The idea of cycling in Bangkok, along with riding pillion behind Evel Knievel, should probably be right up there on the Darwin Awards bucket list. But here I am about to do it, twice. I start out with five other riders. Behind us the Bangkok skyline juts like a barcode on steroids. We’re breezing towards Koh Kret, an island that sits in a kink in the Chao Phraya River some 20 km north of the capital in Nonthaburi province. Before reaching the island, our cycling guide, a smart young Thai woman called Moh, leads us to an ancient temple with golden chedi towers overlooking the river. As with many religious buildings elsewhere in the world, those old-time Buddhist monks made sure to score the best waterfront real estate. Looking along the river I see several more wats. “Position, position, position” — the mantra of estate agents and savvy abbots everywhere.
Inside the wat we find several Thais intent on that national, Fate-pestering pastime, “checking my luck”. They’re not having their cards or palms (or soles of the feet) read today but are shaking out numbered sticks from a cylinder and then consulting an interpretative text. I have a shot at this personal futurology and draw a one-size-fits-all prophecy: “Good luck approaching. Lost items recovered. Affectionate loving care interchanged. Patient recovering.” With all bases covered I’m ready to cross the river to Koh Kret.
The Mon tribe who once dominated central Thailand have retained their identity on the little island, while becoming renowned for their skill as potters. We criss-cross their low, sparsely-populated homeland on paths and causeways built above the tidal flats – jungle to the left, hamlets to the right and mangroves all around.
It’s like cycling through Bangkok’s version of Brigadoon, with no bling malls, cars, bars or tailors’ touts. Some 20 pottery workshops are dotted across the four square kilometre island in settlements with truly evocative names like Pottery Village No. 1 and Pottery Village No. 2. In their open-air workshops, Mon men throw clay pots on spinning wheels at a startling pace — working on piece rates, no doubt – before the results are fired in giant kilns.
Shopping, that curse of the travelling classes, casts its spell upon most of my companions and soon they are hunched beneath bulging, Quasimodo-like backpacks stuffed with bowls, platters, frogs and Buddhas. Weaving past Mon houses, paddies, orchards and galleries, we reach the northernmost tip of the island. The temperature is wok-hot, so we take a breather there at a small pagoda that thrusts into the Chao Phraya, splitting the current like a ship's prow. The ancient structure, encrusted with decades of whitewash, sags precariously towards the tide like a melting marzipan.
Pushing on, we farang are happy to ride in the sun, catching a tan if we can, but 24-year old Moh pines (like most colour-conscious young Thais) for lighter skin. As a cycle guide? Wrong job? Her arms are fully covered by long sleeves but still she laments, with a laugh, “I am so dark now, who will marry with me!”
Near the end of our easy, 20-kilometre ride we stop at a gallery to watch sculptor Tanong Chai Mahi carving a complex Ramayana scene onto a large earthenware pot. It will take him two weeks full-time work to finish the delicate task — after which the pot may easily crack in the kiln. “What do you do if that happens?” I ask. With true Buddhist, or Brigadoonist, equanimity, he sighs, “I stare at the sky for about two hours — then start again.”
Having survived the car-free trails of Koh Kret — some miles, I concede, from central Bangkok’s Large Hadron Traffic Collidor – I’m ready to try the Big Mango itself, by bike, by night. I meet up at dusk with nine other riders at Grasshopper Adventures, not far from world backpacker HQ, Khao San Road. Our lycra-clad Thai guide, Anna gives us a few instructions: helmets on, headlights on, saddles adjusted — and go!
We set off along the footpath, a wobbling farang pelaton, and head into the sunset, the smog and a whirling derby of tuk-tuks.
The guy next to me, Roland, a young Asian banker, is riding one-hand while texting with the other. The Polish couple behind concentrate on not colliding with him as he weaves. Exiting the backpacker ghetto of cafes, lodges and tattoo joints, we follow Anna into the melee that is Bangkok of the Bangkokians, Krung Thep of the Krung Thepians.
As long as I keep moving the temperature is cool. Stop, and the humidity and sweat engulf me. From time to time our trusty leader calls halt and gives us a potted history of the temple, fortress or market we’re in front of. We pile onto a local ferry, crossing to the opposite bank of the Chao Phraya, then take quiet back roads towards the famed Temple of Dawn, Wat Arun. It remains open by night and, now empty of the thousands of visitors who flock there by day, has become another world of glittering stupas, silent compounds and gliding monks. We have to time wander and take photos among the spires and Bodhisattvas that are bathed in golden light and attended only by temple dogs and old ghosts in the shadows. Back in the saddle, we cruise along a riverside footway beside which are houses of worship for one's choice of gods — in a Chinese temple, a Christian church or Buddhist wat. Tonight however, Eros, the god of love, is getting the most devotion, thanks to the Thai couples smooching on seats dotted along the pathway.
We’re on 24-speed mountain bikes. With no mountains, that’s around 21 gears too many, so I find two in the middle and stick with them. We re-cross the Chao Phraya by bridge and, dodging the traffic, come to Pak Klong Dalat, the nightly flower market that’s an eruption of perfumes, colour, buyers and sellers.
Trestles of marigolds and roses crowd onto the street and Anna negotiates a few local snacks for us.
Roland, the young banker, has been abducted by his smart phone. He’s taking pics, stabbing digits, riding a bit further, grabbing more pics, weaving along, with messages pinging in-bound and answers flying out-bound. “Are you working?” I ask. “Heck, no,” he answers, “I’m on vacation – Facebooking and tweeting it all.”
Meanwhile, my dumb phone sits obediently mute and socially un-networking as we follow our lady of the lycra flashing through the streets.
Wat Pho, home of the burial stupas of Siam’s first four Chakri kings, is ours for the wandering. Snoozing cats and a few novice monks have replaced the daytime tide of tour groups. I could muse here for hours amid these dreaming spires and cloud echoes of old prayers, but soon it’s time to roll on again. We pass the sleeping eaves of the Grand Palace, cross the great public common of Sanam Luang and finish back again at Gap Year City, Khao San Road.
“Are we back already?” asks Roland, who then social-medias the moment to an eagerly-awaiting world, like, wherever. Three hours and 15 kilometres have passed in a tweet.
For Spice Roads one-day Koh Kret tour, visit www.spiceroads.com.
For Grasshopper Adventures’ Bangkok Night Bike, go to www.grasshopperadventures.com