Biking around Bangkok

Wat Suwan Plu

We arrived in Bangkok Friday evening, and settled into our apartment.  It was so nice to have a home-like space for the three days we were in Bangkok.  We loaded up the fridge with some essential snacks and drinks and felt immediately relaxed.  Our apartment building was located on a quiet street walking distance from some great restaurants yet conveniently located to all the major tourist sights.  It was a very nice place and we would definitely stay here again if we ever found ourselves in Bangkok.

On Saturday we did a bike tour of the Siam historic district of Bangkok with Follow Me Bike Tours.  I know it sounds crazy, but it was a lot of fun!  Since it was Saturday morning the traffic probably wasn’t as bad as a weekday.  We also lucked out and got a private tour again (probably because of the decreased number of tourists in the area due to the recent flooding).  We arrived at the clubhouse at 7:45am and met our two guides, Tob and Kathy.  Equipped with 24 gears, heavy duty shocks and ultra cushy seats we set off to tackle the jungle of Bangkok.  We did have to cross or ride on major streets a few times (thus experiencing cars and motorcycles whizzing by and large buses brushing up right beside us), but most of the trip we were on backstreets, narrow alleys, pathways and sidewalks which was actually a lot of fun.  Only someone who was intimately familiar with the area could do this route without any help.  We covered 25 km in 4 hours and got to see many historic sites in Bangkok that most tourists never see (or even know about).  The only bad thing about a bike tour is that it’s hard to take pictures unless you stop.  If you stop too much, you’re not going to get very far.  So some things we only got to see the outside of as we passed by.

In front of the Old Customs House

Our route followed north along the east bank of the Chao Phraya River.  We passed the Shangra-la Hotel and soon stopped at Wat Suwan Plu.  This temple had it’s own elementary school and we watched as the kids assembled early that morning.   Unlike the other wats we’d see everywhere else, the monk’s quarters were very simple.  They were made of wood boards and had pretty carved wood panels.  The bot (prayer hall) was white with beautiful carvings, statues, and some light blue tiles highlighted by touches of gold.  We continued on our way entering the farang (foreigner’s) quarter of Bangkok.  We passed the Assumption Cathedral, the East Asiatic Company, and the French Embassy before stopping at to the Old Customs House.  Built in the 1880’s, it was obvious that this was once an incredibly beautiful European style building, but now it’s in a very sad state (it’s great to photograph however).  The fire department uses the lot now, and there was still some water in the lot from the recent floods (sandbags were still piled four feet high along the river bank).  We were told there were plans to eventually restore the building to it’s original glory.  We then biked thru was a small Muslim community and past the Portuguese Chancellery (the Portuguese were the first foreigners to have formal ties with Siam), before stopping at the Holy Rosary Church (built by the Portuguese in 1786).  Outside the church was a garden with a little shrine, a Christmas tree, a tree with hanging presents, and a snowman made out of recently used sandbags.  The inside was a beautiful old fashioned church with ceiling fans, stained glass windows, and a gorgeous ceiling.

The Resident Crocodile

Then we biked through Chinatown.  Thank goodness we were there before the crowds arrived.  Even this early the place was like a beehive and almost impossible to get through at times.  We stopped once to get some pictures of the main walking street.  We followed Tob down all sorts of narrow corridors, past an old Chinese shrine, and we watched everyone frantically preparing for the busy weekend ahead. We stopped at Wat Chakrawat, which is a small temple with a black and gold facade.  Our guides were anxious to show us the most popular residents here – the crocodiles.  We peaked over the wall and sure enough there was one in the pond.  Right around the corner was another caged within a fence sleeping.  They turned on a hose to wake him up and cool him off with some cold water.  In a glass case near the pond, was the skeletal remains (with skin) of the first crocodile they pulled from the river some 50+ years ago.  Plenty of dogs and cats hung out in this area too.  We learned about the guards in front of the wats.  One is male and one female.  The male usually has a ball, and the female has a baby.

