Sky Lane at Suvarnabhumi Airport

There are a lot of times when infrastructure in Bangkok leaves me underwhelmed. But sometimes, the planets align and we have a piece of infrastructure that impresses. Such is the case with the recently-reopened “Sky Lane” bicycle track around Suvarnabhumi Airport.

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The 23.5-km (14.6-mile) track opened originally in late 2014 or early 2015 and was so well-received that they closed it for five months to upgrade it, with the corporate sponsorship of Siam Commercial Bank. The track reopened in November and is been a big success. Some highlights of the project:

  • The track is double-width, striped with a passing lane and distance markers every quarter-kilometer, and paved to international standards
  • More than 600 light poles allow for after-hours riding. Currently the track opens at 6:00 am and last entry is 7:00 pm; I understand you can ride until 10:00 pm
  • Four sets of clean, large men’s and women’s restrooms are located in each quadrant of the track
  • Entry is controlled by snap bands with RFID chips, which can be obtained for free by registering with a photo identification
  • There is a 1500-space parking lot with security guards, lighting, closed-circuit cameras and plenty of room to safely on- and off-load bicycles and change gear
  • There is also a shorter 1.6-km training track near the parking lot, allowing families and those who need a shorter route to ride; this track has a parallel jogging track
  • I have made three trips there so far, all in the morning. Arriving at 6:30 this morning, the parking lot was busy and hundreds of riders were already on the track. Despite this, the facility did not feel crowded.

One thing you discover is that out in the open fields on the outskirts of Bangkok, there is a stiff breeze! Along one side of the track, it was easy to average a speed of 30 km/hour. On the other side, heading into the wind, it was tough to stay much above 20 km/hour!

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As the track surrounds the airport, I enjoy the opportunity to watch the planes. There are a few good vantage points, although you are set back from the action, not right up against it. There are a few early morning arrivals and departures of larger jets and I suppose a true enthusiast could time his or her riding with the schedules of the most interesting airlines.

There appears so be some construction near the entry of the Sky Lane, presumably for some shops and hopefully restaurants. I’ve read on the website that bike repair facilities will be coming, too. Bicycle rentals would be an obvious addition, I hope.

All in all, this is a world-class facility that gives the every-growing cycling community a safe space to ride. If you have the opportunity and are so inclined, I would encourage you to check it out.

 

Floating Bicycle Infrastructure

The extent to which a population cycles depends on what infrastructure is available to them. Striped bike lanes? That will encourage some people to venture out on bicycles. Dedicated lanes that are physically separate from traffic? That move makes bicycling even more appealing, especially to new cyclists. The Netherlands takes the proverbial cake for bicycle friendly infrastructure, though, especially with the recent opening of a dedicated bicycle roundabout that “floats” above a busy vehicular intersection.

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The roundabout is located in Eindhoven, a suburban setting that would look familiar in many parts of the United States. Large streets carrying lots of fast moving vehicles meet at a traffic circle (okay, not so typical in the US!), something that could be tricky for cyclists to safely navigate.

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The original design of the roundabout already had bicycle paths that were physically separate from the road, although cyclists still had to cross the roads at traffic signals. This design vastly improves on standard practice in most countries, but for the Dutch, it was not safe enough.

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The new bicycle and pedestrian roundabout is suspended from cables as it floats above the motorized vehicles below. It creates a safe path as well as an aesthetically pleasing gateway announcing your entry into the community. Interestingly, you’ll notice that the roundabout for the motorized vehicles has been removed in favor of a typical right-angle intersection.

It seems to me that these type of infrastructure investments are very beneficial to society. They encourage more people to travel under their own power and increase transportation safety at the same time. This reduces traffic congestion and energy consumption, both worthy results. Plus, the roundabout’s design is elegant.

 

Bicycle Riding in Phra Pradaeng

Since our guests are adventurous, outdoorsy sorts, I arranged for a half-day bicycle tour of the “Bangkok Jungle” through Spiceroads.  Located just across the river from the Khlong Toei district (which includes the part of Sukhumvit Road that I live in), this jungle is just that – an isolated and undeveloped section of the larger metropolitan area.  Joining us were a pair of expats, one American and the other British, who I know.

