Central Bangkok’s largest park on a Sunday Afternoon
By Ryan Humphreys
If Bill Bryson can take a “Walk in the Woods” along the well tred Appalachian Trail and write a best-selling novel about his experience, then I thought, “Why not do something similar?” I could take a walk through Bangkok’s equally well-worn attraction, Lumpini Park, and give it a fresh perspective.
The Verge of Delirium
My first visit to Lumpini, (also spelled Lumphini) a few years ago was shocking. A sea of karaoke machines greeted my arrival. I remember a grandmother with moist eyes screeching into the microphone.
Every few yards large families huddled around karaoke machines, singing shamelessly. Enjoying a peaceful afternoon in the park was impossible and eventually, I left the park on the verge of delirium.
Given this negative first impression, I had been hesitant to return. Recently, however, my gym membership expired and, unable to justify the cost of its renewal, I decided to return to Lumpini and visit the outside gym.
Thankfully, the karaoke machines were gone. Instead, I noticed Lumpini was a vibrant place with a lot happening. I promised myself to return a few days later and spend a day walking through the park talking with people, making notes and enjoying the atmosphere.
Lumpini Park is central Bangkok’s largest green lung and occupies 360 rai (58 hectares) of land in Silom. Formerly known as Sala Daeng field it was donated by Rama VI in 1925 and named after Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal. It is easily accessible from the Silom Subway Station and Sala Daeng Skytrain Station.
A few weeks ago, during a visit to the park, I impulsively jumped off the train at a Lumpini Subway Station only to find the entrance across the street closed. I circled around the fence all the while looking eagerly through the bars and wondering how all those people gained admittance. Eventually, swimming in sweat, I did find an entrance. Don’t make the same mistake. The best and most reliable entrance is the main one at Silom behind the large statue of Rama VI.
A Protest Demonstration
On a Saturday afternoon, I ran across the square towards the main entrance off Rama IV Road seeking refuge from the heat. Fortunately, the statue of Rama VI stands sentinel at the main gate and provides a small patch of shade at its back.
While cowering under the stately rear of Rama VI I noticed a group of protesters camped on the grass next to the gates.
These anti-government protesters are loyalists of media firebrand Sondhi Limthongkul who has held a weekly anti-government talk show at the park since his television programme was taken off the air. The popular political talk show, Muang Thai Rai Sapda, was notorious for its criticism of the Thai government.
Various torn banners hung limply decrying the perils of a free trade agreement with the United States and the dangers of foreign ownership. In the midday heat, the handful of protesters were rather subdued sprawled under flimsy tarps sleeping and reading books. I left the shadow of Rama VI and passed through the main gates keeping close to the weak shade offered by the thin trees.
A Search for “Wooded Areas”
In the morning before setting out I consulted my Lonely Planet guide and scanned the index for Lumpini Park. When I found the page I was surprised that the guide only made a brief mention of Bangkok’s main park. Only its location, the origins of its name and a few fleeting anecdotes. However, I was intrigued by the statement that “wooded areas” were to be found in Lumpini.
Coming from Canada, a country of dense, soaring forests I have a particular image of wooded areas. Having not seen any woods that fit my description on previous visits I was skeptical.
Perhaps, though, I hadn’t looked closely enough. Maybe the squealing grannies from my past visit had so distracted me that, in such a bothered state, I simply missed them. A small cluster of trees, a thicket I could enter and peer out on the unsuspecting hordes would have met my expectations.
To quicken my search I approached four women park workers and asked them for directions to the woods of Lumpini. My inquiry met with muffled laughter and raised eyebrows.
One of the women said to her co-worker, “Why is this farang asking about a lot of trees? Can’t he see all the trees around him?” Getting nowhere I changed tack and asked them if there were a group of trees close together. Trees so close that you couldn’t see through them. They thought briefly but shook their heads; Lumpini contained no such cluster of trees they said. I thanked them for their time and continued along intending to stop at the weight area.
