Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Had a Michael Jackson in a Hawker Centre in Holland V.

Chinese Chow Not so Cheap. Haunts for Ang Mo.

overcast 31 °C

I guess this title needs translations.

Michael Jack is a drink made up two of my fave ingredients: grass jelly and soy milk. Taste-wise, can't say it's a resounding success like spider (coke + ice cream), sandy (lemonade + beer) or coke with lemon (nobody has come up with a name for that drink yet). It's still worth a try if not just for the experience of ordering a Michael Jackson. Maybe it tastes better if you drink it while wearing a singular white glove with glitters. Dunno, try it though. I'm just sucker for grass jelly.

You don't need me to explain why the drink is called Michael Jackson, right?

Sign of a hawker store that sells drink, Holland Village, Singapore
Sign of a hawker store that sells drink
Many hawker stores in Singapore only sell a few things. For example, some hawker stores only sell fried carrot cake, aka "chai tow kway", which is Chinese Teochew dialect for radish cake. Since my mum is a Teochew, it automatically means that I grew up with that taste buds (among others).

This drink store only sell several drinks that are made up of only 2 ingredient grass jelly and soya milk.

Holland V. is short for Holland Village and is a popular place for Western expats to both live and play here (ok, not much play, just dine). A Singapore friend of ours described it as a Singaporean Lan Kwai Fong. can't say I agree completely. LKF consists mostly of pubs and a smaller percentage of restaurants with a split of 70% bars and bistros, 30% ethnic restaurants), while Holland V more or less has a reversed ratio of these two businesses. I guess there are enough similarities for people to call Holland V the Singaporean LKF:

1. Reasonably upscale restaurants with multi-cultural cuisine and popular waterholes.
2. They are both haunts for many Western expats and young hip Westernised locals.
3. They are a tourist spot of a sort. LKF being more so because it's in the heart of the CBD.

LKF is also a bit of place for people watching, while Holland V isn't so much. The feeling in Holland V is one of relaxed atmosphere rather a buzzing, crowded place like LKF because of its central location. Holland V reminds me of Boat Quay minus the river and office high rises in the background.

Singapore made a liar out of me. When I told the gang that Singapore living is cheap (relative to Sydney), the reality slapped me across the face with my thinning wallet. Virtually everything is more expensive than Sydney's except for two things: food and transportation. My mistakes were stemmed from memories made up from the 6 or 7 stops I made here over the decades. Even food isn't cheap these days in general. Restaurants' prices are more expensive or comparable to Sydney, but hawker stalls are much more affordable because of its low and shared costs among stalls. You can get dishes for $3, and even seafood dishes, you can get it for $3.5 or $4.5. The size is about 3/4 that of Sydney - good size for Asian in this weather. This reduces my incentive for cooking at home. If Sydney has hawker stalls, it too would be priced similar or lower, which leaves only one things that Singapore is cheaper than Sydney: public transportation.

Bear in mind the AUD exchange rate isn't favourable when compare to SGD. If AUD rises considrably (and it will. I'm a psychic), Singapore won't look such an expensive place to live. For European, Singapore's (ok, the  world's) living index is cheap.

All things Western tend to be more expensive. A cappuccino costs circa $6, while Sydney sells an identical cuppa for half the price, and tastier, whipped up by European immigrants. I think the likes of 'upmarket' Starbucks and the Coffee Bean franchises ensure the lofty prices. As there are very few independent café outside these giant franchises, they set the prices. It was nothing short of struck gold when we discovered Gloria Jean - the Aussie competitor to the likes of US Starbucks and Coffee Beans, but the cuppa comes with a much stronger kick - the way Aussies like us like their coffees. Not the weak and bland version peddled in the US giant franchises.

