Bangkok, Thailand, February 14, 2020- Thailand’s frenetic capital Bangkok is a city of stark contrasts where historic palaces juxtapose with futuristic skyscrapers. Yet few visitors may know that the world’s most visited city has an unspoiled island, across the river from its gleaming towers, which awaits your discovery. So if you’re looking to escape Sukhumvit’s smog and traffic or experience an alternative to shopping sprees and sky bars binges, you can recharge your batteries at “Bangkok’s Green Lung”-Bang Kachao.
Bangkok’s Urban Oasis Source: Sri Nakhon Khuean Khan Park Website
Located in the south of Bangkok, Bang Kachao nature reserve is a man-made island made by a canal which cuts off a horseshoe bend in the Chao Phraya River. It covers an area of 16 square kilometers, making it over 4.5 times the size of New York City’s Central Park. The island’s nickname the "Green Lung of Bangkok" comes from its abundant palm trees, tropical vegetation and mangrove swamps that help absorb up to 6,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually and produce up to six million tons of oxygen per day.
In 2006, Time magazine named Bang Kachao "best urban oasis", a testament to the efforts of the Thai government’s Royal Forestry Department and other organizations to preserve the island’s nature and way of life from urban encroachment. The island has a local floating market, temples wetland park, museums, coconut palm plantations, palm gardens and a Mon tribe community village making it a great spot for nature lovers, cyclists and those looking to experience Thai slow life.
Crossing the Chao Phraya: Bridge or Ferry If you’re driving up to Bang Kachao from Delta Thailand’s headquarters in Samutprakarn you can cross the Chao Phraya River by the majestic suspension Bhumibol Bridge. After crossing Bhumibol 2, you’ll exit at the connection with the twin bridge Bhumibol 1 and then cross the canal to reach Bang Kachao. If you’re crossing over from Bangkok city, you can take a short ferry ride across the Chao Praya River from piers at Chong Nongsi, Bang Na, and Klong Toei.
Having taken both routes, I found the ferry to be an easier option. Although Bhumibol Bridge is an exciting drive, riding the ferry can cut travel time by up to an hour and saves you the stress of navigating the island’s narrow and twisty jungle roads while dodging hazards like cyclists, villagers and dogs. The ferry at Bang Na Pier is best for going to the Bang Nam Peung Floating Market. You can take the BTS sky train to Bangna station and walk to the pier at a riverside temple. For only 4 Baht you’ll enjoy a great value 10-minute river cruise, sharing the deck with an assortment of motorcycles, pets, villagers, monks and weekenders. Just sit back and let the Kodak (or Instagram) moments begin.
Bang Nam Peung Floating Market: An Authentic Farmer’s Market Arriving on the island, you’ll find another temple where you can rent a bicycle, for around 50 Baht a day, to pedal yourself over to the Bang Nam Peung floating market. While exploring a Thai floating market is on most visitor’s bucket list, many iconic locations are tourist trap mock-ups. Not so in Bang Nam Peung. Here, you’ll still find a real farmers’ market where island villagers come to stock up on wares brought over from the mainland and visitors sample community specialties.
While Bang Nam Peung is a floating market, don’t expect to find the picturesque scenes featured in your inflight magazine. Instead, you’ll experience down-to-earth local life without all the bells and whistles that attract the selfie stick crowd, i.e. swift tail boat rides and rustic hawkers on canoes. You can enjoy the market like a local, picking up a bottle of organic coconut oil (not elephant pants, please) or tucking into a fresh bowl of Tom Yum soup noodles.
Sri Nakhon Khuean Khan Park: Heart of the Bangkok’s Green Lung Close to the market is the heart of Bang Kachao, the Sri Nakhon Khuean Khan Park and Botanical Garden. According to its official website, this park covers an area of 148 rai or 236,800 square meters providing a home to hundreds of plants and animal species. You can learn about the local flora and fauna at the outdoor eco-learning area or go cycling, jogging or walking along the many nature trails.
Entering the shade of the palms and deep mangrove swamps, you’ll likely encounter jungle life from monitor lizards and butterflies to birds. Birdwatchers can scan for resident and migratory birds from a 7-meter high bird watching tower. The park also has a nature trail and facilities for wheelchair users, children and seniors. I particularly enjoyed the lakeside path where you can discover the native palm species that locals grow for oil and sugar.
Bang Kachao’s Community: Mon Villagers, Monks and Hipsters
Among the early people who settled Bang Kachao, the Mon community left an indelible mark on the local culture. This ethnic minority originally migrated from Burma and their descendants now form scattered communities along the southern banks of the Chao Phraya River. You can learn about their history and way of life at the island’s museums or chat with the old timers you meet at the temples, workshops and in front of their raised wood homes.
These days, transplants from the city are helping Bang Kachao’s community develop new businesses like eco-tourism, sustainable hospitality and local craft beer. The declining agriculture and fishing industries caused many original inhabitants to move to Bangkok. Now newcomers and remaining residents are working together to improve the community’s dilapidated infrastructure, restore ancient landmarks and tackle the effects of pollution and climate change.
An Ecological and Cultural Treasure Under Siege
As Thailand chaotically careens down the road to development, over-tourism, soaring PM2.5 levels, unchecked pollution and social turmoil threaten to turn the Siamese capital from the “City of Angels” into yet another soulless and unlivable ASEAN megacity.
Bangkok’s Green Lung itself faces an uncertain future with erosion, rising water levels, profiteering, corruption and deforestation posing an existential threat to the island. This is all the more reason for us to discover the primal beauty of Bang Kachao while we can and see what we stand to lose if we don’t fight to preserve this priceless treasure for future generations.