By Lynn Spreadbury
“Don’t look down, ” jokes Don, my guide. Of course I do.
I’m straddling a ten speed bike on a narrow, concrete path hoisted two meters above marshy wetlands surrounded by forest. Not a good place for vertigo. Not a good place to fall. A teak wood house with potted plants and drying clothes sits across from us on stilts. Wind chimes tinkle.
This is Bang Krachao, Bangkok’s urban jungle. No, that’s not a metaphor, it’s a real jungle.
“In English, they call it The Lung,” says Don, a Thai native. “There are 1,500 homes, no tall buildings, no factories. No development allowed.” The residents here share 18sq km of lung-shaped, oxygen-rich space. And it’s located exactly where a lung should be, slightly off centre from Bangkok’s heart – encircled by the looping Chao Phraya River, a pulsing artery of transit.
The day’s cycling tour starts in the city. We pedal down leafy backstreets where delivery boys unload carts of sacked rice and faded-haired women sweep with thatched brooms. Coloured bunting, alternating between the flags of King and Country, stretches overhead. We cross a small canal and discover a giant, golden Buddha hidden under a dingy overpass.
“And now for the boat,” says Don, leading me down a crowded alley. He loads my bike on a ferry to escape the port’s warehouses, cranes and fumes.
Rustling leaves and bleating frogs greet us at the Lung. The pier gapes with empty chairs and vacant stools while a ticket seller waits for fares. We mount our bikes and pedal off at half-speed.
Around the bend, chants tumble from a Buddhist wat.
“It’s Monk’s Day,” Don informs me. The temple is sharp and colourful, perfumed by incense. A pile of shoes sits outside the shrine where practitioners pray.
“Two things are for Monks Day,” Don begins. “In Buddhism, now is when we ordain monks, but now is also when the spirits of our ancestors and unhappy people are most active.” He shows me the burial chedis and the offerings left to ensure good favor: flowers, sodas and rice.
“And, kids must not go out at night because ghosts will take them.” I pause when he says this, then ask if he believes it.
“There are ghosts,” he says and tells me that Thai people are highly superstitious. “Maybe they won’t take the them, but this is what we tell kids.” He shrugs.
We continue along the elevated paths through papaya groves and palm forests with the smell of woodsy decay. We follow a canal past villages and a floating market before braking at a second, livelier pier.
Don purchases fresh mangosteens and rambutans, and I ask where he learned English.
“I lived in Belgium.” The connection isn’t clear, but he tells me about his time there anyway.
“There’s no food in Antwerp,” he says, peeling the fruit. “In Thailand, we have food on every street. You can eat all day, every day. In Belgium, you have to go in a restaurant. It’s expensive and after 8pm, no food.”
I look at the options around us: fish balls with chili sauce, papaya salad, BBQ squid, sausages, curries, even coconut ice cream. Vendors sell them from pushcarts for less than 60 baht (US$2). Food, good food, is everywhere.
We clean up and move on, cycling along a sparsely used main road that delivers us to a manicured park. Don tells me to wait while he goes for some food. The mangosteen juice is still sticky on my fingers.
I wait in the shade admiring the lake and pavilions. Locals stroll on meandering paths through European-style gardens. Don returns and hands me a bag of snacks I’m not hungry for.
“For the fish,” he says and I laugh. I dump half in the water and frenzy ensues – the fish here are as food crazy as the people.
With everyone fed and the day at an end, I lay back on the grass relaxed. Our bikes stand glinting in the sun as birds twitter and a pair of butterflies dance. Soon, I’ll be back in the heart of the city, but for now I take a deep breath and give thanks to Bangkok’s Lung.