Tourists Playing Chicken With Train

By Wilawan Watcharasakwet

MAEKLONG, Thailand – The smattering of food stalls and noodle shacks here in Maeklong just south of Bangkok isn’t known as the “Risk Your Life Market” for nothing.

The Talad Sieng Tai market, some 78 kilometers away from Thailand’s capital, is a big hit with foreign tourists because of the railway line that runs through the center of it. Hordes of visitors come each day to marvel at the trains that pass throng of stalls eight times a day, narrowly scraping past soup huts, butchers shops and vegetable displays as vendors scramble to remove awnings, baskets and umbrellas out of the engines’ path just in the nick of time.

It’s a popular location for Thai beer adverts and as setting for local food and travel television shows, where pundits try out the barbecued frogs and other delicacies sold here. After being featured on CNN and on television shows as far away as Germany, rising numbers of visitors are descending on the market to video the trains and, hopefully, step out of the way before the engines pass by in a sort of slow motion, mechanized version of the running of the bulls in Pamplona.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Pete Haines, 47 years old, from Australia. “I’ve been to many countries but I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Wilawan Watcharasakwet/The Wall Street Journal
Trains run through a Thai market eight times a day, prompting vendors to quickly pull back awnings and goods, while tourists calculate just how much time they have to safely snap a picture. See more photos. Video.
But with hundreds of visitors now flocking to this 300-meter-long stretch of the train tracks, local vendors worry that somebody will get hurt, prompting Thai authorities to shut down the market and forcing them to find some other way to make a living.

“If something bad happens to the tourists, it will become a big deal and we’ll be in trouble because the market might get closed down,” said Thassanee Chaimongkol, who sells vegetables from her spot next to the narrow tracks, which are owned by the State Railway of Thailand.

The chief of the local railway 100 meters away, Pattana Wongmujarin, insists that safety of the tourists’ is the vendors’ responsibility. Like in other parts of Asia, from India to the Philippines, state-owned railway lines are important commercial hot-spots, a chance to buy and sell in high-traffic areas without the burden of paying rent.

“We can’t stop this. The market is well established and it’s now become a tourist destination,” Mr. Pattana says. “But I’ve always insisted to vendors that if there is any damage to the track or the train, somebody needs to take responsibility.”

In some ways the inundation of visitors to Maeklong shows how Thailand is struggling to accommodate the surging numbers of tourists flocking to this exotic Buddhist kingdom. The hit Leonardo di Caprio film “The Beach” about a band of travelers trying to create their own idyll on a southern Thai island ironically led to throngs of motor boats visiting the setting for the film, Phi-Phi island, on day-trips. More recently, a Chinese comedy called “Lost in Thailand” contributed to a fresh wave of visitors. MasterCard has predicted that Bangkok would attract more visitors this year than any other city, including Paris, London and New York.

Local Thai vendors at Talad Sieng Tai are finding it hard to cope with the growing number of tourists, though, especially as they are struggling to make a living wage as it is. Many say they earn around $10 to $15 a day.

Some people who work in the market complain that they are poorly equipped to police the tourists, many of whom arrive in luxury buses and appear to pay little regard to the consequences for the market’s stall-holders if something goes wrong. “This is our workplace where we earn money to take care of our families,” said Ms. Thassanee, the vegetable seller.

There have been a few close scrapes already. When a reporter paid a visit recently, gaggles of tourists positioned themselves on the tracks to get the best shots on their cameras. As a train approached at a modest 10 kilometers an hour, the driver blew its horn several times to warn people to get out of the way, but many visitors ignored the warnings as vendors yelled “Get out of the way!”

One visitor forced the slow-moving train to stop when she failed to get out of the way in time. Others scrambled into food stalls and vegetable displays when the realized that they were in danger of being hit.

“She was lucky,” reckons Ms. Thassanee.

Seafood vendor Lek Pumpruksa recalls the day a tourist leaped out of the way of an oncoming train only to dislodge an awning that had been tied up out of the way. A pole suddenly swung forward, smashing a mirror on the train. Ms. Lek, 66 years old, said the tourist involved refused to pay for the damage and fled, leaving the hapless vendor to pick up the 3,000 baht, or roughly $100 bill.

Another vendor, Chonnicha Chaimongkol, describes another tourist who ran into a butcher’s stall as the train passed by, dislodging a heavy trolley that bounced back into another vendor’s leg, causing a severe cut.

“We’ve been told to take care of the tourists and make sure they are safe,” Ms. Chonnicha said. “But they are risking their lives by standing too close to the tracks.”

Some tourists, such as Mr. and Mrs. Pionteks from Germany prefer take the safer option and ride the train rather than trying to leap out of its path.

But while so far there is no official record of injuries at the Maeklong market, locals fear it could just be a matter of time before somebody does get hurt.

“No matter how fast they run, if they fall down, they won’t have any legs to run on,” said 75-year-old coconut seller Chei Satthabutr.

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