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Travel Guide: Seeing Bangkok, Thailand by bicycle

12th Oct 2011 1:54am | By Editor

Cycling in Bangkok offers a different view of Thailand's capital WORDS Mark Stratton

“It’s a great alternative way to seeing Bangkok, as tourists rarely drive or walk so they don’t see real city life,” he tells our small group of seven.

Although Bangkok’s notorious seedier side was clearly evident opposite Michael’s office, located in the Sukhumvit district. We road-tested his Trek hybrid bikes outside a massage parlour unashamedly offering moisturizing gel testicles massages. I sensed collusion. “Nothing to do with your bikes having uncomfortable saddles?” I joked with him.

“No,” he laughed, “I’m really embarrassed by it.”

With a small amount of apprehension we pedalled off into Bangkok’s urban jungle, joining the bumper-to-bumper traffic. Fortunately it was easy to relax in the company of our live wire guide Boum, a 21-year-old with an appropriately dynamite personality. “Stay in single file,” she called, leading us like a line of newly-emerged ducklings.

On Sukhumvit’s bigger roads the horn-honking traffic proved surprisingly courteous, giving us a wide berth as we pedalled under concrete skylines of airborne freeways and the BTS monorail. It was only 10am but already the temperature was 35˚C.

Leaving the freeways behind, we surrendered to Boum’s intimate knowledge of Bangkok’s back streets, which became smaller and more residential as a charming and colourful city emerged.

Down tiny alleyways, I ducked under birdcages containing chirruping finches, avoided potholes waiting to gobble up unwitting cyclists, and inhaled the smells of grilled spicy satay meat and smouldering incense from diminutive Buddhist shrines. Everywhere we went, we were welcomed by barrages of friendly greetings from Thais who see few tourists.

Near the Chao Praya River, we squeezed our bikes through a thronging 24-hour market heaped with jackfruit, dragon fruit, clucking chickens, fresh fish and honeycomb.

A stallholder offered to sell me new teeth for 200 baht (£3), but I didn’t need any molars for the sweet silky pancakes spun like candyfloss that Boum bought for us to sample. The pancakes simply melted in the mouth.

The highlight of the trip, however, was the klongs (shallow canals). We loaded our cycles onto a river boat and crossed the Chao Phraya, cutting across its sluggish flow.

On the opposite bank, in total contrast to Bangkok’s metropolis sprawl, was a network of klongs channelled by raised concrete levees. We set off, cycling on the top of the levees into a dreamy countryside of tropical fruit trees, palm trees, and stilted villages.

“Watch out for coconuts falling on your head,” Boum warned us.

Yet the trickiest act was negotiating the levee paths themselves. Sometimes they narrowed to just a metre wide, and every so often dog-legged 90 degrees with little warning. Braking late could lead to an unscheduled watery dip.

“If you do fall in,” said Boum, “just stand still and wait for me.” Because of snakes, I guessed, as I’d seen a monitor lizard the size of a small croc.

“No, I just want some funny photos for our website,” Boum cackled. So much for sympathy!

The maze of levees eventually guided us to the busy Bang Nam Phung floating market. Unlike Bangkok’s touristy Chatuchak floating market, this one was authentic in atmosphere and Thai people heavily outnumbered camera-wielding tourists.

We parked our bicycles and followed our noses. While we browsed the delicious delicacies — some sold from boats — Boum took us on a culinary journey.

We ate pancakes with mussels, spicy fish curry, sticky coconut rice cooked in banana leaves and tofu sausages until our bellies ached.

The bike tour had opened my eyes to a serene and authentic side to a city so often characterised as brash. Yet I welcomed the cycle back to Bangkok’s mad megalopolis, desperate to burn off a few recently-acquired calories.

Must-have gear

Staying safe and visible when cycling in a city is important, so here are a few suggestions from www.bicyclemagic.com for kit that will keep you out of hospital.

Handy helmet

Protective headgear is a must if that shunt ever happens. Stylish and lightweight, a Bell Metropolis Cycle Helmet features 18 cooling vents and a peaked rim to prevent water dripping. £39.95.

