Monday, July 27, 2015

Bangkok: Baby/Toddler-Friendly or not?

Recently, I have been asked repeatedly the same question by friends and readers: should I bring my baby/toddler to Bangkok? I've lived here for 10 years, and currently have a 10-month-old and a 3-year-old with me, so naturally I expect to be asked for my opinions on this, but every reply of mine has become longer and longer, so I have decided to share my views here proper to help all parents (with babies/toddlers, not bigger kids) who have the same questions.

  1. Transportation

    As a tourist, you technically only have a few transportation choices, taxi, BTS (skytrain), MRT (underground) and tuk-tuk (not much experience so I won't touch on this here).

    Thais love kids more than you can ever imagine, so do trust me that bringing kids will likely be your trump-card. In BTS and MRTs, we've never had issues with seats, no matter how crowded the carriages are. Even when I bring Noah on the trains myself (and he's already 3), there will still be many locals (young and very old) 'fighting' to offer us their seats.

    Do take note also that if you have a baby/toddler in tow, whether or not you have a stroller/lots of bags to carry, you will be helped by the security personnel stationed at every turnstile at a train station. They will definitely help you through with ease via a separate gate at the side so you don't have to rush your way through the barrier with all your 'load'.

    Taxis will be a more touchy subject. There are real issues with taxi-drivers trying to earn more from tourists, choosing destinations and refusing to switch on their metres. However, with a baby in tow, even the most opportunistic taxi-driver might decide to give you a friendly ride, in order to give you some assistance.


    At Suvarnabhumi Airport, take note that there are priority queues at BOTH the arrival and departure immigration lines. This is a super lifesaver for families with old people and little ones, as the queues can get absolutely crazy at times.
  2. Restaurants

    Assuming we do not expect any child-friendly facilities at road-side stalls and establishments without air-conditioning just like most other countries, let me zero in on the typical restaurant in a shopping mall.

    Many established restaurant chains will at the very least, have child bowls and cutlery, and a number will have dedicated kids menus, but you will have to be prepared when it comes to baby chairs. In most restaurants, the most they can provide might only be chairs for slightly bigger kids, who do not need safety latches or protective tables in front of them. If you have a baby/toddler less than 2 years old, you will need to hold them while you/they eat.

    Staff at most restaurants are very friendly to kids though. If they are free, they might even help you carry your baby or play with your toddler, something not common in many other societies.
  3. Stroller-suitability

    If you are looking at the normal roads, the answer is NO. The pedestrian pavements are not designed to be suitable for strollers or prams. If you insist to bring yours along, my suggestion is to stay in 2 areas, the zone between Chit-lom and Siam BTS stations, and the zone connected to Asoke BTS station. These zones provide a conducive skywalk above the road that connects you to the malls and BTS/MRT stations in the vicinity where you can use your strollers with ease. However, do take note that thus far, only a select few BTS stations provide lifts, so be mentally prepared to navigate many flights of steps with your stroller.

    An easier way is to carry your baby/toddler in your carrier if you are used to it. This way, you do not have to worry about the stroller outside the malls. In fact, many malls now provide a stroller-rental service. These include Terminal 21, Mega Bang Na and Paradise Park. I have seen strollers in Emporium's customer-service office as well, my take is that if you are at a proper mall, you might want to ask the information counter whether a stroller is available for rent.
  4. Availability of nursing rooms

    In most malls, family/handicapped-friendly toilets are available, but nursing rooms might not be. To be safe, if you need a nursing room, choose to go to a mall with a departmental store (which will surely have nursing rooms in their kid/baby sections). Popular departmental store chains in Bangkok will be names like Central, Zen, Isetan, Robinson, Tokyu, Emporium and Paragon. This means that popular tourist malls like Platinum Mall, Siam Centre, Siam Square 1 and Terminal 21 (though it has a Robinson near it) do NOT have nursing rooms.
  5. What about essentials like diapers, milk and baby food?

