Tag Archives: Bangkok

Tough Guys

While sweating away in the gym yesterday I was listening to Sheryl Crow on my Spotify playlist when “Leaving Las Vegas” came on. There’s a line in the song that goes Used to be I could I could go up to Barstow for the night; Find some crossroad trucker to demonstrate his might”. Having recently attended our first live Muay Thai match in Bangkok, it struck me that maybe the line “crossroad trucker” would be more realistic by substituting “Little Thai guy”. Thailand’s national sport is a martial arts version of kick boxing unlike any traditional boxing match you’d see in western culture. Needing to be seen live to be appreciated, we considered attending a match in Chiang Mai but the general consensus on most internet circles was that it’s scripted for tourists and Bangkok is the only place to see the real thing. Too busy with major tourist attractions to attend a match way back on our first trip to Thailand, we made sure not to miss it this time around.

Based on the idea that hand to hand combat substitutes for weapons, Muay Thai was a mandatory part of Thai military training during the long period when they were mortal enemies with neighboring kingdoms in Cambodia and Burma. During World War II, westerners got their first look at the sport and dubbed it “Siam Boxing” as soldiers would practice their sport while Europeans and Americans looked on curiously. After the war, they added formal rules including five round matches and time limits. Unique to Southeast Asia, many Muay Thai fighters spend years practicing and start training as young as age six. Using the sport’s paltry payouts to support their families. prizes of only 4000 Baht ($150 USD) are common and their careers are usually short because this sport ain’t for the weak. Lacerations, concussions and heavy bruising are common and when seen up close, it’s obvious what a toll the sport takes on the body. Becoming popular around the world, Muay Thai is now practiced in many countries and professional martial arts fighters agree that it’s an essential part of learning how to be a skilled fighter. And best of all, it’s exciting to watch.

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The Real “Whole Foods”

Feeling like an eternity ago, I recently found myself reminiscing back to the long 18 month stretch when I played House Husband and Diane kept working. After the new economy ended my thirty-one year financial services career prematurely, I was in charge of chores while we waited for my 50th birthday, the magical day that made filing our MM2H visa financially reasonable. Deciding to take advantage of my time to get healthier and fit, I changed our diet to include mostly lean protein, veggies and lots of salad. Plotting how to cook healthy in America’s most expensive metropolitan area and continuing to invest for early retirement, I determined it takes multiple trips to all the local supermarkets and while healthy doses of marketing tell us that Whole Foods is “America’s healthiest market“, most middle class Bay Area residents know it as “Whole Paycheck“. Never really understanding why supposedly fresher foods rip away what little disposable income most working people have, living in Southeast Asia quickly teaches expats another example of how reliant America is on free trade.

too "rough" for American consumers

too “rough” for American consumers

Growing almost nothing relative to its population, America is sorely devoid of real fresh foods. Even shopping at weekly “farmers markets” usually means paying a premium for the luxury of living healthier. Importing rice from Thailand, fruits from South America and almost everything else that’s grows from Mexico, the food industry then polishes up everything with artificial colors and chops off “unsightly” things like chicken heads and feet because Americans think it looks primitive. Gaining an understanding that the western way of eating mostly processed foods leads to nothing but obesity and diabetes is one immediate benefit of living in Southeast Asia. “Fresh fruit and veggies” that travel across oceans or rack up frequent flier miles to arrive at the local supermarket are about as fresh as the leftover mystery meat in your freezer. Sadly, we know some European expats that still shop only at our local supermarkets. Charging exorbitant prices to import canned and frozen European processed food, these conglomerates cater to unhealthy consumers and while we obviously get certain sundries at the supermarket, exploring wet markets is high on our shopping list. Having already done the main tourist attractions as working vacationers, our recent trip to Bangkok gave us a chance to explore Thailand’s largest fresh market.