Alternatively, you can get a kopi - coffee in Malay - from hawker centre for 1.20 SGD where you get a brew coffee with evaporated milk. I don't mind that once in awhile, but cappuccino is still my cup of tea. You can also get this kopi or tea from Kopi Tiam. They're traditional breakfast and coffee shop that is quite popular in Malaysia and Singapore. I quite like their kaya toast - a local fave snack, and wash it down with their teh C. Their kaya toast should be on the must-do list for all tourists travelling in the Malaysian Peninsula.

Hawkers' standards - in terms of taste - are not necessarily lower than either food courts or even restaurants, they just don't have air-cons, only fans in open-air (they don't even provide tissues, remember to BYO. Actually even food courts don't provide tissues). Some hawker stall centres actually taste much better the food courts, but this varies from case to case. To get a truly Singaporean experience, hawker centres is a must-do. Also, shopping centres' food courts are not necessary cleaner, although they usually look cleaner. Big letters like 'A', 'B', 'C', etc on either white or green background are displayed clearly in the hawker stores showing their hygiene level given by government department. The hawker centres in Holland V has quite a few hawkers earn 'A' - the highest rating. I saw on TV that when the government officers do the inspection for the purposes of rating the stores, it can be quite thorough. They check everything from the store's cleanliness to the cook's finger nails.

Another thing I like about hawker centres is that they tend to have dishes with different size for eaters who try to avoid wasting food or putting on weight. Apart from the same dish of different size, which makes smorgasbord type hawker stores quite popular, where customers can just pick and choose, mix and match the variety of meats, vegetables and soup to tailor the customer to a 'T'. One such nice food store can be found in the food court, Koufu, opposite Commonwealth MRT. If the weather isn't too merciless, I would walk home to walk my meal off.

One last thing about hawker store. In a Macdonald's, after you order a meal, a standard question you would be faced with is, "Would you like some fries to go with it?". In hawker store, the standard question is, "Do you want chili with it?". Of course, the chili is free...and my standard reply is almost always, "just a little." You want to feel like a local, but try not to kill yourself in the process. And a little plastic bag contains some pickled chili in a take-away (take-out for North Americano) are quite standard.

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Sunday, 12 April 2009

Farewell to Arms (Rugar .38 Revolver & Water Pistol)

Cameras don't shoot people, people shoot people.

sunny 34 °C

Atta and myself decided to make the most of what Pattaya has to offer on the last day before we headed off early next morning, which was officially the start of Thailand's Songkran Festival (or Thailand's New Year).

We decided to go out with a bang, literally. Firearm shootings seems to be something that doesn't take too much effort on our two, let's say, autumn chickens (the season after spring). And it's somethng that we have never been done before.

We took the baht bus (I think it's called) to get there. It's so called because it costs either Bt10 or Bt20, depending on the distance. Sometimes it's called minibus and songthaew in Thai, meaning pickup truck. It's sort of a cross between a tuk-tuk and a ute (utility truck). It's bigger than a tuk-tuk, and there are two rows of seats behind the driver. The alternative recipe for making a baht bus would be: first, you take a ute (an Aussie invention) that you can get from any car yard, then you put two rows of seats facing each other in the back, and finally you put a canopy over it, voila, you get yourself a wonderful baht bus. Dunno if this form of public transport is unique to Pattaya (I have a feeling it is), I didn't see it in other Thai cities I've been to (been to quite a few). Tuk-tuk are more widespread.

There are two main streets in Pattaya, the Beach Road, which runs along the Pattaya beach, and the next one which runs parallel to Beach Road, and is simply called the Second Road. Both are one way traffic. The Baht buses are running on these two streets which you would find 90% of everything you would be interested. Just hop on and off like Froggy. You pay 10 or 20 bahts if you get on the baht bus anywhere on these two streets. You can hire them to go to specific area you want, then you can exercise all the haggling skills you have learnt to negotiate for the fees. Sometimes they called hired taxi (as supposed to metered taxi) for this reason.

