Hell on Wheels can reach Heaven
Story by Karen Jackman
Travelmag February 11, 2005
For some, any form of exercise is torture. So, the idea that people - especially farangs - would want to ride a bicycle 40km in the unrelenting Thai sunshine (and pay for the privilege) might make one wonder whether, karmically speaking, they have some work to do.
But, rather strangely, as I discovered upon joining an organised bike tour with a local company recently, hell-on-wheels is really - well not exactly heaven, but a rather pleasant day out.
And the closest the tour through the bi-ways of Bangkok's countryside got to hell (although there were few brushes along the way) was coming face to face with a sun-bleached papier mache "devil" with an abnormally long tongue and very saggy breasts.
The tour is one of the shorter ones this tour group offers, so a good one to flex your calf muscles with. And if you are a tad nervous about the idea of taking on the notorious traffic-snarled roads of Bangkok, this ride is in the COUNTRY. The "country" being only about 30 minutes out of the city and there are no such thing as traffic jams out there.
Up at 6am and off out of the city by 7am, the tour kicks off at the Kamalulislam mosque. Riders are soon made aware early on in the trip, about just how easy it is to end up in hell. First, outside the temple, the river (which is an extension of the much dirtier Pratunam canal in the city) is teeming with very big fat catfish ... writhing over and over each other, vying for the bits of bread the children throw to them.Just a few hundred metres up the canal, fishermen check their markedly light nets, pretending not to notice what's up for grabs not very far away.
Chris, the tour guide, was quick to explain the weird scenario to the uninitiated foreigners. "It is not allowed to catch fish in front of the temple... if one does so, then one goes to hell" he explained simply. "I think the fish know this and they all head for the temple, haha.. they are cleverer than we think those fish!"
It was certainly mesmerising to watch the catfish, but we leapt back on our bikes and headed down the along the canal...for a brush with hell part two.
The canal is lined by a raised concrete platform, so that residents (and nutty cyclists from Bangkok) can move more easily from house to house, as the banks are muddy and lined with thick bush. It was somebody's great idea, as imagine how difficult it must have been trying to negotiate along the banks to get an honest day's work done before the platform was erected. The only thing is the platform is only about a metre wide. This is ok if you are walking or are a seasoned platform riding cyclist (as was Chris). For a coward like me ... it was a bit well hellish really ... at least for the first half an hour.
While I was pretty convinced I was going to see my rear end land in the canal, and probably kill myself in the process and thus go straight to hell for being allowing myself to die in such an undignified fashion - I was also determined not to be a wimp and get off and walk the distance (about 3km).
"Only a few more kilometres!" grinned Chris, "You want to walk, yes?"
"No no noooo, I lied," grinning back weakly while wanting to punch myself for being a wimp.
Once you get over the terror aspect of it all, the canal ride was spectacular, the scenery is fantastic. It is very peaceful and serene.. such a difference from the city... and all the locals wave one past (unfortunately requiring one to let go of one handle bar to politely wave back).
Once off the canal, (phew), the ride makes it way along dirt roads, past happy kids, lots of rice paddies, sprawling snakes on hot tar roads and grumpy soi-like farm dogs peering out of wooden houses. Lunch was served at the bizarre temple of Phurt Udom Pol which has to be the highlight of the day. Built by the residents, I assume from asking Chris, they also put together a Dante's Inferno-style cavern in the temple basement. It's a macabre side-show consisting of a collection of grisly exhibits, generally revolving around a common theme in which papier mache people are being tortured in hell.
As one would at a carnival, museum or games arcade, visitors drop a five baht coin in a little box at each exhibit and then step back to be entertained.See paper mache figures (very often naked women with decidedly perky breasts) being sawn in half, disemboweled, stabbed, having their eyes pecked out or being devoured by wild-eyed ferocious soi dogs and other similarly devilish figures (with decidedly droopy breasts). Lots of flashing lights and recorded screams add depth to the show and the accompanying placard explains what sin the unfortunate had committed in life to deserve such eternal torture. Sins include everything from murder, drinking intoxicating liquor... to arguing with your parents and, yes, fishing in front of the temple - and presumably having saggy breasts. Some exhibits are a little old, so don't work very well and some of the flashing lights don't work or, a rather unsettling situation, they don't stop working. If this happens, the kindly little old lady who oversees "hell" at the basement entrance comes along and, flashing a kind smile, pulls the plug out.
There is one exhibit which shows a tree bearing fruit ... the fruit in this case being little naked ladies (yes, you guess all with perky breasts) dangling from the branches. Unfortunately (sorry guys), this exhibit depicts a mythological story according to Chris, and those gals are not available even if you make it to hell. With Phurt Udom Pol all done and with bellies full of carbohydrate-rich chicken pad Thai, the cyclists headed off for the last 13km stretch to the old market town of Nong Chock.
After spending a lot of time in Bangkok and having to make do with often not too appetising local produce, the market was an eye-opener. With tired, sore-ish muscles and feeling ravenous again after the hot ride, all it took was a few baht to be able to stock up on sweet apples, yummy bananas and hairy rambutans. And we didn't even mind the fishy smell one bit. It was here that we traded our now dusty bikes for a long-boat to complete the journey.
Lying back comfortably on the boat, swatting a few flies and waving like royalty to everyone we passed, we sputtered our way along Saen Seab canal back to the mosque, the catfish and to the end of a heavenly day.