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The reason that Phra Pradaeng, the green patch nearly encircled by the Chao Phraya River, has avoided development is that it is actually part of Samut Prakan province instead of Bangkok.  Zoning laws were enacted to limit development in this section of the province.  The area is often referred to as the “lungs of Bangkok” and includes a large public park.

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Our starting point for the tour was a restaurant near the Thong Lo BTS Skytrain station.  We rode through a little bit of city traffic, although mostly on back sois (alleys), and then through the slum area of Khlong Toei down near the port.  Finally, we boarded a long-tail boat and left the city behind.

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On the other side of the river, any sign of the hustle and bustle of the nation’s capital quickly melted away as we rode along small roads and elevated concrete paths through banana, coconut, and lychee plantations.  Except for the occasional view of a skyscraper peeking over the horizon, you could easily forget where you were.

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We had time for several breaks, seeing some of the local sites (which are limited), feeding the fish in the park, and trying a Thai snack of sticky rice and starchy bananas steamed in banana leaf.

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Back at the pier as we waited for our boat, some local children swam in the edge of the river, showing off for us by performing ever more daring stunts.  Here, a double flip into murky waters.

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Back near our starting point, I peeked in the front gate of a complex that is usually closed.  I don’t know what it is, but it looks almost like a shinto temple.  Very beautiful.

Bicycle Taxi = BIXI

Urban planning, public transportation, and bicycling – three of my interests that are rolled into one in a Montreal-based bicycle sharing program called BIXI, short for BIcycle taXI.  BIXI was introduced in June 2009, quickly growing to 5,000 bicycles.  The one-millionth ride was taken in the first five months.  Perhaps this is a model that we will see gain traction in other cities?

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Already, BIXI has expanded into Melbourne, Australia and Minneapolis, Minnesota – and London, England and Boston, Massachusetts are supposed to be online this summer.  A system in parts of Washington, DC is scheduled to be on the way, too.  Other cities around the world are installing similar systems.

There is a bicycle rental program here in Bangkok, but it is only in the touristy section of the old city, designed for sightseeing, not transportation.  I do ride my bicycle here, but since there are few places to park, I ride it mostly for exercise and not errands.

Bicycling is an ideal way to get around for many of the errands we run or even for some of the distances we commute.  Much of the year, the weather is fine, and bicycling is faster than walking.  But one of the biggest obstacles is that we don’t want to lug our bicycle all over the place, especially if we need to travel by bus, train, or car for portions of the journey.

Bicycle sharing programs eliminate the hassle.  By providing a bicycle when and where you need it, you can easily integrate a bicycle into your overall transportation options.  The system allows you to take a bicycle from wherever you are and leave it wherever you are going, without having to worry about bringing it back to your point of origin.  A subscription program lets you rent a bike on the fly, free for the first thirty minutes, or you can pay as you go.

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The bicycles are durable and designed to keep you from getting messy – chain guards and fenders keep the oil and puddles off you.  A handy basket lets you carry your belongings with you and even pick up a bag of groceries or other small items.

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Best of all, in my opinion, is their convenience.  This map of most of Montreal shows how densely located the BIXI bike stations are.  They are everywhere – usually within a block of where you are!  Especially when tied into transit systems like bus and train lines and large car parks, the bike sharing system makes it easy to switch to a secondary mode of travel, one that is better for you and for our environment.

If you would like more information about BIXI, you can click here.  For more information about bicycle sharing systems in general, here is the Wikipedia article.  Sorry if this sounds like a marketing brochure – I just think BIXI sounds like a cool idea that should be the standard rather than the exception in more cities.

 

Cycling to Recycle

Throughout the year the Thailand Cycling Club conducts many different charity events.  They collect and repair old bicycles, donating them to underprivileged children.  They raise money for various causes.  And they help recycle pull tabs from aluminum cans into artificial limbs and crutches for those without arms and legs.

