[Originally written for a now defunct website, years before the market appeared in the “Parts Very Well Known” TV series]
After I saw this startling video of a Thai market ebbing and flowing over the tracks of a train, I had many questions. Where was the market? Could I visit it? What is the history of this line? I’ve found a few answers but I’d love to know more about the line’s history.
The train line began running some time before World War II as a freight line, hauling coal from the coast to Bangkok. As for the rest of the answer: You can’t reach it from Hualampong, Bangkok’s central train station. Nor from Bangkok Noi, the small station on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, where the train to Kanchanaburi and the River Kwai departs.
The market on the railway track is in a small town a few hours south of Bangkok. The town’s official name is Samut Songkhram, but it’s better known to Thais by its old name, Maeklong. Although it takes two trains on different lines to reach it, the journey makes for a pleasant day trip. Best of all, with little stress, you can escape the big smoke and soon be gliding through clean air, countryside and salt farms.
Train from Bangkok to Samut Sakhon (Mahachai)
The day trip begins at Bangkok’s Wong Wian Wai station. Although this terminal is obscure, Wong Wian Wai itself isn’t. It’s a large roundabout on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River. Like Bangkok Noi, that’s across from greater Bangkok. With moderate traffic, it’s less than 15 minutes from the Oriental Hotel, Royal Orchid Sheraton and other big riverside hotels. Best of all, the terminal is walking distance from a Skytrain station, also called Wong Wian Wai or Wongwianwai.
From the southern edge of the traffic circle, a small commuter train leaves about every hour for the one-hour, 31-kilometer trip to the fishing port of Samut Sakhon. Better known to local people as Mahachai, this is a major fishing port and processing area for the many (environmentally destructive) shrimp farms in the area.
Richard Barrow describes his own day trip to Maeklong step by step. Richard runs the Paknam websites, probably the largest and best network of English-language sites and blogs in Thailand. It’s certainly the most family- and female- friendly. Unfortunately, it’s hard to figure out how all the pages and websites link together. Elsewhere, Richard describes homestays near Mahachai/Samut Sakhon and its attractions. The most interesting are probably the ocean-swimming monkeys..
Trains from Samut Sakhon (Mahachai) to Mae Klong
Once you reach Maha Chai, exit from the left side of the train, pass by market vendors with their baskets of fish and pink-shaded shrimps. Look for the clock tower, which is near the pier (“tha”). Then take a 5-minute, 2-baht ferry trip across the Tha Chin River.
The landing area is called Ban Laem. From here, ask the locals for “Mae Klong” or “rot-fai pai Mae Klong” but they will most likely guess that’s where you’re heading. It’s only a few minutes walk to the train’s departure point. Four daily trains depart from here for the one-hour, 33-kilometer journey to Mae Klong. They depart at 7.30 am, 10.10 am, 1.30 pm and 4.40 pm.
Mae Klong is sometimes spelled “Maeklong.” To make matters more confusing, Mae Klong’s newer, official name is Samut Songkhram. Mae Klong remains the more popular name.
Although the trip to Mae Klong only takes an hour, if you want return by train to Maha Chai/Ban Laem on the same day, the last train you can catch from Maha Chai to Mae Klong is the 1.30 pm. The last return train from Mae Klong to Maha Chai departs at 3.30 pm.
There are only four trains from Mahachai to Mae Klong each day–departing at 6.20 am, 9 am, 11.30 am and 3:30 pm. Bear in mind, though: schedules could well change with little in the way of public notice. Check the schedule upon arrival at a new station. Regardless, the upshot is: you must start from Thonburi early if you want to do the entire day trip by train.
Sightseeing in Mae Klong and Train Market
Once on the train and on the way, enjoy the coastal scenery and clean air and look out for the conical piles of salt at the salt farms along the way. Arriving in Mae Klong by train, you don’t get much of a view of the scurry that has taken place only moments. You have to wait around in the market for the next arrival to get the full effect.
As you can see in some of the Youtube videos of Mae Klong station, the first scene resembles any other open market in a small Thai town: shoppers stroll a narrow aisle bordered by open stalls selling clothes, kitchen implements and colorful tropical fruits. Then, in unison, the display tables on either side pull back (they’re on wheels) as the vendors yank up their awnings and the shoppers melt away.
The train charges through that center aisle, coming within inches of the vendors and retracted stall tables. It’s over in a moment: the tables roll forward, awnings flap back in place and shoppers drift back onto the railway track. You now know why locals call it talaat lom hap which word-for-word is “market umbrella fold”–or less literally, “the folding umbrellas market.”
In between waiting for the arrival of trains, Mae Klong provides some modest sights, notably a Kuan Yin shrine and an Ayuthaya-era temple, Wat Phet Samut Worawihan. That means it predates the establishment of the Thonburi and Bangkok capitals and the present dynasty, whose origins are late 18th century. The location link at the bottom of this page points you to Mae Klong, more or less. But I think you get a better sense by scrolling down to the close-up Google map of Mae Klong town on this train buff’s page. (He is wrong, though, when he writes that the train runs through Mahachai market.). As for the Google map that the “location” link below leads to … I know, it’s crazy: it links to a spot in the middle of the river. Scroll up and to the left and you’ll see Mae Klong marked on the riverside.
From Mae Klong to Bangkok by Bus and Mini-Vans
As noted above, to return to Bangkok by train in one day, the last train from Mae Klong-to-Mahachai train departs at 3:30 pm. There’s no need to panic, though.
While they aren’t as much fun as trains, many daily buses travel between Mae Klong and Mahachai. Some even travel from Mae Klong directly to Bangkok’s Southern bus terminal, which is on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River. The bus trip should take about one hour. Slightly quicker, mini-vans also travel directly between Mahachai and Bangkok’s Victory Monument. In Mahachai, you could try asking for the rot (vehicles) that go to anu-sa-wa-ri chai sa-mo-ra-phum but I think few tourists could manage it. A better option: before the start of the day, get someone at your hotel to write that in Thai.
An alternative is to continue down along the coast to the major beach resorts of Cha-am and Hua Hin.
The shaky video below presents the view from inside the offending train: