Meet Tom. Tom is 23 and studies interior design in Bangkok. He was born to a Thai father and a Spanish-Filipino mother, and was brought up in Tripoli, Lebanon. Tom’s not his real name, but when I ask what that is, he loses me after three syllables. Five days a week, Tom shows ‘a different side of Bangkok’ to people like me – well, rather better-cycled versions of myself, I’d assume.
My pal for the afternoon
Our bike tour was my favourite thing I did in Bangkok (closely followed by the canal boats I’ll mention in another article). It kicks off in the Sukhumvit neighbourhood – ‘the hip neighbourhood’, Tom explains. It’s near where I’m staying, but while its main road (Sukhumvit Road) is constantly jam-packed with cars and motorbikes, the back streets are filled with large mansions, nice-looking restaurants and schools with English names.
And suddenly we’re in what looks like a different part of Bangkok, where streets are narrow and houses look like the garages I know from the French countryside, with clothes hanging outside and plants everywhere. Old women sit outside their houses and watch us cycle (probably giggling at how terrible I am on a bike – it’s been a good 10 years since I last spent more than 20 minutes on a bike).
This is Little Chinatown, Tom says, not to be mixed up with Yaowarat in the old town (known for its exceptional street food, hear). While the house-fronts have mirrors and parchments stuck on to bring good luck and repel evil spirits, along with Chinese lanterns, Tom says it’s mostly Thai people who live here.
I ask Tom to teach me how to say hello. It’s sawadee, with an additional syllable for respect. I add ‘ka’ because I’m a woman; men add krab. The longer the ka, the friendlier it sounds. My pronunciation is pretty poor, and my tone even worse. ‘Thai is a dancing language,’ Tom says. I follow his advice and try to sound ‘as cute as possible’. It’s better, but barely. Add to that the Thai greeting – a handshake of sorts – which comes in four different levels. I bring my hands together with my thumbs against my chest, with a slight bow. That’s level one. For friends, colleagues, people around your age, you’ll place your thumbs under your chin a bow little more. To show respect to important or older people, thumbs go under the nose and you bend yet some more. Thumbs go against the forehead to salute the Royal Family and monks, with a deep bow.
I wonder if there’s more to it that I don’t get told. What’s the local ways? Do they have differences between regions like the French and their two/three/four bises?
The slums of Khlong Toei
Later, we stop by a local temple – but local doesn’t mean small church like it would in the UK or France. Here, a small local temple is massive, made up of several different buildings, all gilded and covered with colourful roofs. The outside walls of the area get covered with small frames, each with an image and a few words. These are tombs of sort – the combination of the Buddhist belief that bodies must be burnt to reach reincarnation, and the lack of land in Bangkok means people’s ashes can be stored in small urn-like boxes in temples’ walls.
We go on to cross the Chao Phraya River at Kum Nun Kao Pier. It’s one of the main rivers in Thailand, and it flows all through Bangkok, creating some of the canals that go through it. Using a small boat to cross the river at this spot takes just a minute and costs around 20 BHT, while driving to Bangkok from Bang Kachao would take around two hours. Bargain.
I’m on a boat!
Bang Kachao isn’t the jungle that you picture when thinking of the Jungle Book, but to my standards, it already feels quite special. The whole area is criss-crossed with narrow concrete roads on piles that get busy with bikes and motorbikes. Tom says a lot of people that live in that area work in agriculture; the land used to be made up of large parcels farmed by families. Those got passed on to children and divided between them, making them too small to be sustainable. Now many have to find work in Bangkok, too.
We spend some time cycling through the greenery – the air is purer now we’re out of Bangkok’s pollution, and the trees provide shade and breeze. When we get hungry, we stop for pad thai on the side of a random little street. It’s my first pad thai in Thailand and the best I’ve ever eaten. Pad thai is pretty much the national dish, Tom confirms, although traditionally a meal for special occasions.
All day, every day
It’s good fuel for the cycle back, at least. Soon we’re back at the pier, and cycling back to Sukhumvit – via some of the biggest, busiest streets I’ve ever been on. And to think I was ever scared of cycling in London…
If you find yourself in Bangkok, definitely check out ABC Biking Bangkok. It was the best way to put a smile back on my face after my trip started very, very wrong – next post: what to do when you lose your wallet on day one.