Copenhagen – soon to be sustainable

Copenhagen (København) is a great city and always the focus of much attention – but currently it’s being watched with particular interest because of its pledge to be carbon-neutral by 2025. It’s now the end of 2020 so that’s not much more than four years from now, but I’d say they’re in with a good chance of meeting the deadline.

 They’re very proud of the huge Royal Danish Opera House (actually opened back in 2005), in a regenerating area of former docklands, but I must say that, even as an opera-lover, I have my doubts – it may have perfect acoustics and be incredibly energy-efficient, with heat pumps, seawater cooling and a district heating scheme, but did it really have be so BIG? The amount of carbon embedded in its construction is boggling. Another huge project was the construction of an automated ring metro line that opened in 2019, but the environmental benefits of that are much clearer. A light rail line is under construction in the suburbs, with the first stretch (from Lundtofte Park in the north to Ishøj in the southwest) due to open in 2025. The Copenhill waste-to-energy plant (properly known as Amager Bakke), producing clean energy for 60,000 families while heating 120,000 homes, opened in 2019 and famously includes a rooftop green space, including an all-year ski and snowboard slope, as well as a climbing wall. As ever, the greatest benefits come from the cheapest and most low-tech options – insulation and cycling, of course. Since 2016 fifteen cycle/pedestrian bridges have been built across the city’s various waterways and railways, and a couple of them already carry 22,000 cyclists a day. More than a dozen supercykelsti (cycle superhighways, up to 25km long) have been created from the suburbs to the centre, and some city-centre streets have a ‘green wave’ at peak times, allowing people cycling at a fairly moderate pace to keep moving without red lights getting in the way. What’s more, cycling is a pleasurable experience here, with no sense that people are desperate to get past you. Cycle commuting has increased from 52% of residents in 2015 to 62% in 2019 – on an average day (yes, it’s a year-round activity) there are more cyclists in Copenhagen than in the entire United States. 

 The most exciting project under way at the moment is perhaps the development of the Carlsberg site, a US$3 billion project to turn the former brewery, just west of the city centre, into a highly sustainable and liveable quarter where half the area will be given over to residential buildings (much of it affordable), 35% to offices and shops and 15% to cultural, sporting and educational activities. In fact 15% of the buildings are listed structures, and some of them are full of character – and I’m not talking about the odd swastika, intended purely as an Indian symbol of prosperity and goodness – they’re on the famous Elephant Gate, but there are also some other spectacular gateways and even a lighthouse. It’s all due to be completed by 2024, in time for the 2025 carbon neutrality deadline; of course, all the new buildings are amazingly energy-efficient, but what seems even more impressive is that 96% of the materials from demolished buildings is being recycled. The visitor centre and shop (in the original brewery) are currently closed for a facelift, due to reopen in 2020, which I think will be 2021.






Carlsberg beer is pretty boring, but the story of the company is fascinating. It was founded by Jacob Christian Jacobsen (1811-87), who studied the new process of making bottom-fermented lager in Germany and in 1847 built a brewery alongside the new Copenhagen-Roskilde railway; making very consistent beer on an industrial scale was hugely profitable and in 1876 he decided to donate the entire business to the Royal Danish Academy, setting up the Carlsberg Foundation to fund research in science and the humanities. Having largely funded the restoration of Frederiksborg Castle (in the western suburbs) after a fire, he came up with the idea of a Museum of National History there, which opened in 1878. 

In 1871 he built a new brewery alongside the first one and leased it to his son Carl (1842-1914); in 1879 Carl set up his own brewery, Ny Carlsberg (New Carlsberg), and in 1902 handed that over to the foundation too (it owns a minimum of 51% of the business). He was more focussed on the arts than his father and had already created the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (meaning sculpture collection, although much more than that; at the brewery in 1881 then near the central station since 1897), the Danish Museum of Art and Design (1890) and the Royal Cast Collection (1895). He also paid for the statue of the Little Mermaid (from a HC Andersen story) in 1913. In 1921 the Carlsberg Foundation largely funded the Institute of Theoretical Physics, said to have been the birthplace of quantum mechanics, leading (among other things) to Michael Frayn’s brilliant play Copenhagen; it was headed by Niels Bohr, who from 1931 lived in JC Jacobsen’s old home.