Wat Arun

We then made our way back to the river bank and stopped right before we entered Pak Khlong Market – Bangkok’s largest wholesale market.  Most restaurants and local markets come to here to get their goods.  It’s open 24 hours a day and it’s busiest in the morning.  Without stopping, we went through the market which was loaded up with everything you could possibly think of.  The array of smells we passed ranged from amazingly divine to very pungent.  The volumes of food moving through here made Costco look like child’s play.  Trucks were piled high with bananas, cabbage, peppers, onions, garlic, crates of fruit, etc.  There were bins and baskets filled with large industrial size bags of produce as well.  Carts, trolleys, and dollies were moving goods around.  This went on for several city blocks…all sorts of vegetables, fruits, fish, chicken, spices, flowers, and who knows what else.  I knew we’d have to come back here at some point to get some photos.  We stopped at a ferry dock right across from Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn).  Wat Arun is a stunning structure – even from far away and especially on a cloudy day.  We boarded the ferry and headed to the other side.

Wat Prayoon Chedi Courtyard

After we docked, we explored the temple grounds. We didn’t go into the Wat since we could easily admire it’s porcelain covered exterior from where we were.  We walked to the river bank and saw the official name of Bangkok.  Kathy read it out loud to us.  It’s in the world record book for the longest name of a place…translating to something like: “the city of angels, the great city, home of the emerald Buddha, built by…etc”. We biked south along a boardwalk paralleling the west bank of the river and stopped at the very old Chinese shrine, Kuan Yin, dedicated to the god of mercy.  Looking like it’s been standing there untouched for 200 years, this place could use some mercy (or restoration work).  Our next stop was Santa Cruz Catholic Church (built by the Portuguese).  Finally we stopped at Wat Prayoon which had it’s own museum.  The 180 year old all white chedi was recently restored and all sorts of amulets and buddhas were found inside it’s chambers.  This is the only chedi we were able to actually go inside.  The courtyard was beautiful lined with old pieces of timber taken from the chedi’s interior during it’s restoration.  We went into the very center of the chedi admiring the secret room and then climbed up to the top for a great view.

The Fish Spa

We went a little further south and eventually took another ferry back across the river and continued back to the clubhouse. Tob stopped and ordered all of us some street food which we brought back to the house and ate for lunch.  The owners had a spa fish bath on their property which Robert decided to try.  As soon as he put his feet in, the fish went after him – nibbling all over.  He started laughing saying how much it tickled.  I didn’t try it…for some reason I had images of piranhas in my head.  We talked for awhile, wrote comments on their wall and then headed back to our hotel to relax.

We loved getting to see the city this way and we’d for sure do another bike tour if we return to Bangkok.  In addition to the pictures we took, Tob also took some pictures during the tour and sent them to us.  Looking back, it’s amazing how much we saw that day…

 

Day 7 & 8 – Bangkok Bike Tour

Cycling the Hills of Chiang Dao

Banana Pancakes with Mango Gelato

Most people start their vacations by sleeping in…not us.  It was Saturday morning, and we were up at 6am.  Of course it felt more like 8am given the time difference from Japan, so it really wasn’t a big deal.  The sunrise was soooo beautiful, and we had a delicious full buffet breakfast waiting for us.

There was more food in that buffet than was humanly possible to consume: a large selection of fresh fruit & juices, pastries, yogurts, muesli, smoked salmon, cheeses, salads, noodles, soups, breads & jams.  We could also order anything off the hot menu.  We not only tried a bit of everything on the buffet, but we ordered hot meals as well.  Heck, why not, we had an active 9 hours ahead of us.  And I’ve got to say….my banana pancakes with mango gelato were particularly scrumptious.

Biking in the Hills of Chiang Dao

As promised, our bike guide and driver picked us up at 8:15am.  We found out we were the only ones scheduled for today’s trip – which was an added bonus.  We got into the truck and started our 1 1/2 hour drive north.  It took a good 45 minutes to get out of the city, but it was worth the wait to see the beautiful countryside.  The roads became curvy and less crowded and the mountains and hills became more visible.   Eventually we entered a wide river valley and began traveling on small rural roads.  I’m pretty sure I couldn’t find this place on my own.  The last stretch was on a dirt track (with no signs).  We eventually drove thru two large open wooden gates.  Within the walled compound was a beautiful little complex.  I felt like I was in some scene from Romancing the Stone.  There was another group of people (from REI) that had spent several days biking in the area and they were getting ready to leave.  After our quick 15 minute rest stop, we were fitted for our mountain bikes and helmets, grabbed some bottled water, and headed on our way up the dirt road.

