Monday, 26 November 2018

Lumphini Park

Boating Lake
After my tour of the three parks it was probably natural that I would want to go to Lumphini Park next.  This is much more central and provides a welcome oasis in the incredibly busy centre of Bangkok.  It is also home to a surprising array of wildlife and I had a couple of David Attenborough moments as I walked around.  I also had a rather surprising human interaction and a weather event that added a good deal of spice to what is actually a short and unchallenging walk.

The King's Statue
Lumphini Park was the first to be designated in Bangkok and was originally a piece of Royal land that was designated by King Rama VI just after the First World War.  Now it is a space where much of Bangkok goes to exercise and play.  In many respects it is a little like Central Park in New York as it is surrounded on all sides by skyscrapers and on one side by the Skytrain.  There are boating lakes, cycle tracks and plenty of room for sports and even areas for the locals to practice their Tai Chi skills.  

Sky Train
I alighted at Silom station on the MRT system.  It is also possible to get here by Skytrain at the adjacent station of Sala Daeng although to access the park you will need to pass through Silom station to avoid the several lanes of traffic that are in the way.  Do not be tempted to come from Lumphini station either - it is possible to get in the park from there but you will face the same problem of crossing the road to get in.  At Silom there is an entrance directly in the park without any traffic problems.  Facing you as you come out is a large statue of King Rama VI in commemoration as his gift of the park to the city.

Maintenance Crew
It was a very hot day with the clouds building early and suggesting that I might not get around the park without facing a bit rain shower.  I turned right once inside the park to walk around the perimeter anti-clockwise.  It wasn't long before I saw my first monitor lizard - they are a common sight here.  In fact they are one of the reasons why foreign visitors in particular are drawn to the park as it is easy to see them.  Local people seem to have an uneasy relationship with the lizards - on the one hand they are considered to bring good luck and prosperity but on the other people are afraid of them. I soon witnessed this first hand when a couple of young women literally turned to jelly when they saw one cross the road in front of them.  Apparently numbers in the park got to unsustainable levels a couple of years ago and over 100 were removed and taken to a wildlife sanctuary outside Bangkok.  They had been frightening tourists and damaging the park flora apparently.

Clock Tower
My walk along the southern perimeter of the park was largely without incident and for a while I was a little disappointed with it compared to the other parks.  At the south-east corner I had to dodge some electrical engineers who were dealing with some overhead wires.  I couldn't help thinking that the installation could have been made nicer or relocated out to the street on the other side of the wall.  

Waiting For The Action
My eyes were drawn to a pretty clock at the corner of the park.  This was shaped like a pagoda and yet in a weird sort of way had a rather colonial air about it.  Some of the detail on the tower is exquisite and especially around the door at the bottom, which I imagine is for servicing the clock as it is too small to allow visitors inside.  I wandered over for a closer look and paused by the side of the lake for a while and watched a couple of swan pedalo boats negotiate the perimeter.  I wondered whether it were possible to see more swimming lizards in the lake - I would worry about them tipping the boat over as some of the biggest of them could easily do so accidentally if they came up without looking.

A Mother's Love
I wandered on and as I passed by the boat hire launching area I saw that the view now opened up to reveal how hemmed in the park is by surrounding buildings.  Apparently when it was first designated it was on the edge of town - now it is very much in the heart of this sprawling city that continues to grow outwards at an alarming rate.  Along the way were some interesting sculptures, including one that particularly caught my eye called 'A Mother's Love', which was placed here to commemorate the Queen's 60th birthday back in 1992.  Further on and I passed by one that looked like a pregnant Michelin man - I am told this is called 'Women in the next three decades'.  I am not sure what commentary it is supposed to be making but considering it's already 20 years old there isn't much more time for the transformation to be made.

Women In The Next Three Decades
As I reached the next gate it was clear that I was going to take a slightly different route as straight on led into the car park.  I took a left hand turn here and watched a couple of lizards swimming up and down in the little canal alongside the path.  There were also a couple of egrets strutting up and down seemingly unimpressed by the lizards.  I am guessing that they are too big and agile to be troubled by them, although I imagine that the young are not so lucky.  I walked down a long straight section of path and over another hump-backed bridge to reach a circular area with palm trees and a shelter in the middle.