 Surprisingly perhaps, being managed by the Royal Danish Academy has not stopped Carlsberg from becoming the world’s third largest brewing company; it took over Tuborg in 1970 (there’s a Tuborg Foundation too), Tetley in 1992, and Scottish & Newcastle, the UK’s largest brewer, in 2008 (with Heineken). The flagship beer, variously known as Carlsberg Lager, Carlsberg Beer and Carlsberg Pilsner, was created in 1904 by Carl Jacobsen; Special Brew, a stronger lager, is brewed only in Denmark and the UK (Northampton).

 Between the central station and the Carlsberg brewery, the meatpacking district (Kødbyen) was established in 1879, to remove the blood and guts from the old city – it’s now the heart of the city’s nighttime economy, with the hottest bars and clubs. Across the tracks, in an area still partially occupied by a locomotive depot, between the Carlsberg and Fisketorvet (Dybbølsbro and Havenholmen) stations (although only pedestrians and cyclists can take the direct route), is a largely unknown but rather alluring alternative: wooden railway sheds, disused for half a century, are being restored by green entrepreneurs as BaneGaarden – one shed houses an organic farmers market, one a streetfood hall, one a vegetarian restaurant and one a hall for community events. Others will eventually house a woodshop, a plant market and a hub for young entrepreneurs with a sustainable focus. There’s also a new school, student residences, some other shops and the DieselHouse museum, in a still-operational power station, which preserves diesel engines produced by Burmeister & Wain (founded in 1846, and now part of MAN). Their first engine, a single-cylinder model dating from 1904 and producing 40 HP, is started up on Thursday afternoons, while the largest, a monstrous 1,400 tonnes in weight and producing 22,500 HP, runs for about five minutes on two Sunday mornings a month – built in 1932, it generated power for the city until the late 1960s but was not finally disconnected from the grid until 2004.

Street food and more

 As in Amsterdam and Hamburg (not to mention the Sugar Factory site in Groningen, which I will get around to writing about at some point), there’s a former docks area which has been taken over by street food outlets, bakeries and microbreweries – here it’s Refshaleøen, on Papirøen (Paper Island) to the north of the self-governing hippy enclave of Christiania (and not far from Copenhill). The sustainable Amass restaurant came first (in 2013), using waste food and with an emphasis on pickling, followed by the Lille organic bakery and Broaden & Build organic brewery, known for hazy IPAs and mindwarping flavour combinations; unfortunately B&B failed to weather the first wave of Covid-19. The Reffen Street Food Market (aka Copenhagen Street Food) started in 2017 as shipping containers housing over fifty food trucks and stalls serving cuisines from around the planet and some just recently invented here; it has now expanded into the vast Werkstatt 167 hangar, creating the largest foodhall in Scandinavia.

 A totally different gastronomic experience (albeit one that I will probably never experience myself) is to be had here at Alchemist, where Rasmus Monk, a sort of mutant hybrid of Heston Blumenthal and Damien Hirst, offers a mind-blowing thirty-course set menu combined with optical illusions and theatrical political statements – he’s taken over the Royal Danish Theatre’s domed former set-building workshop, but seats just forty guests there.

 Copenhagen is of course known for its amazing range of restaurants, and the most famous was Noma, consistently voted the world’s best until René Redzepi decided at the end of 2016 to close it for a year. It reopened early in 2018 on a new ‘campus’ in a former fortified bastion southeast of Papirøen; in addition to the 42-seat restaurant and a private room, there’s a fermenting space, bakery, test kitchen, garden and greenhouses. In July 2020 a 31-year-old Singaporean, Kenneth Foong, was appointed head chef, and in November it was radically rebooted as – believe it or not – a burger joint. It’s a presumably temporary response to the world of Covid-19, with takeaways and no reservations, but with the same attention to organic sourcing and creative details as before. Eating in, burgers cost the equivalent of £17, plus £6 for chips.

 Incidentally, cycling out to Papirøen my eye was caught by the masting crane (Mastekranen), built in 1748–51 as part of the Royal Naval Shipyard (also easily visible across the water as you head north towards the Little Mermaid) – yes, it was used to lift masts in and out of warships.

