Friday, June 19, 2015

Raising enterprising children starts with Daddy: A Father's Day Tribute

Over my years in Thailand, I have answered countless questions and even completed some published interviews with a couple of international expat communities regarding life in Thailand as an expat. I made it a point each time to clarify that I am not an expat, before moving on to answer the questions nonetheless, in hope that my answers can make life easier for newcomers here.

I came to Thailand alone to open a branch for my company, and have spent the last 5 years building the company up from scratch. If you ask me, I operate more like an entrepreneur. I have never been the brightest, but I am a can-do sort of guy. I focus on the result, and am enterprising enough to complete tasks to an acceptable level eventually, most of the time anyway.

Having grown up in Singapore, where kids (from my generation) are trained to become excellent employees but not necessarily risk-takers, many wonder why I was so ready to take up this 'adventure', where there are too many unknowns and few perks to make it an attractive job offer. After seriously thinking through it, I feel that my upbringing made a huge contribution.

My paternal family consists mostly of self-employed men, that included my dad, 1 of my 2 uncles, and many of my aunts' husbands. Incidentally, most of my dad's friends are self-employed as well, be it business owners or just food-stall owners. Growing up, I mostly had conversations with adult men who ran their own businesses (largely aided by the countless kopitiam sessions I had with my dad in Kuching). Subconsciously, I had it ingrained in my mind that running my own business is normal, an eventual result of my career progression.

My dad, like many of the men from his generation, was hardly around when I was a little boy. My memories of him playing with me are few and far between. But even though I wish he had given me more of his weekends, taught me how to cycle and swim, I now realise that his influence in my life is still extremely great.

My Dad with his grandchildren

My dad is a businessman, entrepreneur, and a risk-taker. The company he runs now was set up as a one-man-show when he was 50. After graduating from junior college, I had a few months to spare before entering University, so I spent a good few months alone with him in Sarawak.

Being a man of few words, he did not exactly take me under his wing to coach me about running a business. Instead, he allowed me to follow him 24 hours a day, everyday. I watched how he communicated with potential business partners over some mid-afternoon coffee in coffeeshops. I watched him sign piles of paper at law firms and negotiate prices with suppliers and sub-contractors. I visited his job-sites unwillingly everyday, wondering why he made it a point to go so frequently, and even watched in anticipation as we bombed a small hill apart in order to flatten the land for a project.

Running my own company now, I fully understand the challenges a business owner faces day-in day-out, but at that time, following my dad around, everything just felt, natural. It was more like -- whatever has to be done has to be done, rather than--oh man, starting something from scratch is so tough! I guess my up-bringing is certainly one of the main reasons why I did not hesitate when this opportunity presented itself.

That's exactly how I am bringing my kids up. I involve them in everything I do. From my office to my exhibition booth, from my warehouse to my company trips. I want them to grow up observing how I make things happen, and hopefully mature into an enterprising, resourceful young people who are confident enough to take up challenges.

As Father's Day is just 2 days away, I will hereby also take the opportunity to wish my Dad a happy father's day! Thank you for all you have done for me. See you in August.

For all other fathers reading this, take this weekend to give yourself a pat on the back, but remember to give more time to your kids, because just by being there and letting them observe what you do, is a lesson more precious than what a thousand words can mean to them.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Wallet lost and FOUND in Bangkok: The Story

Towards the end of May, my brother flew over to Bangkok to visit a major food fair at IMPACT Muang Thong Thani, the largest exhibition centre in Thailand. I had to leave the car with my wife as she had to pick Noah from school and run errands in my absence, and no one warned me that, as well-equipped as IMPACT is, it is actually more of a trap for car-less visitors-- a place where you can visit, but will struggle to leave.

It was a Thursday evening, at around 6pm, slightly before the show closed and everyone started to leave. Hundreds needed to go, but there was no taxi in sight, not even 1. We took the only reasonable choice at that time, a 100-baht/head (way overpriced) minivan to Asoke, before continuing our journey back home.

After a frustrating 1-hour journey in which I could hardly even move inside the little packed van, we were relieved to finally reach our destination and got off in a hurry. Alas! Within seconds I realised something was wrong, my usually-bulging front pocket felt unusually light. My wallet!

I turned around (thank God for traffic jam), the van was still stuck at the same position behind me. If I had not put it back into my pocket after paying the fare, it would have dropped on the van and I just needed to get back up to retrieve it. But no, we turned the van upside down but could not spot it. Pickpocket? Extremely unlikely. I was squished in the corner of the back-most seat with my brother beside me, so unless my loving elder brother decided to play a nasty trick on me, there was no chance it was stolen by a pickpocket. There was a young lady left on the van though, after everyone alighted at Asoke, who looked concerned but did not aid much in the search. Could she have seen it? I guess we will never know. She sure saw my frantic-about-to-cry-burly-old-man face though.

