Who Wants to Walk? Khiri’s Keep Walking Tour
A Bangkok walking tour, not exactly my cup of tea, or so I thought, when Khiri Travel invited me to test walk their latest tour creation in the Big Chili.
It was an early start, too, demanding a taxi ride across the city to the meeting point near the Giant Swing. So I packed my misgivings in my day backpack and hailed a taxi just before sunrise.
I rarely travel by taxis in Bangkok because they cheat you and that breaks the spell of a happy chill out lifestyle. I also limit my walking to the shortest possible commutes to the nearest Skytrain to avoid the heat and pollution. This was going to be an interesting day.
The taxi driver didn’t cheat me. He was a gentleman, chatted amicably and took the shortest route to the destination without any prompting. I arrived early, paid the meter charge, no squabbling, and sat down on a concrete bench to wait the arrival of the Khiri walking guide at 0730.
I imagine you would have to be a delinquent guide to get this assignment.
“Hey you get over to the Giant Swing and do a walking tour.”
You can guess what the average guide would think. No commissions on shopping, just insane or penniless tourists. Who wants to walk, when there are comfortable air-conditioned vans for rent?
The thought struck me that despite living in Bangkok for 40 years I had never spent any time admiring the Giant Swing. Swung past it a few hundred times in tour buses and cars, but never hiked around it, or sat on a bench to take in the early morning scene. Facing Wat Suthat, the original Giant Swing, (built 1784) was moved to the present site in 1920. What I was looking at was a restored Giant Swing, a task that was started in 2005 using six enormous teak trees 20 metres tall. It wad dedicated by HM the King in 2007.
I sipped a three-in-one coffee purchased from the 7-Eleven across the street, while admiring the swing. An Indian family turned up with flowers and fruit to pay homage at a Vishnu shrine that has stood on the corner of this tree-lined street for around 25 years.
The caretaker was sweeping the shrine courtyard clear of petals and leaves from the trees. A stray dog viewed me suspiciously, yawned and tucked up snuggly for a snooze under a nearby park bench.
The Giant Swing stands on a large road island; not exactly the safest place to cross during the mid-day traffic peak, but at dawn just a couple of motor cyclists and an odd bus, or two, loop around the landmark at a leisurely pace.
A sign erected by the Ministry of Tourism and Sports identifies this spot as a landmark on a walking tour of the city’s historical Rattanakosin district. It doesn’t say which way to walk, but I assumed with bit of guesswork you could find your way to the next landmark.
But I have a guide and the creator of the Bangkok Surreal Walking Tour, Koen Olie, who when not hiking around Bangkok searching for new tour ideas, serves as Khiri Travel’s product and contracting director.
My first question was why a walking tour? Most tourists take in three temples, a restaurant and a gem store and say they have done Bangkok; had more than their fill of culture from the comfort of a van seat.
I think Koen likes walking. He obviously sees Bangkok from a different and refreshing perspective that escapes most of us. He probably reckons walking also fits the profile of Khiri Travel’s customers, mainly Dutch, who saunter around their country in an afternoon either on foot or bike if they are in a hurry.
“Visitors see Bangkok as an enormous modern metropolis, full of expressways, massive department stores and skyscrapers, but there is an other (more hidden) side, which clearly shows the origins of a people who still believe in traditions from years gone by,” he explained as we stride off on our early morning endeavour.
I am not the first to test walk this new tour. At lease 15 others, mainly tour operators, have passed this way and not all of them were the energetic Dutch.
“I spent more than a year researching the content of this walk tour,” he tells me as we stroll along a road that skirts the banks of an ancient canal next to government buildings and temples.
From the Giant Swing and Vishnu shrine it just s short walk along the tree-lined road to the ‘prison park.’ We have a debate. When was the prison turned into a park? It stands bang in the heart of historical Bangkok and I recall driving past the forbidding walls in the early 70s. It was not a friendly looking place.
Today, it is a popular place for residents to exercise, an oasis of tranquility in the heart of a very noisy, bustling city. Elderly folk meet for their daily chatter and office workers tone up before they head to the high-rise chaos of the business district. A ballroom dance teacher takes pupils through their steps, while retirees play a Chinese version of chess on small tables shielded from the morning sun by leafy trees.
The few remaining pollution stained prison buildings houses park offices and a museum, while the high boundary walls and towers remind us that it wasn’t a fun place to meet friends back in the 70s.
The Bangkok Remand Prison” was opened in 1890 during the reign of King Rama V. Its original name was “Prison for Serious Crime” and covered a much larger area. It was converted into the Rommani Nart public park in 1990 leaving just a few watch towers and buildings to remind of us its past.
On the eastern side of the park, there is a small museum consisting of two yellow buildings located on either side of the old prison gate.
The northernmost building features architectural exhibits linked to the prison’s history such as furniture and office equipment. To the south of the gate, the other building houses torture instruments and exhibits some depicting past execution methods such as beheading and a cleaner version, a mounted machine gun, along with other tools of the prison trade. The museum is only open weekdays.
By now I am admitting I have missed a remarkably interesting part of the city over the last 40 years. It’s an eye opener. Amazing Thailand unfolds to surprise a jaded traveller.
The pace is leisurely through this old quarter of Bangkok that would be very difficult to explore by car or van. A motorbike would be fine, even a bicycle, at least until we reach the narrow lanes leading to a stretch of open-air markets.
