Thailand’s rail market back on track after pandemic

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Samut Songkhram (Thailand) (AFP) – A train bell wakes a dozing Thai grandmother in her fruit and flower stall, sending her rushing to fold up her canopy before the locomotive rumbles slowly, so close it almost touches her goods.

Six times a day at the Mae Klong Railway Market, local customers and foreign tourists flock to nooks and crannies as vendors calmly move their woven baskets of goods away from the tracks and close their umbrellas to make way.

Hundreds of vendors make a living along this 500-meter stretch of railway in Samut Songkhram, 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of Bangkok, selling everything from fresh produce to live turtles to clothes and souvenirs.

Mae Klong market vendors insist there is no danger despite operating near the train Manan VATSYAYANA AFP

“Even though it looks risky and dangerous, it’s not dangerous at all,” said fruit and vegetable vendor Samorn Armasiri.

Her family has run a stall in the bazaar – nicknamed in Thai “talad rom hup”, or umbrella market – for five decades, and she has never witnessed an accident.

“When the train comes in, the officers honk and everyone packs their bags – they know the drill,” she said.

Big train, small space

The sides of the train carriages pass directly overhead – with just inches to spare – bags of lettuce, broccoli, onions, ginger, chilli, tomatoes and carrots neatly placed outside the tracks .

Vendors' wares are just inches from the track
Vendors’ wares are just inches from the track Manan VATSYAYANA AFP

In recent years, the show had become a hub for coconut-drinking backpackers in elephant pants and Instagram selfie-goers, but the pandemic has hit hard.

Now that Thailand has dropped Covid-19 entry restrictions, tourism is picking up.

Australian Ella McDonald, on a two-day stopover en route to Turkey, was among those marveling at the organized market chaos.

“It was crazy and hectic,” she told AFP. “I was shocked at how big the train was in the little space.

“It’s a unique experience. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world.”

Not just for tourists

Before Covid-19 hit, the market was also popular with Chinese tourists buying durian, the pungent-smelling “king of fruits”.

Six times a day, the train narrowly passes the stalls of the Mae Klong Railway Market
Six times a day, the train narrowly passes the stalls of the Mae Klong Railway Market Manan VATSYAYANA AFP

Strict quarantine rules currently discourage potential visitors from China, who once made up the largest share of foreign tourists to Thailand.

But even without them, fishmonger Somporn Thathom – a trader since 1988 – said business was finally picking up after two years of struggling and struggling financially.

“During Covid, I was barely earning enough to pay my staff. I managed to sell 10 fish a day,” the 60-year-old said.

A train passenger takes a photo while passing through the Mae Klong Thai Railway Market
A train passenger takes a photo while passing through the Mae Klong Thai Railway Market Manan VATSYAYANA AFP

“I used up all my savings…and had to borrow money from the bank.”

Station manager Charoen Charoenpun believes the authenticity of the market ensures its popularity.

“It’s not made up. It’s not built for tourists,” he said.

“Tourists, when they come, can see the tradition and culture of the local people of Samut Songkhram.”

But for William, the eight-year-old Australian, the pandemonium that followed the passing of the train was captivating.

“The most exciting thing is when you get the train going – just seeing the (market vendors) packing their bags,” he said.

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