Bangkok's (not so) 'car free day' bike ride
It's supposed to be 'World Car Free Day' in Bangkok today, though if you looked at the traffic speeding along Pinklao Bridge, you wouldn't quite believe it... Though one good thing is that the traffic's speeding along. Normally, at this time on a Saturday night it's ground to a halt. There's long tailbacks, and it's usually quicker to walk to Central - The local shopping Mall (around 1 1/2 kilometers away) than to wait for a bus, and then wait even longer for it to move.
There was a big bike ride around Bangkok earlier this morning. Phil, a friend of some of the exchange students who live in my building and I went along. Phil took the bus, as he'd planned to borrow a bike from one of his Greenpeace friends. I cycled there.
I had a very, very early start. I usually struggle to drag myself out of bed at 6.30, when I need to go to school but, this morning I had to wake up at 5, and be out of my room by 5.30.
It was worth it though. It was great riding through Bangkok in the dark. Phra Pinklao, Ratchadamnoen and Lan Luang, all 4 Lane roads, and the main routes through and across the city centre, were totally deserted. It was fun to see the city waking up; Issan women, big noses and wide brimmed hats sweeping the streets, vendors selling vegetables near Bobae market, the smell of fried bananas on Lan Luang, and the 1st of the morning boats snaking its way down the Klong San Saeb canal.
I'd arranged to meet Phil at National Stadium at 6.30, but needed to register beforehand, at 6. I easily made it on time. Siam, where the stadium is, isn't really that far. It's no more than 5 or 6 kilometers away but, it usually takes 30-40 minutes, and sometimes up to an hour to get there on a bus. I was worried that I would get frightened by the traffic on the big roads, and would want to take detours down small sois, but I was fine. The traffic hadn't woken up yet either. I counted the things I saw that I thought would frighten me. Buses, 8, Dustcarts 3, Tuk Tuk's 1.
I arrived at the stadium to be offered free food, water and a strange tasting carrot and banana drink. I asked where I should go to register. No one seemed to know. Everyone who'd made it there that early had registered already. I was quite impressed by how far some people had come. Some had biked from PraPhredaeng in Samut Prakan (30 or so kilometers away), others from Nakorn Pathom (40+km.) They'd had to wake up at 3.30 and 4am to be there on time. I was lucky. I had a lie in.
I found out where to register, registered, and was told that I'd need to come back at 7.30 to collect my free yellow T-shirt. I had a quick scout around for the Greenpeace stall and my friend Phil. Both were no where in sight. Phil was still in Pinklao, waiting for the bus. It was gone 6 o'clock. The thing was scheduled to start at 6.30.
Around 6.45 I found Phil. We found the Greenpeace people. He got his bike and a Greenpeace T-shirt. I got my free bandit like headscarf and 'Car Free Bangkok' T-Shirt. Most of the cyclists were already inside the stadium. We tried to follow them. 'You OK' The guard said. He then said, in Thai that my friend was not. His T-Shirt was the wrong kind of yellow. He spoke to Phil, in broken English, 'No' he said. Phil couldn't enter.' Your friend OK' he said again, as if to make it really clear. We could meet up later and ride together, he explained. But, for now Phil would have to wait outside.
I can speak some Thai, but so far, had hardly spoken to anyone there. Most people were already in their little groups. They'd arrived with their cycling club or with like minded friends. They'd seen and said sa-wat-dee to people they knew. I'd not seen anyone on their own. Totally on their own. I didn't really fancy going in the stadium alone. I told the guy that it didn't matter. I didn't want to go in on my own. I wanted to stay with my friend. An old man, stood near us had heard the conversation and offered to swap T-Shirts with Phil. Phil's T-Shirt was pristine. He'd only been wearing it for around 1/2 an hour. The mans was tight, and sweat soaked. Phil said No.
We walked away, to hunt for something to eat and to find somewhere to wait until the National Anthem was over. We'd just finished our free carton of chicken and rice when one of the securty men we'd spoken to earlier, came running over. He told us to go in. I explained that we couldn't. 'Its OK,' he said 'Not serious.'