    This should not be a big concern. Most big brands are established here. Furthermore, they can all be found in most 7-11s, which are everywhere, so don't worry about this. In fact, there are many local high-quality ready-made baby food/snacks which are available in the supermarkets. Look out for brands like Peachy, Wel-B, Picnic Baby etc.
  6. Weather and Air Quality

    Depending on where you come from and where you stay, you might have different interpretations to this concern. Put things simply, Bangkok is a little more seasonal than countries like Singapore and Malaysia. The best time to come is surely at the end of the year, when temperatures can drop to a low of 18 degC in the morning. This usually happens from end-December to January. It doesn't rain during the cool season as well. The rainy season usually starts from June to August, so this is not a very conducive period to visit. The hottest time is during Songkran, from April to May.

    Compared to 'Garden Cities' like Singapore, there are hardly any trees in the Bangkok. Coupled with the massive jams in the tourist areas most of the time, the air quality is expectedly poorer in comparison. However, if you are used to visiting other cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Jakarta etc., this should not be a concern as well.
  7. Healthcare for the little ones

    In town, good hospitals are not difficult to find. If anyone in your family needs medical treatment, remember the names Bangkok Hospital, Bumrungrad Hospital and Samitivej Hospital. These are top-class private hospitals with translators available for almost all languages I can think of. They are of course, not cheap, but compared with a good private hospital in your country, you might find them providing an equal/higher value of service.

So, in summary, is Bangkok baby/toddler friendly?

If you ask me, my answer is a great big YES! If you take note of the pointers above, be mentally-prepared for some situations different from your home country and be less adventurous in your sight-seeing visits (and I suggest, book a hotel connected to or very near a BTS/MRT station), you might understand that even though Bangkok's 'hardware' is still lacking, the 'heartware' is already in place. 

With the increased number of sincere smiles channeled in your direction because of your precious little ones, you will realise by the end of your trip that bringing your baby/toddler along is actually a blessing in disguise.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Dad's Dinner

I was in a very engaging chat with my brother-in-law in Singapore about apples, phones and other manly stuff until the topic of food came up. I was waiting for my lovelies to be ready for dinner while he was waiting for his lovely to do the same. Then came a picture from him of a plate of calamari. Not wanting to lose out, I promised to send him a picture of my sure-to-be delicious dinner.

We then made our way to the trusty Chabuton, because it works when we are out of ideas. I will never reject a decent ramen fix, while Noah loves their Chasiu-don. But what about my wife? With Ellie in front of her in the carrier all the time, she was likely to forgo the potentially-dangerous soupy ramen again. Determined to give her at least the freedom of choosing ramen, I volunteered to handle Ellie while she ate.

I absolutely love being a father and adore my children to bits, but I do not enjoy every single thing. I am incredibly irritated with feeding Noah, especially when he misbehaves while being fed, which is not uncommon these days. However, yesterday, with the extremely fragrant Chasiu-don in front of him, he ate well. Phew! Inspired by our earlier hour-and-a-half date with the Minions, Ellie took her banana properly too.

But wait, where's the picture I was supposed to take?

Totally forgot!

Scrolling through my phone, these were the only pictures I could find.

One mouth of rice for Noah

One mouth of banana for Ellie
Sorry brother-in-law, these are the only pictures you are gonna get!

Oh, and this GIF.

All of us enjoyed our dinners, thank you very much!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Best Fish Maw Soup in Bangkok hands-down: Ping's Thai Teochew Seafood

When you visit Thailand, which dishes will be considered a must-eat for you? If you are not familiar with Thai food, dishes like tom yum, pineapple rice, phad thai, green curry might come to mind. But if you are a seasoned traveler in Thailand, surely your taste would have changed, and you would be enjoying other delicacies like soup noodles, grilled pork, papaya salad, mango sticky rice etc.

As a foreigner who has lived here for more than 5 years, I have my favourite Thai dishes. For street food, it has to be stir-fried basil chicken/pork with rice and omelette, and if you visit restaurants, my recommendations will usually be steamed fish with lemon, claypot glass noodle with shrimp and fish maw soup. Truth be told, I have always been a fan of fish maw soup, regardless of the dish's Thai-ness. In my student years, I was already a frequent customer to those 2SGD starch-laden brown bowls of fish-maw-less glue at the pasar malams in Singapore. There is just something about the sticky brown sauce that draws me to them, especially after the final infusion of black vinegar.

