Tuesday, 2 February 2010


Bangkok is hot tarmac and concrete and metal, swaddled in carbon monoxide. In the hot season the canals reek. In the cool season there’s sometimes a breeze, but we haven’t had much of a cool season this year. It's polluted and blazing-bright, and I have a pale complexion which means I don't get on well with the sun. Still, I walk all over the place. Because the air-conditioned cars whose exhaust I trudge in might look tantalising, but how much of the city are the people sitting inside them actually experiencing? I don't walk everywhere all the time, because I'd probably die, but I hear people saying that Bangkok isn't a city you can walk in for pleasure, and I disagree entirely. I really recommend it, and have put some vaguely-organised thoughts on walking together in the hopes that it will encourage someone, somewhere, to go for a stroll.

Why I walk

I walk because the life of a city is in its streets. I walk because that's how you notice the points at which the world breaks away from the pavement, the odd things in shop windows, the art on the walls, the character of a certain street or district.

I walk because it's an interesting way to get to interesting places. I walk because sometimes you have to get hot and sticky and lost before you find the best things. Because travel by foot, even if you don't actually reach your destination, reveals an entirely different landscape to the one you think you know. I once, rather foolishly, decided to see if I could walk from my workplace on Charoen Krung to the Phra Kanong district, by cutting across the land in between, following the river. I got hopelessly lost and ended up going in a giant circle. But along the way I found myself walking, on elevated ramps, through a village-like community built over canals and surrounded by fields, right in the thick of the city. As I walked past an open doorway where an old woman sat cutting betel-nuts, I heard her call into the house, in Thai: 'hey, hey, a farang! Fetch Grandma, she has to see this! Aw, too late, Grandma missed the farang...'

I walk because the best language school
is the school of alley-chats and pavement-shops. I learn Thai faster and better by walking in it, trading in it, asking directions, or for coffee, or where the hell I am. Treading it into my own brain.

I walk because, frankly, the street food in Bangkok is delicious, and the only way to find the best grilled squid or a new kind of technicolour dessert is to roam the pavements, sampling. It's certainly not weightwatchers' fare, but you're getting exercise at the same time, right?

A sweet seller on Chan Road

How I walk

By leaving my house and exploring the streets around it, turning whichever corners I haven't tried before. Or picking somewhere that looks interesting, travelling there by bus or boat, and wandering.

I never, ever go walking without a fat water-bottle, a camera, and Nancy Chandler's map of Bangkok. This is the most wonderful map in the world and perfect for the urban explorer, covered with little tips and recommendations and quirky details. You can buy them all over the place in town, or online.

I feel I should add the usual sorts of advice and warnings - wear sunscreen, cover up, don't let the touts fool you. But my real advice for walking in the city is just - have a sense of adventure.

Where I walk

Not everywhere is ideal for strolling. There are great swathes of concrete highways and ring-roads, knotted flyovers, without much to see, and little shade. (Even these, I think, are interesting to walk through a little, to see how different - how huge, almost alien - such places look when you're not in a car. But maybe that's me trying to justify myself after stumbling onto a long stretch of road and having to trek along it in hope of finding my path again.) There are lots of good places for walking, though. I want to write up walking tours of some of my favourite areas, but sometimes it's good to just get lost, in places like...

Old Bangkok. The most famed Bangkok sights are here, as well as plenty of temples and museums, and there are preserved canals with ornamental bridges, fascinating markets and cheap shops selling all sorts of things (I went for a walk along a canal there once, having scoured the posh malls in town for a ukulele with no luck, and lo! across the road was a row of musical instrument shops, one of them selling a whole range of very fine ukes). There's also Khao San road, of course. This area needs several blog posts of its own, but it's a great place to go exploring in general.

Chinatown. Again, needs its own post(s), but getting lost there is my idea of a good time.

Backstreets, side-streets, market streets in any part of town. You never know what you'll find. Sometimes nothing, sometimes absolute gems of hidden places. Canals, too, are great to walk alongside when you come across them.

Parks. Lumphini Park is vast and wonderful, with different activities taking place all day and great events throughout the year. But there are parks of varying size throughout the city and if I pass one, I'll walk through, just for the chance to be somewhere green and shady, with people to watch, and wildlife, and strange statues.

When I walk

November through February is the best season for walking. Night, and early morning, are the best times. Most of the time I get around by public transport, but even a short walk is worthwhile, whatever the season or time of day. It's interesting to go by foot along the same street at different times, and see how it changes...

That's all for now. Expect more area-specific guides in the future, and information on street food and other things that occur to me.

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