Co van Kessel Offers a Welcome New Perspective of Bangkok
In this big, hot, diverse city, full of moving parts and places to explore, discovery is often best achieved by bike. Travelling on two wheels affords the luxury of easy acceleration. It even comes with a cool, self-powered breeze that only improves at night, when the temperatures drop ever so slightly. No sweat-stained shirts or worn-out soles—nor the hazards of motorized motion—just convenient access to backstreets with the liberty to stop at your leisure. So what better way to see the lesser-seen sights than with a bike tour at night?
For that, I recently turned to Co van Kessel.
Founded by a Dutchman, who had been taking people on tours of the city for over twenty years before setting up his own operation in 2005, Co van Kessel was one of the first, if not the first, company to offer bicycle tours in Bangkok. It started with just eight bikes and one tour, catering mainly to corporate events. Thanks to word-of-mouth marketing, a lot has changed since then. Today, Co van Kessel claims around 50 people on staff and offers seven tours a day, every day of the week.
Just after 5.30pm, I arrive at the prominently yellow office at River City and am immediately welcomed by Co-founder and General Manager Chanmanee “Nong” Phonpakdee. While the “Co Classical” and the “Co Combo” tours are the best-sellers, Nong explains that the Night Bike Tour—Co van Kessel’s most recent addition—is getting increasingly popular. I’m told only a very minor portion of our tour will be spent on the main road—“Three to five per cent,” says Nong—while the rest of the time we will be guided through Bangkok’s narrow network of sois and troks (a smaller kind of soi, if that’s even possible).“Our guides have Google Maps in their head,” she reassures us. But in the off-chance we get lost, my fellow riders and I are equipped with a high-visibility vest and helmet, so we’ll be safe and sound.
After a short safety-talk by our guide, Ping, about a dozen other cyclists and I are ready to hit the road, pedalling toward Chinatown. Feeling as if I had just cycled out of the streets of Amsterdam with my city bike, I soon realize Thailand is not The Netherlands as I just manage to avoid running over a cat and hitting a wall before we stop at a Chinese temple.
A young man with an ever-present smile, Ping explains some Thai-Chinese religious customs at the temple. After walking around and taking a few photos, I briefly chat with Ping. He says he has been leading bike tours for five months, and his bouncy bearing suggests he clearly enjoy his job. “It’s great to be able to work and exercise at the same time,” he jokes.
Back in the saddle, we carefully make our way down busy Yaowarat Road, through a crowded market, and back into a tiny soi. Children on the street wave as we ride past. The loitering teenagers, not so much, although I do notice more than a few smiles and giggles. All around us are locals going about their evening business as we ride onward, finally reaching our next stop: the Flower Market. Again our guide gives us some colourful anecdotes as we walk through the busy bazaar before continuing our tour around the alleys of the Old Town.
Pedalling past the Grand Palace, we stop at Sanam Luang, the royal field that, when not being used for official ceremonies, becomes a sporting ground and place for flying kites. At night, it provides a fantastic view of the brightly lit palace. Ping tells us that, while we have doubtless already gained a new perspective of Bangkok, our next stop will take us even further into the “real” Bangkok.
Cycling over Memorial Bridge—with a quick stop to snap shots of Wat Arun—we reach the other side of the river, Thonburi. Once the centre of the capital, it’s now where a lot of Bangkokians live, thanks to its cheaper costs of living. After all this exercise, we are ready for some snacks—and this is when its gets really local. Ping and his assistant, North, order dumplings filled with pork, chicken wantons, and ginger soup for us to try, all of which is capped with some artery-clogging (but oh-so-satisfying) deep-fried ice cream. It strikes me that the team behind Co van Kessel really tries their best to keep their promise to take you off the beaten track and experience local Bangkok.
With our food devoured and the obligatory picture with one of the stall owners taken, we hop back on our bikes and race down one soi after another, until we end up back at the mighty Chao Phraya River. From there a longtail boat takes us and our bikes back to where we started, giving us a fantastic view of the river at night. After three hours of exercise, moderate sweating, and a couple of good photo-ops, I’m ready for bed.
Although I live in Bangkok and have seen most of the places we’ve visited before, I have to admit that I still re-experienced them in a different way and learned something far beyond the basic “sawadee ka.” For a moment, I became a part of these local communities. Whether you’re a tourist, new expat, or honest-to-goodness Bangkokian, Co van Kessel’s Night Bike Tour is worth joining. Even when you’re close to the star attractions, you might just find yourself in the middle of nowhere, with an entirely new perspective of this dynamic city.
Co van Kessel offers various bike, boat, and walking tours of the city, and for more than reasonable prices. To explore the list of options and sign up for a tour, visit covankessel.com.