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There were two things that I wanted to do on my last trip to Bangkok. One is “Wat Arun” or Temple of the Dawn in English. The other is the Floating Market. Bangkok is a fascinating city with a population exceeding $10 million people. It is massive and sprawling like no other city in Southeast Asia countries, except probably Jakarta and Manila.
The last time I have been to a Bangkok floating market was in 1989. I was seconded to Bangkok to work for IBM Thailand by a Malaysian IBM Business Partner, Sunway Computer Services. That was a long time ago. But the memory is still with me because it was a good few months experience living and working in Bangkok until I had a viral infection due to food poisoning. It left me sick for several weeks unable to work and almost had to be hospitalised. That was a frightening experience. Bangkok at that time was nothing like today. The public transport system is dependent either on the bus, “tuk-tuk” or the motorcyles. The road traffic jam was like a carpark and the air pollution quality was very poor. The food hygiene was not regulated and the drinking water quality was not recommended to drink off the tap.
In today’s Bangkok, modernisation has seen Bangkok quality of life improved significantly with a better public transport network system – the “Skytrain” monorail, underground subway train, elevated pedestrian bridges connecting several mega building complexes and hotel river boats transporting the tourists from a riverside hotel to the Skytrain station at Sapak Taksin Pier. It is much easier for the tourists to move around without getting stuck on the notorious peak hour traffic jam.
In 1989, one of my Thai IBM colleagues was showing me around Thailand. Thai people are very hospitable and gentle. They spoke eloquently in a soft melodies tone of voice. Their language is as enchanting as their culture and country. They are mesmerising. This is the beautiful and true side of Thailand. Not the other side – the sex industry – that many foreign male tourists are accustomed to – like “Patpong”, the Go-Go Bars and “Lady Boy”.
My Thai colleague took me to the ancient ruined kingdom of Ayutthaya and the floating market. It was one of the best experiences I had while living in Thailand. It was a living and breathing culture on the canals with boat vendors floating gently on the water selling their fresh produces and “make to order” cooked food. That was a true Thai floating market. There was hardly any tourist around except the locals.
Tourism is a big industry in Thailand. The floating market is no exception. It is touristy – the one nearest to Bangkok. It is easy to get to from the Chao Phraya River. There are canal tour services by the hours at the Sapak Taksin Pier. Before I left Bangkok and headed back to Penang for a few more days, I thought it was a nice idea to go on the canal riverboat tour to the floating market. I hired one of the longtail boat for 1½ hours trip to the floating market for 1, 600 Thai Baht for two of us. The weather was overcast and windy. The river was choppy and rough. There were intermittent stopped when the very dark and brown Chao Phraya river got too rough. It was thrilling and nerve racking at the same. I would hate to think what would happened if the boat got overturned into the brown river! After twenty minutes from Sapak Taksin Pier, we came to an opening leading to a narrow canal snaking through several brick walled houses and stilt wooden houses.There were other longtail boats along the way. Around a narrow bend, our driver yelled out to us, “floating market!” and pointed towards a tiny boat vendor in front of us. We laughed. I was astonished thinking that, “is that it?!”. Then our boat pulled alongside the tiny boat. The boat vendor smiled, the usual Thai charm, and said, “Buy Beer nah?…” “…only 100 Baht” “…buy for your driver nah.” “…he can drink after finish work.” I said no. Then, she took out a small canned coffee. “How about Ca-Fey?..” “…only 30 Baht.” “…buy for your driver nah.” I said no again. She was very persistent. Then she said something in Thai to our driver. Probably cursing us. We moved on. Thank god! That was an ordeal, but funny.We finally arrived at the real floating market. There were so many tourists and boats pulled alongside the wooden platform to let the tourist on and off. Our boat driver said twenty minutes. We hopped off the boat. It was like a Hollywood film set except this was real as it gets in Bangkok – with tourists and the odd numbers of boat vendors parked alongside the wooden structures platforms for people to sit and eat. There were boat vendors selling grilled seafood, satay, noodle soup and “Som Tam” (green papaya salad). The place felt authentic and rustic without making the place looked new or modern. The wooden platform was an extension of a solid ground where there are more stalls selling different kinds of Thai street food and drinks, fresh fruits, plants, kitchenware and souvenirs. I bought a block of ‘coconut sugar’ for 45 Baht, which I initially thought it was ‘palm sugar’ until the vendor corrected me. Hopefully I can take into Australia. I have never tried a coconut sugar in my drink or cooking. This will be interesting and a new food experiment when I get home to Melbourne.This Bangkok floating market is vastly different from my experience in 1989, which was truly an authentic Thai floating market with the boat vendors floating gently on the canal river selling their fresh vegetables and fruits or serving their boat food to early morning market goers and village homes along the canal. Nevertheless, the Bangkok version of the floating market is still a good experience for many tourists.
