There is more to the fast-paced Thai capital than gleaming office towers and shiny shopping malls. Michelle Jana Chan explores the city by bike.
I still have memories of old Bangkok from my first trip here 25 years ago. Temples as places of worship rather than tourist attractions. Floating markets where traders bartered fresh produce they had grown just a few miles away. A lazy boat ride up to Ayutthaya to see a lethargic reclining golden Buddha.
Nowadays it’s hard to find the softer side of the Thai capital but a handful of companies offer tourists a way to explore the city’s less visited areas – by bicycle.
In the offices of Bangkok Biking, everyone who had signed up for the day’s tours happened to be Dutch and very experienced cyclists. I opted for the less challenging half-day trip, along with a middle-aged couple Michel and Henny.
With Tao, our 24-year-old guide, we chose our bikes, adjusted the saddles, rang the bells and pedalled in single-file down the road, with a clacking of unplanned gear changes. The first few minutes were the most worrying. It was rush hour and the dual carriageway we joined was gridlocked: motorbikes wove, tuk-tuks nosed forward, buses shared our lane. We peeled off down a narrow alley with relief until we realised it was built with shards of rusted corrugated iron. “Careful not to cut yourselves,” Tao shouted out cheerily.
Here was the start of the so-called “slums”, an area of low-rise housing on government land. With lanes too narrow for a car it felt like we had already left the noisy turbulent city.
Our pace was slow which was ideal for quietly observing without seeming to stare. We watched locals beginning their day: some eating bowls of spicy noodles for breakfast; a vendor grating green papaya into a salad; women queuing outside a public washroom.
Grandmothers bounced infants on their knees calling out to us, “bye bye”, and trying to get their grandchildren to copy their English words. I could smell pungent durian fruit, grilled satay and lemon detergent as my shoulder slapped against a line of wet laundry. It was here I noticed some domestic Thai tendencies I had not been aware of before. There were pot plants outside every home, some growing herbs but mostly colourful flowers; the air was filled with birdsong but sadly from caged parrots; everyone appeared to have a dog, which moseyed around or flopped inconveniently across our path. Glancing into one front room, I saw a woman blow-drying her puppy with a hairdryer attached to a car battery.
Our first stop was a kindergarten where an assembly of immaculately-uniformed children were performing The Chicken Song complete with hip-wiggling and clapping. We joined in, too, much to their amusement.
As we pedalled along an old railway track, I asked Tao when the line had fallen into disuse. He said he had no idea and giggled, which became a regular refrain.
Tao was less a guide and more a navigator but he was so sweet-natured, it was impossible to mind. As Henny pointed out, “We have so much history and dates in our heads from all the temples it is nice to do something light like this.”
At the banks of the mighty Chao Phraya, we carried our bicycles on to a long tail boat and motored to the opposite side of the river. We had convincingly left the city behind and landed amid a pocket of green called Phra Pradaeng, a zone of farmland, park and mangrove.
Cycling became tricky again with slender pathways elevated above swamp-like terrain. But here was a chance to encounter wildlife, uncaged, within striking distance of the city. I saw a flash of kingfisher blue. A monitor lizard paddled away through the reeds.
Over the five-hour trip we paused regularly for drinks and to taste local treats, such as crisp coconut pancakes and sticky rice steamed in palm leaves. We also stopped at a local atelier, a Buddhist temple and cemetery.
There were two unplanned moments, too: first when Henny’s chain came off, and then mine. Apart from those incidents, the trip was very laid-back and agreeably undramatic. Over a riverside lunch of pad Thai noodles, we concluded this journey was a perfect antidote to days of cultural sightseeing.
During the slow-going 20-mile ride there had been hazards, from crossing busy roads to swerving to avoid dogs who ignored my agitated ting-a-ling. But probably my biggest challenge was riding one-handed because I wanted to wave back at everyone.
The Thai people are irrepressibly warm, gentle and welcoming and that has not changed since my first visit. It is just I am usually in too much of a rush to notice.
The private bicycle tour costs approximately £70 per person including lunch at a local restaurant, all guiding and local long tail boat transfers where necessary, as part of a cazenove+loyd (020 7384 2332; www.cazloyd.com) tailor-made itinerary.