 The city is also home to some amazing bakeries, some set up by Noma alumni, such as Juno the Bakery in Østerbro. In the city centre, I had a great brunch at Paludan Bogcafé (Book Café), where there’s fine food and coffee and also a beautiful bookshop with period ceiling-high shelves (although most people at the tables are consulting laptops and phones rather than books). At the rear of the central station, Jernbanecaffeen meaning literally Railway Café, is a delightfully unspoilt retro place where train drivers and conductors really do come in between shifts.

 I can’t say much about accommodation, as I stayed in a cheap CabInn hotel near the Fiskertorvet shopping centre and it was exactly what I wanted for the price. But – harking back to the Carlsberg development – the new Hotel Ottilia (named after Carl Jacobsen’s wife) has created a bit of a buzz with its industrial-chic styling and its rooftop restaurant. Similarly, Villa Copenhagen, which opened in July 2020 in the former central post office (dating from 1912), is a luxury hotel that’s also energy-efficient, full of sustainable materials, and makes a point of employing women and minorities and helping the homeless – very Copenhagen.

Bangkok – street food still on the streets?

Travelling through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam a couple of months ago, we found plenty of Western backpackers travelling there – just as I did in Thailand a few decades ago. But it seems that now they barely linger in Thailand, above all because it’s got so expensive (likewise Malaysia). It’s in many ways a developed country now, but rather than offering more jobs to Thai people, it seems that most hotels are staffed by Burmese, who are cheaper and appear to speak reasonable English. In fact, because it’s no longer a cheap destination, there are now reports of so-called begpackers, travellers busking, selling handmade bracelets and asking for money to allow them to continue their trip – this is causing some bad feeling and is certainly pretty tasteless behaviour in what is still not a wealthy country.

This being the case, it seems amazing that the government (a military junta which came to power in a coup in 2014, let’s not forget is planning to destroy one of Bangkok’s most popular tourist attractions. Not a temple or palace, but the city’s street food culture. Even Singapore, which is far more expensive and definitely a developed country with the appropriate concern for health and hygiene, has food courts and hawker centres everywhere, immensely popular both with locals and tourists. In Bangkok, about 40% of residents eat street food daily, while foreign media such as CNN and Lonely Planet consistently name Bangkok’s street food as the world’s best. The junta seems to be driven largely by a military love of order and tidiness (and the generals presumably eat elsewhere), but it’s also being driven by developers desperate to gentrify the city’s most popular neighbourhoods. Another aspect is that the owners of convenience store franchises (such as 7-Eleven) want independent grocery stores and stalls driven out of business, while restaurants resent competition from stalls that don’t pay rent or tax.

Well, that’s what a flurry of recent articles in the travel pages have been been telling us. Then came a slight correction, as locals reported that in fact the apocalypse had not happened. Some overcrowded pavements have been cleared of stoves and stools, but vendors on private property, such as the forecourts of shops and hotels, can remain in business, as can any mobile food carts; and there are various covered markets anyway. It does seem that in 2016 the city administration evicted nearly 15,000 vendors from 39 public areas, and formerly busy markets such as Saphan Lek, Pak Khlong Talat (the flower market) and the On Nut night market are greatly reduced or have even closed; in April 2017 food stalls were cleared from the busy Thong Lor and Ekkamai Roads, officially known respectively as Sol 55 and 63 off Sukhumvit Road. Supposedly Yaowarat Road (Bangkok’s famous, frenetic Chinatown) and Khao San Road (backpacker central) are next in line for tidying up. In typically Thai style, the authorities have not yet made it clear what they’re up to – there are reports, for instance, that the vendors will be allowed on the footpaths of Yaowarat after 7pm.

It seems that there was a clean-up of corruption after the military takeover, but now the usual bribe-based relationships are being reestablished, so most street stalls will survive as long as they pay off the local cops. There’s no doubt that, even though the Asian Tiger days are gone, the city is gentrifying and developers are seeking to make big profits. Huge air-conditioned malls (very popular with the new middle classes) are springing up everywhere, while the city’s few public green spaces are vanishing. Many of the new malls are in the Sukhumvit Road area, where much of the property is owned by large companies linked to the military and the royal family.

