Saturday, February 28, 2004

Late Morning Reflections

Late Morning Reflections

Spending time alone in Bangkok helps me to gather my thoughts. It was blissfully quiet this morning when I went out to grab a sandwich for brunch before embarking on my seven hour work marathon. For some reason I thought of my friend D., an American and an ex-colleague who is now in San Francisco.

D. was laid off from his job after the dot-com and telco crash in the States. He was glad to leave his job because like me, he was rather disillusioned with the corporate world. He was married with kids but he longed for that carefree bohemian life that he used to lead. I remember five years ago during my short stint at the Menlo Park office, he told me that he found the movie American Beauty extremely engrossing because he could empathise with Kevin Spacey's character.

It took me many years before I understood why. The last time I heard from D. a few months back, he was divorced and was working part-time as a bartender! But he was happy because he had found the courage to reinvent his life: He had decided to leave the IT world and embark on a new career in biotechnology and environment-related fields. He even went to the extent of taking high-school chemistry and biology classes so that he would have the basic qualification to enrol for graduate courses in those fields. He wasn't afraid to start from scratch again.

I look forward to those occassional e-mails D. would drop me every now and then. The last time D. was in this part of the world, he was having a month-long holiday in Bangkok, right after he was laid-off. At that time I had just decided to work in Jakarta and was busy handling the logistics of my move there. We didn't get to meet. He wanted to visit Jakarta but his wife was grumbling back home about his long absence.

Sitting at the cafe in Bangkok this morning, I thought of D. and realised how much of an inspiration he has been to me. If he were here, he would be showing me around the city. But I'm always happy to be alone in a strange place; it gives me the space and time to think and reflect on things. I think I'll probably send D. an e-mail later tonight, asking him where I should go in Bangkok. He'll be extremely envious.

Everyone's Favourite City

Everyone's Favourite City

Feeling very tired after 3 straight days of waking up very early. But it has been a productive three days. I now look forward to an even more productive weekend.

Been dining gluttonously in Bangkok. It was pleasant to relax with some nice shark's fin or Tom Yam soup, washed down with Singha beer after a hard day's work. However my mind is too over-burdened with work to contemplate any adventures in the city. I hardly strayed beyond the street where my apartment is located.

The Thais, like the Indonesians and the Filipinos are a friendly lot. They speak with that melodious lilt, which after a while becomes rather endearing, and even contagious. One can easily detect a lot of Chinese words in the Thai language; in fact, it sounds rather like a provincial Chinese dialect.

Unfortunately I've not bothered to master even a bit of the local language yet. Language is a problem here, especially when communicating with the taxi drivers. Taxis that use the meter here carry signs that proclaim themselves almost with pride: "TAXI-METER". Obviously there are still a lot of taxis that do not use meters, but I have not seen any so far in the city.

On my previous business trips here, I stayed at the Regent Bangkok ( now renamed Four Seasons Bangkok--my personal favourite in the region) and the Hyatt Erawan--both in the business and shopping district. My present place of lodging is located around the same area. Trapped in this yuppified Mat Salleh/farang/bule/gweilou-haunted place, I long to check out some the grubbier side of Bangkok.

To many, the grubby side means the massage parlours and girlie bars scattered all over the city. The popular ones have become prominent landmarks of the city and it is convenient to know their location so that you can tell the taxi drivers where your actual destination is in relation to them. When I mentioned my customer's office, IFCT Tower to the driver this morning, he stared blankly at me; but when I told him that it's opposite Mona Lisa Massage Parlour, his face immediately beamed in recognition.

My friends will be thinking that I'm having such a wonderful time here in Bangkok. The reality is, I'm stuck with so much work that I don't think I'll have the inclination to do any exploration. I did mention in a previous blog entry before that Bangkok is not one of my favourite places; but I don't think anyone will believe me :-)

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Pleasures of the Flesh & Mind

Pleasures of the Flesh & Mind

During the past weeks that I was back in KL, it was very difficult for me to concentrate on my work. Somehow I always think better when I'm on the road, alone. Here in Bangkok, in this city of sin and pleasure, surprisingly I'm gaining back my concentration.

Concentration is like fitness. You could lose it very easily and you need to work to maintain it. Once you have reached the level of fitness/concentration you desire, you need to keep it that way and extract maximum performance out of it. I have written in a previous blog entry how the mind "blooms" when it is concentrated.

Again I'm back in my familiar "commando" role of being parachuted into a customer organization and having to find my way around in some very difficult terrain. It's a tough job, but for some reason, I operate best that way--it keeps my adrenaline flowing. My concentration has to be maintained at its peak, always.

If there's one thing that I fear, it is the fear of losing my concentration. When the mind is distracted, you underperform and your thinking operates at a very superficial level. I must make sure that no extraneous thoughts are allowed in my mind these coming two weeks. One must disengage from the troublesome distractions of the flesh.

