Bangkok was one of the most notoriously polluted cities in Southeast Asia less than a decade ago. Thai traffic cops and pedestrians didn't hit the pavement without cotton masks to keep vehicles' exhaust fumes out of their mouths and noses. Gridlock on the city's roadways was, and still is, the norm.
But a muscular green movement has managed to partially solve the dirty-air problem in the past 10 years. Bangkok is now an unlikely yet glowing example of how cities can successfully conduct pollution-reduction campaigns. The green initiatives that changed its air quality took hold despite Thailand's political system being characterized by frequent coups and even more frequent allegations of corruption.
The country, which is often referred to as "The Land of Smiles," has always been an alluring destination for tourists. Its population is known for an easygoing approach to life, and Thai culture remained untouched by the colonization that influenced other countries in Southeast Asia. Its reputation for pollution and the constant political shenanigans have never been enough to dissuade tourists. Now Bangkok has some green credentials to add to its already enticing list of cultural and historical attractions.
Bangkok has nearly halved its pollution. The standard air pollution measurement of particles per cubic meter stood at 83 micrograms 10 years ago; today, it's 43 micrograms. That's lower than the U.S. EPA's recommendation of 50, but not as low as the World Health Organization would like: a mere 20 micrograms per cubic meter.
How did this happen? For one, natural gas — the cleanest of all fossil fuels — provides most of Bangkok's electricity, meaning the city doesn't need to rely on the carbon-heavy coal that powers many Chinese metropolises.
A public transit system is also finally in place after years of false starts. Its centerpiece is the SkyTrain, which whisks passengers above traffic jams in clean, air-conditioned trains. In addition, the city's taxis now run on natural gas and many heavy-duty vehicles have been retrofitted to burn cleaner fuel. Traffic is still atrociously bad, but there are now more clean transportation options and it's less dangerous for pedestrians to take a deep breath while walking past the gridlock.
Bangkok is one of the most urban places in the world, but it still has some notable greenspaces, too. The largest is Lumphini Park, a favorite hangout spot for locals. Although it sometimes seems as bustling as the city itself, the amount of greenery and the shady, breezy walkways and lakeshore spots give it a relaxed feel that's far removed from the streets outside.
Rattanakosin Island is Bangkok's historic district. It's filled with temples, shrines, an ancient fortress (Phra Sumen) and the stately Museum of Siam. Bangkok's Tourism Authority recently began a project that allows tourists to use bicycles to tour the area for free (with a security deposit). Bicycle lanes have been clearly marked throughout the island. In the same spirit, travel companies like Thailand Green Ride have begun to offer more bicycle-based excursions to the outlying areas of the city.
The Amari Watergate Hotel has an impressive set of green initiatives, including efficient air-conditioning units, key-card electrical systems and low-energy lighting. There's also a recycling program that donates excess food from the in-house restaurants to the poor.
On the other end of the size and price spectrum is the 10-room Old Bangkok Inn, an aged building that's been thoroughly renovated using only locally made or recycled products. A state-of-the-art sensor system turns off the power when guests aren't in their rooms, and all water used in the inn is heated with solar power. Guests are also encouraged to reuse towels and linens, and to employ the services of nearby man-powered boat taxis.
While the picturesque floating markets that tourists adore aren't a common sight in Bangkok, there are other reasons to tour the city's canals (khlongs). The Thonburi area, across the Chao Phraya River from what most people consider "Bangkok," is a bit more rural. Taking a boat tour farther back into the canals on this side of the river leads to views of tropical nature, fruit plantations and aging Buddhist shrines. Anyone can reach this quiet side of Bangkok aboard boats that are easily chartered along the river.
Thailand's fledgling organic food scene has highlights like the Anothai Restaurant, which was one of the first organic eateries in the city. The kitchen serves up vegetarian dishes made from locally grown ingredients, and it has amassed a loyal following with its unique cuisine and healthy choices.
Because Thailand is a huge exporter of agricultural products, much of the food used at the restaurants in Bangkok has traveled a relatively short distance from field to table.