Published on August 9th, 2012 | by Chris Wotton0
On the tracks – Thailand’s Mae Khlong railway market
The very idea of Samut Songkhram’s railway market is so bizarre that some people simply refuse to believe it, assuming instead that it must be a prank created for YouTube. Mention the place to someone and chances are they will have seen or heard something about it, whether online, from a friend or on some ‘freakish wonders of the world’ TV show – but believe it they often won’t. So let me start with this – yes, it’s bonkers, but it is very real.
Produce on sale at the Mae Khlong market
The concept is this – every day, eight times a day, a passenger train passes right through this Thai market. But dispel any thoughts you might have of safety fences, warning lights, guards keeping customers and vendors a happy distance from the passing locomotive. Oh, no – here, the market takes place on the track. And when the train roars through, it is touching distance from anyone and everyone who is there.
Getting ready for the train's imminent arrival!
Why is there a market on a railway track in the first place? Quite simply: because the market was there first and, in the absence of any compulsory land purchase laws that would have enabled the state to procure the site for their planned, originally private railway line, they simply went ahead in 1905 and built the track through the market anyway – and the market just stayed put.
The market is located just a few hundred metres from the Mae Klong railway line’s terminal station, which runs to Ban Laem in Samut Sakhon. The line is unique in itself, in that it has never been linked up to the State Railway of Thailand’s main northern, northeastern, eastern and southern lines, which themselves all start from Bangkok.
Rather, it was originally opened as a private railway to transport produce from the fishing trade in Samut Songkhram, back to the markets of Bangkok. It later closed but is now operated by the SRT to provide a transport link to the area’s rural communities, which by and large seem to be based alongside the track and in places do not have road links to other villages and towns.
The train passes four times daily in each direction; market stallholders know the timings and begin to rather lethargically fold down their awnings about five to ten minutes before it is due, also dragging in those racks of produce on the floor which might get in the train’s way. On the other hand, anything that is low enough for the carriage to pass right over the top – think rows of vegetables laid out on the floor, baskets of fish etc – stays right where it is.
The contrast in speed between folding down the awnings and putting them back up is striking; before the train’s arrival, everything happens at a snail’s pace and with little enthusiasm, yet as soon as the train has passed everything is back out and in normal operation within the blink of an eye. The train rolls on into the distance and market life carries on as if nothing had ever happened.