By PETER RIORDAN
Fifteen million people, six million cars, gridlocked roads and air quality that’s, well, let’s say not like at home. Welcome to Bangkok, a metropolis of ever proliferating high-rises, shopping malls and motorways.
A bicycle tour in such a city might seem foolhardy, even downright injurious to your health, but rest assured, there’s a gentler side to Bangkok where you’ll find trees, not traffic lights, wooden huts, not concrete towers, and that’s when a bike makes the perfect companion.
One of the first to cotton on to pedal-powered sightseeing was expatriate Dutchman Andre Breuer. He quit the corporate world to start his business seven years ago; now he has 115 bikes and offers 10 tours of varying lengths in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, in the country’s north.
Breuer pronounces himself completely averse to any form of gruelling exercise: “I’m lazy. Anyone who can ride a bike can do one of my tours.” So I put his claim to the test.
The starting point is his depot in a suburb a little to the south of central Bangkok. In my party are five fellow Kiwi journalists of mixed riding ability. Two would totter, two would cycle and one would fly. Bikes are selected, brakes tested and by nine o’clock, with the sun already good and hot, we set off, our guide, Guy (a mangling of his Thai name, meaning “chicken”), at the front, our translator, Chalarine (Cha for short), at the rear.
Immediately we strike the one bit of the route following heavily trafficked roads. But Guy steers us safely along a couple of boulevards, then right into a district of low terraced housing and light traffic. Thailand drives on the left, so there is no adjustment to make there. More importantly, Thais don’t drive like Kiwis. They drive carefully and considerately. What’s carefully and considerately, you ask? It’s the Buddhist way, and it manifests itself in much else besides driving habits.
We swing into a narrow alley lined with rusty sheets of corrugated iron – the first of many lanes that wriggle from one unseen enclave to another and are invisible to passing motorists.
Soon we are slowing inside a warren of still narrower lanes; we are in what Breuer has warned us is a “slum”, for he has promised the itinerary will show us all sides of Bangkok. The word slum carries connotations of filth, flies, corrugated iron shacks, children with distended stomachs, despair. This is merely a very humble – but very clean – quarter for workers employed in factories on the edges of Bangkok. People look darn happy. Stalls sell soaps, snacks, fruit, inexpensive household items. Washing dries on upper-floor balconies. Doors are left open, revealing crowded one-room dwellings. A television blares. The sun throws a cheerful glow over everything.
Life lived this close must be lived communally: Someone has been dismantling an engine next to a neighbour’s potted plants; an elderly woman sits among a collection of broken stools, a tailor works behind an old Singer. People may be poor, but they surely belong.
We move on to a district of what Cha calls “medium-level homes, not rich, not poor”. Security grilles protect balconies. It is a district of Chinese-Thais. A “spirit house”, a Chinese temple, adjoins a garment factory. Inside there are three women, two fans and a lot of T-shirts.
An underpass allows us to avoid a motorway. The roar is continuous.
We are back in what seems like the slum of before, only a little more spacious.
Cha whispers in my ear: “He is off to become a monk.” Ahead, beside a hair-salon, stands a young man in white robes. “He has shaved his head and is going to the temple to make his vows. He will give up all bad things and enter the monastery.”
The novitiate will join the ranks of the saffron-robed monks who occupy such a revered place in Thai society.
Cha is full of interesting snippets. She points to a pomegranate plant growing in a pot. “Chinese add the leaves to water and wash themselves after attending a cremation. It removes the memory and bad luck.”
A man getting drinks from the same stall as us is also buying lunch for four monks in a restaurant across the road. Monks eat two meals a day, she says, the second of which must be eaten by midday. They will fill their stomachs, he will earn their blessing.
I ask Cha why Thais are so happy. It’s unnatural how many have smiles on their faces. She gives me the same answer as everyone else: “It is Buddhism. We learn not to have attachments to things.”
Our group is now strung out over a vast distance. Around another corner we come upon an old woman in white with a shaved head. “She is preparing to meet her death in peace. She is observing eight of the 27 disciplines followed by monks. We may observe only two or three, but it is enough to start.”
Thailand will soon celebrate a festival Cha describes as “Lent”. Everyone will give up alcohol, meat, “bad things”, and abstain from entertainments. “Temptations will not bring you happiness.”
Down past warehouses we come without warning to the Chao Phraya River. It is an immense sluggish chocolate milkshake lined, on the far bank, by palm-trees. A long-tailed boat – think canoe with snarling engine dangling off the back – takes our bikes across; another takes us.
Now we are in jungle. It’s hard to believe the city exists, yet we saw its skyline only minutes earlier. It turns out the Chao Phraya River is so serpentine it nearly ties itself in a knot; that knot is almost an island and it’s covered with Ministry of Forestry land and national park. It’s subject to flooding, which is why our route follows a web of concrete pathways raised a metre or more off the ground. We glide along the smooth concrete, beneath the dappled light of coconut trees which grow with the wildest abandon beside banana trees and tropical scrub. Dotted about are a few houses on poles.
Eventually we come to a formal park where we feed carp before retiring for a late lunch ourselves. It is a simple roadside place and our noodle soups are cooked on the spot. Refuelled, we continue on but run out of time to complete the 24-kilometre route and duck back to our landing site by the river where there is a temple. The yellow Buddhist flag (“the Wheel of the Law”) flies alongside the national flag and royal flag. Cha can’t resist one last snippet.
“The royal flag is lower than the national flag because everyone serves the country, even the king.” Service to others . . . maybe that is another reason why Thais can’t stop smiling.
The writer travelled courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
This guided cycle tour takes five hours and costs 1000 baht ($42). Helmets, water and lunch are provided, bring a hat and sunscreen. Maximum group size eight; minimum two. Children under 12 on private tours only. More at www.bangkokbiking.com.