I heart UNIQLO

Despite being married to a fashion designer, I am not much of a fashionista. There are many reasons for this from having a practical bent to have a body shape and size that doesn’t lend itself to the skinny lines of most men’s fashion. So I generally do not enjoy clothes shopping. But the exception to this is shopping at UNIQLO.

The fourth biggest fashion brand globally, Uniqlo (pronounced “uni-glow”) is a Japanese casual wear chain wholly owned by Fast Retailing Co. Ltd. The experience I get shopping at Uniqlo reminds me of what I enjoyed about The Gap in the mid-1990s. So it was no surprised to learn that the brand, with a history that goes back only to 1984, specifically set out to emulate elements of The Gap in the late 1990s.

While their presence in the United States and Canada is limited to the largest cities, Uniqlo operates more than 2,200 stores globally with the largest presence in East and Southeast Asia. The clothing is moderately priced, well-constructed, on-trend but not to the point where something you buy will look out of date in a year. The range of outfits and styles is limited, so you don’t feel overwhelmed with choices.

What I like best, though, is that even here in Thailand, they offer clothes I can fit in. In Asia, sizes run smaller. What might be a size L in the United States is often a 2XL in Thailand and is often not available at all. At Uniqlo, for all except their skinny-fit pants (I am never going to be a skinny fit), I fit into an XL. I was pleasantly surprised to find some summer shorts this weekend that not only fit, but fit quite comfortably.

Here’s to the joy of finding clothes that fit, that you feel comfortable in, and that you feel are at least reasonably fashionable! Are you familiar with Uniqlo? What has your experience with them been like?

Running around the block

https://graphics.reuters.com/world-coronavirus-tracker-and-maps/countries-and-territories/thailand/

Wave three of COVID-19 has arrived in Thailand. Our infection and death rates per million are significantly below many other nations, but after the B.1.617 variant (the so called “Indian variant”) reached Thailand despite our borders ostensibly being closed, our earlier good fortune of few infections gave way to the realization that Thais are susceptible to COVID after all.

While generally compliant with mask mandates, many let their guard down after a year and ill-advised gatherings at illicit pubs and “entertainment venues” in the hi-so Thong Lor neighborhood were super-spreader events that ushered in wave three, just before the Songkran holiday in mid-April. The government, perhaps loath to cancel the Songkran for a second consecutive year, thousands of Bangkok’s upper crust traveled to Phuket, Chiang Mai and other holiday destinations. Large, mostly unmasked gatherings there helped spread the virus across the kingdom and then, the newly infected returned to spread the virus further across Bangkok.

A month and a half later, we are in a partial lockdown. Restaurants operate at one-quarter capacity with only one guest to be seated at each table. They close early for dine-in and no alcohol is served. The borders are still closed except for those with Certificates of Entry from the Thai government (in addition to visas and other paperwork) who undergo a 15-night quarantine regardless of their vaccination status. I’ll talk more about that in an upcoming post.

To top it off, among the restrictions has been the closure of gyms (understandable) and public parks (less so). This means my running, my preferred form of exercise, is now done on the sois of Bangkok in the pre-dawn darkness.

As the sky gradually lightens, I run in the street as it is still a bit safer than running on the footpaths, which are inconsistently leveled and often have obstacles (tree stumps, anyone?) and loose pavers that will give way and twist your ankle.

I take different routes, exploring familiar corners of the neighborhood I pass by frequently in a car as well as hidden troks, the narrow lanes that weave behind temples, along canals, and in areas not accessible to vehicles with four wheels. It is a chance to see more about the neighborhoods along the middle of Sukhumvit Road.

One of the more fascinating aspects of this part of Bangkok is its socioeconomic diversity. To be clear, the part of Sukhumvit Road stretching from Asoke (Sukhumvit 21) to Pridi Banomyong (Sukhumvit 71) – a five-kilometer stretch – is the wealthiest section of Bangkok. But behind the malls, high-rise luxury condos, nightclubs, Michelin-starred restaurants, and import car dealerships, you find these pockets of everything from modest 1960s-era apartments to slums and cramped construction worker shacks, the last of which have facilitated the rapid spread of COVID-19.

The four-story shop houses, which were the staple of the main streets, continue to give way to 30-, 40- and 50-story condo towers, many of which have prices starting at US$6,000 per square meter (10 square feet) and going much, much higher. In the past two years, the government finally instituted an annual property tax, although they are giving a 90% discount off the already low tax rate. Under-utilized land is taxed at a higher rate so, as you see in the picture above, vacant land is being planted with lime or banana trees, to be classified as an agricultural use while the owners await the opportunity to otherwise develop it.

