by Phyllis Wong
PICTURE a bustling market filled with the aroma of grilled prawns, shellfish and squids and the all-time kopitiam coffee (kopi-o peng or o-liang in Thai).
Recollect scenes of old-style shophouses, selling desserts, titbits, cold drinks, crafts, those glittering ear rings and more with many customers bargaining for a best price.
Imagine you are being amazed with tourists and locals alike keeping their iPads, iPhones, Samsung in their bags, just laying back to enjoy the food and people passing by. People are smiling and laughing. Everyone is eating.
I could be at the magnificent Rejang River or the beautiful Sarawak River but it wasn’t long before I woke up in this beautiful hustle and bustle of Amphawa Floating Market by the canal near Wat Amphawan Chetiyaram, 72km from Bangkok, Thailand.
The sights at the canal’s embankments and the paddling boat vendors evoked memories of my childhood days when riverside trading was thriving and vibrant.
While I marvelled at the iPod-toting generation of young and old alike falling under the spell of the low-tech charms of simple grilled food and o-liang by the river, my limited space was occupied by a crowd of young people with one common feature – a happy face over a T-shirt painted with Google.
I’m not too sure if he was teasing me but he said his name is Boo. He really did not look like one or even sound like one who will “Boo” a woman who wished to strike a conversation with some young people.
Boo said: “We are second year advertising students of University of Thai Chamber of Commerce. Google has sponsored 140 of us for a day trip here to experience the floating market.”
Then what are their commitments for such generous sponsorship?
“We need to send pictures to Google, that’s it. It is really a thrill and good experience,” Boo exclaimed.
Exactly, it should be thrilling. How thrilled I would be if Google also sponsors our Unimas students, probably for a trip to Bakun dam or Murum dam or even just upriver to Kapit and paint the town Google?
The two women who teamed up perfectly to sell cook-to-order prawns, shellfish and squids served me and my friend a plate of five medium-sized grilled prawns for 100 bahts (about RM10). Large-sized prawns are priced at 200 bahts.
I started counting – she could cook 15 prawns on the hot grill in 10 minutes – meaning 90 prawns an hour. Now at 150 bahts for five prawns on average, she could make 2,700 bahts in an hour!
Business is good. Sipping coffee there for one hour, I noticed there wasn’t a moment the hot grill was empty. Grilled seafood were taken from grill to plates and right to the customers.
The coffee master over the other boat was busy as well. I lost count of how many o-liang he made in that one hour!
The Google-sponsored Boo took a picture of us – each holding a prawn – while I imagined myself working in the Sarawak Tourism Board, promoting our own seafood and our own floating market.
Most Thai communities were formed at the sides of rivers. Did we not also start with riverine life?
The criss-crossing rivers and canals were the means of transportation and ways of life for these communities, especially along the Chao Phraya River Basin, which resulted in a rise in the number of floating markets.
With the construction of more and more road and rail networks, and people increasingly preferring road transportation to the waterways, some floating markets were forced to move to the ground nearby and some to close down.
However, Thailand Tourism Authority (TTA) was quick to act. Given that many floating markets chronicled the everyday happenings in people’s lives and possessed matchless charisma that many would be unhappy to lose, the TTA revived them, allowing the new generation of Thais and overseas tourists to take in the uniqueness of riverside shopping.
Amphawa floating market is one of these markets. It is an evening floating market operated on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
It is not as large as Damnoen Saduak floating market but is more authentic, attracting more local visitors. It has become a magnet for Thai weekenders. Food stalls have grown from the riverbanks and stretched far into the surrounding streets.
The main draw is, of course, eating seafood grilled precariously on wooden boats moored around the famous central bridge, serving an appetizing array of huge prawns, shellfish and squids.
Customers perch on rows of narrow steps leading down to the water and food brought directly from the boats onto really narrow tables.
If you don’t feel like sitting on a ledge close to the brownish waters, you can walk a bit further from the bridge to find eating places with tables and chairs.
Along the canal, there are old charming wooden shops selling souvenirs – from T-shirts to other creations, and lots of candies, snacks and ice-cream.
The favourite buys are the age-old traditional desserts, dating back to the days of King Rama II. Among the most delectable are rayrai, hrume, thongaek, cha-mongkut and sanehchandr, all of which taste as good as they look and will please many a sweet tooth.
They say Thai people have sweet tooth and love nibbling all day long – well, Sarawakians are the same, I bet.
If you have had enough of all the eating, shopping and seeing people and dusk would have fallen by then, you could take a boat and watch the beautiful flickering fireflies at night.
We did not take a boat ride but learned the ride would take passengers to a couple of temples and a mini zoo with wild boars, gentle goats and proud peacocks.
Here in Amphawa lives an old community that still retains its age-old tradition. It’s the birthplace of King Phra Bhddha Lertlah Napalai and two queens, Somdej Phra Amarindramatya, the royal consort of King Rama, and Queen Somdej Phra Sri Suriyendramatya, the royal consort of King Rama II.
Other celebrated sons of the land include famous poets Luang Pradit Pairoh and Khru Euar Soonthornsanan.
Locals or tourists alike, who can say no to a quick dose of nostalgia and lots of mouth-watering experience? More so, if it’s by our very own Sarawak River or Rejang River.
If only we had one.