Bangkok By Bicycle


Come take a ride with me…

…I run through my mental checklist…

Bike? Tick.

Helmet? On head – tick.

Gloves? Putting on now – tick

Water? Hmm. Three quarters full, Temperature about 35C. Alright. Tick.

Tyres fully inflated? Squeeze. Tick.

Rucksack with phone, keys, letter to post, sweat towel? Tick, tick, tick, tick.

Nanny aware where I am going and for how long? Krup (tick)

….I am in the elevator, my bike up on its back wheel, the front resting on the glass back of the three foot square box that we trust to go up and down safely.

Hickory, Dickory Dock, three mice ran up the clock. The clock struck One…and the other two got away with minor injuries.

Time to go. Left leg swings over bike, select third gear out of seven and freewheel onto the red brick road of our apartment driveway; I cruise through the white wrought iron gates that have swung open noiselessly at the twitch of the guard. A smart salute. A snappy click of his polished heels and Dorothy is free to head for the Emerald City. Turn right. Four lanes of traffic, a gap approaches caused by the lights at Chit Lom some three hundred metres to my left. Remember to hug the left side. Luckily another cyclist is in front of me. I settle into his wash – he’s not fast enough to call it a slipstream – and let mopeds and cars flick past me. I note they give us both a wide berth. We’re in more danger from a hawker chucking water or rotting fruit into the street. Right, left – a snappy twist of the handlebars and I avoid the street dog who has lazily wandered out between two parked cars. His fur glistens golden in the bright sunshine. It is warm. If I keep a good speed the rush of air will help me stay cool. Approaching Sarasin, two lanes go left, two right. I want to go right so I need to cut across two lanes of traffic. Easily done as no one is behind me. I end up on the start line with the mopeds. They rev their engines, I twitch my left foot, my own starter motor, fingers unconsciously pulling and releasing on my rear brake.

Go! They ignore the red light, go when there is a gap. I am swept along by them, lean into the bend as I stand on my pedals, accelerating; my left thumb pushing me through fourth gear, fifth, sixth…anxiously hunting the entrance to Limpini Park as I hug the left rear bumper of a taxi. It’s like climbing. Look down and you get vertigo. On a bike, look behind and the monsters will catch you. The gate I thought might be open is closed. A fleeting glimpse of a rusting chain padlocking it shut.

Watch the road!

It’s smoother than back home but there is the odd missing piece. We approach the bend at Rama IV and I cruise round it, lift my front wheel slightly and am up on the pavement. A tiled affair, with the odd puddle. There’s an entrance to Limpini. I shoot round a peddler, twist left into a narrow walkway between car entrance and crash barrier. Slow rapidly, thinking. Go anti-clockwise. I join the track, two cyclists go past me. They are attired as though it is the Tour de Limpini, moving at a fair clip. I am not attired so; rather I have my Peak Fitness T-shirt, a casual pair of shorts and over-pronating trainers. What with sunglasses and helmet I imagine I look like a Laguna Beach Park Officer. I settle behind the second rider as the first moves about 20 metres ahead. It’s a medium pace, enough to exercise, not enough to truly engage the anaerobic system. This time, I sit up, peddle without holding the handle bars, look around. It’s a smooth ride as we meander through the manicured hedges, grasses, palm trees and stylish buildings of the park. There aren’t many people, and we are forced to dodge powerful water hoses that blatt, blatt, blatt their jets of water over grass and track alike. It’s a nirvana if I am honest.

We take a sharp right and, just ahead, five blonde tourists. Walking Limpini like they are in Reservoir Dogs, five abreast. I briefly wonder which one is against tipping. Then we are past them and I can feel a slight build of lactic acid in my thighs as we all sail round the south eastern corner of Limpini, now into a headwind. I am looking out for a crosswalk I have heard runs from north-eastern Limpini to Sukhumvit Soi 10. Nothing is obvious as the three of us arrow unerring towards that point on the compass. The rider I am getting a tow off is now aware of me; tries to jink left, then right surreptitiously to get a better understanding of what I am doing by drafting him. I am having none of that, sticking to his rear tyre like a limpet. I tweak into 7th gear, a harder push but less effort once you are up beyond 25mph. All those spin classes…worth every penny. Yet…they were never conducted in 35C heat with a humidity of 80.We approach the a corner where I think a crosswalk should exist.

See nothing.

Another lap…good exercise. Time to feel a burn – can’t cycle round here all day, I have a task to do. I stand on my pedals, accelerate past both cyclists. I can sense the leader try to keep with me, as he had done when the other cyclist had come up close to him and pulled away, but I’ve caught him unawares and I hold the speed as long as I can; I can feel my heartbeat rising past 170bpm and it feels achingly good. A quick glance behind and I see he has given up, settled back into his pace some 20 metres ahead of his compatriot. I enter a long stretch and I am now back on lap 2 for real. I want to get back to the north-eastern corner, pause and locate this crosswalk. After all, this isn’t just about exercise. I am on a postal mission. I barely notice the flashing scenery this time round, concentrate on navigating past the slower pedestrians and cycles, feel the rush as I loop up and over a couple of bridges. This time at the north eastern corner I slow, hard, exit into what feels like a pit lane, approach an ornate gate about 10 metres high with two guards.

“Sawadee krup. Nī̂ pĕn wiṭhī kār thāngm̂ālāy?”

