A Secret Beach in Bangkok

A Day in the Life of a Long-Term Traveler

By Chris Wotton on January 14th, 2015
BootsnAll

The closest beach to Bangkok isn’t in Pattaya or Rayong or Chonburi, said the article. Bangkok has its own secret coastline, it said. A seafront that few people know about and even fewer visit. A tiny strip of land sandwiched between the neighboring provinces of Samut Prakan and Samut Sakhon, where the capital meets the Gulf of Thailand.

Could it be true?

Walking through Bangkok’s congested streets, tuk-tuks bumper to bumper, the rising and falling pothole laden sidewalks cramped with hawkers touting everything from pork skewers to fake passports, the air heavy with the stench of choking pollution as a supposedly natural gas powered bus clunks past and spits out a cloud of thick black fumes, it’s difficult to imagine that this same city could have a peaceful stretch of sand where the waves lap gently against the shore and the secluded feel of a desert island prevails.

If it was there, I had to see it. You don’t get more off-the-beaten-path than a beach in a capital city that everyone associates with nothing but skyscrapers and go-go bars.

The first part of the journey was easy, boarding the air-conditioned city bus – dimly lit thanks to the outside being plastered in semi-transparent advertisements that nonetheless block out a good deal of the sunlight – as if making a regular trip across town to run an errand, or visiting one of the city’s more conventional tourist attractions, rather than venturing out to this unknown expanse of Bangkok coastline.

‘You don’t get more off-the-beaten-path than a beach in a capital city that everyone associates with nothing but skyscrapers and go-go bars.’

Yet as the journey dragged on, the less clear the way to this inner-city beach became. The skyscrapers and clogged streets of downtown Bangkok gave way not quite to rural landscapes – except for the odd skirt down a country lane as a shortcut – but rather to a scene at once more industrial and yet also more residential. The bus thundered down wide carriageways, past the odd factory and in and out of the market clusters of towns making up Bangkok’s more far-reaching suburbs, a long way from the fashion-conscious, high-end sights, and air-conditioned comforts of the center.

Yet one thing, that elusive coastline I was searching for, did not appear.

Nor did anyone else on the bus appear to know where it was. The bus conductor simply shrugged her shoulders, while the distinctly rotund but smiley woman opposite me, in the seat next to the door, in turn asked another lady and started off a chattering cacophony of old aunties and grannies, each on their way home from a trip to the market or similar, in an effort to help this lost-looking little white boy who just wanted to go to the sea.

It didn’t help that Bang Khuntien, the name given to the stretch of coast I was aiming for, is also the name of the wider suburban district of Bangkok in which I was to find it. Against the odds, though, the army of aunties established where it was I was to disembark. I said my thanks and stepped off the bus, armed with instructions to catch a songthaew and being followed by a dozen pairs of warm, friendly yet utterly perplexed eyes, all wondering the same thing, “Why on earth I had come all the way out here – and alone, too, against the grain of the Thai fun-is-best-had-in-groups mentality – just to catch a glimpse of the sea?”

Songthaew

Oh, yes, the songthaew. The real star of the rudimentary rural Thai transport network, far more than say its more glamorous and tourist-flaunted cousin the tuk-tuk. Songthaews are a lifeline to communities in Thailand’s countryside otherwise cut off through lack of conventional bus or train links. Yet the humble songthaew often makes an appearance too in tourist destinations – Pattaya, Koh Pha Ngan, Krabi – to ferry the masses short distances around town, albeit at fares many times inflated from the single figure ones that are the norm on most local routes. The thought, too, of the fact that riding a songthaew equates to bouncing around in the back of a converted cattle truck traveling at relatively high speed, is one that most of us don’t usually want to allow ourselves to conceive, but which is actually pretty harrowing when given the time for consideration.

The bus had deposited me to one side of a pedestrian flyover that straddled the six-lane dual carriageway. Trucks roared by in clouds of smoke that hardly screamed coastal paradise. The still large yet much quieter side road that branched off the highway was where I was to hail down my songthaew. I was looking for a small, light blue truck, yet every other color but that one seemed to come along. When it did eventually show up, I encountered the same inquisitiveness from the songthaew conductor and her other passengers.

“Why don’t you just go to Bang Saen?” was the conductor’s immediate response when I explained that I was going to the sea, as the packed truck hurtled down the road with me hanging onto the railing from the back step.

She retorted that she was not going that way anyway, but was instead taking the back roads to drop people home – yet, given I was apparently going the wrong way, she appeared in no hurry at all to stop the driver, who continued onwards at an ever quickening pace. Then she spotted my wallet.

“What are you doing on here anyway?” she asked, eyeing my bulging purse. “What does a westerner like you want to cram yourself onto a songthaew with us for, when you’ve got so much money?”

My wallet was bulging with old receipts and the like, I assured her, and not money. Definitely not money. She peered at me suspiciously, clearly not believing a word I was saying. In any case, she had already made her mind up, and it seemed pointless trying to convince her when the truck wasn’t going where I wanted to be.

“We’ll put you on a motorbike,” she said. “That’ll be much more comfortable, and will take you to the sea.”

I nodded to signal my reluctant agreement. A few moments later the songthaew offloaded me at the side of the road, by a waiting and obliging motorbike taxi driver. We hurtled off further along the main road – while the songthaew and its conductor turned left onto a smaller soi – over humps and road bridges, until the sea finally came into sight.

But to call it the sea implies something grander than the reality – that it somehow bore resemblance to the white sand fringed shores of Koh Kradan, Phuket, and Koh Samui in Thailand’s south, or Koh Samet and Koh Kut to the east of Bangkok.

What I found instead was quite different. Sure, there was water – lapping the edge of a sprawling and strangely empty seafood restaurant, the boundaries of it and the neighboring car park seeming rather undefined such that they really felt like one and the same. There were no beaches to speak of – this was mangrove territory, and at least beside the restaurant the drop-off was literally straight from land and into the deep.

‘There is at times some merit to the undeniably overused cliché that the journey itself is as important, and can be as enjoyable, as the destination.’

In fact, there was so little to suggest that this was the sea at all that, had I not known otherwise, I could easily have believed it to be nothing more than a rather expansive lake. It certainly wasn’t the inspired tropical beach scene I had envisaged.

And yet, as I did a quick circle of the car park, got a few strange looks from the restaurant staff, and then started back down the same road to catch the songthaew on its return loop to the main highway, I felt no sense of regret or that this had been a wasted journey. There is at times some merit to the undeniably overused cliché that the journey itself is as important, and can be as enjoyable, as the destination. A saying like that was made for this kind of trip, where the end point in fact had very little going for it indeed. But it had been worth it for the local interactions and even the sheer sense of having gotten out to see what was there, well off the path trodden by others before me. That’s what slow, experiential, and in this case very experimental travel is all about – and that means taking the rough with the smooth, along with the odd disappointment.

Photo credits: antb, Imaake, artpritsadee