I wasn’t particularly impressed with the markets, although I could see the attraction for a first-time visitor to Bangkok who happens to be an avid amateur photographer. There is plenty of subject matter in the lanes that hide one of the city’s oldest day markets, bustling and thriving despite convenience store competition.
Like all Thai markets you can buy almost anything except a second-hand coffin. It was the prices that got my attention. Tesco or Makro are cheaper by quite a sum, but still the lanes were packed with housewives buying fish, meat and poultry, snacks and fruit to take home. They probably discovered that the long commute through traffic jammed streets to a supermarket devoured what you hope to save.
We duck into a small coffee shop next to the market for a real coffee, made Thai style with lots of condensed milk that sweetens the strongest of brews.
Koen points to a couple of gun shops where you can buy a weapon to pop your noisy neighbour and nearby the local breeder of prize fighting cocks stacks his birds in wicker baskets. I thought cock-fighting was illegal in the capital. Not in this quarter of town.
Most of the shops in the maze of tiny lanes and alleys are extensions of living rooms. Home spreads horizontally spilling out on the already cramped streets with trestle tables piled high with goodies for sale. In the evening these items of commerce reverse back into the home, shutters clatter to the uneven pavement and the telly is turned on at full blast. Is there ever a moment of silence in these city lanes?
I wonder if I could do this walk by myself? About half of it, I reckoned, before I would be hopelessly lost. Then I would miss the keen eye of the guide to point out those small, but fascinating features as well as a narrative obviously well researched. You would fumble around for 30 minutes and end up in a 7-Eleven to buy a Magnum and hail a taxi to the nearest shopping mall.
Not a Magnum insight in the market, but the Thai desserts were fine, a little chewy, but the vendor who sold them to us chalked us up as the day’s bonus; not many foreigners pass by this neck of the woods.
But there were signs that the small communities in this old quarter were making some changes to please tourists who drop by.
A whole street of wooden shops, with tiled canopies are packed with boutique restaurants and shops selling snacks and food items, some packed for export.
Shops in this street community, dating back to the 1930s, are blessed with a local council that handed out wooden lecterns that stand on the pavement describing the food and snacks of each house in both English and Thai.
We pass through the three street junctions of Prang Sapasart, Prang Nara and Prang Phuthorn, all famous for their street food. The dining experience extends to the sidewalks from small two-floor shop houses painted green. They reflect the distinct Thai-Portuguese architecture of commercial buildings in the King Rama V era and make great backdrops for photographs or even selfies.
There are some amazing dishes advertised on the sidewalk menus such as pork brain soup and Thai royal cuisine (Seri restaurant) and other traditional snacks.
I am fascinated by the army and navy store on the corner of one of the three junctions. Here, you could kit out in military fatigues ready for adventure, or buy garden boots that will keep the rainy season leaches at bay. Then there is a collection of musical instrument shops that will sell you just about anything from a tinkling triangle to bass guitar.
From here we cross the road and through a lane to the side of the Ministry of Defense building, its impressive entrance facing the front of the Grand Palace. To our right is the City Pillar and beyond, the busy intersection at the corner of Sanam Luang, or the royal parade ground.
“Take a close look at the ancient guns,” Koen tells me. I do and conclude they are very respectable collection of cannons probably dating back a couple of centuries.
But I hadn’t noticed they are not pointing in the direction they were a couple of decades earlier. They used to face outward from the main door of the ministry; barrels pointing directly at the Grand Palace.
“Not such an auspicious idea someone pointed out,” claims my host.
The barrels were rearranged and now point to the left and right of the building well away from the famous gabled roofs of the Grand Palace.
We stroll around the City Pillar, watch the classical dancers and musicians perform in one the pavilions before walking across Sanam Luang. I start to feel the glare of the mid-morning sun on this wide exposed ground. A solitary horse stands under a canvas tent, halfway across the ground, waiting for tourists to book a ride.
Beyond is the city’s amulet market that stretches along the side of a temple and ends just short of the riverside Thammasat University campus. One last busy lane to travel down and we end the walking tour at a small riverside restaurant, next to a pier.
The tour starts at 0730 and ends here at 1130 with snacks and soft drinks included. Price per person THB950. Goes daily with a minimum of two people.
Khiri Travel offers the walking group to its overseas clients (B2B), but there is talk of extending sales to include individual leisure travellers and family travellers. It makes for an interesting family outing; a change from visits to shopping mall for pizzas and ice cream.
The quality and appeal of the tour depends very much on the tour guide. If they are enthusiastic about walking tours and know the background of the communities in this old quarter, then their enthusiasm will make it fly. The opposite could happen if the guide hates walking and pines for the next “Around Thailand Tour booking where the tips are awesome and the airconditioned bus keeps skin pearly white.
The tour is mite difficult to discover on the company’s website, but it is relatively new and in the experimental stage. You might say a downside is the absence of a route map, but tour companies are often fearful that their best kept secrets could be copied.
Even though the walk hardly covers 6 km, as the hot season approaches 0730 might be on the late side. Conclusion: A refreshing way to tour the old city and after 40 years living in traffic congested Bangkok, here was a different city perspective in sharp contrast to the condos, hotels and shopping malls of the Sukhumvit golden mile.