Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Smile for the Python

I've never met a snake I liked and I'm not about to change my ways now! No wonder I freaked yesterday at the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market - was wandering along the land market area when a touch on my arm stopped me - turned and there was a smiling man, python around his neck, urging me to have "photo, lady, 10 bhat" ( about 2 cents).

You've all seen posters and iconic pictures of Thailand showing a typical longboat, crammed with exotic fruits, navigating blue waters. The reality is a little different.

Located about 40 miles southwest of Bangkok , the Damnoen Saduak Floating market is on most tourist agendas. Lured by those aforementioned iconic images, I couldn't wait. The tour company told me 1.5 hours. I was ready, coffee in hand, for a 6:30 a.m. pick-up. Read the small print! The trip took well over 4 hours - most of that time spent inching through Bangkok's notoriously heavy traffic to three other hotels to pick up fellow tourists. Nightmare mitigated by getting to see areas of the city I doubt I'll see again - including the infamous red light section of Phang Pong.

Once the missed opportunity to get really up close and personal with the python had passed I boarded - not decorously - a motor propelled long boat for a tour of the klongs - canals that function as streets complete with curbs and street lighting. It's not Venice. No soothing gondolier with arias from Puccini - rather a raucous barrage of engine noise and yells from other boat drivers that I think translated as "stay back". Nothing romantic about these waterways. Pretty grim in fact. Traditional teak built Thai houses have been romanticized - many of the ones we passed were in major decay, tottering on stilts above the murky water, the underneath areas filled with rubbish. The surrounding land, a dismal swampy place filled with massive vines, coconut trees and, as far as I was concerned - pythons! One or two houses were beautiful, and most showed signs of a woman's touch in pots of flowers along deck rails. All business is conducted along these klongs - from hardware stores to bars, and entertainment houses inviting the visitor in to watch cobra milking. I passed.

The ride took us to the true purpose of the trip - the Floating Market - where the motorized boat was exchanged for one with pole power - the "drivers" being women. I'm a kayaker - imagine sitting in kayak position, no back support and no place to stretch and brace legs. Not the most comfortable mode of transportation but the Thais appear to have it down to an art form. I'd like to say that we pushed off into a wonderland of long-ago Thailand . No way - the market has been taken over by dross - cheap souvenirs hawked from klong-side stalls. Show any interest at all and hooks wielded by stall owners pull in your boat, hold it captive and the sales pitch begins. It's all very good-natured - the Thais are intrinsically polite and charming people.

Colorful longboats are wedged side to side in the narrow waterways - you really could cross the klong by stepping (very carefully) boat to boat. Eventually we inched our way past gold and red satin boxer shorts, elephant emblazoned handbags, and wooden knicknacks that once home would vanish into a drawer to be forgotten forever, to what I'd come for - the food section of the floating market - and I was not disappointed. Go to A Foodie in Paradise for more on that.

Return to Bangkok was punctuated by a side-trip to a Thailand National Woodcarving center. Obviously the place where all that intensely detailed carved furniture from Thailand that you can find in pricey shops stateside originates. Also the place for massive chairs carved from solid pieces of teak wood and elephants and Bhudda's from tiny to collosal. Lot's of the more elaborate pieces appeared to be commissioned and were labeled with the buyer's name and country. Recessed table tops, a fretwork fantasy world of miniature jungles, houses, animals - amazingly intricate and precise work.
I thanked my lucky stars that we did not have time to visit the snake farm!

Two and a half hours into the return trip and stuck once again in traffic our charming guide informed us that it was traditional to end the tour with a visit to "the largest gem workshop and store in Thailand - not long one hour you see it." That got to me big time - I played the age card -"No thank you" said I. "I'm old, please take me back to the hotel".

Total trip cost 750 bhat - roughly $28 USD. A bargain.

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