Just as we were thinking about developing walking tours in Bangkok, I had the fortune of being introduced to Ken Barrett, the author of a great book called “22 Walks in Bangkok”. When we first met I had one question for him – “If you could suggest one place for a walking tour, where would it be?”. Our Diversity and Harmony Walking Tour was the result!
To celebrate the launch of our new brand “Walks of Bangkok”, we thought it would be good to catch up with Ken again and get some more insight from him about his book and Bangkok.
Here we go with the interview:
Why did you decide to write the book “22 Walks in Bangkok”?
I first came to Bangkok in 1981, when as a (very young!) editor I was offered a contract to manage a stable of travel magazines. I left after two years but then came back in 1994, and have been here ever since. The city has always fascinated me, and over the years I have tramped the streets seeking out the history of the old districts, the temples, the different communities, and so on. Bangkok is a series of villages. Some years ago I had written a series of articles on this theme for a local magazine, and I decided to expand on the concept and produce an entire book on urban walks. It is actually a history of Bangkok, explored through the city’s neighbourhoods.
Which is your favorite walk in the book?
Walk 6, along the inner moat. The klong is surprisingly peaceful, with ancient little footbridges so you can cross back and forth, and the walk passes some really lovely historic temples before taking you out to the open greenery of Sanam Luang. Even pausing to explore, this walk can easily be done in less than two hours…an hour if all you really want is a pleasant stroll.
Have you got a favourite story or anecdote that you picked up while researching the book?
I kept unearthing fascinating little stories! Amongst my favourites: Wat Kanikapon, built by a Chinatown madame, its windows and doors decorated by stylised wooden curtains; the Christian villages founded by Khmers and Vietnamese at Samsen Road; a Japanese temple tucked into the compound of Wat Liab, which has a colourful history; the royal execution stone at Wat Sampeng, and its grim history; the Temple of the Angels, the only temple in Thailand honouring bhikkhunis, or female monks; the mysterious structure outside the British Embassy, which is actually an old boundary marker; and the image of footballer David Beckham, who appears as one of the deities at the foot of the Buddha image at Wat Pariwat.
What surprised you the most about Bangkok when writing the book?
The Thai people are SO polite! I would sometimes find myself in neighbourhoods where Western visitors must be a very rare sight, and the only responses that I had were friendly smiles and calls of greeting. Even when I was walking past a crowd of schoolchildren, all I heard were cheerful attempts to try out their English. I know enough of the Thai language to understand if I am being insulted, but never once did I hear a bad comment. There is such a natural warmth to the Thai people. If a funny looking foreigner was spotted wandering around certain districts of London, I don’t think he would be quite so welcomed.
Do you think Bangkok is a good city to explore by foot?
I think the only way to explore Bangkok is by foot. The little streets and alleyways contain so much detail. No one learns much by being bussed into a famous landmark and being bussed out again. It was my intention to reveal these hidden little places.
Where is your favorite city for exploring by foot and why?
Aside from Bangkok? Yangon, I would say. I currently have a book in production entitled 25 Walks in Myanmar, which follows a similar format to 22 Walks in Bangkok. Yangon is a marvellous place to explore on foot. And there are no motorcycles in the city!
Where is your favorite place in Bangkok for exploring by foot and why?
The old Portuguese district on the riverfront at Thonburi, which has grown up around Santa Cruz Church, and which is still a Christian community. There is still at least one baker here who produces the distinctive little cakes that were introduced by the Portuguese.
How many of the walks in the book do you think will significantly change (due to development) in the next 10 years?
None of them…some of the details will change, and I shall at some point do an update on the book. But the Thais are becoming very conservation-minded, and preservation of the historic districts is very important to them.
How has Bangkok changed since you first came?
The more modern parts of Bangkok are far more beautiful now than when I first came. Sukhumvit Road, for example, was an unrelieved stretch of ugliness, with cheapo shophouses that had been flung up directly after World War II characterising the entire stretch, way past the Asoke junction (which didn’t exist at that time). The rise of the tall buildings has been extraordinary. When I first came here, the Bangkok Bank building on Silom, which had just been completed, was the tallest structure, followed by the Dusit Thani.
Favorite temple in Bangkok?
Impossible to say, really. The joy is in the history, and in the details of the architecture, the murals and so on. It is very easy for the casual visitor to get temple’d out in Bangkok, because unless you know what you are looking at, so many of the temples can look the same. Only when the stories and the purpose behind the temples is known can they become places of fascination.
Favorite park in Bangkok?
Saranrom Park, which is on Walk 6. This was formerly the gardens of Saranrom Palace, and when the building was taken over by the government the gardens were made public. Few visitors are aware of the park, which has its own botanical garden, and there is an interesting history, together with a rather melancholy story that is commemorated by a monument that is regularly visited by Thai people.
Favorite area for eating?
Anywhere and everywhere! The great thing about walking in Bangkok is that whenever you are hungry or thirsty, refreshments are always immediately available.
Kenneth Barrett is a journalist who was born in London and who has spent half his life in the Far East. He has lived in Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand, and has travelled on assignment to most of the Asian countries. He is also familiar with parts of the Middle East and South America. A freelancer, he has written for newspapers and magazines of all kinds and has had regular columns on food, books, TV criticism and humour.
Barrett’s greatest interests combine travel with history and architecture, and this has resulted in the publication of 22 Walks in Bangkok: Exploring the City’s Historic Back Lanes and Byways. The book is a journey on foot through the historic districts of Bangkok, bringing the city to life by explaining how each evolved, describing the landmarks, and relating some of the curious stories that he found along the way. Barrett is an accomplished photographer, and the book is illustrated with his own photographs.
You can buy “22 Walks in Bangkok” at a lot of book shops in Bangkok or online at Amazon