I never go on group tours, I hate having others show me around, and I can’t stand being spoon-fed culture. So what am I doing perched atop a borrowed bike with a group of European tourist zipping along the busy streets of Bangkok?
It all started with a conversation with my friend Patricia who works at Spice Roads Asia. In my years in Bangkok I’ve often seen strings of cyclists exploring the sois around my home and wondered what exactly they were driving around seeing. With motorcycle taxis, tuk tuks, taxis, sky trains and good old feet as transportation options, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would risk the traffic head on riding a borrowed bike.
“We offer a variety of trips, tours, and experiences for riders of all ages,” said Patricia. “Some of our tours show hidden parts of Bangkok I bet you’ve yet to see or visit.” Granted I do spend a fair deal of my time tied to the safety grid of the BTS, but I consider myself a well-traveled expat. I asked for examples. The first suggestion, the Bangkok Jungle, was already an unknown.
Out of a sense of curiosity I signed up for the next tour without bothering to research any of the details beyond how long it would take. I did ask about the fitness level required for the trip and was assured that anyone who could ride a bike could complete the trip. I’m a slightly overweight guy who hasn’t ridden a bike in about 10 years…so I’d definitely be putting that statement to the test.
I was told to arrive at Face bar on Sukhumvit 38. This was simple enough as it’s easily accessible from BTS Thong Lor. They have you provide weight and height via email prior to the trip, so the bike and helmet are already waiting, set up, and ready to go. There’s a quick rundown of the day’s journey and then you’re off riding.
The tour started off easily enough in some back sois behind Sukhumvit 38; snaking our way to the busy Rama 4. This gave us all a chance to warm up in an area without much traffic. I quickly found myself immersed in a side of Sukhumvit that’s long been hidden to me despite living very near to these roads for 4 years. We passed through a rustic, old-world Bangkok normally obstructed by the glitz of the high rise. This is a Thai culture I’ve seen many times…but typically up north or in remote villages; not so close to home.
Before I knew it we emptied out of the sub-sois onto the major roads. It was 1 p.m. so traffic wasn’t bad, but it’s never that great on Rama 4. Riding along the busy street I was struck by how effortless biking around Bangkok was. Maybe riding in the pack of the group helped the oncoming traffic see us better, but I couldn’t believe I’d been too lazy to try this before. I felt guilty for not getting a bike and riding the 1 or 2 km to the offices.
Soon we arrived at the Klong Toey piers. These aren’t the mega piers normally seen by tourists at Saphan Taksin. These were narrow, a bit dingy, and all local. A few of the Thais had, I assume, seen the bike tours pass through before and were unfazed at the sight, but many children and elders alike were delighted to see us pass…normally a sign that it’s not a super saturated tourist area.
A short long tail boat ride across the river and we arrived at our true destination. The Bangkok Jungle, or Bang Kra Jao as locals know it, can only be reached via boat. There’s no bridges or other methods of reaching the area. Not two minutes away from the piers and we were immediately engulfed in foliage. Not the manicured stuff you’ll find in Lumpini, but raw nature – fruit trees, bugs, monitor lizards and more dirt than paved roads.
We road along easily on a small two-lane road before our tour guide Tonga (who seemed to be able to speak any language necessary on the tour) informed us that we’d now be entering a section of raised, narrow pathways. “Be sure to get off the bike and walk if you feel you can’t maneuver through any of the areas,” he told us.
Soon we were riding carefully along the paths. These aren’t paths set up for tourists at some national park. These canal paths are there for the locals living in the area and make up an intricate network of roads used to reach food, friends, and everything in between. With barely enough space for two bikes side by side we occasionally encountered locals on the way back from market on their motorcycles or bicycles. Either the group or the locals would have to stop and give way for the other to proceed. It was refreshing to see someone smiling as we rode past delaying their daily commute, instead of flipping us the bird and laying into the horn.
Soon I had no clue where I was in relation to home, but I didn’t care. The weather was a good 5-10 degrees cooler than Bangkok and lush trees covered us. Every now and then we’d get a nice, cool breeze from the area’s various creeks and streams to ease things even further.
For the first time ever on a guided tour I found myself appreciating what I was being shown. This wasn’t an exhibit or recreation of what Thailand used to be, but was how people were living today…just a few kilometers from my home. We stopped sporadically so the guide could describe a plant or point out a temple, but mostly we rode silently along, taking in the sites, sounds, and smells.
Sadly we took the trip on a Wednesday and weren’t witness to the weekend Floating market. While not as sprawling as the more famous one in the city, this is a bustling market for locals nonetheless. We did get to appreciate the many temples in the area though and even caught site of monk initiates taking a break from study with some water play in the river.
I’d like to say I was the man through the entire trip. I rode well, but honestly about 3 hours into the 4-hour trip I began to get a bit sore from the travels. Thankfully we pulled took a rest and snacked on some Thai fruits and sodas. I felt happy sitting by the river, sipping my Coke out of a glass bottle eating tiny bananas. I thought it’d be nice to spend some real time here, not just ride around it and go, but unfortunately it was time to head back or we’d get into serious issues with the Bangkok traffic.
We zig-zagged back to the pier and road back over. Now it was raining and I was worried for my camera gear. A lovely German lady on the trip offered to carry my heavy equipment in her backpack. With my gear now safe I was free to enjoy the refreshing rain as it washed our hard earned sweat away. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of not caring if it pours on you and just riding around in the rain like you used to do as a child.
Pulling back into the starting point I was a bit sad it was over, but glad to be off the seat…I was sore. In my hurry to book and lack of pre-trip research I hadn’t noticed the trip would cover 25 KM! Writing it on paper now, even after just completing the journey, it sounds like a lot…but it really is just manageable.
The Bangkok Jungle offers something actually unique and unexpected in Bangkok. I can’t believe I’ve lived here for so long with no knowledge of life like that so close by. The tour shattered all my normal hang-ups with group excursions…it was honestly interesting, showed me something I wouldn’t have seen on my own, and gave me a bit of exercise to boot. I’d recommend anyone who lives here and never heard of the Bangkok Jungle and anyone visiting Bangkok looking to visit someplace with authenticity to give it a go. Just stretch a bit first.
Spice Roads Tours
14/1-B Soi Promsi 2,
Klongtan Nua, Wattana,
Bangkok, THAILAND 10110