Spend any time in Bangkok and it isn’t hard to see why it’s rated one of the worst places in Asia to drive. Traffic moves along most of the time at a crawl and frustrated, long-suffering drivers and passengers spend countless hours in gridlocked hell in one of the hottest cities in the world. And, for the foreseeable future it is likely to get worse rather than better as five more Skytrain and subway projects get under way in earnest.
Traffic inching along in both directions
The toxic exhaust fumes of cars, trucks, buses, tuk-tuks and motorbikes makes you wonder at times if there was any point in giving up smoking. In 2018 the Thai national newspaper, The Nation, reported that 65 percent of the city’s residents and commuters used private vehicles to get to work and back home again, while roughly 35 percent used public transport – a major part of that also petrol driven.
The Bangkok skyline forms the backdrop to the tranquil calm of Lumphini’s lake
Fortunately, despite the race to build ever more shopping malls and condominiums, there still remain a few places where you can, for a while yet, breathe (relatively) fresh air and seek refuge from the hurly-burly, frenetic pace of Bangkok’s overcrowded, noisy streets and take advantage of a number of green spaces that act as the city’s lungs to provide much-needed clean air.
The most famous and beloved of Bangkok’s green spaces is Lumphini Park, known as Suan Lum(สวนลุม) to the locals. It wasnamed after the Buddha’s birthplace, Lumbini in Nepal, and offers more than 140 acres of parkland for Bangkok residents to recharge, relax, jog, picnic or have fun on the park’s two artificial lakes, paddling in one of the swan-shaped paddle boats or feeding the catfish that wait every day at certain spots for their daily bread.
A great workout for the legs and very eco-friendly
Lumphini Park owes its origins to Rama VI’s plan to use the site, formerly royal property, as an exhibition centre for Thai crafts and floral displays, but after World War I it was designated as Bangkok’s first public park. A statue of the king stands today at the southwest entrance. Originally the park was on the city’s outskirts, but today lies at the very heart of the city in the middle of the business district.
The White Egret fishing in the lake
Lumphini is a haven for the city’s flora and fauna. There are birds galore of many different species that either visit or make their home in the park as well as a number of water monitors, some of whom have become quite used to people and their strange ways. Squirrels are also a common sight and all the resident and visiting animals enjoy a measure of security as dogs are not allowed in the park, but quite a number of very chilled-out cats wander about with impunity. There are a large number of ornamental shrub and flower beds and tall trees, lovingly cared for by the park staff, which not only pump out fresh air but provide very welcome shade from the sun’s intense midday heat.
A magnificent Water Monitor Lizard after his morning dip
Early mornings and evenings are the best times to visit Lumphini as the Sun is much less fierce. This is the time for joggers and Tai Chi enthusiasts to gather, and nowadays aerobics classes have become very popular too. In the little pavilions and pagodas dotted about the park people play chess or other board games and kite flying can be seen from February to April. Also during this period open-air concerts featuring local and international music are held - The Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra often performs free concerts at the Salom Bhirom Bakdi Pavillion, also called the Palm Garden Band Shell. You’ll need to bring a mat and a picnic would be perfect, but no alcohol - this and smoking are strictly forbidden.
The splendidly ornate Chinese Pagoda
Rather unexpectedly, the park is also home to public library (Bangkok’s oldest), an area built especially for the disabled, the Smiling Sun Ground, the BMA Apprentice School which offers vocational training for a variety of skills such as hair dressing, the culinary arts, dressmaking, computer studies and much more, all for free. There is also an advice centre for homeless children and the Bangkok Senior Citizens Club. On weekends you’ll often see people practising their ballroom dancing skills as well as Thai traditional dancing. On the final Sunday of each month Dharma in the Park holds dhamma talks given by Buddhist monks from 7am till 9am.
During the Second World War the park was occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army and became their main camp in Bangkok. In 2010 the park was once again occupied by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, the UDD and in 2013/2014 by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, the PDRC. After each occupation a small army of staff and volunteers worked assiduously to return the park to what it was.
One of the most famous conductors of the big band era, Benny Goodman, the ‘King of Swing’, recorded a live album of a performance in the Band Shell in 1956. Apart from a selection of his most popular hits Goodman also played music written by Thailand’s recently deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej as well as a rendition of the Thai national anthem.
The Sri Derm Food Centre, open from 4.30am till 10pm offers typical Thai favourites and there are a number of food vendors operating from stalls outside all the entrances to the park.
Lumphini Park at night
For a great aerial view of the park head to the bar of the So Sofitel Hotel. As the sun goes down sip your favourite tipple and gaze out over one of the best public parks in Asia.
If you travel by BTS get off at Saladaeng and if by MRT at Silom or Lumphini stations.