Exploring Bangkok's green lung
Bang Kachao, the popular weekend destination, offers a variety of activities for both the athletically minded or those looking for a lazy day nestled in nature
Grey clouds have been creeping into the sky over Bang Kachao, the green area in Samut Prakan's Phra Pradaeng district, since morning. Sooner or later, rain will blanket the community to cool down a sweltering day.
Bang Kachao (also spelt Bang Krachao) is a popular cycling destination. Even narrow streets in the area that do not have shoulders have a biking lane on both sides to facilitate cyclists. Bang Kachao is a large green area of almost 12,000 rai of land and is home to farmlands, forests and more than 13,000 families. The area is regarded as an urban oasis, which absorbs up to 6,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year and releases about 6 million tonnes of oxygen a day.
People say Bang Kachao, or Khung Bang Kachao, is shaped like krapho mu, or a pig's stomach, due to its shape that is almost surrounded by the Chao Phraya River, the natural curve line (or khung) that makes the land fertile.
My trip starts at Ban Klang Suan Bang Ko Bua homestay where I board a wooden paddle boat to explore Phae Phatthana Canal, or Klong Phae, for short trip. The canal flows to the Chao Phraya River at the point where I can see a large container freight station and the shipping facility of the Port Authority of Thailand (PAT) on the other side. The mouth of Klong Phra Khanong in Bangkok is just across the river.
Visitors to Bang Kachao can try a boat trip along Klong Phae at Ban Klang Suan Bang Ko Bua homestay. The trip lasts about 45 minutes. It will end at the canal gate where you can get off the boat to see the Chao Phraya River and the Bangkok side. One of the highlights of the trip is to see the beauty of tree tunnels of nipa palms.
The boat trip along Klong Phae is the brainchild of Sittipong Phothaworn, the president of Bang Ko Bua Tourism Club.
"I wanted to offer something different from cycling routes," Sittipong says, recalling the time he introduced the canal cruise a couple of years ago.
"My house sits on the bank of Klong Phae. I look at its scenic view every day with appreciation. I like to share the experience with visitors. I thought if I offer a boat trip, tourists will like the peaceful atmosphere as I do."
He founded the tourism club with a group of neighbours. They surveyed the canal and saw the potential. Before launching the paddle boat service, club members collected garbage in the canal every other day. They collected loads of plastic bags, bottles and Styrofoam containers during the first year. Today the waste is not that easy to find. There are no water hyacinths either. Although the water is a little green, it is not smelly. I also spot fish.
In the past, the canal was a main mode of transportation for locals to cross the Chao Phraya River to Klong Toey and Phra Khanong in Bangkok. Farmers paddled boats to sell their produce like fruits, coconut sugar or freshwater shrimp and fish at the now-defunct Pak Klong Khet floating market on the side of Bang Kachao. It was a large market for farmers in Bang Kachao and also in Bang Na more than 50 years ago, said Prakob, who paddled the boat for me and my guide.
But after years went by, the main mode of transportation shifted to the road. The floating market shrunk and finally closed down. Later, a long concrete dyke was built to protect Bang Kachao from land erosion. A watergate was constructed at the mouth of Klong Phae to prevent flooding and saltwater inflow to the canal.
Although it is known as a floating market, Talat Nam Bang Namphueng doesn’t have vendors paddling their boats to sell food. All of the vendors’ shops are located along a bank of Klong Bang Namphueng. The market has expanded a lot since the last time I visited more than 13 years ago. At that time there were about 200 shops. But today, the number of vendors may have tripled or quadrupled. It is segmented into zones for cooked meals with tables, a performance zone and an art zone. Food and snacks are plenty. One of my favourite delicacies is hoi tod khanom khrok (crispy mussel pancake with bean sprouts baked in a clay pan with small round indentations). It is served on a paper plate. The market has eliminated the use of Styrofoam containers but does not yet ask visitors to sort out garbage. Apart from food and desserts, you can also find fresh fruits, vegetables, fashion accessories, clothes and handicrafts.
Klong Phae becomes shallower and narrower, said my guide. Nipa palm trees have grown dense along both sides of the canal. At some points, the leaves of the palm trees reach out from both sides to the middle of the canal, forming a natural arch. It looks like a tree tunnel known as umong jak.
"Umong jak is one of the highlights of our boat trip," said Prakob.
While taking the boat cruise, I can listen to songs of birds chirping along the canal. On the way back, I hear children's scream: "Tourists, tourists." They make giggling sounds and wave to us while our boat passes by.
If I want to go further down the canal, my boat will reach Bang Namphueng Floating Market, said my guide. But the journey will take a couple of hours as the distance is about 3km. It's better to go on land and by cycle.
After getting off the boat, my next programme is to soak my feet in warm herbal water. Phut Dokrak, chairwoman of Bang Ko Bua Herbal Foot Soak Club, and her assistant Dam are ready to welcome you to the spa. Boiled in the large pot are phlai or cassumunar ginger, turmeric, makrut lime, leaves of various plants including tamarind, ngueak pla mo (sea holly plant), chum hed thed (candle bush) and salt. The liquid is yellow and the smell is very pleasant.
Nipa palms are commonly found along waterways in Bang Kachao. At Suan Som Theppharot and Bang Krasob Learning Centre, the farm owner produces tea from nipa palm. The tea is made of nipa flowers, which have a mild fragrance and nom jak (tiny needle-shaped brown flakes found in the midrib of each nipa palm leaf). The tea has a sweet fragrance and doesn’t have caffeine. It can be served hot, cold or mixed with honey lemon. One pack of 10 is priced at 50 baht.