An Unusual Bench Press
The main weight area in Lumpini (there are three) has been compared to California’s famed Muscle Beach. If so, it is a poor cousin. There are no shirtless Arnold Schwarzenegger’s strutting around and it is certainly not the den of hard-core bodybuilders. To be fair, there are a few guys with lines of muscularity but they are outnumbered by stringy teenagers and paunchy men.
For the past month, I have been coming to this weight area twice a week to lift. During this time I had been eager to attempt an unusual bench press. Instead of regular weights, there are two large truck tires fastened to the bar, like something from an episode of the World’s Strongest Man. I decided, for the sake of a good photo and personal vanity, today was the day to give it a go.
Simply sitting down on the bench piqued the interest of a group of nearby teenagers. They hovered excitedly about me as I laid down on the bench and grasped the bar.
With a quick thrust, I hoisted it into the air, slowly lowered it to my chest and pumped out eight reps. I returned the bar to its supports and looked back at my admirers encouraging them to try. I joked with them that it wasn’t too heavy and that with a little effort they too could lift it.
“Farang Very Strong”
Buoyed by my success the wiry teens made an effort but couldn’t budge the bar. This failure only deepened their admiration for me. I left the weight area to the chorus, “Farang very strong!” and sat down at a bench, basking in glory.
Lumpini is a park teeming with activity. Just on the footpath, there were many families shuffling along, a barber cutting a man’s hair, joggers braving the heavy heat, cyclists, rollerbladers.
Off the footpath, the arms and feet of young lovers were grasped together like tangled octopi, Indian men passionately played cricket, friends played badminton and European women in bikinis bobbed their heads to iPods and read books.
Thais love mass aerobics. Visit any city park in the early evening and you will see large groups of people doing aerobics. There are two soupy green artificial lakes in Lumpini at the north and south ends. They are connected in the middle by sloughs where you may spot a water monitor searching for a meal. On the lake, families were peddling large floating ducks or rowing boats.
On bridges, children hung fearlessly over the side feeding bread to waiting catfish in the water and cooing pigeons at their feet. Remain idle for a moment and hawkers will approach offering a litany of goods: mats for rent, bread for the fish, fish to eat, beverages and more.
Too Much Sun
With my prolonged exposure to the sun, my head was beginning to feel like a ripe tomato. I had adopted the habit of darting from one pocket of shade to the next when I came to a particularly inviting patch under the broad canopy of a large tree.
I flopped down to wipe the river of sweat from my forehead and realized I was sitting next to another park worker. She looked similar to the others I had met earlier. Dark, leathery skin with teeth as white as piano keys. She wore a dark green army jacket with matching trousers. On her head, a wide-brimmed straw hat protected her from the sun.
I considered offering an inflated sum for her hat but, feeling alright in the shade, instead asked her to tell me something interesting she had seen in the park. She thought for a few moments but said very little is interesting here.
A Search for Stories
I pressed her some more and attempted to lead her with answers: Maybe a child, dangling too far over a bridge, was swiftly scooped up by a water monitor? Or, perhaps a collision between two large floating ducks resulting in drowned swimmers and lame ducks?
“No” she replied laughing at my silly ideas. Seeing that I would persist until I extracted a story from her, she told me about the daily problems of homeless people trying to get into the park after hours to find a place to sleep for the night. They try to climb over the fence (about 2 meters high with spikes on the top).
Occasionally, they get stuck in embarrassing positions on the fence and need to be rescued by security. She found this both amusing and sad. I shared her sentiment and thanked her before resuming my walk through the park.
Calling It A Day
At this point, given the effects of the sun on my head, I decided to leave the park. I made my way out, snaking through the mass aerobics at the main gate and descending gratefully into the therapeutic chill of the subway.
In reflection, Lumpini is worth a visit. It is an interesting diversion for an afternoon to meander about drinking in the sights and sounds. It is wise to visit in the early morning or late afternoon when the sun is less sinister. With so few parks in central Bangkok, Lumpini can get very crowded — especially on the weekends. If you’re just out for a stroll to avoid the crowded perimeter path and walk across the park. It is less crowded and you will be able to relax and see more amusing sights.
Oh, and just in case I haven’t made it clear: Wear a hat!
Ryan Humphreys is a freelance travel writer and teacher living in Bangkok.