Saturday, May 15, 2004

Of Backpackers, Sumatrans and Bobos

Of Backpackers, Sumatrans and Bobos

I decided to do the tourist thing today; so I visited the Royal Grand Palace where the Temple of the Emerald Buddha is. The place was completely swarmed with tourists. After one whole morning of snapping innumerable pictures of ornate Thai buildings and temple, I felt like I've had enough of it. I even did the river boat tour.

Having done that, I then decided to visit Khao San road--the backpacker's capital of Asia--since it is not that far away. The place is a grander and livelier version of Jalan Jaksa in Jakarta: lots of cheap guest houses, sidewalk cafes and the ubiquitous Mat Salleh/Farang backpackers with dusky native partners.

I downed a couple of Singhas at one of the cafes; wrote a page in my diary and decided to check into one of the Internet cafes here for some casual surfing.

And here I am with my daily cyber-diarrheoa purge. For some reason, blogging from an Internet cafe seems more fun: There's a certain immediacy to what you write; and because the clock is constantly ticking (1 baht per minute), you tend to write faster and with more spontaneity too.

I've always envied backpackers for the simple reason that I am not one. Having spent almost my entire working life with multi-nationals I'm by definition a mediocre corporate yuppie and in many ways still am. OK, maybe I'm more of a Bobo.

Most backpackers are Westerners--Americans, Europeans and Australians. I wonder why that is so. The only Asian backpackers you meet are usually Japanese or Koreans. Ironically, backpacking could be a privilege of the affluent.

I once had a conversation with a taxi driver who hailed from Padang, Sumatra in Jakarta. He told me that people from Sumatra are different from the Javanese because they have a tradition of seeking their fortunes away from their homeland--"berkelana". A boy only becomes a man and gains in stature only after he has ventured away from his hometown to see the world.

He could be right. Like what I've written in a previous entry, the first person to circumnavigate the globe could be Enrique, Magellan's Malay slave. And according to Magellan's official chronicler Pigafetta, Enrique El Negro(Henry the Black) was born in "Zamatra" (Sumatra).

Business travel is the anti-thesis of backpacking. The former emphasizes luxury and convenience, the latter adventure and a shoe-string budget.

Which is more fun? I suppose Bobos like me would want to have the adventure of backpacking but with all comforts of business travel. Pathetic.

Thoughts on a Friday Night in Bangkok

Thoughts on a Friday Night in Bangkok

Blogging on a Friday night in Bangkok--I seriously need a life. Now, what lame excuses do I have for locking myself up in my apartment when the rest of the town is out partying?

1. too tired and lazy
2. looks like it's going to rain
3. lack of interest

I think number 3 is the most likely reason and probably the most disturbing one too. Why do I not feel any excitement being in Bangkok? The nightlife here is world famous, things are cheap and people are so friendly. As a bachelor, I also have the license to party without guilt--something which many of my married friends are envious of.

Interestingly I find that my married friends are the ones who are the most keen to paint the town red everytime they go on a business trip. Perhaps it takes a caged animal to appreciate the pleasures of the jungle.

In Jakarta, the locals always tell me that the ratio of women to men is something like seven to one. I don't believe the figure is really true but it doesn't matter; the point they are trying to make to me is that, no man (straight, that is) should be without a woman in Jakarta--especially expatriates who are supposed to be "rich".

Why I remained unattached throughout my two years in Jakarta boggled their minds. Ibu Titi almost made me choke on my food when she asked me one day, rather seriously: "Do you like women?"

I had to assure her that I'm 100% straight and I really do like women. To convince her, I rattled off names of some female celebrities whom I do find attractive: Sophia Latjuba, Lola Amaria, Rachel Maryam and Shanty.

But why then do I choose to remain unattached?

That's a million dollar question that warrants a lengthy blog entry by itself. And it is certainly a subject that I wouldn't be keen to write about on a Friday night in Bangkok...

Friday, May 14, 2004

Nature's Perfect Accounting System

Nature's Perfect Accounting System

If you do good work, you will always be rewarded. To me that's an inviolable law of nature. Nature has a perfect accounting system--rewards will always come, no matter what, sooner or later, and in forms that you do not always expect.

We feel frustrated sometimes because we think rewards are not always forthcoming. We do well in a task and we expect praise from our bosses or to be given public recognition or some form of financial compensation. If for some reason that doesn't happen, we feel unappreciated. That's a perfectly normal reaction--we work our asses off for our company and we expect to enjoy some form of tangible reward, if not gratitude.

