The stark contrast between Cambodia and Thailand was evident the minute we walked into the air-conditioned passport control office on the Thailand side. Outside, a large sign warned that anyone possessing drugs will be sentenced to life in prison or executed. But after 2 weeks of eating ants, crickets and snails we were ready for something different, even if it meant giving up the ‘happy’ pizza (look it up). Fighting the habit of 14 years of right-hand driving proved to be difficult and we narrowly avoided oncoming traffic before swerving to the left-hand side. As a general rule, car exhaust is slightly cleaner here. However, the extra volume of traffic more than compensates for the stricter air-quality standards and we were quickly overwhelmed by the constant stream of diesel trucks and buses belching black smoke.
We avoided the largest roads at first, but were still biking on the side of 4 and 6 lane highways, and the roar of traffic all but drowned out the music of our headphones.
Despite the higher population density and increased development in Thailand, we were surprised to find large swaths of unpopulated rice fields and eucalyptus plantations lining the roadside for 10s of kilometers. As darkness fell on our first night in Thailand, we chose to camp in one of the plantations rather than bike another 35km in the dark to a guesthouse that may or may not exist.
The humidity and heat inside a tent filled with 2 sweaty bike tourers during monsoon season in SE Asia was indescribable. Pools of perspiration collected in depressions that became streams and rivers once the salty sweat reached flood stage on our bodies. Heat rash worsened and spread. Sleep was unattainable. Around 3am the familiar prickly pain of heat rash crept all over my body. It quickly worsened – this was not heat rash. The light from my headlamp revealed a karmic twist: small biting ants, hundreds of them, had covered my body and were exploring my pain threshold with their jaws. By the time we finally found and killed all the little trespassers, soft gray light had announced the start of a new day. We decided that next time, we’ll bike the 35km.
We cycled into Bangkok on one of the main arteries that feeds the hungry city of 12 million souls. 18 lanes of traffic were diffused over 3 levels of an infrastructural behemoth that made U.S. freeways seem like child’s toys.
We were intruders in this realm of engines and concrete. Motorbikes buzzed by on both sides, demanding that we either enter the age of carbon or get the hell out of the way. Overpasses branched off towards unknown suburbs where new residential developments with names like “Lake Home” are slowly replacing the swamps and trash dumps that line the freeway.
We entered downtown Bangkok in the evening as the neon glow of countless digital screens overpowered the sun’s dying light, bathing the city in their luminescent, over-the-top advertisements. The overhead freeway was replaced with the concrete towers of the Skytrain, and commuters poured from the stations of Bangkok’s newest rapid transit system. Below, at street level, cars and motorbikes filled the city’s streets. We were the only cyclists on the road.
Bangkok’s street layout is as confusing as they come, with no discernible patterns, multi-road intersections and 2-way streets becoming 1-way streets at random points along their length. Navigating on bikes proved nearly impossible, and we made countless wrong turns that first night. Compared to Vietnam and Cambodian cities, cars and buses are the predominant forces on Bangkok’s roads, and motorbikes play a secondary role. More cars, however, mean more interstitial spaces on the streets, and we followed the motorbikes as they nimbly moved through Bangkok’s notorious traffic jams like water flows around rocks. See Video here! At first glance, it looked insanely dangerous, but the drivers here are accustomed to motorbikes and yield accordingly. The greatest danger to cyclists are the buses that constantly and quickly pull over and stop to pick up passengers, making quick reflexes and good brakes a necessity.
“Nobody bikes in Bangkok.” “People fear for their lives.”
The city has a long way to go to call itself bike-able. Bike lanes are few, limited to tourist areas, and the ones that do exist are easily poached by motorbikes and encroached upon by buses. At times, the bike lane merges with the sidewalk, slowing cyclists and endangering pedestrians. Long stretches of uninterrupted surface highways serve as the city’s main thoroughfares, and their concrete dividers and heavy traffic prevent crossings and relegate the cyclist to the narrow twisting Sois (alleyways). Infrequent pedestrian bridges that cross the highways are narrow, and carrying a bicycle up and over is a daunting proposition.
But there are people committed to making a change. Mr. Chainat Jitwatna, a former deputy in the Ministry of Public Health, is one of those people, and he introduced himself outside the mall one evening after seeing us with our bikes. Like us, he also rode his bike to the mall. Mr. Chainat is an active member of the Thai Cycling Association, a group dedicated to promoting cycling in Thailand. They have been influential in changing public attitudes about cycling in general, lobbied to have folding bikes allowed on the Skytrain, and convinced the city to build its first generation bike lanes. The Ministry of Public Health, under his watch, actively promoted the link between exercise and health. Mr. Chainat believes in practicing what you preach, so he rides his bike to work every day, keeping a clean change of clothes on the back rack. The key to expanding cycling in Thailand, according to Mr. Chainat, is to change social values. But this will be difficult in the fast-paced and advertisement-saturated climate of Bangkok.
Bangkok, like Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City, is perfectly flat, and we easily kept up with the flow of vehicles, often passing the less maneuverable cars as they crawled through the traffic. Despite the warnings and the risks, it is clear to us that 2 wheels are the way to get around this city. — (If only the city would take pains to make that an enjoyable thing to do).
What we’ve realized about bike touring is that the true joy of it lies in between the cities; where you’re more likely to be invited to have a drink with a random stranger than see another westerner. Taking the time to slow down and let the experiences wash over you, affect and change you is why you ride a bicycle. It is too easy to forget this fundamental tenet of bike touring when faced with the frenetic, staccato energy of the city, the rush of traffic, and the flash of billboard-sized television screens plastered to the concrete walls of enormous shopping malls. Bangkok truly overwhelms the senses. We leave the city today, heading east in a circuitous route that will take us to southern Laos where our touring and route-planning prophet / nature-finding consultant and good friend Campbell Moore promised us beautiful forested mountains that the Chinese have, for now, yet to log and destroy. The ride out of the city will be punishing, but the cool mountain weather and views from an elevated perspective will be a greater reward than any punishment those engines can muster (knock on wood — or bike steel).