When I was recently invited to explore an ecotourism project off-the-beaten-path in Thailand, my first reaction was skepticism. Were there truly any places left for the intrepid in Thailand, especially close to Bangkok?
Places where authenticity wasn’t sacrificed at the altar of mass tourism, where local restaurants didn’t serve you pizza because you’re the kind of entitled brat who refuses to appreciate a rich and enjoyable cuisine, where loud-mouthed spring breakers weren’t jumping into the pool- beers in hand, and where life didn’t center around ugly beach bars where you can buy buckets of alcohol and cheap tourist food.
One of the reasons I travel is to learn about how people live in cultures other than mine.
I’m happy to share that my two days in Samut Songkhram, a province that is 75kms. and just a two hour drive away from Bangkok, were a memorable experience in authenticity and sustainable tourism, something I believe is the need of the hour in the tourism industry.
Why You Need to Go to Samut Songkhram
Samut Songkhram offers a rare glimpse into real country living centered around the Mae Khlong river and the mangrove forests in the region. Here, local vendors glide on the canals of floating markets, their long, narrow boats stocked with bananas, pomelos, watermelons, and mangoes, silver mackerel, and fresh shrimp.
As you glide along the river passing by verdant coconut groves and houses and oyster farms perched on stilts, you’re only accompanied by fishing boats. You focus on the odd shape in the river to realize it’s the face of a fisherman walking in the chin-high murky water, looking for crabs and clams.
If you’re heading to Thailand and you’re looking for real stories and experiences, you need to go here.
Samut Songkhram has been promoting its ecotourism goals in a way that makes them sustainable. Tourism efforts are geared towards creating jobs and boosting the local economy, while still maintaining the authenticity of the lifestyle and encouraging tourists to partake in the tranquility rather than turn the province into a mindless playground. The project called LINK is focused on L-Local Experiences, I-Innovation, N-Networking, and K-Keeping Character.
Mae Khlong Railway Market
In recent years, the Mae Khlong Railway Market has gained the attention of tourists, and most arrive from Bangkok by bus on a day trip. We, however, took the train from Ban Laem station that leaves at 10.10am and arrives at Mae Khlong at 11.10am. As we got close to the market sprawled along and on the rails, I was advised to go to the front of the carriage to get a clear view.
Before I could realize what was happening, the stalls in the market were quickly disappearing; umbrellas and tables folding like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle coming undone. All to let the carriage pass through the market. Once it stopped a few hundred meters away, the vendors sprawled out their goods and the market went right back to business. This happened in under two minutes and was fascinating to watch!
So how do the vendors know when to start packing?
An alarm bell is rung a few minutes before the train passes to alert them.
The market itself is an interesting place where locals buy and sell fresh seafood, meat, fruits, vegetables, Thai sweets, and curious street-side snacks. Due to the recent popularity with tourists, you’ll also see shops selling touristy things- t-shirts, souvenirs, and what have you. It offers great opportunities for market photography if you don’t mind the hundreds of other tourists who might have the same idea.
Tips for visiting:
- Don’t stand on the rails when the train arrives or departs, even if the train is moving slowly. It may seem like common sense but the pursuit of Instagram fame makes the smartest people do the stupidest things.
- To get here on your own from Bangkok, take the 8.40am train to Mahachai from Wongwian Yai train station (50 minutes). At Mahachai, take a ferry across the river, and walk to Ban Laem train to take the 10.10am train to Mae Khlong (one hour).
The Coconut Story
Your only brush with coconuts might have been the cool coconut juice that served as a welcome refreshment on humid sunny afternoons the last time you traveled to Thailand, India or Sri Lanka. But in Thai culture, the coconut is put to good use in a wide variety of ways, considering its incredible health benefits ranging from protection against kidney disease to strengthening the immune system. At the Coconut Museum in Samut Songkhram, I got to learn about this first-hand.
Coconut oil isn’t just used on the skin and hair in Thailand; it’s often used for cooking. A majority of Thai dishes have coconut milk or cream as one of the ingredients. As if that wasn’t enough, some of the best desserts are made of grated coconuts and use coconut milk, and best of all; they’re often served in the hollows of coconut shells!
