Biking Bangkok: An Alternative Way to See the Sights
By Peta Bassett
Saturday evening. Another night in Bangkok. You’ve checked off the Grand Palace, crawled through the sprawling Chatachuk Markets and shopped constantly enroute. Thoughts of any more time spent on Khao San Road make you want to cry. The strip shows on Patpong don’t do much for you, either! You may think you’ve seen it all, but until you get on a bike and ride through the streets of Bangkok on two wheels, you haven’t seen a thing!
Seriously. Toss aside all your traffic trembles and leave the tuktuk at the curb. For the most alternative way to experience Bangkok, hop a bicycle and take a two-wheel tour of Rattanakosin Island, the historic heart of Bangkok.
In Bangkok’s world-famous traffic, the idea of leaving the safety of the sidewalk may seem suicidal. Especially at night. But with a lead vehicle, a loud hailer, a police escort and six whistle-blowing guides for each group of 20 you will have no need to claim on the insurance included in the tour fee!
First stop is Wat Pho, or to be formal and twist your tongue totally, Wat Phra Chetuphon Vimolmangklararam Rajwaramahaviharn. Want to know the real reason behind all the shimmering mosaic tiles and the gaudy glitter? It becomes obvious under the cover of darkness–disco! The 1870’s must have rocked in Bangkok.
But, under the moonlight the crimson-faced day tourists with large circles of perspiration dripping from each armpit are all gone. The courtyards surrounding the glistening wat and pagodas are deserted in their wake. It’s a rare chance to have one of Bangkok’s treasures all to yourself!
Back on the beat, the single file procession winds its way towards the Ministry of Defense. Whistles keep everyone in line while the significance of the dormant cannons and heavy artillery displays is explained. Done with the guns, it’s time to reclaim the road.
While this is certainly an enjoyable ride, it isn’t a leisurely one. Everything seems to zip past at times. Busy intersections are tackled en masse as riders take advantage of zebra crossings! Bemused pedestrians watch from the curb.
Five minutes later, the Giant Swing (Sao Ching Cha) looms into view. Built in 1784, it was used in the Brahman Swing ceremony as possibly the grandfather of all game shows. “Swingers” used to aim for greater heights in a cash-grab effort. A suspended bag of coins was the goal. Accounts differ. Maybe the money was silver, perhaps gold. Nevertheless, it was quite dangerous. It now stands to attention on a traffic island.
Across the road, we pulled up a piece of paving at the glittering Wat Suthat. The courtyard reverberated with the chanting of worshippers from within. Ushered inside through magnificent carved doors, we experienced something few visitors to the city ever witness.
After a few hours of eye-level sightseeing, the grand finale takes you down the infamous Khao San Road, a favorite budget traveler’s hangout known for cheap eats and cold beer. The loud hailer suddenly switches to English and uses any foreign faces in this “Tour de Bangkok” as advertisement fodder to attract the attention of fellow travelers in the surrounding restaurants and street stalls. A sense of humor is a must!
If you miss the Saturday night road trip, don’t fret. Sunday morning Bangkok by bike tours are offered as well, and a full-day tour ventures further along the canals of Thonburi to discover a different side of Thai life.
On the ferry ride across the Chao Praya River and the 40km train ride to the starting point, you may wonder if you’ll be back in time for your flight home next week. You will.
Breakfast is served almost as soon as the bikes are mounted. A roadside stall dishes up a flavorful fish soup laden with coriander. Coffee and tea stops come later.
Klongs (canals) may have once earned Bangkok the title of the “Venice of the Orient.” But the tropical landscape and Thai style homes shatter all European illusions. Romantic in parts, depressing in others, this outing leads through backyards, under clotheslines and along the vast network of elevated pathways that are the only form of access to some homes.
Only wide enough for bicycles and motorbikes, these pathways put the crowded roadways of Bangkok far behind you. However, corners need to be handled with care; plunging a few feet down into the murky klong water is not all that fun!
Morning tea, lunch, and afternoon tea–stomachs are not forgotten. Other treats include a tour of a Thai orchid farm, a few temple visits and glimpses of merchants plying the waterways as local residents go about their daily business.
But walking back to Bangkok down the middle of a railway line as a “shortcut” did not feature on the itinerary sheet! All prayers were answered and no trains chugged in either direction! The bikes, as well as all the riders, returned later in the afternoon in fairly good condition. A bit tired, but thrilled to have experienced Bangkok in a truly unique way.
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