For months I had been hearing travel gossip that a Bangkok bike tour was the thing to do in Thailand’s capital city. I was intrigued. Biking in Bangkok? It didn’t seem to add up: this is a city famous for traffic, urban development and chaos, not scenic bike paths! But I’m willing to investigate anything that’s earned some hype on the traveler scene.
There are quite a few companies offering Bangkok bike tours, so when it was time to investigate I took a look at trusty Tripadvisor and found Grasshopper Adventures. They hold the title for #1 Tours in Bangkok on the old T-visor (as it’s known around… my apartment) and quite frankly have the best range of reviews I’ve ever seen on that site.
Grasshopper Adventures offers tours all throughout South East Asia but in Bangkok alone has half a dozen offerings. We were on a limited schedule which eliminated several of the tours that only go a few times a week. Instead we settled on the Bangkok Night Bike tour, which departs daily at 6pm. We met up with our group at the shop, located a five minute walk from Khao San Road, and were fitted for bikes and helmets.
As I mentioned in my last post, my mom and sister were not the most willing participants at this point. They had arrived in the country at 8:00am, only to be dragged around the temples of Bangkok all day. Determined not to let them nap and succumb to jetlag, I arranged our bike tour for that very night.
Did I mention that my sister hadn’t rode a bike since we were in primary school? She was a little nervous, but the tour description listed the Night Tour’s difficulty as easy, and the terrain as flat. I was a tad apprehensive myself, having never really felt totally at ease on my bicycle in Brooklyn. I quickly realized there might have been a good reason why: my vintage fixed gear couldn’t hold a candle to the 24-speed imported mountain bikes we were using on this tour. I couldn’t get over how light the frame was and how easy the bikes were to maneuver.
The tour started with a relatively short and simple ride to the Chao Phraya River. Though like many backpackers I have spent much time in the Khao San Road area, we passed through alleys and streets I would never have considered turning onto. Once at the docks we boarded a ferry to escort us the short distance to the west side of the river, a completely new destination for me.
At this point in the tour traffic was minimal, but it was still somewhat tricky to stick together in a group of nearly 10 people, all with different riding abilities. We were staying towards the back due to my sister’s apprehension on the bike, and a few times we fell quite far behind the group. I took part in delaying us as well with my constant attempts to take photos with a DSLR camera while simultaneously riding a bicycle. Hint: This is not recommended.
Our first major destination was Wat Arun, also known as “Temple of the Dawn.” As soon as I could see the brightly lit Wat in the distance I knew we were in for a treat.
The ornate detailing of the 270 foot-tall prangs (Khmer style towers) was only enhanced by the illumination. We couldn’t venture inside as the temples were closed for the evening, but I was pleased just to explore the mystical grounds.
While we collected our breath and took photographs, our guide filled us in on the history and symbolism of the many structures.
Already the tour was a success for me. I had checked off two Bangkok firsts: a ferry ride on the Chao Phraya River and a visit to Wat Arun. Both were spectacular.
At this point in the tour the route became more difficult. Traffic increased, alleys narrowed and the roads became a bit more hazardous. I started to become a bit skeptical of the tour’s “easy” rating, but hey, at least we had helmets!
While it may have been challenging, this was also the most fascination portion of our route. For me, Bangkok had become about the temples and backpackers of Banglamphu, or the commercialism and skyscrapers of Sukhumvit. Here, tiny winding side streets revealed residential neighborhoods of laundry hung out to dry, families having dinner on the front stoop, and other little details of daily life. It was a voyeuristic peek into the daily life of the residents of outer Bangkok: through a second story window I glanced at appeared to be dance practice; through a fence I watched someone repaint a giant golden dragon.
My mom and sister expressed some discomfort at what they felt was our intrusion on local people’s evening routine. After living in South East Asia for several months now I had none of the same emotions, and explained to them that, to the best of my observation, there is a different sense of private space and property here than there is in the west.
Before passing back over the Chao Phraya River, this time by bridge, we rode along an empty riverfront promenade. It was a great break from the traffic and a nice stretch of biking. Our next stop was the undoubted highlight of the entire tour: The Pak Khlong Flower Market. We locked up our bikes and set off to wander on foot.
I have only recently been clued into the amazing markets that Bangkok has to offer, and this one was no exception to the awesomeness. It was about 9pm at this point, but supposedly things don’t really get going until around midnight. The flowers are sold wholesale to florists around the city, or individually to walk-by customers.
Interestingly, our guide told us that nearly 70% of the flowers here are sold as religious offerings. Anyone who has ever seen a roadside shrine in Thailand or been in a Bangkok taxi cab will recognize these omnipresent marigolds.
While at the market I challenged myself to try to take photos of the local vendors. Shooting people is my greatest weakness because I’m usually too polite to stick a camera in someone’s face and too shy to strike up a conversation. But one thing I’ve realized when shooting with my super wide angle lens is that the frame is so wide, people often don’t realize they are in the picture. So my subjects acted naturally, assuming I was taking photos of their lovely products!
Someday maybe I’ll graduate to having actual conversational skills. For now, I just have sneakiness.
But these are some of my favorite photos from the night, so I think it was worth it. Do you guys have the same struggles I do with trying to photograph people? Any tips or suggestions?
Of course, the flowers themselves were the focus of most of my shots. I absolutely loved the way so many of the flowers were wrapped in newspaper.
There’s just something about the foreign writing in a medium we know so well. It makes something so ordinary into something so exotic. Mix in red roses, and you’ve got something really dreamy.
Our guide not only led us around the maze of blooms but also treated us all to some snacks from the ubiquitous street food stalls. Unfortunately I was too distracted by the bright colors all around me to remember the name of the snack this man was making for us.