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Culture Clash

Although you’d never know it based on the current political and social degradation of anything non-white, those married to people of other cultures, races or religions understand first hand what an ignorant viewpoint that is. Enriching the lives of all those who’ve embraced multi-cultural marriages, there’s nothing more interesting and fulfilling than learning about and becoming part of a culture other than the one you’re born into. Having married into a second generation Canadian Chinese family, I’ve been exposed to a world very different from my caucasian New York roots and always jump at a chance to learn something new about Chinese civilization. Clearly the most uneducated interview given in the joke known as The Republican National Convention, some moron asked CNN this beauty:  “What has anyone other than European whites really contributed to the world”?
Sadly, the xenophobic idiot was an elected official and the fact they even allow such a comment on the air speaks volumes about what’s wrong with the nation.

imageHad I been asked the question, I’d counter the sadly uninformed racist legislator and delve into a long-winded response detailing the amazingly storied and fascinating history of Chinese civilization. Ruling over territory ten times larger than Europe, Chinese people are the world’s most successful group of emigrants and communities ranging from 9 million to a few hundred live in dozens of nations on every habitable continent. Choosing Southeast Asia as a retirement destination allows expats interested in things other than border walls and isolationism a great opportunity to discover more about eastern civilization, Chinese history and Asian contributions to humanity. Having explored Chinese museums and exhibitions in Singapore and Penang, I’ve gained a plethora of knowledge about Chinese integration into different societies around Asia and always try to learn more when visiting other countries. Having already done the major tourist attractions of Bangkok on an exploratory vacation that included Borneo and Singapore in 2009, our recent trip presented a perfect chance to learn about Thai Chinese culture. Comprising one sixth of Thailand’s entire population, more ethnic Chinese live in Thailand than anywhere on earth making Bangkok’s Chinatown a perfect place to start our trip after a harrowing start the night before at Dun Mueung Airport.

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The not so Good Ol’ Days

Taking modern conveniences for granted, today’s internet generation gets from point A to point B using mobile apps, e-tickets and on-line customer service chats. Leaving nostalgic types longing for yesteryear’s experiences like customer service phone numbers, free food and priority service for premium ticket holders, they model many Asian airports more like small cities than transportation hubs. Thankfully, (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), a glimpse of the past awaits thousands of Bangkok bound passengers due to a revival of one of the worlds’ oldest commercial airports. Re-opened after being abandoned and replaced by Suvarnabhumi Airport in 2006, Don Mueang International Airport now provides one of Asia’s worst airport experiences. Remembering why we opted for the overnight train from Penang that’s now been altered due to modernization of Malaysia’s rail system, it’s hard to decide if the arrival or departure was worse. Anxious to share some stories from our eight-day Bangkok trip designed to escape end of Ramadan holiday crowds, I thought I’d get the ever-important semantics out-of-the-way first. Hoping we save our readers some time and frustration, here’s the scoop on flying to Bangkok from almost anywhere in Asia.

Who you expect to see in this 1970's style airport

Who you expect to see in this 1970’s style airport

Having decided it’s easier to treat short-haul passengers like sardines instead of following through on a planned expansion of Bangkok’s beautiful modern airport, officials now route dozens of flights to an obsolete airport first used by KLM in 1924. In the city’s defense, they’re constructing a new extension to the BTS light rail that will ease much of the post-arrival nightmare but that might be years away. Glancing at the airport’s old drab terminal concrete building, it looks like The Brady Bunch  took off from there when they made their Hawaiian vacation episode. Scheduling every arriving flight in a four-hour window each evening means unnecessary delays and adds hours to the landing process. Ensuring long bottlenecks at the immigration counters and a scam that denies most of the city’s thousands of taxis away from entering this airport, you’ll need almost two hours or more for negotiating your way through the mess. Remembering our arrival back in 2009 at Bangkok’s shiny new airport, we cringed when the plane landed, taxied about two miles and then stopped. Somewhere in the middle of a runway, we de-planed on the tarmac and they crammed us into waiting buses that take all passengers to the terminal. Reminiscent of our recent trip to Myanmar’s international airport, we expected better from Thailand.

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Home Away From Home

Although the traffic’s gotten even more horrendous and the prices are not like they used to be, my favorite hotel view from any city never changes and the Chao Phraya River looks as beautiful as ever from the 30th floor. Here to escape Hari Raya’s annual crowd surge in Penang, we’re spending eight days hitting the city we first visited in 2009 when my job was secure, the economy was just beginning to tank and our first glance of Thailand made us realize we’d be back here some day. Given the annoyances of posting on an IPad, I’ll hold off on daily stories and post a few pictures of the things we’ve done so far. Radically different from Chiang Mai, we’d still never live here but Bangkok remains an awesome sprawling city with a unique combination of old and new (although the old is fading fast) and even in rainy season, it’s always worth visiting. Since we did all the must-do tourist stuff back in our pathetic three-week American vacation working days, we focused on secondary attractions and started off with a journey down Yaoawrat Road.