Hands-down, the best bowl of fish maw soup in Bangkok

As you can expect, I am naturally happy to live in Bangkok, since it's a city full of fish maw soup that's of much better quality than what I was used to in Singapore. That said, not many really impressed, until I finally got to try the version Pings Thai Teochew Seafood has to offer last month, after winning a prize in their Facebook lucky draw, and man was it spectacular. If I have to put down the taste in words, I can only say that the soup is rich, yet extremely light, tasty, yet not overpowering. Couple that with top-quality fish maw, mushroom and crab (that's really what you want in this dish, not the chicken drumlet, pig's blood and quail eggs you get on the street), this is simply a perfect dish for me.

Of course, Pings has much more to offer, especially the usual suspects that you can expect from a good Thai-Chinese restaurant.

Fried Thai fish cakes, full and succulent

Stir-fried fish maw, another one of their signatures
Oyster Omelette on hot plate. Look at the huge oysters
Braised gooseweb yellow noodle, made with meepok and huge webs flown in from Poland!

What I like most about the food here is that they do not taste complicated. Even if not all dishes give you a "wow" when you taste them, they will always allow the excellence of their specially-selected ingredients to take centre-stage every single time.

Absolutely not to be missed, the coconut jelly dessert.

Another advantage of Pings Thai Teochew Seafood Restaurant is its accessibility for tourists. As much as I do not think MBK is worth visiting, I cannot deny that every single tourist goes there almost every trip. The restaurant is just situated inside Pathumwan Princess Hotel, which is the popular 4* hotel that's connected to MBK. If you are still thinking of going all the way to the rowdy Yaowarat just to eat all the dishes I showed above, fret no more, as you can enjoy them in the comfort of a conveniently located hotel at virtually the same price.

Pings deserves my stamp of approval because they have an X-factor. Their crown jewel, their soup broth, is something that cannot be found anywhere else, and is certainly something I can drink everyday.

Jacqueline, the owner of Pings, told me that many of their customers usually have 1 entire medium-size claypot of fish maw soup all to themselves. I am so going to do that next time man, mark my word, this thing is really not suitable for sharing. No sharing if you go with me ok?

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Traditional Hong Kong Wanton Noodle in Bangkok: Gokfayuen 菊花园面家

Update March 24 2016:

Half a year after my first visit to Gokfayuen, the texture of their house-made noodles (initially the Achilles' heel) has improved beyond recognition. The soup and wanton are still fantastic, and the char siew still smokily tasty.

And they have decided to reward more customers with the opening of their whopping new branch at Petchaburi Soi 19, right smack in Pratunam a few steps beyond the over-rated Sabx2 Thai-style wanton noodles (Note: Gokfayuen's noodles are cheaper).

Look out for this sign
Then this simple shopfront

I could have this every other day

Kudos to Donald, who has made such great improvements over a short period of time. I guess it's about time for me to announce Gokfayuen as the latest restaurant to grace my exclusive "Wah Lau Eh!" list.


Some time late last year, a random Facebook page caught my attention. It was about a Hong Kong native trying to start a proper traditional wanton noodle shop in Bangkok. As I followed his journey, from the sourcing of raw material, learning from experts in Hong Kong and practising of various cooking techniques, until finally opening his little shop at Thong Lor Soi 9, I felt extremely curious and equally compelled to try his food some day.

Not the easiest place to spot, but as long as you make your way into Thong Lor Soi 9, you should see it on your left.
Yesterday, I found the time to visit Gokfayuen with my wife and her friend, and even got to meet Donald, the 'mysterious' man behind the mentioned Facebook page. I was intrigued as he explained his journey in his own words. Donald had no prior cooking experience, and simply wanted to recreate the perfect traditional wanton noodle before the art disappears. From the Canadian flour, to duck eggs, to the huge noodle-making machine on show at his shop, Donald left no stone unturned in his quest to make the perfect noodle.

Don't forget to look up as you enter the shop
On top of that, he also makes every element of all his dishes in-house. That includes the chilli sauce, the wanton skin, and even the dried halibut in his soup base is painstakingly grilled and dried (they buy halibut fresh from the market) in-house before use. All this, in hope to reward customers with the most satisfying experience every visit.

So, you will ask me, how's the food?

