Swimming in Harlem and Dover – Part 2

I just got back from another trip back to Thailand (anchored by my cousin’s wedding.) This time I got to swim at an airport, twice no less.

Singapore’s Changi Airport (apparently it’s pronounced ‘Chang – ee’, not ‘Chang-jee’) boasts of many free amenities, including a free movie theatre, a couple of outdoor gardens (one a butterfly habitat), and even free mechanical feet massagers (I highly recommend you wear socks when using them), and a couple of train links between terminals (which might be nice if you have stir-crazy kids who like riding on trains). Of course there’s even more ways to separate your money from your wallet: the food and beverage outlets, the massages, the transit hotels, etc. (The shopping, however, is really much better at Hong Kong airport.)

The best money spent at Changi for me, is S$13.91 for the privilege of swimming in the pool at Terminal 1 (comes with loan of a towel, a locker key, shower and soap, and your choice of a box of ice tea in lemon, peach or apple flavour). I have no idea why the cost is pegged at such an odd number, why not round it up to $13.99? (It’s a smidgen under $10 US) You can stay for as long as you want. Do remember to bring your swimsuit with you. Although there is a Nike store at the airport, I don’t think they stock swimsuits.

There’s lounge chairs and shaded seats, and enough potted plants to feel green and tropical. A bar if you want a beer. It’s outdoors, but the buzz of airplanes taking off and landing is not too noisy, although the blasts of jet diesel fumes might bother some. There’s a jacuzzi.

The pool itself is kidney-bean shaped, but it’s large enough where you can swim back and forth without feeling claustrophic-dizzy. Since I was transitting both ways, I swam twice. My first swim was in the afternoon: and it’s warm enough that the water got too hot for me after 20 minutes of swimming. The second swim at 8:00 AM was better, the water hadn’t heated up with the day yet.

I missed out on a second swim in a locale that I’ve always wanted, but barely dared to swim in: a Thai canal klong. Instead I went paddling in the klong in a rua (which I’d never done before either). Instead of a traditional wooden Thai rua (as in kwey-tiao rua or the ones you see at floating markets), they now make rua in plastic, but it’s shaped exactly like the traditional wooden ones. This was a bright blue one, provided by Baan Suan Manovejchapan, a homestay where I stayed overnight in Samut Songkhram. They have a website http://www.meaklonghomestay.com, but URL is invalid right now. I highly recommend you email instead.

It is a wonderful traditional Thai wooden house on the klong, with extensive gardens/orchards extending inland. Among other typical fruits like coconuts, mangoes, and bananas, they also had this unusual species of chompoo (rose apple) that was round instead of triangular, and yellow instead of green or red or pink. It also had an unusual fragrance. On site is also a mushroom shed, and a outdoor stove/chimney for cooking coconut/palm sugar.

The klong is very quiet. The entire neighbourhood is orchards/farms and homes. The murmuring sounds of radios carried over the water from nearby houses. There’s lots of birds cries in the midst of all this greenery. I was perfectly content for hours, sitting on the porch at edge of the water, just watching the clumps of water hyacinth (introduced and now a prolific nuisance) floating by, along with odd plastic bottle (alas, reality).

There’s very little traffic on weekdays, so that any passing boat was an exciting event! A monk came by paddling upstream collecting alms around 6:30 AM. The dogs hung out on the pier with me as I gave the monk alms. On his way back downstream to his temple. he stopped again at our pier, where the dogs had been waiting and fed the dogs some of the alms he’d been given. After that, the dogs went back to the garden for a nap!

At 9 AM, a kwey tiao rua boat came by, and even though I was in the middle of a very tasty shrimp khao tom breakfast, I hailed the vendor for a bowl of noodles, to enjoy the novelty of buying kwey tiao from an actual passing rua (as opposed to the stationary vendors on land, whose boats are marooned on display!) To be practical, I borrowed a bowl from the kitchen, so that the vendor didn’t have to come back to pick up her bowl. (You simply can’t eat these soup noodles from a disposable styrofoam container!)

There’s more boat vendors on the weekends, where you can hail to buy fruit, veggies, flowers and prepared foods from people paddling their way to the local floating market, which is small and can only function on the weekends, unlike the big one at Damnoen Saduak, which gets enough tourists to be a daily event.

One of Baan Manovejchapan’s claims to trivia fame is that “King Chulalongkorn slept here.” Well, this is true of a lot more places in Thailand that one might think. (The claim to fame for the house across the klong is only that a Thai TV series was filmed there.)

Otherwise known as Rama V, Chulalongkorn reigned around the turn of the 20th century, and among the many progressive things he did, one was to travel around the country incognito, in order to find out first hand how things were going around his kingdom, instead of relying on second hand, potentially doctored reports from his courtiers and employees. I suspect he also had a bit of a travel bug; he also visited, in official capacity, Singapore, India, Java, and Europe (twice), as well as other parts of his domain!

Often on these incognito trips he went undetected, taken for some wealthy man, traveling with a few servants. As ordinary people offered hospitality to almost every passing traveller: meals and a place to sleep for the night, he really got to experience a lot of homestays! A few times, he was recognised, as photography had been introduced to Siam in his father’s reign, but few people had photographs of the king, much less themselves.

The thought crossed my mind that it would be impossible for King Bhumibol (the current king, Chulalongkorn’s grandson) to make the same sort of incognito trips today, with the proliferation of media, and the extreme veneration of the king. In Thailand, you’d have to be born blind to not know what HM looks like, as there isn’t a single home, business, workplace or even public street that doesn’t have a portrait of him. And yes, they were all put up voluntarily.

Come to think of it, even King Chulalongkorn himself would be unable to go anywhere in his kingdom unrecognised today, as there are many people who also venerate him by putting up his portrait at their home, business or workplace. (Rarely is his portrait part of a public street display, though.) For visitors to Thailand, Chulalongkorn is the one with a moustache, without glasses. Bhumibol has glasses and no moustache. For more context, Chulalongkorn is the son of the king in “The King and I”

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