Bangkok: Real Thai tranquillity
Escape the heat and noise of Bangkok with a trip around the city's green hideaways, says Andrew Spooner
Saturday 28 November 2009
It's early on a bright tropical Thai Sunday morning and I'm standing at what many Thais consider to be the centre of Bangkok: Victory Monument. It is here – where a dramatic single-pronged monument rises out of the swirling cacophony of buses, tuk-tuks, mini-vans, noodle stalls and thousands of rushing Thais – that Bangkok reaches its fierce crescendo.
Even during the so-called winter season – which runs from now until March, with temperatures averaging 26C – Bangkok's sensory overload of noise, rush and heat can be unbearable. Burning concrete, brain-melting humidity and the constant fumes of traffic coagulate into one long exhausting throb. So what do visitors do when the Thai capital overwhelms? Most take the easy way out, get back to their hotel rooms and switch on the air conditioning.
Yet there are alternatives. The city's lesser-known parks and green spaces can provide a welcome sanctuary. Even here at Victory Monument, tucked away in a forest of skyscrapers, I manage to find a restful moment at the Suan Santiphap Park, a small slice of green complete with ponds and soothing tree-shaded walkways. Just around the corner from Suan Santiphap is Rangnam Road, an up-and-coming area with plenty of opportunities to drink iced lattes.
Although Suan Santiphap provides respite, to escape Bangkok's travails there's only one place to head: a small peninsula jutting into the Chao Phraya River known as Bangkachao. On paper getting there from Victory Monument looks like a convoluted combination of the Skytrain (an elevated railway) to Sala Daeng, taxi to Klong Toey pier and then a short boat-hop across the river – a journey time of roughly 40 minutes. However, set against the reality of Bangkok's gridlock, where it can often take hours to get out of the city, this is a relatively short journey, particularly with the rewards on offer.
"Bangkachao is the best green space close to the city centre," says Phil Cornwel-Smith, long-term Bangkok resident and author of Very Thai, which explores the nation's popular culture. I'd met Phil en route to Bangkachao. Now we're lazing in a cool wooden pavilion overlooking a lake, which itself is set in the middle of Bangkachao's extravagantly titled "Sri Nakhon Khuean Khan Park Green Area for People".
Surrounding us is thick, tropical vegetation; a breeze wafts from the water. The only sounds are the call of tropical birds and the happy noise of children playing – not a hint of smog or of the city's gridlocked traffic. Given how close we are to the furious maelstrom of Bangkok, our surroundings seem miraculous.
From the top of a small bird-watching tower in the centre of the park, I can see a canopy of tall, verdant trees spread out below, but as Phil points out: "You can still see the skyscrapers from here." Hovering above this lush green tapestry, are the jutting concrete edifices of Bangkok's downtown areas of Silom, Sathorn and Sukhumvit. They seem incredibly close, but from the tranquillity of Bangkachao, they might as well be a million miles away.
We climb back down from our look-out point and head for the "wetlands area". Here a wooden pathway cuts through a small but enclosed wetland forest. With the sun breaking through the foliage casting dappled plays of light, bright butterflies flit by and spectacular tropical flowers droop.
I plump for that most ubiquitous form of Bangkok transport, the motorcycle taxi (where you ride pillion on the back of a small motorbike) to take me to my next stop: deep in the heart of Bangkachao, to the Bangnamphung (honey village) floating market.
A visit to one of the floating markets near Bangkok is part of the standard tourist itinerary. But Bangnamphung is far more authentic. Set behind a small temple and laid out across a network of small raised pathways that cut through wetlands, this market feels more like a community fair than a tourist attraction. I pass Buddhist monks spraying holy water on the passing throng and schoolchildren eating bowls of noodles. With trees shading everything, the atmosphere is relaxed, the heat turned down a notch or two.
My time spent in the jungle has whetted my appetite for more of Bangkok's green spaces. After taking the ferry across the river to Khlong Toey I head to the district of Ratanakosin – home to Bangkok's Grand Palace and the heart of the old city.
Here, Romaneenart Park on Mahachai Road was created on land originally occupied by a prison – the high walls and watchtowers are still in evidence. Just around the corner is Saranrom Park, which lies directly behind the Grand Palace. Saranrom was once attached to the palace and was created as one of Thailand's first botanical gardens. Some of the old palace buildings remain at the back of the park. A giant tree in the centre of the park is a perfect pit stop as I eat revitalising chilled fresh pineapple chunks bought from a street vendor at the park's entrance.
Next I take a river bus from the nearby Tha Tien pier to Phra Athit pier, near Bangkok's bustling Khao San Road. Here I walk upriver for another taste of the Thai capital's history: a robust white-walled fort, complete with cannons, which was once part of the city's defences. Surrounding the fortress is the small Phra Sumen Park, serenely located facing the breezy river.
That evening, as I dine at the Peninsula Hotel's excellent Jesters Mediterranean restaurant, my time amid the green serenity of Bangkachao seems very distant. Yet thankfully there's one last chance to sample some fresh air. "Where would you like to sit?" asks the waiter. To his bemusement – all his other guests seem to prefer a more regulated environment – I ask for a table outside and sit beneath the stars to savour the cooling riverside breezes.
Travel essentials: Bangkok
Etihad Airways (0800 731 9384; etihadairways.com) offers return flights to Bangkok from Manchester and Heathrow via Abu Dhabi, from £428 return.
The writer was a guest of The Peninsula, 333 Charoennakorn Road, Klongsan, Bangkok (00800 2828 3888; peninsula.com). Double rooms start at 8,600 baht (£157), including breakfast.
Tourism Thailand: 0870 900 2007; tourismthailand.co.uk
Andrew Spooner is the author of Footprint Books' guides to Thailand and Thailand's Islands and Beaches (first edition published 29 November; footprintbooks.com)
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