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Roadbook Journal: Floating Markets, Rising Malls

Roadbook Journal: Floating Markets, Rising Malls

Looking to live like a local in Bangkok? Follow Nicky Short to the Thai-culture celebrating new temples to commerce.   

When I first moved to Thailand, wide-eyed and keen for “cultural” things to do, I hopped on a bus bound for, a Google search assured me, a floating market. I imagined punting down a river, inspecting wondrous wares and haggling over trinkets and treasures from boat to boat, like some sort of intrepid merchant pirate.

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An hour southwest of Bangkok, I found myself in the riverside town of Amphawa, which although very scenic seemed crucially lacking in the floating market department and as my inner adventuress wilted, I wondered if I should have booked a tour. Six years on, I know that too would have been a mistake. Though the punishingly early wake-up call might have meant making it in time to see something, I suspect the sight would have been sweating groups of tourists herded along boardwalks to timidly sample crazy-looking fruits. I can watch Netflix for that.

Once upon a time, of course, floating markets were legit. Bangkok’s waterways were the preferred channel for buying and selling for centuries. Even now, if you know the right person to take you somewhere like 150-year-old Bang Phli, which serves the locals around the canals out beyond Bang Na, a visit to a working floating market could be a real adventure.

Day to day, though, most Bangkokians head to the gleaming supermarkets and local food courts conveniently integrated into the city’s glittering malls. As a result, floating markets now cater almost exclusively to tourists, or locals looking for something kitsch to do. My Thai friends say it’s where you go with the family on Mother’s Day, adding, “But it’s so hot… and it’s kind of cheesy.” (Where were these guys with their wisdom when I moved here?) We all agree we’d rather steer a visitor towards a night market for some vintage shopping and good streetfood. I take friends to JJ Green or Talad Rod Fai—or, if I’m honest, a mall.

You may have heard of the pioneers of the country’s mall culture, Siam Paragon and Central World, which both opened nearly 15 years ago almost side by side, the former serving Balenciaga bag collectors and the latter high street fashionistas. Siam Paragon was the most Instagrammed place in the world five years ago and while it remains fancy, the intervening years have also left it feeling, well, generic. That’s because, happily, malls are becoming more about design and immersive experiences. There’s airport-themed Terminal 21, whisking you to a different city on each floor and, further down Sukhumvit, EmQuartier with its haute mini-festivals and faux markets, and a helix of eateries and gardens spiraling upwards. Sail down the Chao Phraya River to Asiatique, a Disney-fied waterside village, or up to brand-new Iconsiam, with its seven-story Takashimaya and—importantly to this discussion—an entire bottom floor dedicated to Thainess.

Here, in “Sook Siam,” you can watch Thai dance and theater performed in sparkly costumes and sample tasty, traditional Thai treats from the carved wooden long-tail boats moored in the basement river system—no early wake-up call required. In their creativity and with true-to-form Thai hospitality, the malls of Bangkok have paired “real” Thai experiences with bearable convenience.

I know it doesn’t sound very “local,” but glance around Iconsiam on the weekend: it’s jam-packed with heat-hating Thais enjoying the AC, nibbling yummy kanom and snapping Instapics by the “floating market.” Arguably, it’s the most authentic Bangkok experience you could find.

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bangkok, floating market

Roadbook Journal: Floating Markets, Rising Malls

Looking to live like a local in Bangkok? Follow Nicky Short to the Thai-culture celebrating new temples to commerce.   

When I first moved to Thailand, wide-eyed and keen for “cultural” things to do, I hopped on a bus bound for, a Google search assured me, a floating market. I imagined punting down a river, inspecting wondrous wares and haggling over trinkets and treasures from boat to boat, like some sort of intrepid merchant pirate.

An hour southwest of Bangkok, I found myself in the riverside town of Amphawa, which although very scenic seemed crucially lacking in the floating market department and as my inner adventuress wilted, I wondered if I should have booked a tour. Six years on, I know that too would have been a mistake. Though the punishingly early wake-up call might have meant making it in time to see something, I suspect the sight would have been sweating groups of tourists herded along boardwalks to timidly sample crazy-looking fruits. I can watch Netflix for that.

Once upon a time, of course, floating markets were legit. Bangkok’s waterways were the preferred channel for buying and selling for centuries. Even now, if you know the right person to take you somewhere like 150-year-old Bang Phli, which serves the locals around the canals out beyond Bang Na, a visit to a working floating market could be a real adventure.

Day to day, though, most Bangkokians head to the gleaming supermarkets and local food courts conveniently integrated into the city’s glittering malls. As a result, floating markets now cater almost exclusively to tourists, or locals looking for something kitsch to do. My Thai friends say it’s where you go with the family on Mother’s Day, adding, “But it’s so hot… and it’s kind of cheesy.” (Where were these guys with their wisdom when I moved here?) We all agree we’d rather steer a visitor towards a night market for some vintage shopping and good streetfood. I take friends to JJ Green or Talad Rod Fai—or, if I’m honest, a mall.

You may have heard of the pioneers of the country’s mall culture, Siam Paragon and Central World, which both opened nearly 15 years ago almost side by side, the former serving Balenciaga bag collectors and the latter high street fashionistas. Siam Paragon was the most Instagrammed place in the world five years ago and while it remains fancy, the intervening years have also left it feeling, well, generic. That’s because, happily, malls are becoming more about design and immersive experiences. There’s airport-themed Terminal 21, whisking you to a different city on each floor and, further down Sukhumvit, EmQuartier with its haute mini-festivals and faux markets, and a helix of eateries and gardens spiraling upwards. Sail down the Chao Phraya River to Asiatique, a Disney-fied waterside village, or up to brand-new Iconsiam, with its seven-story Takashimaya and—importantly to this discussion—an entire bottom floor dedicated to Thainess.

Here, in “Sook Siam,” you can watch Thai dance and theater performed in sparkly costumes and sample tasty, traditional Thai treats from the carved wooden long-tail boats moored in the basement river system—no early wake-up call required. In their creativity and with true-to-form Thai hospitality, the malls of Bangkok have paired “real” Thai experiences with bearable convenience.

I know it doesn’t sound very “local,” but glance around Iconsiam on the weekend: it’s jam-packed with heat-hating Thais enjoying the AC, nibbling yummy kanom and snapping Instapics by the “floating market.” Arguably, it’s the most authentic Bangkok experience you could find.

SUBSCRIBE TO THE ROADBOOK JOURNAL

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