A guide to Bangkok’s best secret training and workout spots
An appropriate axiom for life in Bangkok might read something like this: the same qualities that make the city such a wonderful place to live can also make it a really brutal place to live. The perpetually tropical weather, the curious urban planning (or lack of), motorbike taxis, mobile vendors, the fluid and often poetic brand of chaos that shapes the very infrastructure of society—all can be great or head-scratching, as stimulating as a spring breeze or a migraine.
That same rule would also apply to exercising. Without many green spaces or safe pathways, runners and cyclists have seemingly few good places to keep fit. While gyms offer relief from the elements, they come with hefty price tags, not to mention classes are often limited, or they come at additional costs to membership. And even though most condos have pools, they’re usually little more than glorified bathtubs.
Yet Bangkok, as ever, has a yin to balance this yang. There are some pretty cool places to sweat it out in the city—you just have to know where to look. So step away from the treadmill, cast your gym pass aside, and check out these unique places and ways to work out.
Serve, Set, Spike
“We started this group many years back, when the only court available was a sand court,” admits Sirikanya ‘Fia’ Supasavasdebhandu, one organizer of the group’s meetups, alongside her partner, Saran Phichitsingh. “There were other courts across the city. For example, at universities like Chulalongkorn or in public parks. But public courts had “regular” players, and if you weren’t a student, an alum, or faculty, the only way to get on a university’s court was to be personally invited. Beginners had almost no chance to join, and it was impossible to find pick-up games.”
Now, however, the dynamic has changed. The group arranges indoor matches nearly every day, including Tuesday night sand volleyball sessions at the Arsenal Soccer School (Sukhumvit Soi 71), and popular Sundays sessions with five-plus hours of game time not out of the ordinary.
“We have a very big group with a lot of expats: parents, UN officers, international students,” says Fia. “Some days, easily up to 30 players join our rosters to play.”
Beach (or sand) volleyball requires a different skillset than indoor volleyball. For starters, the court is smaller and teams normally feature just two players per side. But it’s also played outdoors, typically under floodlights, which makes the games feel a little more laidback.
While Thai society has a well-documented passion for indoor volleyball, sand volleyball remains under-the-radar for locals in Bangkok. Fia, however, is seeing more interest among local crowds, too. She’s organized two volleyball tournaments so far, and a third tournament is in the works.
Rock climbing may not be the first activity that comes to mind when thinking of ways to stay active in Bangkok, but there are a handful of great indoor facilities within the city limits, including one offering a brand-new experience.
Urban Playground is one of the most accessible of the bunch (located at the Racquet Club in Phrom Phong), and has a full range of climbing options, catering to first-timers and fitness freaks alike. The centre boasts a hard-to-fathom 10,000 handholds, which in laymen’s terms means the staff can set a bunch of different climbing routes from week to week. On any given day, you can climb more than 70 unique routes, and 40 bouldering problems. Odds are your arms will tire out before you complete even half of them. If you’re getting really serious about the sport, you can sign up for lead climbing courses and training programmes too.
While Urban Playground arguably offers the best climbing facilities in Bangkok, it isn’t the only world-class climbing experience in town. The first Clip ‘n Climb in Thailand has arrived at Bounce, the trampolining centres in EmQuartier and The Street Ratchada. Occupying the so-called “fun-climbing” sector of the industry, Clip ‘n Climb hails from New Zealand, where it has quickly become a popular all-ages activity.
Seriously… even young kids, from the age of five on up, can safely climb the interactive walls, thanks to an auto-belay system that takes in slack as you climb and gently lowers you back to the ground. The centre has 24 brightly-coloured themed walls, each requiring different skills to conquer, so there’s a lot to explore. Not a bad way to get the whole family out of the house—and away from smartphones—on the weekend.
Long-distance running and multisport events—such as triathlons and duathlons—are on the rise in Thailand. According to MV Vision, a sporting event organizer, there are more than 600 running events and 100 cycling or multisport events each year. Which is, you know, a lot!
Even if marathons and triathlons are surging in popularity, finding a good place to train for them in the big city can still be something akin to a nightmare. Road safety standards are more or less non-existent, and foot traffic often becomes cheek-by-jowl in popular parks. Fortunately for our multisport friends, this metropolis has a couple of hidden gems.
