Sunday morning (maybe to work off the calories from Friday and Saturday’s dinners) I set out on a solo bicycle ride. I often ride on Sunday mornings with Markus, but he was out of town. Plus, urban riding doesn’t lend itself to groups. You can’t ride side-by-side and chat along the way, because the streets just aren’t wide enough.
There is some concern about the safety of riding in the city. For the most part, I think the concerns are over-stated. Drivers in Khrungthep pay attention and are used to sharing the road with motorcycles, tuk tuks, vendors with their food carts, and other non-automotive traffic.
The streets in some parts of Khrungthep are narrow, traffic is heavy, and road conditions can vary widely from freshly paved to potholed. The worst part, though, are the buses: they are large, their drivers are maniacs, and most of them run on very unclean diesel fuel, leaving behind a choking cloud of black particles.
Still, riding your bicycle is one of the best ways to get to see the city, giving you the flexibility to easily stop and explore, while letting you move quickly enough that you don’t wear out just within a few blocks. You can also recover from dead-ends much more easily when riding than you can when walking.
Sunday’s ride ended up taking about two-and-a-half hours to cover 42 km.
Starting at home on Sukhumvit Soi 53, I wound my way through the back sois until I reached Khlong San Saeb, the canal that cuts east-west through the city and provides water taxi service into the heart of the old city. There is a pedestrian path alongside the canal that I’ve ridden before, so I followed it a short way to the west before crossing over a foot bridge to the other side and entering the back of a temple.
The front side of the temple leads to Phetchaburi Road, one of the busiest traffic routes heading into the old city and one that has more bus traffic than you can believe. It is also one of the most direct routes into the city, so I followed it all the way to Sanam Luang, the large parade grounds immediately to the north of the Grand Palace.
Large crowds of black and white-clad Thais were arriving at the Grand Palace to pay their respects to Her Royal Highness Princess Galyani Vadhana, the King’s older sister, who passed away on January 2nd. We are in a period of mourning for her and later this year there will be a royal funeral and cremation on Sanam Luang. It should prove interesting as it will be the largest such event since the royal cremation of HRH the Princess Mother in March 1996.
By this point, traffic was much lighter and the riding more pleasant. I continued past Wat Po – the Temple of the Reclining Buddha – and past the flower market before ending up at Saphan Phra Puttha Yobfa (King Rama I Memorial Bridge – “A” on the map). This bridge, opened in 1932, is the oldest span across the Chao Phraya River. After crossing it I rode halfway across the adjacent Phra Pokklao Bridge to get this picture:
One thing I discovered is that there are a lot of homeless people sleeping in the cool spaces beneath the bridges and near the water. Several were also using the steps leading into the river underneath the bridge for their early morning bathing, modestly wearing swimming shorts or boxers.
The city sparkles at this early hour with a good number of locals up and around but very few tourists. The tourist boats ran up and down the river almost devoid of passengers, while the small ferries were filling quickly with locals coming and going from home to market, temple to restaurant.
Now on the western, Thonburi side of the river, I pedaled south into the bright morning sun through a predominately Chinese neighborhood that had bright red banners strung across the street in anticipation of next week’s new lunar year. My route took me down Charoen Nakhon Road, past the Peninsula and the Hilton Millennium hotels before I arrived at the Taksin Bridge (“B” on the map).
This is the bridge over which Sathorn Road runs, as does the Skytrain extension that will some day (this year, maybe?) connect to five stations on the Thonburi side of the river. It should be pointed out – to clarify the confusion that some farang experience – that the name of this bridge (Taksin) should not be confused with the name of the deposed Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. The names are not the same in Thai (ตากสิน vs ทักษิณ) and are pronounced a bit differently with the bridge starting with a hard “d/t” consonant rather than the softer, aspirated “th” sound as in the word “tall”.
Beneath the bridge is a park with a football pitch and several takraw courts, in addition to other health and fitness facilities. There were perhaps a hundred or more Bangkokites getting their morning exercise.
Takraw is a popular Southeast Asian sport characterized as “kick volleyball”. Using only your feet, legs and head, teams propel a rattan ball over a low net on a badminton sized court, following rules that are roughly similar to volleyball. Watching the players, it looks like a sport that takes tremendous flexibility and concentration.
Also beneath the bridge there are a large number of passenger express boats and a ferry, mostly older, sitting and waiting for repair, heavy crowds, or their eventual scrapping.
I continued across the Taksin Bridge, stopping in the middle to capture this picture looking up-river, below. From left to right, you see the Peninsula Hotel, the Hilton Millennium Hotel (with the spaceship lounge on top), the CAT Telecom building (with the antennae), the lower-rise Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and the Shangri-La Hotel.
Also near the Taksin Bridge, just to the left of the picture above, is the Pepsi bottle reclamation facility. This is the point to which all of the used Pepsi bottles from throughout the greater Khrungthep area are brought. They are then loaded on barges – several a day, from what I’ve observed – and then towed up river to the Pepsi bottling plant north of the city.
