City to Shore ~ Biking to Maha Chai

3 May

* Part two of some semi-recent outings around Bangkok via bicycle, long delayed due to work overload at school! 

Back in September several of us enjoyed a bike tour with Grasshopper Adventures; we had so much fun that we decided to try a different tour with them during one of our long weekends in February. The City to Shore bike tour started early Monday morning at the bike shop near Khao San road. That Monday was Makha Bucha Day (Buddhist holiday) and everyone had off from work, so the streets of Bangkok were about as quiet as they get. We rode along the back alleys, taking narrow short cuts and dodging street vendors, and crossed the Chao Phraya river on one of the giant bridges. Along the way we stopped to IMG_4328admire a section of the original city wall, which dates back to 1782 when King Rama I established Bangkok as the new Thai capital. Initially, the wall was surrounded by a moat, and adorned with fourteen forts (the Burmese had just sacked Ayutthaya, the old capital, so multiple forts must have sounded like a solid idea). Today, there are only two forts and small portions of the wall remaining. History lesson absorbed, we finished our journey to the Wongwian Yai train station. Hauling the bikes on board was a challenge that drew many stares; six farang in athletic clothing stuffing bikes into a train car makes for an entertaining spectacle.

Once on board, we settled in for the hour-long ride down to the port city of Maha Chai. Our guide, Woody, warned us not to stick our heads out of the windows, and we quickly saw why; as the train sped along the tracks, it passed so close to the trees that leaves and branches reached into the car through the open windows. Several buildings with razor-sharp, corrugated metal roofs also lined the tracks, making Woody’s warning quite appropriate. Despite the lack of aircon, the ride was quite pleasant. A cool breeze flowed through the open windows, and the scenery was gorgeous as we headed into the countryside. The train stopped at multiple stations along the way, some of which were so small and charming that they looked like train stations from a children’s picture book. Per usual, I indulged in some serious photo taking.

Upon arrival, we walked out of the train station and directly into the middle of a parade! Woody led us to believe that it was related to Makha Bucha Day, and the town’s Chinese heritage, but one never knows. The parade included preteen beauty queens in white gowns, holy IMG_6304men sitting on chairs made of nails, and a surreal amount of drumming, banging, and gong action. We watched for a while before escaping the crowds and peddling to the quiet temple grounds of Wat Bang Ya Phreak. The wat is famous for its crematorium, which was built in the Burmese style and is the only one of its kind in Thailand. It reminded me a great deal of the Royal Palace in Mandalay. Maha Chai is a major port for Thai fishing companies, owned by Chinese businessmen, and staffed by Burmese laborers, so the Burmese influence on the local food and architecture makes sense. Woody told us that many people in the area speak Burmese to one another rather than Thai, and he greeted some of those we passed with a cheerful “Mingalaba!” (I wish I could say that I had remembered how to say hello in Burmese from last October, but… not so much.)

The next stop on the bike tour was one of my favorites, the Khlong Khone Mangrove Forest Conservation Centre along the Gulf of Thailand. Many of the original mangrove forests in the Samut Nakhon area were destroyed to create room for shrimp farming and other economic pursuits. Fortunately, people are IMG_6322beginning to realize the many amazing things the mangroves do, including preventing erosion, providing marine habitat for animals, and serving as a wind/water break for the shoreline. Certain coastal areas in Thailand and other southeast Asian countries are being replanted and revitalized as we speak! We enjoyed a stroll along a wooden walkway through the mangroves, and spotted some mudskippers, crazy fishy animals who use their fins to slither/waddle along between muddy pools. They’re speedier than expected, and completely fascinating.

Leaving the conservation center, we peddled down to the coast. We followed a reddish dirt track along the shoreline, pausing now and then to admire the view. This was my favorite part of the bike tour; when I stopped to take a photo and the others rode around a bend, I felt completely and utterly alone in nature. It’s a great feeling, especially when you live in the middle of a bustling city. A few kilometers from the beach, we came across huge salt flats. The workers flood these flattened areas with four to six inches of ocean water, then let the blazing sun evaporate the water. The resulting sea salt is fresh, crunchy, and delicious. We walked out onto the flats and sampled some crystals – it was so hot that a little salt was probably good for us!

Our final stop in Samut Sakhon was a delicious seafood restaurant. This restaurant is so popular that many Thais take a day outing from Bangkok just to eat fresh seafood. Woody ordered us half of the menu, and we indulged in some major eating. Post-lunch, we peddled back to the train station, where we boarded the train and promptly all passed out. Fifty-two kilometers in the boiling sun really takes it out of you! Trains are great places to take restorative naps. I can’t wait until our next bike tour!

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