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Possibly the biggest and best Chinatown anywhere, we also ventured into a sparsely visited but excellent museum known as The Chinese Heritage Center.

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Sticking to street food, I found an amazing bowl of fish maw soup. As one of the most Asian white boys around, I’m not even sure why I like Chinese food so much but if that’s your thing, Bangkok is the place for you with an enormous Thai Chinese community that enjoys one of the most symbiotic relationships between China and another nation anywhere on the planet.

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Although the rain pounded down for hours the first day we arrived, we booked a trip to Khao Yai National Park and lucked out with a perfectly overcast and comfortable day and the rain held out until the late afternoon. As Thailand’s first national park, it’s a long two  and a half hour day trip from Bangkok but it’s well worth it. Maintaining well signed and beautiful national parks, Thailand does nature very well and I look forward to seeing many more in the future.

Having recently watched lots of travel documentaries featuring cooking in Southeast Asia, we wanted to visit Thailand’s largest wet market to see what it feels like in person and Khlong Toei Market didn’t disappoint. Ten square blocks long and totally off the main tourist track, it’s one of the world’s most amazing markets with so many stalls, vendors and people it’s staggering.

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Taking notes while watching those TV shows, we splurged at Samboon, one of Bangkok’s busiest and most amazing seafood restaurants where we ordered curry duck, mantis prawns and oysters in stir fry sauce

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And last night we ventured out to the new boxing stadium for some live Muay Thai. Lumpinee Stadium is a new and very modern comfortable arena up there with any western stadium and although the ringside seats where they make foreigners sit are not cheap, the excitement and noise level is highly contagious. Watching the Thais using the cheaper balcony seats to engage in never ending rounds of strange betting by screaming and waving fingers, you understand quickly why they don’t let foreigner’s sit up there. But you also get to take pictures with the winner of each round making for a very enjoyable evening.

With three more days to go until we return, I’ll cut it off here because it’s time to hit the breakfast buffet before throngs of never ending visitors overwhelm the way too small restaurant of the Chatrium Riverside Hotel. Today we plan on visiting the Bank of Thailand Museum, another little known gem that becomes a pain in the ass to reserve except on Saturdays when they let people walk in without advance notice. After that it’s a revisit of Khao San Road to see how the backpacker neighborhood’s changed into a trendy version of Asian SoHo (or so says the guidebooks anyway). Please check back next week when I’ll detail each day with in-depth and post lots of great pictures.

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Cheers from cloudy and wet Bangkok.

My Independence Message

Ahh, long holiday weekends. Almost missing the joy of wrapping up work early and beating the traffic, we’re off to Bangkok for eight days of eating. Well, perhaps we’ll do some other things but honestly, it’s mostly eating. Basically, we chose the 4th of July for two reasons. Falling only two days after July 4th, the Muslim holiday of Hari Raya will soon shatter the overly serene atmosphere we’ve enjoyed for over three weeks. Commemorating the end of Ramadan, July 6th and 7th are national holidays in Malaysia and being mid-week, many people will stretch it into a long five-day weekend. As we learned last year, throngs of people leave wherever they’re from and flock to our beach community for some R&R. As vehicular challenged overseas expats relying on buses and Uber for our basic needs, this means either hunkering down at the pool and living on whatever food is in the house or enduring 90 minute bumper to bumper crawls on two lane roads to get anywhere. Always craving real Thai food, we decided to escape to Bangkok for eight days and see what’s changed in seven years.