Behind the Pepsi pier is the construction site for The River – what will be a 73-story condominium building, a monstrosity that will be entirely out of proportion for the waterfront.
The illustration to the right is from The River’s own press department. While the foreshortened perspective exaggerates the different heights, it still shows how grotesquely out of balance this building will be.
As the second highest tower in Khrungthep (Baiyoke Tower II is 85 stories and the nearby State Tower with its rooftop restaurant is 63 stories), it will be very hard to miss on the skyline.
Subsequent to its approval, the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority enacted new legislation, restricting any future development along this section of the river to only eight stories.
One can only hope that development remains controlled so the waterfront does not end up like Hong Kong’s. The geography of Hong Kong makes that sort of vertical development work okay, but here in the Big Mango, we would end up with a wall of buildings along the river, keeping river breezes from cooling the rest of the city and essentially making river views the domain of only those with the most money.
Looking west along the bridge, into the morning sun, I could see the last Skytrain station on the line (until that extension opens) – Taksin Station, below. Behind it looms an unfinished tower that was the sister of the State Tower (mentioned above). There are some interesting pictures taken from the State Tower during its construction, when it was known as the Royal Charoen Khrung Tower. Interesting that with so many unfinished buildings in this city – estimated at over 300 – that there is enough demand for so many other new high rise projects to be commenced.
Crossing the rest of the bridge, I walked down four flights of stairs to the street level, and resumed riding on Charoen Khrung (literally, “New Road” – the first paved road in the city). This is where the city gets especially interesting because it is really the heart and soul of the city. Outside of the royal portion of the city – Rattanakosin Island – this is the street on which the early Bangkok residents were going about their lives.
I continued all the way down Charoen Khrung until it dead-ended near soi 109, right next to the Good View Restaurant, situated at a sharp turn in the Chao Phraya River. Pedaling into their empty parking lot and right up to the water’s edge, it did indeed have a good view.
Backtracking along Charoen Khrung and just a little confused as to where I was – I had no map with me and was working only from a mental picture I had in my mind, one dotted with unfilled areas reminiscent of the “there be monsters” notations on ancient mariners’ maps. Shortly, I connected with Rama III Road, a major thoroughfare that feeds off the New Khrungthep Bridge. A large road, it was thankfully not too busy this early on a Sunday and it had very wide lanes, giving me plenty of room to ride unmolested by passing motorists.
Rama III is also the planned route for Governor Apirak’s ambitious Bus Rapid Transit program. The official website is here – it is in Thai but the pictures will give you an idea of what’s happening. Scheduled to open in about a year, there is already signs of progress. There are several BRT stations under construction – this one is located in front of a shopping center (“C” on the map) on Rama III Road.
My understanding is that the busses will have exclusive right-of-way in the center lane for most stretches of the road, giving it almost the same effectiveness of a light rail system but with significantly lower capital costs. Special buses will have to be purchased that have doors on the right-hand side instead of the left. It also looks like the platform will be very high, so presumably the doors will also be raised.
In either case, kudos to the local government for making an effort on transit issues. That, combined with the planned conversion of all 2,000+ plus local busses from diesel to compressed natural gas in the next two years, will hopefully help reduce pollution at least a bit.
Continuing along Rama III, I soon arrived at the Rama IX Bridge (“D” on the map) which carries the Rama II Expressway southwest towards Samut Sakhon and Samut Songkram provinces. If you’re a little confused by all the “Rama” names, that’s understandable. It would certainly be easier if the Rama II Expressway crossed the river on the Rama II Bridge.
Underneath the bridge on both banks of the river are parks. The one on the eastern bank is quite open and has many manicured gardens, providing a pleasant space to stroll and offering a lot of waterfront along which to take in the view. There is a nice view of the Kasikorn Bank headquarters on the west side of the river, below. Its dramatic roofline is lined with neon at night, making an outline that looks like the bank’s abstract growing plant logo. (“Kasikorn” is an old Thai word for “farmer” and the bank used to be known as Thai Farmer’s Bank.)
Looking just downriver from the park, you can see the “Mega Bridge” complex, a series of two recently opened bridges that cut across the Phra Pradaeng peninsula, significantly improving access to the south, southwest and southeast of the city. You can also see a capsized ship, below. I remember reading about this sometime last year on 2bangkok.com but was unable to locate the information. It makes for an interesting image, I think.
My ride continued along Rama III Road and back through the Khlong Toei port area. While there were probably still plenty of interesting things to see along the way, I was getting tired and traffic was picking up, so I did less sightseeing and more watching for crazy bus drivers.
The last leg of my trip brought me back into familiar territory, past the Queen Sirikit Convention Center – where Markus and I regularly ride circles in the adjacent park – and then town Sukhumvit Road to home, where I arrived just after 10:00.
It was a lengthy ride, but afterwards I feel like I have a much better understanding of many parts of the city I had not explored before. Still, there’s plenty of ground to cover!