Half way there, still in the baht bus, we were innocently being ambushed and attacked mercilessly. A couple of girls from a go-go bar, armed with heavy-duty, pump-action squirt guns from Seven Eleven, running towards us, giggling, water spouted at us mercilessly. Another one, a Western guy - a customer of the bar - was more efficient, he drenched us with a hose, controlling the spray pattern expertly with his thumb. Yeah, he had done this often. We tried to duck. We can't hide and we can't run. Stuck in the baht bus that stopped dead in a traffic jam, they had a field day, it's like shooting fishes in a barrel. Or should I say that we were lined up in two rows of seats like sitting ducks in an amusement park. But a passenger in the baht bus wasn't amused, mumbling, "It isn't Songkran till tomorrow!". Well it was Sunday, and sanook isn't a strictler for formality. That wasn't the last time we were victims in this happy festive event. One desperate passenger begged the driver to move away quickly. But the traffic didn't cooperate. The congestion finally relented and we were saved for the moment. We had two more water blasters assaults before we were home free, leaving a trails of wet footprints on the hotel lobby. Ahh...memories are made of these. If you can't treat this as water off a (sitting) duck's back, you would be better off planning around Songkran Festival as it runs for a week. But then, it would be a lesser eventful holiday. Nothing noteworthy to put into your blog.

After being shot at with water pistols and canons, we finally arrived at our shooting range. The shooting galleries is actualy located inside the domed neoclassical Tiffany Theatre. In fact, underneath the stage. Funny place to put shooting galleries.

Like everything else, shooting are far more cheaper here. The prices for bullets depending on the calibre. They ran out of other calibre except for .38, which cost 15 bahts each. And the gun we've got was Rugar .38 Revolver, which has a very heavy trigger, but it does help when you cock it before shooting (the instructor's suggestion). Colt .45 Automatic is also available and has a light trigger. But that would take all the fun out of it. Thanks, but no thanks. I shot surprisingly well, and have the target sheet to prove it. Beginner's luck, I suppose. Maybe my camera shooting skill is transferable to gun shooting.

We wandered around Tiffany Theatre afterwards and eventually bought tickets for a 9PM show. I was slightly reluctant at first. I watched Les Girls at the Cross in Sydney way back when I didin't scare myself in the mirror, and I can't say it was an unforgettable experience (Les Girls, not my mirror image). It was nothing to do with the performance of Les Girls, I just wouldn't dig all stage performance. I found all that brightness around the stage too distracting, and hot. Strictly a movie cinema kinda guy, I would take Cabaret with Liza Minnelli in a cinema any day. Funny what age does to people, I found myself gradually acquiring a liking for live performances over the years. Whenever I thought of Pattaya in the past, the name Tiffany flashed in my head, which is strange as I had never been to see this show. So it seems fitting that I should have an idea what the Tiffany Show is like.

I didn't regret the decision to see the Show. For people who don't want to have a single hint of sneak preview about the show better skip this paragraph now. The Show consists of a number of performances that appeal to the culture of the majority of the audience/tourists in Pattaya. Some of these are expected: USA (Tina Turner look-alike. I quite enjoyed this act), British (Victorian costume piece. Aren't they all?), Korean (Pungmul or nongak folk dance), Russian (some modern song and dance), Chinese, Indian, etc. But one I have to say I didn't expect was a Vietnamese performance, the lady(boys) dressed in Vietnamese ao dai, and singing Saigon is so beautiful (in Vietnamese, of course). There were loud applause from the audience when this Vietnamese performance came on. You can tell the main tourist groups by the cultural dances that the Tiffany girls performed.

 One classic performance involving a tranny playing both genders, split into two halves with a male persona on one side and female on the other. It's clever, if isn't original, parody of their own sexual ambivalence and witty ironies. I've seen this act before ( Les Girls, maybe?), but you just can't beat a classic (or a class act).