There’s a fairly minor reaction against this, so some newer ‘community malls’ are smaller and actually incorporate some green space, usually on the roof! Rather than full-blast air-con there may be light mist sprays to cool shoppers, or just old-style overhead fans. Many Bangkok residents spend much of their free time in malls, so these newer ones have bars and cafés which put on live music and other events, such as cookery workshops. They even have food courts, which offer a partial solution to the problems faced by the street food scene, but many more are needed across the city. They are unashamedly aimed at the new middle-class Thais and expatriates (in fact security guards keep out the poorer people who just want to cool off for a moment) and don’t have vegetable stalls, pharmacies and other everyday shops needed by local residents – but they do include pizza and Chinese food outlets. These people have maids who do the everyday food shopping, after all. The most striking is probably The Commons, in the expensive upmarket area of Thonglor (near the Thong Lo Skytrain station on Sukhumvit Road); others include K Village, SeenSpace and Rain Hill, all near Sukhumvit Road.

Other alternatives are appearing – when the long-established Soi Sukhumvit 38 food market, in alley (sol) 38 off Sukhumvit Road, closed, many of its traders relocated to a space underneath a nearby apartment block. Nearby, there’s a good food court on the top floor of Terminal 21, at the Asok BTS (Skytrain) station (and near the Sukhumvit MRT station), which is clean and cheap but also very busy at times. There are good reports of the vibrant new Rod Fai night market in Ratchada, which has a bit of a Thai-hipster feel to it, with food served from converted VW vans – but it’s a long way east of the centre, and the Skytrain system (at Soi Srinagarindra 51, Nong Bon, Prawet). There are also some interesting alternative food outlets appearing – for instance Holey, on Sol Sukhumvit 31, produces superb breads, pastries and sandwiches for when you can’t face any more rice.

The big picture

The big picture is that a record 33 million tourists visited Thailand in 2016, and tourism revenues were 18% higher than in 2015 – this was largely thanks to over eight million visitors from China, which is flooding all its neighbouring countries with large numbers of tourists. In 1960 Thailand saw just 81,000 tourists, very wealthy or very adventurous (and often both). Since then there’s been a huge boom in tourism, mainly to the beaches and islands of southern Thailand, and a huge amount of environmental damage, including deforestation, pollution and the loss of natural ecosystems. And a huge and blatant (if illegal) sex industry has also developed.

In 1997, when the Thai economy was near collapse, with mass unemployment and food shortages, the king called for a more balanced and sustainable approach to economic development, which led to moves towards a sustainable tourism policy. More recently, the government has urged the tourism industry (which accounts for nearly 10% of GDP) to focus on attracting ‘quality’ visitors, ie lower numbers of higher-spending visitors who would in theory value Thailand’s natural and cultural treasures more than the mass beach tourists. Maybe something will come of this, but at the moment there are few signs of real change. Over the last twenty years about 60 environmental activists have been murdered while campaigning against industrial pollution, over-development and deforestation, and the police and the junta have not been in any hurry to find those to blame.

I was not particularly surprised to read that the same story is playing itself out in Beijing too. The city’s historic alleyways, the hutongs, are being taken over by modern shops and cafés, most notoriously in the boho-arty area of Nan Luo Gu Xiang which was transformed in the space of a couple of years into a venue for groups of tourists gulping down soft drinks and ice cream, while being told it was a delightfully arty area. But this is happening because the city’s bureaucrats neither know nor care about pleasantly untidy arty quarters but just want the place tidied up and ‘modernised’. What is most striking in Beijing is the speed with which demolitions occur, with no notice apparently being given other than a pile of bricks appearing on the street overnight. Cheap bars, shops and noodle bars are then cleared away and soon there’s another shopping mall, just like the ones in Bangkok and indeed anywhere in the world.

