Saturday, May 29, 2004

Swede Dreams

Swede Dreams

After months of blogging daily without a break, I suppose I'm entitled to a holiday every now and then. Well, the truth is, I had every intention to blog yesterday, but I was busy in the office the whole day, and in the evening I was out having dinner and drinks with my Swedish friend Johan. When I reached my apartment at Langsuan Road, it was already midnight and I was completely exhausted. I woke up late this morning and had to pack immediately to catch my afternoon flight home to KL.

And suddenly I'm in Subang Jaya, surfing the Net and blogging through my Streamyx connection, which surprisingly has not failed me for almost 3 months now.

I had an enjoyable evening with Johan eating and drinking with at Soi 4, Sukhomvit, where the famous Nana Entertainment Plaza (NEP) is. Sad to say, being the boring geeks that we were, we didn't join the rest of the farangs in their orgy of boozing and womenizing; but one thing Johan and I do enjoy is a quiet drink or two at the bar. (OK, maybe that's an understatement).

My friend, Johan is a freelance IT consultant and once upon a time, during the heady days of the dotcom boom, we used to work for the same company . I haven't met him for almost a year now, but this time a project in Bangkok brought us together again. And last night we had a sumptuous meal at a Thai restaurant in Sukhomvit and loaded ourselves with equally generous amounts of beer.

While we were happily feasting and recalling the good times we had in Hong Kong and Singapore boozing on the company's account, Johan recognized the familiar Swedish accent coming from the table next to us. There were a few Swedes with their Thai girlfriends there having dinner. Johan told me that Thailand is quite a popular holiday destination for the Swedes and there are a couple of direct flights a day from Stockholm to Bangkok.

Johan couldn't help smiling when he overhead what the Swedish guys were talking about. Later when we adjourned to another open-air bar for more drinks, we had a good laugh when Johan narrated to me what his fellow countrymen at the next table were talking about.

Apparently the Swedes--chatting in their native language--with their Thai girlfriends oblivious and smiling innocent beside them, were boasting about their sexual exploits to each other. They were detailing all the kinky acts that they subjected their Thai lovers to and how then even managed to photograph them for posterity .

It is a strange feeling--even a surreal one--living in Bangkok where every male fantasy can be easily realised. I wonder why some misguided bigots bother to slam planes into tall buildings when everything they seek for in their afterlife can be found in this earthly City of Angels.

When I slumped on my king-size bed in my apartment last night, exhausted from the day's outings, I felt perversely pleased that I was alone and had the whole bed to myself. I slept like a log and woke up this morning, still rather tired but feeling extremely glad that I was finally going home--well, at least for a week.

Friday, May 28, 2004

Stepping Stones & Stumbling Blocks

Stepping Stones & Stumbling Blocks

I'm going to write something mystical and obscure today--don't know what yet. One of the reasons why I blog daily is to remind myself of things that are important. The mind needs to be regularly "calibrated" so that it doesn't veer off course. When I'm in calibration mode, I spew out esoteric mumbo-jumbo.

Switch off the TV and let the silence envelope you. Suddenly your inner mind unfurls itself. All thoughts begin to die down, and you realise how you have been operating the whole day using only a very superficial level of your mind. There's so much more depth within which you did not bother to tap into.

All the frivolous pleasures of the senses are like a veil which obscures your perception of your Real Self--the divine nature which every one possesses. When we dive into the inner realms of our minds, we withdraw ourselves from the false bedazzlement of the world. We experience real peace.

But somehow the world of the senses has a way of seizing us, seducing us and makes us think that it is all that exists and matters. We end up associating ourselves with our body and our material possessions. We begin to take too much pride in our intelligence, our social standing and our reputation among our peers. How shallow these things are!

Intelligence is something that's higly over-rated. Intelligence, ultimately is just a tool to seek the truth. The problem begins when we become over-obsessed with tools and gadgetry that we forget why we actually acquired them in first place. A car is just a vehicle for us to get from point A to point B. If we have 20/20 vision, we'll not be bothered about wearing spectacles. Cars and spectacles, like intelligence, are just tools.

When intelligence is worn like fashion statement or bandied like a badge of honour, then something is wrong. Intelligence is a stepping stone towards the perception of Truth. But sometimes stepping stones can also turn out to be stumbling blocks.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Dinner Conversations at Cabbages & Condoms

Dinner Conversations at Cabbages & Condoms

I had an enjoyable dinner with the 3Rs at C&C today. The 3 'R's are my ex-colleagues, Rob, Ricky and Ronny (Ricky brought along his Thai mistress); C&C is Cabbages and Condoms--a popular restaurant located at Soi 12 along Sukhomvit Road. The restaurant is founded by Thailand's condom king and ex-cabinet minister, Dr Mechai Viravaidya who also has an authorized biography about his fascinating life published.

C&C serves good Thai food and is--despite its provocative name--a very respectable establishment. The tourisy feel of the place actually kind of reminds me of Seri Melayu in KL. What attracts people, especially expatriates and tourists to this restaurant is its very unique theme--birth control. The walls are decorated with informative posters of the different varieties of contraceptives, especially condoms; there's also a set of surgeon's equipment used for vasectomy on display; plus the best thing of all, every diner is offered free condoms instead of mints or fortune cookies, after his meal.