After getting my bike rack fixed and taking my bicycle in for a much-needed service, I was ready to accept my friend Poom’s invitation to join TCC on this annual trek to bring the hundreds of thousands of pull tabs they’ve collected up to BCM – Bangkok Can Manufacturing – the largest maker of aluminum cans in the kingdom and one of the main drivers of the “pull tabs to limbs” charity.

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The meeting point was Suan Rot Fai (Railway Park), built on the old executive golf course for the State Railways of Thailand.  There were about 150 riders.  In addition to each of us carrying a pink back pack full of tabs, many riders were carting additional tabs using any means necessary, including this cart fashioned from PVC pipe.

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Me with my sporty pink back pack.  Notice that I’ve decided, despite the political unrest pitting the Yellow Shirts (royalists) against the Red Shirts (republicans), to go ahead and wear my yellow jersey this morning.  Hope I don’t get beaten up!

We set off from the park just after the national anthem was played at 8 am, as it is in public places all over the country.

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The route north took us past the old airport, Don Meuang, along a wide road that had light traffic and, unfortunately, not much shade.  On the 30-km route in the morning, the weather was still relatively cool and a little breezy, so the lack of shade wasn’t much of a problem.  Above, we make a stop at a petrol station to use the facilities.

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Poom figures we should wait at the “point assembly”.

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When we arrived at BCM’s factory (which is located across the street from one of the country’s largest indigenous beverage companies, Green Spot), the staff had chests of ice cold beverages for us including plenty of water.

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Above, our haul of pull tabs being piled up in the BCM parking lot. 

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A display in their lobby shows the products made from the recycled tabs and, presumably, cans.  I’m a little confused.  I’ve long believed that the tabs are made from a different metal than the cans themselves.  A little research on Snopes.com debunks this myth, explaining that the tabs are also aluminum and that the extra work to remove the tabs and handle them separately is wasted effort.

Nonetheless, the charity is being organized by the can manufacturing company, so I would think they must know what they are talking about when it comes to cans.  I will continue to set aside my pull tabs while recycling the rest of the can as normal.

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Instead the conference room with the air con at full blast, we watched a video presentation about BCM and then had some dignitaries speak.  An official presentation of the pull tabs was made by some representatives of the TCC.  Then it was time for entertainment.  After the group sang an a capella version of the royal anthem (that’s HM the King on the portrait they’re holding), a young man who is the recipient of two artificial legs made through this recycling program spoke to us.  He expressed how much having these artificial limbs had improved his quality of life.  Then he put on his guitar and, strapping a pick on his handless left arm, led us through a popular song about having courage.  Snippet in the video below.

Afterwards, the group posed for pictures.

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At this point we were all set to roll out for lunch at nearby restaurants along the Rangsit Canal.  Unfortunately, we discovered that Poom’s rear tire had a flat.  So while the rest of the group road ahead, Poom and I stayed to repair the flat with the help of two other riders.  While he was carrying a patch kit, we were fortunate that there are more expert riders who carry larger pumps and better equipment.

After lunch we started our route back.  Riding through the town of Rangsit, two khatoey on the back of a motor bike called out to me, “Farang lor jang leuy!” as they sped by.

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Because it is rainy season and we’ve received a lot of precipitation, some of our route along the canal was flooded.  It took us a little longer to head home than it did to ride to the plant in the first place.  To top it off, I had to take a few breaks on the way back to cool down as the sun was really beating down by that point.

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Nonetheless, it was a wonderful ride and a very worthwhile cause.  Lots of fun!

 

Car Free Day 2009

P1190487 We are a city that tries very hard.  This is especially true when it comes to being green.  We want badly to be green. 

We have added bicycle lanes… that parked cars block with impunity and that run down the middle of vendor- and pedestrian-filled footpaths. 

We stress the importance of public transportation, while dickering over the replacement of noxious, smoke-belching busses and the ever-delayed extensions of rail lines.

And we participate in Car Free Day.

While the rest of the world celebrates Car Free Day on September 22, which this year fell on a Tuesday, we found that a bit inconvenient and so instead celebrated it on the previous Sunday.

While the rest of the world emphasizes getting out of the car on onto your bikes, Car Free Day was just an excuse for those of us who already are cycling, to get together for what wasn’t much more than a publicity stunt.