The rest of the night involved holding back tears, trying to appear unshaken in front of my family, suspending all my credit/debit cards (unexpectedly quick and easy even for English speakers), visiting the police station and acting as if nothing happened. One doesn't dare to hold hope of getting back a wallet lost in the densely populated metropolis named Bangkok.

You are a pesky little survivor, aren't you

A week later, I received a call from Siam Paragon informing me my wallet has been found in their toilet, all documents intact, just without any cash (who cares!). It meant that my I/C and driving licence (yes I have one) will not have to be replaced!

For everyone who is not familiar with Bangkok, I shall now summarize what you have just read. I lost my wallet anywhere between IMPACT Muang Thong Thani (which is technically no longer in Bangkok) and Asoke (right smack in the middle of downtown), and it ended up in a toilet inside the huge Siam Paragon (5 train stations away from Asoke) a week later and the staff made sure I got it back. I only lost a few thousand baht in the process. How miraculous is that!

To the person who made sure I got my wallet back, thank you very much. Whether you are the one who took it in the first place is not important to me anymore.

Faith in humanity. Restored!

PS. Things to take note from this lesson.

1. Bring a car along with you when you visit IMPACT next time, it's a bloody trap over there.

2. If not, go early and leave early, preferably before 3pm, especially on a Friday. If not, just don't go on a Friday.

3. Life goes on, with or without your wallet!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Arguably the BEST Park in Bangkok: Suan Luang Rama IX Park

Over the years, I have read many lists pointing people to the best parks in Bangkok and more often than not, they will involve usual suspects like Lumpini Park, Chatuchak Park, Benjasiri Park or Queen Sirikit Park. With no offence towards all these parks or the owners of those lists, why is it that the clear Mother of all Parks in Bangkok is usually not on the lists most of the time? Maybe the name of the list should be changed to "The most accessible parks in Bangkok" instead.

My Daddy's recommendations are always the best

So here's the Stranger in Bangkok putting my reputation on the line to recommend to all my readers arguably the BEST Park in Bangkok, the Mother of all Parks, Suan Luang Rama IX Park. It is also known as King Rama IX Park, or even more commonly as Suan Luang or King Park.

Built in 1987 to celebrate King Bhumibol's 60th birthday, King Rama IX Park is the largest green space in Bangkok (approximately 200 acres), with lakes, ponds, bridges and many different gardens built in reference to many countries in the world like UK, China and Japan. Go during the cool winter where temperatures drop to around 20degC, you will see a lavish annual floral display that coincides with the King's Birthday on December 5th.

Reminds me of our time at Jim Thompson Farm

And our time in the Netherlands and UK

The only thing it lacks is probably a huge plot of sunflowers
We also took family portraits there

Suan Luang Rama IX Park is not very accessible via public transport. Even though it has 2 entrances situated very far apart, both will require a taxi ride of around 20-30 minutes from their nearest BTS stations.

The first entrance is near Srinakarin Road, behind Seacon Square and Paradise Park. There's a huge weekend market on Saturday and it's accessible to the park's playgrounds, so if you are looking for a family day out, that will be the entrance to go to. Go early in the morning to enjoy the weekend market and park before spending the rest of the day chilling the the excellent malls mentioned above.

If, like me, you prefer more peace and quiet, you can head to the other entrance along Suan Luang R.9 Road, opposite Big C Suan Luang, which will bring you closer to the lake, King's museum, pedalos and themed gardens. Finding a bite afterwards is not complicated at all, as there are a handful of restaurants around the Big C Supermarket right opposite.

There are many interesting parts to explore
And fresh things to touch and feel

Just an excellent place to spend quality time with family and friends

So if you are wondering where to bring your family to breathe some fresh air in this crowded metropolis, think no further. Discard all the lists you can find and come here, it's definitely worth the trip.

Oh yeah!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Singapore Food in Bangkok: Chuan Kitchen ชวนคิทเช่น

More and more big Singaporean names are jumping on the Thailand bandwagon. Take Breadtalk for example, you can now see them in every other corner of Bangkok, very much like in Singapore. Other well-known franchises like Yakun Kaya Toast, Crystal Jade and Paradise Dynasty have set up shop here too, but what do you think of when you miss food in Singapore?

