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Originally published Sunday, December 9, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Bangkok's back story: cooking, biking, chatting with monks in the Thai capital

The monks who watch over Wat Rajbopit, the King of Thailand's private temple, are a friendly bunch. We found a few of them relaxing over...

Seattle Times travel writer

If you go

Biking, cooking, relaxing in Bangkok

Co van Kessel Bangkok Tours: Co van Kessel and his assistants lead daily bike tours through Bangkok. The cost is 950 Thai baht, $30 per person at current exchange rates, and includes boat transportation, drinks and snacks. Biking distance is about 10 miles. See www.covankessel.com, or phone 011-66 (0) 2688-9933. Tours leave from the Grand China Princess Hotel, 215 Yaowarat Road in Chinatown.

The Thai House: Rates at the Thai House are 1,600 baht ($50) for a double with breakfast and 1,400 baht ($45) for singles. Toilets and showers are shared. One- a Seven-Eleven boat stocked with soft drinks and snacks day cooking classes are 3,500 baht ($112). See www.thaihouse.co.th, or call 011-66 (0) 2903-9611.

Aurum The River Place: Twelve rooms. Rates start at 3,400 baht ($108) including breakfast. See www.aurum-bangkok.com or call 011-66 (0) 2622-2248.

Arun Residence: Five rooms. Rates range from 3,100-3,500 baht ($99-$111) including breakfast. See www.arunresidence.com or call 011-66 (0) 2221-9158.

More information

For tourism information, call 323-461- 9814 or see www.tourismthailand.org.

BANGKOK — The monks who watch over Wat Rajbopit, the King of Thailand's private temple, are a friendly bunch.

We found a few of them relaxing over soft drinks one steamy afternoon when we wandered inside to admire the colored mosaic tiles and gold Buddhas.

"Would you like something to drink?" one of them asked. He said he was 20, a novice and had been in the monastery five years. He asked me where we were from, then handed a glass of Coke to my husband, Tom, to hand to me.

"Monks can't touch woman," he reminded me. But they are free to chat and, as Buddhists, share their peaceful surroundings and relaxed hospitality with visiting strangers.

Bangkok's reputation as the concrete jungle of Southeast Asia is partly deserved, but it's not all about skyscrapers, sex shows and shopping malls.

From the back alleys of Chinatown to tropical villages five minutes by boat from the central business district, Bangkok's back story unfolds.

Travel a few miles in the right direction, and you're in a corner of rural Thailand where it's more likely someone will ask you to buy a lucky fish than a fake Rolex.

Escape the traffic. Bicycle through villages surrounded by mango and banana plantations.

Tune out the street noise. Wake up to the sounds of roosters and temple chants.

Seen enough gem shops? Spend a day learning to make prawn soup or slice a chili pepper.

Chill out. Unplug. Take a few hours, a day or overnight, and discover why this city of 10 million was called the "Venice of the East" in the 1850s when the "highways" were rivers and canals instead of clogged streets and double-decker freeways.

Cycling the City of Angels

They call Bangkok the City of Angels, and when I first thought about signing up for one of Co van Kessel's bike tours, I hoped there might be a few watching out for us.

Bangkok bike-friendly? How could this be? This isn't Beijing or Shanghai. The only people I'd seen riding bikes were pulling fruit carts or hauling sacks of vegetables.

Yet here we were at 8 a.m. on a Sunday inside the parking garage of a hotel in Chinatown, adjusting the seats on one-speed bikes with hand brakes. Van Kessel, a Dutch expat who's lived here nearly 30 years, put the finishing touches on a plan for how eight of us would spend the next five hours together biking through Bangkok.

"It's like a movie," he said. We wouldn't be cycling in traffic. We'd stay off the main roads. We'd ride at walking speed, and spend part of the time aboard river ferries and long-tail boats. Don't worry about being too hot or tired, he said. "Bangkok is completely flat."

Then we were off as he led the way across a busy street into an alley filled with vendors selling everything from flip-flops to moon cakes.

The only traffic we had to worry about was human. A few times we got off the bikes and portaged them though the crowds, lifting them over piles of limes or around women sitting on the ground surrounded by baskets of basil and chili peppers.

It was like a movie, just as van Kessel promised, with split-second scenes, one blurring into another. Turtles swam in buckets. Incense burned inside a back-alley temple. A group of men stood over piles of nuts, crushing them with wooden mallets, adding honey and cooking the mixture into brittle over a wood fire. Dogs barked. Oil sizzled. All in just the first half-hour.

