Lumpini re-emerges from the protests

Joggers are taking the pathways and roads. The grandpa and grandma groups are taking back their corner on the lawn for their tai-chi and karaoke practice while enjoying morning tea. Kids are trying to balance themselves on roller-blades.

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The familiar scenes are returning to Lumpini Park which was taken over by anti-government protesters in early March after they decided to merge their rally sites into one. They divided up the public park into “residential areas” and named them “villages”. The huge crowds of protesters drove away regular users.

The protesters dispersed on May 12 and City Hall closed the park for maintenance to allow it to return to its original state. The grass is growing back and the fresh park-like smell is once again delighting regular users.

“Almost everything has been done except rebuilding lawns which cover a large area,” the city’s Environment Department deputy chief Somchai Chatsakunpen said after the park reopened on May 19.

The lawns had dried out after being covered by canvas sheets and tents, and overused by the crowd around the clock. When the makeshift shelters were removed, a flat, empty expanse of brown soil emerged.

City officials are still laying new sheets of grass on vast damaged areas and transplanting grass seedlings on smaller ones, Mr Somchai said.

The last technique is similar to the transplanting of rice seedlings on wet paddy. It is suitable for restoring certain lawns this way when the damage is only slight, according to the Environment Department.

“So far, 50 percent of the lawns have been repaired,” Mr Somchai said.

The news is comforting to the countless Lumpini Park regulars who were worried about the damage inflicted by the thousands of anti-government protesters. Some feared the large crowds had destroyed shrubs and plants and disturbed animal habitats while others wondered what would happen to facilities such as toilets which were not built to handle the kind of crowds that took over the park during the height of the protests.

Their concerns were valid since Lumpini had never before been occupied by people day and night for such a prolonged period. Two-thirds of its 360 rai was turned into temporary accommodation with row after row of tents, bathrooms, kitchens and outdoor living facilities.

During its initial inspection of the park, the Environment Department reported surprisingly little damage to the grass, small plants and toilets.

Large trees, and especially the park’s ecosystem, were pretty much intact, Mr Somchai said.

“Fish still come when we feed them. Birds also face no problems,” he said. “Even water monitors still exist and their numbers are increasing.”

The condition of the reptiles drew attention from ecologists after a rumour spread that many of them had been killed.

But that was not true, Mr Somchai said.

Prasanna Weerawardane, a regular park-goer, was more sceptical, saying he had not seen many water monitors since the protesters left the site.

“They have kept very low profile,” said Mr Prasanna, saying there was also not much evidence of bird life, just one egret, and no signs at all of the park’s turtles.

Mr Prasanna praised City Hall and its park staff for doing the best they could to return the park to it normal state in such a very short time. However, he suggested City Hall should sue the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) for the damage done to the park. It was unfair for the PDRC to take over the park for weeks and then leave it for officials to repair.

What really needed to be fixed, in addition to the grass, was the condition of the water in the lake and ponds, flowers and toilets. Officials have already poured organic substances into the water to improve the quality. They have also replaced withered flowers with new ornamental plants and repaired nine toilets.

“This required just a small amount of money because we mostly employed park staff to do the jobs,” Mr Somchai said.

After Lumpini Park reopened late last month, the number of park-goers has increased to almost normal rates, which is usually about 8,000 on weekdays and 10,000 on weekends.

The old ambiance of this popular public park has returned. Most people still prefer jogging and walking around it. Aerobic dance and weight training always attract attention. For older people, tai-chi martial art practice and Chinese light exercise are still popular.

The familiar picture of health enthusiasts sitting around marble tables and sipping hot tea after exercising is a notable feature.

Joggers and bicyclists have also welcomed the revival of the park.

Apart from the damage to the grass, “the whole picture of the park is that it has no problems”, Thawatchai Wongkla said.

The 56-year-old businessman has been jogging and cycling around Lumpini for 12 years. The place is convenient for him because it is a short distance from his children’s school which he drives them to every morning.

Though the number of park-goers decreased during the anti-government rally, Mr Thawatchai believed most of those people were casual visitors.

“I didn’t have any problem with [the rally-goers]. We could share the park as long as we respected each other’s rights,” he said.

However, some park-goers complained about such disturbances as cigarette smoke and fumes from more motorcycles and coaches driven inside the park.

“But when I asked them not to smoke or drive in areas where many people were exercising, they accepted it,” said cyclist Somchai Jarumontirabavon, 55.

He is among the park-goers who understood the protesters’ need to stage the rally at the park and thus did not feel too bad when witnessing some unavoidable damage.

However, many people agree the city’s quick repair of Lumpini Park was necessary in order to bring back the old mood.

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