While mayors and politicians in major cities around the world actually get out of their cars and bike to work or take public transit, our politicians were chaffered to the Car Free Day events.  Only a few people from the Ministry of Energy actually made the effort.

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While this may sound a little bitter, I assure you I’m not.  The (pre-)Car Free Day event brought together about 5,000 cyclists from around the city.  We met at Kasetsart University (originally is was going to be Sanam Luang, the large royal parade ground, but that had been under seige by the “red shirt” anti-government protesters the day before and we thought better of going there) for a group photo on the football pitch, organized into a map of Thailand.  This was dutifully reprinted in some of the local papers the following day, having absolutely no effect on the number of cars on the road on the 22nd.

This publicity stunt was reasonably well organized, but still required more than an hour of standing around in the hot sun.  I didn’t have the patience, since I actually wanted to ride.  So I snapped this picture after about twenty minutes.  It is meant to be the north third of Thailand.  Chiang Rai is kind of up near the goal posts.

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Everyone was in a jovial mood.  Many people who ride for fun have wonderful, unique bicycles.  There are several that are doctored in various ways, customized to express the personalities and playfulness of their owners.  We even had a few Victorian bicycles.  Can you imagine riding this in Bangkok traffic?

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On my way home, I explored a stretch of road I did not previously know about, heading along Thanon Prasert-Manukitch through the Lat Prao district to Thanon Ram-Intra.  I think I once drove out here but have never cycled in this area.

Two blocks from home, while riding along a street that was mid-way through repaving, my rear tire popped and I started to lose air.  Thankfully, I made it back home before the tube was completely flat.  This served as the necessary prompting to finally take my bicycle in for maintenance.  I’ve had it more than three years without any work done to it.

More about that later…

 

Biking in Prachinburi

Right before heading to Japan, Stuart and I completed a biking adventure up to Prachinburi province, northwest of Krungthep (Bangkok).  We had talked about doing a combined train-bike day trip just for the experience, so with the clock ticking before his move to Phuket, we decided we had better get this trip done.

(It is worth noting that this entry is actually a month old but I didn’t get a chance to edit the video until this past weekend.)

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A view of the station from a bridge heading into the old city.

We started early on Sunday April 5th, leaving the Thong Lor area about 6:30 am for the 10-km ride to Hualamphong Station, the main rail station in the city.  Stuart has ridden the Thai rails before but this was a first for me.

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The lovely Italian Neo-Renaissance exterior of this station.

Hualamphong is a big station and was teeming with travelers even at this early hour on a Sunday.  While Stuart watched the bikes I went to buy tickets and inquire about what to do with our bikes.  Even with both of us speaking a fair amount of Thai, this process wasn’t very clear.

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Interior of the station waiting area – crowded even on a Sunday morning.

The ticket agent directed us to somewhere near track two for our bicycles.  Once we entered the track area it wasn’t clear where we were going so we stopped at an information kiosk.  The agent there vaguely waved towards the far end of the station.  Eventually, walking way down the tracks, we found the cargo area.

There, they checked out tickets and then explained that our particular train wouldn’t have a cargo car on it, so we were going to have to carry out bikes into the passenger car.  They then pointed to the other end of the tracks, indicating that we needed to go pay some surcharge to do that.

We walked back up the track and eventually fond another kiosk where we paid for “excess baggage”.  For our 122 km journey the fare was a whopping 26 baht per person, each way.  That’s right, less than one US dollar.  The baggage fee for the bicycles was something like 80 baht per person.

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Stuart and his bike share space with another passenger.  These two benches are meant to seat four people.

We eventually got everything straightened out and got on our train moments before it was supposed to depart.  Had we known how crowded the train would be, we would have boarded earlier.  As it was, we had to remove the front wheels from our bikes in order to make them fit.  Fellow passengers, who were mightily inconvenienced by our bikes, were very gracious about it.  Next time, we need to make sure there is a cargo car on our train.

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A young boy enjoys the view from the window seat.

The train tracks snake through the heart of Krungthep, affording a front-row view of the belly of the Big Mango.  Needless to say, it isn’t the prettiest of views.

