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A sanctuary within a city.

AUSTRALIA | Saturday, 24 April 2010 | Views [963]

My last visit to Bangkok in 2007 was typical of travelers passing through the city; stay a few nights at a cheap guesthouse; scour Khao San Road for dirt-cheap souvenirs and gifts; get a day pass to the Grand Palace, Emerald Buddha and surrounding temples; hail a ride to the airport and fly away.

I was expecting much of the same this time, but was pleasantly surprised. Touring a city on bicycle provides an alternative and refreshing perspective to that of pedestrians and passengers. During our ten days in the city Dan and I traversed much more of Bangkok than possible on foot, yet could still go places bigger vehicles cannot - the best of both worlds.

Having explored all the public parks the city offers, I want to share one of our favourite places: Santichaiprakarn Park, a sanctuary within the oppressive traffic, noise and pollution.

Located on the corner of Thanon Phra Atith and Thanon Phra Sumen and running parallel with Chao Phraya River, Santichaiprakarn Park is not the largest, nor the greenest, or most historical park in Bangkok, but may be the most charming.

One day, at about noon, we had just visited a bicycle store and decided to seek solace from the relentless heat and humidity in the park while we made some adjustments to our bikes.

Settling down under the braches of a banyan tree, we set to work attaching mirrors, mud-guards and horns, lining tyres with puncture prevention tape and replacing my seat. From when the sun was at its highest point in the sky until its descent and replacement with the moon, we encountered such genuine interaction with locals and foreigners, both young and old, that we were beaming at each other through our perspiration, simply relishing in the community atmosphere of the public space.

In the far corner of the park, a tiled area is buffed and shined as twelve or so local kids break-dance for hours on end. Ranging from five to twenty years old, their fit brown bodies twist and flip, spin and slide, as they express themselves individually and in ‘battles’ between larger teams.

Clad in baseball caps, baggy clothes and sweat bands, they epitomise American hip hop culture, but move and groove to funk! Getting down to James Brown; popping, locking and moon-walking to Michael Jackson; fusing head-spins, hand-stands and back-flips to Rick James - their energy and enthusiasm brings many admirers who cheer, clap and photograph, and has most people tapping along to the beat.

Up a small flight of stairs, a concrete path splits a large area of grass into two even patches. On the left-hand side, a group of ten foreigners are juggling, twirling poi and staff, hula-hooping and performing illusion tricks on an area of lush lawn. Like the dance crew, their fashion style is also loose and casual, but they also shamelessly display a plethora of tattoos, piercings and dreadlocks. Communicating in a strange-sounding staccato of Asian, Middle Eastern and European fusions of the English language, they share tricks with each other.

On the opposite patch of grass, an older Thai couple plays badminton, the woman with a toddler resting on her tiny hip. As she skillfully swats the shuttle-cock back and forth to her partner, the child gurgles, coos and squeals his delight.

Sharing section of lawn are eight Thai boys, aged about thirteen, who throw a basketball between each other’s rapidly-moving hands. They duck and weave their way through an improvised, hoop-less game of the court version - crying out in triumph and frustration as they win and lose points. Shirtless, their narrow, concave chests give no indication of the strength and agility they possess.

Continuing along the path, I reach a 'sala' - a pavilion of sorts. Found throughout Thailand, sala's are open on four sides and used as meeting places or provide shelter from the elements. Typical of Thai temple architecture, its walls are ivory, its roof crimson. At each of the four corners where white and red kiss like lovers, curlicues point to the sky in slender, golden fingers. Roped off from the public, the sala shows subtle signs of ageing; hairline cracks in the walls, black smudges on the pillars; and starkly contrasts with the carefully clipped shrubs encircling it. Skinny trunks are dotted with perfectly spherical green orbs, resembling the letter 'i', with not an errant leaf or twig out of place.

The path takes a sharp right turn from the sala and opens up into a large concrete arena. Its boundaries are formed by the river and sets of steps that lead to a raised platform. Upon this stage, a Thai man is shouting and screaming. Assembled in front of him are a collection of local men and women, struggling their way through a challenging aerobics class. Their tiny instructor, clad in skin-tight Spandex, directs the participants through his head-set without panting; showing any signs of effort, or missing a beat of the dance remixes of recent Western pop songs. He looks like the Energizer Bunny on speed; none of his followers can keep pace with him. In Thai culture song is as integral as dance, and this spectacle combines both, as spectators of the class sing along to the lyrics in their best English.
Tiny babies are patted and juggled by grandparents, as mothers and fathers attempt to keep up with their insanely fit instructor. Overhearing a grey-haired, spectacled woman with skin like a wrinkled nut mouthing "I kissed a girl and I liked it" prompts raised eyebrows and smirks as startled travelers within earshot share the joke.

Taking a seat on one of the many benches that dot the banks of the Chao Praya River, I am mesmerised by the hustle and bustle taking place on the water. Sleepy long-tail boats, speedy commuter ferries and tiny tugboats straining under the weight of pulling barges that dwarf their craft, make their way up and down the brown-coloured river. Rubbish drifts past in the choppy wake they make on its slick, oily surface.

To my left, the Pinklao Bridge carries a relentless stream of traffic along the veins into and arteries out of, the city’s heart. Fancy tourist buses, tiny tuk-tuks, taxi sedans, huge industrial trucks, motorcyclists and cyclists all jostle space on the steaming Bangkok bitumen.

To my right, the Rama VIII Bridge provides a spectacular backdrop, twinkling with orange and white lights in preparation for the nearing sunset. Named after the King of the same title, the impressive structure dominates the central skyline - hundreds of golden suspension cables extend from a single pylon - and is slightly familiar to tourists, who have unwittingly viewed the image while passing twenty baht banknotes to street vendors.

 Avoiding the aerobics class, I step back onto the path and follow it towards another majestic structure, this one dating back to King Rama I's reign: Phra Sumen Fort. One of fourteen built during the time when Bangkok became the countries capital in 1872, it is one of mere two that remain standing today. The fort has two levels - the lower featuring cannons that poke their heads out at regular intervals, while the upper creates an observation tower. It reminds me of a sandcastle with its turrets and peaked roof - perhaps a sandcastle slowly dissolving in the incoming tide, for its brickwork has crumbled from sharp edges to rounded corners over time.

To one side of the fort, pair of ancient banyan trees exposed roots twist and twine like writhing bodies. The district in which Santichaiprakarn Park is located, Banglamphu, was originally named after these ‘Lamphu’ trees, so densely did they populate the area, but now only two remain.

Our motorised bicycles and associated gear take their place under one of them, while the other shelters two old men. Spread out around them is a variety of musical instruments. Slowly, yet steadily, they work their way through the array of instruments, picking each one up lovingly, holding them in their arms as carefully as if they were infants. A few simple tools are used to tinker with their beloved guitars, mandolins, violins and others too exotic for me to name, as they strum and pluck their way towards their desired sound. The dulcet sounds of their conversation and chuckles are as rhythmical as the music they create with their gnarled hands.

A procession of novice monks treads silently and barefoot along the footpath separating this refuge from the surrounding concrete and neon jungle. Freshly shaved heads gleam under bright streetlights abuzz with moths and mosquitoes; their mandarin robes draped in strands of prayer beads, their hands clasp the metal vessels that contain their alms.

Unlike them, I am not secure in my faith – of neither spirituality nor humanity – but just as they find serenity through prayer and practicing compassion, I find it here, in this haven.

Tags: bangkok, community, history, park, serenity.

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