The time is 8 am. The place is Bangkok's famous floating market at Damnoen Saduak, an hour's drive from the city. The canals are already crowded with long, narrow boats. Some of them, colorful and slender, with funny motors mounted at the rear, bear excited tourists. But most - simple wooden punts filled with an amazing assortment of fruits, flowers and food - are navigated skillfully by smiling women in conical straw hats. They paddle gracefully as they call out, "Hello! You buy something? Very cheap! You want? I make special price for you, Madame!"
Floating markets, or Talaat Naam, are a familiar tourist venue around Bangkok now but they have their origins in the necessities of daily commerce and communication. River life was the norm throughout Thailand in ancient times, with klongs or canals dug to provide trade routes and farm irrigation. Damnoen Saduak is named for the principal canal that was excavated in the early 19th century during the reign of King Rama IV. Connecting the Taachen and Mae Kong rivers, the area still has 200 smaller canals, even though many of Greater Bangkok's waterways were paved over for road vehicles with the advent of industrialization.
A visit to Damnoen Saduak offers a glimpse back in time to tranquil village life. Its merchants and boat vendors take special pride in keeping their culture and way of life alive, despite the fact that many young people now prefer to seek their fortune in the city. Those who remain are happy to inherit their family's business. It is said that the people of Damnoen Saduak, young and old, exude a unique welcome because they know they are preserving an important aspect of Thai history and culture.
The boat and market women, ranging in age from the shy and youthful to seasoned elders, ply their wares with a kind of playful enthusiasm. Dow is one of them. A beautiful young woman who works from one of the many shops on stilts that line the waterways rather than from a boat, she sells colorful candles shaped like lotus flowers. I ask her the price for a box of eight. "Two hundred baht (US$1=39.4 Baht)," she says confidently. I counter with an offer of 100, the price at Chiang Mai's Sunday Night Market. Then she gives me the grandest pout I have ever seen. "I have baby," she says, pointing to the back of her shop. I laugh and ask to see the baby. "Sleeping," she says, holding up a baby's bottle full of milk to call my bluff. "Hundred and twenty," Dow says, laughing. "For my baby." I hand over the baht and claim my candles. Dow waves happily as we move on.
Yui is 19 and a part-time college student. She works in a covered market that sells sugar candies and she clearly enjoys talking to English-speaking tourists. Tim, a middle-aged woman with a thickly powdered face (to ward off the sun) and a flat-top straw hat, offers pomelo wedges in a plastic bag. She started working in the floating market when she was just a child, she says, because her family owns a fruit farm. Men do the heavy fieldwork and women sell the fruit in the floating market. She likes her job. "I didn't get to go to school and it is easy to find work here," she tells me through an interpreter. "My children can get an education." King, like Tim, has been selling fruit in the market for over 30 years. "I like seeing different people," she says, "especially farang (foreigners). They are very important for us."
The floating markets of Bangkok are full of women like Dow, Yui, Tim and King. They run the gamut, from those dozing in their boats or languidly enjoying a morning bowl of rice soup to the women aggressively promoting their goods. They cook pancakes, noodles and traditional Thai fare, sell an extraordinary array of fruits and vegetables, hawk everything from clothes to woodcarvings, puppets and antiques. They look very happy indeed when they have made a sale to a gullible farang and they bargain happily with the cognoscenti.
They are part of a scene that has occurred daily for decades and is likely to continue for many more. With the instincts of their Chinese ancestors, these women are entrepreneurs par excellence. They can spot a sucker a mile away, and sweet-talk more sophisticated shoppers into buying just about anything. They keep 'mai pen rai' (cool) in the face of a firm 'mai chai' (no) and delight in the occasional 'chai' (yes). They are part of the color and scent of Bangkok's floating market scene, a timeless morning adventure in a city full of surprises and smiles.
As I ended my visit, I passed Dow's shop again. This time, she held up her baby, a gorgeous, black-eyed little girl, and laughed as if to say, "See, there really is a baby!" There's a good chance that baby will be selling colorful candles two decades from now as the tradition of Thailand's floating market continues - unless, of course, like many youngsters today, she decides to try her hand at something else.
Damnoen Saduak, the largest of Bangkok's floating markets, is open from 6.00 to 11.00 am. Other floating markets include Bang Khu Wiang, the least commercialized and the easiest to reach, but only open from 4.00 to 7.00 am; Taling Chan, "entirely authentic" but only open on weekends; and Tha Kha, open only six days a month in accordance with the Thai lunar calendar, from 6.00 am to noon.
(Elayne Clift, a writer from Vermont, USA, is spending a year teaching in Chiang Mai, Thailand.)