Hill Tribe Crafts

Kiki (our guide) lead the way.  She was great.  She’d stop along the way and point out the different types of trees, fruits, nuts, rice, coffee, and plants they grew (which is just about anything you can think of).  We stopped and watched the locals picking, packaging and hunting.  Sometimes we’d stop just to take pictures of the countryside.  In the course of about 2 hours (and 12 km) we also got to ride through and visit 5 different hill tribe villages (Karen, Akkha, Lahu, Lisu and Palong).  These villagers migrated from either Myanmar (Burma), China or Tibet  over 100 years ago and each have their own distinct culture and language.  The women stayed home and watched the kids, while the men went to work in the fields or to hunt.  They shared one vehicle in the village.  The women worked on crafts made of cotton (hats, coin holders, purses, wall hangings), stones/gems (for jewelry) or bamboo (for baskets).  They were always excited to see foreigners and would lay out blankets and display their creations in hopes of making a sale.  Chickens, dogs and pigs roamed freely.  Their houses and possessions were minimal, yet they all seemed content, and it was very clean.  Some of the old women had a very bad habit of chewing on betel nut (a stimulant), and their teeth had become chipped and black.  Actually learning about these people while you meet them was very interesting.

Cutting Bamboo for Baskets

Before we knew it, we were back at the lodge.  It was good timing, because riding on dirt roads without biking shorts and cycling up some good sized hills had started to take it’s toll.  The lodge offered us some soft drinks and a huge spread of food.  While it was all very good and healthy, we were a little disappointed it wasn’t that spicy.  Looking back, however, it was probably not only a good thing, but also intentional – especially since we still had 30 kilometers to go.

We rested for 20 minutes and then restocked our water.  Off we went, this time down the hills and across the valley.  The single dirt track we took was fun.  It had a good bit of sand on it (probably from the recent floods), and we would occasionally get stuck.  We rode through forest, and then past fields and orchards.  Finally we ended up on the rural road from which we could see Doi Chiang Dao mountain in the distance (the third highest mountain in Thailand).  The cave at the base of this mountain was our final destination.

Herbal & Root Medicines

It was pretty warm that afternoon and the sun was pretty intense.  We stopped at a rice “factory” and at a newly planted teak tree plantation for water breaks.  The driver followed us in case we needed a break from riding.  Fortunately, the closer we got to our mountain, the more shade there was.  We made it, but we were both glad to get off the bikes.  Walking around felt good.  There was a large market here which specialized in natural and herbal medicine.  If you had an ailment, they had a fix.  I forgot to ask if they had something for my numb bum.   We ended up not purchasing anything though, since it probably wouldn’t have gotten through customs in Japan.

Buddha in the Cave

We walked around the place to stretch our legs, take pictures of all the cool stuff, and cool off before we went inside the cave.  It was similar to other caves – except for the religious statues, articles and decorations scattered throughout.  There are supposedly 5 interconnected caves (at various levels) believed to stretch some 12 km under the mountain, but tourists usually only see the first 1km – which, quite frankly, is enough.  It’s humid and damp and some areas are pitch black.  We went as far as we could without lanterns and a cave guide.  At the end of the lighted area, there is an imprint on the wall of the royal emblem – the King and Queen paid a visit here in the ’60’s and someone left their mark.

It was now time to head back to Chiang Mai.  We were back at our hotel by 5:30.  A nice long shower and a short walk to dinner was the only thing on our mind.  What a great first day.  We packed a ton of stuff in and we knew we’d sleep great.  We were also looking forward to a leisurely day exploring the Old City tomorrow – if we could still move in the morning. 🙂

We took over 150 pictures that day.  Check them out on our picassa website:

Day 1 – Biking in Chiang Dao

Living Near the Mongol Wall

Iki-no-Matsubara Stone Fortifications

The Mongol Wall

I’ve known about this wall since we got here and there are several areas in and around the city you can see parts of it.  We finally had an opportunity to ride out to the most popular place to view it as part of a coastal bike ride we took last weekend.

This particular stretch of beach is only about 2-3 miles from where we live.  It contains part of the 12.4 mile long rock wall that was built along the coast almost 750 years ago to keep the Mongols out of Japan.  What is left of the wall is not really that interesting, but the story behind it certainly is.  Right now it reads more like a folk tale than actual history.  In fact, most of what is known about these attempted invasions comes from a scroll written by a samurai who fought in both battles (the scroll was heavily damaged and had to be put back together).  There have since been several archeological investigations to help decipher the myths from the facts.