 Getting about

I walked a lot in Bangkok – I was very aware that the historic centre (Krung Rattanakosin or Rattanaksosin Island) is actually rather isolated, to the west of the areas served by the Skytrain (BTS) and metro (MRT)  – see Transitbangkok. These serve the slightly newer areas where most of the hotels, restaurants and shops can be found, but the only true tourist sight there is Jim

Thompson’s House (see photo), near the National Stadium station. The Silom Line is shorter but more useful for tourists – running from the southwestern suburbs to Saphan Taksin (Taksin Bridge, by the river between the Oriental and Shangri-La hotels; the place to catch river boats), Sala Daeng/Silom (near Patpong, with its bars and night market, and Lumphini Park) and Siam (another massive mall), terminating at the National Stadium – while the Sukhumvit Line links the shopping opportunities: from the southeastern suburbs it runs to Asok and Nana (both on Sukhumvit Rd), Chitlom (at the Erawan shrine), Siam (for another mall) and then turns north past the so-called Victory Monument (it wasn’t much of a victory) to end up at Mo Chit, near the weekend market in Chatuchak Park. The Erawan shrine, interestingly, is not Buddhist but Hindu, dedicated to Brahma (Phra Phrom) but with minor shrines to Lakshmi, Trimurti, Ganesh, Indra and Narayana within a stone’s throw, and it’s hugely popular and important to the Thais – a throwback to Southeast Asia’s ancient Hindu history, touched on in my posts on Malaysia and Cambodia.

The MRT metro is a single underground line from the Hua Lamphong railway station, near Chinatown (to the east of the historic centre), to Silom and Lumphini then north via Asok/ Sukhumvit to Phetchaburi (near the Airport Express Link’s Makkasan terminal) to Chatuchak Park and Bang Sue. There are oh so predictable plans (see my post on Tangier for what happens when public transport is run by people who don’t use public transport) to close the central railway station (to allow re-development, of course) and build a new one out at Bang Sue, so that everyone will have to change to the metro or (if with baggage) taxis. Speaking of taxis – they have meters, make sure the driver uses it. And motorcycle taxis can be fun, as long as you’re given a helmet – they certainly beat the jams.

There are buses into the historic centre (Krung Rattanakosin), which are cheap and welcoming in their way, but few drivers (or passengers) speak English and all signs, on the buses and the stops, are in Thai only. The best way to get to at least the edge of the historic centre (to visit the Royal Palace and so on) is by boat – there are fast, frequent, cheap and dramatic boats (see above) along the Saen Saeb canal (khlong), parallel to Sukhumvit Road, picking up for instance by Jim Thompson’s House and terminating at the Pha Fah Lilat bridge (‘Pan Farrrr’), near the Golden Mount and Mahakan Fort in the attractive Bang Lamphu district – from here it’s not too much of a hike to the royal palace area. There’s talk of introducing a similar service on the river that surrounds Rattanaksosin Island, from Hua Lamphong (the railway station) to Pha Fah and round to the Phra Sumen fort, but who knows if it’ll ever happen?

There’s a good range of reasonably well-known and tourist-friendly boats along the Chao Phraya river, on the west side of the centre. There are no fewer than 32 ferries across the river (just glorified rafts, really, charging 3 Baht), of which the most useful links Wat Pho with Tha Tien Pier (for the Wat Arun temple); there are river taxis, and there are the frequent river boats. The fastest lines (Green and Yellow) operate Monday to Friday peaks only (every 15 to 30 minutes; 13-30 Baht), so you’ll probably have to take the Orange line (every 5-20min, 0600-1900 daily) which charges a flat 15 Baht, or the local line (Mon-Fri 0600-1830, every 20min; 10-20 Baht), which has no colour coding – they both call at every pier. The Green line heads north as far as Pak Kret pier on Koh Kret island, where you can rent clapped-out bikes and follow the marked cycle loop through banana plantations and sleepy little villages; at the end, have a beer by the river at the excellent Chit Beer microbrewery. The Blue line are tourist boats, which have a guide and stop wherever you want, but don’t offer benefit much otherwise.

In 1983 I used Don Muang airport, by the main rail line north of the city; nowadays there’s the modern Suvanarbhumi (‘soo one a poom’) airport, served by a purpose-built express rail link[link] that almost reaches the Ratchaprarop shopping district but doesn’t actually connect with the Skytrain or metro – but to my surprise I actually found myself catching the A1 bus from Mo Chit BTS station (across the road from the Chatuchak Park MRT station) to Don Muang for my flight out.