A few minutes later we were pushing our bikes into the stadium. It was an awesome feeling. I've been on football pitches in big stadiums a few times before. Once, when I was about 10 years old, I and my broken arm carried a brownie flag around Brammal Lane. I've been on tours of the old Wembley and of Barca's stadium and stood right next to the pitch. But, being a tourist, standing on the pitch just because you're expected to, is very different to having a reason to actually be there. It felt great pushing our bikes over the althetics track and onto the grass.
The stadium was almost empty. There were 50 or so officials and photograhers sat in one of the stands, above the 1/2 way line. The pitch was a different story. It was a sea of yellow. Over 1000 riders, plus bikes, all clad in bandanas and yellow T Shirts. It was an unbelieveable feeling walking towards it, feeling part of it. Phil said something along the lines of 'this is cool.' I couldn't stop laughing.
When we reached the others, Phil and I were told where to stand. A couple of minutes later a man came and asked us to move. A few minutes after that we were asked to move again. I'd no idea why the organisers were being so precise. All I knew was that someone wanted to take a big photo, of everyone (well everyone except the dark yellow T-Shirted Greenpeace volunteers.)
We were asked to shout cheers, to raise our hands and to smile on the count of 3. Photo's over, we stood for the national anthem and then started to make our way out of the stadium. We were lucky. It was last in, first out.
There was a bit of hanging around, whilst we waited to start. Someone important (maybe the mayor or some big civic leader in Bangkok - it was hard to understand who) was leading the line. We had to wait until they were ready. It was about 8.30 when we finally set off.
I've never been on a big bike ride in Bangkok before. I've been to critical mass, in London a few times. It's a great feeling, riding in a big gang, knowing that you are stopping the traffic. In Bangkok we didn't have to stop the traffic. The police had already done it for us. At every junction, whilst we waited for the lights to change there were hundreds of bikes. Almost everyone wore a bandana and a yellow T-Shirt. It was an incredible feeling being part of 'it', whatever 'it' was.
Bangkok's a fairly flat city but every so often we rode over a brigde or up a slight uphill slope. It was amazing to see the sea of yellow shirts streaming ahead or trailing behind. There were hundreds of them in all directions.
It was an easy ride, and with no traffic to avoid, there was time to take in the scenery and look at the stunned looks on people's faces as we rode past. Some kids stood on the pavement waving at us. Others, stuck in cars, on the other carriageway had their noses glued to the windows.
Yaworat Road, one of Bangkok's worst traffic hotspots was totally clear. It was a fantastic feeling, speeding down it, and not seeing a single bus, car or tuk tuk on the street. Phil'd never been to Chinatown before. He didn't know just how amazing an empty Yarowat Road is. I raced Phil to the lights.
We hit traffic on Ratchadomneon Road, the main artery liking Lan Luang Road, and downtown Siam with Pinklao Bridge. A couple of buses tried to cut in front of the riders but there were too many of us. They were left to drop their passengers off in the middle of the road.
A couple of minutes later we reached the City Hall and the Giant Swing, the end of the ride. There was free water, and more free food. The organisers even provided entertainment too. There were a couple of BMX displays and some speeches. They were really hard to follow though, as, with the exception of 'Car Fa-reeeee Day' every other word was in Thai.
We had almost 2 hours to wait until the ride back to the stadium. Neither of us could understand what was happening and my ears were too lazy to listen and try and translate. I suggested to Phil that we take our bikes around the city. We had a great ride bombing down small sois past Chinese shophouses. Small family fun businesses selling everything for soggy noodle soup to buddha images. We went though the wood cuting area, past Wat Sakhet and down past the canal parallel to Sanam Luang. We weren't on the bikes that long, and we only went round the block a couple of times but it was a great feeling to be on the road and not frightened of the traffic.
An hour or so later we headed back to the swing. I spoke to a couple of people, mainly older Thai people who could speak good English and wanted the chance to practise. One had come with his wife and friends from Nakorn Pathom. Others had come from Non, PhraPradeang and even Lopburi. They told me there are lots of bike clubs in Bangkok. There are trips away - even for beginners like me - almost every weekend. It's easy to find people to meet up with and join a group. My friend A had told me somthing similar, when he'd first brought his bike 2 years ago, but, he'd also said that you'ld need to be able to speak Thai. Good Thai. At the time my Thai was atrocious. The idea of going out with these people would have terrified me.
