Bangkok’s Breath of Fresh Air
Exploring Phra Pradaeng Island.
It is the last place I expected to find myself in busy Bangkok — pedaling a silver bicycle down serpentine dirt paths, following the course of swampy canals lined with mangrove trees, and gripping the handlebars as I rumble over roots, all on an island called Phra Pradaeng.
Despite many prior visits to Thailand’s capital — a vibrant metropolis home to more than 8 million people — I only learned about Phra Pradaeng on my most recent trip to the city.
“Phra Pradaeng is like stepping back in time,” said my friend Carter, a longtime Bangkok resident. “From the biggest slum in the city, Klong Toey, you get on a boat and five minutes later you’re in an urban jungle.”
Although this immediately piqued my interest, I hesitated to believe her — a rural escape in the middle of Bangkok? Surely such a thing couldn’t exist.
For proof, I turned to Google Maps and traced a finger along the Chao Phraya River flowing through the city. If the river were a lasso, caught in its loop is Phra Pradaeng, a small peninsula of about 18 square kilometers also known as Bang Krachao. An artificial canal separates the peninsula from the mainland, officially designating it an island.
Convinced at last, I set off for the Klong Toey Nok Pier. Just as Carter had advised, the boat ride takes mere minutes, and my first order of the day is securing a means of transportation.
A bicycle rental shop called M-Bike sits conveniently on Phra Pradaeng’s main Kamnan Khao Pier and charges 100 Baht (US$3) for a full day. While the shop and several other companies offer group cycling tours, I decide to explore the island at my own pace, guided only by a hand-drawn map from M-Bike.
With Bangkok now behind me, the city’s crowds and chaos feel a world away. Phra Pradaeng unfolds into a lush landscape of papaya and banana groves, bright-pink bougainvillea, and towering coconut trees that lean over the road as if they’ve dozed off for the afternoon. It isn’t hard to see why Phra Pradaeng is referred to as Bangkok’s “Green Lung”; with every push of the pedals, my breathing grows more relaxed.
Less than half a mile from the pier, I swing left into Sri Nakhon Khuean Khan Park — a vast expanse of ponds, paths and botanical gardens that is especially popular with Bangkok locals on weekends. From there, I continue past centuries-old Buddhist temples and roadside stalls piled with pineapples and watermelons. From somewhere nearby a rooster crows, piercing the otherwise languid stillness.
As I glimpse residents tending small gardens or husking coconuts to collect their sweetened water, it seems impossible that Phra Pradaeng has managed to hold onto its laidback lifestyle in the midst of Bangkok’s constant development. But thanks to government directives, such as the 1992 regulation limiting all construction on the island to no more than 15 meters in height, the breath of fresh air that Phra Pradaeng provides is actually a protected resource.
With only a little time remaining on the island, I settle on one last point of interest from the bike shop’s map to visit: the Bangkok Tree House.
A few helpful locals point me toward the start of a labyrinthine network of raised concrete walkways. They connect the island’s communities of stilted, tin-roofed houses and seemingly lead in a thousand directions through the jungled backwaters. I carefully maneuver my bicycle down these narrow paths, relying on signs posted along the way to reach my destination.
When I finally arrive at the Tree House, I’m surprised to find not the rustic structure I’d imagined but rather a cluster of sleek buildings featuring vertical gardens and long bamboo curtains, belonging to an eco-conscious boutique hotel.
Opened in 2012, the Tree House is the only such green resort on Phra Pradaeng, but you don’t have to be a guest here to enjoy its haven of tranquility. I find a seat on the rooftop of its open-air restaurant Reflect, order a mango smoothie, and bask in the view.
The Chao Phraya flows to my right, still bustling with river traffic, but to my left is a verdant vision of mango trees, fragrant frangipani plants and more coconut palms, every frond and leaf set aglow by the late afternoon sun.
“Next time we’ll stay here,” I overhear a couple say to one another as they sit down at a table near mine.
Taking a final sip of my smoothie before beginning the return journey to the pier — and from there, back into the bustling heart of Bangkok — I silently answer them, “Me too.”