After living in Bangkok for two years, I thought I knew the city. I thought I knew the markets and temples, the back alleys and quirks. SpiceRoads’ bike tour told me otherwise.
I met my fellow cyclists in Chinatown, a bustling area of familiarity. The group consisted of two couples fresh off planes from America and Germany, plus Mai, our fluent, English-speaking guide. Mixing jet lag with bicycles and the city’s haste of darting, unpredictable traffic could have been lethal. Instead, we found a new side to Chinatown, a calm, intriguing world.
Mai introduced us to the Chinese shop-houses with golden characters and red, paper lanterns with yellow tassels dangling from their fronts. She pointed out the eateries selling everything from noodles to fried chicken feet and the centuries old apartments with colonial shutters and ornamental trim. We could have been in Shanghai.
Leaving the main road, we turned down intriguing narrow, alleys the width of a sidewalk that zigzagged from home to home. Peaking in we saw family’s gathered in dark, crowded rooms, escaping the heat and sun. They sat circled on plastic chairs watching Thai soap operas while framed photos of the King hung proudly on their walls. Some converted their front rooms into mini grocers selling fizzy drinks and snacks of dried shrimp, preserved fruits or sweet, yellow bean treats. Outside single men sat smoking on upturned buckets. I never knew the communities were there.
Emerging from the back streets we arrived at Golden Mount, a famed Buddhist temple built by royal decree on a manmade hill. For many years it was the tallest structure in the city before sprouts stacks of office towers and condos. Leaving our bikes, we climbed the shallow steps circling the hill, past bronze bells and flowering shrubs. At the top a booming, recorded voice repeated ‘Don’t take off your shoes!’ Doing so is the customary practice when entering Thai temples, homes and smaller shops. The culture believes the feet to be dirty and representing impurities, Mai tells us. “We don’t do it here because we exit on the other side, but also because someone might swipe your fancy shoes and leave some broken flip flops!” She is teasing, but says it can happen.
We reach the highest level marked by a golden stupa and magnificent views across Bangkok’s multitudes of temples, high rises and teak houses that line the network of klongs (canals). Buddhist practitioner’s circle around the stupa three times in prayer, asking for health, good grades, or exemption from conscription. They pin offerings to money trees and prostrate in deference.
The sun begins to set as we head towards Pak Klong Talat, the flower market. Mai leads us down leafy streets past boys playing games and an orange robed monk waiting for a bus. We turn onto a pathway that follows a klong and reach the Chao Praya River as the sun sets. Across that water, Wat Arun, the temple of dawn glows in the fading light.
Pak Klong Talat is an uncommon tourist stop and my own first visit. The colors contrast the dark outside; mounds of gold, purple and white blossoms fill the covered warehouse. Most flowers will be woven into Puang Malai, elaborate garlands used to honor Buddhist statues across the city and at neighboring temples. Mai picks out a tiny crown flower, white and delicate. She explains the shape is used in traditional Thai designs, including the logo of Thai Airways.
During a coffee break, I ask Mai about her name knowing ‘mai’ or ‘new’, is a common term of endearment for firstborn children. In response, she explained that every Thai person has both a formal name given at birth and a nickname received shortly after.
“I always thought my name meant ‘new’”, she told us, “but it also means ‘no’.” She put her coffee down with a mischievous look and shared her story. Growing up, she accepted her name as ‘new’, but as she got older, she questioned it. Her elder sister should have been ‘new’, not her. She asked her mother and learned a surprised truth. While pregnant, her mother went to see a fortune teller, a common tradition for expecting women. The mystic told her that the baby would cause great suffering and many tears. She instructed Mai’s mother to give the baby away. “My mother was angry and didn’t like this, so she called me ‘No’ in response!” Mai laughs.
I look at Mai in her reflective, safety vest and protective role as our guide. Now, her own maternal instincts shine. Heading back to the start point, the effects of the group’s long day and longer flights settle in. Mai remains alert and vigilant on the busy streets as we travel beside tuk-tuks, scooters and candy-colored taxis. At intersections where towering illuminated portraits of the King and Queen dominate, she blocks traffic as we scoot across like ducklings. In that moment, I realize I am lost in a city I thought I knew well and happy there were still new treasures to find.