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Bangkok Biking

Bangkok, Inside-Out

Wall Street Journal - September 8, 2007

By Stan Sesser

Our writer calls the city home but finds surprising treasures using a tourist’s eye

For anyone needing a break from the congestion, noise and polluted air of Bangkok, this is the place. In Phra Pradaeng there are miles of hiking paths, crisscrossed by canals, winding through mangrove forests. Tropical wildflowers, colorful butterflies and intricate spider webs are everywhere. The area is dotted with picturesque old wooden houses of the sort that have long ago been demolished in Bangkok.

I can hardly believe that I’ve lived in Bangkok for seven years and known about this green district for at least half that time, yet I’ve never visited it until now. This is despite the fact that Phra Pradaeng is only 30 minutes from my Bangkok apartment, including the boat ride across the Chao Phraya River.

I’m a victim of Empire State Building Syndrome. The old cliché, that most New Yorkers have never been to the top of the Empire State Building, can be applied all over the world: Even the most avid travelers, who delight at peeking into every nook and cranny of every continent, tend to ignore the delights of their home city.

If the Phra Pradaeng trip is any indication, the syndrome is a strikingly pervasive phenomenon even thousands of miles from New York. Andre Breuer, managing director of Recreational Bangkok Biking Ltd., the company through which I booked my tour, estimates that only 2% to 3% of his 6,000 Phra Pradaeng customers a year actually live in Bangkok. “Thai people are not into cycling to start with,” he explains. “They use taxis. As for expats, living as an expat is living under pressure. You have a job and you have responsibilities.”

I tend to skip spots like the Grand Palace and Kaosan Road because they’re too touristy. I prefer the garden of the Siam Society, for instance, which has one of the finest existing examples of an old Thai wooden house. And since I’ve largely been led around Bangkok by my stomach, I spend a fair amount of time wandering the sidewalk food stalls lining Convent Road — the stalls are filled with roast pork and barbecued chicken for a dollar or two.

As an experiment , I took a vacation in my own home, doing things I’d previously avoided like eating at busy tourist-friendly restaurants and taking tours of the city. Much to my surprise, I actually enjoyed the experience — enough so that I went out and bought a popular city guide, “Nancy Chandler’s Map of Bangkok,” to plan future trips.

When setting out to plan my itinerary for this home vacation, I used Ken Kuiper as my model. I had met Mr. Kuiper, a retired San Francisco restaurateur, two months ago in a wine store in South Africa while on a reporting trip. He astonished me by saying that he plays tourist in San Francisco regularly. “I started doing it three years ago after hearing people from New York telling me of all the New York places they’ve never been,” he says. “I’ll take at least one day or a weekend every month and make it my tourist time.”

Mr. Kuiper says his ventures have led to nights or weekends at six of San Francisco’s top hotels, plus a couple of tiny bed and breakfasts. He’ll eat in restaurants he’s never tried before — sometimes recommended by hotel bellboys as well as concierges. “My favorite thing is to take the ferry across San Francisco Bay to Sausalito and return at sunset,” he says. “It’s one of the best sights in the city.”

During my recent experiment, I tried three restaurants that were popular with tourists and the trendy crowd — usually a recipe for a culinary disaster in Bangkok. But at one of the three, I discovered great food, and it happens to be right around the corner from where I live. Its name is the Bed Supperclub, and the fact that it looks like a spaceship, hires muscular young men who wear T-shirts saying “bouncer” and demands an ID even to visit the restaurant, which is separated from the adjacent disco-bar, were turnoffs to me over the years. It turned out to be really fun.

Almost all the seating (more aptly, lying) is on two long beds, stretching from one end of the restaurant to the other along each wall. Visitors plop down and spear food from a plastic table that rests on the bed, while a disc jockey plays music. And the inventive Mediterranean cuisine, like lamb loin with artichoke cream and goat cheese, was superb, even though the $40 cost of the fixed-price dinner, plus wine, would buy a week of meals at some of the Thai restaurants on the same street.

At another restaurant I visited, the Deck, the food was a bland and greasy version of Thai cuisine — but it was still a discovery. The Deck is in the five-room Arun Residence hotel, on the Chao Phraya River directly across from Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, one of Bangkok’s most beautiful temples. From the open-air bar above the restaurant, you can have an unimpeded view of Wat Arun, which is illuminated at night, and of the boats coming up the river.

