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Tanya Meyer shares her experiences of riding a bicycle in Bangkok.
Over the years, I have bought a few bicycles for short term use in various places such as Costa Rica, Mexico, Germany, Amsterdam, and Bangkok. Yes, Bangkok. When people who have been there hear that I rode a bike in Bangkok, they tend to raise an eyebrow and ask questions like, “Really?” “Seriously?” and “Is it safe to cycle there?”
To be quite honest, not entirely. Or rather, not on the main arteries, which are so intensely congested with up to 12 lanes of bumper to bumper traffic jams, that riding a bike in Bangkok at first seemed crazy and almost unimaginable. Temperatures in February and March soar well over 95 degrees fahrenheit (35 degrees celsius) during the day, while many vehicles belch thick black clouds of diesel exhaust, and countless tuk-tuks (with gasohol fumes 8 times more toxic than gasoline) all add even more poison into the smoggy brown air.
Among this chaos, cycling in Bangkok certainly seemed like a unappealing prospect. However, after speaking with some local cyclists and inquiring about their perspective and experiences riding in Bangkok, I started to understand that there are ways to cycle in Bangkok that make it not only safe, but quite special. For one, I was advised to focus on side street riding. Compared to sitting in the unpleasant gridlock in the back of a cab every day for the commute from my guesthouse to the inner city where I need to go to work, cycling through back streets and along canals was far more scenic, relaxing, and enjoyable. Not to mention that it generally takes less time to cycle than to ride a cab.
There are hidden bike routes and endless quiet side streets that run behind and parallel to many major arteries, which are wonderful commuting routes for a cyclist. Peaceful narrow canals have many designated bike routes running along their banks. Unexpectedly, I had discovered the magic of cycling of Bangkok. It’s all about the back streets and tiny alleys hidden behind the main roads, which also have transformed my perception of Bangkok from that of a giant noisy traffic jam, to that of a giant village full of hidden gardens and quiet, secret neighborhoods. I discovered tiny, wonderful food stalls on these routes, miniature temples, obscure local markets off the beaten track, and secret mango trees dropping their fruits on the silent paths.
A handful of the main arteries also have designated bicycle lanes, but these are often disregarded by the public who instead use them for walking, lounging, parking carts to sell street food, and so on. Occasionally, one would spot an armoured commuter cyclist, usually wearing a helmet, Tour-de-France-style clothing, mirrored technical sunglasses, and some sort of pollution-filtering mask braving a busy main street. But this is a rare sight during the day. At night, when temperatures drop down to around 86 degrees fahrenheit (30 degrees celsius), groups of recreational cyclists appear with bright blinking LED lights strapped onto their helmets. They would race around the city together after 10 or 11 pm, taking advantage of the relatively empty streets once the traffic thinned out for the night.
In the tourist district, several tour companies offered guided tours of the city by night, and one will see big herds of tourists also equipped with high powered blinking lights and helmets being guided around the area, visiting night markets, and riding along quiet sides streets. There is also a significant subculture of young fixie riding hipsters who also tend to converge and ride in the middle of the night. During the day, cyclists trundle along at a leisurely pace, sometimes carrying umbrellas to block the sun. Bangkok is a coastal port and is entirely flat, so this makes riding in the heat more bearable. However, it generally seemed to me that night riding was more popular than daytime riding.
I also looked into research on vehicle collision statistics in Bangkok before making the decision to buy a bike there. I will say that this somewhat shocking information did cause me to have many second thoughts about choosing to ride a bike. With a population of over 12 million in Bangkok, recent reports from the Bangkok Police Department indicated that there are over 26,000 reported vehicle collisions in Bangkok annually, (an average of over 71 daily) and an average of about one fatality a day. Thailand has one of the highest annual road death tolls in the world, largely due to drunk driving.
Thankfully, these statistics have been improving dramatically since 2003, when the World Health Organization got involved to help reduce the carnage in Thailand. Through imposing a harm reduction plan focused on policing of drunk driving, Thailand is succeeding in reversing the problem. In 2002, over 22,000 people died in vehicle collisions nationally, while in 2013 that number dropped to around 7,000. In 10 years, the death toll has been reduced by about 65 percent.
Strategic planning to avoid main streets was key to a positive cycling experience in Bangkok. A few cyclists I have spoken to who do ride on the main roads reported that most drivers are respectful towards cyclists, however I was not entirely convinced. I preferred to stick to the side streets where I could relax and ride in leisure. Indeed, cycling in Bangkok is not for the faint of heart, but with some conscious planning and strategic navigation one can find ways to ride a bike and enjoy the city in a totally new light. I have seen and found special places on my bike that I otherwise would have been unlikely to discover. And perhaps one less car on the road is one tiny but significant contribution towards better air and a quieter city.
Tanya Meyer is a Vancouver-based designer who spends her winters working in Bangkok. AKA “dangergirl” she enjoys cycling to work even in the busiest of cities.