Samut Songkhram: Tasty treasure trove

SAMUT SONGKHRAM, 10 September 2018: A Gulf of Thailand port town, Samut Songkram, has pedigree when it comes to seafood and novelty when conversations turn to markets.

The coastal fishing town on the Gulf of Thailand is identified as an emerging destination particularly for ‘foodie’ tourists  visiting Bangkok and its abundance of seafood is the main drawcard.

Located at the estuary of the Mae Klong River, 70 km from the Thai capital, Samut Songkran has for generations been home to a thriving fishing fleet that brings to port a daily catch of the freshest seafood to be found.

There lies Samut Songkhran enduring attraction; the tastiest seafood you could hope to find anywhere in the world at prices that won’t break the bank.

Already immensely popular with Thai travellers, who dash to the estuary town at weekends, Samut Songkhram is catching the attention of international travellers especially if they are food addicts with a yearning for the freshest seafood.

The downside for visitors staying in Bangkok is the roundtrip 160 km distance with the added nuisance of negotiating the city’s peak hour traffic in both directions. It can add an hour each way to the commute time.

An alternative is to stop for lunch and sightseeing at Samut Songkhram on the way to Hua Hin, 80 km further south on the Gulf of Thailand coast.

For centuries, Samut Songkham has owed its success to its fishing and the seafood bounty caught in the Gulf of Thailand that satisfies the ravenous appetites of Bangkok residents. The demand for seafood fuelled the construction of a railway track all the way to Bangkok originally for the sole purpose of transporting the daily catch to market.

It takes almost three hours to travel the 60 km of rail track from the station at Bangkok’s Thonburi (Wong Wian Yai) to the end station Mae Klong in Samut Songkram. Made up of two distinct rail lines, separated by the Mae Chin river, travellers going the full distance need to disembark at the Samut Sakhon station cross the river to Ban Laem station to catch the train to Samut Songkram. Most travellers and even the seafood cargo inevitably deserted the quaint train ride through emerald green paddy and bleached salt flats for faster road transport.Yet today, the once obscure Mae Klong – Mahachai Railway has discovered a new career as a movie star, played out on You Tube with an amazing 2.2 million views and still climbing.

The supporting cast is an unlikely community of market vendors who honeycombed their stalls to literally smother a stretch of track just 200 metres before the end-of-the line Mae Klong station.

You can’t argue with the sheer volume of You Tube views, or the 1,349 TripAdvisor reviews, that make ‘Talat Rop Hup’ literally translated ‘umbrella pull-down market” Samut Songkhram’s top tourist attraction.

(See link to video)

Images tell the story of a highly coordinated and precision exercise that the villagers perform every time a train passes.

Some TripAdvisor comments call it at vision of chaos as market vendors appear to dice with death just seconds before the train trundles by. But a closer look shows precise teamwork almost military precision is at play. Obviously, someone measured the train clearance over the track to determine which vegetables and fruit could remain snug and safe between the tracks.There are four trips daily that terminate at Mae Klong station, which gives visitors eight chances to catch the amazing antics coordinated to the last second. Awnings and umbrellas are quickly lowered and tables on wheels packed with goodies perform a fast reverse from the track every time the train whistle blows. With just centimetres to spare the train moves at a snail’s pace through the market, without squashing a single fruit or vegetable.

This novel railway experience has turned the town’s market into a celebrity, granted not of World Heritage proportions as yet, but vastly more popular if You Tube views are the reckoning.

Just a few kilometres from the riverside railway station, Don Hoi Lot overlooks a sand and mud bar in the Mae Klong estuary where if you have the inclination you can join local residents in the pursuit of clams hiding in the mud flats.

Undoubtedly, the coastal prominence of Don Hoi Lot, named after the razor clams that abound in the tidal waters, is the most popular place for seafood all-day dining.It faces the mouth of the estuary with a clear view of a 5km long and 3km wide sandbar, while the tidal river exposes mud flats extending almost as far as the eye can see.

Here, the sediments of the Mae Klong River merge with the sea creating an almost unique brackish environment that extends to the vast mudflats. This is home for the largest source of razor clams in the Gulf of Thailand, a flourishing treasure trove for seafood lovers.

There is a profusion of small seafood restaurants overlooking the river estuary close to a pier and a seafood market waiting for the daily harvest of clams to come ashore.

Street food dining, or in this case a picnic on a seaside boulevard, is one popular option starting when you browse through the market to choose your snacks from a vast array of ready-to-serve crabs, prawns, razor clams, mussels and dried or salted fish. Prices range from THB50 for fish to THB200 for prawns.

To work up an appetite, you can also join locals collecting clams, or immerse literally in the world of mudflats, as your long-tail boat skims over the slushy surface, propeller churning up a dense mist of mud and slime aft of the stern. Nearby, clam farmers plane gracefully on makeshift boards artfully plucking up clams from the surface as they go.

Completing the fascinating scene, monkeys watch the tide ebb at the fringe of a mangrove forest knowing their lunch treat will soon emerge in the exposed mud.

Then there are Don Hoi Lot’s shoreline restaurants where you can relax with an iced-cold beer as you browse through the menu and enjoy superb views of the tidal estuary and the Gulf Thailand.

The razor clam, sometimes described as tubular shellfish or worm shells, is the obvious signature dish in a district that takes its name from the resident clams.  They are harvested from the mudflats by the basket and served as an appetiser known as ‘Hoi Lot Pad Ka’ usually fried with chill, garlic and basil and a generous sprinkling of fish sauce.

But another shellfish, the boiled dark red slushy ‘Hoi Kreang Lurk’ or blood cockles, are equally popular with diners with a side dip sauce ‘nam jim seafood.’

‘Fried Pla Too’ (mackerel), is another favourite on the menu of most of the town’s restaurants, fried until golden brown and served with steamed rice, chilli paste and vegetables.

Yet another version, ‘Pla Too Dadia’, steams the fish and tops it off with soy sauce in garlic and chilli served with a ‘pik nam pla’ sauce.A local favourite is a squid with salted egg, ‘Pla Muerk  Kai Kem’, which is covered in chilli and egg yoke sauce.

While the black mud crab dish, ‘Boo Pad Prik Tham Dam’, stirred fried with chilli and lightly pounded black peppercorns is definitely an iconic dish beware it might dent the budget of an otherwise bargain lunch.

Cockles and mussels aside, there is no end in sight to the seafood options. You can quickly order up 10 dishes without batting an eyelid and when the bill arrives, you know that this is coastal spot on the Gulf of Thailand has won your heart via your stomach.