Why is it when you tell a guide you are terrified of snakes at the beginning of a tour, and they later point a big crate of them out to you, they look surprised when you start crying and shaking?
I was on a bike tour, and we were cycling down a tiny alleyway in an informal settlement under a railway track, when my guide stopped beside a brick box with an iron grate on top. “I think I’ve been too nice. Have a look at those cute kitties in there”.
NO NO NO.
It was full of snakes. Red, glistening, squirming snakes. As soon as I realised what I was seeing I scrambled off my bike, threw it against the other side of the house and ran down the street. Crying. And possibly screaming.
I’m terrified of them, in a completely irrational sort of way. I might not like rats, or spiders, or weird jelly-like substances, but I can rationalise them. I can tell myself they’re not going to hurt me and be fine. I can’t do that with snakes. It doesn’t matter that they were securely contained within the brick box, I still had a massive rush of adrenaline, and once that happens there’s not much I can do to stop the crying and shaking.
At least on this occasion there were actual snakes. I’ve run away screaming from a woven bamboo basket filled with… fish…. before; having caught one glance of shimmering flesh and jumped to the wrong conclusion. I’ve also done the same with a baby. Yep. I ran away screaming from a baby and her (rather confused) mother in India. The mother had the baby in her arms, wrapped in a shawl, and when the baby reached her arm up it pushed the shawl and looked like, ok, looked ever so slightly like, a snake. Joe had a hard time trying to explain to the poor woman why I had been so scared.
I later asked our guide why he had pointed them out to me. He said he thought I was joking. WHY would I joke about something like that?
This was a small lowlight on an otherwise fantastic cycle tour with ABC Amazing Bangkok Cyclist. And our guide, T (a nickname obviously, his real one is hard to pronounce, even harder to spell), was actually completely lovely. By the end I didn’t even care that he had pointed out snakes to me. I loved him.
Bangkok doesn’t have much green space within the main city perimeter; there is just one small park, Lumphini. Yet just the other side of the Mae Nam Chao Phraya is Bang Kra Jao, Bangkok’s ‘green lung’. Appearing as just a blank space on most maps, it’s an area of fecund, wild jungle that has someone managed to escape the developers. I can think of no other city in the world to have such an area of natural, untouched beauty so close to its centre. While only 10% or so of it is actually protected land, visits from the Royal Family (who are very much reveered here) have generated support in keeping it free from developers. Yet the land is lived on, mainly by people descended from the Mon tribe, workers who came to find jobs in Bangkok many years ago, and unable to reverted to what they knew: farming.
It was to Bang Kra Jao that we cycled, taking a rather circulatory route through some other parts of the city. It’s ABC Amazing Bangkok Cycling’s Weekend Tour, and costs 2400 bhat per person. I was joined by two Danish couples, one of whom had just got engaged! It was all very exciting.
We began by cycling along the main road (a slightly hairy experience, but T was a great guide), before turning off and winding our way over to Little China, an area that is now populated mostly by Thai families. The houses are small, and often lived in by two or three families. Few have kitchens. T explained to us that this is why street food is so popular cheap and good: many people eat all their meals from vendors, and if you can produce consistently tasty food then you can make a good living from it. He also said that homes aren’t that important to Thai people, or at least anything beyond having one isn’t. The weather is so good that most Thai don’t spend much time actually at home, and they never invite people over either. They meet up in the street or at a cafe. This led to an interesting discussion amongst the six of us, with the Danish saying that as they are forced to spend so much time inside by the climate, making their homes somewhere nice to spend time is important to them.
From there we wove our way through the informal settlement. It was fun riding, even if some of the turns were rather narrow. Plenty of people smiled and waved at us as we past, and I thought that despite being a ‘slum’ (a word I don’t really like to use) it was very well taken care of, and surprisingly neat. I liked the little baskets of flowers hanging from the side of the houses. T said that many people actually choose to live here as they don’t have to pay rent or services, but it is not a nice area to bring up children. The snakes in the box had all been found in the settlement, mostly under beds, and are put there before being released back into the wild. T then told us we were about to cross a bridge over a part of the canal that looks like Venice. I wasn’t convinced.
From there we boarded a boat to cross the river.
Once on the other side we entered the jungle, and began riding along thin concrete paths, raised off the jungle floor. I was there just a month or so before the rain, and much of the vegetation was browning around the edges, tatty and tired looking. Yet you could still see the abundance and variety of vegetation. There were vines, tumbling down from above; palm trees, with bulging roots pushing out of the damp earth; and banana, coconut and mango trees, heavy with fruit. It felt very wild, and if it wasn’t for the path, completely unpenetrable. It is the paths that make the area habitable – replacements from the original weather-worn wooden ones that used to criss-cross the area. I was surprised at how many houses we came across, and when we cycled into the market, how much of a community existed there.
Just before the market we pulled over at a gorgeous temple, the bright red and gold clashing with all the green. It was odd to see something so decorative, and so obviously designed, within the randomness of the jungle.
As we explored the market, T bought us snacks to share. Many were street food dishes that aren’t readily available in Bangkok itself. We ate chewy shrimp cakes, covered in sweet chilli and pickled cucumber; unwrapped baked banana leaves to reveal the rice, coconut and banana filling, which you then roll like a fruit roll-up; piled tamarind jam and deep fried onions and garlic into bitter beetle leaves to then be eaten whole; and carefully tucked into quickly fried quails’ eggs.
After all that amazing food, lunch was a little bit of a disappointment – a very average pad thai. However, as it was about 3pm by this time we all tucked in! As we ate we discussed Bangkok, and how it leads the way in the country. It’s a very open, accepting city, and somewhere anyone can feel comfortable being themselves. As such it attracts trans and homo sexuals from all over the country, and people in unconventional relationships. T also said something that made me a feel a bit guilty for having written here before about Thai girl / Western men relationships – he said men come here looking for love and companionship, and that is what they find. And they often end up staying here as they are not judged for having done so, as they would be in their home country. I think perhaps I’ve been jumping to conclusions somewhat.
It was then time to head for home, and I was disappointed that the day was to be over. The cycling had been relatively easy – only about 24km over the course of the day with frequent stops and I could have cycled on. The city bikes we used were great, very comfy, and all working perfectly. And, as I’ve said, our guide T really was fantastic. He was full of useful information, and just a joy to be around – funny, and warm, and great at getting us all to relax and interact with each other. As I’ve said before, I am most definitely a city person, but this was a slice of real jungle I can’t wait to experience again. Especially as I ended the day, back in the city, with a rather delicious slice of coconut cake.
A couple of homestays and guesthouses are opening up in Bang Kra Jao, and if I had the time I would love to stay in one! Bangkok Tree House especially looks great. It would definitely be an unusual Bangkok experience!
Apologies for the lack of photographs in this post – I was concentrating too much on cycling to take many!