Phut mixes the herbal water with water in a clay bowl to bring the temperature down to a level that makes me feel comfortable to dip my feet. After soaking my feet for 10 minutes, she gives me a 10-minute foot massage. It is quite relaxing.
My journey continues to Baantoop Community Enterprise where I will join a workshop to make herbal incense. The staff of the facility are very keen on accepting visitors. Porn, a retiree, who works there during the weekend leads me to the workshop area. She brings me a bowl with the herbal mixture. It looks like mud but the colour is greenish-brown. The texture is like slime, a glutinous compound that kids like to play with.
"We grind and mix six herbs including lemongrass, makrut lime, sadao [neem], turmeric, krathin [river tamarind] and bark of yang bong [persea tree]," said the volunteer guide. She dips her hand in a water bowl and scoops a portion of the mixture and coats it on a stick. Then she makes a wavy pattern to make the incense look nice. When it is my turn, I end up making a drum stick instead of a nice one. I try making a couple more herbal incenses. I have to admit that the activity is not really enjoyable although it is good to know that there is an effort to produce herbal incense to prevent mosquitoes from biting.
A short walk from Baantoop is the famous Bang Namphueng floating market. Every visitor is required to wear a mask, pass the temperature check and check in with the Thai Chana app. Rain starts to fall. It is only a steady drizzle that lasts about two hours.
Bangkok Tree House is a popular stop for those who want a stylish coffee shop and boutique hotel. Located on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, the property cannot be reached by car. You may park your car at Wat Bang Namphueng Nok, then walk or cycle along a small alley built over the wetland to the property.
After the rain, I have a couple more stops in my itinerary. The place that I like is Suan Som Theppharot and Bang Krasob Learning Centre. What I like in this farm is the hospitality of the people. I did not book a full or half-day activity, which includes cooking local food and a farm visit, but Phueng and her family warmly welcome me to their place.
She shows me the local tangerine variety called theppharot, the geographical indication (GI) product of Bang Kachao. She said the plant was once widely grown in Bang Kachao but is rare today. Noppadol Thongmun, a farmer who continues to plant the orange, founded Khung Bang Kachao Farmers of Theppharot Orchards Club to promote the local citrus plant to other farmers. Suan Som Theppharot is also a club member.
I see small green oranges on a couple of tangerine trees. When ripe, the peel is still green and the taste will be very sweet, said Phueng. It will take months before the fruit fully ripens. The farm also grows other fruits, vegetables and herbs.
"At night, you will see a lot of fireflies. The bugs are safe on our farm because we grow our fruits organically," she said.
The sky is getting cloudy again in the late afternoon. My day trip on Bang Kachao will end soon. The trip reminds me of the good old days of Bangkok when time went slow. Bang Kachao can give a glimpse into rural life. The farmland experience is only a short drive from Bangkok.
At Wat Chak Daeng’s recycling facility, I stopped by to unload my unusual collection of used and cleansed plastic bags, empty PET bottles, glass bottles and used paper. The facility has a team to sort the items. The temple burns plastic bags to produce fuel, while the PET bottles are recycled into ecofabrics for making monks’ saffron robes.
A herbal foot soak is provided by the Bang Ko Bua Herbal Foot Soak Club. The club uses local herbs grown in the community. The group also offers the herbs in small packages at 70 baht and a bottle of massage oil for 100 baht.
Sri Nakhon Khuean Khan Public Park covers an area of 148 rai. It is a popular place to picnic, exercise, cycle and watch birds.
- Boat trips along Klong Phae Phatthana are available daily at Ban Klang Suan Bang Ko Bua. The service hours start from 8am to 5pm. The fee is 100 baht per person. Contact Sittipong Phothaworn at 090-986-7987 or visit bit.ly/2CjYLZT.
- The herbal foot soak is offered by Bang Ko Bua Herbal Foot Soak Club from Saturday to Monday at Bang Ko Bua health centre from 9am to 2pm. For booking, contact Phut Dokrak, the chairwoman of the club at 092-346-0088 or contact Ban Klang Suan Bang Ko Bua for the service after the boat cruise.
- Sri Nakhon Khuean Khan Public Park is open daily from 6.30am to 6.30pm. Bicycles for rent are available for group tours. For individuals, the services are available next to the entrance gate. The fee is 30 baht. Visit suansri-bangkachao.com or call 02-461-0972 and 091-032-0143.
- Bang Namphueng Floating Market is open during the weekends and holidays from 8am to 4pm. For more information, visit bit.ly/2ZA4K5l or call 02-461-3254.
- Baantoop Community Enterprise is open on weekends from 9am to 3pm. There is no entrance fee. For weekdays, Baantoop is open for group visits (at least 20 people). Booking is required only for weekdays at 02-815-0729 and 086-569-1650. For more information, visit facebook.com/teenee.baantoop.
- The recycling facility at Wat Chak Daeng is open daily from 9am to 4.30pm. Visit watchakdaeng.com for more details or call 066-159-9558.
- Suan Som Theppharot and Bang Krasob Learning Centre is open daily. The site visit is free of charge. For a half-day or one-day activity, booking is required at facebook.com/SomTheparos or call 087-934-6493 and 065-441-6493.
- Bicycles for rent are available in popular places like Bang Namphueng Floating Market and Wat Bang Namphueng Nok. The fee is 50 baht per day.