Ride finds combines and, eventually, Hell

Sorry for the delay in writing.  My computer’s hard drive, which I swear I’ve been cleaning up and organizing all along, nonetheless reached 95% capacity and until I offloaded some of the contents onto DVDs and external drives, I was unable to edit the video I wanted to attach to this entry.  I finally had some time to do that and am ready to write this post.  For some reason, I just can’t allow myself to post too out of order so various events from this week will trickle out over the next few days.

Ride Area Overview Last Sunday morning, Stuart, Markus and I went riding in Minburi.  There was a 70km ride scheduled with the Thai Cycling Club in an area south of the city, but those rides move really slow and make lots of stops.  Not wanting to be beholden to a hundred other people, we opted to set out on our own.

This was Stuart’s second ride with me and his first as a proud owner of a new bicycle.  The previous day he had rented a bicycle from Spiceroads, a company that does very good bicycle tours.  He was so dissatisfied with the quality of the rental bike that when he met me at the bicycle shop for a little browsing he had, unbeknownst to me, already decided to buy.  And I thought I’d have to cajole him a little!

The ride site was, as usual, the rice paddies and surrounding countryside in Minburi and Nong Chuk, northeast of the city although still within the Khrungthep province, pictured right.  It took about an hour to get there, since we were looking for a well-placed wat (temple) at which we could park.

We did find a quiet country wat and pulled in and took the bikes off the rack.  I asked a dek wat – literally a “temple child” or assistant to the monks, who in this case is a man in his fifties – whether it would be okay to park there for a few hours.  He said it would and when I asked whether he had ever had any farang bicycle riders come through the wat, he surprised me by saying that it happens a few times a month.  He also kindly suggested I move my car to a spot that would be in the shade when I returned and asked me to make sure the doors were locked.

We set out along the northern of the two roads that border khlong San Saeb, the same canal that the canal taxi boats run along inside the city.  From there we headed down some small soi that led through vaguely residential areas.  These roads are familiar territory as I’ve been down them several times before.  We worked our way to “the invisible lake”, below, a rather sizeable body of water that doesn’t appear on either my road atlas of the greater Khrungthep area or on Google Maps, although the satellite view does show it.

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The lake is on private property, which is probably why it doesn’t appear on the maps, but there is no fence so Markus suggested that we try to ride around it.  I’m always a little hesitant to leave public roads and venture onto private property.  While Thais in general aren’t the shotgun-toting type, I’m a big believer in property rights and respecting them. 

We headed out and found the path pretty rough and, about a quarter way around (a little past the promontory you see in the picture) the paths became impassable and because of some reverse irrigation, very muddy.  Actually, the gears and brakes of my bike were clogged with mud and straw making it necessary to do some dirty cleaning.

P1050921 Along the way, we encountered some cows.  Taking care to not spook them, as getting gored by a cow is not my idea of fun, I stopped to take a few pictures of a trio of calves who were resting nearby, left.

They were really cute.  When Tawn saw this picture he announced that he wanted to adopt them.

We continued, leaving the lake and more developed areas behind for the open rice fields of Nong Chuk.  Before you know it, the trees and scattered houses (many no more than shacks) gave way to a view of endless green meeting the big sky a long and hazy way off.

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In the midst of this we stopped to investigate a park that is under construction, below.  Being built by the local Buddhists in a largely Muslim corner of the province, it will eventually become a wat but for the time being will be a park honoring a revered monk.  Much of the compound is being built in a basin that looks like it might have been intended as an irrigation lake.  Speaking with the construction foreman, I discovered he was proficient at English so I asked a few questions, answered a few questions, and enjoyed the ice water his wife offered us.

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Below, architectural detail of the statue that is being constructed in the picture above.  While I originally assumed it would be an image of Buddha, as is the white one in the saffron colored robe, it turns out it will depict a revered monk.

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P1050929 In front of the statue was a platform that had been set up with offerings, above.  It seems that there had been a ceremony the previous day (or maybe earlier that morning) to dedicate the whole affair. 

The flower arrangements were amazing, depicting many traditional forms and mythical creatures.  The main one, pictured right, has a bull on top (a nod to Brahmanism) with the creatures depicting the Chinese zodiac around the base. 

This was the centerpiece of the offerings, a white cloth suspended overhead on a network of white strings that connected all the offerings to the new statue. 

These strings are used in Buddhism, during various ceremonies, to literally connect participants to a venerated object like an image of the Buddha, in essence combining their collective prayers.  Sort of a Buddhist prayer daisy-chain.

In the picture below, the image of Buddha is shown in a traditional seated posture with a multi-headed naga, or mythological deity in serpent form, forming a protective hood over him. 

