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Wheeling around in busy Bangkok
Wheeling around in busy Bangkok

Forget the tuktuks. I'm going to do Bangkok on two wheels, firstly on a bicycle - at night - and then on a mutant thing called a Segway which wears its wheels side-by-side.

Bangkok by dark by bike. The very idea might be up there with riding pillion behind Evel Knievel as a stunt you don't do if aiming for a long life.

Nevertheless, I saddle up with nine other riders at the Grasshopper Adventures office, not far from world backpacker HQ, Khao San Road. Anna, our lycra-clad Thai guide, gives a few instructions: helmets on, headlights on, saddles adjusted, all pumped up - and go.

We follow her along the footpath - the locals step back a little, having seen this spectacle of pedalling, wobbling farang every evening - and head off into the sunset, the smog, the traffic jams, the markets and the whirling tuktuk derby that is the Thai capital.

The guy next to me, Mark, a young Asian banker, is riding one-handed and texting with the other. The Polish couple behind him, and two sisters from Brisbane behind them, concentrate on riding two-hands. Weaving, we follow Anna down narrow sois of backpacker cafes, lodges and tattoo joints, and soon we are at large in the Bangkok of the Bangkokians - or to use the city's Thai name, the Krung Thep of the Krung Thepians.

As long as I keep moving, the temperature is cool. Stop, and the humidity and sweat engulf me. Our pace is easy and we stop from time to time while Anna gives a potted history of the temple, fortress or market we've halted in front of.

We pile on to a local ferry, crossing to the western bank of the Chao Phraya River, then take quiet back roads to Wat Arun, the famed Temple of Dawn. At night the wat's glittering stupas are spectacularly lit and, equally spectacularly, are free of the thousands of visitors who flock there by day.

We have time here to wander and take photos among its gilded chedi spires and long rows of Bodhisattva statues, all bathed in golden light. Other than a few temple dogs and the spells cast by long shadows, there is hardly another soul present.

Back in the saddle, we ride along a riverside footway where you might worship in various ways - in a Chinese temple, Christian church, Buddhist wat, or smooching in the arms of your sweetheart, as Thai couples are doing tonight on the seats that face the river.

We're on 24-speed mountain bikes but, with no mountains, that's about 21 gears too many. I find a few somewhere in the middle and just stay with them.

We cross the Chao Phraya again, by bridge, and come to Pak Klong Dalat, the nightly flower market. It's a crush of perfumes, colour bursts, buyers and sellers, night being the market's busiest time of day. Amid the trestles of marigolds and roses, Anna negotiates some local snacks for us.

Mark has been abducted by his smart phone, taking pics, stabbing digits, riding a bit further, taking more pics, a message pinging in-bound, answers flying out-bound.

"Are you working?" I ask. Heck, no, the banker answers, "I'm on vacation - just Facebooking and tweeting it all."

Meanwhile, my dumb phone sits mute and way underemployed as we follow Anna, our lady of the lycra, flashing through dimmed streets.

Wat Pho, home of the burial stupas of the first four kings of the current Chakri dynasty, is ours for the wandering. Snoozing cats and chatting monks have replaced the daytime tide of visitors.

I could loaf here all night amid these golden spires but soon it's time again to roll on. We pass the sleeping Grand Palace, cross the great public common of Sanam Luang and finish back in Khao San Road, backpacker city. Three hours and 15km have passed in a tweet.

Did Dean Kamen, the American who dreamed up the Segway, say "I think I'll reinvent the wheel" to himself one morning? He's come close to doing it and now I'm going to ride one of his gizmos around Bangkok's Rattanakosin area.

If you haven't seen a self-powered Segway Personal Transporter (its full name), it looks like a cross between a high-tech hand-push lawn-mower and a stand-up vacuum cleaner. Then you stand on it.

At the Segway Tour Thailand office at Maharaj Pier, I watch a short video which runs me through the basic operations. My guide, Jun, gives me a helmet and I get the hang of this contraption in the parking lot. You stand upright on its foot platform, holding on to handlebars. To go forward, just lean forward - slightly - and it takes off. Same for reverse. To turn you lean. To stop, just stand still. Simple, intuitive, no brake, no accelerator, no trainer wheels.

"In 30 minutes anyone can be a Segway professional," reckons Jun. I'll test the proposition. He guides me across busy Maharaj Road and we're on our way. These Segways are limited to 10km/h - down from a standard 20km/h - so we're a long way from being Segway Bandidos laying down rubber with our electric pogo sticks.

I look up to see a passing tour coach where Thai tourists have their cameras pressed to the windows, taking pictures of us on our Martian mobiles.

Cutting through the grounds of a gilded Buddhist temple, we do a circuit of Sanam Luang's broad lawns which are used for royal ceremonies, festivals and political demos.

There's a one-way radio system in the helmet so that the Segway shepherd can communicate with his flock.

All groups (maximum size, eight) have a guide and, sorry, there are no self-guided excursions.

In cases where there's a large tour group but not a spare Segway for the group's own travel escort, I've heard of the hapless escort having to run for kilometres, trying to keep up with the group.

The Segway's large wheels absorb most bumps as we glide along, past the elaborate colonial-style edifice of the Ministry of Defence and its display of 92 historic cannons in its grounds.

To our right, the dreaming spires and peaked eaves of Wat Phra Keo, the Grand Palace, rise over a high white wall.

We stop for a drink in leafy Saran Rom park, previously a "royals only" domain, then keep steady-rollin' on.

This is heaps of fun, even if I feel a bit dorky just perched there, wafting along while everyone else has to walk - but, as they say, no sweat, man.

The only other place I've seen these mechanical magic carpets in Bangkok is in Suvarnabhumi Airport where the cops ride a sinister, all-black model - the Segway Pursuit?

The Segway bills itself as "the world's first electrical self-balancing personal transporter".

It sports gyroscopes that claim to monitor the rider's balance 100 times a second.

Even so, it still looks like a scooter that someone has stolen the rear wheels off.

As we cruise effortlessly back to home base at the pier after almost 10km, I conclude that while Mr Kamen didn't reinvent the wheel, he certainly reinvented two wheels.

·John Borthwick travelled courtesy of Thai Royal Orchid Holidays and Grasshopper Adventures.

  • fact file *

·Bangkok Night Ride starts at 6pm at Grasshopper Adventures at 57 Ratchadamnoen Rd, opposite the Democracy Monument. It costs $US28 ($28.59) or 800 Thai baht per person with discounts for children aged 17 and under. grasshopperadventures.com.

·A 90-minute guided Segway tour starts from $56 per person including drinks, a helmet and a wireless headset. A six-hour Bangkok Urban Oasis Tour including lunch costs $144. Tours are conducted in English. Contact your travel agent, or Thai Airways on 1300 651 960 and thaiairways.com.au.