Just north of the Khao San Road area, there's a little canal, or khlong. And right across the canal is the Samsen area, a residential neighborhood with a feel of old Bangkok, complete with several cheap guesthouses and bars. I imagine this was how Khao San Road was when the first foreign backpackers stumbled onto it in the mid-80s.
Khao San Road and its surrounding streets and alleys compile the ultimate budget traveller’s ghetto, a neighbourhood that is still an actual neighbourhood, but superficially appears to exist solely to fulfill the needs of any foreign traveller who happens through South-East Asia. The maze of guesthouses, internet cafes, laundries, coffee shops, restaurants, and travel agencies is dotted with foot massage storefronts, street food carts, T-shirt vendors, and annoying fortune-tellers. The grungy guesthouses described in the book The Beach are no longer the norm, as Khao San Road has slowly renovated. But even the nicer hotels are still cheapish at $30 or so a night, and there is so much competition that the better hotels include free WiFi, two free bottles of water a day, in-room safe, and free breakfast.
The Thai families that run the permanent storefronts do not change. These people are here every day, for at least the decade-and-a-half that I’ve been visiting. But the visitors are transient wisps, breezing through for a moment, barely visible for the one or two nights they float through, enjoying the convenience of all-in-one as they pause en route to somewhere else, probably somewhere more challenging.
Hang around long enough, I figure, and eventually, you’ll randomly run into someone you know. In 2001 during my first MariesWorldTour.com circumnavigation of the world, I ran into a friend’s brother’s ex-wife, who lives in Kathmandu.
This time, I hadn’t run into anyone I knew. But then, I’d seemed to spend most of my waking hours either working in my room, working via the free WiFi at Coffee World, prone on a foot massage chaise lounge, or running around Bangkok tracking down visas and new shoes for the next half of my round-the-world voyage.
All that working and staring into my laptop had made me really excited for tonight’s cycling excursion from across the khlong over in Samsen.
The bike shop, Velo Thailand, was easy to find – I’d been there a week earlier, trying to get onto a different nighttime cycle trip, but had been rained out.
I strolled up to a bike that had been outfitted and sized for me. The cycle shopkeeper introduced me to my Thai guide, a young university-age woman who was studying archeology, and a Dutch family of two parents and two toddlers on kid-seats. Thanks to the Dutch family, we had a trip.
Riding around the streets of Bangkok at night on a bicycle does seem a bit mad, I admit. But this ride went through the old lanes and historical part of Bangkok, not through the centre of modern downtown. People survived it every day. But I still wore a helmet.
I tested my bike bell.
One of the toddlers had been given a squeaky toy instead of a bike bell. He trumpeted our arrival everywhere we went for the evening.
We took off heading west through some alleys over to the river. We crossed the khlong and stopped at Phra Sumen Fort, a whitewashed octagonal tower built more than two hundred years ago. Santichaiprakar Park sits alongside the fort, and lots of local residents hang out in the park at sunset – sketching, playing guitar, dreaming, socialising, or doing the free aerobics that occur nightly. I loved the variety of ages among the participants – young Thai women to old Thai men were out doing their free six o'clock aerobics class.
Leaving the park, we cycled along a metal footpath over the river. I was remembering quickly how to go around sharp turns and distracted people on mobile phones.
Finally, we crossed the grounds of Thammasat University and came to a river taxi pier. "Follow me," said our guide. She dismounted and led us through a busy marketplace and onto a ferry.
Standing on the ferry, our bicycles awkwardly crowding those around us, we held our bikes up and crossed the river over to another busy market, next to a hospital where the Thai king was staying for an unspecified illness.
The market shut down quickly and we were able to cycle through rather than walk. A brief ride on the other end brought us to Wat Arun.
I'd been to this temple at night once before, in 2003 when I stopped in Bangkok en route to Sri Lanka from my then-home in Australia. Wat Arun is lit beautifully after dark, and I'd been curious enough to find a ferry so I could cross over to examine it.
We cycled then along another narrow riverside walkway, me nearly plowing into a few partying teens, and went up a slope onto Memorial Bridge. Crossing this with dozens of pedestrians was terrifying, but nothing compared to the traffic madness of the night market that we descended into back on our own bank of the Chao Phraya River. Fortunately, most of the traffic was stopped so we were able to weave slowly through.
“The Dutch are much better at this than I am,” I thought.
Finally, we locked our bikes and walked, touring the flower and vegetable markets, the Dutch kids fascinated by every new bright sweet.
The kids were tiring by eight – they wanted to go back to their hotel to go to sleep. But we had one last stop to make.
We cycled to Wat Po, which I'd been to many times by day. Wat Po is an amazing monastery with ornate tile work and what seems like hundreds of stupas (this is also where you'll find a fortune-tellers pavilion and a massage school).
Wat Po at night is now on my Bangkok must-do list. The pavilions and stupas were lit, peaceful, serene, atmospheric, and lovely. Even the toddlers climbed the stairs with the adults to stand quietly. The Dutch mum and I waited while they climbed down with their dad.
"Amazing," she said.
I nodded my agreement.
We cycled slowly back to the bike shop, quiet now with no more squeaking announcing our presence.
I bid my cycle and new friends good-bye and headed back to Rambuttri for some pad thai and a foot massage.
The busker across the street was singing "Bohemian Rhapsody". Meanwhile, my passport was successfully making its visa rounds, I'd seen two temples by night, and had made it through old Bangkok on a bicycle without getting smushed in traffic.
A perfect night in Bangkok. Even though it was all a bit mad.
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