Overall, the production was above my expectation. The quality of the costume really shone (literally and figuratively). But it has received its well deserved reputation, and many tours are packaged around this show. The only gripe I have about this show is the loudness of the music. The volume would be perfect if the decibels is reduced by about 40%. But I suspect it's trying to drown out the noises from the shooting range below. In that end, it does a good job.

This is one time where I didn't bring my camera because photography was prohibited in the Show. Before and after the show, these gorgeous shemales posed for the cameras. You can take photos with them (one arms wrapped around their slim waists, the other 'V' signs. Their legs are quite slender and sleek, too). A tip is expected for the trouble (I think it was 30 bahts from my memory). The theatre building also took on a more glamorous light at night. Don't forget to bring your camera to the show.
On that high (and very loud) note, I bid Pattaya farewell foundly.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

The Russians are coming! the Red Shirts are coming!

...but the Summit Leaders ain't coming!

 overcast 33 °C

It was the day of ASEAN Summit. When I walked past the hotel lobby, the hotel staff warned me not to wear red top. "Not too worry. Red isn't my favourite colour", I said. Besides too hot for red in this weather. I'm a greenie.

Even though the focus of the protest was in the Royal Cliff Beach hotel not far from Fraser Resort where we stayed (less than 1.5 km), but there is no hint of any political disturbances. It was very localised event (the later Bangkok disturbances are more widespread). The Red Shirt successfully stopped the Summit from starting. This was the first time I heard about the Red Shirts. I think the first time the world heard about it too.

Red Shirts protest, Thailand
Red Shirts protest
Source: Telegraph

First came the US sailor boys, then the Russians in droves. History is full of ironies. If you don't know what I'm talking about, read my diary on my first day of arriving Pattaya.

I was somewhat surprise about the large number of Russian tourists here, and not just hot-blooded tattooed youths who frequent the many unique Thai traditional adult entertainment venues (some of the tattoos are probably done at the many affordable local tattoo parlours that are sandwiched between massage shops. Massage parlours are something else. Men only).

Pattaya has diversified away from the sex industry, and the tourist demographics also expanded from young men, people with different sexual orientations, to include couples, families, and just about anyone. I guess the tropical heat and cheap Thai Bahts attracts the snowed in Russian as much like snows and Russian dolls attract people like me who grew up in the sub-temperate zone.

Message shops with Russia signs, Pattaya, Thailand
Some message shops are attracting Russian tourists...
Message shops with Russia signs, Pattaya, Thailand
...while others are actually run by Russian. I have visited this
place a few doors from Fraser Resort and met the Russian owner

After dark, the (in)famous Walking Street at the end of Pattaya Beach lit up with neon lights of restaurants, go-go bars, strip joints, discos, open-air bars with Muay Thai (Thai boxing), open-air bars with snake rattler, open-air bars with pool tables, open-air bars with ...(just fill in with your imagination).

Many children visiting here at night, chaperoned by their parents, wide-eyed, dazzled, confused or titillated by all the sights and sounds. I've seen the same sights - parents with children in arms, prams, and hands - walking through Lan Kwai Fong in Hong Kong or the red-light district in Amsterdam. I'm curious if they take their children to these red-light districts in their own countries. Maybe they don't see these places as red-light districts, but tourist destinations...

One of the gate of Walking Street at the western end, Pattaya, Thailand
One of the gate of Walking Street at the western end

Restaurant neon lights at Walking Street, Pattaya, Thailand
We dined in this seafood restaurant at Walking Street.
The food is not too bad, but the view of the ocean at dusk more than made up for it.

The Pattaya beach at dusk could be quite nice.

While some Russian tourists, especially the young ones, are attracted by the red-lights and neon lights, the family are obviously more attracted to the Pattaya beach and its water sports.

Pattaya Beach that filled with deck chairs, Thailand

Pattaya Beach that filled with deck chairs, Thailand

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Pattaya Day 5 - Wat Phra Yai + Wang Sam Sien

I mentioned in my 2 articles "Sawasdee Pattaya" and "The Russians are Coming! The Red Shirts are Coming!" that Pattaya started life as a red-light district but have grown into a decent size Thai city with everything that a typical Thai city would have, including the ubiquitous Thai wats.

