Living in a dusty, grimy Samut Prakan neighborhood (as I do) it's easy to forget sometimes just how close you are to the sea (The Gulf of Thailand to be exact).
I had heard about the Bang Pu Coastal Walk but never been, however, in the middle of a partial lockdown and in need of some 'fresh air' and a change of scenery, I decided to give it a try. So come on the walk with me!
Today was actually the second time I had done this coastal walk, but whereas last time I walked almost the full length of it with a Thai friend, I was now a little bit wiser and today I would do just the 3.8 kms from Wat Asokaram to Mae Cuisine Restaurant (a delightful place for lunch) and then turn back and do it in reverse, so a total of almost 8 kms and a couple of hours brisk walking. All in all, a decent morning's exercise. .
The best way to get to the Bang Pu Coastal Walk is to take the BTS to Kheha Station, which is the last station at the eastern end of the Sukhumwit line. Even if you live in Central Bangkok, you can get to BTS Kheha in well under an hour.
From BTS Kheha, you need to head for Wat Asokaram, which will be the starting point for our walk. Being a terminus, there is always a healthy queue of taxis at this station and the 10-minute ride to Wat Asokaram is around 50 Baht. If you're looking to save money (and waste energy!) then it's an unpleasant 40-minute stroll from BTS Kheha to the temple but it's really a no-brainer - jump in a taxi!
A couple of points worth noting. Firstly, most Samut Prakan Thais refer to Wat Asokaram as 'Wat Asok', but you'll be understood whichever name you use. Secondly, note songtaew number 36 in the above photo because we might be finding that very useful later in the day.
We've arrived at the temple and while I know you suffer from temple fatigue, it's actually one of the best known wats in the province and one of the most important places for practicing meditation in peaceful, lush surroundings, so it's worth ten minutes of your time. Opposite the temple entrance (above) is an impressive white building (below), which is Phra Thutangkha Chedi.
The two buildings provide useful orientation because if you stand between them, with the white chedi on your right, you're facing the Gulf of Thailand and ready to find the entrance to the coastal walk.
From this point, walk straight ahead to the nearby T-junction and turn right. On your left-hand side, you'll immediately see a rabbit warren of small sois with raised walkways that will all take you down to the coastal path. However, I recommend you go to the very end of this street and turn left down the final soi, purely because it's the most interesting. The walkway cuts through a sort of mangrove forest and you get the chance to see close up some of the monks' living quarters.
One thing you'll notice in the photo above is the stray dog, looking back cautiously as a human comes into view. Mark my words, you are going to meet an awful lot of stray dogs in this particular section of the walk and a good number along the coastal path itself. A small percentage will bark a warning to the pack as you approach but then scarper and hide as soon you get nearer. That said, if you're not a dog lover or a person who is nervous and wary around street dogs, this is easily the biggest downside.
Just after I took this photo, I heard faint footsteps, turned around and realised a young monk was following behind. In perfect English, he asked where I was going and offered to escort me to the coastal path. Perhaps he was worried I would get bitten but when we strolled on and I saw what amounted to a 'canine carpet' of twenty or so dogs lying on the walkway ahead of me. I was glad to have him around. The fearless monk shouted and waved his arms about and the pack ran or hobbled into various sub-sois.
One other thing I noticed was how tidy the monks keep their living accommodation. Fastidiously decorated with purple orchids and hanging baskets, a few clearly have green fingers as well.
Pardon the diversion but here's a rather interesting story for you. In the mid-1990's I worked at a small Bangkok language school with an American teacher called Sibelia. Wanting to convert to Buddhism, she became a regular visitor at a local temple and over time, she befriended a friendly, young monk. To cut a long story short, once he had finished his monkhood, they started dating, fell in love and now live in America with their two children. So the moral of the story is - make time for the friendly monks because you never know where it might lead.
When you come to the old gate, you've reached the coastal path. Note that the gate is closed at 6.30 pm but I was doing this walk in the morning when you've pretty much got the path to yourself. Just through this gate, immediately on the right is an interesting-looking Thai restaurant constructed out of little more than nailed-together planks of wood, but they were doing well for hungry customers as we approached lunchtime.
Here we go
OK, here we are at the starting line with the complete coastal walk stretching out before us. As you can see there's not a soul around, although I believe at dusk - when the temperature drops a few degrees - is when the cyclists and joggers come out to play. I'm not sure many joggers will be slipping into lycra this evening though because the air quality reading on my smartphone is utter filth! A reading of 180 followed by a one-word description - 'unhealthy'. A grey haze (pure pollution) almost matched the greyness of the water. Last week, I did the walk under blue skies. I know which I prefer.
Listen, I'm not going to dress this walk up and make it out to be something it's not. The sight of piles of plastic garbage bags, broken furniture and old stained mattresses can be heartbreaking. Instead, focus on the sea to your right, ignore the fly-tipping, and you'll have a much nicer time. A walk in The Derbyshire Dales it certainly ain't, but when you live in Samut Prakan, you make the best of what you have.
Let's point out a few landmarks along the way as we walk the four kilometres to Mae Cuisine Restaurant. Firstly is this refreshments shack conveniently located around the halfway point. It's a nice spot to chill for 20 minutes with a water or a soft drink (or a large beer if that's your fancy) I think the owner, who on both occasions I've been has had to be roused from whatever he's doing around the back, also offers a basic food menu. There is also a squat toilet for those desperate or brave enough.