The Scroll

The Scroll

The gist of the story is that twice the Mongols tried to take over Japan and twice they failed.  With the exception of the occupation of Japan at the end of World War II, these failed invasions are the closest Japan has come to being conquered by a foreign power in the last 1500 years.  The first attempt was in 1274, when an army of some 400+ ships and 40,000 soldiers descended upon 10,000 squabbling, unprepared samurai.  The Japanese were not only vastly outnumbered but their fighting techniques were primitive compared to the Mongols.  Had it not been for some very rough seas one night in November, the Mongols should have been victorious.  Instead they retreated to sea (fearing their ships would be forced onto shore), and headed into a violent storm which supposedly destroyed 1/3 of their ships and drowned 13,000 soldiers, causing the rest of the fleet to abandon the mission.

Up to 15 feet high and 12.4 miles long

The Mongols continued their conquests elsewhere and increased their armies only to return to Japan seven years later.  The first fleet to arrive in Japan had 900 ships and 40,000 soldiers.  The Japanese were more prepared this time with 40,000 samurai, better fighting tactics and their newly built wall.  The evenly matched forces were in a stalemate for 50 days, until the rest of the Mongol forces arrived (3,500 more ships and 100,000 more men).  Now the Japanese were faced with a force three times their size and were in serious danger of being taken over.   Then a massive typhoon rolled into Hakata Bay destroying nearly every enemy ship and drowning all but a few thousand Mongols.  These coincidental storms that protected the Japanese both times gave rise to their belief that they were protected by ‘divine winds’ (kamikaze) and that no foreign power could take them over.  Interesting enough, this was also the first time the samurai fought for the sake of Japan and not amongst themselves.

It really doesn’t matter what the details of these battles end up being, the point is that the mongols never conquered Japan.  It’s odd to think how different Japan would be had these battles gone the other way.  And it’s just plain cool to be living where these events took place.

 

Yusentei Garden

Yusentei Garden in the Fall

Yusentei Garden in the Fall

After visiting Rakusuien Garden in September, I have been wanting to find it’s sister garden….Yusentei Garden.

Well, my quest has been fulfilled!

Since we had another gloriously beautiful day, we decided to ride our bikes to this garden and view some more fall colors.  After a fairly long bike ride (I was beginning to wonder if we were ever going to get there), we arrived at the entrance.  This was obviously ‘the thing’ to do today.  There were plenty of other people there snapping pictures of everything they saw and a couple older women painting.  I could write about how beautiful this place was or better yet….you can just view the pictures.

Ramen and the Lantern Festival

Ramen Dinner

Ipudo – Spicy Ramen

I have been reading about the famous Fukuoka Ramen since March.  It has been high on my list of to-do’s since we arrived.  So when I heard a group of teachers were going to have Ramen before going to the Lantern festival, there was no way I was going to turn that down.  We all met at the Muromi Subway station and then biked up the river a ways and through town until we came to Ippudo.  The original restaurant is somewhere downtown…this was just one of their branches.  They actually have branches all over Japan, and in a few other locations including Singapore and one in New York City.  I ordered the ‘Famous Ramen’ in the red bowl, and Robert ordered the ‘Spicy Ramen’ in the white bowl.  It was so good and we ate it so fast, we almost didn’t get a picture of it.  I wish I could make this stuff at home.  We also got to try their gyozas (which are little dumplings filled with ground pork, cabbage, garlic, and green onions).  They too were fantastic.  I’d go back just to eat those.  I love ’em.  This place more than lived up to my expectations and we will shall return!

Lantern Festival by the River

Sunny loves the Lanterns

After dinner, we rode our bikes down the river trail until we couldn’t go any further (since it was blocked off for the festival).  We parked our bikes and headed down the trail to check out the local lantern festival.  I always enjoyed looking at the lighted lanterns that lined people’s driveways during Christmas in Arizona.  But now I’m spoiled.  This was quite impressive.  There were thousands of little lanterns lined up on both sides of the river walk and set up to make all kinds of designs.  I can only imagine how much time and effort went into setting this up.  Little tea lights were in bags of all colors: white, blue, red, yellow, orange, and some bags were hand drawn by the local children.  It was an absolutely perfect evening for strolling down the path, taking pictures, people watching, having a beer and just hanging out.  A good time was had by all, but I think Sunny probably enjoyed it the most.

