Normally travel bloggers recommend cool places to go. In this case I am warning you against going somewhere. Why? Because Damnoen Saduak just screamed tourism gone wrong to me. There are multiple reasons why I don’t think you should go to the floating markets. Apart from the fact that they’re a hassle to get to, there is a much darker side to what goes on in the name of tourism.
In this article I’m not going to tell you about the logistics of getting there and practical advice because there’s more important things I want to talk about. Two issues that I think you need to be aware of if you do decide you might want to take a trip there.
Don’t Expect Authenticity
If you’re going to the floating markets expecting to see an authentic thai market then you’re in the wrong place. Quite frankly tourism has completely destroyed any remnants of authenticity. Tour companies shepherd hordes of paying tourists into the markets and encourage them to spend money, then shepherd them on to boats and then back to the air conditioned bus to make the hour trip to Bangkok. Floating markets used to be a hub for whole communities to catch up with each other and stock up on supplies but tourist interest has decimated feature.
Is this the real life? Or is it just tourist tat?
The first few metres into the market will tell you everything you need to know. You will already have seen pretty much everything that is on sale in the markets. Cheap clothing, spices, statues of buddha (which are considered very disrespectful to buy) the list goes on. After that stalls are just repeated into an endless mess of hassling by the stall owners. You will constantly hear the phrase “Yes Miss you buy something?” if you even so much as glance in the direction of a stall.
There was nothing on offer that we hadn’t already seen on a smaller scale in the centre of Bangkok. The prices of course were super inflated just because they were on sale in the ‘floating market’. It’s probably the worst place to buy any souvenirs. You won’t find any variety on the canal either. I’m honestly not lying when I say that every stall sold almost the exact same selection of mass produced tat.
A relaxing (pah!) boat ride
It costs around 100 baht for a ‘half hour’ boat trip. It was one of the most stressful experiences we’ve had on our whole trip. India felt calm compared to the congestion on the canal. The waterways are overloaded with boats crammed full of tourists.
The better way to do it, if you really want to, would be to skip the boat ride and watch the pandemonium from the banks. If you want to go on the canal go for a motorised boat trip that is included with a lot of the tours. They go further out of the markets and you get to see a bit more around the area. If you’re lucky you might even catch sight of a water monitor in the water or on the banks. But that was about as good as the trip got for us.
Goodbye to culture
Now that might seem a bit over the top but in reality what’s happened at Damnoen Saduak just shows you on a bigger scale what is happening to a lot of Thailand and South East Asia. The impact of tourism is killing culture. Places are becoming increasingly westernised to accommodate the tourists that bring money into the countries.
You see it starkly at the Thai Islands, overrun with tourists who want to party on the beach and don’t give a second thought to the impact that they’re having on local communities and native wildlife. Tourism can help people by giving them an income but it can hurt culture and community a lot more. It’s very possible to travel with respect but it’s very hard to accept that many people don’t. Damnoen Saduak just reminded me why tourism can be so destructive to culture. But that’s not the only dark side of tourism that was evident in Damnoen Saduak.
Animal Cruelty in Damnoen Saduak
Despite the depressing lack of authenticity and the fact that the markets have lost all trace of what they must have once been there is an even worse side to the markets and to tourism in general: animal cruelty. Honestly, this happens in a lot of places particularly in Asia where there are large numbers of tourists. But it was unsettling how concentrated it was in just this one place so it needs mentioning.
The Slow Loris
We came across many stalls where you could hold and take pictures with Slow Loris. If you don’t know what Slow Loris are they are a type of primate from South East Asia. They have big eyes, are fluffy and can fit in the palm of your hand. Unfortunately there is a pet trade with many people posting videos of them with their arms up, tickling their tummies. But the Loris do not want their tummies tickled. Raising their arms is a sign of distress. They are actually venomous and when they raise their arms they are activating their venom glands ready to bite you. Adorable.
So how can you hold them if they’re venomous? Simple, their teeth are ripped out or clipped. Many Loris will die from infection or bleeding out from this practice. The ones that don’t can never be returned to the wild and are destined to live their lives in captivity. The lucky ones are rescued and put in zoos where they can be cared for properly. The unlucky ones don’t usually last long in the bad conditions they’re kept in.
As well as this they are nocturnal animals and the daylight is extremely uncomfortable for them. It goes without saying: don’t hold one. Don’t pay to take pictures of them. Don’t encourage the practice in any way. If you see a Slow Loris being offered out to tourists for selfies you can report it to the authorities. The trade is illegal.
Read more about the issue on the International Animal Rescue’s campaign page ‘Tickling is Torture’ where you can sign a pledge not to support the practice of using Slow Lorises as moneymakers. You can read even more about it here.
There are also chunky Burmese Pythons scattered around the markets as another option for an exotic photo opp. They are not venomous but they use their strong bodies to constrict and crush their prey. It’s unlikely that they’re subject to as much cruelty as the Loris as they can easily be tamed by being handled frequently. In fact I have my own Albino Burmese Python at home who I handle. Say hello to Banana.
She’s gorgeous right? But small, she’s under a year old. Eventually she’ll grow to be anywhere between 12 and 20 foot long. Although she isn’t venomous she will be super strong.
We watched one Western tourist in the market holding a large albino python on his shoulders and have another pythons head shoved between his legs by surprise by the handler for a hilarious photo. It made my skin crawl that these amazing snakes are being degraded that way. And it made me miss my sweet little python at home. People seem to forget that they are animals not props. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with handling animals at legitimate zoos, where they are handled by experts who know their behaviour well and can keep them safe and happy. But this is completely different.
When it goes wrong
One Japanese tourist in Phuket was not so lucky and received a nasty bite on the nose when she kissed a python on the head. Let that be a warning, they may be used to being handled but if you’re not used to snakes you have no idea what constitutes a warning from them and you can easily misinterpret their behaviour. The tourist who suffered a bite on the nose is very lucky. They’re big strong snakes and they can do a lot worse than just give you a nip on the nose.
What to do instead?
There are other smaller ‘floating markets’ around Bangkok if you’re super desperate. If you’re really after an authentic Thai market experience you won’t find that at Damnoen Choek. It has been totally ruined by the tourist trade. It didn’t feel authentic at all and as such we didn’t find any enjoyment out of the experience. Leaving was the highlight of our day.
If you really want an authentic Thai market experience, Damnoen Saduak is not it. There are many other markets around Bangkok that are a lot less touristy. As always the earlier in the day you go the more authentic the experience will be. Locals get up early to go to markets and by the afternoon they’ll all be done and the tourists will arrive.
Remember that pictures taken by tourists don’t show you the noise and hassle of the markets. It might look like the perfect place to spend a morning but trust me you’ll be better off for giving it a miss, and so will the Slow Loris.
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