A Walk In the Park
Bangkok is not big on parks. Far and away the most famous is Lumpini of course, but most people would be hard-pressed to name others. There’s that little one on Sukhumvit that was put there when a politician had a conscience attack after having his hired thugs one night smash down the small businesses, beer bars and souvenir shops that used to be on the site that he had bought for redevelopment. But travel to the south-eastern corner of the metropolis and you’ll find what must be one of the greatest city parks in the world.
It is called Rama 9 Park, or Suan Luang Rama 9, and it’s big. I’ve been there many times and I would still get lost in it without my wife to guide me back to one of the exits. It covers 500 rai, or 200 acres, and it was opened in 1987 to celebrate the King’s 60th birthday. To find it go out to Srinakarin Road, and it’s about one kilometre behind Seacon Square and the Seri Center. Although you would be hard-put to recognise the fact, it has six zones; one zone is a Homage To His Majesty, an impressive though seemingly little-used nine-sided pavilion, a Commemoration Hall built in the style of the Ratanakosin era. The building contains a modest exhibition showing various projects inspired by His Majesty, together with some royal artifacts. One entrance to the park has an impressive approach to this building, with an expanse of water and fountains dividing two wide walkways.
The building is partly set beside another zone, a large artificial lake or reservoir which serves to prevent flooding in eastern Bangkok. You can hire little boats there for peddling around in. Then there is a botanical garden dedicated to the knowledge, collection of and research into various types of flora. Another zone comprises an open garden where Thailand's natural heritage, including its mountains and geological features, is represented in miniature. A fifth zone is a large open field where concerts sometimes take place, and there is a water garden zone in the form of some mixed ‘jungle’ and marshlands which is home to various fish and birds.
In addition, there is a small building containing various cacti which when I last looked could have done with some upgrading, a fern and orchid enclosure, and a small and rather scruffy fitness area. There are also small areas supposedly representing gardens from Japan, China, France, England and the United States, although they require a good deal of imagination. Throughout most of the park there are speakers that broadcast music or news, often carefully placed so that as you move out of the range of one speaker you enter another. So if you want a quiet walk in the park with just your thoughts for company, forget it. Cars are also allowed into some areas, and it can be annoying to have to keep stepping out of the way of them on some of the footpaths that also serve as roads.
The park is very popular all year round and is used by many people in the early morning and evening for jogging. Catering is very limited for such a huge area with only a small S&P, although there are various kiosks selling the usual snacks and ice creams scattered around the place. Towards the end of November the park is closed for 15 days to prepare it for a period of celebration for His Majesty’s birthday, when special flower displays are laid out and various stands are set up to sell clothes, food, plants, art and traditional products such as those triangular cushions we sometimes see in authentic Thai restaurants. There are also a few fun fair-type stands where you can try and win prizes, and four stages are set up for performances by bands from around the country. It can get very crowded during this couple of weeks as thousands converge on the place to enjoy the cooler weather, and they spread out their mats under the shade of the trees for a picnic. Many people love to pose by the floral displays for photos, and at other times of the year you can see dozens of university graduates who pick the location to have their celebratory photos taken in their colourful gowns. Some choose to have their wedding photos taken there (in Thailand, formal wedding photos are taken before the wedding, not after), and it is not unusual to see ‘serious’ photographers dragging their tripods from place to place so they can get that special picture.
The park is certainly a far cry from the noise and bustle and pollution of downtown Bangkok, and it provides a welcome alternative for many Thais who often live in a small and crowded apartment.