“It’s really convenient to train at the Sports Authority of Thailand (SAT),” says Ivan Vlasenko, an elite triathlete living in Bangkok, who regularly places on the podium at major events and is sponsored by Optima Bike and REVV Energy. “There’s a velodrome for cycling, a 50-metre pool for swimming, and a 400-metre track for running—all in one place.”
Located on Ramkhamhaeng Road, a little further on from the university of the same name, the SAT is probably best known as the home to Rajamangala Stadium, where big football matches and rock concerts often take place (Coldplay and Lady Gaga have both performed here). But, as Vlasenko notes, it’s an athlete’s playground. Beyond the facilities mentioned above, the SAT has basketball and tennis courts, an archery centre, sports dormitories, and even a skate park.
“As a triathlete, I have to do a lot of brick training (running immediately after biking). At the SAT, after the bike portion, I can drop my bike and run on the track,” says Vlasenko, noting that the SAT is basically a one-stop shop for endurance athletes. “With a busy training schedule, I wouldn’t like to spend much time commuting to faraway places to exercise.” Plus, he adds, the velodrome and track are free of charge, while entry to the pool will set you back just 50 baht.
If Ramkhamhaeng is too far from home, try National Stadium. Right on the footsteps of the BTS, this downtown sporting complex features two 400-metre tracks, a 200-metre track, a nearly two-kilometre cycling lane, and a 50-metre pool. The outdoor track, inside Thephasadin Stadium, a popular venue for football matches, is open to the public in the mornings and at night. If you’re lucky, the track inside bowl-shaped Supachalasai Stadium will be open and you can live out any Chariots of Fire-type fantasies you may have.
The Wisutamol Pool, meanwhile, might not be the cleanest around, and most afternoons, when a deluge of children descend upon the water for swimming lessons, you can expect to split lanes. But it’s not very often your everyday athlete can paddle in a 50-metre pool alongside the most elite swimmers in Thailand, as you can here and at the Sports Authority of Thailand.
A Most Interesting Park
Visit the sprawling, shady, ostensibly peaceful park next to Wat Don any evening and you’re likely to find groups of men playing basketball, kids decked out in karategi on their way to karate class, and dozens of joggers tracing a 1.4 km loop on a concrete path. You’ll also spot some skateboarders, weightlifters, and elderly Thai-Chinese singing karaoke, from Thai oldies to John Denver’s seminal and seemingly ubiquitous hit “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. While this all makes for normal nightly activities in just about any park (…in Thailand, that is), it doesn’t take long to realize that this is no ordinary green space.
Visible even from the park entrance are hundreds of tombs, elevated above ground—according to Chinese traditions—and an eerie reminder of the land’s actual purpose, as the park is an extension of the sizable Teochew Cemetery, a 117-year-old graveyard with a ghoulish history. Sound spooky? It can be, definitely after the sun sets and the graves start to bask in the luminous glow of red electric bulbs strung up in the cemetery’s shrines. But the running path here is one of the city’s most shaded, serene, and secluded, even though the park is only a couple hundred metres from busy Sathorn Road. And, come on, it’s a cemetery. How weird is that?
Locals know the grounds as Pa Cha Wat Don—the graveyards of Wat Don. In 1900, the land was turned into a burial site for Chinese immigrants by the Teochew Association of Thailand. During the iron-fisted rule of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat in the late 1950s, the coup-maker used the cemetery as grounds for summary executions. And, in the decades that followed, it received even more notoriety as it became a popular place for suicides. So it acquired what’s safe to call a “reputation”. For years, taxi drivers would often refuse to go near it. Some even reported picking up paranormal passengers when driving through the neighbourhood.
However, in 1996, three local foundations—Poh Teck Tung, Tae Chew, and Hai Nan Dan—gave it a makeover, renovating the grounds to incorporate a park. Now it comes to life every night, when schools let out and the work day is done, but the foot traffic never quite gets as pigsty-packed here as it does in Lumphini Park. Since burials are no longer allowed in the city limits, it’s pretty much full at this point, too, terrestrially speaking, so you don’t have to fear falling into a hole in the ground or running into some creepy gravedigger working overtime.
NOTE: To reach Wat Don Cemetery, take the BTS to Surasak station. When you get off the train, walk to the Sathorn-Charoen Rat intersection and turn left. Follow Charoen Rat Soi 1 (past Jam! Café) to Wat Prok 1 Alley, where the road veers to the left. Turn right onto Yen Chit Alley shortly thereafter and follow the road about 100 metres. The park will be on your left.