P1050932 As the story goes, the naga Muscalinda protected Siddhartha Gautama as he meditated under the bodhi tree.  After forty-nine days the heavens clouded over and it rained for seven days.  Muscalinda sheltered Gautama from the elements as he attained enlightenment, becoming the supreme Buddha (or “Awakened One”) of our age.  How’s that for a little Buddhist history you may not have known?

In any case, the detail of this arrangement is incredible.  The heads of the naga are made of rolled leaves, the mouths lined with small purple flowers and the teeth made of jasmine.  Only the tongues are not natural, made using red ribbon.

I’m fascinated at how there are so many elements of Buddhist mythology that trace back to Hinduism.  No surprise of course, as Buddhism was born in a Hindu society and Gautama’s family would surely have been Hindu.  But the liberal borrowing of creatures and stories is interesting.

We continued our ride and stopped for a bowl of noodles at a small nondescript restaurant at the intersection of two equally nondescript roads.  Despite the unremarkable restaurant, the bowl of pork noodles was really tasty and at twenty baht would almost be worth a ride all the way back out there!

Heading north, I wondered about Wat Peuchamongkol, a temple I’ve been to on two previous rides with Spiceroads.  It is a temple that has an amusement park-like depiction of heaven and hell.  While I had the name written down, like the lake this temple didn’t appear on any maps.

Rather serendipitously we ran into it about fifteen minutes later, a stroke of luck and nothing more.  I watched the bikes while Markus and Stuart went to hell and then, on my recommendation, heaven.  Afterwards, we stopped at the vendors in the car park – this is something of a tourist attraction – and had cold drinks.  Stuart fed the fish in the khlong to earn some merit.

P1050940 This being summer break, the temple had plenty of naen – novices – running around.  It is common for young men in Thailand to spend a period of time in the monkhood before their early twenties.  This is done in order to earn merit for your parents, enabling them to be reborn in a better position – defined as being closer to enlightenment – in their next lives. 

Traditionally, this is done during the rainy season when the monks would return from their wanderings to gather at the temples so as to avoid treading on newly-planted rice in the fields.  In modern times, it is common to do it during school break, sort of a religious summer camp.

There were ten or so novices, four of whom are pictured right, playing around by the vendors, considering which treats they’d like to buy.  While their heads and eyebrows were shaved and they’re undoubtedly receiving some religious instruction, they were behaving every bit like young boys: loud, rowdy, and aggressive.  One of them had a small metal object in his hands and when I asked him what it was, he responded with the Thai word borrowed from English, la-zuh

Sure enough, it was a small laser pointer.  The boys all laughed as he projected a red spot on a fellow novice’s forehead, another interesting if unintentional allusion to the Hindu roots of Buddhism.

Riding in the countryside provides an unlimited number of opportunities to appreciate the blessings of my life.  One was this couple paddling by the temple in their canoe, their stomachs distended, a possible symptom of hepatitis B.

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It was a little past noon and the sun was hot and high.  Even trying to drink a lot of water and reapply the sunscreen, it was getting uncomfortable, so we headed back towards the car which was still ten kilometers away.  Along the way, even though according to the map we were still inside the province (although near the edge) we passed this “Welcome to Bangkok” sign, below.  There’s quite a bit of growth on the sign that looks like moss.  The sign does face north…

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P3300069 On the final stretch, we noticed a large amount of smoke rising from the fields to the east of us.  We turned down into a small housing development – a single soi with shoulder-to-shoulder one bedroom single story houses – until we found the fire trucks.  One of the locals explained that there was a grass fire behind the houses and the firemen were trying to fight it from there.  One of the trucks left and we passed them later as they tried to find another path to the fire.

As we spoke with the residents, a small crowd of children gathered.  The boys are always more outgoing than the girls, so when Markus pulled out his camera they ran up to pose for a picture, above.  I made multiple copies of the photo today and will mail the copies to them, in care of the neighbor in the picture who gave me his address.

This is always the best part of exploring outside of Khrungthep.  There are so many friendly people who are excited and curious about strangers: Where are you from?  How long have you been here?  How do you like Thailand?

I’ve never met a people who are more genuinely flattered that people choose to visit their country.  The jaded natives of Khrungthep and tourist towns aside, Thais are generally very proud that their country is such a popular destination.  I wish Americans were a bit more welcoming of visitors.  The xenophobic streak that seems to be on the rise in the U.S. will only be detrimental to the country’s future.

Lest this descend into politics, let me conclude with a video of the rice harvesting we saw.  This is the end of the primary rice growing season in Thailand and we saw a lot of combines while we were riding.  Here’s a short bit about that:

 

Sundays in the Park with Stuart

It seems that things in the Khrungthep cycling scene are heating up, which has nothing to do with the coming hot season.  It started with the first-ever Khrungthep Critical Mass on the final day of February.  Then this past Sunday there was a 45-km trip around Khrungthep, about which I’ll write in a moment.  It continues with a 160-km one way ride to Hua Hin this coming Sunday followed by the second Critical Mass the next Friday, and then a 70-km ride on March 30th that begins in Phra Padaeng on the southwest side of the river.