Airy bread, foie gras soupy buns, or grilled thinly-sliced bread with egg custard? Nah, not for me. Chilli crab? Ok, getting there, but I believe most who know Singapore really well will agree that the soul of signature Singaporean tastes lie in hawker centres. When I miss Singaporean food (not as much as I should, honestly, otherwise I wouldn't be only blogging about this after 5 years), I think of dishes like chicken rice, laksa, fried hokkien mee, bak chor mee, bak kut teh, popiah etc.

You might be surprised, given the HUGE diversity of cuisines in Bangkok (you can even find Ethiopian, Cuban and Peruvian restaurants here), but authentic Singaporean food is as rare as it can be. Though some have tried with reasonable commercial success, I will gladly tell you that if you see a supposedly Singaporean restaurant named after some famous shopping street in Singapore and wish for authentic flavours, it's better to stay as far away from it as you can.

That brings me to my new mini series, Singapore Food in Bangkok, where I do my best to unearth proper Singapore tastes for you, whether you are locals craving to reminisce your culinary enjoyments in Singapore, or Singaporeans/Malaysians living here, like me, who badly crave for some hometown comfort food now and then.

Chuan Kitchen from the outside

Chuan Kitchen is open and run by true-blue Singaporeans trying to introduce authentic "my-mother's-recipe" Singaporean dishes to folks in and around Bangkok. They have recently introduced an attractive new menu to freshen up their image, but really, it's their food that does the talking.

Katong Laksa style with rice noodles cut into shorter strips, and people who love spicy will love this! 

Small portion of chicken rice for Noah, only roasted chicken is available here, but there's the Singapore chilli sauce, impossible to find that in Thailand.

Char Kway Teow, very shiok! To the sweet side, like a very very delicious Kway Teow from your favourite breakfast economic beehoon auntie in Singapore, just with more liao
Dry Bak Kut Teh. Those who are familiar with it in Malaysia will be shocked to find it here, those who haven't tried it, it's like no other stew pork dish you have ever tried before.

Easily the star of the show, KL-style Herbal Bak Kut Teh. When you come here, order this first then decide on the rest.

On top of the usual traditional suspects, Chuan Kitchen has a full range of Dim Sum as well as some creative dishes like salted egg fries and laksa fried rice to keep you interested if you come frequently. This is by no means a place where you will be content walking in and chomping down a laksa before speeding off to your next errand.

Look at the hustle and bustle during lunchtime

All's not perfect though, as Chuan Kitchen is located along Bond Street Road, a short drive beyond IMPACT Muang Thong Thani, which is incidentally the furthest drive-able place from my office which I will not consider a business trip/short vacation. For those who live around that area, please patronize them frequently so that they will consider opening some branches nearer to my place, for those who don't, an idea will be to visit them when you are going to IMPACT for any exhibitions (or at the Chaeng Wattana Immigrations for your visa applications), since you are already in the vicinity.

If you are lucky, you might find a young Singaporean lady zipping around in the semi-open kitchen making sure you get your dishes quickly. Speak to her and you will know that she is the brains behind this endeavour. She speaks perfect Singaporean English at such a pace that you will struggle to catch up, but it also means that she has all the right credentials to push Chuan Kitchen to greater heights.

PS. They are closed on Thursdays!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The most delicious Khao Tom (Boiled Rice) in the whole wide world!

Disclaimer: I was given a couple of bowls of free Khao Tom, but the comments are all mine.

For those who came here thinking this is a recipe or a restaurant review, sorry to disappoint you. In fact, this dish wasn't even cooked by a Thai.

The 5 condiments, coriander, fried garlic, fried shallot, chopped chilli in fish sauce and garlic/shallot oil

Khao Tom, or boiled rice, is a simple Thai dish that involves boiling some cooked rice briefly in a pot of hot soup, which is made commonly with minced pork balls, fish or shrimp. I will easily call it my favourite Thai dish (and not steamed fish with lemon or fried basil pork with rice) if not for the difficulty of finding a tasty one. Most versions found here are unfortunately, way too overdosed by chicken/pork essence, but if the right one comes around, this is the kind of food I can eat everyday.

Noah really having fun during his Khao Tom session

God works in wondrous ways. Even though my family has been placed in Bangkok for the long term, a place where we have few friends and no relatives to begin with, He has blessed us with great friends over the years in unexpected ways.

Around 1.5 years ago, my family was having dinner in a popular neighbourhood restaurant with my sister-in-law. Having newly-acquired the art of walking steadily, Noah decided to 'disturb' the table of diners behind us. He was cute and engaging, but after a while, it became embarrassing as they could not eat in peace, so I went over to get him. It turned out that a couple of them (R and I) were missionaries from Singapore preparing to serve in Thailand, so we started to keep in touch even though it would be some time before they would officially relocate.

