THAI­LAND: GO­ING GREEN IN BANGKOK

Amid the sky­scrapers and traf­fic snarls, Bangkok hides some sur­pris­ing green spa­ces.

Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY GARY WALSH

Amid the sky­scrapers and traf­fic snarls, Bangkok hides some sur­pris­ing green space.

Bangkok’s growth in re­cent decades has been star­tling, and any­thing but or­ganic. It has been a surge forged in steel and con­crete, as a pan­cake-flat city – its av­er­age el­e­va­tion above sea level is 1.5 me­tres – it has headed re­lent­lessly sky­wards and out­wards, gob­bling up swathes of neigh­bour­ing prov­inces.

How­ever, Bangkok is also home to ex­pan­sive green ar­eas that soothe the soul, of­fer­ing an an­ti­dote to the crowds and the noise and the fran­tic traf­fic. And, please note, here be drag­ons.

Lumpini Park is Bangkok’s most un­ex­pected ur­ban oa­sis. It sits in the heart of the city’s busi­ness dis­trict, and all that most vis­i­tors will see is the green­ery and the lakes as they speed past on the el­e­vated BTS Skytrain. But more than most places, Lumpini de­serves your time.

There are wide, me­an­der­ing walk­ing paths through­out its 57 hectares, be­neath trees that have been grow­ing long be­fore Lumpini’s es­tab­lish­ment in the 1920s as a place for rest and recre­ation for the peo­ple of Bangkok. Two large lakes sit at op­po­site ends of the park, with swan pedal boats for those with enough stamina to tackle the city’s heat and hu­mid­ity.

In the rel­a­tive cool of the morn­ing and evening, the park comes alive. Jog­gers plod along the sealed paths, Tai Chi ex­po­nents per­form their rit­u­als on wide stretches of grass, a few lo­cal Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger-wannabes pump iron on the old-style gym equip­ment, and ball­room dancers prac­tice in var­i­ous open ar­eas. The per­vad­ing at­mos­phere is of calm and quiet, with the city’s roar all but for­got­ten.

But it’s only when you let your eyes and your mind set­tle that you no­tice Lumpini’s most fa­mous res­i­dents – its wa­ter mon­i­tor lizards. You will find them in and around the lakes, swim­ming sin­u­ously or sun­ning them­selves on the banks. Many are a me­tre long or more, and noth­ing gets the heart started quite like al­most step­ping on a cam­ou­flaged lizard as you wan­der lazily about.

“The is­land is a sleepy place dur­ing the week, but comes alive on

weekends when a busy mar­ket springs up close to the main pier”

Ko Kret is an is­land in the Chao Phraya River, 20 kilo­me­tres north of Bangkok, that was set­tled in the 18th cen­tury by

Mon peo­ple from cen­tral Thai­land (and orig­i­nally from Burma). They brought with them a dis­tinc­tive brand of Bud­dhism and crafts in­clud­ing pot­tery, which con­tin­ues to be cre­ated on Ko Kret to this day.

Most of the is­land is given over to small-hold­ing farm­land – with a busy and pop­u­lar craft brew­ery a no­table ex­cep­tion to the ru­ral at­mos­phere – and it is a won­der­ful place to walk, as there are no cars (and only a few motorcycles). It’s pos­si­ble to rent bi­cy­cles, but a slow stroll around Ko Kret will only take a cou­ple of hours.

Along the way – there is es­sen­tially one road – you will pass tem­ples, a lean­ing stupa that is Ko Kret’s most dis­tinc­tive sight and re­sem­bles a half-col­lapsed meringue, an­cient wooden homes, small schools, rice pad­dies, ba­nana plan­ta­tions and tiny gro­cery shops set up on the road­side.

