|Click on a photo to see the full-sized version
The Thai Poet Naowarat Pongpaiboon
|Wat Rakhang Khositaram
from Mae Nam Chao Phraya River
|Cycling in Bangkok
The Calmest Moment of the Day
BANGKOK, Thailand The sun burned through
the thin curtains sending a warm beam directly
onto the bed of the small hostel room. It couldn’t
be morning, could it? Did I actually sleep?
Motorbike taxis zipped back and forth through
the narrow Soi outside the window and the rolling
gates on the front of the tailor shop downstairs
sounded like a freight train rumbling by as they
arrived to get ready for work.
I glanced at my watch, 8:08 pm, and made a
mental note to change it fourteen hours ahead.
Our tiny room was cluttered with our bicycles, still
protected in their cardboard boxes from the flight
to Bangkok from Los Angeles. Amanda was
sound asleep wearing her eye cover and
earplugs. She could sleep through a nuclear
attack with those.
It was a miracle we had made it this far. In the
weeks leading up to our departure it seemed
from news accounts that the entire kingdom of
Thailand was in pandemonium. The Prime
Minister of the country took a trip to the United
Nations in New York and while he was out of town
the military decided to seize power in a coup and
declared martial law. The Thai version of martial
law, beamed around the world on CNN, consisted of peaceful, happy,
smiling soldiers posing for photos with dazed backpackers in front of
tanks parked at the major intersections. But martial law was martial law.
Days after the coup a brand-new international airport opened in
Bangkok. With the Prime Minister gone, his cronies responsible for
managing the new airport flew the coop. Chaos reigned. The
computerized baggage system failed and the military leaders called in
their troops to help sort the tens of thousands of bags lost in the process.
I had worried for weeks about getting the bikes to Thailand. Checking-in
for our China Airlines flight six hours early I worried that they would want
to charge us excess baggage fees. The boxed bikes were far larger than
their permissible dimensions. But then I realized that everyone else in
line, Taiwanese tourists returning home from shopping excursions in the
U.S., were bringing back enough goods to stock a small home appliance
store. The smiling young woman who checked us in did not bat an eye at
our oversized boxes.
As we boarded the plane the flight attendant handed us each a
newspaper. The front-page story featured a large photograph of the
congested streets of Bangkok. It showed two young monks wrapping
their orange robes around their arms as they waded through waist deep
murky waters. The city was completely under water. The seasonal rains
were particularly heavy in the north and the resulting overflow of the
Chao Phraya River filled the capital to the rim.
As the plane touched down I was worried about everything. Would the
immigration officer give us a hard time because we had only one-way
tickets? Would the bikes arrive? Would they be damaged? How would
we get them from the airport to the hostel? Would we be able to get a
room at the hostel?
Walking to immigration Amanda was as calm as a cucumber and a bit
annoyed with my fretting. “Don’t worry, everything will work out,” she
The immigration officer stamped a 60-day visa into our passports, giving
us plenty of time to pedal through her country. Our bikes were waiting
for us at the Oversized Luggage counter and we loaded them onto carts
along with our bags. A blast of milky hot air engulfed us as we wheeled
the carts toward the taxi stand. A minibus taxi driver helped us load
Amanda’s bike and our packs into his vehicle. My bike would not fit.
Without a second thought he began to hoist it to the roof and used our
bungee cords to secure it in place. Covered in an drenching sweat we
climbed into the comfort of the air-conditioned vehicle and sped toward
the city. The owner of the hostel welcomed us and did not fuss about a
Peering out the window of our room the next morning, watching Bangkok
come to life, I could see no evidence of a martial law or impending flood.
All was well in the land of smiles.
At the communal breakfast we chatted with Jason, a friendly modern
dancer from San Francisco. Together we decided to walk to an out of
the way Wat (temple monastery) then have lunch before he caught the
overnight train to Chiang Mai in the northern mountains of Thailand.
Leaving the Wat we headed toward a nearby soi famous for it’s noodle
stalls. Turning a corner we came upon a group of vendors, some with
push carts, others with fixed outdoor restaurants, standing behind woks
and bubbling cauldrons full of mysterious stews, unidentifiable meats,
and bewildering vegetables. It was all so foreign. I could not read the
Thai script, could not distinguish between the overpowering, unfamiliar
smells and had no idea how we were going to make ourselves
That’s when it occurred to me, I could not speak even one simple word
of Thai. I could not even communicate basic concepts, “left, right, yes,
no, sweet, spicy, thank you.” Nothing.
No problem, I thought. Amanda is a talking Muppet. On our last journey
she was the walking and talking Berlitz. Drop her in the middle of Africa
and suddenly Swahili spouts from her lips. So I stood and waited for the
lingual miracle to occur once again.
