What does Bam know that I don’t? That’s the question I keep mulling over as my taxi crawls through the Bangkok rush hour. There are cars in front and many others behind, cars overhead and a long, long line of them below. Welcome to the city of angels.
I think of Bam when I see a cyclist weaving through the traffic, a single mobile person in a gridlocked city. What I know is that cycling in Bangkok sounds mad and probably is mad. But Bam is part of a road safety campaign to persuade Thais, and children in particular, to wear helmets when they ride. The fact that he is an orangutan from the Dusit Zoo means the campaign has grabbed the headlines, helping Bam get his message across. He also seems to have created a spike in the number of cyclists. So having wasted another hour or two sitting in the taxi, I decide I’m going to cycle in Bangkok.
I have cycled in London, Paris and New York. I have ridden through Chianti and the Languedoc, have pedalled across Hyde Park Corner on a regular basis and now I am going to tackle Bangkok. The strange thing is that once I have made the decision, I start seeing cyclists all over the place. Two even ride past the front of the St Regis Hotel as I step out of the airport taxi. I am about to say something about riding on the pavement when I realise that half of it has been turned into a cycle lane.
Two more cyclists are waiting in the back of the minibus that comes to collect me that afternoon. A dozen people have signed up for the Bangkok Sunset Tour: Americans, French, a couple of Brits, an Australian. Most are like me, out on two wheels in Bangkok for the first time and hoping for a gentle ride around some of the city’s prime sights.
The two Thai guides, Woody (a man) and View (a woman) are onside with Bam: the first thing they hand out are helmets, then lights, reflector vests and newish Trek bikes. All good but a little too slow and it means that I’m not going to see the sun set behind Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, because it is already dusk when we freewheel down from the Golden Mount.
If riding in Bangkok by day seems foolhardy, riding by night seems suicidal. That’s what I think as we head out on to one of its major roads towards the Democracy Monument. But, as we ride, I realise that much of the traffic moves slowly and cyclists are still enough of an oddity for people to notice them.
The Khao San Road has acquired legendary status as the place where Leonardo DiCaprio hears about a beachside paradise in the film The Beach (2000), and a million and more backpackers have since come to find fun or fulfilment. I have been down it several times but have never ventured into the warren of dingy passages that run off its main artery, as we do now. There are stir-fry cafés, massage parlours, T-shirt stalls and then clearer air as we reach the river, taking a riverbus towards the Temple of the Dawn, a Buddhist shrine as old as the city itself and one of Thailand’s most famous buildings. I don’t know what it looks like at dawn, when the early sun is said to catch the porcelain dishes set into its spire (I’ve never been up that early) but it has a dreamlike quality in the reddish night. We stop for half an hour, long enough to wander around, to look out on to the river and its restless traffic, and to watch a crowd of Buddhists chanting at the foot of the chedi, a sacred mound-like structure.
From there, we follow the river downstream on a path shared by cyclists and pedestrians, cross a bridge to the all-night flower market for a drink and a snack and then ride to another monastery, Wat Pho, famous as the home of medicinal Thai massage. The place is deserted and magical, its roofline glittering. Huge statues loom in the dark, the temple bells silent in the still night, a perfect place to end the ride.
I am out again the next morning, just myself and a guide. What seemed foolhardy the day before now seems a very good idea. It is Sunday morning, and even the main streets are calm. Tao, my guide, leads me back along the riverside path and through a park where some older Thais are doing tai chi. We are overtaken by a man in Lycra on a racing bike and slow down when we reach the hospital where King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch and a long-term invalid, has been cared for since 2009. From there, we cross the river again to the west side, to Thonburi.
The tour theme is Bangkok of Old – “old” in this case being a slower way of life. Thonburi is less developed than downtown Bangkok, and less protected. When the city flooded during the previous monsoon, it was Thonburi that suffered the most. Tao points out a dark line running along the walls of many houses, the only obvious indicator of the flood damage suffered by most people on this more residential side of the river.
We follow that dark line along paths between houses, heading into countryside. It is a ride that gives an insight into the peace and simplicity of life here: before there were highways and flyovers, the residents moved along a network of canals. Most of the central ones have been covered over but Thonburi’s network is still in use and we follow it, sometimes beside the water, sometimes on narrow lanes between houses. At one point, we cycle along a thin raised dyke between fields of flood-ravaged banana plantations. I have read tales in online chatrooms about these raised dykes – people falling off their bikes and into the fields or crashing into oncoming bikes. It is only when we come out on to a wider road that I have the courage to ask Tao whether he has ever lost anyone into the fields or water. His silence suggests that he has.
We cycle 20 miles that morning and reach Taling Chan “floating” market ready for lunch. The market is actually on land beside the canal and we order steamed fish, stir-fried spicy noodles, satay sticks, vegetables from the wok and a pile of other delicious dishes, although Tao still looks disappointed when I decline the home-made ice cream at the end. Most of Bangkok’s floating markets are overrun with tourists but not this one: I don’t see another farang (foreigner) while there. I don’t see an orangutan either. But I am thinking about Bam as I pedal back into town, helmet on my head, smile on my face, the Sunday gridlock ahead of me.
Anthony Sattin was a guest of Abercrombie & Kent, which offers three nights bed and breakfast at the St Regis Bangkok, including a bike tour of new and old Bangkok, from £395pp.
Spice Roads runs cycle tours in and around Bangkok, as well as across south-east Asia. Its daily Bangkok Sunset Ride costs Bt1,650pp (£33) and the day-long Bangkok of Old ride costs Bt2,650.
House & Home: Hot properties with bike routes on the doorstep
Two-wheel ride, five-star style
Only a few years ago, doormen at five-star hotels would turn their noses up at anyone arriving by bike. But today even the smartest city hotels are falling over themselves to welcome cyclists. Several have even invested in their own fleets of bikes so that guests can explore the surroundings under their own steam.
Last month 45 Park Lane in London began offering guests free use of its 10 monogrammed Brompton bikes, and is also promoting Sunday “bike and brunch” packages to non-residents (allowing them to borrow a bike for free to work up an appetite). In New York, the Mark hotel has commissioned a bespoke bike fleet, with black-and-white striped liveries designed to echo the hotel’s decor. It also offers picnic baskets – with food from Jean-Georges Vongerichten – which fit on the back of the bikes so that guests can have lunch in Central Park.
The Mark is following the lead of the Morgan Hotel Group (whose properties include the Sanderson and St Martin’s Lane in London, Clift in San Francisco, Delano in Miami and Mondrian New York), which introduced bikes across its portfolio last May, as well as the Nolitan, also in New York, which offers both bikes and skateboards.
However the idea isn’t entirely new – the Grand Hotel du Cap-Ferrat first offered bikes to guests in 1908.