Bangkok's green lung
Isolated from the noise, crowds and concrete of Bangkok by a huge oxbow in the Chao Phraya River, Phra Phradaeng peninsula (aka Khung Bang Kachao) is an unlikely pocket of countryside surrounded by city. After crossing the river to Phra Phradaeng from Bangkok, one gets the sense of having discovered a secret place, a green anomaly that has somehow eluded the city’s frenzy for development.
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In stark contrast to the bright lights and traffic of Sukhumvit Road, and the grit of countless factories -- all of which are just a stone’s throw across the river -- Phra Phradaeng is home to lush forests, parks, streams, overgrown mango plantations, sleepy temples and country homes that blend seamlessly into flower gardens and banana groves. The peninsula has been nicknamed Bangkok’s "green lung", and when viewed on a satellite map it appears as an island of forest amid a sea of concrete.
A network of narrow country roads and raised bicycle paths make Phra Phradaeng a cyclist’s paradise, and it’s the only place in greater Bangkok where human powered rickshaws are still widely used for getting around. A diverse array of wildlife -- including plenty of bird species -- thrives in the trees and canals. An abundance of local produce is grown at small-scale farms and gardens, much of it sold at Bang Nam Phueng weekend market (one of the Bangkok area’s best). With a conscious local community committed to preserving the area’s environment, Phra Phradaeng is a needed breath of fresh air in a country that’s seen some 85 percent of its forests destroyed over the last 60 years.
During the reign of Rama I in the late 1700s, Phra Phradaeng town hosted a military base due to its strategic location at a 90-degree curve in the Chao Phraya River. With an almost 360-degree oxbow behind it, the intimidating white walls of Phlaeng Faifa Fort on the banks of the river successfully kept any southern naval invaders from reaching the Thai capital at Bangkok. Although much of the fort’s original structures have been lost over the centuries, the riverside ruins of Phlaeng Faifa can still be visited today in a park just south of Phra Phradaeng town.
Initially settled by Mon people many centuries ago, Phra Phradaeng remains one of the few places in Thailand where distinctly Mon traditions can still be distinguished from greater Thai culture, evidenced by the traditional skirts worn by many elder women of the area. A world away from the sleaze and scams found in some parts of Bangkok, friendly, laidback, warm-hearted people are the norm in Phra Phradaeng.
The actual Phra Phradaeng town is located to the west of the peninsula in a thin strip of land that lies between two different parts of the Chao Phraya. One of Bangkok’s most noticeable landmarks, Bhumibol Bridge (Thailand’s largest), looms over the town. Officially a part of Samut Prakan province, the town sits between the busy Thonburi area to the west and the peninsula’s countryside to the east, flanked by the river directly to the north and south.
Phra Phradaeng town is a colourful, if not charming district capital, but its old streets are packed tightly together and those seeking natural beauty and quietude won’t find it here. In fact, most who come to the area skip the town altogether, although we think it’s worth a stop to browse the local markets and stop by historic Wat Song Thum and Phlaeng Faifa Fort.
Phetchahung Road is the main thoroughfare (although it’s a rather narrow, two-lane road) that runs straight from the centre of Phra Phradaeng town all the way to Bang Kachao pier at the eastern end of the peninsula. Just east of Bhumibol Bridge, the villages of Bang Yo and Song Khanong are clustered around Petchahung Road and these still feel more like city than country, with plenty of eating options, coffee shops, convenience stores and a decent size night market.
Another couple of kilometres northeast and Petchahung Road reaches the charming and quiet village of Bang Nam Phueng, which shoots off to the south along Wat Bang Nam Phueng Road. Bang Kachao village sticks to Petchahung Road as it makes its way to the river. Hole-in-the-wall restaurants and mum and dad convenience stores are scattered around both of these villages, but the widest array of eating and shopping options in the eastern half of the peninsula (unless Bang Nam Phueng Market is open) are found along Petchahung Road in Bang Kachao. Even this area, though, feels like a rural village that could have been plucked from one of Thailand’s upcountry provinces.
A few ATMs are scattered around Bang Kachao on Petchahung Road and there are a couple at the town office building near Wat Bang Nam Phueng Nai and the weekend market. Proper banks, internet cafes, medical clinics and a police station (near the river on Sri Suankan Road) can all be found in Phra Phradaeng town. However, if staying in the villages to the east of the peninsula, Bangkok proper is accessed via a quick ferry hop and is the more convenient option for reaching just about anything you could need.