If that's not sufficient for your after-dinner night activities, you can help yourself to more at the condom tray on the way out. And mind you, these are not the cheap brands that they normally sell on the streets of Bangkok and Jakarta but good quality Durex condoms.

When men get together for dinner, what do they talk about? Women of course.

Ronny--a black American--was raving about the beauty of Cambodian women. You often hear people talk about the charms of Thai women. But Cambodian? This is the first time. I've never been to Cambodia myself, and the mention of the country's name conjures up images of Pol Pot's skull-littered killing fields.

Ronny told me that Bangkok is just a transit point for him to go to Cambodia--that's where the real paradise is. HIs unbridled enthusiasm for Cambodia made me want to learn more about the country. I immediately entered Cambodia into my mental to-find-out-more list.

From Cambodia, our conversation shifted to America--and the women there. Ricky, who is also American, was ranting about high cost of divorce in California and how the women get all legal rights to dictate things these days. Men are getting a raw deal in America. No wonder all of them flock to the Land of Smiles. Ricky's Thai mistress, sitting quietly beside him, smiled in agreement as she lovingly unwrapped another piece of pandan chicken for her prized farang.

Rob is a Singaporean, and is among the dying breed of responsible family men who do not to fool around whenever they are on business trips. He told me that it is probably best not to stay too long in Bangkok for one is exposed to so many temptations here. His remark made me recall that old Abba song...

It was a satisfying dinner. I was still humming the Abba tune in my mind when we sauntered out of the restaurant into the warm night air, our stomachs slightly churning from the spicy tomyam, heads heady from the beer and Ronny was going on and on about this fancy condom that he brought with him from the States--one that reacts chemically upon use to emit heat...

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Simple Pleasures

Simple Pleasures

I enjoy the slow leisurely walk to and from the skytrain station everyday. Takes about fifteen minutes from my apartment to the Ratchadamri station and another five minutes or so from the Chong Nonsi stop to the office. It is not an easy walk because I have to lug my 15.4 inch notebook with me and have to make a couple of steep ascends up some stairs to reach the station.

It is fun observing the hawkers doing brisk business by the roadside in the morning, selling cakes, noodles and sandwiches. I'm also beginning to believe that there are more pretty women per square foot in Thailand than anywhere else in the world.

This particular trip to Bangkok has been relatively relaxing compared to my previous one: I only leave for the office at 15 minutes to nine and arrive before 9.30am. I wish all my assignments are this cozy.

But a couple of my expatriate friends here lead an even more blissful existence: they reluctantly unwrap themselves in the morning from the arms of their Thai mistress to go to work at ten, and booze every night at the local bars until way past midnight. Perhaps if I were ten years younger, I would have been like them.

Why do I often write as if I'm so old? Why is it that I have this premature world-weariness in me? Most of those expatriate friends of mine are even older than me--they still possess the enthusiasm to party and and have fun. If it is not wine and women, what then is my idea of fun?

Maybe I'm just a passive person who enjoys observing the world from the sidelines. Or perhaps, I've taken this morbid worldview that behind every pleasure lies some hidden pain to the extreme? Or perhaps I am what I am today because of some long forgotten pain?

I really don't know. All I know now is that the simple pleasures in life mean a lot more to me now: the fresh smell of incense from the roadside shrines, a productive day of work with my clients, a quick lunch of green curry rice at the foodcourt with my Thai friends, a slow glass of Singha beer after work at the restaurant with a good book, watching Hardtalk with Tim Sebastian on BBC and finishing another blog entry for the day. What more could one ask for?

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Sunday at the Shrine

Sunday at the Shrine

In a previous life, I used to stay at the Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok whenever I come to this city on business. it is a charmingly beautiful hotel located right in the heart of Bangkok. Many businessmen also like the hotel because the discotheque at the basement is a convenient pickup joint.

But what facinates me most about the hotel is that it is located right next to one of the most religious sites in Bangkok--the Erawan Shrine, which houses the four-faced Hindu god Brahma. This small but highly revered shrine is thronged with worshippers day and night: you can see them offering incense, candles and garlands of sweetly-scented jasmine to the golden image of Brahma which sits resplendently on top of an altar, sparklingly bedecked with multi-coloured glass-tiles.

The Erawan Shrine is a wonderfully unusual sight right in the heart of capitalist Bangkok--it looks somewhat out-of-place, even anachronistic, at that busy intersection of Ratchadamri and Ratchaprasong, within sight of the mammoth Central World Plaza shopping complex, right under a dizzy swirl of skytrain tracks. But somehow , the serenity of its candles and oil-lamps seem to hold its own against the incessant attack of garish neons and traffic-lights. It looks like the last bastion of spirituality in a world abandoned to materialistic greed.

I always enjoy observing the ceaseless line of worshippers turning the small square into a mountain of garlands and incense. Yesterday I even visited the place twice--to capture the scene there on camera during the day and at night.

