Experiencing the fun thrill of Thailand's unique railway market


Souvenirs are also sold along the track of the Maeklong Railway Market. — Photos: DAVID BOWDEN

While the diesel motorcar operated by the State Railway of Thailand may take a little over two hours to complete its journey, it is the last few minutes of the journey before it pulls into its terminus at Maeklong Station that make it so unique.

Prior to its arrival, enthusiastic tourists gather along a narrow opening through the local market to obtain the best position to watch the train slowly inch through the temporary market that adjoins both sides of the train track. Known as the Maeklong Railway Market or Talad Rom Hub, the local market located immediately adjacent to the railway line has become a popular tourist attraction in Maeklong, two hours to the south of Bangkok.

Tourists start early in jockeying for positions to immortalise the train’s arrival on their mobile devices. Invariably, they get in the way of the stallholders relocating the trays of produce and wares they offer, but in true, polite Thai way, everything is completed smoothly, efficiently and with due regard to everyone’s safety and needs.

The intense tropical sunlight streams in once the overhead awnings are pulled back. Tourists lining mostly one side of the track become more animated as the temperature rises and latecomers somewhat selfishly move in to obstruct the view of those who arrived early.

Things eventually settle down as the shrill of the train horn rises above the chatter of the several hundred eager tourists who will soon be in the middle of all the action.

Enjoy a snack or two beside the track at the station.Enjoy a snack or two beside the track at the station.

Power seating

Opportunistic café operators have installed temporary wooden benches, and being keen to photograph the train, I position myself against a column so that my space and vision aren’t obstructed by those who will inevitably push in front of me.

Despite my determined effort, mobile devices on selfie sticks soon appear above the bustling throng, but it’s all manageable with a few gentle prods and icy glares in the direction of the recalcitrant. Most people in the crowd are polite, but I imagined heightened tensions when there are larger crowds.

If photographs are important to you, my tip is to start making your plan early and get in the best position possible well before the train makes its entrance. This will mean identifying a bench that doesn’t look like your view will be obstructed when you’re standing on it.

It wasn’t long before the shrill of the diesel car’s horn became more frequent as it appeared at the northern end of the market. My vantage point was in front of Station Coffee & Smoothies, some 100m from where the train entered the makeshift market. Staff move through the gathered throng to ensure everyone has purchased a drink in return for their position on one of the outlet’s benches.

I must say, their iced Thai milk tea is the perfect drink for cooling down in the heat.

Tourists scurrying from the line as the diesel car approaches. Tourists scurrying from the line as the diesel car approaches.

It’s just a train

The awaiting crowd was as excited as Malaysians lined up for a new pop-up Insta-worthy dining concept. I had the urge to yell out, “It’s just a train”, but it would have fallen on deaf ears. Besides, I too was excited, as the setting and the experience was greater than the thrill of seeing the train itself.

This is a much-celebrated train, without equal in terms of passenger and crowd enthusiasm and general market action. The market itself is not so exciting, with more souvenirs than food items, suggesting that it is mostly for tourists rather than the locals.

I watched the train driver as he slowly manoeuvred the diesel car through the excited crowd, doing a professional job of avoiding those crowded along the tracks. Surely, in most other parts of the world, health and safety experts would have installed safety barriers, fences, signs and had marshals to control the crowd, but this was Thailand, where individuals are deemed responsible for their own actions.

With my camera working in overdrive, the driver’s cabin was upon me within seconds, and I reached out and enthusiastically high-fived him. Despite having driven the route many times, he looked as excited as if it were his first day at the controls.

Exuberant train passengers protruded from the open-shuttered windows and were just as boisterous and excited as those lining the rail line. They too were waving, taking photos and generally making the most of the carnival-like atmosphere.

It was all over in a matter of minutes as the train inched down the tracks ever so slowly. Within seconds of its passing, the awnings and umbrellas of the market were rolled back into position, trays of tempting produce, snacks and garish souvenirs reappeared, and the market banter returned to where it was prior to the train’s arrival.

The diesel car inching its way through the crowd.The diesel car inching its way through the crowd.

Precision planning

The first thing you need to decide on is where to experience the train. There are several options: From the train, on the ground, or a combination of both. Naturally, it is impossible to be in two places at the same time, so dedicated train aficionados may find it best to catch the train to Maeklong and explore the town and market while waiting to photograph the next train to enter the market.

Meticulous planning is required to maximise the experience. For dedicated train spotters, my suggestion is to catch the 9am train from Bangkok, photograph the next train entering the market at 2.30pm, and then take another train back to Bangkok to make a day of it.

For those using public transport, take the BTS Skytrain to Wongwian Yai BTS Station (heading towards Bang Wa on the Silom or Blue Line). From here, walk west along Krung Thon Buri Road for 250m and then turn right onto Samdet Phra Chao Tak Sin Road.

Walk 300m to the intersection of Charoen Rai Raid before turning left. The Wongwian Yai SRT station is located some 100m along the road on the right-hand side.

The train has become such a tourist attraction that organised sightseeing excursions from Bangkok include the Maeklong Railway Market and at least one popular floating market in the district. Wat Don Wai Floating Market is a less-visited market that slips into top gear in the late afternoon.

Some visitors may think the Maeklong Railway Market is one big tourist attraction, and, at one level, it is. No doubt, it was once a local market, as those who could not afford to sell their produce in the main market settled upon the free space along the rail track.

As the idea developed, entrepreneurial travel agents identified its uniqueness and began to bring in the tourists. The fact that most tourists leave the market reasonably quickly after the diesel car passes indicates that they are not there to shop.

This train journey is an essential experience for those who love rail travel, especially those journeys that are a little “off the rails”, as it were. Mainstream tourists will also enjoy the action and the opportunity to take in one of Thailand’s most unusual markets.

David Bowden is the author of Great Railway Journeys In Asia, which includes details on riding the Maeklong Railway Market.

Getting there: Bangkok is well served by several airlines that fly into either Don Mueang or Suvarnabhumi Airport. Take a Grab or use public transport to Wongwian Yai SRT Station, from where the Maeklong Railway Market train departs.

Rail schedule: Trains departing from Bangkok’s Wongwian Yai Station to Maeklong operate at the following departure times – 6.20am (8.30am, the time it enters the market), 9am (11.10am), 11.30am (2.30pm) and 3.30pm (5.40pm).

More information: State Railway of Thailand (railway.co.th) and Tourism Authority of Thailand (tourismthailand.org).

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