Phil and I ate lunch then met up with the other Greenpeace people. We all posed for photos and then headed back.
The ride back wasn't as much fun. The traffic has started to build up. Only 2 lanes of the roads were clear for us to us and the pace was much, much slower. It was hard to overtake people. There was no room. The sun was still hiding behind a thick grey cloud but it was much, much hotter than in the morning. Traffic fumes had started to build up. Breathing, without coughing was hard. It only took about 1/2 an hour to make it back to the stadium, but after enjoying bombing down the city streets earlier in the day, the ride was back was disappointing. I'd lost Phil. He was talking to some American guy, a former peace corp volunteer who's now living in Bangkok. I caught up with them both in the stadium.
We hung around for a while, looking for water and chatting to some of the other Greenpeace volunteers. One of Phil's friends turned up and said hi. There didn't seem to be much else happening. I decided to head home.
The ride home was an interesting experience. I tried to follow the Klong San Saeb canal. It wasn't quite as much fun as I thought it would be. It smelt bad. Think of rotting eggs or rancid milk. Multiply the smell by 10. Add a dose of raw sewage and you almost have a smell as bad as the canal. I got stared at, and, as so many people who live in the slums have little doorstep businesses, the already narrow streets were hard to negotiate. Outside most of the houses there were people selling noodles, doing laundry, frying fish, making kanom. There were charcoal stoves, fryng pans, gas cannisters, giant plastic bowls, tables, chairs and laundry everywhere. Shady spaces had cats and dogs, sprawling out half asleep.
It was impossible to ride my bike. I pushed it. Even so, I couldn't avoid clattering into things. I felt really rude, like I was intruding on their lives. A couple of people said 'py sai' (where are you going?) and laughed when I said Wat Sakhet. 'There's no way through', they told me. 'The big road is better'. 'But I'm scared of the big road' I told them. 'OK Straight on, BoBae' (the name of a nearby market) they said. I followed the canal as best I could. The path took me past tiny 1 room houses, shop on the walkway out front, kitchen, living, dining and bed room rolled into one inside.
I saw a couple of kids playing with a giant beetle. It was still alive. They laughed when I told them that I was scared of it. They held it in their hands, taking turns to let it crawl over their palms. Then they said that they were going to eat it. I believed them.
I saw a couple of old grannies, sitting outside, doing laundry or watching the boats go by. Men laid out, 1/2 asleep looking awkwardly thin, arms covered in needle marks. I didn't feel threatened, but I didn't feel that comfortable either. It was as if I had no right to be invading their privacy, and staring in on their lifes. I felt glad I'd broken my camera.
There were lots of tumbledown shacks. Some houses had collapsed completely. corrugated iron masking a jumble of wooden planks. I saw a snake, a small streak of lime green weaving its way between them. One house had a tree trunk sticking out of the doorway. Others leaned at strange angles, neighbouring houses being the only thing propping them up. It was hard not to feel sorry for the people who have to live in them.
I crossed a road, went down another soi, and past a temple. The soi ended at a railway line. 'Trong Pai Loei' (Go straight on.) someone called. There was a metal footbridge, 100 or so meters down the line. It didn't look like it had been used in years. There was nothing coming. I lifted my bike and crossed the tracks. Farang Pai Sai (Where's the foreigner going ? ) I heard someone say. A couple of vendors crossed in the other direction, one an old women with a long peice of wood resting on one shoulder. Baskets of peanuts hung from each end.
I pushed my bike down the slope, and tried to get my bearings. I was in Bobae market, BKK's main whole sale clothes market. I pushed my bike past the stores. Bra's, childrens wear, silk tops, army pants. People haggling, children pestering their parents to buy them sweets or new clothes. Motorbikes came speeding down in the opposite direction. Skinny porters humped goods on small carts. I pushed my bike in a straight line, being careful to avoid the overhanging clothes and oncoming traffic.
It took about 10 minutes to negotiate my way through the market. I now knew where I was. One more canalside ride, 10 minutes down the main road and a short ferry ride and then I'd be home.
|Create Date : 22 กันยายน 2550
|Last Update : 23 กันยายน 2550 9:33:18 น.
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