I thought I would stop for a breather here and check a couple of messages that had been sent to me.  My eyes were drawn to a very camouflaged looking gecko that was sitting on the tree.  I was just going to get my camera to see if I could get a good picture when a small Thai man came up to me and started speaking to me in broken English.  He introduced himself as a fighter & trainer from a local Muay Thai gym.  I think he took one look at me and thought that he could whip me into shape - personally I think that would take an awful lot of work for fairly mediocre results.  He then started to show me a few pressure points and before I knew it I was having a Thai massage.  I'm not sure how it happened - it all escalated rather quickly!  It felt pretty good although at times I rather clenched my teeth.  I realised of course that he was doing it for payment and not just to be nice but I had no idea how much to pay.  I gave him 60 baht which he seemed happy with and went on my way. I really felt it afterwards though and vowed to be a bit more careful about lingering in the park in future!

Onward I went and found what looked to be an island in the middle of the next boating lake.  I crossed the bridge into it and my eyes were drawn to a quite large lizard behaving very strangely.  As I got closer I saw that it had something in its mouth so I got closer for a further look.  It started bashing its head against a tree and it was only then that I realised what it actually had - a turtle.  It was trying to bash the fight out of the hapless turtle against the tree and eventually it got it in just the right position before gulping it down whole.  It was rather a gruesome sight, especially as the turtle went down looking out of the lizards mouth.

Dainty Snack
There were further lizard shenanigans further on when I caught sight of one with the remains of a catfish hanging out of its mouth.  All around were crows wanting a slice of the action and the ensuing struggle between them was pretty entertaining.  Another monitor lizard wanted to get in on the action and the first took this cue and ran off clutching what it could of the remains in its mouth.  It left behind a lump for the crows to fight over while lizard number 2 looked on, decided it was too much bother and wandered off in the other direction.

Catfish Remnant
The show over, I moved on and watched instead some human entertainment in the shape of some jugglers, people doing Tai Chi and some old fellas playing Mahjong all seemingly oblivious to the antics of the lizards and crows.  It was a lot more restful watching the people than the wildlife and I looped entirely around them before crossing the same bridge that I had used to get to this point.  It was at this point that the threatening clouds did more than threaten and I felt the first drops.  Within moments the monsoonal rain that I hoped was coming to an end served up a reminder that it wasn't quite done yet.  I took refuge in one of the many park shelters until it had eased enough for me to make my escape along the remaining part of the perimeter walk that took me back to King Rama's statue.  The amount of water dumped created some very large puddles in the 20 minutes or so that the rain came down.
Tai Chi

Lumphini Park won't set you any great physical challenge - the walk around is just too short for that.  It could make for a good cycle ride but you would go too fast to see anything.  Running could also be an option if it is a physical challenge you want.  I would urge you though to walk it at least once to see the sculptures close up and enjoy looking at the wildlife.  Just take care not to linger too long if you don't want to be massaged by a random Muay Thai boxer!

Last View Before The Rain Came

Monday, 19 November 2018

A Trio of Parks

Going Nowhere
Even if you have never been to Bangkok there is a fair chance that you have heard of Chatuchak Weekend Market as it is reputed to be the biggest in South East Asia.  The array of goods on offer is quite astonishing and even those visitors intent on browsing would be hard pressed to come away with nothing for the stalls sell things you didn't even know you needed!  Coming from the north of the city you pass a very large and welcoming park just before reaching the market and my eyes landed on it the first time I went as it begged to be explored.  What I wasn't aware of is that the park is actually three contiguous parks and not just one.  It is the largest green space in the area and for a city that is relatively badly off for parks it is remarkably big.  The three parks are known as Chatuchak, Wachiribenchatat and Queen Sirikit and each occupy areas that were once owned by the State Railway of Thailand.  They were built in 1980, 1992 and 2002 respectively.  It is a great haven to escape the hullabaloo of Bangkok and in the middle of the complex it is easy to forget that you are hemmed in by one of the most densely populated cities in Asia.  

