Bangkok Bicycle Tour

Posted: September 19th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: ATW Updates | No Comments »

Brace yourself for a deluge of posts over the next few days as I try to catch you up to where we are right now.  The Co Van Kessel Bike Tour we selected was the most stressful tour I’d ever experienced, mostly due to my own incompetence with a bicycle, a general lack of coordination among my limbs, and an ingrained aversion of being run over. 

It’d been almost 10 years since I rode a bike last.  However, I can’t use this reason as an excuse because Rick hasn’t ridden a bike in longer and he suffered no loss of muscle memory.  I could also say my sturdy mountain bike was too large for me, but our tour guide was a head shorter than me and she handled her bike with an easy competence.  So, again, I had no excuses. 


My first thought, as I straddled the bike, my toes stretching to touch the ground on either side, was, "Oh crap, what have I gotten myself into?"  I wobbled, but I managed to find that elusive balance, so began the tour with a sense of relief. 

Short-lived relief. 

I may have come to trust Bangkok drivers intellectually, but riding unsteadily on a bike with tuk-tuks, cars, and motorcycles zooming pat us, inches to spare, the breeze from their passing brushing against my ankles, my primitive I’m-going-to-die instinct reared its ugly head.  It didn’t help that pictures of traffic accident injuries, crushed limbs and missing faces, from the Forensic section of the Suriraj Medical Museum flashed through my mind. 

As we turned into the narrow corridors of Bangkok’s Chinatown, I relaxed.  No taxis gearing up to squash me flat could fit in these corridors.  No, I realized shortly after, I was the one potentially doing the squashing as I struggled to avoid the passing shoppers, children and cats criss-crossing the paths in front of me.  And it became harder to steer when there was so little room to maneuver.  And so it went for the first few hours as we slipped in and out of hidden passageways, general fear of being run over alternating between rigid tension so as not to run other people over, and in-between catching flashing images of the normally-hidden home life of the inhabitants of Chinatown mixed with matching scents and sounds. 

We rode until we reached the Hualamphong train station, hefting our bikes into a train compartment.  Our tour guide handed us two bottles of water, big droplets already condensing on the sides.  As the train rumbled slowly through the landscape, city shifting to green, we passed lean-tos and makeshift houses built so close to the edge of the train tracks, that we sometimes couldn’t see the front of them from our vantage point above.  I saw a wispy-haired child sitting on his doorstep, a few feet away from the tracks, no barrier between us and them, and my heart clenched with fear that no one else seemed to feel, an automatic feeling, left-over from living in a country so protective (some could even say overly protective) of its younger generations.  Eventually, Rick and I both nodded off to the rhythmic rumblings of the lumbering train.


A touch on my shoulder woke me up to the sight of our smiling tour guide.  I’m still not sure which stop we got off at, a place about 40km away from Bangkok’s city center, though still technically a part of Bangkok (much like a suburb half an hour away from Los Angeles, still counts as part of Los Angeles County).  My body was still relaxed from my short nap, and I breathed in the smell of green in the air, the way a freshly-mowed lawn smells but a hundred times more intense.  We hopped back on our bikes, the tour guide in front, Rick following behind, and me bringing up the back.  We turned off the dirt road onto the concrete roads lining the multitude of canals cutting through this landscape.  The transition was rough, my toes scrabbled for purchase as I tried rebalancing my backpack and my camera slung across my shoulders, and the next thing I knew, I was back-first in the canal, luckily landing on a large pipe so that only my right foot suffered a dunking in the brown-green canal waters.  Rick’s face peered down at me, and he was saying something to me, but my mind was still trying to grasp my new situation, especially since I didn’t (and still don’t) remember the actual act of falling, so I’m not quite sure what Rick said to me.  Rick pulled me out of the canal and the tour guide pulled my bike out.  After brushing down my body, I realized the only loss I suffered was my camera lens cap, and I knew God was watching out for me.  Rick told me I’d given him a heart attack and said I should ride ahead of him so that he could watch out for me.   


Unfortunately, I also developed a fear of falling into a canal again, especially since the canal roads we cycled across were only 3 to 4 feet in width with a 4 to 5 feet drop on either side, and no more large pipes to break my fall.  I can’t speak for Rick, as his natural athleticism probably gave him a steady ride through most of our tour, but I found out the hard way that it’s quite torturous on the body to bike while every muscle in my body is tense.  Despite my fear (and with a litany of constant prayer muttered under my breath), I did manage to enjoy our bike ride through the rural countryside.  White and orange butterflies flitted around us, and we stopped every so often as our tour guide showed us various edible plants and fruit trees.  Scruffy dogs in groups of twos and threes ran up and down the narrow pathways and the people going about their daily lives grinned at us as we cycled by (one snickered as I wobbled myself into narrowly missing a barbed-wire fence).  


We stopped for lunch at a rather fancy restaurant tucked away at the end of a dirt road.  We slipped off our shoes and marveled as a parade of dishes arrived as if by magic.  Delicious food, so abundant the three of us couldn’t finish it all.  We ate until stuffed, staring out at the landscape outside where, as our guide told us, a rice field used to be two weeks before.  We climbed back on our bikes refreshed.  Rick, in a cheery mood, rode in a weaving pattern, often with no hands, at least until we turned back onto the narrow canal roads. 


A moment before I declared I couldn’t take the canal roads anymore, we were pulling up to a docked longtail boat.  We lowered the bikes in, and leaned back on our hard wooden seats.  The wind blew through our hair and laughing kids waved at us as we went past. It’s quite fascinating to see a way of life so different from ours, centered around the many waterways.  Our tour guide said the area was predominantly Muslim, and that during the day, it’s quiet because the adults go to work and the children go to school in the city part of Bangkok.  Around 6 to 7 pm, everyone commutes the hour home.  There aren’t many cars as boats are the normal mode of transportation, longtail boats and ferries and small family rowboats docked underneath small piers framed in intricate wood-and-metal-latticed doors. 


We arrived back at the edge of the city, lugging the bikes up and down stairs as we took the Skytrain deeper into the city.  Though we missed our initial stop, our tour guide was knowledgeable enough (and I’m amazed at her sense of direction in the maze of Bangkok) to guide us in a visit to a local temple.  We slipped off our shoes again and she showed us how to tell our fortunes with a cup full of numbered sticks.  My fortune was good.  Rick’s, as you can see, wasn’t so good. 


He tucked his folded-up fortune underneath the large Buddha statue as directed.  We headed to the back of the temple where our guide bought a loaf of bread and a large pail of what at first looked like rainbow styrofoam peanuts.  When she tossed the bread in, a hoard of fat sleek catfish swarmed the food.  I could see Rick longed to reach down, grab one, and sneak it back for dinner, but our guide cautioned us not to harm these catfish swimming in holy water.  We fed them all the rainbow-hued fish food, laughing as they fought each other for every morsel, their bodies squirming over each other. 


On the way back, our guide turned to me and said I looked tired.  I thought her kind, as I was pretty sure I looked like a sweaty zombie and probably didn’t smell much better.  We decided to end the tour an hour early.  When we finally sat back in the cool offices of Co Van Kessel, another bottle of soda clutched in my hand, I allowed myself to relax.  Though I had muscles I didn’t know existed hurting, and both my arms were sunburned (now I have weird tan lines), I had had a really amazing time.  And I don’t foresee me ever being on canal roads on a bike again in the foreseeable future, so my newly-discovered fear is really a non-issue.  It was definitely a unique experience that I recommend to those who are coordinated enough to bicycle, as you can see all the different facets of life evident in Bangkok.  Or they have a bunch of different tours if a bicycle isn’t your thing. 



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