BANGKOK – Few in their right mind would consider kayaking down a Bangkok canal for fun, but that’s exactly what some people have been doing lately.
Ong Ang canal, near the Chao Phraya river, has been transformed from a fetid channel covered by a toy and electronics market to a jade-coloured waterway lined with wide pavements and street art. From Fridays to Sundays, Ong Ang’s banks host an evening flea market with buskers serenading the crowd.
The kayaks are free for anyone to use, says Mr Pongsakorn Kwanmuang, spokesman for the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration.
“People in Bangkok think canal water is dirty, and they cannot touch it,” he tells The Straits Times. “But we have tested the water here and it’s very clean.”
It’s all part of a wider transformation that has seen the city of over ten million gradually become cleaner, greener and more walkable, partly because mass transit options have improved.
Bangkok’s steadily growing skytrain and subway network can now deposit visitors right in the heart of Yaowarat – its Chinatown – or as far away as the Erawan Museum in Samut Prakan province.
The city has an average of 7 sq m of green space per person, and wants to raise it to 8 sq m, says Mr Pongsakorn.
“When you go to London, you think of Hyde Park. When you go to New York, you think of Central Park. When you go to Singapore, you think of Gardens by the Bay,” he said. “We want to create a tourist attraction like that.”
Mr Stuart McDonald, co-founder of Travelfish, a South-east Asia travel planning website, still recalls his first experience of the city.
“I first arrived in Bangkok in 1993, flying in from Kathmandu, Nepal. I walked out of Don Muang (airport), into air as thick as butter and every single person had a motorbike. That evening, around Phra Athit, near Khao San Road, I ate delicious food off the street. The vibe was amazing – it was love at first sight and bite,” he told The Straits Times. “The city was grubbier then, but it felt more real and lived in.”
That grubbiness is fast disappearing.
Fresh flower vendors in the famous Pak Khlong market, who used to spill onto the sidewalks with their scented wares, have since been moved indoors.
Khaosan Road, the backpacker hub, now sports smooth new footpaths level with the street and shiny bollards that can be removed whenever the area is turned into a pedestrian mall.
It’s hard to tell how popular the changes are because most tourists are still shut out by Thailand’s entry ban to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. Mr McDonald, for example, thinks some of the revamps like the one in Pak Khlong are ill-considered.
“There is clean and there is sterile. Their character, people, life and energy are being sucked out. For what? To create a contrived and tacky Instagram background,” he said.
Local resident Sumrit Paitayatat is not complaining. On cool a Friday evening, he was strolling along Ong Ang canal with his wife and two-year-old son.
“It used to be really messy and crowded. Now it’s beautiful and relaxing,” said the 49-year-old engineer. “I think I’ll come again.”
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