Stickman Readers' Submissions February 20th, 2013

Running in Bangkok

On my first visit to Thailand back in 2006, I spent two weeks with a friend who was a seasoned visitor of the Land of Smiles. Although his knowledge and experience afforded an enhanced experience and ideal introduction for me, the fortnight consisted of long hours during the day spent in pool halls, beer bars and other venues of kinetic torpidity. Fabulous temples, tourist sights, parks and open spaces were only glimpsed briefly during taxi rides between the Sukhumvit, Silom and Khao San locales. My friend hates sightseeing, museums and such-like, and although Pete is great company, with an encyclopaedia of verifiably true and bizarre stories to make the hairs stand on end, (the best friend who ‘emigrated to Australia’ only to turn up weeks later as a stalker in disguise, his narcoleptic handyman mate with a penchant for nudity resulting in disastrous on-the-job consequences, the ‘wardrobe + falling dumb-bells + laptop password’ incident that led to divorce etc, etc) he’s not one for ‘give and take’, preferring to stick quite stubbornly to his own agenda. It’s the age-old rub when travelling and holidaying with friends, partners, etc – wills have to bend and sacrifices have to be made to accommodate.

A second trip six months later warranted that some ground rules be drawn up. The main being ‘each do your own thing and let’s meet at the bar at 6. This chiefly resulted from my general aversion to day-time drinking, even on holiday. It’s not so much the drinking itself (I love an occasional ‘Leo Sayer’…aka an ‘all-dayer’) as much as the creeping sense of urgency, thanks to the disciplined schooling of the Jesuits, that I should be doing something else instead. Not least in a city like Bangkok, where there is just so much to see and explore and experience (not that the Jesuits would approve of all my experiences here – but that’s another sub!). Which brings me to the subject of the piece. I have formed the habit of going jogging at least 3-4 times when I’m on vacation, to try and counterbalance the general abuse I’m inflicting on my system with holiday indulgences. Even on trips to hedonistic destinations like Ibiza, Vegas Cancun, every other day you will find me pounding some godforsaken thoroughfare in the shafts of morning sunlight. It’s certainly a cure for a hangover, and a routine I’ve forged and generally adhered to since my late 20s, when in rehab from a soccer injury. I rediscovered a joy of running from my early teen track days, and another pleasant side-effect were the ‘runner’s highs’ at the end of these sessions. Other benefits were quickly noticeable – improved appetite, slimmer physique, better sense of well-being, mental alertness and a communion with and awareness of the outdoors.

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Going for runs on Thailand holidays, I thought initially, would prove to be logistically challenging, in terms of both climate and physical environment. Paved, regular streets in the West generally afford a safe, navigable route for a runner. Streetscapes in Asian cities are generally more chaotic, polluted and populated. On this second trip to Bangkok in 2007, we were staying close-by to Lumphini Park in the Silom / Sathorn area. So it was that one day around noon, I ventured out in running shorts. I didn’t know what kind of course I would find at Lumphini, but to my delight I discovered a 2.5 km circuit of wide, level tarmac encircling the lakes of the park. Even better were the route and regular distance markings. I ventured off on a 5 km run in Bangkok noon-day heat. There did not seem to be many other fellow joggers – read ‘none’. This was the month of May by the way – hot. I dimly recall another lady speed-walking in the opposite direction, she looked slightly crazy. Anyway, back to my run – by 3 kilometres, there were warning alarms going off in my system not to mention glances of mild curiosity from the park security and gardening staff lurking under shady trees. By 4 kilometres, I was mildly delirious but the sense of mental toughness I’ve developed over the years got me to the 5 kilometre mark. The last half kilometre was extremely arduous and it was sheer novelty that overcame rational signals from my body to ‘stop running immediately’. Gasping with exhaustion and in a state of near-collapse, I made for the shade of the trees by the lakeside and remained under them for half an hour until my core temperature fell to somewhat normal levels. I’d probably only avoided incurring serious heatstroke by mere moments…and now, as I made my way to the gates, I was plateauing on the most intense naturally-induced endorphin rush I’d ever experienced. I seemingly floated serenely back to the hotel and plunged into the pool, feeling utterly invigorated. A while later, I went to the bathroom to pass water – which had now turned into an almost solid dark green viscous liquid – a sign of the extent of de-hydration I’d driven myself to… I was hooked! Also, the 1st beer tasted damn good that night!

In all seriousness, this was a very foolhardy way to begin my journey as a paid-up runner in Bangkok. It’s kind of stating the obvious but I learnt first-hand: vigorous exercise in the Thai sun should be avoided, even for experienced athletes who are not totally acclimatised to such conditions. I was quite lucky not to learn a much more painful and dare I say fatal lesson.

Rule number 1: Do not run in the day-time heat, roughly between the hours of 10.30 AM and 5 PM. You might think you’re tough, but I’m tough and I got into all sorts of trouble, and I did again about 6 months ago when I started a 6 km run at about 10.30 AM – it didn’t feel too hot, but it was already too hot for a run over a 6 km distance with the humidity factored in. Morning and late afternoon – evening are the best and safest times to run.