Train 36

Train 36

Modernization played a role in the second reason we’re leaving on the 4th of July. Originally planning an overnight train excursion two days later, we discovered they replaced the otherwise convenient direct train to Bangkok with a commuter train to the border. Thanks to high-speed trains unfit for Thailand’s rail system, passengers need to transfer at the border town, buy a different ticket for the Thai train (if there are any available) and then hope the Thai train arrives as scheduled. With heavy travel to Southern Thailand where most Muslim Thai people live, we defaulted to Air Asia’s daily non stop instead of fighting the crowds. Planning on attending our first Muay Thai match at the new Lumpinee Stadium, visiting some floating markets, shopping for whatever catches our eye and escaping the downpours at some museums, we’re happy to leave the hoopla behind. Bypassing Bangkok last year on our first trip to Thailand as MM2H holders, we love Bangkok’s controlled chaos more than most big cities but fully understand why so many urbanites with disposable cash flee the noise and traffic for quieter northern enclaves like Chiang Mai (as we hope to do next summer).

Statistically, more than half my readers come from the USA and before wishing everyone a healthy, safe and happy Independence Day holiday, I need to get something off my chest. Understanding I promised to lower the political content on my expat blog, I’d be remiss without commenting on the unacceptably high level of really ugly, vile hatred I’ve seen on American social media towards the entire Muslim religion.

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Since Trump turned ignorance and closet racism into an acceptable form of mainstream communication, America is more dangerous than most moderate Islamist nations. Representing a very small cross-section of Facebook, I’ve only got 120 or so friends, mostly childhood acquaintances and a smattering of Bay Area and Canadian friends from our working days. Already forced to de-friend dozens of old neighbors I once called friends for constantly smearing an American who voluntarily lives in a peaceful Muslim nation, I’m absolutely sickened by the racist shit I’ve seen and often pinch myself to make sure I’m not stuck in some World War II Nazi Germany alternate universe.

fascistRearing the ugliest part of technology, too many people use Facebook as a means to validate hatred and while I’m all for freedom of expression, it’s time to take stand and draw the line somewhere before one raving lunatic potentially ruins 240 years of progress. The experiment called American democracy is failing miserably and mimicking some modern version of white supremacy with moronic suggestions like “profiling American mosques” needs to go before it’s too late. Sick of defending myself and knowing I can’t erase ignorance from those blinded by hate, I’m hopelessly ashamed of what America’s become and hope anyone reading this shares my blog with someone willing to preach tolerance as the real “American Way of Life”. My America is black, white, Mexican, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindi, Buddhist and everything in between. Multicultural. Like Malaysia.

 

Happy Independence Day !!

coexistance

Detour Ahead: Penang to Bangkok by train

Always enjoying TV series’ that combine travel and cooking in Southeast Asia, Diane and I recently watched an episode of Gordon’s Great Escape, a show featuring famed chef and TV star Gordon Ramsay. Specifically, the episode traveling through Malaysia caught our eye. Compared to the other ASEAN nations he visits in the series, it’s obvious from his comments that Malaysia’s lack of “developing world atmosphere” surprised and even disappointed him. Relative to neighboring countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, it’s true that Malaysia ranks higher in the economic scale and modern western conveniences are more likely to be spotted than small villages still using traditional fishing or farming methods. One of the primary reasons we chose Malaysia, this sometimes creates a good news/bad news situation like the other day when we traveled an hour on the bus intending to buy train tickets to Bangkok for our upcoming Hari Raya Escape Trip.

The "old" Train # 36

The “old” Train # 36

Having traveled on one of Asia’s most convenient overnight sleeper trains that departed Butterworth at 2 PM and arrived in Hua HIn, Thailand at 7 AM the next morning, we looked forward to an inexpensive and not so uncomfortable journey. (Butterworth is across the channel from Penang Island on the mainland). Unfortunately, Malaysia’s economic advantage changed our plans unexpectedly. Bringing the nation closer to Europe’s modern and fast train network, they’ve been upgrading the tracks of Malaysia’s rail system to facilitate new high-speed trains. Originally constructed by colonialists decades ago, all of Southeast Asia’s railway tracks are different from those used for high-speed trains in Europe, China and Japan. Having just completed the last stretch of tracks, KTM (Malaysia’s national rail system) announced revisions to the national trains system last month and began using all high-speed trains throughout the network. While this is great news for commuters, budget minded travelers and Malaysian families visiting relatives during Hari Raya, it also means the end of the one train direct connection to Bangkok that combined the services of the Malaysian Network with the Thai National Railway utilizing a quick 30 minute border stop with no transfers. Crap. On to Plan B.

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