The is­land is a sleepy place dur­ing the week, but comes alive on weekends when a busy mar­ket springs up close to the main pier. It spreads for sev­eral hun­dred me­tres along the banks of the river, with al­most any­thing you can imag­ine up for sale, from clothes and house­hold goods to tacky sou­venirs, Mon pot­tery, flow­ers and plants, soaps and can­dles, and cheap jew­ellery. There is also a great ar­ray of street food to en­joy.

It’s cramped and sweaty, but lots of fun.

Ev­ery Sun­day there is a ferry ser­vice from cen­tral Bangkok that in­cludes a guided tour of Ko Kret, but it’s more fun on any day of the week to take the stan­dard ferry to Non­thaburi, grab a taxi for the short ride to Sanam Neua Tem­ple, and then catch a long­tail boat to the is­land.

Bang Krachao is some­what fan­ci­fully de­scribed as

Bangkok’s “green lung”, be­cause its shape seen from above vaguely re­sem­bles the in­ter­nal or­gan. It may or may not look like a lung, but green it is, its 16 square kilo­me­tres full of or­chards, farms and gar­dens, with its 40,000 res­i­dents dis­persed widely, and no build­ings more than two storeys high. It sits on the Thon­buri side of the river op­po­site Bangkok’s docks, as the river curves ex­trav­a­gantly al­most back on it­self, and you can get there ei­ther by long­tail from the Bangkok side at Kh­long Toei Pier or by road.

Bikes are avail­able for rental, and you can pedal for hours along quiet roads and nar­row el­e­vated con­crete path­ways where you dodge sleep­ing dogs and dis­mount when some­one comes the other way, lest you end up in a canal or grassy ditch. The eco-friendly Bangkok Tree House, which is sit­u­ated by the banks of the Chao Phraya, is both an ex­tra­or­di­nary ho­tel and pit­stop for a re­fresh­ing drink or a quick meal.

Like Ko Kret, Bang Krachao’s som­no­lence is dis­turbed a lit­tle on weekends, when the Bang Nam Phueng Float­ing Mar­ket op­er­ates. It op­er­ates on both sides of the canal, with the ‘float­ing’ ap­pel­la­tion due only to a hand­ful of ven­dors who use moored sam­pans to cook meals for ca­sual restau­rants.

Here you can fire a sling­shot at tin cans strung from trees, have your face slapped and rubbed (in the nicest pos­si­ble way, by the in­ven­tor of a tra­di­tional medicine – Rib­bin Brand Herbal Yel­low Oil – who be­lieves in am­bush mar­ket­ing of the most di­rect kind), watch the cre­ation of sugar-sweet Thai desserts, have your weary mus­cles kneaded by steel-fin­gered masseuses, and wan­der past hun­dreds of tres­tle ta­bles groan­ing with items for sale.

If you’ve walked or cy­cled through Bang Krachao and its Sri Nakhon Kuen Khan Park, you’ve earned a meal at one of the many tempt­ing restau­rants – per­haps a plate of roasted duck or pad thai, with a side dish of fiery som tam (pa­paya salad), and a re­fresh­ing beer.

And fi­nally, if you need a quick break from the clam­our of cen­tral Bangkok, head to the river­side and ne­go­ti­ate a long­tail boat tour of the Thon­buri side of the river and its back­wa­ters. There will be ex­pan­sive stretches of green­ery where some of the last farms in cen­tral Bangkok can be found, in­ter­spersed with tum­ble­down shacks, glit­ter­ing tem­ples and shops, as you cruise along the canals that once threaded their way through­out the city. This re­mains the real, es­sen­tial Bangkok – and long may it pros­per. •

“Bang Krachao is 16 square kilo­me­tres full of or­chards, farms and gar­dens, with 40,000 res­i­dents dis­persed widely, and no build­ings

more than two storeys high”

Open­ing im­age: Canal­side cafe in Ko Kret.

Above, clock­wise from bot­tom left: Wa­ter mon­i­tor in Lumpini Park; On the sin­gle road on Ko Kret; Bangkok Tree House in Bang Krachao.

Right: Lean­ing stupa on Ko Kret.

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