Van Kessel, 57, a mountain biker and topographer, started his tours 20 years ago, mainly for locals. Work brought him to Thailand. He fell in love with Bangkok but was discouraged by its reputation as a polluted, gridlocked city.

On his bike, he began exploring the footpaths, alleyways and canals between the main thoroughfares. What he found was a world hidden from most outsiders, neighborhoods where life goes on the way it has for decades, much of it in peaceful surroundings more akin to rural villages than a modern city.

Leaving Chinatown, we peddled along backstreets until we reached one of the piers along the Chao Phraya River, the 231-mile waterway that divides Bangkok's commercial district from its quieter suburbs. There a small wooden ferry waited to take us and the bikes on a five-minute crossing to Thonburi, a residential area where houses are hidden among canals and inlets connected by miles of raised concrete paths shaded by banana and mango trees.

"Hello, Hello!" people called out to us. Everyone smiled. A woman doing some washing in the water gave us the thumbs-up sign. A man patted the back of my bike, indicating he'd like to get on.

"Floating markets," small boats filled with fruits and vegetables, pulled up to houses whose front doors faced the water. Signs tacked on wood shacks advertised lucky fish, not to eat, but as offerings to the gods.

Before we set out on our ride, van Kessel urged us not to talk, but to soak up the sights and sounds and save our questions for rest stops.

Now I was beginning to understand why. Most of the paths were no wider than three or four feet, surrounded by water or swampland on both sides. The other riders on our tour were Dutch, and were used to this kind of biking. But I was riding cautiously, braking and touching my foot to the ground every few seconds as if I were driving along a mountain pass with no guardrail.

"Does anyone ever fall in?" I asked one of van Kessel's assistants.

"Yes," she smiled. "Sometimes." How often? "About four times a year. They're talking, not paying attention."

A few minutes later, someone remarked that we had lucked out with the weather. The sun wasn't beating down, and it wasn't raining.

I reminded him about the no-talking rule. The movie wasn't over yet, and so far, it was turning out to be one of the best I'd seen in years of traveling.

Cooking in the countryside

Growing up along the canal villages a few miles from Bangkok, Pip Fragrajang didn't walk to school. She rowed her own boat an hour each way.

Today, an eight-lane highway connects the village of Tambol Bangmaung to modern Bangkok just 15 miles away, but Pip still prefers that her guests come by boat to the Thai House, a bed-and-breakfast inn with seven rooms and a cooking school nestled among the mango trees and gardens of her family compound.

Tropical Thailand is in reach within minutes of leaving the Chao Phraya on a long-tail water taxi for the canals, or "klongs," as they're called. Here tin-roofed shacks, bungalows with picket fences perched on stilts and elaborate Buddhist temples front the water instead of roads. Need morning coffee? Blow a horn, and the local coffee boat will deliver. There's a noodle boat and a 7-Eleven boat stocked with soft drinks and snacks.

We rode with Pip's nephew, Peerapong, in a hired boat to reach the Thai House for a one-day cooking class and overnight stay. When we arrived, we found Pip in her outdoor kitchen, ready with cutting boards and a platter of vegetables and herbs. Behind a row of earthen jugs used for collecting rainwater was the villa her family built 16 years ago on a rice and mango farm started by her grandfather 80 years ago.

Built from teakwood, the house was built in a style popular around the Ayutthaya region in central Thailand 150 years ago. Our second-floor room opened onto a tile courtyard. There were two twin beds, bolsters for sitting on the floor and a ceiling fan overhead, but no air conditioning.

Pip, 55, hosts up to 10 students at a time at her late-morning and early afternoon cooking sessions, but today it was just us and a woman from Australia who had come to relax at the end of a five-week, around-the-world tour.

We set to work on a lunch of sour and spicy prawn soup, Thai noodles and a cold chicken salad.

"They teach me English, I teach them how to cook," Pip said of her students as she began explaining the differences among various chili peppers, herbs and vegetables on the platter.

She brewed lemongrass tea, and we practiced new techniques such as tearing the stems from the leaves of kaffir limes and cutting a chili pepper, leaving the stalk and seeds in one piece.

While we worked over hot woks, Pip passed on tips such as how to counteract the burn of too much chili (chew on palm sugar or a piece of chocolate) and how to say "less spicy" in Thai (Ped-Nid-Noi).