One recent addition on Ekkamai Road, a hot spot for nightlife, is the addition of a privately-run multi-story car park, the first I recall seeing in this area. Given how car-centric Bangkok is, this is probably a good idea and may perhaps some of the annoying parking that clogs narrow sois and alleys.

There are pockets of culture to be found. This narrow khlong that cuts through the back part of the neighborhood between Thong Lor and Ekkamai roads, has provided a canvas for graffiti artists, something that was rare when I moved here in 2005 but now seems more common and, frankly, in many cases quite sophisticated. The water, though, is dreadful and I can imagine that the neighbors keep their windows closed even when the weather turns a bit more pleasant in the winter.

Hidden next to the 150-year old khlong Saen Saeb, one of the oldest canals in Bangkok, is the charming Wat Pasi (or “tax temple”). It is popular with locals and has unique square-shaped main building that looks much more like a mosque than the typically steeply-pitched red tiled roof on a Buddhist temple. The temple is actually very close to a large Muslim population and about five minutes along the canal, you will find Khlongtan Central Mosque or Masjid Jamiah al-Islam, a prominent mosque in this area.

Interestingly, in the last few years, Wat Pasi has undergone this redecoration with this tree trunks (real trees!) shipped here and set up to create a faux-forest scene. I’m unclear why the trees needed to be cut down instead of new trees being planted.

Anyhow, the chance to run around the neighborhood helps me see more of the area, appreciate the range of lives and lifestyles that are here, many of which are largely invisible to me unless I go looking for them.

A Hazy Shade of Winter in Bangkok

The past few weeks have been pleasantly (relatively) cool here in Bangkok. The occasional dawn temperature of about 18c although highs have still be in the low 30s.

There was a cold front pushing down from China, strong winds that kept the skies crystal clear, so clear you could even see a few stars at night – a rarity in light-saturated Bangkok.

Then the winds stopped and an inversion layer set in, trapping the pollution and suspending it in the humid tropical air. This morning, I drove in the dark to Rama IX Park and the view the whole way reminded me of driving in the fog of my native San Francisco.

By the time I arrived at the park, I was wondering whether it was a good idea to run. Stretching out and warming up, I captured the above image. All the lights had been turned off already except for one bright flood light in a parking lot across the park.

The light beams cut through the filter of the pollution, streaming between branches and backlighting runners who looked like zombies moving in the misty distance.

The temperature was pleasant and I decided to run. It was my fastest run in nearly a year, 5 km in 35 minutes. Not a record setting pace but good for me. By the end, though, I could feel the irritation in my lungs, the soreness in my throat, and the burning in my sinuses. No doubt, the air was not fit for strenuous exercise.

Hopefully, in a few days the inversion layer will break and the air quality will improve. Until then, indoor exercise only.

Bangkok in Rainy Season

For nearly six months of the year, from May through October, Thailand experiences the monsoon season. It has its own rhythms, its own challenges and its own joys.

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Much of the time, rainy season days are humid in the morning as the pavement dries out after overnight rain. The skies are mostly blue and the fresh air provides no filter to the sunlight, which bakes anyone unfortunately enough to be outside the shade like ants under the magnifying glass of a cruel, petulant child.

As the day progresses, cumulonimbus clouds build like fluffy albino cotton candy reaching into the stratosphere. They darken over the afternoon, their shade growing ever more menacing. Often, one half of the sky will still be sunny and blue while the other half will be an advancing, sheer wall of dark grey.

Once the wind picks up, you know that it is just a matter of minutes – at most a half-hour – before the rain starts to fall. Often, this happens in a fierce opening of the heavens, fire hoses turned on full force, a deluge turning roads to canals and canals to lakes. The torrent can just as rapidly cease, leaving the temperatures considerably cooler and, if the clouds vanish, the stars clearly visible even in a city with so much light pollution.

Sometimes, though, the rain stays around at varying degrees of intensity, snarling traffic, stranding pedestrians and leaving behind flooded sois (alleys) that take hours to drain. Thankfully, this does not happen too often and when it does, you just alter your plans and either stay in (if you were caught at home) or stay out (if you had not yet made it home).

Patience is called for.

The joy of rainy reason comes in the moderately cooler weather – each degree of reduction is appreciated – and the breezes. This year, while our rainfall has been heavy, there has been minimal flooding. The greatest joy of rainy season is the cool season that follows it, though.

