Ride through the streets of downtown Bangkok in the morning and you know the city hasn’t slept a wink all night. In the bustling sois (streets) of Sukhumvit—party central for visitors—where street food vendors jostle for space with ultra-modern luxury hotels and flea markets, there’s a pervasive sense of continuum: a dull hum of activity, the aroma of fish sauce in the air, longtail boats cruising down the Chao Phraya, a Skytrain zipping along the cityscape every few minutes, tuk tuk drivers looking for naive tourists and slowing to check out my motorcycle.
Further along, golden spires rise above the cityscape as you enter the heritage enclave of Rattanakosin. The sun rises above the grand temples of Wat Pho and Wat Arun, both Unesco World Heritage Sites, already crowded with the devout disembarking off ferries docked in canals. These ancient waterways wind through the old city precincts of Thonburi, where some Thais live in houses that are still accessible only by boat. Once upon a time—Somchai, a newly minted Thai friend, tells me—most of the major roads in Bangkok used to be canals that were used by boats for intra-city travel.
These days, the Skytrain and the Metro take travellers over the cityscape and through subterranean tunnels to every corner of one of the grandest cities of Asia. And yet, the quickest way to make your way around Bangkok is often by river ferries on the Chao Phraya. A motorcycle, as I discovered during the course of a weekend in August, comes a close second.
No city represents Thailand’s historical and cultural potpourri, with all its contradictions and dichotomies, as well as Bangkok. The city’s historical and cultural heritage coexists seamlessly with the modern precincts of new Bangkok. To really experience the city of Krung Thep, as the Thais call it, it’s imperative to explore both these worlds. And that’s precisely what Royal Enfield had invited us—a group of writers from around the world—to do on their spanking new city runabout: the Hunter 350. The milieu is appropriate, you think, to launch a motorcycle like this.
Lightweight, pugilistic, nippy, and with enough street cred to appeal to hipsters—the Hunter is an Enfield like no other. Precisely the sort of motorcycle young men are wont to have on posters on their room walls. And which shares little but lineage with the Bullets of yesteryear.
After a long ride the previous night, my body’s abject inability to handle the rigours of motorcycling stood exposed. At my host’s suggestion, I submit to a gratifying pummel and stretch at the Wat Pho temple. While hundreds of dodgy massage parlours and spas dot the city landscape, the students at the Wat Pho Thai Massage School, I discover, provide the best traditional Thai massage in the country. Suitably restored and back in the saddle, I head for a quick photo-op by the Royal Palace and Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha). On Somchai’s insistence, I stop at the traditional shops in Banglamphu in search of good bargains on trinkets and then head for that famed street food destination of Chinatown. There’s no better place for breakfast in the city. With perhaps the most eclectic cuisine and the most vibrant street food stalls you are likely to encounter anywhere in Bangkok, Chinatown is like a 24-hour dining room.
Unlike many Western tourists I have met, I am pretty comfortable in the claustrophobic web of narrow alleys on Yaowarat Road that teem with hawkers selling everything from Chinese medicines of dubious origin to authentic Chinese fare. The whiff of chole-bhature from a corner of Chinatown evokes a surprisingly nostalgic pang. Phahurat, the Indian district on the western edge of Chinatown, serves the best Indian food in the country, Somchai tells me.
Back on the road, I am as taken with the Hunter’s smooth power delivery as I am by the complete absence of honking on the roads. Thais, who consider talking loudly in public or pointing your feet at anyone else inexcusable social offences, find the notion of intentionally honking at someone appalling. Not that you never hear it, but honking is the Thai version of road rage. It’s a cultural thing.
As I said earlier, a motorcycle equips you rather well for immersive travel in this city. Given the lack of onboard storage, you are unlikely to get entrapped by the cloying treacles of Bangkok’s shopping malls. Ergo, you stick to food, history and culture. Siam Square—the city’s premier shopping district—has more than just glitzy arcades for the itinerant visitor. A short ride from Phaya Thai road to Kasem street brings me to Jim Thompson’s House—a curious ensemble of a variety of Thai houses assembled in this compound in 1959 by the American silk trader, or World War II spy, depending on whom you ask.
As the story goes, Thompson, who worked for American intelligence agencies, settled in Thailand post World War II and set up a flourishing silk business. He disappeared mysteriously during an afternoon walk in Malaysia in 1967. It’s an irresistible whodunit for fellow fans of the spy-thriller genre.
Given the preponderance of superbikes on Bangkok’s roads, the attention the Hunter 350 garners is in no small measure due to its superficial charms—it’s a very good-looking motorcycle. But it would be unfair to restrict its virtues to appearances. In the city, the Hunter 350 really comes into its own: darting into corners, stopping on a dime, and uncomplainingly sticking to lines you throw it into. More importantly, unlike its predecessors and peers from the Royal Enfield stable, it’s not a handful to manoeuvre. Don’t be fooled though. With its aggressive stance and chunky mien, the Hunter 350 looks unmistakably substantial—very much an Enfield in that sense.
In the evening, with calorific beverages on the agenda, the Hunter is dutifully parked at the hotel and I make my way towards the fabled nightclubs of Sukhumvit. The city’s most upmarket residential neighbourhood, Sukhumvit’s multifarious charms make it a microcosm of the city. Often equated with sleaze, Sukhumvit—once you can get past the lurid face of the Nana entertainment plaza—has a really chic, fashionable and trendy feel, with top-notch restaurants and popular bars. Bangkok has been badly affected by the pandemic and regular visitors will be surprised at the lack of weekend crowds in the evening.
On the positive side, this means it’s entirely possible to get a table at Fat Gut’z—a hole-in-the-wall blues bar that augments its live music with, well, mostly fish and chips. The more adventurous amongst us head to Glow, a small club with an oversized reputation for electronica and hip hop nights. Nights on the town can be interminable in Bangkok but I have to tip my hat to my host: A short tuk tuk ride deposits me at the riverside promenade where the official launch event and dinner is taking place.
“I categorically deny ever saying that,” says Siddharth Lal, managing director and CEO, Eicher Motors Ltd. We are tarrying in the hotel lobby late at night, with Lal responding to my reminder of the time I interviewed him for a magazine, a few years ago, when he had broken the “classic” mould and modernised the brand’s motorcycles. I had voiced my myopic views on preserving Enfield’s traditional noisy engine. A look of instant recognition had come over Lal’s face and he had turned to me and said, “Oh…you are one of those…”
At the time, Lal, who lived in India (he has been in London for nearly a decade now), had been the toast of the automotive industry for infusing fresh life into Royal Enfield. Suddenly, I recall a tag line on a Royal Enfield advert that appeared decades ago. Catchy, even if defensive, something to the effect, “we’ve stayed different by staying the same.” No one can accuse Royal Enfield of that any more. Nor Bangkok.
Meraj Shah is a Delhi-based writer and television producer.