Latin American Monument
I started my walk at Chatuchak Park MRT (subway) station on the eastern edge of Chatuchak Park.  This is probably the easiest way to get to the park since the station entrance is right outside the park.  You could equally get here using the Skytrain as Mo Chit station is connected to Chatuchak Park Station although it is a little more awkward to get in the park.  Eventually the Sky Train will open to the north of here but for now the line terminates here.

Tree Orchid
Chatuchak Park is the oldest of the three parks and looks like it has been around for far longer than its 38 year history.  It was gifted by the King from the State Railway to enable Bangkokians to enjoy some green space and walk around.  The first feature that you come to is a rather pleasant looking artificial lake surrounded by palm trees.  Despite the fact that it was the end of October when I did this walk it couldn't have been a more different day than I am used to in the UK.  Suncream and a wide brimmed hat were very necessary along with a lot of water since it was already 34 degrees Celsius and not even 11am when I started.  Certainly no chilly temperatures or autumn leaves!

Water lily & visitors
I turned right inside the park and wandered alongside the artificial lake.  I soon came acros an interesting memorial and went over for a closer look.  I felt a little self conscious as I did so for I had to cross the grass and wasn't sure whether I was supposed to.  The nearby park worker didn't bat an eyelid so I felt better about not being challenged.  Rather randomly the memorial was to commemorate the bicentenaries of the independence of Argentina, Mexico and Chile.  It wasn't what I expected to see and apart from the explanation of what it was for there was nothing to indicate why it should find itself here.

Thai-USA sculpture
As I headed north along the edge of the park I became aware of the planting scheme that had been adopted by the groundskeepers.  There was a large area of planted trees that looked delightfully shady.  I didn't venture in as I noticed a number of people snoozing in the shade and I didn't much want to disturb them.  I sat on a nearby bench to cool off and was amused by the antics of all the squirrels.  Despite the heat they run about just as quickly as I have ever seen them in northern climes.
After a breather I was ready to admire the flowers alongside the walkway - there were some very pretty ones including tree orchids and irises which were my favourites.

Take Off
It won't surprise you to know that this is a place where people like to have their wedding pictures taken and a little further on was a place that had been specially designed for that purpose.  It was a pleasant little cubby hole but instead of romantic thoughts my eyes were drawn to the construction work on the Skytrain right outside the park.  The method is quite interesting.  As its name suggests the Skytrain is built above street level on a concrete viaduct over the street.  It's not very pretty - in fact it's a bit brutal looking, especially the stations.  Each of the spans is lowered into place by mobile cranes that span the gaps between the columns and drop the pieces into place.  Great sections of line are being built as Bangkok catches up with other cities and tries to resolve its choking traffic problem.

Floral Clock
Back in the park and I passed by a floral clock before reaching the Thai-USA garden which was quite a formal affair.  The centrepiece was a sculpture that looked like a knight on horseback although I had to use my imagination a bit for on first viewing it looked like a bunch of tubes and a couple of slabs of metal on top.

Park Ranger
Further on I stopped at the next lake where there was an eye catching sculpture of some swans (?) taking off.  I assume that was what I was looking at as they were heavily stylised. Regular stops like this were necessary because of the heat and in this case the shade from the trees also helped.  What drove me rather mad though was a bird high up in the branches that was teasing me with its cry.  I wanted to see what was making the sound but it seemed just out of sight the whole time and even moved without me seeing how it had done so (unless there were a few of them playing the same game of course!).  I moved on without ever having seen the dreaded thing.  I am sure the park workers thought I was mad...

Ratchapruek Trees
After walking around the lake I crossed the road that divides Chatuchak Park from its next-door neighbour called Wachiribenchatat Park (or Rot Fai Park as some seemed to call it - I'm not sure what the distinction is).  This is the newest of the three parks and was once a golf course owned by the Railway.  There is now a cycling track around it (will have to try that one day) as well as more artificial lakes.  Almost immediately I saw a sight that I hadn't in the first park - a small monitor lizard that ran away from me.  It wouldn't be the last.

