Shopping in the express aisle

Steve Williams gets closer than he'd like to a commuter train sharing the tracks with a local market.

The next time you're down at your local mall, imagine this scenario.

Eight times a day, the shopkeepers have to interrupt their business, quickly pull down the roofs of their shops, drag their goods inside, then stand against their shop fronts breathing in – to let a train go through. That's right, a train. A big, steel, commuter train travelling quite fast, straight through the middle of the mall. Sound bizarre? Welcome to the Mae Klong railway market in small town Thailand.

I'd seen the various YouTube videos of the market that had pinged around millions of inboxes, so recently when I was in Bangkok, I wanted to see it for myself.

The town of Mae Klong is about 72 kilometres, or a casual 1 drive, south west of Bangkok. Mae Klong is the local name for Samut Songkhram, the capital of the Samut Songkhram province and district.

I had expected the market to be in the middle of nowhere but it's right in the centre of town, the last 100 metres before the station.

It's quite surreal in a temporary sort of way, like a movie set. The only place to walk is in the centre of the rather narrow railway tracks. Small stalls line both sides, every available bit of real estate is used, low plastic trays of vegetables and vibrant Thai fruit including rambutans and mangosteens, are stacked right up to the steel rails. What happens when the train comes through? I had flashbacks about that wonder kitchen gadget, the Chop-o-matic, which “slices, dices and juliennes!”

The market is your veritable one-stop-shop. Spectacular fresh-cut flowers, every fruit and vegetable you can imagine, fragrant spices, cuts of meat, poultry and seafood so fresh, it was being persuaded to stop flapping about by an earnest man wielding a lump of wood.

There are kids' toys, clothes, lingerie, thongs of both varieties, dodgy DVDs – you name it. Makeshift awnings – tarpaulins, even a bedspread – cover the stalls. They combine to give the market a temporary roof that is quite low, so I had to stoop to walk through. It was fairly dark under the awnings, with a pungent buffet of unrefrigerated fish, meat and cut fruit, garnished with spices.

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Some of the stalls are basic; others well set up. Some aren't even stalls, just people sitting beside the tracks with fruit laid out at their feet.

My guide, Mr Ooh, said many of the stallholders live outside town on outlying farms, coming in to sell their produce.

I wanted to photograph an old lady running a fruit stall. Mr Ooh asked her for me; she smiled, fixed her wispy grey hair and posed in the middle of the track.

Then it happened. The shopkeepers calmly but quickly started folding down the awnings. Most were held up by poles, a simple but effective design. Trays of produce were dragged in; some more high-tech versions were on wheels. It happened in a chain reaction, odd because I hadn't heard a train whistle or horn, but the timetable is adhered to fairly well. I was engrossed in photographing the stall owners when I felt a touch on my arm: a lady gently but firmly motioned to me that I should move back. I wasn't sure exactly where to, but I ducked into a small alcove. Lucky I did.

The train rounded the corner and rumbled through the market. I was surprised at its speed. There were only inches to spare between the train, the produce on the ground and me. The two carriages were past in a flash of grey and yellow and milliseconds later, the stallholders were on the tracks putting up the awnings, even before the train had disappeared from view. It was as though nothing had happened.

I wandered down to the other end of the market. I knew the train would depart the station soon but I lost track of time, engrossed. I was only vaguely aware of the awnings being lowered again, then turned around to see a great mass of locomotive bearing down on me. Deceptively quiet, trains. This time there was no guiding arm to safety, no trusty alcove to be found, so I jammed myself up against a wooden board, breathing in as the train almost gave me a Brazilian as it not-quite hurtled by.

I'm not sure what “stupid tourist” is in Thai, but I'm sure it was being thought by a few people, smiling of course. I read somewhere that only two people have been killed at the market and I suggest they weren't Thais. Then it was over, back to the rambutans being sold, fish being whacked, racy lingerie being purchased, until the next train on the timetable.

The Mae Klong railway market raises plenty of questions. I wanted to know how long it's been operating and why it's there. I tried to get answers from tour guides, government departments and even the stallholders. No one seems to know. The seventh person I was put through to at a tourism office told me the market had been there for more than 50 years. Now I was getting somewhere.

“So what was there first, the market or the railway line?”

“Both at the same time.”

“OK, can you tell me why the market is there on the railway tracks?”

“This is Thailand, there doesn't need to be a reason.”

And really, it doesn't matter – it's just a snapshot of life in a small town in Thailand, people going about their daily business, doing their shopping, just being interrupted eight times a day by a bloody big hunk of steel.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Car: By far the quickest and simplest way is a day trip from Bangkok — but aim to arrive early in the morning.

Bus: Slightly more complicated. Mae Klong is on the Bangkok-Damnoen Saduak line. The first bus leaves from

the stop at 5.40am then every 30 minutes between 8.30am and 9pm.

The trip takes about two hours and costs 80baht ($2.75).

Train: This one is even more complicated — it involves catching a train from Wong Wian Yai station in Bangkok to Samut Sakhon (which the Thais call Mahachai). The line ends here so you will need to catch a ferry across the Ta Chin River to Ban Laem. Then you need to catch another train to Mae Klong (Samut Songkhram). Allow a few hours or more. A word of caution, the timetables aren't exactly synchronised.

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