Winding lanes and narrow, elevated trails traverse palm plantations and mangrove forests and lead to temples and a fabulous weekend market where you can lunch on the banks of a canal. An off-the-beaten-track weekend spot, the peninsula of Bangkrachao is best explored by bicycle.
I wasn’t entirely convinced when the boat man grinned at me while his rickety longtail boat bounced up and down in the wake of a super tanker that had just passed us on the Chao Phraya River. Getting there is half the fun, they say, and the journey from Wat Klong Toey Nok is exactly that, once you’re safely seated. With giant container ships moored in Bangkok’s industrial port to the south, the Bangkrachao peninsula straight across the water and the city’s skyline of scattered skyscrapers to the north-west, it’s a spectacular ride and my partner Laure had the camera ready to capture the conflation of these different worlds.
Once safely disembarked onto the wooden jetty of Bangkrachao Pier a few minutes later, the change in atmosphere is palpable. Back across the water, the glass and concrete monuments shimmer like immaterial guardians. Here, the air is cleaner, the pace is slower and the dominating color is lush green.
We rented bicycles at the pier. We received a photocopy of a hand-drawn map of the main sights that looked as hard to read as a pirate’s treasure map, and we were off, south into the heart of the peninsula. Our first stop was the Sri Nakhon Kuean Khan Park, a sprawling botanical garden dissected by cycle lanes.
Part of the lagoon-shaped lake in its centre can be traversed via several cute wooden bridges. The bird watching tower is a highlight. We only spotted a couple of kingfishers, but were happily distracted by the many visitors who lie down underneath their bicycles on the wooden platform in front of the tower, while their friends on the top flight take photos – these often appear on social media and make the subjects look as if they are riding in mid-air. As we got back on our bikes, an enormous monitor lizard crossed our path, showing no signs of being intimidated by our presence. Continuing in the same direction, the Maha Devalaya Hindu temple is an ostentatious, gaudy open-air shrine shrouded in thick wafts of incense. The assembly is dominated by a giant statue of Ganesh, the elephant god, flanked by his vehicle, an equally impressive rat. Local devotees climb the shrine and whisper in the rat’s ear for good luck.
A few minutes on, the Bang Nam Phueng Floating Market does feature a few boats on canals serving ice coffee and soup, but most of the action is on solid ground – handicraft stalls offer an incredible variety of charming items one doesn’t really need and countless incredible snacks. There are small eateries lined up along the waterways that serve street food classics. I opted for a somtam (papaya salad), with plenty of chili, but minus the dried shrimps, while Laure enjoyed a phad thai gung (stir-fried rice noodles with fried shrimps), flavored with fresh lime and topped with bean sprouts. The aisles between the stalls begin to empty in late afternoon when the karaoke stage gets quite rowdy.
From the market it’s another fifteen minutes to Wat Bang Nam Pheung Nok, from where it’s just a few minutes’ ride to the Bangkok Tree House, a smart hotel and restaurant rising out of palm tree clusters on the banks of the Chao Phraya. The hotel’s sun terrace is perfect for a break and an ice-cold green coconut. For the really battered, there’s a bright air-conditioned dining room. We spent an hour in a sala at the end of a wooden pier in front of the property, watching sand and coal barges pass.
To return to Bangkrachao pier, we made our way back to Wat Bang Nam Pheung Nok and then cycled counter-clockwise, keeping the river to our right. Along the way, elevated pathways lead to local communities living in the center of the peninsula. These concrete trails are just wide enough to cycle along comfortably and while it’s easy to get lost among clusters of palm and bamboo, wooden family homes, gardens and plantations, it doesn’t take long to find one’s way back to the Chao Phraya. Once back at the pier, we were both awed by the sunset over Bangkok’s unruly skyline, which is creeping ever closer to the city’s most precious green lung.