Ellie enjoying herself as well, though it's just not her style to do any expressions too dramatically

Now, they are finally here for the long haul, and we are so glad. Not only are they friendly, they are really good with kids as well. It's not easy to see BOTH Noah and Ellie warming up to relative strangers that quickly.

However, today, we discovered something else that was completely unexpected. I, a true-blue Singaporean, cooks the most delicious Khao Tom in the whole wide world! This is not an exaggeration. Her boiled rice far exceeded my expectations of how good this dish can potentially taste.

Incredibly amazing Khao Tom

I believe the key to her success is heart. For the standard local cook, Khao Tom is a coming together of a very basic bone stock, coriander root and a lot of chicken/pork essence powder. That's also what most customers expect, so few will think of going the extra mile to 'complicate' their cooking procedure and bring the dish up a notch. As you can see from the picture, I added green marrow, mushroom, pork, shrimp, and prepared from scratch 5 separate condiments to create a Khao Tom so wholesome and balanced, it literally blew me away.

So, thank you R and I, for being hospitable hosts, for being enthusiastic enough to engage a family you got to know in this most unlikeliest of ways, for being confidants in a home away from home, and last, but not least, for letting me know that Khao Tom can taste as good as this.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Bringing your toddler to work: To do or not to do?

The Thai New Year, more commonly known as Songkran, resulted in Noah having to spend 2 weeks away from school due to a 'short' term break. For us parents though, 2 weeks seemed pretty long for Noah to spend at home without any scheduled activities nor external help. Having a totally dependent 7-month old at home didn't help the cause much either, so I figured, since my accountant frequently brought her toddler to work, why don't I try to do the same? Maybe there will be something for Noah to look forward to my wife could concentrate on other things when we are out.

The first day was pretty much a mess for me, as he didn't let me work properly on my working terminal, assuming ownership of it and throwing massive meltdowns when I got impatient, as my team depended on my work before they could continue with theirs. However, it was mostly confined to my room so the disruption to others was still controllable. After bringing him out for lunch, he seemed to completely understand the situation and even said, "Daddy, I will type after you finish your work, ok?"

Ok la, stop blowing liao la.....

The second day was more eventful. My accountant brought her son. I initially thought this would be better as they would have companions and disturb us less, but how wrong I was. In no time, my office became a playground. Crayons, pictures, books, boxes, toys were strewn all over the floor. There was hardly any place to walk. 2 kids, hand in hand, stomped all over the office in shrieks of laughter and sometimes petty arguments, constantly bugging my accountant and myself for help. I saw colleagues who planned to look for me head back to their seats when they saw the mess in my room. I couldn't work at all. Aside of some trivial matters, I struggled to write any sentence longer than 10 words properly. It completely sucked. It's enough that I couldn't work in peace, but if it was going to affect my colleagues as well, I would have to put things to a stop.

Oh my goooooooodnessssssssssssssssssss

However, there was something else happening. The kids were genuinely happy. They became really great friends. Even though Thai is not Noah's best language, he was communicating with his slightly-older local friend beautifully. They were just kids being kids, trying to work out how to live with others and play together. The shrieks of joy were real, their laughter full of pure innocence.

But why, oh why, did everything sound so terribly irritating and noisy to me? Even though something has to be worked out in the future to ensure their presence is less disruptive, surely I must change my mentality and see some positives when I see kids enjoying friendship with each other?

By the third day, Noah was really looking forward to coming to my office. Aside of some poo clearing disaster, he was generally well-behaved, until his friend arrived and everything in Day 2 repeated itself again. However, this time I had to leave early (with him) as it was my turn to man my company's booth at a Furniture Fair.

At the booth, he was his usual self. Running around, finding paper to scribble on, trying to make conversation with the people, until he did something that completely stunned everyone. A purchaser from China was asking me about the specifications of my product when Noah pounced out of nowhere. All of a sudden, we saw him, standing as tall as he could, right smack in front of our 'customer', and asked in a serious tone...

"Do you want to buy a mattress?"

One of the ways he keeps himself busy.

I wish I had taken a video of the entire episode. He's only 2 months past his 3rd birthday, and even though he has followed me to my office and exhibitions on a handful of occasions, I had never explicitly explained what I was doing. It seems like he has already figured it all out and is eager to lend a hand. I guess that's what you call "learning on the job".