I gained a new appreciation for the convenience of Seattle's ready-made red curry paste when I sat down on the floor with Pip and she taught me how to grind the peppers, garlic and spices from scratch with a mortar and pestle.

Sitting down to lunch and dinner on her outdoor veranda, of course, was the highlight, but as it often turns out with these types of activities, cooking was only one reason to come. Just as interesting was the chance to learn a bit more about life in the klong villages. After dinner that night, we sat and talked to Pla, one of Pip's 28-year-old twin daughters.

Don't expect a quiet morning, she warned. With three temples nearby, the monks start chanting at 5 a.m. At 6 a.m., someone puts the radio near the temple's loudspeaker and broadcasts the news for the farmers and others who don't have time to read the paper before they go to work.

A monk floats by the house in a canoe each morning around 6:30 to beg for alms. We rose early and watched as he glided by in an empty boat, then returned a half-hour later with his bow piled high with bags of fruit and rice.

"Things are changing," Pla said. More people from Bangkok are buying up the farmland along the klongs to build houses and escape the city. Pla still rows her grandmother to the doctor's, but many of the younger monks never learn to put a boat into the water, she said.

No doubt the Fragrajang family could have sold their land for a good price. Lucky for visitors, they decided instead to build a business out of maintaining their family traditions.

Staying put

Can't ride a bike? Don't care about cooking? Stay put then. Take a clue from the monks wandering the streets at dawn with their begging bowls. Even here in the oldest part of Bangkok known as Rattanakosin, home to the Grand Palace and most of the ancient temples, chilling out comes easy.

A few suggestions:

• Check into a waterside hotel and take a break from taxis and traffic. Calm yourself instead by getting around via one of the public ferries that ply the Chao Phraya River.

Riverside-hotel options used to be limited to luxury properties such as the historic Oriental, where rooms are $300 and up. Now travelers on more modest budgets can go first-class in one of the new European-style boutique inns popping up among the old Chinese shophouses along the piers at the north end of the river, within walking distance of the historic sites.

It's here that I found the Aurum River Place (www.aurumbangkok.com), opened a year ago in a 50-year-old warehouse that longtime resident Chintana Aunyanuphap and her family converted into a modern 12-room hotel with rates starting at around $108. A few doors down is the five-room Arun Residence (www.arunresidence.com), a B&B style inn, with a multilevel restaurant overlooking the water.

Ta Tien, as this district is called, is a little slice of the way most people would like to remember Bangkok. There's a school of traditional medicine nearby, and many of the shopkeepers make their living selling massage oils and medicinal herbs. It's a nice place to call home for a few days, especially in the morning when the Aurum and the Arun serve breakfast a few feet from passing river traffic.

• Visit a wat, as the monasteries and temple complexes are called. Wat Pho, Bangkok's oldest and largest complex with more than 1,000 Buddha images, is a five-minute walk from Ta Tien. A gold-plated 150-foot-long image called the Reclining Buddha is to Bangkok what the Leaning Tower is to Pisa. Thousands come to have their pictures taken at its feet of inlaid mother-of-pearl. It's not exactly a scene suited for quiet meditation, but the rest of the complex can stay surprisingly deserted. Find one of the other temples devoted to impressive gold images, take off your shoes, sit a while on the red carpet and enjoy some quiet time.

• Go for a massage. One of the oldest schools is on the temple grounds at Wat Pho, but it's not air-conditioned, and with the 90-degree-plus heat and humidity, we took a young attendant's suggestion to visit the air-conditioned annex a few blocks away.

Our pedometers registered six miles of walking before noon, so we sprang for the $12, 45-minute foot massage, and learned a little about Chinese reflexology techniques that link 63 points on the feet with various internal organs: big toe/pituitary gland, little toe/sinuses and so on.

Staffers Mai and May, both in their 20s, sat us in blue lounge chairs, propped our feet up on stools and told us to roll up our pants. They went to work, rubbing our feet with cream, pulling on our toes, slapping our calves and massaging our soles with tools carved from teak.

"No problem in the stomach," Mai concluded as she rubbed my arches. They ended the session by wrapping our legs in hot towels, and serving us cups of iced tea. Then we rolled down our pants, thanked them and went back out into the heat where our feet stayed happy for the rest of the day.

Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or cpucci@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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