A Milestone and a Fork in the Road

Exactly ten years ago – November 1, 2005 – I arrived in Bangkok as an expat. After five years of visiting regularly and a bit more than a year after Tawn moved back after completing his studies in the United States, I moved here.

The Road Less Traveled

Shortly after moving, I met another expatriate American. In response to the most frequently asked question, he replied that he had been here three years. I was astounded and couldn’t imagine living here so long. In the years to come, I met expats who have lived in Thailand for twenty, thirty, and even more than forty years. Now that I have reached the decade mark, those lengthy tenures do not seem as unimaginable!

November 1, 2015 is not just a milestone date, it is also a fork in the road. As the recently-departed baseball legend Yogi Berra is quoted as saying, “When you reach a fork in the road, take it!” Today marks my official start in my new job as a regional training manager for the world’s largest market expansion services company, DKSH.

As is my habit, I will not write in my blog in any detail about my job or my employer. Those specifics are not for public consumption. Let me just say that in my new role, I will be traveling extensively throughout the Asia-Pacific region to create and implement strategic leadership development programs.

In the final weeks in my previous role, I’ve had clients, colleagues, and direct reports share stories and thank me for the work I have done. Relating these experiences to my mother and sister, both of whom are teachers, I realize that the work I do is akin to their profession. The opportunity to help another person to more fully reach their potential is a humbling privilege. It is also enormously rewarding.

Passion and purpose are crucial to a sense of fulfillment and meaning in life. I’m honored to have met each of these people over the last two years as a consultant and I cherish what we have learned from each other. Our relationships will be part of a larger network in the years to come.

And now that I have reached that fork in the road, I am taking it. I move boldly and confidently in a new direction, knowing that new adventures and opportunities await and realizing that, when looked at from enough distance, there is really only one road and it really is the journey itself that is important.

 

Rainy Season Finally Arrives

This has been an unusually dry monsoon season in Thailand. So much so, that much of the country has been suffering from drought. September is typically the rainiest month by far, and true to form, it brought relief from the dry weather.

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For the most part, the rains have been tolerable. Sometimes heavy, but none of the severe flooding that torrential monsoon rains are known for. Our soi (small street) is prone to flooding after as little as 30 minutes of heavy rain. So far, there has been no need to put on the waders!

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The thing I like best about the rainy season is the cloudy, overcast weather. It amazes me, how much cooler the temperatures are when we are not baking in the direct sun. This time of year is also breezy, which helps keep temperatures more tolerable.

Now that October has arrived, the rains should decrease in frequency and by November, the relatively cooler “cool season” will arrive. This coincides with the start of a new job, which I will take as an auspicious sign.

 

Thinglish: Level Up

Level_Up“Thinglish” is a portmanteau of “Thai” and “English”, describing the odd mixture of languages that you encounter as an expat here. One of the words that keeps catching my ear is “level up” which, the more I think about it, is quite an elegant word.

The meaning, as you might expect, is the same as the cumbersome “increase the level of” as in, “We need to increase the level of skill in their leadership capability.” But that is an awkward phrasing. My colleagues will instead say something like, “We need to level up their leadership capability skills.”

Before writing this post, I did some research and learned that “level up” is actually a gaming term, meaning “To progress to the next level of player character abilities, often by acquiring experience points in role-playing games.” Which, come to think of it, does sound a bit like the leadership development we do!

There is no shortage of opportunities to re-learn the English language when you live in a country where it isn’t the primary language. But that’s a good thing: it keeps your mind elastic!

Making Everywhere More the Same

There is a dynamic tension when you move abroad. You celebrate what is different about your new home. At the same time, you miss things about what you left behind. After more than nine years living in Thailand, a conversation with a Thai friend who is considering returning to Bangkok after a long time in the United States, made me realize that everywhere is becoming more similar.

As I put it to him, “In the nine years I have lived in Bangkok, I have gone from really missing many things about living in the United States, to now being able to find most of those things here.” The obvious exception being family and friends who still live back there.

But when it comes to brands, foods, and treats that I used to think of as specific to one area or another, more of those items are available in most major cities around the globe.

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Pinkberry is a Los Angeles-based frozen yogurt chain whose loyal customers’ cult-like adoration of the brand is similar to what you see when Krispy Kreme donuts opens in a new corner of the world. (Which happened here two years ago…)

I really like Pinkberry and enjoy getting some when I am back in California. No longer must I wait for a trip to the United States, though, as the first Pinkberry opened a few weeks ago at Central Chidlom mall in Bangkok. Certainly more branches will follow.