Even though I am not a very religious person myself, I admire people with a devotional heart. People who study religion intellectually sometimes get mired in aimless philosophical gymnastics. Clever arguments and noisy debates about religious concepts will not get anyone closer to God. Religion is ultimately an experience that is beyond words.

Ritual worship, when practised correctly, bypasses the mind and puts us directly in touch with the spiritual core within our souls. And yesterday at the Erawan Shrine, having contented myself with endless photo-shots of the shrine, I spent a couple of minutes lighting some incense and candles and offered garlands of flowers at the feet of Brahma.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

In the Mood for Movies

In the Mood for Movies

I haven't been to a movie for ages, and last night I decided to give my tired legs a rest after a whole day of loitering around the Sukhomvit area by watching a movie at the SFX cinema located at the Emporium shopping mall. The mall is connected to the Phrom Phong skytrain station, so it was a convenient last stop for me before I headed home.

For a while I couldn't decide to watch Kill Bill Volume 2 or Troy. I was a bit wary of picking Troy because I had grown a bit tired of those huge cut-and-paste battle scenes after Lord of the Rings. There have been an overdose of CGI on the silver screen lately and I was in no mood for more.

I finally decided to go for Troy because I haven't watched Volume 1 of Kill Bill yet and I didn't want to ruin the pleasure of watching the two Tarantino flicks back-to-back at some future date. Furthermore the showtime for Troy was just right for me--I didn't have to wait more than 10 minutes.

There was also another reason why I was keen to go for a movie here: I had read somewhere before that the Thai national anthem is played before the start of every movie and everyone in the audience is required to be on their feet. Well, we used to have to do that in Malaysia too after Merdeka, but it was later scrapped because no one bothered to pay our Negaraku its due respect.

But here, the Thais' love for their King and country is well-known, so I wasn't surprised when everyone duly stood up the moment the national anthem clip appeared on the screen. The entire audience--all on their feet--was treated to a two minute sequence which showed images of the peaceful Thai countryside interspersed with stills of King Bhumihol and His Majesty's adoring subjects in various philanthrophic poses. Although it's a routine thing for cinema-going Thais, that few minutes of patriotic display in the plush darkness of that ultra-modern cineplex surprisingly had a genuine air of respect and solemnity in it.

The movie that followed however showed a different breed of kings--bloodthirsty and warring ones--rulers who fought for land, power, glory and love. Despite appearing trite in certain aspects, there were some good moments in Troy and I wouldn't say I didn't enjoy it. Come to think of it, it is very rarely that do I not enjoy a movie. If you set your expectations right, very few movies would disappoint.

But the movie that I'm dying to watch--and I've waited three years for it-- just managed to make it to the Cannes. However my favourite director didn't win anything this time; it was Michael Moore who grabbed the headlines by winning the coveted Palm d'Or award with his blatantly anti-war, anti-Bush Fahrenheit 9/11. It is also encouraging to see a Thai director winning the Jury Prize: Apichatpong Weerasethakul with Tropical Malady. Would love to catch all these movies someday!

Sukhomvit Saturday

Sukhomvit Saturday

The intermittent rain kind of ruined my day a little bit; but I still managed to do some loitering along the many sois (alleys) along Sukhomvit Road. My new apartment is now conveniently located within walking distance to two BTS stations--Ratchadamri and Chit Lom. I started my morning by taking a skytrain to the Asok station, one stop away from Nana.

Close to the station I found a nice atmospheric Chinese coffeeshop along Sukhomvit which sells duck rice and noodles; the food was good but unfortunately the "kopitiam" didn't serve coffee. So, "reluctantly", I settled for a beer. The place had a good light, so I alternated between reading my book and snapping pictures of the interesting scenes around me.

The night before--Friday night--I had spent the evening snapping pictures of the nightlife along Soi 4--where Nana Plaza is. Must have been a weird sight--an Asian guy totting a camera in a farang and hooker-infested place.

Night shots are always difficult without the benefit of a tripod--the slow-shutter speed one has to employ requires a very steady hand. But I had fun, capturing the Ridley Scott-esque feel of the alley: neon-signs flickering in the distance, the rumble of the skytrain overhead, the heady plumes of smoke from the hawkers stalls, the endless parade of alluring women and the careless carousing of lecherous men everywhere.

And today, on a Saturday morning, I had wanted to see what the place looks like in the day. Spending the night and morning in the area made me understand why my American friend D. liked the place so much. There's a casual, carnival-like atmosphere here unlike those upmarket yuppie nightspots which are nothing but empty bastions of snobbery and pretense.

Over here, booze and women is everyone's right. Everything's cheap--and there's an endless supply of them. But of course, locals don't frequent these places much. These are "low-class" places suitable only for farangs. Like in Jakarta, there are places, purported more exclusive, that serve a locals-only clientele.

I'll probably need a lot more trips to Bangkok before I can claim to know the place well. There are so many more sois along Sukhomvit Road which I have yet to explore--including one known as Soi Cowboy. I'm not sure if I have the energy and enthusiasm to peek into all of them. But I'm learning--albeit slowly--and I think I'm beginning to like it a little bit better everyday.