Saturday, March 30, 2013

Bangkok's Chinatown: Guns, Gems, Leather, and Lace (And Also A Dead Guy)

Today, Julia, myself, and a new friend Lasia went on a colorful ride through Chinatown/Phra Sumen area. Totally different ride to last week's, despite the similarities in blog nomenclature.

Bangkok's Chinatown is probably the densest neighborhood in the city, home to many of Thailand's most prosperous members of the mainland Chinese diaspora that has called the Kingdom home for at least a couple hundred years or more. According to Wikipedia, land prices are high and there is a lot of old Chinese immigrant money here. This is the place to go for major Chinese holidays, as they are celebrated with abandon here. It's vibrant, bright, and full of merchants, as it is a huge trading center for Thai Chinese. It centers around Charoen Krung and Yaowarat streets, and there's a section/side street zone for different kinds of merchandise. We saw fabric stores. Lace stores. Jewelry stores. Thanon Burapha, in case you're in the market, is the place to go for a huge assortment of firearms. Another street was full of leather and furniture shops. In fact, Lasia took us on a bit of a side detour to see the leather workshop of a friend of hers who's just getting started designing functional leather totes. Very cool: DWNTWN

It is also full of cars. Traffic is intense, and nobody I know likes to drive there because, while it's easy to get in, it is all but impossible to get out. For a bike, this just means a little extra care, though. Obviously, you are free to ride between cars and escape the torture of being stuck in small metal cages for hours between stoplights.

Oh yeah, and most surprisingly of all, we saw a corpse. On a stretcher, being wheeled down a back soi. It took us a few moments to register, but when we did, we dismounted, and exited the zone with maximum discretion.

Photos! (Full Picasa)

Straight past that monument to the left is Talad Saphan Put. And of course, Saphan Put, if you wanted to go to Thonburi.

And then we rode accidentally into a group of dining pigeons

Holy pigeon pig-out 
Khlong Rop Krung...

...legacy of Rama I

Thanon Songwat
Cafe Samsara, hidden gem, probably my favorite restaurant in Bangkok

It's REALLY tucked back in there. View of the river, great homemade ginger soda and lotus chips.

It just looked so Chinese!

River City, from the non-river side. This is right across from the Millenium Hilton

Frieze on the wall of a wealthy Chinese family's house

Julia, photographing a cute dog next to the blessing tree. This tree is old and full of spirits-the cloth warns you not to cut it down. I think.

Because even spirits need a cold one sometimes
Florian's leather shop DWNTWN

Thanon Yaowarat. So China, so crazy.

Map time. So, I don't really recommend our route, as it was super confusing and we did some rather dangerous stuff that I do not endorse due to general confusedness about where we were going, but we had a heck of a great time, and the pictures rock. So for the map, I am only going to put some pins to generally outline where we were, and leave route planning up to you! I do recommend Chinatown-it's amazing and you will see things that will probably, um, expand your horizons. Be warned, though, if you ride there, and don't have a back soi route in mind, you will need to be a strong urban cyclist. That means, you act like traffic and ride at roughly the speed of traffic. You and a motorcycle are the same thing. If you are at all hesitant, if you don't take the lane or the split between the lanes, you could get  unbelievably inconvenienced or maybe squished. But don't let it scare you off! Just watch out and be bold.

View Guns, gems, leather, and lace in a larger map

Amazing mazes: Riding the sois around Phra Sumen Road/Grand Palace/Golden Mount Temple (Wat Saket)

I just have to start by saying: Cafe Velodome is my new favorite bicycle hangout. It is a true bike cafe, in that it is always full of happy sweaty (or soon to be sweaty) cyclists, friendly staff, and bike books and paraphernalia everywhere. Right on the Thammasat University campus across from Sanam Luang, it is also super convenient for a lot of really cool rides in the surrounding neighborhoods. I highly recommend.

A couple weeks ago, I went to check out Velodome for the first time, and got caught up in a group ride where K. Nan took us on this fabulous, twisty-turny hidden Bangkok route. I think she runs a group ride for new cyclists (meaning, an awesome tour of sois with little traffic) every Sunday around 11am. But check with Velo to make sure it's happening before you go.

The thing about this ride is that you see parts of Bangkok that seem stuck in time. That you wouldn't really ever know existed if you stayed on the main roads. And you see people truly living their lives. Some of the passages are very tight, and you get right into peoples' living space, but little politeness, a sawatdee-ka, and some chit chat makes it a great experience for both sides. So far, most of the locals seem pretty excited to see people on bikes coming through their backyards, and they're happy to give directions (is there a way out if I go down this way? yes? thanks so much!!!). But I'll let the pictures tell the main story. Full Picasa album here with more great shots: Picasa

Julia, at Velodome, looking lovely

Me, at Velodome, looking excited

Walkway on the Chao Praya, parallel to Th. Phra Athit

Back soi not far from Phra Sumen Fort

Soi chess-ckers?

Temple of the Golden Mount. 

I swear it is the most beautiful temple in Bangkok

Leaving the temple campus

Riding through peoples' laundry into a market

Canal ways

I don't know what that is but it was cooking outside by the canal so I photographed it. And then was embarrassed when the chef came out and caught me doing it. "Sawatdee ka, du aroy ka...." "Hi, it looks good..." blush, blush

Goddess of Bike

Goddess of Bike and Tree

I don't know what it means. Still, it is cool.

