Photos by Louise O’Brien Stafford
It wasn’t just another manic Monday. It wasn’t the kind of Monday we’d have someday when we are back in our home countries. It wasn’t a Monday that I’d had in a while, between Covid and a routine way of life. It wasn’t just another manic Monday.
The invitation to join two photographer friends on a trip to Maeklong Railway market, 1.5 hours outside of Bangkok (78km from Central Bangkok) and to write about it drew me in, making the commitment and release of the Monday morning routine for the boys easier to let go of – because this was for more than just myself. Everything else – the companionship, the memory, the experience, the laughs – were the icing on the cake.
The six of us set our plans two days before to meet at 7am at the kid’s school parking lot. How does one know they’ve lived here so long as many of us have, the 7am meet turned into a few minutes past, this is Bangkok after all, we know exactly at 7am is basically a few minutes past. Yet even with 14 – 4 years of living in Bangkok none of us thought through how tight our timing might actually be. There we were, it was 8:32am arriving as we watched the first train pass us by as we sat in traffic. Luckily, we are veterans at this feeling, we had a laugh and a “we should have known better than to meet a bit earlier.” None of us really took it too seriously, no one placing blame as the sightseeing sensation was in our veins once we stepped out of the vehicle.
It was a bright, sunny April (during the pandemic) morning, motorbikes and cars whizzed by us as we approached Talat Rom Hup, which means, “the umbrella pulldown market”. A pack of tuk tuk drivers sat near their idle cars, no tourists in sight other than a few groups of us. Each driver looking at my friends and I with nothing more in their eyes but a wish to allow them to take us on a drive around the area. This spot too, feeling the pain of Covid-19 and Thailand’s lack of tourism.
This area became a hot spot when the railway became famous for its route through the Maeklong railway market that runs 100km through Bangkok to Central Thailand. It is one of the largest fresh seafood markets in Thailand, right there in the centre of the track. We walked along the wooden railways that are 100 years old, each step carefully decided upon. The further we walked the smell of fish, raw meat and Thai spices filled our noses. This time, a mask for some helped the feeling of nausea flowing through their bodies.
The noise grew louder, as we had just missed the train arriving, they were back to business as usual, chopping fish heads off, cutting pork meat to bite size pieces, squeezing eel that was trying to swim away in their buckets. They were arranging their fruit into luscious arrangements that will make any person be tempted to stop and buy a few. There are seventeen trains that run daily in each direction between Samut Sakhon and Wongwian and four trains run daily between Samut Sakhon and Samut Songkhram.
The track is not known for its speed running as one of the slowest in Thailand with an average speed for the whole line at 30km/hr. Does this help lure us tourists in with safety and concern in our minds? Absolutely.
While we waited for the next train to arrive at 11:10am we found a trusted Cafe Amazon a 5 minute walk from the train station. We ordered our drinks, took in the relief of the air con, drank our preferred beverages and shared a croissant from 7-Eleven that I ran to get for my low blood sugar level pals. After our coffee break we journeyed back a different way and took in some more of the town. Magazine stalls, fresh fruit, lottery ticket and flowery Songkran gear lining the roads.
As the clock was ticking upon the arrival of the train my photographer friends were snapping away at the sights surrounding the train station. I slid down the small isles just off from the train tracks and peeped into the stalls in search of tie dye Songkran tees for a friend and I bought a romper for an upcoming beach trip. To do lists can be managed in the most unexpected times living in Thailand. I love that there’s options to buy batteries, bananas and a tee shirt all within 50 feet.
I got the call from a friend. It was time, back to what we’d come for. A walk along the tracks and we met at the spot, so few tourists, just us and 5 others. For years I’d only seen photos jammed with people, the workers and the merchandise all packed on top of each other while the train passed by. Our experience was very different. A nod to the quiet and peaceful experience Covid-19 was giving us this past year. We had our own space and I let the professionals go to where they needed to to get the shot. They moved, they turned, they watched and waited, then they snapped away. I think you’ll agree the photos speak for themselves.
Over the loudspeaker in Thai a woman alerts you the train is coming. The staff stand by, holding their metal poles, with comfort and ease, pushing the awnings back, the chopping, shifting and preparations have stopped. Most slide back their products and keeping what they know and have learned can stay put and not be run over by the trains wheels and still be securely sold that day.
As the train passes by the sensation of what is passing through amongst the space and what it means, the fumes and excitement and suddenly as quick as that, the awnings are back up and it is back to business on their very own manic Monday.