Braised beef noodle

Wanton noodle

Charsiu aka Roast Pork

I personally feel that most dishes we tried were very good. 2 elements that jumped out were the roast pork (charsiu), which was intensely smoky, tender and well-seasoned, and his soup base, which is clear yet so packed with rich goodness that I am sure every wanton mee lover will find it a waste leaving even a drop behind.

He also serves one of the most authentic glasses of Hong Kong iced milk tea in town

His noodles were significantly softer and less chewy than those I got used to during my trips to Hong Kong. Donald explained that making noodles has been his biggest challenge. Even though he is using the best flour and duck eggs (which are used in the most traditional recipes), other variables like lye water and even the humidity in Bangkok is still affecting Gokfayuen's ability to consistently churn out the perfect noodle.

However, Donald is a perfectionist. When he first sat down with me, there were still strands of noodles stuck to the side of his mouth. He comes to the shop everyday to taste his noodles in a bid to ultimately create the perfect product, and with his attitude, I am sure he will make sure every trip to his shop will be better than the previous one.

Donald and me!

In the meantime, I find it important that lovers of the traditional Hong Kong Wanton Noodles and other street fare (he already sells Cantonese-style chicken rice and will sell congee soon) support a passionate entrepreneur like Donald as he continues his quest to achieve perfection. Besides, with his dishes priced between 79-139THB and a location right smack in the middle of the bustling expat haunt of Thong Lor, you will be hard-pressed to find a better deal elsewhere.

stranger in bangkok

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Random Thoughts on International School Education Part 1: The Beauty of Performances

Since my piece on how we chose my son's school a last August, Noah has almost completed his Nursery 1 academic year, and what a year it has been. Being the dependent boy who grew up solely with his parents as his main caretakers, Noah has manned up considerably over time. His tearing in the morning has reduced from everyday to closer to a couple of times a week, with only the occasional tantrum before leaving home for school.

Through our daily commute to and from school, I observed with interest the interaction between staff, parents and students in an educational institution that calls itself an "international school". The concept of international education is relatively new to myself and I believe, most of my readers, so I have decided to share my thoughts on it from time to time.

If you had followed my thought process when I chose the school, you will realize that I do not have the "Tiger Mum" spirit. At this stage of my children's life, it's more important that the student-teacher ratio is good (16 to 3 ratio for nursery level at Noah's school), the teachers have a genuine love for little children and the school provides ample opportunity for learning through play.

After 1 year, I have to say that the school has delivered on most aspects. One point that stood out the most is the ceaseless efforts of the teachers to prepare the kids for one large-scale performance per term (3 terms per academic year). Every single event I witnessed was planned with much attention to detail, from stage decoration, music selection, choreography to even the costumes of every single student. The collective energy from teachers to make it happen at such a frequency is nothing short of amazing.

Really not in the mood that day.

Any school can teach little kids to grasp languages and master mathematics, but I believe not all schools can give every child the opportunity to showcase their talents in front of a considerable audience frequently. I can see many advantages of such an arrangement in school:
  1. By practising consistently for the performance, kids can experience the importance of teamwork, and appreciate the hard work behind the scenes before a successful show on stage.
  2. As most performances revolve around music, singing and dancing, kids can practise their physical coordination through the choreography as well as learn new skills such as singing techniques and playing musical instruments.
  3. Even though not every kid is born to love being on stage, such events give them a chance to know, from a young age, whether they enjoy performing or not, and of course, sieve out the talented ones from a very early stage of their growth.
  4. Give every kid precious precious performance opportunity, which were few and far between when I was growing up. Overcoming stage fright and being able to perform adequately under the pressure of being watched by important people is probably one of the most vital skills I would like my children to acquire during their school life. It would be great to start young.
As for Noah, I saw him grow from someone who did not really know what was going on during his first performance, to a bubbly boy who enjoyed every minute of this preparation for his most recent gig. Even though his well-prepared bubbly self did not show up during performance day, I know that he is slowly but surely grasping the concept of performing. At this rate, by the time he reaches Primary 1, he would already have the experience of at least 12 major performances in his pocket. Whoa!

As a Daddy who really loved the limelight (I won't deny it) during my heyday (I was in the Chinese Orchestra during secondary school, Choir during Junior College and sang for couple of 5-piece bands along the way), I can hardly hide my excitement as I look forward to Noah's next performance, which should come really soon!

We will always be supporting you korkor!

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