Sunday, August 08, 2004

Business, Buddha, and a Birthday

Singapore celebrates its 39th birthday August 9th
on National Day

Apologies first and foremost for the sporadic postings. Activities at work and the relative intensity have really cranked up several notches recently. My local Singaporean teammate, who I was suppose to buddy up with and share account responsibilities, has decided to resign from the company. I knew he had become frustrated, but I had no idea he was this close to leaving when he told me over dinner in Taipei on a recent business trip. I got two days advanced warning before he turned in his formal resignation letter, as he wanted me to be the first to know, since I was the most impacted by the decision.

Singapore labor laws protect the employer and ensure a lengthy transition. Two months is the required transition period for employees who resign, so my teammate will be here through the end of September and our fiscal quarter. We have already laid out a transition roadmap of responsibilities from him to me, but I know time will rush by and he will be departing soon before I know it.

I am now the sole person in our entire APAC region driving our alliances with these software companies, and unfortunately due to cost cutting policies recently enacted, all headcount requisitions for new and replacement positions have been frozen. This means my co-worker will not be replaced for the foreseeable future. So its time to lace up tight, hunker down, and do the best that I can with the resources that I have available.

I spent a week in Bangkok the last of July attending our APAC regional face-to-face event. It was a great opportunity for me to personally meet a lot of the individuals with whom I will be working. Many of these folks were just names in an email or a voice over the phone before this meeting in Bangkok, so I found it extremely helpful since I am so new to the region. Oh sure... and having a week in Bangkok was not so bad either!

Even though we were located at a 5-star hotel with a fabulous view of the main river artery of the city, we were all locked away for the entire day and evening for classes and group dinners throughout the week. Knowing that the week would be tied down with work, I planned to stay the following weekend, so that I could visit my friends Gene and Minnie once again.

That weekend was a very special occasion in Thailand, as it was Buddhist Lent. 95% of Thailand's population is Buddhist, so this special religious holiday is very important in Thai culture. On this weekend each year, people return back to their hometowns for special religious activities with family and friends. Bangkok is near deserted as Thais jump on the bus to head back home to take part in the special prayer ceremonies at their local Buddhist temple.

I was leaving Bangkok along with the other Thais that weekend, as I was heading to Nakornsawan, which is the hometown of my friend Minnie. Gene and Minnie were spending the holiday weekend in Nakornsawan with Minnie's parents and younger brothers. I was invited to join and see first hand the sites of this central Thai town that lies on the convergence of five key rivers.

Since Gene had already left on Friday for Nakornsawan, I decided to take a bus "up country" from Bangkok. Demand for buses was extremely fierce that weekend, with everyone headed home, but I was able to land a ticket on a 2nd class bus. Now, I have traveled by bus before in Thailand, so I knew what I was getting into. Unfortunately, I was not disappointed in my very low expectations. The bus was crowded and hot, and even though it was air conditioned, the refreshing coolness coming from the air duct over-head remained cool only about an inch from the source, so the replenishing wisps of chilled air never successfully made it down to where I was sitting. Being Thailand, all the buses were designed with local passengers and their small frames in mind. There was little room for my six-foot frame and long legs, as the seat in front of me felt like it was literally in my lap. Instead, I had to angle my legs sideways out into the aisle so that I could stretch them out. The trip from Bangkok to Nakornsawan took about 3 ½ hours, so you better believe I was excited to see Gene and Minnie at the bus station at the end of my journey with a fully air-conditioned Mercedes with plenty of leg room.

From the bus station, Minnie drove directly to a temple that over-looked her city. From here you could see the main rivers of Thailand come together to create one massive flow towards Bangkok in the south. That evening, Minnie drove us to the temple for a special night time prayer ceremony. Beautiful by day, these temples (or Wat in Thai) take on a golden halo effect at night. Devotees light candles and listen to the monks recite prayers. Special offerings are collected, wrapped, and presented to the monks. Most of these items are personal effects, like toothbrushes, shampoo, or books; but almost all include food as well. Special donations are made to the temple as people can place money into differing offering statues representing different poses of Buddha. The most significant event occurs when the locals carry candles, recite prayers, and circle the perimeter of the Wat three times. The significance of the number three is represented by 1) Buddha, 2) Teachings or Buddhist scriptures, and 3) the Monks.

Minnie and her parents were so warm and friendly. Even though our respective grasp of each other's languages was not the best, you need no translation for a caring smile and hospitality. Minnie and her family showed all of these things during my visit. Her mom, like all moms across the world, was most concerned that Gene and I were eating enough. Before we knew what was happening on our visit to see her, she had run back with two plates of steaming Thai food for us to enjoy. She delighted in the fact that we were loving her cooking.

Minnie's father hosted us in his home and took us out for dinner one night. Being that it was Buddhist Lent, none of the restaurants, bars, or hotels were serving alcohol. Minnie's dad however couldn't have his guests going without a cold beer however, so when the waitress reminded him that they could not serve us drinks, he got up from the table and went over to a 7-11, where he bought 3 bottles of beer and then brought it back to the outdoor restaurant where they were promptly served. Minnie's dad is a man of action, and it was totally apparent in his quest to make us all comfortable.

Nakornsawan was a great town that keeps its small town charm. There is a night-time market that has an array of local and tasty treats. Right along the food stalls are ridiculously cheap clothing and pirated music and DVDs. Take note ladies, stylish shoes for only $9. And for the fellas, DVDs for a couple of bucks. But the thing that Gene wanted me to see most of all in Nakonsawan was a special Wat on the outskirts of town that had completely and utterly been taken over by monkeys.

When we pulled up alongside the Wat, there was a local enterprising business man who was selling food to give to the monkeys. Gene bought us all our own bag of chips and then we got out of the car only to see literally hundreds of monkeys converge onto our location. They knew that it was feeding time and no one wanted to be late for dinner. Many of the monkeys were female and had their young ones in tow. Others felt content to just hang out.

The weekend in Nakornsawan was just what I needed: Slower pace, smaller, and focused around family and simple fun. Gene spared me a return back to Bangkok on the bus, as he drove us in his car. Thailand has the highest traffic fatality rates in the world, and I can see why after traveling back to Bangkok on this holiday weekend. Gene and I saw five wrecks (luckily no one was hurt) in the 4 hour drive that usually takes Gene a little over 2 hours to complete during normal traffic. I was glad to finally be back into the safe confines of Gene's house in Bangkok and off the roads after the tiring journey.

I returned back to Singapore just in time for this weekend's festive National Day celebration, as this young country celebrates its 39th birthday on August 9th. Special parades, speeches, and firework displays are marking the occasion. I'm most pleased with the day off today and have thoroughly enjoyed my 3-day weekend. Even though Singapore leads the world in crazy signs, there is diversity in its local heritage. For example, I recently strolled through one of the city's most famous Hindu temples. When I first approached the temple, I had no idea how detailed the personas were that created its structural shape. Inside, local Hindus were enacting a ceremony with music, candles, and chanting. Just blocks away from the religious themes was Singapore's attempt to preserve what few vestiges are still left of its colonial past. Club Street comes alive at night with its unique color schemes set against its colonial shop-front exterior.

Singapore is definitely a blend of cultures, flavors, and ideas. Happy Birthday to my new Asian home!


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