As for my three tours, they were a complete success. The first one, a trip on a public river taxi, set me back only 50 cents. I’ve long been a fan of the river taxis that ply the Saen Saeb Canal, which cuts through the heart of Bangkok, offering views of old canal-side communities that have hardly changed in a century. The canal ends in the heart of old Bangkok, at Democracy Monument. But where it begins, somewhere on the outskirts of the city, I could never find out, since Bangkok maps don’t extend that far. So I hopped onto the boat for an unknown journey.

It’s a totally different view of Bangkok — tiny houses, lush vegetation and lots of flowers. I had no idea where I was when I stepped off at Sri Bung Rueng Temple, which was the end of the line. When I walked to the nearest main street, I discovered I was just a five-minute taxi ride from my favorite Bangkok restaurant, Bahn Pakwan. For all these years, I’ve been enduring traffic jams to eat there when I could have taken the boat.

The second tour was Phra Pradaeng. To get to the boat pier, we walked through a Bangkok slum, where people lived in corrugated iron shacks. Then after our hike, we mounted a fleet of pedicabs and saw some of the more built-up areas of Phra Pradaeng, ending at a local restaurant for a traditional Thai lunch.

The third tour had the satisfying one-upmanship of the fact that it’s not listed in any guidebook I could find. From a list of tours offered by Purple Dragon, I picked “The Temple of 1,000 Incarnations” — Wat Pai Rong Wua, which is also called “the Temple of Hell.”

We headed to Suphanburi province, a 90-minute drive from Bangkok. After lunch at a shrimp farm, and then a second meal in an old wooden market (a Thai tour isn’t genuine unless it’s filled with food stops), we came upon the 90-year-old temple, whose grounds cover 20 acres. Unlike the beautiful, calm temples of Bangkok, this one aimed for the gut, to show poorly educated rural Thais what will happen to them if they don’t lead honorable lives. Half the grounds of the temple were covered with Buddha images, some of them huge. And the other half was covered, literally, with scenes from hell — hundreds of statues depicting the tortures that come upon sinners.

I had managed to persuade Douglas Thompson, Purple Dragon’s managing director, to accompany me after he admitted that his 14-hour workdays in the office prevented him from taking many of his own tours. “You get all caught up in a cycle of working and surviving, and never experience the things that make your city attractive,” he says.

Mr. Thompson was as open-mouthed from his vacation at home as I was. “Because I’m in Thailand all the time,” he says, “I don’t even think of what actually might be here.”

Trip Planner: Bangkok

What to Do: The half-day trip to the green area of Phra Pradaeng, across the Chao Phraya River from the Klong Toey district of Bangkok, can be arranged through Recreational Bangkok Biking and costs $44. You can choose from a bike tour or a combination of hiking and transport in a pedicab. The bicycling requires some skill, because the elevated concrete pathways going through the mangrove forest are narrow (www.bangkokbiking.com). The tour to Suphanburi Province to see the Temple of 1000 Incarnations (also called the Temple of Hell) can be booked through Purple Dragon (www.purpledrag.com/thailand/bigmango.htm). It lasts a day and costs $197 for two people, which includes car, driver and tour guide. The public taxi boats running on the Saen Saeb Canal can be regularly caught on Sukhumvit soi 3 just past Bumrungrad Hospital. (Take the Skytrain to Nana Station.) Boats going to the right end up at the heart of Bangkok’s old city, near many of the major tourist monuments. To the left, you’ll be going past small riverside neighborhoods, many of them Muslim, away from the center of Bangkok.

Where to Eat: Bahn Pakwan restaurant offers some of the best food in the city — although it’s a downscale place with fans, not air conditioning. Take a public taxi boat to the last stop, then walk for five minutes perpendicular to the canal past the Buddhist temple to the main street, which is Ramkamheng Road. Take a taxi to Ramkamheng soi 131. The back wall of Bahn Pakwan is on soi 131; it’s entered from the little shopping center a few steps back. (In Bangkok, smaller streets are called “sois” and identified by the nearest main street that they cross.) The Bed Supperclub is at the end of Sukhumvit soi 11, a 10-minute walk from the Nana Skytrain stop. You can’t miss it because it looks like a spaceship. 26 Sukhumvit soi 11 (www.bedsupperclub.com). The bar with the spectacular view of Wat Arun and the Chao Phraya River, called Deck, is at the Arun Residence Hotel. For a scenic trip, take the Skytrain to the end of the Silom line, Saphan Taksin, and catch the public express boat going to your right. Get off at the Ta Tien stop, which is clearly signed. The hotel is on the river, back the way you came, about a 10-minute walk. It’s best to arrive around 6 p.m. so that you can see the sunset. 36-38 soi Pratoo Nok Yoong, Maharat Rd. (www.arunresidence.com).

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