For two bicycle tour companies, biking in Bangkok is more than a tour. These two extraordinary companies not only give excellent guided tours of the hidden gems of this city, but also have significant impacts on the poverty in and around Bangkok.
Bangkok, the coastal capital of Thailand has two seasons, covers 606 sq miles, and 18 million residents, and approximately 1.5 million slum dwellers. There are over 400 Buddhist temples and thousands of other tourist attractions including the Royal Palace and the famous Khaosan Road. One could spend a lifetime discovering new parts of Bangkok. As a tourist with limited time, the best way to see the real Bangkok is to pound the pavement with locals.
The first bicycle tour company is Co van Kessel. Mr. van Kessel, a Dutch ex-patriot, started the tour company over 30 years ago. Frustrated with the image of Bangkok as a city of uninhibited urban sprawl, grid-lock traffic and suffocating pollution, Mr. van Kessel started a bicycle tour company to change this image. His was the first bicycle tour company in Bangkok and has been working towards making Bangkok a cyclist-friendly city ever since.
In addition to being an entrepreneur, Co van Kessel bike tour company is also generous with their time and money. They often donate money to local charity organizations. Additionally, every year they donate bicycles that are unfit for tours but still in good working condition to villages in the north of Thailand. The bicycles serve the villagers as their primary form of transportation thereby allowing them to pursue livelihoods otherwise unavailable.
The second, Recreational Bangkok Biking (RBB), is also run by a Dutch ex-patriot, Andre Breuer. RBB offers several different tours each with their own extraordinary sights. They offer a variety of walking, biking, rickshaw, boat and combination tours throughout the city. Their goal is to give tourists a chance to see what Thai life is really all about—colorful markets full of sounds and smells that make your whole body tingle, daily life along the canals that wind through the city, and stretches of green space one could hardly imagine existed when limited to main tourist areas.
What makes this company stand out is not only the high quality of the tours but also the social commitment Mr. Breuer insists on. His employees are local, mostly low-class Thais. The employees start out as bicycle mechanics and learn English through interacting with foreigners—two skills that are extremely valuable to enhancing their living standards. The restaurants, food stands, boat drivers, and bicycle repair establishments are locals, mostly slum dwellers. Mr. Breuer also uses his influence and business network to help fund a local orphanage, the Mercy Center, and a kindergarten. (Mercy Center is located in the largest slum in Bangkok, Khlong Toey and serves as an orphanage and rehabilitation center for those with AIDS.) Tourists have the option of stopping at the school and talking to the children, who learn English from their frequent interactions.
It is easy to get sucked into the tourist traps in Bangkok. Everyone wants to take you for a ride. Let yourself be taken by Recreational Bangkok Biking or Co van Kessel and you will not regret it!
– Katherine Zobre