My recent visit to Bangkok marked my third stay in the city, which I had always found crazy, hectic and, in parts, extremely frustrating. This time around, I grew to really appreciate the diversity of activities and attractions in Bangkok. I lived in the business and residential area of Silom for a week, hung out in Sukhumvit and wandered around random areas on this modern side of the city, seeking comfort in the neighbourhoods scattered amongst the business district skyscrapers.
So, when I heard about the opportunity to go biking in Bangkok to check out the countryside, I was intrigued, yet sceptical; Bangkok in no way screams ‘rural’. Cycling long distance in Southeast Asia has become a regular hobby – my most recent adventure being a seven hour ride to a jungle temple in Siem Reap. For me, it’s one of the best ways to encounter the off the beaten track towns, villages and paths leading to the heart of a destination you otherwise wouldn’t find without local knowledge.
When I set off on my bike in Bangkok, I never expected to see a completely different side of the city – a serene expanse of green fields, pockets of forest and winding narrow alleyways of communities that reminded me of the hutongs in China. I guess I had been wrong about Bangkok all along – it isn’t just a bustling, sprawling city. You have to search out the parts of it that are tucked away.
I’m a big fan of Grasshopper Adventures, who help to get you out to these hidden places with the aid of a local guide who knows every nook and cranny of their hometown (I’m still amazed how they remember every twist and turn, side road and dirt path to take). I would never be able to find these areas on my own (as much as I would like to try) and such a tenacious plan would no doubt result in me getting half way to the middle of nowhere and having to hail a taxi home – which could be fun, but not very productive.
The Journey to Rural Bangkok
The six-seven hour round journey moving north east of the city starts on Ratchadamneon Klang Rd Road at 9am, just around the corner from brash Khao San Road, which you will pass through in order to reach the tranquil riverfront and the peaceful Santi Chai Prakan Park – an ideal short break from the energetic city you have started to leave behind and a cool down from the sweat you’ve started to build up from cycling in the intense heat (don’t expect to look pretty in your photos!).
From here you cross the yellow Rama IX Bridge, hurling your bike up and down the stair ramps while you soak up the city sights surrounding the river.
A short ride past the other side of the river brings you to some railway tracks, which I was told mark an unofficial line between Bangkok City and Outer Bangkok. When you cross over, the adventure really starts since it’s at this point that you really start to see the differences in the two sides of Bangkok.
It becomes quieter, the streets are less crowded and there are no skyscrapers or grand imposing buildings. Instead, I found myself following my guide down hidden, narrow alleyways, her hand signals marking a sharp and unexpected turn into backstreets and concealed communities which would spit us out onto small concrete pathways that snaked through the countryside and endless vegetation. I had to stop many times just to take it all in, and snap a lot of photos.
The lunch stop is at a local market, with a spectacular view of the river, the floating houses and the sporadic appearance of an old lady floating past in her boat selling goods.
Temples form part of the agenda, which for me was not a main highlight since I am completely ‘templed out’ after living in Asia for 10 months. However, the temple built on a boat is impressive and different to the zillions of other temples I have seen (the building next door to it houses a very obese pig which we feed with bananas) and a temple encased in tree roots.
Another hour’s ride took us deeper into the countryside, the concrete pathways still mapping the way, where we stopped for drinks and snacks at local rest-stops along the way, relaxing with the local people. The countryside here never gets boring, since it is such a unique sight in comparison with the congestion of Bangkok that it feels like a rare sight! You also can’t quite believe that you are so close to the city, so close it would only take you up to an hour to reach to this area by car.
The cycle back is shorter (approximately two hours) as you take more main roads, rather than going back exactly the way you came in, where you eventually meet your railway line marker before crossing the river by boat. At this point though, you do relish the shorter distance since not many people purposefully go out all day in this kind of heat (cue the ‘drink plenty of water’ lecture).
However, should you have missed something the first time around while trying not to ride into a wall while turning a tight corner, you do get to navigate through those narrow streets once again – a lasting reminder of the adventure that can be found, hidden away from view.
Just remember to get off your bike every now and again and interact with the locals who will be just as fascinated with your presence as you are with their surroundings.
It’s easy to say you’ve seen Bangkok, with its old historical side and new, sky-train connected modern suburbs. Yet it’s only now that I feel as if I can say that I have seen more of Bangkok – its alternative side and the outskirts of the city that are underdeveloped and not spoken about. But I still have a lot more to see until I can say that I know Bangkok in its entirety. Maybe another bike ride is in order…
Many thanks to Grasshopper Adventures for inviting me to try their ‘Bangkok Countryside’ full-day bike tour with costs $52, including food and drinks. All opinions, as always, are my own.