Thailand is the kingdom of markets. Stalls serve up grilled meats day and night. Baskets of fresh produce are proudly displayed. Clothing, such as jeans, is laid out on sidewalks to sort through. Thais are good at anchoring life into any viable urban crack. And the Maeklong Railway Market takes this to another level.
About a 40-minute drive outside the sprawling center of Bangkok, near the last stop for the Mekong Railway, a crowded market known as Talad Rom Hub — “umbrella pull-down market” — fits on either side of the tracks. Under a tunnel of awnings, vendors hawk their goods like any ordinary Thai market. Except these tracks are still in use.
After a warning whistle, the sellers move their wares the minimum amount needed and crank down their awnings. The sun hits the tracks just before a bright yellow train pulls through the center. People move out of the way of the chugging locomotive like it’s an uninvited guest who happens to have the right-of-way. It’s all done quite efficiently, calmly even, which makes sense since this happens multiple times on the average day. And it’s really not as dangerous as it seems. Although I can reach out and touch the train, it’s moving slow. After it passes, the awnings are cranked forward and the space tightens again. Business resumes.
Mandy Kateklinsorn, from Bangkok, has been a tour guide for around five years and can’t quite make it through a sentence without laughing. She explains the market came first. And then the train. With limited space, people didn’t really see the big deal. “We live in a flexible country. We have rules, but we are flexible,” she says. She has to remind her tour not to linger too long for photos. After all, the market isn’t just a tourist attraction. This is still where locals pick up fresh ingredients. It’s still where people live flexibly.
I walk the length of it and stop near the end, take a stool at a cafe and fixate on a young girl chopping at a tube of sugarcane with a machete. It seems dangerous. But I realize she’s doing this a foot away from the rails and within an hour her guardian’s produce will literally be under a train. In the grand scheme of the day, the risk seems minimal.
The goods at the market are still mostly geared toward locals buying ingredients for meals. Although with more tourists visiting the area you can find a bigger selection of garments and souvenirs. But those few minutes of train action are really what make the trip worth it: You could watch this synchronized collapsing of an entire market for a surreal entrance of modernity plenty of times before the act loses its novelty.
Many tours out of Bangkok organize trips to this local oddity (Damnoen Saduak Floating Market is nearby and is often included). The cost varies from $30 to $60, depending on whether you want to be in a group or have a private guide. When you get there, check the train times displayed at the station, grab a coffee or a coconut and enjoy the flexibility of Thai life.
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