Crazy, huh?  160 km is way too much for me to do at this point as a one day trip.  Maybe when the annual ride comes around next time.  But I’m excited to see so much interest and enthusiasm in cycling in this City of the Perpetual Traffic Jam.

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This past Sunday’s ride was a bit of a Tour de Khrungthep in the non-French sense of the word.  About 150 riders met at National Stadium, which is just to the west of the Siam Square area.  At 8:00 we headed out, stopping just a few minutes later at Hualamphong Railway Station for a tour – in Thai – from a docent.  Hualamphong is a beautiful station and a good example of Thai Art Deco.

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P1050710 We then paid a visit to the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute, a Red Cross-run “Snake Farm” whose primary purpose is to study and develop anti-venom serums for the many types of poisonous snakes found in the Kingdom.  There is a fascinating and well-organized educational exhibit on snakes and you can see dozens of different poisonous and non-poisonous species.

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Some people are really scared of snakes and other reptiles.  I find them really fascinating.  When I was in secondary school – I forget which grade, maybe seventh – we could check out a reptile for the weekend from our biology class.  I brought a snake home and while it was interesting (I love the way they move), they really aren’t very fun pets.

Afterwards, we rode to Lumpini Park and on to the park next to Queen Sirikit Convention Center.  This is where Markus and I often ride as it has a good 2-km dedicated bike path around the lake.  Below, you can see the progress on the four towes of the Millenium Condo project between Sukhumvit 16 and 18.  More on that in an entry here.  Below that is an atist’s rendering of what the finished project will look like.  Way, way out of scale to the skyline.

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After some pretty short legs, we finally started some serious distance riding, heading up Asoke Road to Ratchadapisek, cutting under the Rama IX expressway on a small local street, and then continuing up by the Thailand Cultural Center where we broke for lunch.

After lunch we continued up Ram Intra to Lad Prao, one of the main east-west arteries on the north side of the city, and then all the way to the very large and busy Phahon Yothin / Lad Prao intersection.  Thank goodness we had a large group of riders still so we could command traffic as we made a series of turns to get to the far side of the de-facto traffic circle.

There we arrived at Railroad Park, a former State Railways of Thailand golf course that has been converted into a beautiful public park, below.  Hard to imagine that this is in the teeming metropolis of Khrungthep, isn’t it? 

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By this point it was nearing 2:30 and the group was starting to thin out.  People who lived on the northern side of the city headed home directly, while about thirty of us headed back towards National Stadium.  This part of the ride took me through some areas that I’ve driven before but was not very familiar with, especially the frontage road that follows the railways tracks past Bang Sue station, parallel to the Rama XI expressway.  It was good to cover this area on bicycle because now I know it better.  It is also easier to navigate on bicycle because you can ignore the forced left turns that keep cars from using the frontage road as a raceway/shortcut.

Returning to National Stadium wasn’t really the end of it for me, as I still had to bike home.  All told, the ride worked out to be about 65 km for me, the longest I’ve done since I moved to Thailand.

P1050715 Fortunately, I was not alone for the trip. 

Since Markus had church to attend, I drummed up another riding companion, Stuart. 

He’s expressed interest in going for a ride before and this was certainly the one to give him a taste (a big, heaping taste) of what urban riding is like here.  By the end of it he seemed pretty positive about the experience, so maybe he’ll be heading to ProBike and spending some money soon!

Stuart’s blog entry about the ride, along with a map of the route, is here.

Elephant naps in Minburi

When it comes to Sunday morning bicycle rides, the earlier I start, the better.  Sunday, I was up at six and arrived at the ride site in Minburi just before seven.  Already, the sun was above the horizon and the day was warming up.  There were still some hints of the overnight coolness, though.  Wish I had arrived even earlier.

This ride site is a stretch of expressway that was a built a few years ago as part of a larger project, but was never connected to the other portions.  Other than a handful of local vehicles, the road is used in the mornings primarily by runners, joggers, and families out for a ride with their children.  It also attracts cyclists, often several dozen of them, in their fancy spandex racing gear with their fancy aerodynamic helmets and their expensive road bikes.

I shouldn’t use what could sound like such a derisive tone.  We’re all brothers and sisters in cycling.  Compared to most of these cyclists, though, I’m decidedly down-market.  My spandex is hidden under a pair of cargo shorts, my helmet is functional, not aerodynamic, and my bicycle is a clunky hybrid.  There are no potholes or rough patches of pavement that I fear!

