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Times Shopper: Bangkok

Floating Market Is Central to Rural Thailand

July 10, 1988|JENNIFER MERIN | Merin is a New York City free-lance writer .

The short and thrilling trek to the famous Floating Market at Damnern Saduak takes you away from the teeming city life of Bangkok and into the scenic splendor of rural Thailand. It's a fertile region of luscious foliage and rich farming, where the land is laced with navigable small rivers and narrow canals.

In this area, known to locals simply as "up country," the river is life. It is a source of nourishment, the neighborhood playground and Laundromat. And it is the area's essential commercial center, where farmers distribute their fresh fruits and vegetables and dozens of stall owners sell a wide variety of handicrafts.

The merchandise is appealing and very reasonably priced, but it is the ambiance that really sets the floating market apart from, and above, other shopping adventures.

In "up country," jungle-like greenery is punctuated with small wooden and thatched houses set on thick beams above the waterways. Life on the river is friendly. Women wearing colorful garments do daily chores on the banks. Clusters of naked children splash about in the shallow water.

Canal Traffic

The trek to the Floating Market at Damnern Saduak begins with a car or coach ride (about an hour or slightly longer) to Ratchaburi. At a river landing there, you board a flat-bottom motorboat and continue to the market through canals.

As you get nearer to the market landing, canal traffic increases until the water seems to churn, its surface frothy and choppy from the perpetual paddling of hundreds of buoyant vendors as they propel their canoe-like boats from point to point.

The boats are laden with all sorts of merchandise: tropical fruits and vegetables, bolts of brightly colored cotton and silk, wooden objects, prepared foods and sweets, straw fans and baskets, and more. These goods will be sold or traded as the boats are paddled about, docked temporarily at the market's landing site.

The vendors are mostly women who wear broad straw hats that look like upside-down baskets to shade their faces from the tropical sun. They create a symphony of chatter with their sing-song greetings and chanted sales pitches.

Treasures Galore

Your best opportunity to buy comes when your motorboat docks at the market landing. In a pleasantly shaded, tent-like structure, you'll find dozens of selling stalls that are filled with temptations. The environment is exotic and so is the merchandise. There are treasures galore. Browse through the entire place before making your selections, because there are no returns and no exchanges.

Prices are somewhat less here than they are in the Bangkok stores and/or markets, and they are about one-quarter (or even less) the amount you would pay for similar items at home . . . if you could find them.

Bargaining Strategy

As in all markets, top bargainers get the best buys. A good strategy at the floating market seems to be to select one item and debate the price, trying to lower the cost slightly, and then find a second item and try to cut a deal for both, with the cost of the second item much lower than the originally quoted price.

Among the appealing items are attractive silk tie-dyed shirts (about $17 U.S.), dresses (about $25) and sarongs (about $15), as well as bolts of brightly colored fabrics (usually under $1 a yard). Elegant Thai silk is dyed vibrant pinks, blues, yellows and other colors, as well as stunning plaids, and is sold for about $4 to $10 a yard depending upon the weight of the fabric, or stitched into blouses (about $25 and up), dresses (about $55 and up) and other garments.

Unusual handbags are about $30 and up, briefcases about $35 and up, wallets about $12 and up and belts (about $7 and up) are made of crocodile, snake or regular leather in naturally earthy brown shades or dyed the colors of the rainbow.

Crocodile-Head Bag

You'll find an enormous range of styles and the workmanship is generally quite good to excellent. A 12-inch clutch bag of crocodile, with a crocodile head (teeth and all) on the flap, costs about $60.

Look also for accessories of gold and silver, with or without gemstones, but be careful to avoid buying low-grade goods or fakes, especially if you are not very knowledgeable about jewelry. More modest baubles, including brass bangles (about $2 or $3) with etched or enameled designs and attention-getting dangling earrings (about $1), are good buys.

Statues, ornately carved furniture and boxes are made of exotic woods. Lotus serving-bowl sets are $14 to $20 and up, depending upon size and number of bowls. Beautiful two-panel screens with country scenes carved in bas-relief cost $190 and up.

Amusing marionettes (about $20 and up) include extravagantly costumed princes and princesses. Other characters such as military men, country folk and even animals are aged to look like antiques. Dolls ($6 and up) and masks ($4 and up) of all descriptions make delightful gifts and souvenirs.

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