become a lifestyle built on practicalities of the environment, as a means to maintain their businesses.
What an effective way to harness the water channels as a livelihood that serves everyone, those living in the vicinity, as well as those passing by.
This day out was part of an exciting dream trip of a lifetime in Thailand. I went along with my sister and don’t even remember what we bought (maybe a shawl or fridge magnet or something else). The experience of haggling over an item with the different vendors made us feel so at home, it was more memorable than the actual purchase!
There are other activities to do out there in Damnoen Saduak such as visiting the Tiger Zoo, Elephant village, handicrafts market or to see a Cobra show amongst many other options. So if you enjoy shopping, try the floating market for the experience, then move on to sample one or more of the other activities or sites to see, to make the most of your day away from Bangkok.