Pulling out from the clubhouse I instantly wish I opted for a helmet. I feel unsteady perched on my bike. I try to remember when was the last time I rode one of these things?!
We start the ride off hard and fast. My idea of a leisurely pedal around the sights of Bangkok quickly disappears.
Whipping through the urban jungle of Bang Rak Village the adrenalin starts to surge and I can feel my upper body tense as I hang on tight to the handlebars.
We cycle at pace literally through locals’ backyards. Our Thai guide, Witt, directs us with quick and sharp hand gestures through the narrow winding lanes and back alleys of this authentic neighbourhood.
We are constantly ducking under awnings jutting out from residences and dodging brightly coloured umbrellas shading curb side food stalls. I expect one of my fellow cyclists to be ‘coat-hangered’ at any minute. But somehow we all get through unscathed.
The distinct smell of South-East Asia is present throughout our journey, particularly in these suburban Sois. Smokey BBQ aromas of street food fill the air and stop us in our tracks as the German biking contingent request a break.
Luckily we pull up outside a local food stand which is manned by a woman who quickly and efficiently cooks us a Muslim breakfast of Biryani, empanadas and a herb-filled omelette of some sort. We stand around eating our delicious breakfast and chatting whilst saying ‘sah wah dee khaa’ to the residents as they slowly wrangle their motorbikes past us in the lanes.
After refueling, our small group consisting of Germans, Aussies and a token Latvian emerge from the back alleyways onto a major highway. I feel the adrenalin start to rise once again as the chaos of Bangkok hits me smack in the face.
Thanks to Witt and his trusty bike bell, we successfully ride along the 5 lanes of crazy traffic full off tooting motorbikes, taxis, roaring busses and of course Tuk-Tuk’s.
Some how, it all just works.
As crazy as the traffic gets, all vehicles make a concerted effort to give way to you. As a result the fear I had at the start is dissipating and thankfully I feel more comfortable.
We dodge the traffic and eventually come to our first stop where we visit the Old Customs House. Built in the 1890’s it’s once grand façade now shows sagging shutters and laundry flapping from the windows. Looking up at the darkening sky, the Customs House reminds me of something out of the Adam’s family.
The building is now home to the fire brigade and their families and a quick peek inside reveals a grand staircase, ‘Gone With The Wind’ style. The dilapidated structure is a crumbling mess yet hauntingly beautiful.
From the Custom’s house we master a few more main roads and visit a local Chinese Temple. The Temple was coming down from a high as the famous Thai Princess’s visited the previous day. Apparently she is the third child in the royal family and is the most popular. I ask Witt why she’s the most popular? He just giggles and says he isn’t sure why?
Keeping with the oriental theme we venture to Bangkok’s thriving China Town to soak up the fun and frivolity. Lines of red flags flap above the streets as local vendors sell their wares for the Chinese New Year Celebrations. We don’t stay long as the heaving crowds are too much for us to navigate on bikes.
I’m excited to move from one busy crowd to another. Our next stop is the famous Pak Khlong Talat, the largest fresh flower and vegetable market in Bangkok. We cycle right into the centre of the manic market and the vendors don’t bat an eyelid. It must be normal for them to watch a few stray foreigners in lime green hats gingerly pedal through the markets. But it doesn’t feel normal to me.
Upon arrival I instantly smell sweet jasmine scents and the brilliant yellow marigold blossoms catch my eye. It’s here where the locals source flowers to string and sell phuang malaiu, the beautiful flower garlands that are used as an offering to show respect.
I eagerly whip out my camera to photograph the floral arrangements and vendors happily smile for photos as they work away.
With my senses completely overloaded we cycle to the ferry where we cross Chao Phraya River to visit two very different temples.
We first visit Wat Traimit that houses the Golden Buddha, which is the largest solid gold statue in the world.
As I enter the temple I am stunned at the beauty of the gracefully seated Buddha, stretching 10 feet high and weighing over 5 tons.
I slowly walk around the Buddha, taking it all in. Walking bare foot on the cool marble tiles is a truly grounding experience and I welcome the reprieve from the Bangkok heat.
As we leave I watch the locals busily donating Baht to the monks and frantically scribbling on roof tiles. Witt tells me their donations go towards repairing the roof of the ageing Temple. During this conversation, I dodge a monk on my bike, wheeling a large barrow overflowing with ceramic tiles. It looks like they will have a new roof in no time!
From Wat Traimit we pedal to Wat Prayoon, which is located on the southern edge of the old Portuguese community. I can see in the distance the impressive bell shaped chedi emerging from the surrounding buildings. This brilliant white structure is the only kind of chedi in Bangkok and is said to be home to the Buddha’s relics.
Dismounting my bike, I can feel my legs starting to tire and I’m unsure if I really want to follow Witt up the dark narrow stairway leading to the bowels of the nearly 200 year old chedi. Once I reach the top I’m glad I made the effort as I learn the meaning behind the eight brilliant gold Buddha statues lit up around the ring of the chedi.
Certain events in the Life of the Buddha are thought to have occurred on certain days. Witt explains he was born on a Thursday and his Buddha relates to meditation. I laugh out loud as Witt has told me he hates meditating and prefers to watch movies and think of what his next meal will be. I joke with Witt that he is yet to achieve enlightenment and he nods in total agreement.
After taking in the wonders of the temples I can feel the heat start to drain my energy. Witt informs us we’re heading back to the clubhouse via a quiet cycle path along the river. The cool breeze off the river is refreshing and provides an opportunity to reflect on what I have just experienced.
Before jumping on the ferry to cross the river we stop for a freshly squeezed tangerine juice to quench our thirst. I try to tell the juice cart vendor that my drink is beautiful and very much appreciated. Her English is minimal and my Thai equates to zero so I resort to the ‘thumbs up’ sign and a brilliant smile sweeps across her face. Communication complete!
We finish the bike tour dashing and darting once again through the back alleys of Bangkok. The constant flow of adrenalin now seems normal and skimming past motorbikes and tapping side mirrors of utes is commonplace. Not even a minor crash by my German riding partner towards the end phases me. I help pick her bike up and we laugh as we brush the dirt from our knees.
Rather fittingly we cycle the last few hundred metres through the affectionately named Village of Love, which is my favourite part of the cycling experience. The warm genuine smiles and “hello’s” being sung out as we pass by and the little kids waving frantically fills me with absolute joy.
This is the real Bangkok that I was longing to see.
Sathorn Soi 9, 126 (33/6),
Have you ever toured around a city on a bike?
I would love to hear your experience in the comments below!