The Wheel Deal
Story by Phoowadon Duangmee
The Nation, April 10, 2004
The city's eastern suburbs offer quaint canals, mosques, rice mills and orchards - and nary an aggressive motorist to run cyclists off the road
It takes slightly less than an hour to escape the hectic Sukhumvit scene and plunge deeply into Bangkok's austere and beautiful eastern suburbs. Here, in a Muslim neighbourhood at Min Buri, an old community offers new cycling routes for weekend wanderers who arrive with mountain bikes for a quick dose of adrenaline and sweet nostalgic memories.
"You will see parts of Bangkok you've never seen before," promises "Woody", a cycling guide from Spice Roads, as we cross the bridge over the Saen Saeb canal.
Setting off in the morning from Kamalulislam Mosque, we make an appealing bunch - an international coalition of Canadian, British, Scottish, French, Australian and Thai cyclists. Every once in a while you hear the local kids laughing like hyenas and yelling: "You! You! Farang! Go! Go!"
Technically, our impromptu chorus might mistake "chasing" for "cheering", but they do us no harm as long as they can keep their dogs restrained.
We peddle east on the narrow concrete path along Saen Saeb canal. The Canadian, Australian and British men take the lead, and leave a flirtatious young Frenchman cycling alongside a young Thai lady in the middle of the pack. I am content; I have no desire to break any cycling speed record.
Kamalulislam, where the ride starts, is an old community. Two centuries ago, large contingents of Muslims travelled from the country's southern regions, following the direction of the King of Siam, and settled on both sides of Saen Saeb canal, especially in the eastern suburbs like Min Buri and Nong Chok.
They built their mosques and wooden houses along the canal, grew rice, caught fish, travelled on the waterway and prayed five times a day. Today, the local folk might enjoy electricity, running water and fast travel by cars and motorcycles, but their lives are still very much involved with the waterway and their religion.
We glide past wooden houses perched over the water. Gazing across the canal, we note that many people still own their small sampans. Actually, there is no other spot in Bangkok like this neighbourhood, where you can see networks of small canals, huge fishing nets hanging by the waterways, rice mills, different shades of green in the orchards and friendly faces.
Saen Saeb canal, when flowing past inner Bangkok areas like Pratoonam and Ramkhamhaeng, is second to none in the running for the title of the world's dirtiest waterway. Nobody risks their lives to dip their toes into the water. But in Min Buri the canal is a living waterway where people drift happily about and catch fish for their dinner.
"Here, it doesn't look like Bangkok at all, does it?" asks Thanin , my cycling partner, who has lost his sense of direction as if he had slipped back into the Bangkok of old. "If they left me here, I'm sure I couldn't find the way home. Totally lost."
In the early afternoon, Woody guides us further east. The cycling route changes from small pathways to back roads where we can have fun in picking up the speed. There is no up-and-down riding here to weaken your legs, but many left and right turns.
The view changes like a slide show, offering one picturesque rustic scene after another. Small mosques, with huge onion-like domes, stand out behind shady trees. Elsewhere, Buddhist temples and large paddy fields dominate the scenery.
A traffic sign warns us to slow down for a cattle crossing. But we aren't going to hit a cow when we're pedalling at a stately five kilometres an hour. There are no cows either, but plenty of mean dogs who don't tolerate cyclists.
Just before my bottom starts to ache, we take a lunch break at Wat Pheud Udomphol, a Buddhist temple with bizarre decorations. The abbot has turned the temple grounds into the Thai version of an Hieronymus Bosche vision of hell with its collection of weird, scary-looking stucco statues. Should you visit the temple after nightfall, one glance at its statues - particularly a wretched man with a long tongue, bony arms and sinister fingers - would send you screaming.
"He is in hell because of his terrible lies," reads a sign by the statue. And if you're curious about how he feels, drop a five-baht coin into the effigy's slot and the statue will scream and wave his creepy hands.
The sharp-witted abbot also constructed a vision of heaven, but you have to go through hell (by climbing nine storeys) to see what it's like.
With no coins remaining in our pockets, we pedal from the temple. Over the last 20 kilometres we pass more small communities, canals and orchid farms. Snarling dogs and friendly locals join for an impromptu chorus. By late afternoon, just before my red bottom blisters, we reach the atmospheric market town of Nong Chok.
The 35-kilometre cycling trip on Bangkok's back roads ends in style with a boat trip, cruising down Saen Saeb canal from Nong Chok Market to Kamalulislam Mosque. It has been marvellous from the beginning to end - and without leaving Bangkok!