Bangkok, Thailand is a fantastic tourist destination, but westerners (farang as Thais call us) sometimes get a little bored with the standard temple tours and tuk tuk rides. Temples like Wat Pho, Wat Arun and the Grand Palace are magnificent structures. Unfortunately, many tourist spots can be crowded, and westerners generally lack an adequate understanding of Buddhism and Thai history to truly appreciate what they are looking at.
On my last visit to the Thai capital (the proper name of which is 27 words long and gives Bangkok the longest name of any world capital) I decided to try something different when an ad for Bangkok bicycle and boat tours caught my eye.
Co van Kessel Tours operates several of these tours ranging in duration from three hours to a full day. I selected the five-hour tour. The tours depart from the Co van Kessel office located at the back of the River City Mall. The five-hour tour is offered twice daily at 07:00 and 13:00. The price is a very reasonable 1,650 baht or about $50.
The Five-Hour Tour Through Parts Unknown
This tour covers a 15 km path through some of the otherwise hidden parts of Bangkok that would make Anthony Bourdain jealous. It was Songkran, the Thai new year holiday, so traffic was lighter than normal.
The tour starts with a winding route through Chinatown and its markets.
After Chinatown the tour continues on residential side streets and stops at a local temple to burn incense and make wishes before loading the bikes on the ferry for the river crossing to Thonburi.
There is more winding through residential areas before stopping at a temple and monastery for rest, bathroom breaks and some exposure to Thai Buddhist culture.
After the temple it is back on the bikes for another ride.
The tour proceeds through more neighborhoods until it transitions to long-tail boats for the canal portion of the tour. The canals give Bangkok the name “Venice of the East.”
Although we had not been riding long, it was nice to sit for a while and enjoy the variety of sights along the canals including temples, markets and residences.
The canals are lined with homes ranging from shacks to large, modern residences.
Occasionally other long-tail boats pass giving tourists the chance to stare at each other.
Tourists are not the only fauna to be found on the canals.
The canal cruise brings the group to the harrowing part of the tour — at least I found it somewhat harrowing. We disembark in a fairly rural section of Bangkok but the path is narrow, three feet wide or less in most places. And there are many 90 degree turns with cinder block walls on both sides. Not having ridden a bike in a few decades, I had a few close encounters with the walls trying to make the turns and keep up with the speed of those in front of and behind me. Being a bit hungover was no help.
The scary part for me was riding where the path was suspended above water. If I went in I could swim if necessary but my cell phone would get wet and that would have been a disaster!
After a few minutes of white knuckling it over the water, the tour turns onto a wider path with plantations on each side.
This part of the tour feels more like being in the jungle rather than a metropolis of over six million people. The guides stop here for a rest in the shade and a discussion of the agricultural side of Bangkok.
Leaving the plantation area the tour once again winds through narrow paths and alleyways until reaching the stop for a delicious, family-style Thai lunch. The chef proudly offers refills on every dish if requested.
After lunch, tour members and bikes are loaded on another long-tail boat for the trip back to River City.
The helmsman opens up the throttle on the river. The choppy water made for a bumpy ride as I was sitting near the bow. Everyone had to wear life vests, which are unnecessary on the calm canals.
After about 25 minutes, River City, an antique and arts mall, comes into view.
A Few Tips
The bicycle and boat tours do not offer hotel pick up. A taxi is the easiest way to get to the tour and back. In the afternoon I used the BTS Skytrain to return to my hotel on Sukhumvit Road, the main tourist area in Bangkok. A ferry operates between the Royal Orchid Sheraton hotel next to RIver City Mall. The ferry drops off at the Sathorn Pier, which is connected to the Saphan Taksin BTS station. Getting to Sukhumvit requires one transfer at the Siam station and costs just over $1.
Also for those who haven’t ridden a bike for a few years, ask for a mountain bike. The tires are fatter than on a standard street bike and provide a little more stability.
I really enjoyed the five-hour, bicycle and boat tour. Being on a bike makes everything you see “up close and personal.” Unfortunately, taking pictures while riding on this off-the-beaten-path excursion is a really bad idea. It is nice to get a little exercise while viewing portions of Bangkok few tourists ever see. Another thing about the bike tours that I appreciate is there is no jewelry factory or other mandatory shopping stop. On my next trip, I may get a mountain bike and try the full day tour.