I try not to be unduly perturbed if my hardwork is not always recognized. Why should our own happiness be tied to some other people's approval or acknowledgement? To me the successful completion of a task is already reward enough: to be able to see your creative ideas and your labour bearing fruit is already such great joy. The experience of accomplishing a difficult task is immediately a reward in itself. You learn something from it and no one can take that away from you. You are forever richer by your experience. Any praise, recognition or monetary compensation is just added bonus.

There's nothing wrong in wanting recognition if it genuinely gives us pleasure and motivates us to work harder. Subconsciously all of us will seek that. Unfortunately we tend to become a slave to it. When that happens, our happiness is no longer within our own control: you need other people's approval before you can be happy.

Sometimes it is us who do not know how to recognize the indirect rewards that come our way. You see, rewards do not necessarily have to come in an explicit form. When people trust and respect you more because of your work, that is already a form of recognition. You win true friends in the process; and true friends will always stick with you through thick and thin. Instead of immediate returns, you gain an asset that appreciates in value over time.

Call it karma or what you may: good work will always be rewarded. It is an axiomatic law that I have complete faith in. Why worry? Just focus on doing good work and let God do the accounting. God knows exactly what is the best investment portfolio for you.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Hero Housekeeper

Hero Housekeeper

Haven't been doing much in Bangkok so far besides going to the office to work. At the recommendation of a friend, I have been staying at a luxurious serviced apartment, even though I would have preferred a cheap 3-star hotel somewhere in the middle of town.

Most people prefer apartments because it is more spacious and there's a kitchenette for you to cook if you want to. But I never bother to cook--it's too much hassle. Eating at the hawker stalls by the roadside is a lot more fun. Maybe it's not so healthy but I've survived like this for almost two decades now.

The other thing I'm not so fond about apartments is that it is unnecessarily big. Living alone, I don't need so much space. In my old hotel room in Jakarta, everything was within "arm's length". In a serviced apartment, if I need a drink of water, I'll have to get up and walk all the way to the kitchen. And when I go to bed at night, I have to walk to every corner of the apartment to switch off all the lights.

It is also easier to orientate yourself to your new environment when you check into a hotel because all hotel rooms are almost the same. Serviced apartments are different. You'll have to rummage through every cabinet and drawer in the kitchen to find the simplest thing such as a glass. Typically these apartment complexes are also huge--it takes a while before you even know how to find your way back to your apartment. In US, they'll always give you a map so that you can drive and park right in front of your apartment block.

Long-term guests in hotels can negotiate for free daily laundry service. In serviced apartments, they usually don't entertain such requests. If you don't like to use their expensive laundry service, you'll have to do it yourself at their coin-operated laundrette.

One would have thought that living in such a pampered environment, one becomes a bit spoilt. But strangely I find myself becoming a tidier person after years of living in a hotel. Because there's less space available for you to keep your things, you refrain from keeping to much stuff. The amount of personal belongings--usually unnecessary-- tends to increase with the space you have.

Housekeepers often tell me that they like cleaning my room because there's nothing much for them to do. They didn't know that I always try to make it easier for them by not messing up the place too much--it actually makes me uncomfortable to know that someone else has to clean up my mess later.

I'm never good at housekeeping work, so I appreciate housekeepers very much. They keep my life in order. A good one is always unobtrusive--they do their work when you are not around and when you come home, everything is already in a state of perfection. Housekeepers are my heroes. I know so many men whose lives have turned upside down because they decided to get married when all they needed in first place was a good housekeeper :-)

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Alcohol Zoo

Alcohol Zoo

We might be seeing "Chang" instead of "Carlsberg" being emblazoned on the red shirt of the Liverpool team next season. Chang together with Singha are two most popular brands of local beer in Thailand. With PM Thaksin about to seal his deal to take up a 30% stake in the Liverpool football club, there are rumours that Beer Thai--the local company that produces the Chang Beer--is interested to sponsor the Liverpool team next season. The company started as a JV with Calsberg but that partnership came to an end recently. Chang is currently the best selling beer in Thailand with over 70% market-share, usurping the previous leader Singha.

"Chang" is the Thai word for elephant--similar to the Chinese one. It is interesting to note that most popular beer brands are named after animals: Singha (Lion) and Tiger are other examples. Even Guinness Stout, is referred to as "Bulldog" in Malaysia and Singapore.

In Indonesia, Bintang, Anker and Bali Hai are the popular beer brands. Stouts seem not to be so popular--I always have difficulty ordering it, especially in the more seedy pubs. Furthermore, the waiters here will have a hard time understanding you if you pronounce it as "sta-out". Try "stoot" instead. Or better still, say "bir hitam" (black beer).

