For the last six years I’ve lived in an apartment five minutes’ walk from Lumpini Park, the green ‘Lung of Bangkok’. Proximity to this free civic resource was one of the main reasons I chose the location, and I’ve enjoyed being able to take impromptu strolls along its winding walkways or stretch out in the grass with my Kindle, keeping an eye on the
fat monitor lizards basking in the sun nearby.
Suan Lum (short for Suan Lumpini), as the Thais usually call it, is an icon in a city where such icons are relatively few. Created by King Rama VI in the 1920s, it is Bangkok’s oldest park, and until relatively recently the alakes joined by a slow-flowing canal. A major recreational focus for people living in the older districts of Sathorn, Bangrak and Chinatown, the park teems with people in the morning practicing tai chi, jogging, renting pedalboats or taking naps in the shade. On Sunday evenings during the cool season, the 80-piece Bangkok Symphony Orchestra performs in the Palm Garden band shell, drawing classical music lovers from all over the city.
Less well known assets in the park include Bangkok’s oldest public library (open Tues-Sun, 8am-8pm) and the Bangkok Senior Citizens Club, which contains a revolving ballroom dance stage among other facilities for the elderly. There is also the Bird Watching Course, an area full of trees that have become a sanctuary to over 30 avian species. The BMA Apprentice School offers vocational training in computer science, dressmaking, hairdressing and cooking to the general public for free. On the last Sunday of every month, from 7am to 9am, Dharma in the Park organises dhamma talks and food offerings to monks.
In TripAdvisor’s 2014 Traveller’s Choice Awards for Attractions, Lumpini was named one of Asia’s top five parks, alongside Singapore Botanic Gardens, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, Nan Lian Garden (Hong Kong) and Kenrokuen Garden (Japan).
I recently discovered that in December 1956, when jazz clarinettist Benny Goodman and his band visited Thailand during a US State Department-sponsored tour of Asia, they set up in the band shell and recorded 16 songs before a live audience. The recordings weren’t released until 1997 as a TCB Records CD entitled Bangkok 1956. A review of the album in the All Music Guide reads.
This is one of the more unusual live CDs by Benny Goodman, recorded in December 1956 over two days in Bangkok, Thailand. He leads a 13-piece group, which includes Budd Johnson and Peanuts Hucko in the reed section, along with pianist Hank Jones and bassist Israel Crosby. Goodman and his band are at their very best, in spite of playing outdoors and competing, on occasion, with a passing train; this early stereo recording, performed with just two microphones, was made with the clarinettist’s permission. In addition to favourites like “Don’t Be That Way,” “One O’Clock Jump” and “Flying Home,” Goodman surprises the audience by playing two works composed by His Majesty the King of Thailand, as well as a brief sign off of the “Thai Royal Anthem.” This historic CD is well worth acquiring.
In these tempestuous political times, the park has come under considerable stress, occupied first by the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) camp in 2010 and then by People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) supporters from the end of 2013 until May this year. I stayed away from Lumpini during both occupations (during the PDRC period, the Sunday concerts were cancelled), although I know some regular visitors continued their park activities more or less unhindered. As a historical aside, this isn’t the only era when politics interfered with the park. During World War II, Japanese soldiers turned Lumpini into their main Bangkok camp.
When the PDRC finally left in mid May, hundreds of cleaning staff and volunteers worked tirelessly to clean and restore the park. I finally revisited two weeks ago on an early weekday morning. Much of the grass towards the south end of the part, where PRDC supporters had created a tent city, is still missing but for the most part the park seems to have returned to normal.
After a filling breakfast of rice and curry at the park’s Sri Thai Doem Food Center (open daily 4.30-10am), I took a wander down the pathways, delighting in the familiar sight of grannies practising tai chi, people sipping tea at clusters of round cement tables, and a cosmopolitan variety of people jogging and exercising, all backed by the usual soundtrack of birdsong, water fountains and the noise of distant traffic.