Biking Through Bangkok With Co Van Kessel

Biking Through Bangkok With Co Van Kessel

Bike-tour operator Co Van Kessel lets visitors ride their way through Thailand By: Lawrence Ferber
The Co By Night tour was created for an agent whose clients had no time to spare during the day. // © 2015 Co van Kessel Bangkok Tours
The Co By Night tour was created for an agent whose clients had no time to spare during the day. // © 2015 Co van Kessel Bangkok Tours

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The Details

Co Van Kessel Bangkok Tours

Thanks to Co Van Kessel, visitors can go Dutch in Bangkok.

Over the course of 30 years, the Netherlands-born Van Kessel imported his homeland’s love of bicycles to Bangkok, initially leading private tours for visiting countrymen (including KLM flight crews) and eventually co-founding the pioneering Co Van Kessel (CVK) Bangkok Tours.

Today, CVK tours range from the three-hour Co Classical (about $30) urban jaunt to the nine-hour Co All Day (about $65), which encompasses both city and outskirts trails, plus a longboat ride for good measure. Helmets are optional, though included in the price.

CVK’s most magical, must-try offering is Co By Night (about $30 per person). Zip down Bangkok’s narrow lanes at dusk under glowing Chinatown lanterns; past illuminated temples and hidden Thai pool halls and dwellings; and along Chao Phraya River as the breeze brushes against your face. This is an intimate, rarified experience that offers a taste of local flavor via stops for street food and fresh, exotic fruit juices.

“We created the tour as a favor to one of our longtime agents who had clients with no time during the day,” said Henry Hsu, business strategy manager for CVK. “It started out as a nighttime version of our three-hour day tour but has evolved over the years to take advantage of the special circumstances that exist at night. For example, we discovered that the ultra-touristy daytime environment of Wat Pho, the giant reclining Buddha, turned into a serene, exclusive experience after dark — nobody is there while we explore the beautiful grounds.”

Van Kessel, who passed away in 2012, co-founded the company in 2005 with Thailand native Chanmanee Phonphakdee, whom he first met when she was an intern at a hotel tour counter. Phonphakdee initially turned down his offers to sample a bike tour — she was wary of safety and thought “he was a smelly man” (presumably from all the riding in sweltering heat) — but eventually she caved, wowed by the biking experience, as well as by Van Kessel’s impressive knowledge of Bangkok’s most obscure roads and sites.

“Co was like a man who had put Google maps into his brain,” said Phonphakdee, who is now general manager for CVK.

The company launched with just eight bikes but now boasts a fleet of 350 two-wheelers, including some equipped with child and infant seats. Through its tours and visibility, CVK contributes to a growing local awareness about bike culture. Thais frequently smile and say “hello” to clients riding past.

As for whether a visitor requires Dutch-level velocipede expertise to sign up, Hsu assures that any interested customer can participate.

“As long as you’re comfortable on a bike, you can do our tours,” he said. “We have international customers that range from 4 or 5 years old all the way to 70-plus, and our rides are not designed to be a physical challenge, but a cultural experience.”