Phra Sumen Fort

Before I sign off, I have to share a quick anecdote about a conversation with a truck on my way to meet Julia at Velodome before doing this ride. It isn't so much funny due to the content as due to the fact that I believed I was having one conversation, while the driver of the truck behind had a totally different understanding of the nature of our communication.

So I was rolling along at a high rate of speed, as is my wont and habit for safety and pure personal preference reasons, down a smallish soi with this truck behind me. This soi is so small and full of speed bumps that cars have no business going any faster than that. But I had this truck tailgating me for over a kilometer. Here's how the conversation was going in my head until a key moment at a traffic light changed the whole thing:

Me: gosh this guy is so impatient can't he see how fast and cool I am why does he need to pass me
Truck: Why is this bicycle in my road. Foreigners! Doesn't she know that bikes are toys?
Me: I'm riding faster! Faster! Please don't pass me you will slow down and annnnoyyyyy me as soon as you do.
Truck: What the. I would have passed that bike if not for that tuk tuk in the oncoming lane. Rage.
(And then we get to a light)
Truck: Finally. I will hit the accelerator and leave this bike in the dust as soon as the light changes. Let me just edge a little further up so she can't jump in front of me...
Me: Oh yeah? You think you're going to beat me off the block at this light? You think you can accelerate safely into this intersection faster than me? I WILL SHOW YOU HOW FAST I CAN GET MOVING INTO THIS INTERSECTION.
And then it happened. He rolled down his window, snapped a picture of me with his iPhone, and gave me a huge grin and a big thumbs-up. The below picture, while obviously of me on my couch writing this blog in my pajamas, is a reenactment of my astonishment.
You mean you don't hate me?

The next picture is a re-enactment of how delighted I was as soon as he made it clear he just thought I was beautiful and amazing and wanted to have a better look at me on my bike:

Hi, Friend!

So that is actually what has been happening kind of frequently lately, as I spend more time biking on smaller streets and less time on the big ones full of traffic. I get lots of high-fives, photo ops, and thumbs-ups. Moral of the story? Sometimes, maybe I don't need to ride so fast. Perhaps it's worth slowing down and taking the scenic route. That's pretty deep, right? Me<---bike philosopher.


View Amazing Mazes ride in a larger map

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Bangkok's bicycle infrastructure: Raised cycle track between Lumpini and Benjakiti parks

Riding in the Sukhumvit area of Bangkok is an experience I typically rate on a par with dried fish markets and cut rate tattoo parlors: the air quality is poor, and it is hazardous to my health. However, my friend Katy and I discovered on our Monday night bikesploring expedition that there is a way you can ride near Sukhumvit without actually needing to experience it.

Katy and I actually found the bicycle path while running at Lumpini about a month ago. The funny thing is that I read about this track nearly a year and a half ago but never figured out where it was exactly, leading me to believe it was, like unicorns, mythical. Turns out it was, like unicorns, hiding in a really convenient location waiting to be discovered, and is accessed via the footbridge at the northeast corner of the park. Because it is away from big streets for the most part, it is a surprisingly serene, wide track that leads directly to another park with a cycle path, Benjakitti, and has the merit of being absolutely inaccessible to anything motorized. It is a little awkward because it changes levels often enough that one must dismount and walk the bike up and down stairs at least three times, but despite that, it is an ideal cycle or running commute for anyone living in Phrom Phong or Asok areas and working at any of the embassies or establishments on Witthayu or Ruam Rudee. I am jealous of those lucky bastards.

Here's the route we took from my place in Ari to the path, and a little continued journey to Emporium, where we treated ourselves to gelato before taking the skytrain back.

View Monday night tour d'park ~10 miles in a larger map


Starting from NE corner of Lumpini-Katy walks the Lotus up the stairs. Luckily, there are these ramps there for all the stairs on this route.

Selfie over Witthayu

Conrad Hotel and Thanon Witthayu, from the footbridge

City by night, on the track on our way to Benjakitti
A lower portion of the track, with a canal to the left

Benchasiri Park, next to Emporium Phrom Phong

Katy takes in the lights

Waiting for the train!

We are so happy.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

King's Birthday Ride-Sanam Luang, Thanon Ratchadamnoen, Grand Palace

Normally I wouldn't put up two similar rides in a row, but this one was kind of special. I heard in my Thai class last night that the area around the Grand Palace and Ratchadamnoen Road gets lit up this week for the King's Birthday (that'd be today, the 5th) and that yesterday would be the day to go as today it'd be packed. So I headed south west to see what all the fuss was about. There is still time to do this-I am sure at least through Friday and possibly through the weekend there will still be lights to go see, and I do recommend.

Guys, this is the Thai equivalent of going to your local American retirement village mid-December to gawk at the lights extravaganzas while cruising in slow formation with all the other gawkers.

Corner of Ratchawithi and Rama V

I don't know what that is but it looks like fairyland

Photo of a guy taking a photo of the lights

More fairyland

The best part of the ride was when I joined up with these guys just after turning onto Ratchadamnoen (how could I pass up a giant peloton just hanging out in matching outfits on the street? Notice a couple of them are really cute, also.) I was not the only person with a bike and a fabulous plan-there were dozens of other cyclists out and about checking out the scene as well.

Sampran cycling team. They actually rode all the way here from Sampran last night - and back.

Obviously, I think this whole situation is the best thing ever.

Democracy Monument

Then we got to the Grand Palace, where there was a whole festival going down in the park:

Thai dancing

Lawn with Thaksin Bridge in the background

Video, for maximum atmospheric flavor:

And finally, can't do without the Map:

View King's Birthday Ride in a larger map