Judith Doyle takes us to Bangkok’s byways and back streets on a bicycle.
Busy, bustling Bangkok, often choked with traffic – surely not the place to cycle? But there’s another Bangkok, tucked away down hidden alleyways and secret paths, and that’s where the Colors of Bangkok cycling tour goes.
Dutchman Andre Breuer deserted the corporate world to follow his dream of establishing a business in his favorite holiday country. Being Dutch, cycling was second nature. Recreational Bangkok Biking was born. Not without a long, difficult labour though. Bangkok’s traffic is notorious. It took Breuer five months to suss out safe routes away from mainstream traffic. Colors of Bangkok aims to do just that.
I have my heart in my mouth at first as eight of us negotiate a busy street south of central Bangkok. Thais drive on the left as we do, which is a relief. But traffic on the main streets is relentless. We’re strung out in single-file behind our Thai guide, Chonenhanan. “Call me Kai” he suggests.
Soon we leave the traffic behind and duck down a narrow alleyway of small wooden shacks, our handlebars almost touching the fence either side. We emerge onto a street where the houses are, by contrast, several storeys high, with wrought-iron security gates on doorways and porches. The inhabitants here are mainly Chinese-Thai: This is middle-class Bangkok.
We later peep into a clothing sweatshop where workers are busy on sewing machines that line the walls. Piles of bright-coloured fabric lie in heaps on the floor. Right next door is a decorated and gilded Buddhist shrine, with that uptilted roof that makes it seem that Thai buildings smile.
Another swift change of streetscape as we enter the narrow alleys of a Bangkok slum. Private and public life overlaps here. Racks of garments on the street are not for sale, as one cyclist on a previous trip believed. They are simply the household’s wardrobe. One shack was up a tree-a glorified treehouse. Herbs and vegetables are growing in pots at the front of some homes and caged birds near the doorway of others.
Often a Thai woman is cooking on the family’s streetside stove and tantalising aroma of grilled chicken wafts about. I duck my head to cycle under a line of washing and catch the corner of a tea towel as I go. People sit in the doorways or outside on the street. I feel I’m intruding a bit into their private lives, it’s all so close, but we get cheerful grins from people. Sometimes the path is so narrow that it’s safer to push the bike on foot.
We stop at a kindergarten where giggling children peer over their half-door. Some of us buy little cakes, and we give them to the children’s teacher. Recreational Bangkok Biking company sponsors this kindergarten. There’s a health centre next door where a doctor is on duty once a month, says Kai.
Underneath a traffic flyover, at a transport hub, we pause at a food market before setting off again, this time along a road with the odd tuk-tuk or motor scooter. I watch a woman selling chillies and vegetables from the back of a truck. It’s July, the middle of the wet season, and weather is hot and humid. My water bottle is empty by now. So I’m relieved when we arrive at a jetty-cum-boatshed-cum-office where we sit, rest, have a drink and refill our bottles.
This is the point where we cross the wide Chao Praya River in long-tailed boats, like skiffs. Our bikes are balanced in one, while weight of us plus boatman squeeze into another. We gaze back across the grey waters at the oblong shapes of Bangkok’s skyscrapers jumbled together in the central business district.
We land near the statue of Prinu Chomporn, known as “the father of the Thai navy” , who gazes out over the greay waters of the river. Nearby two monks sweep the square outside their monastery.
We cycle along a road but soon dive off into greenery. This is a coconut plantation with a narrow boardwalk running through it. It is pleasant to be in lovely dense shade.
I concentrate hard to stay on the boardwalk. We later hear about an earlier cyclist who does not; falls into the mud; emerges absolutely smothered and loses a wig which was only recovered some time afterwards.
The greenery is interspersed with shacks and small houses at times and once or twice we pass a little shrine on a pole among the trees, It’s an attractive area, fresh smelling and clean, especially when we enter the Royal Gardens. Here the lake is bordered by occasional pavilions and summer houses.
Red carp swim in the lake and fight for the food that Kai throws into the water for them. We’re heading for lunch also and cycle another couple of kilometres to a shady roadside restaurant. Here we’re served a tasty dish of shrimp and noodles, along with blissfully, ice-cold water.
I feel so overheated by this time that Kai gets a plastic bag full of iceblocks for me. I press them against forehead and wrists to try to cool down.
We’ve been cycling for nearly five hours over 14 kilometres by now with temperatures around 32 degrees Celsius and 80 percent humidity.
It’s the humidity more than the heat which has got me. I have just enough energy for the ride back to the river, where, after the crossing, two of us get a lift back to the base, to air-conditioning and more chilled water.