Forester in Asia 2018: Days 5-6: 24th -25th February 2018: UCPE Conference Bangkok.
Arrival in Bangkok in darkness on this, my first visit to the city, discloses that they drive on the sensible side of the road, the motorway into the city is as straight as a laser beam and that taxis charge considerably less than they do in London. On the journey into the city, my mind drifts back to the old Tim Rice- Bjoern Ulvaeus musica,l Chess:
One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble
Not much between despair and ecstasy
One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble
Can’t be too careful with your company
I can feel an angel sliding up to me
I’ve never considered myself a hard man, but humility takes attention to maintain when you are the centre of attention. And as for dryads and angels, I feel them with me all the time. Bangkok and I might yet become good friends.
The conference the next day is a more ordered affair of the kind I am used to, hosted on the 19th floor of the Baiyoke Sky Hotel, the tallest hotel in South East Asia. In the manner I am now familiar with, the conference commences with a doxology and both the Filipino and Thai national anthems. Pride in national identity is something I noticed on my last visit – a trait that is not nearly so well developed amongst my own countrymen and women. We would do well to learn some of the habits of discipline that are commonplace here.
For the second time I deliver ‘Do Androids Dream,’ an exploration of how, in a world of unstoppable technological advancement, we fail if we teach only knowledge and skills, for they become rapidly redundant. To preserve our ability to stay ahead of the machines, we must increase focus on teaching at the level of values – curiosity, flexibility, open-mindedness. I wrote the speech in December 2017. At Davos in January 2018, I noticed that Jack Ma, of Alibaba fame, covered similar ground. Who showed him my notes, I wonder? I must ask him next time I see him. Whilst the conference is well organised and at a sophisticated technological level, once again my slides do not come up in the right order. Perhaps we have a little more time yet before the machines take over.
It is obvious at coffee break that the speech has gone down well. There is much shaking of my hand and many requests to sign books, accompanied by the inevitable photo-calls I have become familiar with in Asia. Lunch is hosted on the 78th floor restaurant, which offers breath-taking views of the city. It consists of an international buffet, almost the largest I have ever seen (The Christmas buffet at Raffles hotel in Singapore still pips it to first prize, though). Intriguingly, there is virtually nothing on offer for vegetarians though. I console myself with the reminder that my body can hardly be said to be in need of food anyway.
In the evening I am reunited with my coat (including the essential batteries) by my friend, Ony, who has taken it into custody during our enforced separation. It shows no sign of having missed me. Perhaps it has bonded with her now instead. That’s ok. It is leather and I will have to divorce it soon anyway. A picture from home, which is now shivering at minus 70 C, confirms that someone I care about has not forgotten his coat.
The next day, Sunday, is a day at leisure in Bangkok. I decide on a river tour as the best way of taking in the feel of the city. I catch sight of the Royal Palace. Thais hold their royal family in enormously high esteem – a sense of value that I admire, which we have not sustained to quite the same extent in the UK. On the riverbank, modern towers of commerce and domestic living share the space with Buddhist and Chinese temples and mosques. Also in evidence are a surprising number of plots at the shantytown level. New money is driving out old poverty, but has yet to complete the job thoroughly.
Shopping in the unending street-markets follows. As evening falls more street vendors appear. I am offered long skewers of prawns and Thai soup from large metal pots. It’s like an enormous street party.
The evening reveals that no accommodation has been booked for me in Manila, just twenty four hours away from being needed. I raise my eyebrows at the just-in-time approach I see so much of here. It’s challenging for me, but clearly works for my hosts. Not to worry. I reach for my i-phone and am grateful I have at least mastered the technology of AirBnB. Sleeping space secured, I am about to turn in for the evening when I am informed that a few additional bookings have been made on my Filipino tour. No problem. I was expecting that. “How many events do we have now?” I ask naively. It’s a twenty-one day tour, including travel days and rest days. “Twenty-seven,” comes the answer.