Stay seen

Make sure you’re lit like a Christmas tree by slipping on a reflective strip. A Sam Browne Deluxe Belt costs £13.99.

Be heard

Besides alerting dozy motorists, you could raise the dead with the Airzound 3 rechargeable horn’s 120 decibel handlebar-mounted blast. £21.99.

Breathe easy

Resembling Hannibal Lecter is worth it to ensure urban cycling isn’t akin to smoking 20 a day. Respro City Mask’s breathable neoprene filters out CO². £24.99.

Stop thief

Even Superman would struggle to steal a bicycle secured by a 13mm hardened Kryptonium steel lock. £39.99.

Extra glow

Knog Tadpole end-lights slot on to the handlebars, giving motorists a better perspective of distance when passing you. £9.99 each.

Other cities to see by bike

Barcelona

The traffic is a little more loco yet Barcelona is really getting its act together for two-wheel tourism. Its new Cyclocity rental scheme has 3000 bikes located outside rail and bus stations. They are mainly aimed at short-term use and locals, but bike rental places are widespread. The biggest dilemma is where to get started. The city is such a hotbed of art, architecture, culture and culinary adventure that even a week scarcely does it justice. Highlights are Gaudi’s Gothic masterpiece La Sagrad Familia, the Las Ramblas entertainment and shopping area, and swanky Port Olimpic — built for the 1992 Olympic Games. For a few more ideas see www.bicicletabarcelona.com.

Copenhagen

A bit like supermarket trolleys, just pop 20 krone into slots of bike racks all over Copenhagen and you’re away. This is the world’s most bike-friendly city: every day over 1.1 million kilometres are said to be cycled by local residents. And pedalling here is a joy. Not only is it flat, but with abundant bike-only lanes and ‘green wave’ traffic lights (which ensure few stops for cyclists), Copenhagen is easily and cheaply explored. Its waterfront has postcard-pretty houses and wooden sailing ships. There are also castles, buzzy pubs, restaurants, and cafés. For more info see www.bycyklen.dk.

Amsterdam

There are far more ‘red lights’ on the back of bikes than in hookers’ windows in a city where 40 per cent of the daily traffic is pedal power. Follow backwater canals to see gardens, flower markets and art museums, or simply cycle to waterside cafés and pubs. If you have abundant energy, free ferries take you out into the uber-flat countryside to explore a cliché-dripping landscape of windmills, dykes and tulip fields. There are bike hire shops all over, and expect to pay around £6 per day. See www.amsterdam.info/transport/bike-rentals.

Urban cycle schemes

Will London learn from Paris?

Paris is now the focus for a massive urban cycling scheme that seems set to sweep across Europe’s major cities. Since 2007, Paris’ Vélib’ system (www.velib.paris.fr) has already put in place 10,000 bikes at more than 1000 drop-off locations across the city. It’s aimed at those taking A to B journeys, especially those under 30 minutes (which are free). Longer usage costs and charges are taken off your credit card when you remove a bike from the docking stations located all over Paris. Once hired, they can be dropped of at any station allowing flexibility to explore, in particular, the historic arrondissements (districts) of central Paris.

More recently Paris’ Vélib’ has been replicated by other European cities such as Oslo, Stockholm, Vienna, and Barcelona. For a review of these see www.ecobusinesslinks.com/city-bike-sharing.htm.

So where does this leave London, in theory a wonderful city to explore by cycle? Well, dithering, of course, and leaving cyclists to enjoy sometimes dangerous bike lanes that don’t go anywhere or are filled with buses and motorcyclists. But there are stirrings as the OYBike scheme is spreading across the city and works on much the same principle as Vélib’. First-time users of these yellow bikes will need to register. See www.oybike.com or call 0845-226 5751.

For suggested cycling routes, particularly opportunities to explore London’s myriad parks and canals on two wheels, visit the London Cycling Campaign (www.lcc.org.uk).