February 26, 2013
We book a cycling tour called ‘The Colors of Bangkok’, recommended by Alice and Theo – Days 186 and 187 – which from the description on the Recreational Bangkok Biking website sounds like the perfect way to kick off our time in Thailand:
Cycling in Bangkok. Probably not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Bangkok. However, exploring Bangkok by bicycle is an exciting way to experience Thailand’s capital. Bangkok Biking shows you a part of Bangkok that you’ll never see from the skytrain, tuk-tuk or taxi!
Asked to be there half an hour early, all we have time for, dizzy and disoriented from last night’s flight, is a quick shower before jumping into a taxi, which costs all of 2 Euros for a half-hour ride across town.
A large group of tourists is gathered in front of a building where we are politely received by a Thai tour guide, who welcomes and leads us upstairs into a small but comfortably arranged office, inviting us to take a seat on one of the sofas. After a few minutes the crowd is divided into smaller groups which progressively leave the office until the only ones left sitting in the empty waiting room are an American couple on their honeymoon trip and Christof and myself. We wait and wait. . . regretting having passed up the plentiful breakfast buffet in the hotel dining room in the rush to get here on time. The tour was to start at 8:00 and apparently the delay is being caused by a couple who booked it and should be in our group. At 8:20, Christof knocks on the company owner’s door, a Dutchman, who apologizes for the hold-up, and immediately sends us off with without any further delay.
Khunpol our guide for the morning, introduces himself briefly before giving us some information about the tour, and after finding us suitable bicycles and explaining that to survive the dangers of Bangkok traffic, we must ride in a single file behind him, he shows us the arm signals he’ll be using and expects us to copy and pass down the line like a chain of dominos:
– When I put my arm up and make a fist it mean stop (right arm in right angle upwards, hand balled into a fist), arm here means turn light,(right arm extended to right side) arm here means turn reft ( right arm bent in a downwards right angle), and hopping onto his bicycle he leads the four of us into the thick of a Bangkok rush hour.
At the airport, seeing people wearing face masks, I had visions of obscure Asian viruses, but could relax once I learnt that the masks are worn as a protective measure against smog and exhaust fumes. As we ride along the road – the cars stand still more than they drive – it’s apparent why people need face masks, and as ridiculous as they look, if we had one we’d put it on!
Khunpol stops to purchase two tiny, neatly wrapped cellophane bags to replace our missed breakfast; one contains pork barbecue pieces stacked onto little wooden sticks, the other some sticky rice, a thick white mass that has the consistency of rice pudding. The vendor, he claims, is proud to have made his first sale to tourists, who rarely, if ever stray into these back lanes. Hanging the plastic bags onto our handlebars, he leads us into to a quiet alleyway, too narrow for a car to pass through, for a breakfast break. The succulent pork is so tender it hardly needs chewing and is a perfect meeting of sweet and spicy flavors. Following Khunpol’s instructions, we accompany each bite of pork with a piece of sticky rice which we roll into little balls, before popping them into our mouths.
He tells us about life in Thailand, explaining how people from the country come to Bangkok hoping for work which is hard if not impossible to find, and leaves them stranded and without the funds for a rental, obliging them to share an already small and crowded room in the slums. The slum inhabitants are friendly and since he wants us to reciprocate their friendliness, he shows us how to say
– Sa va dee Kaaaah ( hello in Thai,)
drawing out the last syllable in a tone that gradually sinks downward, while bowing and pressing our hands together in front of our chests in the well-known respectful Asian gesture. In no time at all we’ve mastered our first lesson in this new language and follow Khunpol through lanes so narrow we have to dismount our bicycles to squeeze through, followed everywhere by friendly choruses of,
– Va dee kaaaah
to which we proudly reply,
– Sa va dee Kaaaah, drawing out the last syllable and bowing as he taught us to do.
If we got a culture shock in Sri Lanka where the people are poor but can at least sustain themselves on what they grow in their gardens, in Bangkok the shock at the way people live in the back lanes is so great, it defies description. The narrow alleyways replace all communal living areas, living rooms, kitchens, playgrounds and gardens, and people cook, wash dishes and laundry, while the elderly lie resting in the shade, on benches, tables, or pieces of cardboard, as children and rats scamper about them. Energetic young people speed in and out of the lanes on bicycles and mopeds – the affluence of their clothing and vehicles show their initiation into the ways of the world – while the middle-aged sit dejectedly in front of small stands waiting for customers.
The odor changes from lane to lane and the poorest neighborhoods are the most garbage strewn, and reflect the dejected state of its inhabitants by the horrible stench of putrefaction. There are no garbage collection services in this part of town (no one pays taxes on sales made at the small home stands), and Khunpol wrinkles his nose with disgust at the lack of cleanliness:
– Lazy no good people, not want work or clean up.