There's Wat Chai Mongkol locates about 150m from the Walking Street on South Pattaya Road, but this is a local wat for Thai worshippers. We visited a more touristy temple Wat Phra (Khao) Yai. During religious ceremonies, you will see more locals, who come to worship. Other times, tourists far outnumber locals.

While this wasn't the most impressive wat in Thailand, but it does sit atop Pratamak hill with nice aerial view of the Pattaya city and the sea.  The gilded Big Buddha sits (in lotus posture) at the peak of the hill. This Buddha is the biggest in this province of Chonburi.

Staircase leading towards the Big Buddha in Wat Phra Khao Yai, Pattaya, Thailand
Staircase leading towards the Big Buddha franked by a pair of dragons running down the handrails
From the mouths of the dragons out come a pair of 7 headed nagas (serpents)

This buddha statue is modelled after the artistic style of the Sukhothai period, which the Buddha is depicted with a grin instead of a faint smile

Buddha statue at Wat Si Chum in Sukhothai province
It's no Mona Lisa's smile

figurines of King Rama V
Figurines of deified King Rama V (aka the Great) Chulalongkorn offered by Thai worshippers
The cult of personality that led him to be worshipped as divine figure, which is enjoyed
by no other Thai kings. His reign was the longest (42 years, hence Great)

food and figurines offer to gods and spirits, Thailand
Various food, flower and figurines of Thai dancers, elephants as offering to spirits

As we climbed the hill to reach to the top to Wat Phra Yai, we unexpectedly greeted by a Chinese "cultural park" half way up the hill opposite Wat Phra Yai. This is the Wang Sam Sien (王三仙). This park houses various Chinese religious iconography, cultural and historical statues. It's like a surprise free Chinese gift (yes, the admission was free during my visit).

Wang Sam Sien, Pattaya, Thailand
Entrance to Wang Sam Sien

Longnu (龍女 Dragon Girl)
Left side-kick Longnu (龍女 Dragon Girl)
Guanyin is franked by 2 kids or acolytes.
Everyone needs companies, even if they're kids.
Red Boy (紅孩兒)
Right side-kick Red Boy (紅孩兒)

Diorama from a scene from a Chinese classic Journey to the West: Monkey, Tripitaka, Pigsy and Sandy
Diorama from a scene in a popular Chinese classic Journey to the West
From left to right: Monkey, Tripitaka (Trippy), Pigsy and Sandy.
Sorry, White Dragon. That's the Horse. He, too, is Tripitaka's disciple. One tends to overlook
him because he looks like a normal horse, normally.

Panel showing Dragon and Phoenix: auspicious couple symbols,  generally seen in traditional Chinese wedding (groom = dragon, and bride = phoenix)
Panel showing Dragon and Phoenix: auspicious couple symbols,
generally seen in traditional Chinese wedding (groom = dragon, and bride = phoenix)

Diorama showing scene from another Chinese classic: Romance of the 3 KingdomsFrom left to right: Zhuge Liang, Liu Bei, Guan Yu, Zhang Fei
Diorama showing a scene from another Chinese classic: Romance of the 3 Kingdoms.
From left to right: Zhuge Liang, Liu Bei, Guan Yu, Zhang Fei

There's another place - also free admission - that you can get an aerial view of Pattaya city. Central Festival is the largest shopping mall in Pattaya, go to the top level and the balcony of the seaside to get a nice view.

Following are views seen from the balcony of this shopping mall.

Central Festival shopping mall, Pattaya, Thailand
The Pattaya Beach is on the left of the photo, followed by the Walking Street, which ends around
the Bali Hai Pier in the middle of the photo (the green roofed traditional Thai building)
(click to enlarge)

Jet Ski, Pattaya, Thailand
Jet Skiing fun