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One of the smaller stops within Krungthep complete with banana trees.

There are vast areas of low-income housing and many markets which are built right up to the edge of the tracks.  What is amazing is how vibrant life in this communities is: there is an entire world going on right next to the train tracks, paying no attention to the iron intruders that cut through their towns.

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The entire train was third-class seating, unassigned and un-air conditioned.   With the breeze and fans, the trip was fairly pleasant.  Vendors walked up and down the aisles with snacks and beverages, so it wasn’t much worse than a flight on one of these low cost airlines.

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Eventually, we found ourselves outside the city, spilling into the rice paddies that are a familiar sight in the central region of Thailand.

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One has to wonder at the lack of safety gear.  There was nothing to prevent people from falling between the engine and the train or out of any of the doors, all of which were open to the passing landscape.

At each stop we picked up more passengers until the train was near capacity.  Most everyone stayed on for the first two hours until we hit Chachoengsao Junction, where the northeastern and easter lines split.  At this station about two-thirds of the passengers disembarked, after which we had enough room to spread out and not worry about people getting greasy as they walked past our bikes.

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Our stop, Prachinburi Province, was an additional hour past Chachoengsao.  By this point it was nearing 11:30.  We offloaded our bicycles and watched as the train pulled away.  Checking our time, we had five hours before the return train arrived, and about 80 km planned on this hot day.

After a light meal in a small restaurant across the parking lot from the station we set out.  Frankly, there wasn’t a lot of memorable sights.  An “ancient city” was hard to find, or at least what we did find wasn’t very exciting.  It ended up being an ancient water storage pond with carvings of elephants along the side.

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It was cool in a sort of, “oh, that’s interesting” way.  But not in a “wow!” sort of way.

One stop that ended up being fun was the largest and oldest Bodhi tree in the kingdom: Ton Pho Si Maha Pho.  It is located across from a temple way out in the outskirts of the province.

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It is actually a beautiful tree and of course is well-venerated.  They say that some 2000 years ago, Phrachao Thawanampayadit, the ruler of Mueang Si Mahosot during the Khmer empire, sent his representatives to India to bring back a branch from the bodhi tree in Buddhgaya, India, under which Buddha attained enlightenment.  This is ostensibly the tree grown from that branch. 

Across the street in a temple, we encountered a group of novice monks.  During the summer months when school is out of session, parents will send their sons to the temples.  This time spent in the monastery is meant to gain merit for the parents’ future life, but sometimes I think it is more a form of summer school, just to keep the sons out of trouble.

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The young monks enjoyed the distraction of two bicycling farang and had many questions for us.  One was particularly fascinated with Stuart’s iPhone.  We visited for about fifteen minutes, drank some water that they offered, and then continued.

Along the ride, I was making great efforts to stay hydrated.  I had my 2-liter Camelback water pack with me.  But what I forgot was that staying hydrated is only half the battle.  After a while the water was warm and my body temperature was climbing.

After some 60 km, as we were working our way back around the loop to the provincial capital, I had to stop several times to cool down, buying ice-cold water at some stores and not just drinking it but holding the bottles to my neck to bring my temperature down.  Truly, by the end of about 80 km, I was frighteningly close to heat exhaustion.

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We made it back to the station about fifteen minutes before the return train, thoroughly wiped out from the ride.  The trip back was spent mostly staring, zombie-like, out the windows.  The good news was that this return train had a cargo car so we didn’t have to manage our bicycles during the ride.

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Along the way, we had fun with some “hanging out the door” shots.

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We also saw some exciting sights like large bonfires next to the track.  I guess burning is the most effective trash disposal option out here in the middle of nowhere. 

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By the time I returned home some 14 hours after leaving, my legs were red.  Not with sunburn, mind you: I had been very liberal in my reapplication of sunblock.  The red was from the dust of the volcanic soil in the northeast region.  Riding the road had left me covered with it from head to ankle!

All in all, it was a fun trip.  Exhausting, yes, but sometimes it is pushing yourself to the limit that helps you know what you really are capable of.  Here’s a video of the trip, mostly focusing on the train portion of it.