I can’t say enough about jogging as an exercise for anybody looking to improve fitness, lose weight, and maintain mental well-being or simply for its own sake. While the Bangkok climate might at first seem unsuitable to running, the high heat and humidity has benefits of its own – muscles will be already be warm before you start exercising and strains and other injuries will be minimised for the same reason. Sufferers with chronic muscle and arthritic pains often find their symptoms ease in such climates. I find my muscles have little or no tightness the day after a run in Bangkok, in contrast to running anywhere with a less sultry climate. In fact, I found that while in Bangkok was able to run regularly (4 times a week) on a long-tern knee injury – which was out of the question in colder climes. Seriously, people pay lots of money to take Bikram Yoga (and similar ‘hot-style’ yoga) classes, where they use industrial heaters to raise the ambient room temp to about 42 Celsius – heck there’s even a branch in Bangers – talk about sand to the beach! Save your money and go jogging instead. And those ‘runner’s highs’ need another mention – because your body is working harder in the heat and humidity, the endorphin rush you experience at the end of your run is heightened considerably and also longer-lasting. Yet another bonus, if you choose to run in the evening in the popular places such as Lumphini and Benjakiti, is the eye-candy (whatever your sex). Fit young specimens in Lycra – what’s not to like! (Note – just for the record, as a non-metrosexual male, I would not be seen dead in Lycra!)

If you’re new to running, all the usual common sense applies. I don’t need to spell out what to wear, drink, etc. Just get out to the park – run for a short period, then rest-walk in between and start to run again, and build up until you can get round a lap of the park with no rest intervals. Listen to your body, if you feel feint, stop! As your endurance improves, just add distance or increase pace as desired. The weight drops off, well-being increases and it becomes a positive part of a weekly routine.

A personal tip – don’t listen to music if you can possibly do without it. You’ll be able to focus on your breathing more for starters. Another thing I find is that during the act of running, once you get into a rhythm, your mind can and will wander and begin to mull over things you have on your mind. Something about the ‘displaced activity’ of aerobic exercise seems to aid critical faculties and encourage a stream-of-consciousness state, and I myself have often solved problems and come to decisions while out running that I’m convinced I never would have had I been doing otherwise. Much has been written on this alone. I find that having no music allows for the maximum benefits of this phenomenon.

As I mentioned previously, street running in Bangkok is generally out of the question due to the crowds and dangers. The best places I have found are Lumphini Park (2.5 km lap) in the Wireless Road / Silom area and Suan Benjakiti (2 km lap) at Asoke. Both are centrally located, have wide, dedicated, distance-marked circuits with nice level surfaces perfect for jogging and pace-running. These circuits are also floodlit for night-time running. Lumphini is very popular with joggers/runners in the evenings but never really crowded, and there’s a nice ‘communal’ atmosphere as everyone jogs/runs in the same direction, which makes it comfortable to overtake or be overtaken. Of course, the odd stubborn farang will come past in the opposite direction, insistent on their right to do things their way. Lumpini has lots of entry points, so access from different locales is easy, just come in the nearest gate and you are on the jogging track. The park with its shimmering lake, towering trees and illuminated towers at sunset is a feast for the eyes. One surreal experience I had was during wet-season, when halfway into my 5 km run, the heavens opened like only they can in South-East Asia. Everyone, including the locals, fled and I was left running through torrents with the park to myself! I got some funny looks walking back into the hotel – I was wetter than a marlin’s mankini!

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Benjakiti Park is less crowded but has the advantage of being laid out around a beautiful man-made lake. It really is a gorgeous setting and an oasis of open space amongst the concrete wilds of the City of Angels. Practically deserted in the daytime (as if it is some undiscovered myth) it comes more to life at around 5 PM when joggers appear for their evening exercise. Access can be gained from the northern (Asoke junction) end of Ratchadapisek Road and also from Sukhumvit Soi 10 if you carry on heading south and follow the deserted road lined on one side with industrial units and romantically named ‘Falling Rain Road’, you will eventually come to a park entrance on your left hand side. Annoyingly, there is a convenient entrance right at the bottom of Soi 10 and it usually looks open, but any time I have tried to enter here, some Hitler appears and aggressively redirects me. So anyone coming from Sukhumvit either has to go all the way round the Asoke way or to the end of Soi 10 and then approximately another 1 km along the road to the next entrance!

There are other open spaces within the Bangkok metro area where jogging/running is possible but I’m not out to compile an exhaustive list, just merely highlight the easily accessible places. I’ve heard of people jogging somewhere near the Victory Monument area but can’t guess where that might be from simply studying a map – maybe it’s Suan Santi Phap – but it looks decidedly small…I’d rather have Chateau Neuf du Pap! Another place I have been to is Chatuchak Park, a.k.a Suan Benchathat in the Lad Phrao area of the city. By area it is the largest park within the metro area and it would certainly be possible to run here, but I noted that the pathways are not as wide and even as Lumphini and Suan Benjakiti. I have also been able to accommodate morning runs in Pattaya – but any companions have for some reason not been so keen! The obvious place is Beach Road, where the palm-tree lined length from the Dusit Thani hotel up to the start of Walking Street is about 2.5 km – so there-and-back and you have a nice 5 km route. You would want to do this before 10 AM however, as any later and the hordes will be out.

So there’s my little essay on ‘Running in Bangkok’. I hope someone enjoyed it, and if anyone knows of any other locations within the Bangkok metro that are suitable for running routes, let me know!

Peace Out!

Stickman's thoughts:

Excellent! You've highlighted and accurately described the best 2 places to go running in downtown Bangkok!

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