Harrods, Eric Kaiser, Fauchon, Laduree, Isetan, Uniqlo, Gap, Starbucks, Din Tai Fung, Krispy Kreme, Bon Chon, Muji, and now Pinkberry. The list of items you miss from home gets shorter and shorter as more and more of those items become available here. And that’s not to mention the items like tasty southern-style barbecue or European-style bread that is available from local providers.

That is a good thing, from a quality of living standpoint. But it causes me to wonder if there isn’t a downside to the ease and convenience with which I can get previously-regional items anywhere across the globe.

Does a place become a little less special when the local specialties are now available across the globe? Do we become a little more spoiled when an increasing number of our desires can be fulfilled, no matter where we are? And at some level, does “place” cease to matter?

No easy answers to those questions, but they are worth asking.

Coup Deux – Come Visit

Thailand is a country that likes its “collect stamps” cards. Patronize a business ten times and get a free coffee, or the like. When it comes to coups d’etat, it seems to have a similar proclivity. Depending on your count, this is the 17th, 18th, or 19th coup since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. For me, I have collected two “coup stamps”. After my fifth, I get a free t-shirt.

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The last coup was in 2006. A link to some of my entries about it is here. As for why Thailand has so many coups, there is an interesting article here. And if you want some insight into what is going on and what the next steps may be, the Economist has a useful article here.

As soon as the coup happened, and even when martial law was announced two days earlier, I was flooded with messages from friends who were worried for my safety. Thank you to everyone for your concern, but I’m afraid the important message is this:

Keep Calm

The words “coup” and “martial law” seem to prompt a visceral response, aided and abetted by the media showing close-up photos of soldiers, protesters, and political violence. In reality, the political violence over the last six months has been limited – only 28 people killed. Not to minimize the importance of that loss of life, but we regularly have bus crashes on the road here that take that many lives.

Considering the size of the country, and even the size of the city, political violence in Thailand is not sufficient reason to be alarmed or for governments to issue travel alerts warning their citizens not to travel to Thailand.

The last thing this country needs is for its economy (which is teetering on the edge of recession) to be further damaged by tourists staying away. It is an excellent time to visit the country – the weather in the early summer has cooled a bit from the Songkhran highs but the full monsoon has not yet arrived. Plus, hotel prices are amazingly low because… well, because of the political unrest.

I would ask you to help me be a de facto ambassador for Thailand. As you hear people talk about the country, let them know that your friend Chris lives there and assures them it is okay to visit. And, if anyone you know is considering travel here, urge them to come! They can always contact me for recommendations!

 

Songkhran Splashing

As mentioned in my previous entry, last weekend was the Songkhran holiday or Thai new year’s. This actually isn’t an exclusively Thai event; it is celebrated under different names across of swath of countries in Southeast Asia.

Every year there is an outpouring of nostalgia for the “traditional” forms of celebration – bathing the Buddha statues and gently pouring water on the hands of others as a new year’s blessing. The Bangkok Post disabused readers of these sentimental longings by printing a selection of archival pictures, showing rough-and-tumble water play dating back to the 1950s at least.

This picture, taken just in front of my condominium complex, shows a fairly typical Songkhran scene:

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People set up small outposts in front of their houses with buckets of water, hoses, water guns, or a combination thereof. There is usually music blaring loudly, snacks, and alcohol. People dance around and splash each other and other passers by.

There are also pickup trucks loaded with revelers, usually with a large bucket of water in the back. Sometimes large blocks of ice float in the water, adding a special thrill to the experience. There is usually most loud music and, frequently, alcohol. The trucks drive around the neighborhoods so the passengers can engage in water wars with the people partying in front of their houses.

This is all done in the spirit of good fun, although sometimes it isn’t as fun for those who want to pass by without a soaking. Many revelers take aim at passing motorbikes, leading to accidents as the drivers try to avoid a soaking and lose control, crashing. In some areas of town or on some smaller roads, the caravan of pickup trucks brings traffic to a crawl. And of course with the alcohol, the water, and the number of people dancing about in the back of a pickup truck, there are unfortunate falls.

I won’t be the grumpy farang who complains about the Songkhran celebrations, though. They are what they are. Hopefully, over time, greater awareness will be paid to safer ways to celebrate and the high rate of accidents and deaths over this period will diminish. In the meantime, though, this is undeniably a part of the Thailand experience.