As we tentatively pedal down the labyrinth of Klong Toey in Bangkok, the scents of lemongrass and frying chili waft across in the still enclosed air. As we turn tight corners of the densely packed neighbourhood, there’s a constantly changing hubbub of sound, as if someone was rapidly changing the channel on a radio set: mysteriously mellifluous chatter, some Thai hip-hop and the clanging of a temple bells and then the blaring the sound of an action movie on television.
Most of the homes are open fronted and I can see huddles of Thai men playing cards, some women stirring bubbling pots and children gawping at us gawping at them. I pedal on cautiously, but often have to put down a foot on the right-angled bends before hurrying on, trying to keep close my green-shirted guide Prawit Chankasem. The alleyways in this warren are so narrow that the handlebars barely squeeze between the walls of the densely packed houses.
“Shouldn’t I push?” I gasp as Wit, as he likes to be called, disappears around a corner.
“No,” he calls back, smiling, “Just don’t break any houses.”
Is he joking?
I pedal at walking pace, trying to say “soo-wa- dee krap” at the people whose porches I pass by. It’s a relief to be riding slow in this dank world of shadows and steam, having ducking out the dizzying brightness of a white-hot Bangkok morning. But I dare not dawdle too slowly. I don’t want to be left behind in this labyrinth. There is only so far you can get with a vocabulary limited to “hello” and “thank you.”
Klong Toey is often described as a Bangkok’s biggest slum, but Wit described one of the first ports of call; a sort of way station to better opportunities. “People from rural arrivals all over Thailand come to live here because there are good opportunities in Bangkok.”
But, whether or not that is a euphemism, I can’t bat away the uncomfortable feeling that there is no real reason for me to be here. This is slum tourism.I share my misgivings with Wit who laughs them off.
“Look at the people’s reaction: they smile at you. This is the land of the smile.”
But that is exactly my point. Thais seem so polite that it is hard to know whether, even when smiling, they resent a bumbling Farang wearing a broad-rimmed hat skirting past their mid-morning meal.
“No,” insists Wit, “How do I say this… we like to see you. We think you are…”
“Funny?” I ask.
I am acutely aware of how ludicrous I look. Arriving from the European winter into 35 degree heat, I’ve decided to protect my skin with a baggy long-sleeved shirt, long trousers and the sort of white wide-brimmed hat you see at cricket matches. In a curious reversal of tourism orthodoxy a group of young girls ask to get a selfie with me.
“Do I look like a clown?” I ask Wit.
“No… we think you look… cool…” he says unconvincingly, beams another smile and darts off into another alleyway.
We emerge in an open space by a Chinese Taoist temple where giant pig heads have been laid out like Halloween masks on a table of offerings. Without noticing it we’ve traveled a long distance across town.
Bangkok, sweltering and traffic clogged, is not a place I’d have dared cycle alone, but with Wit as my guide through these complicated veins of alleyways, it seems an increasingly practical mode of transport.
After all the city is mainly as flat as a pancake and the narrowness of the alleyways means you are often shaded from the harsh tropical sun. The clogged traffic doesn’t just poison the air, it also waste residents time and more and more people in Bangkok have started cycling to work. Advocate groups are popping up all over the city.
Their motto: “Save money, save time, save energy.”
Wit works for the Follow Me guiding service which is run by David Ganeshmoorthy who believes that, despite the challenges of sweat and dust, Bangkok is at the cusp of a cycling revival. “We’ve been going for four years and in that time we have seen a huge change in the culture of bikes. There are more and more people taking it up as a sport. Much more that you could have ever imagined.”
It’s the convenience that impresses David – the alleyways that dissect the city: “I can cycle from our base near Chong Nonsi station to Chinatown in twenty minutes. If I took a cab it would take an hour or an hour and a half.” Having said that when you emerge from haven of the alleyways; the traffic of Bangkok can seem ferocious. David shrugs off my worries: “Honestly, I think it is safer than London.”
Wit has one last treat in store for me, leading me to a long-tail boat to take us and our bikes across the Chao Phraya River. The narrow wooden craft tuckers out past an industrial harbour with a backdrop of spoke chats towards the Phra Pradaeng peninsula, a low carpet of green stretching out from the brown river. We’re headed to jungle-like area of mangroves, coconut trees and fruit plantations that has become known as the “lungs of Bangkok”.This is where the riding really gets interesting. Because the ground is so swampy, the paths have been built on raised concrete stilts so you pedal among the green curtains of coconut fronds. Yellow butterflies flutter above out heads and below us there are banana, papaya and mango orchards and small farms built on stilts.
The high-rise world of frantic, traffic-choked Bangkok is just across the river, but here is an oasis of calm. There’s a 250-year-old temple in Bang Namphueng Nok and, since it is a holiday, a bustling festive market in a nearby village. Wit takes me on a tasting tour to replenish the calories I’ve expended. Since I can’t identify much of the food and I certainly can’t pronounce it. Wit takes charge, ordering a “very healthy” juice that is the colour of the algae of the Bangkok klongs and handing me a little leaf-pocket that I understand to be called Meen Kom:
“It is roasted peanuts, dried shrimps, ginger, lime and chili.” It is certainly beats the sticky powerbars that accompany most cycling adventures.
It is a shame that not more is done to encourage cycling in Bangkok. It’s painfully obvious that the dominance of cars is choking the city while cycling seems the perfect way to travel through this vibrant, vivid city of street-markets and open-air kitchens. Much of life is lived out in the open in Bangkok, so it seems counter-intuitive to hide yourself in the metal cage of a car.
The Bangkok Metropolitan Authority’s attempt to introduce a European style free bike rental service was short-lived and the bike paths you see painted on the road near Kao San Road are used either as parking spaces or are occupied by street vendors. Whimsical attempts to make Bangkok a more bicycle friendly town lack coherence or maintenance.
Yet David Ganeshmoorthy of Follow Me insists that is an exciting time to be involved in cycling in Bangkok: “Things are really happening here.” There are slick new workshops like the Velayenn Bike Shop, specialist cycling cafés that function as meeting places for a cycling sub-culture.
These are pioneer times in Bangkok, but pioneer times can seem the most romantic.
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