Greg Lowe: Why cycling in Bangkok is suited only for the suicidal
I was having a conversation with someone in the pub the other night who explained that Thai for cyclist, “khon ki jakayaan,” also loosely translates into “lemming” -- a breed of death-lusting gerbils with a reputation for diving off cliffs onto pointy, jagged rocks.
This was an astonishing revelation. I was totally hooked by the discussion, until the said bar fly-cum-linguist pointed out other alleged synonyms for our velo-centric friends such as “Guardian reader” and “toss pots."
At this stage I realized my leg was being yanked, but why let a bad joke in a fictitious conversation that took place in a pub that doesn’t exist get in the way of things?
The point is there is something eminently suicidal about cycling in Bangkok and that grim reality is a tragedy.
The grand-capital-of-the-world-endowed-with-nine-precious-gems has a lot going for it as a cyclist’s city, if you ignore the pollution, intense heat and drivers who could give David Carradine a run for his money (in the context of the original "Death Race 2000" (circa 1975), not his swan song in the wardrobe of Room 352 at Bangkok's Nai Lert Park Hotel).
For one thing it’s flat. That means a lot for those who prefer to pump pedals than fritter their life away in the air-conditioned climes of a car or some other motorized vehicle.
Furthermore, the city is pretty much based on a grid, which makes it easy to navigate. Plus, there’s plenty of stuff to look at if you get lost, anyway.
When you’re stuck in the back of a cab, or driving your "mia noi" around in a Mercedes Benz that you can’t afford but are completely prepared to ruin your kids’ education to pay for, Bangkok can too often look like a dismal grey city.
In many ways it is, but as renowned architect, National Artist and caustic social commentator Dr. Sumet Jumsai Na Ayudhaya told the BBC some time ago, “Bangkok is a city of hidden beauty.”
One of the best places to appreciate that beauty, and the energy and vibrancy that make Bangkok such a great city, is from a saddle.
There are few better ways to explore districts, sub sois and small communities than by cycling around. You get to see the color of everyday life, discover small markets and get to know mom and pop shophouse restaurants that sell fantastic local food.
And if you’re unlikely to get on your bike and ride, then there’s slim chance you’ll ever bother to walk around many of these areas.
It’s also a grand way of taking in the city’s impressive sites and historic centers –- it’s no surprise that the local authorities decided to launch their free bike scheme for tourists in Rattanakosin Island and just across the Chaopraya River around Phran Nok.
Recently, I decided to start cycling to work. The grand plan which involved a largely enjoyable 45-kilometer round trip lasted precisely one day.
Despite carefully selecting a safe route that avoided the six-lane roads where cars zip past at 120 kilometers per hour blasting their horns at the last second in a bid to finish you off with a cardiac arrest, I returned home to be instructed by my wife that I was not to undertake the journey again.
My protestations about how safe the trip was fell on deaf ears and I was told it would be nice if our three-year-old daughter could grow up knowing her dad rather than pay respects to an urn containing his ashes because he got flattened by a 10-wheel truck cycling to work.
The fact that I felt liberated by the journey which enabled me to take in spice shops, a Sikh temple, tiny goldsmiths, historic buildings, flower markets and many more places that I’d passed on numerous occasions but never paid any attention too added little weight to my argument.
Friends who ride motorbikes around town concurred with my wife and said I was mad to even consider it, adding that the longer you cycle in Bangkok the more likely you are to pay the ultimate price.
The sad thing is they’re probably right. Cycling any distance in Bangkok means taking your life in your hands and hitting the road or being relegated to the drudgery of riding circuits at Lumpini Park, until they ban bikes there that is.
A few years back there was a ray of hope when the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority painted white lines on pavements along Sukhumvit Road.
The idea that these would be used for cycle paths were quickly dispelled as the new space was claimed by motorbike taxis and city inspectors who started “fining” vendors whose stalls crossed the lines.
Currently the only half-decent dedicated track runs along a canal from Sarasin Road to the back of Sukhumvit Soi 4. It’s notable mainly for the stench of urine and mountains of dog poo that haven’t been cleared up for years.
While making the city fit for cyclists is far from a priority for the local authorities -- after all just how much “procurement leakage” can there be from a project that involves painting white lines on pavement -- it’s a great pity that more isn’t being done.
Canal tow paths could be repaired, the walkways under the BTS could incorporate cycle lanes and the Fortuner-driving fascists could give bikes a wider berth.
Until then, all we can hope for is that the tight Lycra pants and hard saddles don’t prevent those brave pioneering cyclists who are foolhardy enough to take to Bangkok’s dangerous roads from breeding like rodents and proving that lemmings can be a force for change.