November 2, 2017
Bangkok is the most visited city on planet Earth. More than 21 million people step off planes into this swirling city of history and debauchery. A rip-roaring metropolis hugs the public transport and centuries-old heritage thrives through Chinatown and up and down the Chao Phraya River.
Oh, and there’s a jungle. Did you not know about the jungle?
The Green Lung moniker for Bangkok’s Bang Kachao isn’t a simple reference to the oxygen pumped into the city air – it even looks like a lung from the air. On the ground, coconuts fall, snakes and water monitors slither, and empty, moss-laden biking and walking lanes wend through 16 square kilometers of tropical forest.
Getting to the Green Lung
Given the scarcity of people, cars, and accommodations, the Green Lung is startlingly easy to find. Simply hop on the BTS from any point and head to Phrom Phong. From here travelers can hop on a bike at Soi Ari for a short though boring three-kilometer ride south, but casual cyclists will probably want to cab their way to Klong Toey Port. Travelers on the Metro can alight at Queen Sirikit National Convention Center. Cab or bike, it’s about 15 minutes from the BTS.
Cab drivers will drop cyclists at Kong Toey Port and they are on their own. There is a large ornate gate to the pier one might walk through. Or, there is a mad woman shouting “Bang Kachao, you go? You go!” and pointing at a yellow sign leading to the river. Novice travelers won’t know this, but one should always do what shouting old mad women tell them to do. We followed to a dilapidated but effective pier.
The Klong Toey Port is not like the tourist ports further up the river – next to the Mandarin Oriental and populated by merchants and scammers. No, this port next to the Bangkok Post Customs Office is found in the company of proper merchant ships and barges. The tiny boats taking passengers across seem like toothpicks. The boatwoman was professional and a delight, ferrying us across in only about five minutes
Get Your Bike and Get Going
On the other side of the river, we disembarked to a ready hub where we were given a bike, a map, and a bottle of water. The bikes, far from the athletic cycling style, feature baskets on the front and are ideal for slowly wandering the area. One should be sure to check the bikes before heading out, as the quality can vary.
Twenty seconds on the bike and the journey is already well worth the trip across the river.
The cars are few, the streets are empty, and jungle birds can be heard throughout. The greenery extends through small walkways and bike paths (sans guardrails), where moss and lichen on the overgrown, wet paths create green wonders.
The area of course, is not entirely devoid of humanity. Small shops line the main roads, and there are other bikers cycling through the gently sloping main roads. Cycle long enough in any one direction and bicyclists will run into quaint little restaraunts at which to grab a quick bite.
What to See and Where to Stay
From the stop along Klong Toey Port, the first sight to see is the Siamese Fighting Fish Gallery. Established in 2009, the fighting fish (Betta splendens) are awash with color. At first, the Siamese Fighting Fish Gallery can seem a little childish – colorful, isolated fish in individual tanks – but the area is a serene, quiet oasis filled with cut grass, fountains, and wooden architecture.
The park-like area, which includes a much needed bathroom for a quick break, is ideal for a quick stroll, and the museum itself has a small outdoor café.
Just south of the Fighting Fish Gallery is the Sri Nakhon Khuean Khan Park and Botanical Garden. The waters are still, the site empty, and south of the area is a great place to get lost in the thin walking and cycling alleys of Bang Kachao.
The small, spritzing fountains are understated and quiet, the paths isolated and green. The diverse flowers and plants are delicately aligned – a far cry from the overgrown jungle on the biking paths. In the east of the Botanical Gardens is a birdwatching tower for all you birders out there.
As for culture, there are more than a dozen temples and shrines scattered throughout Bang Kachao. A personal favorite is the temple on Soi Petchahueng 57 next to the river. On my recent journey to the Green Lung, funerary services were being held, so we tried to make ourselves scarce – leading us to the shrines on the eastern edge. Some were gold, some were shining silver, but my favorites were the gray ones turned black with age. The wet Bangkok air had eroded all color from the rocks, but the humidity also caused bright green moss to sprout all over these decaying monuments to the long dead.
East of the Buddhist temple is a small pier – not unlike the one from which we arrived – populated by strolling monks and well-fed soi dogs. After all the green, trees, nature, and flowers, it was this pier I found most visually arresting. We had cycled through green for hours in peace and jungle for hours, yet there, across the river was urban sprawl, hundreds of skyscrapers, including the 42nd floor apartment I had left just hours previous.
Straight south from that pier is perhaps the most striking religious statue on Bang Kachao: the Ganesha of MahaDewalai in the only Hindu temple on Bang Kachao. We were lucky enough to catch it in white, slightly cloudy skies, giving the white elephant god a shaded, golden hue.
As for where to stay whilst in Bangkachao, there are few options, the most recommended of which is the Bangkok Treehouse. Found far east of Bang Kachao, the right-angled wooden and glass architecture fits in surprisingly well in the rustic, near-urban jungle. Even those not wishing to stay the night will want to stop their bikes for some of the finest cuisine on the river island.
Much like all the other beautiful places in the world, Bangkok’s Green Lung faces the brutality of builders and developers. With plans to fill the walking paths with concrete for roads, today the Green Lung is still the finest urban retreat to be had in Southeast Asia. The popularity of the Green Lung is growing, but so are the numbers of people interested in saving it.
The trip back over the river at sunset turned the brown Chao Phraya gold, and swifts, black against the orange light, kept pace with the boat as we left that green world behind. There are many recommendations of Bang Kachao; I still prefer the succinct one we got from the mad old woman at the pier: “Bang Kachao, you go? You go!”