I must admit to being a bit of a beer-guzzler; I'll always order one to go with my meal whenever I'm in Bangkok and Jakarta. Unfortunately (or fortunately) it's a bit too expensive for me to do so in KL. Nothing beats a nice cool beer after a hard day's work. I'm also fond of "warm stout" --unchilled Guinness Stout. Come to think of it, I'm fond of most alcoholic drinks.

People always say that one shouldn't mix drinks over a boozing session--you end up getting drunk very easily. Well, to me, it doesn't matter--alcohol is alcohol. Give me the whole menagerie--tigers, bulldogs, lions, elephants and what-have-you--I'll down them anytime. *hic*

Monday, May 10, 2004

The Land of Smiles Again

The Land of Smiles Again

I opted for an AirAsia flight to Bangkok this time and my round trip ticket costs me only a third of what I used to pay--even though I booked rather late. It was my first time taking this budget airline and the overall experience was quite pleasant; service by the cabin crew was especially good.

Looks like I'm getting myself another opportunity to continue my education about Thailand--a country which I must admit to being quite ignorant about. For some reason I am always swarmed with work everytime I'm here and I've never really had an opportunity to sample the real Bangkok. Not sure if this trip is going to be the same again.

Some of my friends--especially the Mat Salleh/bule/farang/angmoh/gweilo expatriates--have a ball of a time living in Bangkok. At least one married a go-go bargirl. They have recently been blessed with child and are living together in Singapore now. I love happy endings like this.

Come to think of it, I don't know of any male expatriate here who does not have a local mistress. A good friend of mine--a married man with wife and kids back in the US--actually has two fulltime Thai mistresses. I asked him how he is able to manage three relationships in his life when experience tells me even one is a big headache.

He told me that he has a simple formula: Woman No.1 of course must not know anything at all about No. 2 and No. 3; but No. 2 has be told about No.1 from the very beginning; and finally No.3 must be informed of the existence of the other two. That way, you avoid a lot of problems.

Even though I have my doubts as to whether the formula can be applied ad infinitum, so far it seems to be working well for my friend. I'll have catch up with him again to see if he has recently increased the size of his harem. They don't call this the Land of Smiles for no reason.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

The Bobo Generation

The Bobo Generation

David Brooks book Bobos in Paradise is a hilarious account about the new upper middleclass which he calls Bourgeous Bohemians or "Bobos".

According to Brooks, once upon a time, it used to be easy to distinguish between the bourgeoisie and the bohemians: the former were square, practical, elitist and they represented the traditional boring middle-class morality; the bohemians on the other hand were free unconventional free spirits--rebels, artists, hisppies, beatniks and intellectuals who enjoyed flouting convention. These were two opposing lifestyles. Each group have a certain contempt for the other.

Today we find a new breed of class called "Bobos". Bobos in Brooks' words are "highly educated folk who have one foot in the bohemian world of creativity and another foot in the bourgeois realm of ambition and worldly success". And signs of this new phenomenon of Boboism are everywhere.

In some ways, this class of Bobos sprang from the bohemians of the sixties who have finally grown up, and achieved a measure of bourgeois respectability but yet refuse to admit that they have betrayed their former values. So they have infused bourgeois institutions with bohemian sensibilities.

This Boboism is most evident in the taste of consumers today. Bohemians showed their solidarity with the working class by choosing to live a life of poverty; Bobos today tend to spend huge amounts of money on things that used to be cheap. One of the rules of Bobo "financial correctness" is that one should never spend lavish amounts on luxuries but by all means, spend lavishly on "necessities".

So we end up sipping coffee at Starbucks instead of the traditional Chinaman kopitiam. We attire ourselves in designer workman clothes which used to be fit to be worn only by the neighbourhood mechanic or plumber. (we needed those pockets to stuff our latest Sony Clie PDA and Samsung camera phone). Spending a fortune on a executive leather briefcase is vulgar but lugging our Centrino notebooks in an equally expensive designer camouflage backpack is cool.

Home furnishings shouldn't hint at any aristocratic opulence but should instead have the patina of peasantry. The rough natural look is in. We don't seem to mind paying a premium for textures and veins. The same thing goes with our diet: we jostle with the weekend crowd at upmarket malls to replenish our ration of fibre and organic food--things we used to grow in our backyard under Tun Abdul Razak's Rancangan Buku Hijau. As David Brooks put it, "unrefined sugar is now considered by many to be the height of refinement".

There's nothing wrong in being a Bobo; it is just a reflection of the times. We are becoming a more affluent and educated society and have gotten a bit comfortable with our middleclass luxuries--yet we do not want to abandon the bohemian idealism of our youth. In the end, we end up living a lifestyle that attempts to fuse the best of both worlds. Most of us, in one way or another, are Bobos. It is fun to laugh at ourselves a bit and learn to acknowledge and perhaps even celebrate, our Bobohood.