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Exploring the Lungs of Bangkok

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Did you know that within 20 minutes of jumping on a bicycle at Bangkok's Emporium mall you can be pedalling your way through the hidden jungles of Umphang? Neither did I, until I did an Amazing Bicycle Tour in the amazing megalopolis of Bangkok (okay, I admit it, it was Samut Prakan, not Tak).

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Biking in Phra Pradaeng

I took part in the daily trip that is run by the ABC Amazing Bangkok Cycling Company. They promise to show you some of the hidden nooks and crannies that people take for granted as a part of their daily life in the Khlong Toei area, before crossing the Chao Phraya River to a different province and a different world - the lungs of Bangkok, Phra Pradaeng.

I've lived on Sukhumvit Road for years and was a little dubious of all this hidden secrets talk, but by the end of the tour I was ready to eat my bike tire or maybe just a slice of the giant anaconda we saw... but I'll tell you about that later.

We begin on Sukhumvit Soi 26 where we meet our guide for the day Wichit. Although not a Bangkokian, Wichit rides this trip almost every day and today was going to be extra-special as we'd be doing a "new trip" exploring a "new" part of Phra Pradaeng that no ABC Amazing Bangkok Cyclist had ever set rubber onto. Oh my god, we could hardly contain our excitement!

Before we know it we're pedalling up Sukhumvit 26, dodging the traffic and stares from pedestrians wondering what on earth five farangs are doing cycling down Sukhumvit Road. For a cyclist, Sukhumvit Road is pretty boring though, and within two toots of a horn we're racing back down Soi 24 towards Khlong Toei.

Just when I think I've figured out where we're going, Wichit's hand signals a left turn and we stop and push our bikes through a hole in the fence and into someone's backyard. "Hello!" a bunch of children sing out as we get back on board and pedal through a veritable rabbit warren of alleys and sub-sois.

We're on the edge on Khlong Toei slum and we pull up to take a look at the world's only tuk-tuk fire engine. Wichit explains that because the sois are so narrow a normal fire truck cannot reach the houses so if there is a fire, the tuk-tuk fire engine does the job.

Our sightseeing over we head over to Khlong Toei market where we pedal our way through the packed market, squeezing between the ducks and the chooks, the fish and eels and the millions of different vegetables. Then, with a gush of air, we're expelled from the market and before we know it we're at the water's edge.

We look over to the other side - no condos, no office buildings, no highways, no nothing, except for simple swaying palm trees. Who could imagine we're leaving a city of 10 million behind to visit an area the size of Bang Rak where fewer than 10,000 call home?

River scenes

The roads in Phra Pradaeng are unusual: imagine if you lined up all your school desks and rode your bike along the top... that's what it's like. Very few roads are on the ground, instead they are all very narrow concrete walkways lifted off the ground.

Walking along them is bad enough -- if you don't watch your step, oops, splash and you're in a banana canal -- erk! So riding a bicycle is a bit of a nightmare.

I feel like I'm somewhere in Phattalung riding in a palm plantation, or in Umphang riding down a trail surrounded by jungle -- definitely not a 15-minute taxi ride from Silom Soi 4.

The paths branch and branch and branch. Left, right, straight, right, right, straight, left, straight then the second right then left… before we know it we're totally lost in the lungs of Bangkok, and only our faithful guide Wichit knows exactly where we are.

Chao Phraya sunset

Wichit must have been a botanist in a previous life as every 10 minutes or so he stops and pulls a leaf from a plant, scrunches it up and sticks it under our nose - smell that? Basil, lemongrass, coriander -- he knows more herbs than I've had hot breakfasts.

It's about 16:00 now and the light is beautiful, sun streaming through the fronds above us. No motorbikes, no karaoke, no toot toot -- just the occasional "Hello!" and the slow but steady whoosh whoosh of our bikes. I'm so relaxed I could fall asleep, but I don't because then I'd fall off these very silly footpaths into the water and mud below.

Wichit pulls up and shows us a massive anaconda in a cage and tells us how it was caught nearby. It must be at least 5 or 6 metres long -- in the past they have even eaten children in the area. We all pedal away rather quickly.

We're back at the river and it's time to cross, returning to the smoke and smog, condos, office towers, traffic, horns, noise and millions of people... home.

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