We stop in front of a kindergarden – funded by KLM and by a (small) percentage of the proceeds of Recreational Bangkok Biking – peeking in at 34 children in pristine uniforms, lying on their stomachs in two circles, drawing quietly in a room far too small for tables and chairs.
At regular intervals Khunpol runs into small shops to buy us ice-cold water – that could be had at every stand, using the opportunity to explain that richer neighborhoods (which pay taxes) are recognizable by the prevalence of 7-Eleven shops.
A long boat powered by a motor taken from a pickup truck ferries us across the Choa Praya River, that has a layer of decomposing garbage floating on its surface, to the greenest part of the city, where it’s cooler and quieter than amongst concrete buildings without green plants to absorb the heat and the noise. We pass a group of men playing checkers in the shade near the dock on our way into a village erected on stilts in the midst of the swampy jungle waters.
It’s takes excellent balance to manage the sharp turns on the narrow corners of the concrete paths constructed on stilts, and to pass cyclists and mopeds without falling into the dank, foul smelling canals, used by the village inhabitants as a collective disposal bin. We’re horrified to see a small boy race down a path and jump into the murky water, making a hole in the layer of garbage which sprays to all sides as he disappears from sight. Don’t crocodiles live in these khlongs (canals)? He resurfaces a great distance from where he entered the water, clearing the waste floating on top of the water away with his head, laughing gleefully at our consternation, and pulling himself back up onto the concrete path – his brown body glistening and shining in the warm sunlight – pads past us, leaving a trail of wet footprints on the dusty concrete pathway before plunging back into the murky water with a splash.
Elisabeth, a teacher from Washington D.C. (the Obama children attend the school she works in) inquires whether school attendance is compulsory in Thailand. It is, 12 years of public education is provided by the Thai government, but Khunpol explains that because there aren’t enough spaces in poorer neighborhoods for all children to attend school simultaneously, many of them have to stay at home until a spot opens up. We visit a primary school located in a pleasantly shady courtyard and watch a crew of people preparing a school lunch in a side building, before looking into windows – without screens or glass – at children in uniforms sitting at desks in rows – but otherwise not fulfilling the disciplined (stereotypical) image we had of Asian schoolchildren.
They are relaxedly chatting with their neighbors, disregarding what their teacher is doing at the front of the classroom. How can these children and their teachers possibly focus and concentrate in weather this hot and muggy?
We look at a temple and a stupa, before entering a luxuriously green park with a pond at its center. Fish feeding is part of the tour, and Khunpol gives each couple a bag of fish food, starting the feeding ceremony off by throwing a handful of food into the water himself. Instantly, gigantic greedy fish appear and push against one another to get at the largest pieces of food. It’s horribly incongruous to be feeding pampered fish while all around us people are living in wretched garbage-strewn neighborhoods without enough to eat. Because it’s part of the program, we half-heartedly throw the crumbs into the water, watching the biggest fish, who have already had more than their fair share, pushing away the smaller ones who can hardly grab a morsel, so they can continue gorging themselves to the gills.
Back at the river, where the men are still playing checkers in the shade, Khunpol procures some frozen sweet-smelling washcloths from one of the many little bags he has stowed on his bicycle so we can cool off and freshen up while waiting for the ferry to transport us back across the Choa Praya River. We stop off in another foul smelling neighborhood to look at a dusty rough stage crammed into a tight space between two concrete buildings where cock fights, a popular event, take place on weekends. The school for Thai boxing is closed, so we return to the office, and sit down for a meal the boss’s Thai wife has prepared in our absence.
During the evening we stroll along Sukhumvit Road, taking in the pleasantly warm air and unaccustomed sights and smells before the consternation we feel at the sight of (almost) all foreign men being accompanied by (very) young Thai women drives us back to to the rooftop terrace of our hotel, which despite the wonderful panorama it offers of Bangkok’s glittering skyscrapers by night, a swimming pool glowing in the dark, low sofas and candle-lit tables, is surprisingly empty. We sit down for a Thai meal, and asked by the waiter if the food should be European or ‘normal’, I boastfully order ‘normal’, proud of my (3 week long) Asian traveling experience which, I think, entitles me to eat like the locals. The meal is so hot and spicy, that the first bite drives tears to my eyes, water from my nose and a cough to my throat, all of which I gallantly attempt to hide from the kitchen crew, who have gathered in the doorway of the terrace to observe my reactions. Forcing myself to chew nonchalantly I wave to thank them for the delicious meal.