Apparently it’s down there, left out of the gate. I navigate slowly out and see that I am on Wireless Road. A white pickup is coming in so I wait patiently for the driver and then cycle slowly up onto the pavement, heading towards the junction with Sarasin. I am going past a school that sits in the north-eastern corner of Limpini – as I go past it I see stairs to a crosswalk. Aha! A double back into the school entrance and I see the steps ahead. About 40 of them with a yard-wide concrete ramp for bikes. There is a sign – the universal drawing of a bike with a blue background. It heads up, turns right over Wireless, heading in the direction I know Soi 10 lies. I had read somewhere you can cycle up it in low gear. Fat chance. It’s a 1:2 incline if you’re lucky.

I dismount, push the bike up two steps at a time. The skies overhead are darkening to cerulean blue, faints wisps of stratus clouds streaking across the skies in a race south towards the gulf of Thailand. I am heading east. The crosswalk is concrete, bare, smooth. On each side I plunge into an urban jungle of poverty. Makeshift shacks out of cardboard and corrugated sheets. Even the weeds here are bedraggled. The walls of the crosswalk are about a metre high.

Endless grey punctured softly every once in a while with a faded token attempt at graffiti. From each of these sides arcs a wire net protecting the traveller from the electricity pylons that follow the route. I see only two people. One has a dog, the other is a cyclist. Other than that you’d barely expect tumbleweed to lope lazily down this Main St. Ahead is another set of steps, another ramp. I am up over it, crossing a major road. The Chaloem Maha Nakon Expressway. Back down the other side and then into a cross walk mogul run of four more climbs and descents. The final one drops me onto a long straight by a stagnant waterway that appears to only be 500 metres long.

I am cycling curiously now in this uncharted territory. At the end of it I decide to turn right in the absence of signposts and I can see an immediate left if I go that way. If I go left I plunge into a dense urban concrete landscape (when I get home I find that left was the actual option I should have taken to cut about 10minutes off my journey) so I discard the notion, turn right and emerge on to Sukhumvit Soi 10. It is a narrow thoroughfare where a few locals with their kids stare curiously at the farang on his bike. Sunglasses allow me to hide slightly as I carefully go by them. At the end I am on a major route again. I decide to use the sidewalk, past a few tourists, then get to the junction of Ratchadaphisek and Sukhumvit. Fortune favours the bold so I drop into 4th gear and brave the road. It is exhilarating, I am actually doing the same speed as the cars and mopeds so it feels safe as I am not being overtaken. Quicker cars stick to the middle two lanes as people often stop in the outside ones to take on taxi fares, turn off down soi. I see no buses and peddle carefully. I can see all the tourists that swarm Sukhumvit like flies gazing at me. Perhaps they see I am not a weekend tourist…that you can, after all, cycle down the road without a care in the world.

It is a different view of life when you cycle Sukhumvit. Images flash by you, burned snapshots on the retina. Like the child, standing with his western mother, sticking his thumb out to hail a taxi. He was all of six yrs old. The rear of all the hawker stands are just sheets to keep the dust off wares. On a bike you don’t get accosted to buy something every three metres. I quickly spot I am at Asok station on the BTS. Not far to Nana which is near my destination at FedEx. Through the underpass with all the other traffic. Staring faces of pedestrians wanting to cross. I feel empowered as I cross the rail lines – bump, bump, bump –  as though I am another cell rushing along with the heartbeat of this vibrant city. That I belong here…just for a few minutes.

I am in 5th gear, hugging the pavement, cars now passing me with plenty of room. There seems to be respect on the roads if you do like everyone else. We are past the Times Square Shopping Center and through Nana, coming up on the crossing of Sukhumvit, Soi 3. The traffic is stopped and I find I can weave through the stationary traffic – a moped graciously backs up to let me cross – dismount and then cross to the other side of the road. Waiting at the lights are two young tourists. Shorts and muscle vests. Close cropped hair. Full of chest swelling confidence in their homeland; they are uncertain, startled deer in this forest. They look at me. I stick out. I am not a local, but I am clearly not a tourist. Time to say good bye to them as I stalk across the road with my bike. I have learned you must show no fear when crossing. Nothing suicidal of course, but look for the gaps and be decisive. They stumble after me. I have arrived at my destination. I chain my bike and lunge for the cool air conditioning of the denuded mall. It looks like something out of an ’80s John Hughes film, a place where, at night, all kinds of ghouls and shenanigans might prey on unsuspecting American teenagers. A guard welcomes me and I realise how hot I am as I melt into the FedEx office and ask to send a letter. My cycling gloves are quickly saturated with sweat which causes a problem as I write because the paper is becoming wet.

1715Baht? To send a letter? Grumble, grumble…. I pause briefly by Starbucks. Maybe an ice lemon drink? No, the allure of the traffic is too great. I have enjoyed my ride far too much. I feel free to explore the city. I unlock my bike, glug down 500ml of warm water, pull my helmet back on and cross the road to the main crossing of Sukhumvit. Curiously I don’t feel at all fatigued under the beating sun, shadows play across the tarmac. We are in a concrete dappled glade now. This time I wait with the Thais and farang at the crossroads; beat them all to take the plunge to jump onto the saddle and turn to the right when I see a gap. I am on Sukhumvit again. Almost a giggle of childish glee at my satisfaction. Not far to Chit Lom now, maybe three hundred metres. I feel like an old pro, settle into the rhythm of the pedals, my hands sure on the handlebars as I tail the traffic, nip past Central Chit Lom and hang a curving left onto Soi Lang Suan with my own version of the Bangkok Drift. Hug the far right and weave past the parked cars, pull the brakes at CIMB and sweep as gracefully as a puffed up gazelle through the open gates, under the building, dismount to the crowd’s applause of a perfect 10.

I trip on my way into the elevator…

Is this what diplomacy is all about?

Yours travelswithadiplomat.



Categories: Bangkok

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