This was the first time I’ve had a bike tour guide offer me a chromosome to start the day.
Then again, I’ve never met a guide quite like Nok Noysuwan, a diminutive Thai woman half my weight with the riding strength, bike handling skills and command of English (not to mention a great sense of humor) that in my book ranks her among the giants of her trade.
The “chromosome” is one of Thailand’s staple day-starters; a twisted deep-fried donut caked in sugar that makes up for in taste what it lacks in nutritional value. It was offered to me – along with a big smile – by Nok, who if she eats the things regularly must have the world’s fastest metabolism, judging from her elite-athlete wispy frame.
Chomping on a chromosome and meeting Nok at 7 a.m. were just two of a day full of surprises on Grasshopper Adventures’ “City to Shore” trip. Talk about an understated name for a bike tour. It’s technically accurate enough – travelling from Bangkok to the Gulf of Thailand certainly describes the trek – but it doesn’t do it justice.
Yeah, the trip starts near the Democracy Monument at Grasshopper’s office. And sure, it traverses back alleys and cuts through local markets en route to the ferry to cross on the Chao Phraya River.
After an hour-long train ride the serious riding begins, much of it along the Gulf of Thailand – hence the “shore” bit.
But calling this trip “City to Shore” is like calling Bangkok’s sprawling Chatuchak Market a place to shop (it’s one of the world’s largest open air markets). Or like referring to northern Thai cuisine as spicy (it’s been known to make even the most ardent fans of fiery food cry for relief from the assault on the palate).
Eating a meal like that may seem counterproductive to a morning’s ride, but with the longest part of the trip ahead I had a feeling that every calorie would be put to good use.
Back on the road, our first stop was at an enormous temple complex, which to this westerner’s eyes doubled as an erstwhile arcade of the gods.
A huge concrete elephant stood on one side of the complex’s yard, its trunk holding a prayer bowl aloft to which ran a series of small cups on a hand-operated pulley. The goal here is to place a coin in the up and slowly turn the pulley until it tips at the top, with any luck dropping your coin in the prayer bowl.
If you hit the jackpot you crawl three times under the elephant’s belly and make a wish. (If it comes true you must return to the temple and bring and offering to say thanks and show appreciation.) If you miss, try again. It took me three times till I got familiar with the undercarriage of the elephant. Time will tell if the wish comes true. If it does, I’ll be back to say thanks.
Riding north, we passed long stretches of road where locals had spread drying krill on blue plastic tarps to dry in the sun, endless rows of fish, cuttlefish and squid drying in the sun, and dozens of tiny villages and collections of shacks where the locals smiled and shouted greetings to Nok, Roland and their latest tour participants.
The ride is a big loop along mangroves, waterways and through villages, so you never see the same scenery twice. Roland, a teacher by day, is an encyclopedia of information on the birds, fish and cultural habits of the villagers we flew past.
The afternoon’s start-and-stop route, peppered with glimpses into Thai life, wound up with a brisk-paced steady ride back to the train station which left us all in calorie deficit. Nok and Roland chomped on Snickers bars to recover. Khalid (the fourth wheel on the tour) and I passed, opting for a couple liters of water to quench our thirsts.
Many bike tours offer you great rides and gorgeous vistas. Some provide great food, superb commentary and easy-going guidance.
But this one was truly special – and I’ve done a bunch of them – mostly due to a tiny Thai woman who started my day with a big smile and the offer of a chromosome.