I thought my first day biking on the hectic streets of Bangkok would be a blur; nothing but busy pedalling as waves of motorbikes screamed by on either side of me.
In reality, however, I found my 30 pounds of steel and rubber grouped me with the kind of bikers your taxi driver hates – creeping from soi to soi like a geriatric on oxygen.
I felt completely free.
The motoring philosophy of Bangkok is akin to the Art of War; most drivers are always competing to keep the high ground. But like a stream, bikers can wind through the mountains of jumbled traffic completely unimpeded.
The popularity of “Bike for Dad” made most motorists at least aware of each biker trying to find their own path on the battleground.
Mimicking the locals, I started spreading spaces between gutters and bumpers. At stop lights, I’d cross four lanes of traffic with ease, and I’d make it from block to block faster than most cars.
From there the streets opened up new opportunities for sights and sounds. The thousands of small blurs on the sidewalk became faces, and the dull smears of color became wats and temples. Nothing was missing from my new picture of Bangkok – except other bikers.
In my time biking in Bangkok I didn’t see more than 20 riders. Those I did see were all Thai. From day one, I could feel eyes on me as I rolled by.
By the end of the first week I’d had 6 offers to buy the bike and a collection of amorous looks from tuk-tuk drivers. Apparently, farangs on basket laden bicycles isn’t a common sight.
But, far from being put off, finding a point of connection with interested locals was a thrill. I’d try to sell the bike for ฿4,000 at traffic lights.
“No. Too much. Phæng!”
In a rather hippy-dippy way, I’d always just left my bike’s protection up to the universe. But, as each older Thai told me to get a lock, I grew nervous.
Budget minded, I entered the nearest 7-Eleven with the goal of securing my bike for under US$10. Perhaps I could just put a can of Chang next to the bike and the potential thief would be more enticed by the beer? Or maybe a couple of hot dogs sticking through the spokes?
Eventually, I found a ฿40 mini-lock so small I really don’t know what its general purpose could be. But, with a bit of cleverness, I decided to stick it right through the chain.
At this point, confident and secure in my biking ability, I took the plunge and bought a train ticket to Chiang Mai. ฿90 baht bought my bike space on the train, but when I got to the freight car to load the bike in, I had to wait half an hour for an attendant to come. Twelve hours later in Chiang Mai, I waited while a station worker handed me bike after bike, each one lighter than the next. When he passed me my steel titan, I almost fell over.
I left the station at 4am leaving me with a few hours until sunrise and a cup of coffee.
The Chiang Mai streets were empty in comparison to the mad cacophony of Bangkok daytime. In the smaller city, a few more of the sky’s brightest were able to poke through the hazy night time. Each crank of the chain sent a little squeak echoing through the empty streets. As the sun came to the horizon, the busier the streets became around me and the bike, but still we cycled on.
Returning to Bangkok a few days later, I parked my bag at a hostel and biked to Siam Center. Wandering through the mall I felt more lost than I ever did biking on the streets. Each distraction was flashy, brilliant, and completely unwilling to let me have my own space.
The streets will distract your senses; the mall will distract your emotions.
Back at the train station, I pulled my bike up to the tuk-tuks waiting for the inevitable, “How much?”
One curious driver asked. I answered ฿1,500.
He gave me a very odd look. “How much?” “One Thousand Five Hundred.”
He turned to his friend and soon a group of curious and impetuous drivers gathered around offering wads of baht and inspecting the machine. The main action was between one particular man and his son, but the proxy bidding incorporated every member of the eight-man group.
Outnumbered, I came down to ฿1,400. One guy yelled, “1,200 and deal!”
I shook my head. “No man. 1,400.”
“‘1,300!” he retorted.
“1,350,” I counter. He shakes his head no.
“Ok let’s do it. 1,300.”