But it isn’t even just the fruit that’s used. Palm leaves are woven together to make bags, handicrafts, and pretty window screens. And then there’s palm sugar production- an important cottage industry in Samut Songkhram. At one of these family-run facilities, we got to watch how palm sugar is made; right from the boiling of the sap until it solidifies and is turned into hard sugary cookies.
Tip: While you’re there, it’s a good idea to browse the store and pick up unique products like pure coconut oil, moisturizing coconut balm, palm sugar, and other coconut desserts as gifts and souvenirs.
Dessert Making with Concept Case
With all of our newly acquired coconut education, it was only natural that we put it to good use by participating in the making of delicious Thai desserts. We watched as Lee, a passionate food artist, consultant, and chef extraordinaire demonstrated how coconut milk and cream are made, and how the coconut is typically grated in these parts.
Locals sit on a wooden tool that uses body weight to finely scrape the coconut out of its shell. Natural ingredients such as fruits and edible flowers such as orchids and butterfly pea are then added to introduce beautiful colors and flavors and the sweetness, of course, comes from the palm sugar.
The soft treats melted in my mouth and I’d never tasted any of them before in spite of having traveled to Thailand twice before. Let’s just say I’d never explored beyond mango and sticky rice when it came to Thai desserts.
Tip: Lee is the founder of Concept Case, a company that organizes splendid culinary journeys around Thailand. Her infectious enthusiasm for Thai cuisine is sure to rub off on you. If you’re a chef, culinary expert, or someone who loves food enough to experience more than just eating it, I recommend getting in touch with Lee and letting her plan a food adventure for you.
“We’re going to have lunch in the middle of the sea,” said our guide Waana as we set sail from the Klongkhone Mangrove Conservation Center on a long-tail boat along the muddy Klongkhone river. On the banks, clam-shells glistened through orange nets suspended from old teakwood houses on stilts and fishermen showed their haul off to the women of the house while kids sat on the edge sipping on blue butterfly pea juice, legs dangling over the river. Life in these parts went on at the relaxed pace that is typical of fishing villages and the rare tourist didn’t evoke even the slightest attention.
A few minutes later, I was scrambling up a slippery teak ladder, praying that my flip-flops wouldn’t give up on me and holding on to my camera bag, to make my way up into a structure entirely made of teak logs, that was in fact on stilts in the middle of the sea. A few fishermen secured our boat to the structure and promptly got to unpacking our lunch, freshly cooked seafood that they’d caught that morning.
Around us, Thai tourists and the odd Westerner sat in groups, their faces reflecting the calmness of being a world away from the busyness and constant connection that have sadly become characteristics of everyday life. I gingerly stepped on the logs that made up the flooring, careful to avoid broken gaps that I could fall through and made my way to the viewpoint. This was bliss.
Shortly, we sat cross-legged in a circle, tucking into papaya salad, roasted chicken, Thai-style omelet, shrimp paste, prawn soup, curry, fried snapper, mussels, fried mackerel, and spicy squid, forgetting all about our expanding waistlines. The fitting end to our indulgent meal was mango and sticky rice, the kind of dessert that’s always a crowd-pleaser.
You can organize this trip with the Klongkhone Mangrove Conservation Center whether you’re visiting on a day-trip from Bangkok or spending a night or two at their homestay- Phuyai Chong Homestay. The trip costs 700THB for adults and children over 12 and 480THB for children under 12.
Contact info for the Klongkhone Mangrove Conservation Center and Phuyai Chong Homestay (the website is in Thai, so Translate or get in touch directly below):
|Khun Nui Saranya Rattanapongtara||083-1554141/ 089-7468803|
|Khun Shet Peeniti Rattanapongtara||086-1777942|
|Address: Klongkhone Mangrove Conservation Center
1/3 Moo 3, Klongkhone Sub-district, Mueang District, Samut Songkhram Province
Mud-skiing and Fishing in the Mangroves
For those who like a bit of adventure, there is the chance to go mud skiing in chest-high muddy waters. The trick lies in balancing yourself and leaning back as you stand up on a surfboard while a jet ski drags you around. Since the water is shallow, if you do lose your balance, the worst thing that can happen is that you end up rolling in the muddy river and emerge with sticky mud clinging to your body.
In the Don Hoi Lot (“Hoi Lot” translates to razor clams) sandbar at the mouth of the river, local fishermen patiently wade in the waters for hours to catch blood-cockles (clams), mussels, oysters, krill, and crabs, all to load onto their boats and sell in the markets.