Singapore – now who would have thought that it is more than just Orchard Road. Singapore is not one of the city that I have in mind to stopover for a visit on the way home to visit my family in Penang. But, I have been proved wrong on this visit. 10- 20 years ago, all I know about Singapore was the Orchard Road, Sentosa Island and Haw Par Villa. I will hopped across the Singapore channel on the Malaysian train from the southernmost Malaysian city – Johor Bahru to the tiny prosperous island of Singapore city. The Malaysian railway network system – KTM (“Keretapi Tanah Melayu”) connects 3 countries from Bangkok in Thailand to Penang and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to Singapore city in Singapore, stopping at several of Malaysian state’s capital cities. It has been more than 20 years since I was a passenger on the KTM. I believe it is time to use the train again to see what it is like. Perhaps a trip in 2014 from Bangkok to Penang.
Before I arrived in Singapore, I was tossing around whether to book a room in one of the big hotels or a small, trendy boutique hotels in the suburbs. This trip was a short 2 nights stopover. I ended up choosing one of the big hotel centrally located in the cultural precinct near the harbour, away from Orchard Road. One of my key requirement is a well matched price for the location. Singapore is a very expensive city. The boutique hotels are as expensive as the larger 5-stars hotels with full facilities. I decided on the Fairmont Hotel in Raffles City Mall after an extensive research on the net. It is ideally located within walking distance to the harbour, Bugis Street, Arab district, Little India and Chinatown. The public transport system is world class with an underground mass rapid transport (MRT) system. The hotel is in an integrated complex of a shopping mall – Raffles City and an MRT station – City Hall. Singapore is a well planned city with landscaped gardens and canopy tree lined boulevards. To escape the heat, there is an extensive air-conditioned underground network system complete with shops, food outlets and supermarkets that connect several of the buildings. It will be a perfect escape or sanctuary for human if there is ever a nuclear disaster on the island! The only problem – there is no sunlight with vitamin D deficiency. The view from my hotel room at Fairmont. It is a good room with a high speed wifi connectivity.
Like it or hate it, I am not a big fan of Singapore. I spent my first day avoiding the Orchard Road and took the SIA double decker Hop On and Hop Off bus touring around the city. It costs $8 for a full day fare if you have an SIA boarding pass. The weather was perfect – sunny and hot, but not too humid.Seating on the upper deck may be too hot for some who are not used to the heat. But, it has the best seating view of the city.
Passing through rows of overhanging branches shaped like green canopy from both sides of the street brought welcoming sigh of relieve from the heat.My destination stop is Little India. I could have walked there from the hotel, which may take 20 minutes, but the Hop On and Hop Off bus tour is a quick way of seeing the city.Singapore’s Little India isn’t quite the Little India I was expecting. It lacks the vibe and atmosphere of the noisy streets with sari clad Indian women, blaring loud music from giant black loud speakers outside CD shops, the scent of herbs and aromatic spices filling the air. There is a small Indian arcade, which is as interesting as it gets for me. A couple of blocks away is the neighbouring Arab district, which is more interesting than Little India. It was an easy 10 minutes walk. Arab Street and Haji Lane are really colourful with interesting shops and restaurants. Haji Lane is a small lane with little boutique clothing shops on both sides of the lane. I went into some of the boutique shops. They are interesting, but I am wondering how long they will last. And, this was a Saturday. There was hardly anyone in the shop buying. Most people were browsing and looking at the colourful Haji Lane.
I saw a couple of colourful street art mural painting. Though I find both streets are interesting and colourful, there is something not quite right. I think it’s too clean and clinical. It is like the whole street is being sterilised with mock up stage set of shops and stalls with colourfully painted facade and timber shutter windows. It is too Disney like. I think Singapore is trying and trying too hard to be something which is not. It is a too organised city. It is a man made island in every proportion. The interesting part of my city tour today was the surprise findings of the coffee shops, peeping through the colourful windows of the building. Singapore can boast that they have the best Hainanese chicken rice than Malaysia. And they are probably right after I have tried one of their chicken rice stall on my way back to the hotel. The chicken was silky smooth with a thin layer of coated gelatine. It was absolutely divine.