So... bringing your kid to office, to do or not to do? I personally think that 3 years old (or less) is a bit young, and a few of them in the office will possibly disrupt the working environment and affect the efficiency of everyone, but with slightly older kids and some form of control, the situation will be different. Thinking from their perspective, they will be able to absorb things that they will not have the chance to if they are completely excluded from the adult working environment. They will also understand why Daddy has to leave the house early and come back late everyday.

He now knows how to enjoy himself at exhibition booths, offices and warehouses too

Ending off with a correspondence between me and my wife when I was at my wit's end during one of those days:

Me, "So far this is more of a nanny experience than working, with my kid around. I only have 1 hour in the office this morning and I spent 20 minutes clearing poo. Now arrive at the booth need to bring him to lunch and watch him play with his bowl."

Wife, "It is a Daddy experience. Not nanny."

Words of wisdom, eh?

A Daddy experience. I'll take it.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Survival Guide for Foreigners in Bangkok: The first 10 random tips

While walking along the road in my neighbourhood during the Songkran break in the morning, I could not help but notice the patches of white powder on the road. I soon realised that these white patches were indications of the various spots of water 'warfare' during more happening parts of the day. All of a sudden, I had successfully identified all the potentially dangerous locations in the vicinity, and could plan my route carefully if I had to venture out later.

Then I thought to myself, with my experience here, I can really share some random tips and tricks specific to Bangkok that might make newcomers' (tourists or new residents) lives easier. After brainstorming, here's my first instalment:

Refer to Tip #6

  1. Know where you live

    I came here more than 5 years ago needing to urgently find a permanent office and move in as soon as possible, so within a week of arriving, I had to start shopping at megastores to equip my new-found location. It took me by surprise that EVERY shop commanded me to draw a map of the delivery location before letting me leave. It's the standard operating procedure here in Thailand.

    Never mind the delivery staff will call you on the day itself regardless of the detail of your drawing, you better know where you live (and how to draw it) before you can navigate your way through your purchases.

  2. You can have anything anywhere, because 7-11 is everywhere

    Unless you are looking for canned San Marzano tomatoes or frozen Atlantic Cod, you are covered in Thailand, because 7-11 is everywhere (2nd highest number of branches in the world after Japan), and it has everything you need. In fact, most brands make items exclusive for 7-11, which you cannot find in the huge hypermarkets.

    With everything from incredible-tasting instant meals, gourmet coffee, to supersoakers during Songkran, and the ability to pay virtually all important bills at their counters (even air/bus tickets), life will never be the same without it again.

  3. Zebra crossings don't work as they should, but use them anyway

    Unfortunately, most cars will not deliberately stop for you just because you are standing at a zebra-crossing and obviously look like you want to cross the road, but use them anyway, especially at night.

    Because in the dimly-lit areas, the zebra crossing is often blessed with spotlights, so even if cars don't stop for you, it's the 1 place they are most likely to see you when you finally decide to risk your life sprinting to the other side.

  4. Chill when looking for taxis

    Taxis have always been a huge topic of debate in Thailand, mostly because of the way some drivers choose customers and others who refuse to turn on their meters.

    There are things that cannot be changed overnight no matter how much we whine, and the taxi situation is one of them, However, in terms of service quality and price, I still feel that Bangkok taxis might be one of the most value-for-money ones in the world.

    So, my advice will be to chill when you are rejected by a taxi, because unless it's a bad time (or really bad location), the next one will most definitely be round the corner and you will get your ride soon (I hope).

  5. (Men only) Chill when a lady of any age mops the floor really close to you while peeing in a public toilet

    Because I have been told by multiple sources that it will be weirder if it's a guy cleaning the toilet in Thailand!

  6. (Women only) If you suspect you are pregnant, look out for vending machines outside public toilets

    Because it's not rocket science and you deserve to know whether to shop for normal fashion or maternity fashion.

  7. You can always watch your favourite football match

    Because the most well-known way(s) might not be available where you live, and there are alternative(s).

  8. Don't feel awkward frequenting hospitals to cure your flu, and hotels for some nice food

    Because it's the norm for the sick to visit hospitals immediately (treat it like the clinic in your hometown) and for the best restaurants to be set up in good hotels.
  9. Learn to LINE

    Sure, you can continue to Whatsapp with your folks back home, but please please, learn to LINE in Thailand. Nothing else means anything here.

  10. And the life-saver, when asked, ALWAYS say Aroi (delicious)!

    When your friend buys you a meal, or a store-keeper asks you to taste their sample, they know that their food is very delicious. Even if it's not and they are waiting for the 'honest' answer, smile and say "Aroi". This is a life-saver.

Stay tuned for the next instalment of my random tips!