Another interesting and equally fun conservation activity is to slide along the muddy riverbanks using your hands and feet to paddle while you kneel on the surfboard. Slowly you can make your way to plant mangrove trees as a means to replenish the natural state of this environment.
Mangrove trees are important to the area, protecting the banks and the life along them from unexpected changes in water levels (such as during the Tsunami) and nurturing marine life.
While you’re replanting mangrove trees, you might be joined by crab-eating macaques who come down to the muddy banks in the hopes of having fruits tossed to them by visiting boats. Some of the monkeys are really brave and may get really close as you hold out treats, but they’re not dangerous. It’s quite amusing to watch until a fight breaks out as they push each other away and try to grab the scattered fruits.
Amphawa Floating Market
Amphawa is an important town in Samut Songkhram and the Amphawa Floating Market, open on weekends, is deservedly very popular with tourists. Again, most visit on a day-trip from Bangkok. Crossing the footbridges to get a top-level view of the canals is like wading through a sea of humanity and I reckon if you just stood there, you’d be carried by the crowd to one end.
Here, vendors on long-tail boats line up along the river offering you a quick meal of noodles with shrimp, fried mackerel, grilled jumbo prawns, and squid, cooked on their boats, while others sell colorful sweet desserts and Thai iced coffee. Along the canal on both sides are countless shops selling clothes, trinkets, jewelry, shoes, and food like pork balls, soup, fish cakes, and curried meat puffs. There are also a couple of spas to get a foot massage at if you’re tired of walking around.
Tip: The Amphawa Floating market is open from Friday to Sunday from 4pm to 10pm. Arrive early for the best views and to take your time to explore.
Eating in Samut Songkhram
With life centered around fishing, fruit farming, and floating markets, it’s no surprise that the seafood in the region is abundant and delectable. Mackerel, oysters, cuttle-fish, mussels; it’s all easily available and whipped into delicious meals that locals and domestic tourists enjoy in quaint riverside restaurants.
The name Amphawa translates into mango garden in Thai and it’s safe to say the mangoes here taste better than those you’d find in Bangkok or elsewhere in Thailand. More reasons to stock up on the mango and sticky rice. While here, also sample the pomelo, a fruit that’s commonly used in salads and other dishes, lychee, watermelons, bananas, and of course, the coconuts.
Where to Stay
Amphawa makes for an excellent base from which to explore Samut Songkhram and two to three days in the province should give you a fair bit of time to experience the unique lifestyle of the region.
There are plenty of affordable homestays in rustic teakwood houses along the river and facilities are basic, clean, and have everything you need. Here are some options:
Banmaihom Amphawa is a great choice for a stay in Bang Khonthi. Guests looking for a bite to eat can check out Beans & Leaves Cafe, which serves breakfast and lunch. Other highlights include free bike rentals, a terrace, and a garden.
Baanrak Amphawa Homestay
Lumphawa Amphawa Resort
If you want a little more luxury, consider staying at the fantastic Lumphawa Amphawa Resort, a sanctuary in a quiet location by the river that offers luxurious villas, an infinity pool, and top-notch service.
The Grace Amphawa
Another option is The Grace Amphawa, complete with spacious villas, patios, Jacuzzis, swimming pool, and an onsite restaurant.
Samut Songkhram isn’t like the touristy bits of Thailand so expect to see road signs and restaurant menus in Thai. If you need help, ask the locals and while not everyone might speak English, they’ll do their best to help. Most homestay owners and hotel staff can communicate in English and organizing the activities mentioned, even on short notice, is easy.
If you don’t want to take the train to the Mae Khlong Railway Station, take the train to Samut Sakhon from Wongwian Yai station in Bangkok. Alternatively, take a minibus from Bangkok’s Sai Tai Gao, (leaves hourly from 6am to 6pm) or from Sai Tai Mai to get to Mae Khlong Market, then take a tuk-tuk to Amphawa.
I visited Samut Songkhram as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand and would like to thank them as well as the Lumphawa Amphawa Resort and the province of Samut Songkhram for their hospitality. All opinions, as always, are honest.
Tell me, have you traveled to Thailand yet and had an authentic experience? If not would you like to go to Samut Songkhram?