But nothing happened. She could not talk either. Together the three of
us strolled among the noodle stands looking bewildered until Jason came
to the rescue. He found a small restaurant stall with a bilingual
Thai/English menu where the cook could speak a bit of English.
It must have taken all of Jason’s self control to keep from laughing at the
his two foolish companions who claimed to be cycling across the country
but could not say one word in the local language. Waiting for our plates
he tutored us in basic Thai.
He explained, “Some phrases are different for gender. For example, to
say ‘thank you’ a man would say ‘Khawp Khun Khrap’ while a women
would say ‘Khawp Khun Kha”
Amanda repeated over and over, “Khawp Khun Kha Khawp Khun Kha,
Khawp Khun Kha”, out loud so that other patrons hunched over their
bowls of noodles looked at her and laughed.
Under my breath I said “Khawp Khun Khrap” until I had it fixed in my
When the plates arrived Jason looked on expectantly as we both turned
to the women and said, “Thank you” in unison, in English. After lunch he
left us to our fate and caught his train to the north.
The next morning I woke with a mission. Amanda sensed trouble in the
air and fled to the common area of the hostel with her maps and
guidebooks just after breakfast. With the room to myself I slowly,
carefully unpacked the bicycles from their boxes and began the process
of reassembly. I was determined to take my time and patiently construct
them without getting frustrated or angry, without throwing anything across
the room or making any obviously stupid mistakes. In short, I was
resolved to be someone entirely different from myself for the hours it
would take to get the bikes built.
Amazingly, they were completely undamaged, a great surprise
considering the way I had stuffed them into the box a few days before. I
started with Amanda’s bike first, installing the front and rear racks, the
seat, handlebars, pedals, wheels and then adjusted the brakes and
gearing. It went together perfectly. Remarkably I had remembered to
bring all the tools I needed. With confidence I attacked my bike next.
Again it went together with little difficulty and I didn’t curse once.
Amanda poked her head into the room, glanced at the two bicycles
skeptically and asked, “And you’re not angry?”
“Nope, not a bit.”
“Then let’s go for a ride,” she said. “I mapped out a route to Khao San
Road. There are a few English language bookstores there where we can
get a Thai phrasebook.”
I carried the bikes down the stairs as the daughter of the hostel’s owner
watched with surprise. When Amanda came down with two panniers the
young girl said in a high pitched nasally voice, “You not ride bikes here
Without missing a beat Amanda matched her pitch and inflection, “Yes,
bike Khoa San Road.” She sounded like she was doing an impression of
Al from Happy Days. “We buy book talk Thai.”
“Ahhhh, but it very far Khao San. Very dangerous, traffic, air bad,” the
girl said skeptically.
“We try.” Amanda responded.
The hostel, Suk 11, is on a small Soi or alley that dumps out onto
Sukhumvit Road, a major thoroughfare. At the corner we straddled our
bikes and watched the chaos unfold while waiting for just the right
moment to push out into the rush of traffic.
Bangkok traffic consists of many millions of regular taxis, death wish
moped-scooters taxis, ruthless three wheeled motorcycle taxis called tuk-
tuks, and enormous, lumbering, smog belching buses. Whereas in most
cities drivers avoid the slower outer lane, the one where we would ride
our bicycle, here in Bangkok there is fierce competition between taxis,
tuk-tuks, mopeds and buses for the curbside.
To add another element to our already bewildered state, they drive on
the left in Southeast Asia. For those of us who come from a right-hand-
drive world, this makes everything backward. It is enormously difficult to
anticipate what a driver will do when every move he makes is the
complete opposite of what you expect.
Once we entered the flow Amanda pedaled furiously to keep up with the
speeding mopeds passing us on the left and the right. She weaved
through a maze of streets, merged with buses, gave hand signals to tuk-
tuks to tell them we were coming into their lane, watched for pedestrians
stepping out into the street, and pointed to the ubiquitous metal grates
with openings the width of bicycle tires – all the while consulting her map
and watching for street signs in English. I struggled to follow on this roller
coaster ride across the city, gulping lungs full of smog and trying not to
lose Amanda’s tail.
That night, lying in bed, I looked at the map and wondered if we could
cycle out of Bangkok in one day. Is the cycling going to be this chaotic
every day? Where would we spend the night once we left the comfort of
the hostel? Would we be able to find things to eat? And bathrooms. Will
we be able to find places to go along the road?
All of these things swirled through my head as Amanda looked up from
the phrase book she was studying and said, “Don’t worry. It will all work