Every day, the main waterway of Asia’s 13th most polluted city, the Chao Phraya River, suffers an influx of waste and chemicals from adjacent factories. When I questioned a young local teacher about his thoughts on Bangkok’s pollution, he spoke of “people wearing masks,” and how he sometimes scrubs “a whole cotton pad’s worth of dirt” off his face at night. Yet while there is little to be done about the city’s poor road network and acute congestion, the metropolis has seen several small steps to improve environmental awareness among its people.

A move and momentum reflected in the slow and steady spread of organic eateries and farmers’ markets, for example. Or a loftier source of sustainable food – one less obvious and highly inspired: food grown on top of the city’s skyscrapers. Ambitious environmental entrepreneurs are in the process of transforming this dead space into spirulina algae plantations. As an added bonus, the edible mineral and vitamin-rich green ‘superfood’ also thrives on carbon dioxide. The people behind this scheme, Energaia, have gained permission from many real estate owners to install their tubs on top of high buildings to harvest the liquid and nutritious sustenance. A healthy alternative to meat, spirulina could help to make Bangkok more sustainable as meat production accounts for 18 % of our global greenhouse gas emissions.

Bangkok is Asia’s 13th most polluted city; photo by florianpost/photocase.com

At the same time, this scheme exploits one of central Bangkok’s few abundant natural resources, heat, and transforms it into something sustainable. After all, the urban heat island effect (due to human activity) amplifies the city’s year-round warm and tropical climate. In a way, the algae-based endeavor turns the repercussions of human overdevelopment into a force for good.

According to Leonard, a teacher living in the city, however, most Bangkok residents seem largely unaware of environmental issues, “except maybe the upper classes.” At the same time, he claims that “recycling is improving,” spurred on by a bonus (approx. one Thai baht, which translates as €0.02) for every recycled item. In view of its period of rampant overdevelopment during the 1980s, the city has to change its tune faced with natural events like the recent nearby devastations of Hurricane Haiyan or 2004’s tragic tsunami: This part of the world is likely to bear the brunt of climate change-related calamities. So, even if environmental consciousness is confined to the middle classes for now, rising interest in green issues promises to be more than an ephemeral trend.

Take the luxurious Bangkok Tree House Inn: The 12-room hotel proudly states its green credentials, including a solar-heated outdoor pool, carbon-neutral cookery classes, and “air-cleansing plants” in each room. Moreover, all food and disposable products in use are organic, while the hotel promises to remove 1 kg of waste from the Chao Phraya River for each booking. And although this might be nothing but a clever marketing ploy, the very focus on sustainability as a marketing tool betrays a shift in consumer attitudes towards green concerns.

Bangkok at night; photo by life_is_live/photocase.com
Bangkok at night; photo by life_is_live/photocase.com

The Inn itself can be found on a little-known island – Bang Krachao – right in the heart of Bangkok, on the Chao Phraya River. Known colloquially as the city’s “green lung” due to its meandering shape, it wasn’t even marked on tourist maps before the 1970s. Now the popular, but still car-free, destination is only accessible by boat or Skytrain and a welcome respite within the bustling metropolis. A tenth of its 2,000 hectares are designated protected land and Bang Krachao also benefits from royal patronage, so the island is in no immediate danger of being overdeveloped like the rest of Bangkok. Not to forget its allure to Thai daytrippers and intrepid cyclists who enjoy the island’s precipitous wooden cycle paths.

Bangkok is changing; photo by ig3l/photocase.com

While many of these greener aspects remain unknown to the locals (Leonard had never heard of Bang Krachao) and while they are usually eclipsed by Bangkok’s vibrant nightlife and busy banking district, there are some clear signs that the city is moving towards increased environmental awareness. Right now, the city’s Climate Change Action Plan includes five measures to make Bangkok more environmentally efficient.

These measures comprise plans for an improved rail and public transport network as well as extended public parks. The Action Plan, introduced in 2007, aims to reduce all urban emissions by 15 % compared to “business as usual scenarios.” At the time of writing, the city reports an 87 % success rate. So, the future is definitely greener and cleaner for Thailand’s bustling metropolis.

Header image by Fa.bian/photocase.com
Text by Tim Peyton