You'll pass several decent-looking 'seaside restaurants' on the way, of which the jewel in the crown is undoubtedly Baan Sailom. Although these places are open during the day, they're as quiet as the grave. Thai customers like this type of establishment in the evening as darkness falls, when they can dine in small groups on the terrace, eat their body weight in seafood and enjoy the sunset.
My wife is Samut Prakan born and bred, in fact as a little girl, she often came to these restaurants on the coast with her parents. "Some of these places have been around for over 50 years" she told me. "Back when I was a young girl, they were pretty much the only upmarket dining experience that Samut Prakan offered"
So I guess they always have a special place in the hearts of the older generation who put on their best silk garbs and still come down for a plate of prawns and a little nostalgia"
Another interesting landmark is a housing estate, or it might be a condominium or it might be a hotel (actually I have no idea what it is) built in the architectural style of the properties in Miami Beach. In fact it's known locally as simply 'Miami'.
According to my wife, the Miami Bayview was built about a decade ago and was clearly an ambitious project. I searched on Google and saw that the complex boasted a night market, a shopping arcade and a handful of eateries. However, on closer inspection, only a 7-11 convenience store appeared to have survived. The night market looked as if it had long gone and every retail unit was padlocked and empty.
When I asked my wife if it had become yet another victim of Co-vid, she replied with 'no, it's been like that since day one'.
Obviously an ambitious project that either just didn't appeal to enough property buyers or priced itself out of the market. I suspect maybe a bit of both.
And of course along the way you get to see a few fisherfolk, casting their lines or hauling in nets, hoping to catch enough fish to make a modest living. Feel free to lean over the sea wall and ask jauntily if they've caught anything. It's something that probably annoys fishermen the world over.
We're coming towards the end point in my walk today - Mae Cuisine Restaurant. But just a couple of hundred metres before you hit the restaurant, you come to a pier and a boat repair yard, which at first glance looks and feels like a dead end. But keep on going! Walk through the repair yard, ignoring the ear-splitting whirr of angle grinders and the chatter of old seadogs as they congregate to share stories and enjoy the saltiness of the occasion.
If you look straight ahead, you'll see some stone steps beside a ramshackle wooden restaurant. Go up and over and you're back on the coastal path and within touching distance of Mae Cuisine.
My pal and I had lunch here last week and I was so impressed that I brought my wife at the weekend - and she liked it too! It's certainly an ideal place to take a half-hour break from the coastal walk before either turning back or continuing on.
I'd describe Mae Cuisine as 'retro shabby chic' (definitely a place for the Instagram crowd) - and apart from the main dining area, they also have a coffee corner if a slice of cake and a cappuccino is all you fancy.
To be fair, my wife thought the decor and environment were far better selling points than its actual cuisine, but both agreed the pork satay were excellent and the huge 'tort man gung' (fried shrimp-cakes) were possibly the best I've eaten in Thailand.
OK, lunch over, you've now got an important decision to make depending on your energy levels and how much time you have to spare. Let's take a look at another screenshot.
You've really got three options.
A) To do as I did now and just walk back the way you came to Wat Asokaram, making the total length of the walk about 7.5 kilometres.
B) To push on to the Bang Pu Recreation Centre, which according to Google Maps is another 3.9 kilometres and will take 47 minutes.
C) To feel you have seen enough already and walk up the long soi next to Mae Cuisine to Sukhumwit Road, where you can catch the number 36 songthaew back to BTS Kheha.
(note that the number 36 songthaew is a wonderful and frequent service that goes up and down that particular stretch of Sukhumwit and will take you to BTS Kheha for the princely sum of 8 Baht whether you choose option B or C. You just need to get back on to Sukhumwit Road first)
What about option B? The Bang Pu Recreation Centre
Well, I did this last week so you don't have to.
I think opinion will be divided on whether the recreation centre is worth the extra mileage. It's basically a long pier and conservation viewpoint that looks glossy and professional from the main entrance but quickly loses heart. At the end of the pier is an open-air restaurant that hasn't so much seen better days as better decades.
The recreation centre struck me as a wonderful place to be if you'd never ever seen a seagull but I was reliably informed that there are plenty of other slithery, crawly species of coastal life if one takes the time to investigate. Perhaps last week, the two hours of walking in the midday sun to get there had put me in a gloomy frame of mind and I just wasn't equipped to deal with it.
However, it was getting to the recreation centre from Mae Cuisine that was the major problem. If we refer once more to our Google map screenshot above, it's possible to continue walking along the coast from A to B. But unfortunately, at the present time, there is a sturdy looking metal gate about half-way that is locked and prevents you going any further - and there is no way to squeeze around it. You are left with no alternative but to head up to the Sukhumwit Rd and endure an energy-sapping last 20 minutes to the recreation centre, walking along the main road with six lanes of traffic whizzing by.
Perhaps the locked metal gate has something to do with Co-vid restrictions because it was certainly open last year (or the year before), making that walk to the recreation centre far more pleasurable.
Anyway, whatever you decide, enjoy your walk!