Yamanoue Lookout

Today we set out to find the Yamanoue Lookout.  I could see it on my map, but since only the major streets have names, we had to use landmarks (namely the rivers and subway stops) as indicators that we were heading in the right direction.  Fortunately, our navigation technique did not fail us, otherwise we would have been majorly lost.  The road up to the lookout is a pretty steep climb, and with only a one speed bike it is quite a workout!  Robert was able to make it all the way to the top without stopping (or so he says), but I had to walk my bike up the last little bit.  Sure enough, at the top of the hill there was the tower, so we parked our bikes and headed up the stairs.  When we got to the top, it was an incredible 360 degree view of the city.  It was also incredibly windy.  Check out the video (you’ll hear the wind):

Then, we had to head down the hill…which is normally a ton of fun given all the hard work it takes to get up there.   Well, this hill was so steep and curvy, you had to ride the brakes all the way down unless you want to crash high speed into a concrete pillar or some poor pedestrian after a sharp turn.  My bike is kinda rusty and usually squeaks when I brake.  However, this time, my bike did not squeak, it shrilled – constantly…in the highest pitch you can imagine all the way down.  I thought my eardrums (and everyone’s around me) were going to explode.  I really, truly have no need for the attached bell that’s suppose to  let people know your approaching…there is no doubt I’m coming.  I have got to find me some WD-40.  Luckily, there are no pictures of this – but I’m sure you have no problem imagining the scene.  It’s days like this that I really miss my Stump Jumper!  However, the upside of having this bike is that I can take it anywhere and never have to lock it, because I know no one will every steal it.  And if they did, I’d be happy.

Ohori Park and Fukuoka Castle Ruins

Lake at Ohori Park

Lake at Ohori Park

We got up pretty early (not as early as we wanted) today so we could ride our bikes to Otori Park and the Fukuoka Castle Ruins. I am pretty sure that there was not a cool time during the day but we gave it a shot. We were out the door around 8:15am. It took us about 20 minute to ride to the park.  We were told to look for the Mister Donut sign by Jay at the American Consulate (he was at our dinner outing on Friday, and the consulate is next to the lake in the park). Sure enough, Mister Donut showed up and we were there.

The park is very nice and it has a great running/biking loop around the lake. Rose said that it was between 2-3 kilometers long. The running part of the loop is made of some sort of synthetic material that I am sure is better to run on than concrete. The place was packed! There were little kids and old folks and everything in between all out running, walking and biking.

Fukuoka Castle Wall Ruins

The local Japanese schools had groups of kids there doing their workouts. Imagine the high school track team from your local school showing up on Sunday morning around 9am, wearing their uniforms, and putting in a hard interval workout. This is just NOT going to happen back home – at least not where I am from. (NOTE: To make my fellow caffeine addicts feel more at ease…there is a Starbucks on the lake. Rose and I did not stop – at least not today.)

 

After the park, we made our way to the Fukuoka Castle Ruins. Very quiet…it was like we were the only ones there. I bet this place is beautiful in the fall when the leaves start to change. Nothing too eventful here, but very peaceful.

We took a different route back home…the roads are starting to make a little more sense to us, and we are starting to get more and more comfortable making our way around the city on our bikes. We have not finalized plans for next weekend yet but I am sure whatever we do will push the limits of our explored territory.

We Have Bikes!

Humidity cleaned off lens...

The standard mode of transportation in Fukuoka is the bike.  We inherited three when we moved into our new home – two for us and one for our visitors (we have room so let us know when you are coming). Of course, the tires were low on air when we arrived but not a problem, the bike shop is only 2 blocks away, and it has pumps sitting out front that you can use for free. As  you can see, our bikes have baskets on the front and the back – and it would be nice if we had even more of them. This is our primary method of getting things to and from any location – work, grocery, mall…

The bikes only have one gear so hills can be challenging…but in town this is not much of an issue. Our legs and butt were a little sore after the first day but we are mostly recovered. We ride everywhere – literally. We don’t walk because it is so hot and humid. When we are on the bike we have a nice breeze to cool us off. Today, we rode to Nitori (to look at furniture) and to Best Denki to buy an electric kettle (for tea, ramen and other stuff).

I now  understand why one of the teachers said that we would lose weight when we came to Japan. It is not because you eat less (we don’t), it is because we burn-off a lot more calories biking and walking everywhere we go. Just going to the grocery (which do every day) is a workout. This is a good thing!