LifestyleCity Life

Benjakitti Park Brings a Breath of Fresh Air to Smoggy Bangkok

For over fifty years, Thailand’s state-owned tobacco monopoly operated a vast industrial estate in Bangkok, where it mass-produced cigarettes. Heavy trucks transported raw tobacco to this city-center location and distributed millions of cigarettes nationwide.

Now, however, this once hazardous complex has been replaced by a refreshing change: a verdant park that introduces a breath of fresh air to the capital’s congested and frequently smog-filled heart.

This transformation has proven to be a remarkable achievement, converting the area into a 102-acre haven for urban residents.

The expanded area of Benjakitti Park now features a mile-long elevated walkway, ecologically beneficial wetlands, 8,000 newly planted trees, sports courts for pickleball and basketball, and an area dedicated to dog walking.

The elevated pathway, dubbed the Skywalk, has quickly become a favorite among the youth. During the cooler evenings, the walkway is bustling with people, many of whom are taking selfies in the beautiful setting.

“Benjakitti Park is my favorite place for photo shoots,” shared Pongsaton Tatone, a freelance photographer, who was capturing images of university graduates celebrating on the Skywalk. “It’s a sought-after location.”

The park’s new section opened in August 2022, commemorating the 90th birthday of Queen Sirikit, the queen mother of Thailand. Some parts of this new section, including a museum, are still under development.

Adding large parks is rare for major cities, particularly in the densely populated regions of Southeast Asia. The $20 million expansion nearly doubles the size of the original park, which includes a lake and a jogging path.

With a population of 11 million, Bangkok is in dire need of more green spaces. A recent report highlighted that the city does not meet the World Health Organization’s recommended minimum of 9 square meters of green space per person in urban settings.

Benjakitti Park, surrounded by skyscrapers, is only a few blocks from the congested Sukhumvit Road. Along Sukhumvit, heavy traffic pollutes the air as pedestrians navigate past high-rises, hotels, and various street vendors.

Mateusz Tatara, a software designer from Poland, was pleasantly surprised to find a forested park amidst a city famed for its temples, vibrant street life, and now, cannabis shops.

“You can still hear the sounds of nature here,” he remarked during an evening stroll in the park. “It’s a peaceful, relaxing spot.”

Initially designated for park development in the early 1990s, it took over twenty-five years for the tobacco monopoly to relinquish the entire area.

General Prayut Chan-ocha, the army chief turned prime minister after a 2014 coup, played a significant role in the park’s expansion while simultaneously suppressing democratic protests. He also proposed the inclusion of the dog-walking area, a unique feature in Bangkok.

To accelerate construction during the pandemic, the government enlisted military assistance. Up to 400 soldiers worked on the project at a time.

“The soldiers did it all,” stated Chatchanin Sung, a landscape architect involved in the project. “They take great pride in the park.”

Bangkok, built on former swamplands near the Gulf of Thailand, has historically been flood-prone and was once dubbed the “Venice of the East” due to its numerous canals. Many canals have since been paved over or have become contaminated.

One polluted canal was used as a water source for the park’s new wetlands. Water is drawn into a series of cleaning pools where natural processes significantly reduce the pollutants before reaching the main ponds, which are adorned with lotuses and other aquatic plants.

“We never anticipated such effective results,” Ms. Chatchanin remarked during a park tour.

The military constructed 500 islets in the wetlands using debris from demolished factory buildings. They also planted over 400 different types of trees.

The park, now a thriving ecosystem, quickly attracted various wildlife species, including storks, herons, and dragonflies, which consume numerous mosquitoes daily.

The park’s centerpiece, the Skywalk, offers a scenic and winding journey above the wetlands. “The path’s design encourages exploration, as you can’t see the endpoint from the start,” Ms. Chatchanin explained.

Of the massive tobacco factory once plaguing Bangkok’s core, only four structures remain, repurposed into sports facilities with innovative ‘natural air conditioning’ by removing sections of walls and roofs.

Some rafters are left exposed, resembling the skeleton of the old factory, with trees now sprouting through them. “Standing inside, you’re surrounded by nature,” Ms. Chatchanin observed.