Day 2, Saturday 10th September
One cosmopolitan breakfast later, the buzz of motorbikes is our morning greeting, offered as we, towing our luggage, approach the bus prepared by our tour guide Pong. He ushers us up into air-conditioned comfort, a glacial island in the midst of a searing sea of taxis and trucks: the Bangkok morning rush.
We cruise past the food stalls of the previous night and onto the highway towards the coastal town of Hua Hin. The weather bodes well for the journey and, for a while, I relish in the half-country-half-cityscape drifting by beneath the cloudless sky. Popping a tangerine-flavoured lozenge into my mouth, I do what I do best: Zzz.
The first time I awaken is to my brother’s plea for a toilet stop. My mother passes the message onto Pong and soon, our bus slips into a sizable petrol station trapped within a ring of restaurants and shops. Most of us take the opportunity to grab some fresh air. Disembarking, I am almost immediately assaulted by the fragrance of cooked chicken. I slip into the convenience store to escape the temptation, only to be struck by the affordability of the snacks (many familiar) and drinks. And it is at the drinks department where I encounter a bottle wrapped in white-blue plastic.
I grab one of the chilled bottles against my better judgment (I was having a bad cough). “Ka poon kap,” I mouth to the cashier, desperately struggling to express my thanks in Thai. Once back on the bus, I indulge myself in a chain of gulps, more than pleased to find that the flavour was exactly the same as what I savoured in Japan (I have had bad experiences with Calpis in Singapore). My sister offers me a sip of her Thai milk tea and it too is amazing.
Of course, I didn’t go all the way to Thailand just to drink a Japanese soft drink.
Our next stop is the Maeklong Railway Market. We disembark in the middle of town, on a short rise before a cross junction. Buildings cluster together shoulder to shoulder in dense islets, pagoda heads mixed with newer flat tops, creating a jagged skyline. The roads are wide as moats, the cars more ferocious than crocodiles, impeding our progress as we make our way towards our destination.
The roads begin to thin as we pass a 7-11 and climb onto a pavement sided with food stalls. Vegetables in coloured gravy, fish, dried meats and other manner of local delicacies pull our eyes away from the road ahead, but it isn’t long before Pong makes a sharp right, leading us into a wet market. The main walkway is wider than anything I have ever experienced in Singapore. Booths line both flanks, displaying vegetables and a glorious array of seafood: shrimps, clams, mussels, a variety of crabs and, of course, wide-eyed fish. After squelching through an area specialising in raw meats, we finally arrive at an open-air tunnel with tracks racing beneath our feet: the Maeklong Railway Market.
There is no rest for the devoted shopper here: stalls continue to fill the surrounding space as we make our way down the railway, evolving to accommodate tourists with snacks, souvenirs and cold soft drinks from beneath curtains of tarp. The railway brings us to the nearby station, packed with tourists grabbing coconut juice and Thai milk tea in the comfort of miniature cafes. Our visit is strategically timed and, soon, the train appears in the distance, prompting the stall owners to scramble away from the tracks. I find a good spot near the road and feel the gravity of the metal chugging across just inches away, close enough for me to reach out and touch, hot air blasting my face. Definitely an amazing experience.
Up next is lunch! Pong brings us to a zi char-like restaurant where we enjoy a banquet of Thai dishes including Tom Yum Goong, shrimp fried rice, crab meat and a strangely orange omelette. Despite the colour, the omelette is incredibly delicious and all the seafood dishes are fantastic, the ingredients fresh enough to sink our guts in ocean flavour. The prawns are fat and juicy, the squid thick and crunchy, the crab meat tender and the fish devoid of putridity. With our stomachs (and souls) heavy, we re-board the bus and continue our journey towards Hua Hin.