The Diplomat, Isla and I had spent enough time in Bangkok on weekends so we decided to hop into the car and head to one of Thailand’s other 22 provinces. We settled on Samut Songkhram, specifically the Amphawa town, noted for a historical park and its floating market where you are meant to be able to see fireflies at night during the rainy season.
Amphawa means “Mango Forest” in Thai – not that we saw such a forest – and the place is now heavily touted as a floating market to visit for true Thai authenticity. I.e. none of that tourist facade stuff which you’d get at the likes of Damnoen Saduak. This blog – http://gobackpacking.com/5-must-see-floating-markets-in-thailand/ – gives you an idea of the best ones to go to. Anyway, we learned Amphawa has a market Friday – Sunday, commencing around 15:30BKK. Whether or not Isla’s pushchair could handle it was a debate of dubious conjecture, but, given the Rama II Memorial Park right next to it (and the Wat), we felt it was worth the risk.
All guidebooks (and Google Maps) claim the drive is about 45 minutes. Lies, I tell you.
I’ve discovered that any driving trip in Thailand is double the claimed time, every walking journey half the claim. That’s right. Quicker to walk than drive in some cases in the city! So, the trip duly took about 100mins and we drove into Amphawa at 14:00. A fortuitous time given the car spaces were nearly all taken (when we eventually left the traffic jam heading to the market around 17:00 was ridiculous). We pulled into a small car park at the Rama II garden and parked in the shade of trees. It was hot! Apparently this is the start of the cool season, but I personally find the rainy season cooler simply because the sunshine in Thailand adds about 10C to you instantly. It might be cooler in the shade, but that sun’s gonna scorch you.
Ginormous Canadian child in tow (Isla is a walking fascination in this land for all Thais) we paid our 25Baht (2*10THB for adults + 5THB for a kid) and strolled into the park. It was fascinating for me culturally. The Diplomat liked it because we’d found an outdoor space with no sound of traffic whatsoever – it was the closest we’d come to a National Trust place so far.
The park can loosely be divided into six areas. As you enter there is an area for local product shopping, a massage area and a pavilion for public reading or arsom suksa which has been renovated from an antique Thai House previously situated at Wat Amphawanjetiyaram. There is an amphitheatre section – an open grass area – for plays. There are five Thai style buildings: four museums and one for drama rehearsals. There is a large section where various kinds of trees cited in Thai literature are planted for both education and conservation. The riverside area has pavilions, shops and a royal barge. Running down one side (the river side) is a large agricultural garden.
We went into all the five houses, partly for shade as the Thai sun is getting hot again now the rainy season is done. Inside one was a series of panels depicting scenes from a classic Thai fable.
This is Inao climbing Mount Wilissamara with attendants. The scene (amongst many at the site) is taken from the play written by Rama II, a retelling of the Javanese legend of Prince Panji, who is called Inao in Thai literature. It is a classic love triangle, with Inao refusing to honour his betrothal to Bussama (named Busba in Javanese literature), daughter of King Daha. The subsequent suitors for her hand leads to a war that Inao is reluctantly forced to become embroiled in. This has the effect of him meeting Bussama during the course of his adventures and falling in love with her.
This particular scene concerns King Daha who requires a votive offering be made before the wedding of Bussama to Joraka. He has a procession into the forest with his three nephews (one is Inao), during which our hero finds a crying maid of Bussama’s, called Yubon who is looking for a Panan flower but has lost her way. Inao finds a flower and writes a message on it for Bussama.
Fascinating stuff and exquisitely crafted scenes. As I said, about twenty of them make up the display, all scenes taken from Rama II’s version of the tale.
We wandered further into the park, coming across several statues. I think this is a statue of Krai Thong, a legendary Thai hero. There were other photos but all the placards were in Thai and online searches for them are resulting in ‘nul points‘.
The museums were interesting what with the boat making section and several rooms kitted out with full size figures and the various pottery, china, wood frames, pots, textiles etc. you’d find in various rooms in a Thai house. There was one opulent crib for a baby.
By the time we’d reached the end of the park (about a 5 minute amble if you walk past the museums) you do find yourself looking out over a substantially wide river, directly opposite the mouth of to a smaller waterway with Wat Kummerin Kudeethong guarding the entrance. Boats with tourists either roar up and down or glide past serenely, depending on your taste in waterway adventure. Around the corner to the left is the entrance to the khlong that the Amphawa Floating Market makes its home. It is a hubbub of noise as boats jostle for the two banks where a writhing procession of tourists and local buyers are endlessly moving like ants. Stopping isn’t an option; you’ll find a hand in the small of your back firmly, yet insistently, propelling you forward. It’s not a place to browse, it is a place to “go and get”…swiftly, politely, accurately. It’s the closest to the mean streets of New York I’ve experienced so far…though the Diplomat compares it to Chatuchak market.
Of course, I couldn’t get Isla’s pushchair into the narrow aperture that is the twenty metre route to the banks of the khlong so I had to content myself with some shots of the market and Wat next door. The Diplomat plunged in, my descriptions are her impressions, memories of being carried along in that heaving mass of sellers and purchasers. Upon her return, we retreated to the slightly more sane, cooler pathways that separate the market from the park – that strip of land inhabited by the Wat. It was the usual crumbling facade mixed with daily monastic life. Orange robes drying everywhere, dogs and cats scratching their existence on the jetsam of human leavings. Yet, amongst all the bustle of daily life, I noted a pride in presentation. Dried fish arranged like spoked wheels, herbs laid in linear patterns, meats hanging, cured, in size order, shrubberies of vegetables. Towering over it all the bell tower of the Wat. A single ladder leading anyone who cared to climb it up the thirty or so feet to the top. For a brief moment you’d be the lord of Amphawa, gazing out over the warren that is the town. It’s got a bit of everything Thai here. Economy, waterways, Wats, museum, parks, dusty roads, jungle foliage, the air is heavy with scent. If you stop for a second on top of that bell tower you can see a microcosmic representation of a people…and it’s fascinating.
Is this what diplomacy is all about?