Bangkok's new hub for coffee and bikes to go

It was sunny last Friday morning, perfect for first-time novices to go cycling on the streets of Bangkok's old quarters with like-minded people who meet at Cafe Velo Dome, a popular hangout for coffee lovers and bike freaks at Tha Phrachan campus of Thammasat University (TU).

But don't expect the cafe to be a chic meeting point adorned with bike frames, saddles or chains hanging as props on the walls. No interior decoration related to bicycles is in sight, except for a steel bicycle model on the shelf.

Also, don't expect it to be a typical place where patrons come for coffee. Many are here to enjoy talking about bicycles. A couple of novice cyclists were already there, waiting for the tour as I arrived.

They had made an appointment with co-owner of the cafe Nonlany Ung-wiwatkul to join "City Cycling Tour 101" through Facebook (www.facebook.com/cafevelodome) a few days earlier.

"We don't need another chic cafe in town. What we need is a cycling hub and the people to change the attitude that the bicycle is a vehicle for the poor who can't afford a car," said Prinya Thewanarumitkul, TU's vice-rector, the man behind the project.

Cafe Velo Dome was conceived as a focal point to raise awareness about cycling in the city, as part of the university's policy to be responsible for the environment and to society.

The cafe has just about all the information pertinent to two-wheelers: from bikes for rent, city tours, workshops and information on backstreet routes to repair tools and outlets. No accessories or parts are on sale though.

The month-old cafe is designed in minimalist-style, with helmets, bicycles and a fixing stand adorning the door or entrance. All of it is real stuff used every day by the cafe's barista team. Inside, two long tables set in the middle are arranged so that patrons who are non-cyclists end up sitting close to bikers.

"The idea is that overhearing conversations in the cafe they may at some point be tempted to join the biking fraternity," said Nonlany. Cycling as a transport is also a way to ease traffic congestion and reduce carbon emission.

Bring your own cup and you get 5 baht discount on the drink you order, or you can pay an extra 5 baht and take the cup in which the drink is served with you: it is a way to encourage recycling/reuse. Materials used for construction and decoration were also selected on the basis of being as environmentally-friendly as possible.

Last year, Thammasat University was directly affected by environmental problems, Vice-Rector Prinya said. The Rangsit campus was inundated for about a month while the Tha Phrachan campus by the Chao Phraya River also had to battle rising water levels. The biking initiative is one way to deal with the problem.

Opening of the cafe means the initiative has moved well past the conceptual stage. And it's run by those who have a great passion for cycling.

Nonlany earlier quit her full-time job as a business developer to cycle around the country, but changed her mind a few months ago to stay in the city to lead free tours for novice cyclists when requested. All brew served at the cafe is prepared by baristas who are also crazy about cycling. Most of them cycle to work; one of them even cycled from Thailand to Tibet. So you can be sure to get a quick fix at the cafe if a tyre suddenly goes flat, or the gears don't function properly, free of charge.

To promote cycling in the city, Nonlany also acts as a matchmaker between veterans and newcomers. She is a coach for novices keen to cycle to work but who are scared of the traffic.

Tired of the fast-paced life, she started cycling the back streets of Bangkok, which made her realise that there was more to the capital city than skyscrapers and cars. She discovered the joys of slow life in old communities like Kudi Jeen, Klong San and Nang Loeng market.

"You don't have to drive all the way to Hua Hin to enjoy Ploen Wan," said Nonlany, referring to a community mall whose design and ambience is based on the Bangkok of the 1970s.

There are places hidden in the old communities needing to be discovered. Some of them are within a 5km radius of the old town square.

And Nonlany is waiting to share those routes with newcomers to the cafe.

Well, see you here again next Thursday. Until then, if you have questions, news or biking insights you wish to share, please feel free to send an email to pongpetm@bangkokpost.co.th or go to the "Freewheel Bangkok" community page on Facebook.


Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a feature writer for the Bangkok Post.

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Writer: Sirinya Wattanasukchai
Position: Reporter