Urban eden

Concrete To Green: Behind Bangkok’s Amazing Pandemic Makeover

New urban oases range from a sky park spanning the Chao Phraya River to a downtown wetlands, alongside a raft of sustainable hotels and restaurants.

Concrete To Green: Behind Bangkok’s Amazing Pandemic Makeover
Benjakitti Forest Park has a wetlands at its heartRonan O' Connell

Pre-pandemic Bangkok had one of the lowest rates of public green space of any city in Asia. Having lived intermittently in Bangkok for a decade, the greatest drawback about this amazing city – after its hectic traffic – was its paucity of green spaces. It truly is a concrete jungle.

But amid a global catastrophe, it’s undergone a pleasing makeover, opening many new parks as part of a United Nations-backed project called “The Greening of Bangkok”.  The project is a long time coming.

Home to at least 16 million people, greater Bangkok is one of the biggest and most densely populated metropolises on the planet. In March 2021, the United Nations (UN) reported that the city had just 7 sq m of public green space per resident, compared to 39 sq m per person across a selection of 22 other big Asian cities. The UN is supporting the Thai Government’s Bangkok Greening project, which aims to greatly increase parkland by 2032.

It is crucial Bangkok becomes a healthier environment for its citizens and visitors, according to Dr Niramon Serisakul, the director of Thailand’s Urban Design and Development Center. “Bangkok is overcrowded, but there are plenty of underutilised spaces,” he told the UN.

One such location has now been turned into Bangkok’s own version of New York’s iconic High Line. While it’s not nearly as large or impressive as that US attraction, Bangkok’s Chao Phraya Sky Park is unique in the city. Billed as Thailand’s first elevated park, it was previously a disused rail bridge stretched alongside Bangkok’s colourful Pak Khlong Talat flower market.

Now, it’s a 300m-long path and cycleway over the Chao Phraya River, embellished by plants and seating areas. When I visited this new attraction in March, I found foreigners and locals pausing to admire the sprawling views of Bangkok’s skyline to its east, and the Rattanakosin old town to its west.

Even more photogenic, and surprisingly huge, is Benjakitti Forest Park, which opened last year. Adjacent to the pretty Benjakitti Park, long popular with joggers who follow the track around its large lake, this new green space is now the biggest in downtown Bangkok, at 72 hectares.

At its core is a majestic wetlands, already inhabited by many birds. You can look down on this natural splendour from the long, elevated walkways that pass above Benjakitti Forest Park’s ponds and marshes. In the evening, as the sun sets over the skyline, and these paths light up, it is the most tranquil location in Bangkok.

Embracing sustainable luxury

For a romantic follow up to this experience, visit Haoma, 2km north of Benjakitti Forest Park, where haute cuisine is made with environmental sustainability in mind. The contemporary Indian fine dining restaurant grows its own vegetables and herbs, farms fish, and is committed to a zero-waste strategy.

  • Haoma is Bangkok's answer to contemporary fine Indian dining
    Haoma is Bangkok’s answer to contemporary fine Indian dining.Ronan O’ Connell
  • Haoma grows its own vegetables and herbs
    Haoma grows its own vegetables and herbs.Haoma

After a night out in the City of Smiles, tourists who wish to rise amid nature can stay at four-star eco resort, Bangkok Tree House. Perched amid the topiary in Bang Krachao, an underdeveloped area of mangrove forests about 8km south-east of downtown Bangkok, this hotel uses income from each booking to pay for trash to be cleared from the adjacent river. It also uses recycled products, wind and solar power, and has extensive composting systems, as well as neat rooms with gorgeous views of the surrounding nature.

But it is not just wide green spaces that are helping improve Bangkok. The city has also embraced what it calls “pocket parks”. Central Bangkok is so densely populated it’s impossible to find big parcels of unused land in some of its suburbs.

That is where pocket parks come in. Some are as small as 3,000 sq m. That’s the size of Wat Hua Lamphong Rukkhaniwet Park, which flanks one the city’s most beautiful temples, Wat Hua Lamphong. The royal Buddhist complex is decorated by intricate, gilded patterns. With trees, garden beds, exercise equipment and a children’s playground, this is one of several micro parks being developed by a non-profit organisation named We!Park.

In an effort to find new locations for pocket parks, We!Park holds a public initiative in which Bangkok residents can win prizes by nominating empty land hidden in this labyrinthine city. An area popular with tourists is also now home to one of these micro green spaces. Tucked off a busy road linking Thong Lor and Ekkamai – two nightlife precincts that draw a heavy international crowd – is Vadhana Pocket Park.

When I lived in Ekkamai, I was frustrated by its lack of green spaces. So even though Vadhana is petite, its shady, green interior is a welcome addition. So, too, is the slightly larger Vibhaphirom Park that opened recently in Chatuchak, near its famous namesake market in Bangkok’s northern suburbs.

Making the most of tight spaces is also a strategy being used by five-star Bangkok property Anantara Riverside. Guests at this plush resort, in the southern suburb of Thonburi, can visit Anantara’s 2,800sqm hydroponic rooftop farm. There they can watch as staff harvest the fruit, herbs and vegetables served in the resort’s chic restaurants.

The Bangkok Greening project, meanwhile, also includes plans to construct several new pedestrian overpasses cloaked in plants. This would be a great enhancement to a downtown area that lacks both shade and safe manners of crossing busy roads.

Thai authorities recently announced a massive renovation of one of the city’s most famous attractions, Lumphini Park. Situated in downtown Bangkok, this urban oasis is wedged between the tourist hotspots of Silom, Sukhumvit and Siam. It’s also where you can catch a glimpse at Lumphini’s renowned water monitors – giant lizards up to 2m long that scurry in and out of its lakes.

The rejuvenation of this 58-hectare park will cost SGD $40 million, including major landscaping upgrades, renovated structures and gardens, plus a new sports club, restaurant and farm. So on your next whirlwind trip to Bangkok, look forward to a cleaner, greener city.

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