I wandered around the lake admiring the yellow flowers known as Ratchapruek.  These flowering small trees really are everywhere and seem very tolerant of their surroundings, growing on roadside verges and waste ground just as happily as they do in this verdant park.  The lakeside had a wilder feel to it than the other park and in some ways was the better for it.  As I wandered along I had the feeling of being observed and as I looked over I saw one of the Javan River Herons that I regularly see on the development site near where I live.  Normally they fly away pretty quickly but this one chose to stare me out instead and I was able to observe its pretty markings.  When they fly away they are a lot whiter than you would expect.

Great Egret
At the far end of the lake is a rather curious find as a steam locomotive has been parked and left as a static display.  The tree growing from its front cowcatcher was a good clue for how long it has been here and the plaque dates it as 1987.  It must have been a pretty mighty machine in its heyday, built by the Japanese in 1950.  Now it looks a bit sad hemmed in by its tree in a forgotten part of the park, with only cyclists regularly passing by.  The coach it is attached to looks a bit tatty but in far better condition than some others over in the car park serving as facilities for restaurants associated with the cycle hire operation.

Staring Contest
I continued around the perimeter route and a little further beyond where I met another lake I also caught sight of a big brute of a lizard.  I reckon it was the middle aged let himself go monitor lizard as this one had a beer belly that I swear dragged along the ground.  It certainly was in no hurry to get away from me unlike the youngster I had seen earlier.  I gave him a wide berth although they are not harmful to humans as a genera rule (if they were you can bet your life they would not be tolerated wandering around a public park).

Engine Cab
At the corner of the lake was an inviting looking gate that I wandered through.  I wasn't altogether sure that this part was open to the public but I had a look anyway.  It seemed to be part of a research institute and there were all sorts of interesting flowers and plants growing in waters being specially oxygenated by machines.  I wandered all the way down to the end and thought I could resume my walk on the other side of a bridge over a lily pad covered pond.  Sadly the gate was locked at that end and I had to retrace my steps all the way back to the beginning and then follow another path parallel to the enclosed part.  I was deep in thought on this stretch when I had the fright of my life thanks to another monitor lizard lurking in the long grass which I didn't see until the last minute.  I was thankful then that they aren't bothered by humans - if they were I would surely have been dinner.

Big Fella
It wasn't long after this that I left Wachiribenchatat Park and entered the last of the 3 parks - Queen Sirikit.  I turned left after crossing the small canal/ ditch that acts as a boundary between the parks and was soon walking through an area of fruit trees.  I felt  like an inner-city child entering his first farm full of bewilderment at all the new sights that were previously unknown.  The one that piqued my interest most of all was the banana tree as it was in flower and I had never previously seen one.  It was immediately obvious though how the flowers turned into the fruits that we all know.  Its neighbour was the papaya tree, a fruit that has become a firm family favourite since our move here.

Banana flower
Having genned up on fruit it was now time to go and see some flowers.  This park is clearly more botanical than the other two for there were numerous displays of hibiscus, palm trees and even a bed of sunflowers.  It was a very pretty place and one to linger for a while.  I had a couple of rests along this stretch as the heat was really starting to get to me by now.  Fortunately at the bottom end of the park I was able to escape at a lovely looking pavilion that I wasn't sure was in use any longer.  There is a gate at the back from where I left the park and headed to a very welcome air-conditioned mall for some well earned lunch.

Lily Pads
This is far from being a challenging walk but it does serve as a good place to start walking in Bangkok as the city itself does not seem to very walker friendly.  I hope that further explorations will prove this early impression wrong as there is a lot to see and I don't want to do all of it using taxi cabs.

Park Flags

Friday, 9 November 2018


Wat Chaiwatthanaram
One week and one day after completing the South West Coast Path my family and I departed the UK for our new lives in Thailand and we now live on the outer edges of Bangkok. This change of life was precipitated by the ongoing cutbacks in Britain, which had made life more and more difficult and in my case led to me being made redundant. This was the catalyst for looking for something else an my wife pulled the most amazing rabbit out of a hat when she landed a job at an International School here in Thailand. We are initially here for two years and if we like it there is the possibility that we will stay on. It promises to be a complete change of pace and this blog will reflect that!

