Unseen Bangkok: Cycling the khlongs

by Paul Gibbs

Cycling has become increasingly popular in Thailand over the last few years; even more so since the ‘Bike for Mom and Dad’ events for Thailand’s King and Queen last year. Far more cyclists can now be seen milling around the streets of Bangkok, its parks and suburbs. I’ve been a keen cyclist for many years and am quite amazed at the growth of the sport. And because I do cycle regularly, my family and friends often ask me, “You cycle in Bangkok, isn’t that dangerous”?

Unseen-bangkok-bike-roadThose were exactly my first thoughts when a good friend asked me to join him in on a cycling trip in the city 5 years ago. During that first ride I made a startling discovery; that there’s a wealth of safe cycling adventures tucked away in the very centre of Bangkok. Since that first ride, I now cycle an average of ninety kilometres a week exploring Bangkok and its suburbs, discovering and sharing new routes with a group of “ride buddies” I’ve met through social media.

As I work from home I’m very lucky to have enough spare time and sometimes even whole days to get out and find new routes. These rides are usually several hours long. And sometimes I use the BTS and the old SRT trains to strike out into the suburbs in search of an undiscovered route. And often, when I’m taking my kids to school, I have my mountain bike tucked away in the back of our SUV and then head off on a ‘recce’ (reconnaissance) ride.

I’ve found there are so many paths on dozens of canals (or ‘khlongs’) that can be ridden by bike. These khlongs crisscross the city with a secret network of routes. It’s taken me a long time to work out how to navigate these routes as there are many dead ends and unfinished paths. But it’s been worth the effort as I now have many great ride routes to share.

Many of these canals are lined with beautiful trees, colourful flowers and many types of fruit. Banana, coconut, papaya and jackfruit benefit from the ample supply of nutrient rich, although sometimes smelly waterways. Flitting amongst the trees are dozens of bird species and they add to the spectacle of these rides.
Unseen-bangkok-templeI’ve also discovered that there are different types of local communities, each with their own culture, food and personality. Many of the khlong communities have Muslim areas and this adds to the diversity of the rides. One minute I’m riding past a glorious Thai Buddhist temple (Wat) and the next I’m passing a Mosque. I’ve seen many wedding receptions being held along the canals and I’ve even been invited in to be part of their wedding photos.

Most of these areas are classed as ‘slum dwellings’ and that label brings poverty to mind. But although the resident’s living conditions can be described as poor, their community spirit and ‘happy go lucky’ attitudes cannot. I see the ‘slum kids’ fishing, boating, swimming and jumping off bridges into the water and having a whale of a time. They seem so happy in their play, no need for smartphones or iPads for them. Sometimes I feel these kids are having more fun than the groups of ‘well to do’ children I see in the upmarket shopping malls with their eyes glued to their mobile phones.

Some of the khlong people now recognise me and it’s really rewarding to be greeted by them as I cycle through their communities. Almost without fail they yell out “Farang, where you going”? I always manage to raise a chuckle from them when I reply I’m riding to Pattaya or Cambodia.

On most khlong rides there’s no need to worry about taking lots of water or food supplies. It’s easier and more fun stopping at the numerous “Mom and Pop’ shops or snacking on some of the khlong food being sold on simple tables or stalls. My favourites are the inexpensive BBQ treats.

What I find is really funny is that most of the locals believe that us foreigners or ‘farangs’, can’t eat spicy food. They are always amazed when I’m pouring their hot spicy sauces onto the snacks or tucking into their hot ‘Som Tam’ salads without finding them too spicy. Some almost seem disappointed. And that’s why I love these types of rides, there’s always something going on. It’s like cycling through a Thai soap opera but without the bad acting.

We also get to see many types of fisherman lining the paths. Fishing rods, simple stick poles, throw nets, traps and even harpoon rifles are used to try and catch the ample supply of fish including Giant Mekong catfish and snakehead species. When the Bangkok flooded in 2011 the heavy waters surged through the khlongs bringing down huge shoals of big catfish from the northeast into central Bangkok. This caused a ‘fish rush’. The khlongs were lined with hundreds of extra people trying their luck.

Unseen-bangkok-men-bikeMore often now I’m being asked by friends and even strangers on my Facebook account to take them out on a ride. They hear of my experiences and some just can’t believe that there’s so much going on in central Bangkok and so they want to see it for themselves. This has brought me new challenges because many of my rides can be fairly treacherous. A lot of these canal paths are often elevated, very narrow and many have no safety railings. They can be very daunting for beginners.

I did fall into a rather smelly khlong last year, bike and all, luckily with no injury. I was left with just a dented ego and a very unwelcome new ‘aroma’. A local family saw this and after checking I was OK they led me to their garden and let me hose off the khlong ‘mud’ and smell – much to the amusement of the local kids and the relief of my four riding buddies. I returned a week later to see the family again with a nice big tin of cookies as a thank you.

Unseen-bangkok-women-boatFor beginners one of the easiest routes is on Khlong Sean Seap, which was my very first canal ride in Bangkok. It is one of the safest khlongs to cycle with its wide paths and safety railings. It leads from behind Ramkhamhaeng airport link station and almost up to Minburi. It’s a fairly gentle ride although there are little bridges that require some bike carrying. There are a number of stunning Buddhist temples and Muslim mosques along this khlong. Wat Si Bunrueang seems to be the most popular and is well worth a visit. It’s even has a lucky pink buffalo. Saen Saep has so much to see, it’s a photographers dream, especially the contrasts of the landscape. This amazing canal route can also be enjoyed without cycling; it’s a great walk and there are the famous canal ferries to help you get up and down this intriguing route.

So if you want to see some unseen Bangkok, get yourself onto a bike or even just walk onto Bangkok’s khlong paths, they really are an amazing experience.

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