Cycling the City of Angels

Posted on August 20, 2012

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With its truly demented levels of traffic one might think that cycling in Bangkok is a suicidal no-no on a par with attempting yoga sessions with a flock of angry hippos. The fact is though that under the canopy of buzzing concrete exists a city of quiet pathways, canal tracks, parks and even jungles.

CYCLING THE CITY OF ANGELS

If one is well guided one can navigate the city on two wheels taking in quiet temples, long standing neighborhoods of traditional wooden houses, waterside restaurants and floating markets.

The fact that Bangkok is hot and humid is counteracted by the fact that it is also very flat. Also, although at first it seems confusing, the city is laid out, mostly, on a grid system so travelling between or avoiding the major arteries does fall into a pattern – even if it is a slightly insane one. If you also want to see Bangkok at some speed but don’t want to be confined to a taxi for hours on end, then a bicycle is a pretty useful way to go about it. As long as you are aware of the right routes, then you can cover a lot of ground and see a great many sites within the city in a short space of time.

Unless you know the city well, the best way to make the most of your time is to travel in the company of experts. One of the most established companies running cycle tours, not just of Bangkok, but the whole of the Asian region, is Spice Roads. Struan Robertson, the General Manager of the company and a fanatical cyclist himself, explains, “Having lived here for 7 years, one might think that I have covered most of the city while looking for new bicycle routes around Bangkok. But it’s not true. Places change and new roads get surfaced, or one can just take a wrong turn and find a whole new path. It’s a constantly evolving city, and there is always something new and often exciting just around the corner.

Cycling the city

We are constantly adjusting our tours to take this into account.” Thai people have an innate and good natured sense of jovial hospitality and the sight of a bunch of sweating foreigners riding two wheeled vehicles without engines is likely to mean you are mostly greeted with a smile and a wave. The people you meet along the way are half the joy of the journey. Once one actually sets out, helmet on head and lycra hugging torso, a secret city is unfolded before you. Just across the Chao Phraya River, a very short distance from busy Sukhumvit Road is Bang Khra Jao. One can only reach this wilderness by boat, since no bridges span the river this far down. In a town where the main accompaniment is the rumble of cement trucks and where new skyscrapers, malls and condo blocks are being built all the time, Bang Khra Jao remains an isolated island of unspoiled tropical jungle. There is no traffic, but above the treetops one can see the tower blocks that surround you – a surreal reminder of the proximity of this forgotten haven to the busy streets of the 21st Century. A ride here takes you through local communities and also takes you into a working floating market and an Ayutthaya period temple dating back more than 250 years, with a teak roof and Burmese /Mon shutters.

Chinatown is in many ways the throbbing heart of downtown Bangkok. A longtime commercial centre, it has its own unique character with small streets lined with busy shop fronts, ancient temples and shrines billowing incense flanked by higgledy-piggledy Chinese signage. Markets are everywhere with crowds bustling about, parted by aproned men intently pushing trolleys piled high with impossibly large loads. A cycle tour here starts right in the middle of the early morning commotion. Having explored the street markets and negotiated the crowds one can cross the river to enjoy more peaceful rides along the winding back roads of Thonburi – a place of obscure but important temples, busy markets and, as the final treat, the Princess Mother Memorial Park. This beautiful leafy space is a well-kept secret having only been opened in 1997. Past here one can continue on to the Santa Cruz Catholic Church and sample a Portuguese dessert, the recipe passed down through generations.

Cycling the city

A short ride down to Wat Arun with its porcelain covered Khmer Prang takes you back to the river and once you have crossed back over you are in place to witness one of the most magnificent sunsets in Asia as the sun sinks behind the soaring stupa of Wat Arun.

East of central Bangkok is the largely Muslim suburb of Minburi where the urban and the rustic meet amongst a patchwork of canals and rice fields. The main canal through the heart of Bangkok, the Klong San Saeb, connects the city’s two main rivers, the Bangprakong and Chao Phraya. Minburi is peopled by the direct descendants of Southern Thai Muslims invited by King Rama III to defend the city against Khmer invaders attempting to navigate their marauding boats up the waterways in conquest.

Cycling the city

On the other side of the city to the East, the Mae Klong River meanders into a sprawling delta as it reaches the Gulf of Thailand. This low-lying land is crisscrossed with canals traversing the fertile green of the paddy fields. This is some of the finest cycling in the area with plenty to see. Even though one is so close to the city, life here continues at a distinctly rural pace with floating markets and some splendid temples. Wat Amphawan Chetiyaram is the birthplace of King Rama II. Wat Bang Kung is simply very odd, since it is only kept standing by a huge banyan tree big enough to step inside.

Of course the main issues when touring Bangkok on two wheels are those of heat and safety. Struan explains, “It’s the heat you really have to be careful of. In the humidity of Thailand you have to be constantly aware of the need to rehydrate. It’s something our guides keep an eye on all the time. In terms of safety we insist on everyone wearing decent protective gear and our routes are designed to minimize exposure to busy traffic. It’s actually easier than one might think once one has pinned down where all the warrens of back roads go.”

If for some reason you do start to flag, just hail one of those two-stroke, three-wheeled, screeching symbols of all things Thai, the ubiquitous tuk-tuk. For an extra tip the intrepid pilot will strap your steed on to the back of his vehicle with ropes and bungee chords and speed you homewards in smoky splendour.

For some, all this becomes quite addictive. Bangkok is a vast city and there always seems to be more to explore, more klongs to cross, more markets to wander around, more temples to contemplate and more delicious local delicacies to taste. From point to point, experiencing every mile of the way vividly first hand in the open air, there is no better way to enjoy the City of Angels less travelled then jumping on a bicycle.

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Posted in: Bangkok