Central Prang
My first trip out of the city was to the ancient capital of Thailand, Ayutthaya. This is approximately one hour north of where we now live but required an early start, largely so we could beat the traffic when escaping from Bangkok. The trip up from Bangkok was lovely - after seeing nothing but city since we have been here it was refreshing to see countryside and fields. None were like anything we have in Britain though - largely they were rice paddy fields and had storks and egrets roaming about in them. I imagine they are full of crayfish and frogs and the like.Since going the first time I have made a subsequent trip using the train and that was a far more enjoyable way of getting there since we went across a tract of countryside devoid of roads and this enabled us to see more wildlife. This blog entry is a blend of all the best bits from my two trips - they were a little different although I visited the same stuff with two different groups of people.
Outer Prang
Trains here are an interesting way of getting around. They aren't particularly quick and for this short journey there is actually little difference in timings between the 'ordinary' trains and 'rapid' or 'special express' but the fares vary considerably. We took an ordinary train and were most surprised at the fare - 11 baht (approximately £0.25) from Lak Si station (our nearest). The special express costs more than four times this amount - still a very reasonable cost to be honest. Life on board in third class is very interesting - you see all sorts of people travelling to work, to see family and friends, Buddhist monks and large groups of old people who look like the go on the train just for social time and a change of scenery. Vendors wander up and down regularly selling drinks out of ice-filled buckets, baskets full of packaged lunches that seem to include mostly rice and preserved fish, plastic looking sandwiches and cut tropical fruits such as pineapple, papaya and mango. The one thing you cannot buy is a beer for selling alcohol on board is illegal.
Reclining Buddha
The best way of seeing Ayutthaya is to travel around the city by bicycle as it is on a fairly large scale and this is what I did on both occasions. It isn't for the faint hearted though - cycling in Thailand on any road is quite a scary experience because of the traffic conditions and the lack of space or dedicated bike lanes. It is possible to walk around but this is even less enjoyable! You can go by tuk tuk too of course but you miss something of everyday life and views doing this.
Wat Phra Si Sanphet

Ayutthaya is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, designated in 1991, and was formerly the capital of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, the forerunner of Siam and later Thailand. It was sacked by the Burmese in 1767 and most of the historical temples were destroyed at that time. The capital city then moved to Thonburi and later Bangkok. What is left here is the most amazing set of ruined temples that only hint at the grandeur of the place before being destroyed. Most of the ruins are on an island in the Chao Phraya River, created by a canal cut across one of the large meander loops that characterise the lower course of the river.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet
We arrived first at Wat Chaiwatthanaram. This was an enormous temple a little way from the centre but gave us a fabulous taster of what was to come. In fact I would say this was my favourite of the sites we went to. Perfectly symmetrical but badly damaged it had a haunting atmosphere about it. The temple, like most of the others here had been badly damaged when the city was ransacked by the Burmese in the 17th Century. Much of the building is now being restored, presumably to stop any more of it falling down. This temple was built in 1630 by King Prasat Thong as a memorial to his mother's residence in that area. The temple's name literally means the Temple of long reign and glorious era and was designed in the then fashionable Khmer style. The towers are known as prangs and this one has a large central one and four smaller ones at each corner of a rectangular platform. Outside this are chedi shaped chapels and inside are a lot of mostly headless Buddhas, which were destroyed by the invading Burmese army. The temple was the plundered for building materials leaving it in its rather forlorn current state.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet
Having satisfied ourselves that we had seen everything we moved on, taking to our bikes and for the first time dealing with the traffic. We cycled along the busy road and across the river to the island that the majority of the city is located on. It was about 15 minutes to the next point of interest, which was known as Wat Lokaysutharum. The temple here was nothing like as impressive as it was mostly ruined - all that remained was a poorly preserved prang above ground level and the rest was just an outline of what must have once been here. However, the whole place was dominated by a huge reclining Buddha which is 42m long. It was an astonishing sight and has clearly been restored quite heavily judging by the variable tones of the material it is made from. Apparently it is often covered in an orange cloth but not today. One thing that struck me was the length of the toes were all the same - once noticed it is a rather strange detail. On the road surrounding the site were a lot of vendors selling incense, drinks, flowers and fried snacks. I guess the open nature of the site lends itself to this kind of activity - not many were buying though.