Later, when I was telling a Bangkok-based friend about my trip here, he regaled me with a romantic tale of coming to the market and filling an entire car with flowers for a certain lucky lady. Who could say no to a car full of these?
If I lived in Bangkok, I think I might have to come here on a weekly basis and fill my apartment with fresh flower arrangements. And I could afford it, too. Look at these prices… 130 baht for a bouquet is about $4 US dollars.
I didn’t want to leave The Pak Khlong market. But now that I know where and what it is, I can assure you I’ll be back!
Our final stop on this Bangkok bike tour was at Wat Pho, which we had explored earlier in the day.
Again, we couldn’t go inside. But that didn’t take away from the experience of getting so up close and personal with the beautifully illuminated Wat. Following the evening’s pattern of experimental photography, I laid right down on the ground, flat on my back to get this shot.
And with that we were on our way back to the Grasshopper Adventures office to turn in our bikes. The night ended with one spectacular ride through a park, free from cars and pedestrians. It was so freeing to ride without obstruction down a clear path, and the sight of our group zooming past the trees, dripping with fairy lights, was absolutely stunning.
This tour was an experience I won’t soon forget, and I’m happy to say it lived up to the hype. Still, I did have a few points of concern. While many on Tripadvisor raved about their guides, I had a hard time understand the accent of ours and she didn’t seem to share much history and background. Mostly I was quite shocked by the difficulty of the ride. Yes, it was flat and not physically arduous. But avoiding the traffic, pedestrians, and other obstructions of a major metropolis was quite stressful, and with all the distractions it was pretty easy to lose the group while riding. There was a point when the entire group lost the guide! Many parts of the route were so narrow or pot-holed I got off the bike and walked with it. Perhaps the most novice of riders would be more comfortable starting with one of Grasshopper’s countryside tours.
Those minor drawbacks aside, I can’t think of a better introduction to Bangkok! Grasshopper Tours really wowed me with their creative route, great location, top-notch bikes, and excellent customer service. When we arrived at the tour and there weren’t enough small-frame bikes for my shortie sister and I, the owner went in the back and put together a brand new bicycle in moments. That’s service! And at $35 for nearly four hours of touring, it couldn’t be a better value.
As my mom and sister finally succumbed to sleep in the cab ride back to our hotel, I played the day back in my mind over and over. It was the perfect day to introduce my family to a city I love so dearly.
Many thanks to Grasshopper Adventures for sponsoring me on the amazing Nighttime Bangkok Bike Tour. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.
Wish I had been there
Liar! You said you didn’t want to do it in response to my official Bangkok planning email 🙂
Great post Alex, and very brave of your poor, jet-lagged family – go Mom and Sis!!!
LOVE the photos, really felt like I was there… I am getting over my apprehension of taking photos of people, as they are my favourite subjects to photograph. My rule is, if they’re not frowning at me, or seeming uncomfortable, I’ll shoot them! (you know what I mean!)
Haha, I do know what you mean, but your “I’ll shoot them!” comment still made me giggle 🙂 Thanks for the kudos!
Lovely to know that you love my city :-)) And the snacks the man was doing at Pak Klong so called “Kanom buang” Your post really make me “home sick” …
Thanks for answering my snack query! Good to know! I do indeed love Bangkok, you have a great hometown!
That’s it, you have the coolest family EVER! These pics are AMAZING!!!!!!
Awww, thanks Andi! I will have to show them this comment 🙂 And thanks for the photo compliment… these are some of my favorite travel photos in ages!
Biking is scary!!! And not only did I not ride a bIke since grade school I didn’t learn to ride a bike till like 4th grade….
You were always a bit of a slow learner….
Your family sure likes to bike when traveling, eh? =) I would travel well with them–anything active is how I like to spend my days on the road!
It’s true! And ironically I am not a very active person in “real” life… but when I’m traveling I’m all for signing up for white water rafting and diving and God forbid, HIKING.
I’m with you on photographing people. Awkward doesn’t begin got describe it for me. Back when I was (warning, shameless plug ahead) traveling the USA in 1983 going to sports events, an adventure that became my first book, “The Call of the Game,” I found taking pictures of people — even people I had just talked to/interviewed at length — so stressful that within a few weeks of the year-long trip I stopped taking pictures COMPLETELY. You can imagine how now I wish I had hurdled that fear. So stay with it. My only suggestion would be to never really actually ever get over that awkward feeling — it will remind you always to respect the subject matter because they are, you know, in fact, PEOPLE.
I like that way of thinking about it…. that the awkwardness helps us. Other photographers who excel in photographing people seem to say the key is spending time with them. But I think I’d be like you… I’d still feel awkward! But yeah, I don’t think anything could ever stop me from taking photos altogether 🙂
It’s my dream that my beloved country has bike lane because there are lots of places to go by bike. Your pics are Great! Thanks for coming to Bangkok Thailand.
Thank you for having such a great hometown, Kim! I love Bangkok!
I love how well you express yourself in all your posts. You really manage to make us feel like we are along for the journey. Regarding photographing people, I think your sneaky wide angle is a perfect solution! Not intrusive or uncomfortable for the subject, and you still get the beautiful shots. My partner has been a professional photographer for over 20 years and he thinks your composition and artistic viewpoint are beautiful!
Thank you so much, that’s a wonderful compliment! I appreciate it 🙂
Oh man. Biking IS scary! I don’t know if I could keep up for FOUR HOURS, but your post makes me want to try! What a lovely tour. Kudos to your family for staying awake – I bet they were happy they did, after seeing all of this!
Haha, they definitely still talk about this trip… though I’m not sure if it’s in a happy or eye-rolling kind of way 😉 I loved it though!
Been on that one too! Very inspirational!
Loved this tour!