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Anyhow, Sunday I was out there earlier than most of the other cyclists and had the road pretty much to myself.  The first stretch is actually a narrow side road that connects the airport expressway’s frontage road to this new stretch of expressway.  It is a country road with small khlongs on either side (shades of Sukhumvit fifty years ago), a few small manufacturing businesses, and the occasional restaurant.  Locals are up yearly, fishing in the khlongs.  A tractor is preparing a rice paddy for planting.  Someone is picking a bunch of bananas from a roadside tree.

Along this narrow street that lies under the approach path to the new airport, two small housing estates are being built.  Both look like they’ll be targeted at the entry level home owners what can afford maybe at most a half-million baht for two bedrooms and no land.  I’ll take more pictures as the development continues.  It fills my heart with a little sadness to see another rural area being developed, rice paddies traded for cookie cutter houses.

The stretch of expressway I ride is about four kilometers long and bridges two other khlongs.  Both bridges are built up with earth like highway overpasses in the US, affording nice views of the surrounding countryside.  Early morning along the khlong you see more of the fishing-cooking-harvesting activities as people rise with the sun and have families to feed and work to do.

One of the stranger sites I’ve seen was captured in the photo, below.  Next to one of the bridges is an open field, quite a large one.  In the field there was a baby elephant wandering around, grazing.  I’ve never seen an elephant out here and it certainly isn’t native to Minburi.  Many times, the mahouts who are the elephants’ caretakers bring them into the city because there is no work elsewhere.  Even though it is illegal, they bring the elephants right into the tourist sections of town, selling people the opportunity to feed the elephants and pose for pictures.

Perhaps this is where the mahout and his elephant are living.  I didn’t see any fences or restraints, but perhaps elephants aren’t prone to making a break for their freedom.  As I passed the field each time, I looked at the elephant as she wandered about.  Finally, she settled down for a nap in the tall grass.  Can you spot her?

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Speaking of development, if I had panned about thirty degrees to the right and taken another picture, you would see a forest of mid-rise condo projects, all about eight stories tall, built about one kilometer away.  If I had to guess, there are probably about two thousand units, all of which have sprung up in the past three or four years.

 

Critical Mass Recap

Friday evening I pumped up my bicycle’s tires, changed the batteries in my head and tail lights, strapped on my helmet and started pedaling down Sukhumvit Road towards Siam Square.  The last Friday of the month is payday in Thailand, jokingly called a national holiday.  The roads are packed more than usual as everyone goes out to celebrate having money again.

P1050389 It took me nearly thirty minutes to ride the six kilometers, weaving through traffic, riding a few very short stretches (slowly!) on the sidewalk, and ultimately arriving at Siam Discovery Centre just before 6:30.  There I found more than a hundred bicycles parked on the sidewalk, a hundred bicyclists milling about, with more arriving every minute.

Not recognizing anyone, I stood about taking in the scene.  As has happened before with Thai bicycling events, the locals are very friendly.  The ones less confident about their English just smile and nod, and within a couple of minutes I was engaged in conversation with a married couple.  The wife had done her undergraduate degree in Ann Arbor, Michigan, while the husband had been a high school exchange student in – are you ready for this? – Moscow, Idaho.

Oh, and especially interesting, the couple cornered the reporter from the independent TV station (public broadcasting) and had her interview me – in Thai!  Talk about a challenge.  Don’t know if I made the evening news or not.

About 6:45 the now 200+ people saddled up and we headed out on our ride through the city.  The route was less than 20 kilometers and with such a large group we were not moving very fast, covering the route in about two hours.

Throughout the ride I continued to make new friends, some farang who joined the group and some Thais.  There really is a vibrant bicycling community here, which you wouldn’t necessarily realize.

This was the first time a Critical Mass ride has been undertaken in Bangkok and it had its own Thai flavor, combined with just some “inexperience” in what elements have made CM rides successful in other cities.

BKK Critical Mass Eng Unlike the leaderless rides at other CMs where the people at the front of the group sort of create the group’s direction on an ad hoc basis, this ride had a route map, police had been informed, and there was one man at the front wearing his bambo pith helmet – I believe he is the founder of the Thai Cycling Club – who was leading the way.

Also, there were some things that could have been done to keep the group together.  We were regularly split up by traffic lights and lost much of the group in the first twenty minutes.  Had there been some “safety monitors” who would block traffic in an intersection and let the group get through, it would have been a bit more effective.

But, hey, it was the first time and there isn’t a right or wrong way to do a ride.  Thai cyclists can make it their own.

One realization I had, though, is that non-cyclists have a lot of misconceptions about bicycling in this city.  “The traffic!” they say, ignoring the fact that the traffic largely isn’t moving and that on a bicycle, it is easy to get around larger vehicles stuck in a jam.  “The heat!” they say, fogetting that when you are riding, you create your own cooling breeze.  “The danger!” they say, not realizing that Thai drivers are the most patient, accommodating, and polite anywhere in the world.  Not a honked horn, not a waved fist, not a foul word.

Can’t wait until next month’s ride!