Saturday, 28 February 2009

Wonder of Wonders

It was 28 years ago that I last made a visit to Bangkok but here I was, cocooned inside an air-conditioned limousine, proceeding at pace down the freeway between the airport and the city centre.

In the early 80's this trip would have taken a good two hours, bumper to bumper, sweating and swearing at the never ending traffic jams. By comparison today's journey is a breeze, albeit a fairly sticky breeze, as the sun in Thailand is intense and manages to infiltrate into the passenger compartment despite the tinted glass.

A word about the new Suvarnabhumi aiport in Bangkok. According to one report, visitors still flock to marvel at its "airy and futuristic structure designed by German architect Helmut Jahn, featuring an oval-shaped concourse, energy-efficient temperature control systems, and several superlatives in airport construction".

Futuristic it may be but the hard Teutonic steel walkways reminds me of looking under the hood of a Volkswagen Beetle - very efficient without any endearing warmth at all.

Yes, there are now automated walkways which the old airport never had, but you need to move quickly as one feels like a hot house tomato and the cloth 'sails' that sheath sections of the roof do little to dissipate the noon day sun.

For my money Singapore's Changi airport still wins hands down. It seems more welcoming and less severe than the Thai pretender.

The final section into the city was chaotic as the main arterial routes converged and tuk tuks and scooters weaved their way and forth through the traffic.

My abiding memory from my first visit to Bangkok was the warmth and friendliness of the Thai people and they have retained this attribute. Their service ethic is faultless and they go out of their way to make the visitor welcome.

I stayed at the Pathumwan Princess Hotel at 444 Phayathai Road, Wangmai, Pathumwan. With number '444' I expect many Chinese think twice about staying as '4' is regarded as an unlucky number, but I had no such qualms. It proved to be an excellent place all round and I would strongly recommend it to any business or private traveller. The hotel is completely non smoking - thank goodness!

As ASEAN was meeting in Bangkok at the time of my visit security was tight with a gauntlet of metal detecting devices, people with mirrors on poles looking at the underneath of every car and frequent bag searches.

On the day of my departure I noticed the hotel security staff where keeping a close eye on a large group of young people crowding the entrance, all wearing mauve T shirts. Given that down the road red shirted, anti government protesters wear laying siege to Government House I mistook this group as a splinter group of the same movement.

Not so. It transpired that a South Korean girl pop group, the Wonder Girls (where do they get these titles?) where about to arrive at my hotel and this welcoming party was the Thailand fan club.

I was tempted to say them "I was a drummer in a rock band a decade or so ago would you like my autograph while you are waiting" although I very much doubt there would have been any takers. So rather than making any comment at all I dragged my small suitcase through the throng and departed, by the same limousine that had brought me to the hotel the day before.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Jackie's Gift & Purple Haze

When Jimmy Hendrix wrote Purple Haze I am sure he had Singapore in mind. We have been mercifully free from this form of pollution in recent months, but over the past two weeks the smudged ring around the sun has signalled the return of the haze.

I have written about this problem before so will not burden the reader with another rendition. Suffice to say, the Indonesians take the money and run. They gladly accept foreign aid to tackle the problem of their farmers and plantation companies having massive burn-offs of vegetation but very little progress is made in actually combating this problem.

Jackie Chan is well known to movie fans around the world for his action films. He is a man with an interesting life story and I remember reading his biography when I first came to Singapore. While not a native of this country he has a huge following here, as well as in Hong Kong and China. Jackie in turn really enjoys Singapore and has significant property investments here. This week has made the country a very generous donation of heritage houses which he has stored in a Hong Kong warehouse and they are purportedly worth more than $S100 million.

The gift hasn't gone down well with the Hong Kong'ers (or "honkies" as they often referred to in Singapore) who perceive Singapore as having taken what should be rightfully their's to display.

This is a wonderful gift to the new university that the government is planning to open here, ironically on the very site of the failed UNSW Asia campus in Changi. Coming as I did to Singapore in 2006 to work for this defunct operation (which turned out to be a great Australian con job), I am delighted to see that the new university will have Jackie's heritage gift at its cultural heart.

As for those too young to know Hendrix, here is a video of the guitar maestro in action. But why oh why did we wear those terrible military uniform cast-offs back then!

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

An Ant-i-Climax

Alighting from the bus this morning at the bottom of Tanglin Road I stood inadvertently on a column of industrious ants.

I couldn't help that this action was a rather compressed metaphor for the futility of modern economics and impact of the world wide recession currently being felt by Singaporeans.

Singapore has been very diligent and prudent in its economic management in past decades, building up huge reserves in the process. Now through fault of their own, but largely as a result of greedy financiers and major countries living well beyond their means, this country finds itself facing very challenging times.

There is no doubt in mind that Singapore will weather the storm and given its continued investment in research and top talent will survive and thrive in the years ahead.

The government here is fast-tracking many public development schemes to keep the economy ticking over and there has been a significant increase in social welfare spending, although it is not directly termed as such and should not be confused with the Western model of the nanny welfare state.

The Thaipusam festival was celebrated this past weekend and to outsiders is best remembered for its devotee’s predilection for sticking sharp metal skewers through their skin and walking lengthy distances supporting highly colourful structures called Kavadis.

This Hindu religious festival reminds me of another revelation in the local media during the week. More and more Singaporeans are seeking solace in religion as the recession bites. Evidently the same trend has emerged in the USA where the occupancy of church pews has taken a sharp turn for the better.

This search for answers draws me back to my encounter with the ants. No matter how many are stood on, they collectively keep on going for the welfare of all. There's a lesson to be learnt there.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Making Compost And The Full Monty

The news from Singapore this week has been a mixed bag. The most scandalous headline has been the revelation that an expatriate male and his "Japanese looking" woman partner divested themselves of their clothes and walked unencumbered through the expat enclave of Holland Village.

Whatever drove them to think that their fellow diners would enjoy such 'entertainment' is beyond me. However the act clearly had its novelty value, as on the return journey (yes, not content with walking one way they then decided to retrace their steps) many of the local were ready with their cell phone and digital cameras to catch the action.

Quite apart from the fact that to doing the "Full Monty" in a public space in Singapore is regarded as lewd act and carries a court appearance with it, the couple in question clearly had not read the second article that caught my eye in this week's Straits Times - the increasingly prevalence of skin cancer.

New Zealanders and Australians do not need to be reminded of this deadly skin disease but many Singaporeans are blissfully unaware of the consequences even though more and more of them are falling victim to it.

While on the subject of victims, the Sunday paper today covered do-it-yourself tips to help locals weather the worst effects of the recession.

At first glance several of these DIY activities provide tremendous possibilities.

After I have finished making my own muesli bars I may wish to shave my head. To do this I need to but a set of hair clippers priced between $45 and $119 - which rather defeats the purpose really as I could buy a packet of muesli bars on special at NTUC for $4 and my hairdresser would gladly shave my head (what's left of it to shave) for $20.

Other practical advice included 'how to make a cake' and in the section below it, 'how to make compost', presumably using the cake in question after it fails to rise in the oven.

Jesting aside, it is revealing that such advice is needed as I learn to make a cake by age six and the compost heap at the bottom of my childhood garden was a source of mystery, earth worms and pungent odours.

I realise of course that many Singaporeans rarely cook and making their own cakes and muesli bars is something they would not have considered before these hard economic times set in.

As for the compost making, I just hope my condo neighbours haven't been reading the same article and are not out measuring our common access way for a plastic bin.

River Sculpture - Singapore

I always enjoy this sculptural piece because of its implied movement. As clever work and ideally suited for the location, reflecting life as it used to be on the Singapore River