A concentrated mind is as sharp as a laser. All my thoughts must remained focused, in-phase and synchronized. One gets a great high being in such a state. You see, the pleasures of the mind far surpass those of the flesh.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Back in Bangkok

Back in Bangkok

I suddenly find myself sipping Singha beer at a shark's fin soup restaurant in Bangkok after two years of guzzling Bintang along the side-alleys of Jakarta. Even though I have been in Bangkok before on business trips, my last trip here was probably four or five years ago. Unlike many of my friends, I do not know Bangkok well at all. But at least I'm back on Jakarta time. (The timestamp on my blog is still Jakarta time)

On previous trips I have been too tied up with work to explore Bangkok like how I had explored Jakarta. I have never spent a weekend here before. I hope to change all that on this trip; I am already equipped with my trusty Lonely Planet Guide, which informs me that Bangkok's full name is:

Krungthep mahanakhon amonratanakosin mahintara ayuthaya mahadilok popnopparat ratchathani burirom udomratchaniwet mahasathan amoniman avatansathit sakkathattiya witsanukamprasit

I'm sure I made a typo there somewhere, but what this mouthful of a tongue twister means is:

"Great City of Angels, Repository of Divine Gems, Great Land Unconquerable, Grand and Prominent realm, Royal and Delightful Capital City Full of Nine Noble Gems, Highest Royal Dwelling and Grand Palace, Divine Shelter and Living Place of Reincarnated Spirits"!

The people who are paying my bills put me up at a disgustingly luxurious serviced apartment right in the middle of the business district. My stay this time will be longer and there are lots of work waiting for me. Since my enthusiasm for nightlife has severly diminished over the past two years, I do not mind working nights and weekends to complete my work.

All my friends are so fond of Bangkok; but I still do not have a sense of the city yet. Today I walked into the Bangkok office and hardly saw a familiar face. Right now Bangkok is a city of strangers to me but hopefully, I'll soon learn why this earthly paradise for men deserves such a lengthy and pompous name.

Monday, February 23, 2004



I consider myself lucky that I'm not addicted to TV. One could say that I am missing out on a lot of interesting entertainment but I guess I can do without it because TV is a big gobbler of time. I am also less addicted to the Internet as I used to be--two years in Jakarta with a slow Internet connection sort of cured me of that.

I used to be addicted to movies too; at one time in my life I was even going to the movie theatres everyday. Thank God, I'm now free from this addiction. I still have other addictions: books and reading for instance. Maybe it is not that bad to be addicted to reading; but if one starts looking forward to meal times because they are an opportunity to read, then I think that is probably not very healthy. Since coming back to KL, I rarely get a chance to eat alone and indulge in some pre and after meal reading, so I suppose I'll be cured of that too.

Can one be completely cured of addictions? I think only the perfect soul is free from addictions. We all crave for certain things in life; we all have our likes and dislikes. It is perfectly natural for us to pursue our natural inclinations. However inclinations can easily degenerate into addictions if left unchecked.

Addictions develop when we constantly reinforce the pleasure that we get from our simple cravings. We rave about our favourite food and allow the memory of its pleasures to constantly occupy our mind. A footpath through a jungle is formed if people trudge across the same track over and over again. When we constantly reinforce certain patterns of thoughts in our brain, our neurons become "hardwired" and we end up repeating the same sequence of thoughts everytime.

Addictions, once they have taken root, are extremely difficult to eliminate. As long as the same conditions are present, the same sequence of thoughts result. We become mere automatons. A person is not really free unless he is free from all his addictions.

This doesn't mean that we shouldn't have likes and dislikes; a man who is free from addiction is not controlled and limited by his likes and dislikes. He can enjoy what he likes to the fullest but he is also strong enough to let it go without regret. Every enjoyment is celebrated with a sense of gratitude. He frees it from his mind until Providence presents the same pleasure to him again.

Gary Zukav's book, The Seat of the Soul has a good chapter about addiction. Buddhists typically use the term "attachment" rather than addiction to describe the same condition. Any pleasurable thing in life is a potential source of addiction. One must always remain vigilant to prevent them from taking root.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Philosophy and the Adventure of Thinking

Philosophy and the Adventure of Thinking

Looking through my collection of books yesterday, I discovered my yellowing paperback copy Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy. I bought it during my university years and it was this book that taught me what little I know about philosophy.

On the title page of the book, I had scribbled the year of its purchase: 1987 and I jotted down a quote by Bertrand Russell which I had copied from one of his biographies. It must have inspired me as a student then and it is probably worthwhile for me to repeat it here:
"I must, I must, before I die, find some way to say the essential thing that is in me, that I have never said yet--a thing that is not love or hate or pity or scorn, but the very breath of life, fierce and coming from far away, bringing into human life the fearful passionless force of non-human things...I want to stand for life and thought--thought as adventure, clear thought because of the intrinsic delight of it along with the other delights of life."
Bertrand Russell was not only one of the eminent philosophers of the 20th century, but a social activist and a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature for his huge body of work which includes mathematics, politics and social commentaries. He led a controversial but colourful life, marrying four times in his 97 years of life.

During those students years of mind, I was immensely interested in subjects like philosophy, even though I was an engineering student and I considered Bertrand Russell, my philosophy guru. I saw philosophy as the purest form of human learning, untainted by dogma and unhindered by rituals. Like what another noted psychologist-philosopher William James said: "Philosophy is just Man thinking".

The only obstacle to learning philosophy is the fallibility of the mind itself; we tend to fall back into our old habits of thinking which inevitably restricts our understanding of the world. The greatest adventure of humankind, I think, is the adventure of the mind--"thought as adventure...because of the intrinsic delight of it".

Science, mathematics, economics and other branches of human learning are but specialized branches of philosophy. In philosophy, we attempt to understand Understanding itself. (What is Understanding?) We seek to examine the very instrument by which we examine the world--the human mind and the act of thinking.

Philosophy might not have any practical application in my present line of work. But those years studying the subject on my own have helped to polish my thinking skills and made me see thinking as an adventurous pursuit. To quote a Cartesian cliche: "Cogito ergo sum" (I think therefore I am).