The grass is always greener

Until landing at swish, efficient Changi airport last weekend, I never realised that Don Muang was such a dump. Sure, I’ve gone to other flash spots from Don Muang before, but usually they’ve been further away – there’s been a few drinks and a nap between my hazy memory of the Thai immigration officials taking half an hour to stamp my overstay receipt (in between watching death wrestling), and the sudden reality of whatever gleaming transportation hub I’m ejected into. The glow of the present tends to rub off on the past.

But not this time. If Changi is a hunky spunky brainy guy wearing a tux waiting to take you to town in a limo, Don Muang is but a festy old bloke with a really big beer belly who might take you to Patpong for a drink if you’re lucky. Changi’s a winner.

A great introduction to Singapore, at least. I enjoy heading overseas because I know I’ll appreciate the many things I’ve started to take for granted about living in Thailand when I return. But during the initial honeymoon period with a new city, there’s excitement and passion with everything fresh and unusual about the place. It’s plain old infatuation.

This time, I fell in love with Singapore’s fresh air, quietness and greenness. I don’t really notice, breath by breath, that Bangkok’s air isn’t good; beyond keeping the grime off my book collection, it physically doesn’t present problems for me. The sudden contrast with Singapore, however, left me, well, breathless. The air actually tastes cleaner.

The busy yet quiet roads are another enigma. The cars are well-oiled, well-washed, and well-behaved for the most part. Drivers do have to pay in the vicinity of S$30,000 for the privilege of having a car in the first place, but oh the efficiency! Let them catch buses! Motorbikes are few and far between, but rickshaws still squeak around in parts. There’s just not enough pollution to kill off their drivers.

And the trees were elegant and shady. I had thought the gardens under the skytrain were starting to come along, but now I see them for what they are – a feeble, pathetic attempt to make it more difficult to jump over those anti-jaywalking wires.

We took a shared taxi from the airport, swept along the shaded boulevards past the colourful high-density housing. ("Well, sure, there’s eighteen buildings in my block, but you can pick mine, it’s purple, and has a yellow stripe across the 12th floor") and smoothly arrived at our hotel.

I dashed to the loo and was shocked – but, yes, rather pleased – when the toilet automatically flushed. Then I dashed off for a meeting, asking the concierge to call me a cab. "Take the MRT, it will be much quicker," he advised in perfect English. "Down the block, cross the road, it’s under that building over there."

So I headed there, lined up for my ticket, was told to re-line up to get change, re-lined up to get change, then re-lined up for my ticket again, and sped down the escalator to the suicide-proof MRT. There was a method to all those queues, which were far longer than those at Bangkok Bank at lunchtime but moved faster than a senator with a vested interest.

It was then reality started to hit. I had to pay Bt150 for a coffee far worse than what you’d get at any big chain here – or at least, the editor I met with did. Later I really did need to catch a cab, but couldn’t just hail one – I had to walk out of my way to get to a rank. A taxi rank!

Bangkok began to take on a slight nostalgic glow, but the honeymoon was not quite over; I marveled at the orderly queue moving steadily and without any cheats into taxis that automatically turned on their meters. I’ve been stung in queues before – always by very old and unapologetic ladies with khunying hairdos in banks – and I liked this idea of respecting whoever arrived first.

Then there was the essential Singaporean cultural experience: shopping. I hate most shopping, particularly clothes shopping in Bangkok, because being six-foot tall I can’t fit into anything here, period. And it’s physically dangerous: I once nearly lost a hand in an overhead fan in a dressing room that had no grill covering it. The sales assistant just didn’t understand when I smiled and said that hey, maybe that could hurt someone (like me!).

In Singapore I had to ask for a smaller size at one stage, nobody laughed in my face when I asked if they had size ten shoes (nevertheless, they didn’t have them) and there weren’t three sales assistants hanging around outside the dressing room door waiting for me to come out. I almost had fun.

Things even got exciting at one stage when we were involved in a crime. My Man stepped in some gum on the footpath, a victim, clearly, of civil disobedience. The equivalent in Bangkok might be stepping on a tab of Ecstasy. We’d clearly just been part of something big.

As is well known, Singapore’s economic success and sanitised streets have come at the cost of reduced social and political freedoms. But some, it seems by reading between the lines, don’t even get a taste of the money.

As we sat on our couches at Changi late Sunday afternoon – even the humblest of economy travellers are supplied with couch space to curl up on at Changi – we read the local paper (which, sure, we could have done anywhere) which put things into better perspective.

One feature reported on how much employers lose financially if their (usually Filipino) maid runs away; yet there was no matching story explaining just why it is maids run away, and where perhaps they could go for help if they needed it.

Then there was the hysterical-if-it-wasn’t-true story of the biscuit tin thrower, an in-brief titled "Man who hurled killer litter jailed". A man who had thrown an empty biscuit tin out of his second-storey apartment had confessed to acting rashly and endangering other people by doing so. He was jailed for eight weeks. How did the police manage to catch such a menace? Luckily, a vigilant citizen had seen what he did and telephoned them. This guy was lucky – he could have been jailed for up to three months and fined S$250. A lesson to biscuit tin throwers everywhere.

Getting onto the plane, we picked up a copy of this paper, which carried a front page report on a pro-democracy rally held the day before in – Singapore. The government had given permission for the rally, but there hadn’t been a word in The Sunday Times about it.

Emerging from Don Muang we took a breath of thick, fume-filled air, elbowed our way through seemingly every passenger who had arrived since midday, got grunted at by one of the grouchy public taxi assistants, argued with our driver to get him to put the meter on, explained to him – all in Thai – that it’s not necesssary to cross the Chao Phraya to reach Sukhumvit Road, got to our street, jumped out and over the potholes, swum up the driveway leading to our block while beating off the barking dogs and let ourselves into our apartment. Home sweet home.

Singapore might be a hunky spunk, but I like my men with a beer belly.

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