Make your way to the historic fort at Mahakan. (Photo: Alamy)
If you take some of the roads less traveled as you look for things to do in Bangkok, you might be surprised by the number of cultural hideaways and green spaces you can find. Here are three rare gems to help you unwind.
It might sound unexpected for the city where tuk tuks are King of the Road, but bicycling in Bangkok has been gaining traction over recent years. From Critical Mass—a group bike ride on the last Friday of every month that promotes cycling in the city—to hip biker cafes, most cyclists’ wishes are catered to.
Bangkok offers an extensive labyrinth of little back alleys that are extremely cycleable and that take you to hidden oases of calm—as well as straight back in time. A time where chickens roam freely (watch your spokes), chilies lay out to dry and kids play in the street.
For a relaxed Sunday afternoon cycling experience, start at Cafe’ Velodome, a friendly bike cafe in Thammasat University that serves delicious iced Thai milk teas.
At the cafe you can sign up for the free Mahakan Tour (among others), which takes you to a quiet peaceful village within Bangkok’s big wall that marks out the old city. Some of the key, ever-so-friendly characters on Bangkok’s cycling scene will guide you to the magical village of Mahakan, the heritage area next to the Mahakan Fort—a traditional citadel that was once used to defend the city.
Entering Mahakan is like time traveling; some of the beautiful wooden houses are more than a century old and there is no traffic to be seen. Park your bike and walk down to the river where you can spot the monitor lizards—huge lizards that can grow up to 6.5 feet in length.
These impressive animals are called monitor lizards because they supposedly only live in clean water. However even these wizened lizards have adapted to modern city life and are said to eat local cats!
Visit Mahakan sooner rather than later, as Bangkok City Hall is planning to dismantle the homes and regenerate the area. The residents however have been fiercely fighting the local government (and have been doing so since the ’90s), attempting to preserve the area by turning it into a ‘living museum’.
This tranquil mini library is hidden on the third floor of an unremarkable building just off the busy Silom Road. You will be pleasantly surprised to encounter this enclave, which is home to dozens of philosophy, art and design books.
The Reading Room is a unique cultural space in the center of Bangkok that sprouted from a private book collection.
The collection includes most of the key art theory and contemporary art books, both for the Thai as well as the Western art scene.
Unfortunately the library doesn’t seem totally up to date with recent key art publications, but this is easily forgiven; Reading Room functions as a friendly, welcoming and open space to relax, cool down, get inspired, read, meet like-minded people and even play the occasional board game.
Non-commercial places like this are scarce, especially in the heart of Bangkok, and are to be cherished. No membership needed, no fee needed, the books here are kindly shared with those who love them as much as the owners do.
The Reading Room also frequently organizes lectures, film nights and workshops and operates under The Foundation for the Promotion and Preservation of Thai Art.
The Bangkokian Museum is not a museum in the regular sense of the word, with white walls and paintings.
Rather this is a beautiful tucked-away garden that not many people know of; a lush green area in Bangkok with cultural heritage status that houses three immaculately maintained buildings from the early 20th century.
You will find beautiful relics and photos from the Suravadee family, showing the not-so-bad lifestyle of middle-class Bangkokians in the Bang Rak district.
The collection ranges from a cigar collection to stunning porcelain (some dating back to as early as the mid-19th century) and sparkly jewelry.
The previous owner donated the estate to the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority in 2004 to open it up to the public and make it a museum, it being a site with a long history and well-preserved interior. However, after a change in politics the Bangkokian Museum is now under threat with an 8-story building planned next door.
Locals and engaged Thai socialites are working on a detailed plan to turn Bang Rak into a ‘green creative district’ to retain the lovely relaxed vibe.
A key partner in this ambitious plan is the BIG Trees Project: a community organization consisting of architects, artists, lawyers, designers and more who are trying to make Bangkok more green and creative.
As for now, bring your lunch, find yourself a nice place to sit down in the garden and see if you can spot the tortoise while you can.