Multi-lane highways, express routes, flyovers, endless traffic jams. Bangkok is no place to go for a bike ride unless you slip into the back streets. Now that's a different story

It was with some trepidation that I joined Co van Kessel's Amazing Bangkok Cyclist tour at the Tara Hotel. I joined my fellow cyclists – a mixed bunch of Europeans ranging from air stewardesses to Alphonso, a Spanish bullfighter – as Co read us the rules: no booze, concentrate on the ride, cycle in single file. Simple. And we were off, heading for Sukhumvit Road, one of the busiest streets in Bangkok or anywhere else, for that matter. As we turned into this modern version of Dante's Hell I wished that I had had the bullfighter's skills of avoiding large objects charging at me, bent on my destruction. Alphonso took on all comers with no apparent concern.

Size matters on Bangkok's roads. Don't let anyone tell you any differently. The buses and trucks are king, followed by vans and cars, then come the tuk-tuks (auto rickshaws) and motorbikes. At the bottom of the food chain come cyclists and pedestrians. Right of way is simple: the big guy gets priority.

After a hair-raising couple of blocks we turned off Sukhumvit into one of the sois (lanes). Immediately, the traffic and pollution levels dropped, the noise went down a few hundred decibels and we all breathed a sigh of relief and some fresh air. We turned off yet again into one of the sub-sois. Gone were the high-rise hotels and apartment blocks to be replaced by the traditional shophouse architecture seen all over South-east Asia. Here locals go about their daily business not bothered by tourists. Many of the front rooms open straight out on to the street and the whole of the ground floor is often given over to some sort of enterprise, whether it be a small shoe or belt factory, a tailor shop or some packing business. If you want to know where all those phoney Ralph Lauren polo shirts are made, you're in the right neighbourhood.

Tucked away among a maze of sois was a small fire station. The fire station is, in reality, little more than someone's front room stuffed with an abundance of firefighting paraphernalia. Proudly parked outside is an exquisite, spanking new tuk-tuk converted into a fire engine. A true testament to Thai ingenuity, it looks as if it would be more at home in Legoland.

We rode through a warren of tiny alleys so narrow that we had to dismount to negotiate the corners. After some deft manoeuvres we stumbled into the Khlong Toey neighbourhood, often referred to by locals and the media as a slum. The Bangkok makeover has completely bypassed this traditional neighbourhood, but despite the obvious poverty, people smiled and waved at us and there was no air of desperation so often associated with a deprived area. The worst sight was the state of the khlong (canal), which was filthy. Crossing the old wooden bridge, we saw a small boat with half a dozen women scooping the rubbish off the canal with fishing nets and dumping it on the deck of the boat. Hardly anyone's dream job.

We entered the Khlong Toey market area. It is claimed to be the largest fresh produce market in the world, and it snaked off in every conceivable direction. Every fruit, vegetable, spice, herb and animal you could imagine was on display. (The Thais don't waste anything.) Returning the following day to photograph this colourful theatre, I spent four hours there and I never saw another farang (foreigner).

From the market it was a short ride to the mighty Chao Phraya River, where a waiting longtail boat whisked the bicycles and us across. After negotiating our way through the back of a temple we came across the secret garden of Bangkok. Here, Co told us, were more than 100 km of cycle paths through mangrove, banana and coconut plantations. I experienced an exhilarating feeling riding through these forests, knowing that we were within a couple of miles from the epicentre of Bangkok. If it hadn't been for the concreted pathways we could have been in the middle of the jungle. Little clusters of houses appeared from time to time, but more than anything it was the stillness of this enchanted oasis that gave it a unique appeal.

As the sun slid behind the re-emerging skyscrapers we reluctantly made our way back to the city centre. We debriefed back at the hotel, sipping the most welcome of cocktails. Co told me that the day before he had taken a party of 25 French children, some on bikes and some on those scooters that are all the rage with kids these days. Not a single casualty, he reassured me. Walking back to the insanity of Sukhumvit I couldn't contain my delight at having discovered something so pleasurable, accessible, yet so cheap in this frenetic metropolis.