Golden Buddha
We spent a short time here before moving on again and shortly after setting off I quickly realised that not all was right with my bike. By the time I had got a short distance down the road my tyre was going flat and I had to stop and send the others with me on ahead to let the rest of the group know that I had a puncture. The lady in the adjacent cafe did her best to try and help and soon I had also attracted the attention of the tourist police who also want to help. Help eventually came and we wheeled over the the reclining Buddha where were to meet the truck that was carrying a spare bike. It took forever for the truck to come by which time the tourist police had tired of us loitering and had the tyre off to repair the puncture. Their efforts though I think would have been in vain for when the truck arrived I merely changed bikes.

Elephant Rides
We cycled off to find the others and found them at the very impressive Wat Phra Si Sanphet. This was a much grander affair than we had yet seen and apparently was the holiest of the temples in the whole of Ayutthaya. Judging from its scale I could well believe it. The site was dominated by three enormous chedi (also known as stupas). These succumbed to the destruction of the Burmese army but were rebuilt in a major restoration in 1956 and now add an air of grandeur to the site that is unmatched in any of the other temples. Next door to the ruin there is an active temple, complete with large golden Buddha inside. I took my shoes off as is customary here and went inside for a look before moving on.

Big Nut for a Small Squirrel
On our way to the next temple on our itinerary we got to see our first Thai elephant. I would like to say this was a truly uplifting experience but sadly this wasn't a wild elephant but one engaged in offering rides. I cannot be sure how these ones are treated but I have been told of some horrific practices relating to elephant rides. I definitely had mixed feelings about seeing these ones therefore. On the second trip we saw even more of them - the scale of the operation was quite big and so there is clearly plenty of demand for the rides.
Water Lily

We passed by Wat Phra Ram, which is another paid for entry but didn't stop there principally because we didn't think there was enough to see inside to warrant paying. Our route took us across Rama Public Park, a fantastic green space in the heart of Ayutthaya. We were very thankful to leave the traffic behind as we crossed the park and the shade from the trees was pretty welcome too.

Buddha Head

At the far end of the park we visited time to Wat Phra Mahatat. Having come from possibly the best temple in town this seemed a bit after the Lord Mayor's Show but has probably one of the most famous sights in all of Thailand with the Buddha head that had become engulfed by a tree. Usually one of the most famous sights at Ayutthaya and is often thronged with tourists wanting to get a picture. Thankfully we had come on a quieter day so we didn’t need to fight through the crowds. On the second trip here I took longer to look around the temple rather than just come for the photo opportunity and discovered that it was more extensive than I first thought.
Buddha Statue
On the second trip (which we did the opposite way round due to arrival by train) we also called in at Wat Ratburana next door. This has possibly the best prang in the whole town and had the bonus of being able to climb up to the top (mostly climbing in any of the temples is a big no no). This afforded a great view but also allowed a view inside where we found some roosting bats (not easy to see but easy to smell!) and some very faded frescos. These clearly had escaped the attentions of the Burmese and are definitely worth going to see for there is precious little other artwork anywhere in any of the temples.

Dressed Up
By the time we were done here we were all pretty ready for lunch and that was our next port of call on the edge of the city. We just had a simple lunch of Pad Thai at one of the huge number of roadside cafes. I’m not sure how they all get enough business to stay afloat, especially when they all pretty much serve the same stuff? For a dirt cheap meal it was pretty good and feeling satisfied we moved on, cycling back to the bus at the original temple. Given the heat this was about as much as we wanted to do in one day but there are several other less celebrated temples on the main island and a couple of other further flung ones that I shall definitely want to take a look at now I have familiarised myself with the place. This might form the basis of a future blog entry.
Prang at Wat Ratburana