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Make way for the train

Train tracks in Thailand double as curious 'folding umbrella market'

BANGKOK -- A bustling market in Samut Songkhram, a province in central Thailand 80km west of Bangkok, looks much like any other in Thailand. Vendors fill the colorful bazaar, hawking a dazzling assortment of goods as shoppers and tourists swarm the aisles.

There is, however, one thing that makes this market different: namely, a train that passes directly through eight times a day. 

Lack of space in the city has forced local merchants to set up shop along both sides of the train tracks, virtually hugging the rails for a few hundred meters leading to Maeklong Station. The tracks double as the market's main aisle.

At around 8:30 on a recent March morning, a station attendant loudly announces the train's arrival. Quickly and almost in perfect unison, awnings and umbrellas covering the tracks are tucked away, goods are moved back from the rails, and people scatter. Minutes later, the train slowly rumbles through, blasting its horn and clearing the carefully laid-out goods by mere millimeters. Shop racks and shelves are fitted with wheels to make the ritual easier.

Nicknamed the "folding umbrella market" in Thai, this unique market has drawn flocks of tourists since it became known outside of Thailand about 10 years ago, due in large part to social media. Awestruck, they wait breathlessly as the train passes barely an arm's length away. Kudos are due the engineer, who navigates the train at a snail's pace to avoid accidents.

As soon as the train departs, it's back to business.

A 44-year-old mango seller unfolds the awnings that cover the tracks and moves her fruit back into place. She took over the stall from her mother-in-law about 20 years ago. Up until about two months ago, she mainly sold vegetables and other goods. But the swarms of tourists, and their appetite for the country's delicious fruit, convinced her to switch to mangos.

Business is good -- she grosses about 3,000 baht ($86)  daily -- however it comes with a price: Rights to trade along the tracks are steep due to the area's popularity.

As the tourists fade away until the next coming of the train, the area reassumes its role as a simple market. Local residents bargain with vendors under the many umbrellas and awnings, which now completely obscure the tracks from above.

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