Saturday, 23 February 2008

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At the end of every journey I embarked upon, I always like to know what I have learnt from it. Perhaps it’s not important to some, but it matters to me because the journey gives me a great opportunity to see the real world I live in – suffering alongside compassion, sorrow alongside happiness, life alongside death.

In his acclaimed spiritual masterpiece, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche speaks of death in the modern world. “People today are taught to deny death, and taught that it means nothing but annihilation and loss. That means that most of the world lives either in denial of death or in terror of it. Even talking about death is considered morbid, and many people believe that simply mentioning death is to risk wishing it upon ourselves.”

The simple truth is, life and death are seen as one whole. On the day we were born, we began to die. Our lives are like an hourglass that never stops… each moment follows the one before, without end. From moment to moment, life drains away. We are babies, then adults, then old and dead. Each moment follows the one before, without end. Our lives are like a bubble or a candle, impermanence and death are like the wind!

On the many trips to those far-flung places, like the ones in Pashupatinath or Varanasi where sadhus abound, I’ve witnessed deaths amidst births. I become aware of my own ignorance about my existence in this karmic world, of my own helplessness about impermanence in everyday life, and of my unwillingness to withdraw myself from all samsara pleasures.

The roads ahead are waiting. For me, and you, and all sentient beings.

The journey never ends. Only travellers come to an end.

One of the windows, Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

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What makes a tourist different from a traveller is that the latter has the luxury of time. To me, the thought of visiting the Pagan ruins in an hour is certainly intolerable.

For some, travelling simply means being there physically with a tag that proudly proclaims “I have been here”. But you can’t call yourself a true traveller unless you are fully immersed in the place you visit.

You need time.

Take time to explore and get familiar with those little side lanes. You will discover a lot more than just the usual tourist spots on the map.

Take time to find one of the best local restaurants for an authentic meal. It’s where you can avoid the tourist crowds and tourist prices.

Take time to visit a museum or a gallery. You will never appreciate a country’s beauty without first knowing its glorious past.

Take time to speak to a local and who knows, he might end up being your personal guide and offer you insider tips on shopping and dining.

Take time to peruse the detailed structure of a temple or a church or a mosque. It’s those details that will make you believe that God, in whatever form, still exists.

Take time to sip a cup of tea or coffee at a local café. Chance acquaintances always appear in such relaxing places.

Take time to visit a local bookstore. With a bit of luck you may come across a good book that enlightens you.

Take time to pen a postcard to your loved one or simply to yourself. Because postcards are the best mementos to rekindle your travel memories.

You just can’t rush a seasoned traveller.

Lijiang at dawn before tourist invasions.

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The poet Pablo Neruda wrote a book of poems which he called Odes to common things. It included odes to such objects as a bed, a chair, a bar of soap, an empty plate, an apple, a tree, a cloud, a door. It reads:

O irrevocable river of things
No one can say that I loved only fish, or the plants of the jungle and the field,
That I loved only those things that leap and climb, desire, and survive.
It’s not true.
Many things conspired to tell me the whole story.
Not only did they touch me, Or my hand touched them.
They were so close that they were a part of my being,
They were so alive with me that they lived half my life
And will die half my death.

I think Neruda tries to make us see that everything we look at has a unique shape, colour, and texture as well as function. Although we rarely pay attention to them, if we look at them with a sensitive eye we can definitely appreciate their aesthetic qualities.

When I was noting the Bank of China from the Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, I became aware for the first time that the twin spires on top of the building designed by I.M.Pei resembled a preying mantis. The same was true of his glass pyramid with its graceful triangular shape that made it seem as if the peak was eagerly reaching out to compete with the Lourve. Had they been presented in a display room, I would have seen something more than objects, something deeper in the way forms can take on a life of their own and create enduring values.

When asked about how he managed to produce such beautiful literary works, Ernest Hemingway simply replied: “All my life I’ve looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.”

The art of seeing. No more. No less.

See it or not, these stains are part of the street scene in Ho Chi Minh.

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The first thing I do when I enter any hotel room for the first time is draw back the curtains and open the windows. The room is my first window in a new place, and I want to make sure I can see as much as possible.

The Yogi Lodge, in India’s old Varanasi city, had stained sheets, dusty walls and broken electric fans – but it also had a little window overlooking the city’s labyrinth of narrow lanes and the bathing ghats along the Ganges river.

Outside my five-dollar, no-towels-no-toilet-paper double room at the Ghandruk Guesthouse in Annapurna, Tibetan monks led by religious trumpeters and holy cows drifted past my open wooden shutters.

In the small mountain village of Darjeeling, where the exiled Dalai Lama made his yearly visit to the Tibetan refugee camp there, there’s a tiny hotel called Hotel 717 run by a friendly Tibetan family. I made a note of my room – No.103 – a corner, with huge glass windows and a breathtaking view of the Kanchanjunga.

On the island of La Corse, off the French Riviera, the room I stayed at the Calvi Youth Hostel- No. 6 – has a tiny terrace that opens out to a spectacular view of the Mediterranean sea, the hills on the shore and the constantly changing sky.

Sometimes, as in the case of the “deluxe room” at Hotel Simla in Jaisalmer, my hotel windows look out on nothing more interesting than a side alley, where kids play and adults work. Once on a trip to Goreme, Turkey, I got to stay in a cave embedded in a fairy chimney hill. The cave room, of course, had no marble tubs or gilded faucets or fresh orchids on the nightstand. But it had plenty of stunning views which were Unesco-listed.

At hotels like the Kuta Beach Resort in Bali or the Rasa Sayang in Penang, where massage and spa treatments are part of the guest’s daily programme, good sleep is almost guaranteed.

Likewise at monasteries that open their doors to travellers. In Bodhgaya, one of two Thai monasteries near the Mahabodhi temple, which provide lodging to guests and pilgrims, I fell serenely into dreams as a sonorous, buddhist chant by a choir of monks echoed in the distance – perhaps not Nirwana, but close enough for me.

Spot the cat in the Orthello town, Essaouira in Morocco.

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I used to think, when I was little, that people from all over the world speak the same language and eat the same food. My preconception was shattered when I made my first oversea trip to Thailand.

I guess Clifton Paul Fadiman put it best: a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.

In Hanoi the tour guide took me to a local restaurant well known for a delicacy called Tikchow, or dog meat. In Manila I ate a seasoned egg called Balut, only to find out later that it contained a duckling embryo.

In Santorini I had to ride a donkey to go down the cliff to have lunch. In Anthens I had a cup of Capuccino which tasted more like Chinese medicine. And in a Milan cafe I even had to pay table fee for sitting down.

Worst still, In Jaisalmer on the Thar desert, I had to eat my dinner from plates and cups washed with sand. In Beijing I had to share a small dining table with 16 people. And in Monaco I had to pay US50 for a set lunch with soup.

The list goes on.

In Gangga Fuji restaurant, Varanasi, I had to wait over an hour in a crowded room full of hungry travelers, and finally left empty stomached. At a little eatery place in New Delhi called Appetite, the 35-rupee French breakfast set comes with a cigarette at the end of the meal.

Inside the Thai restaurant Sanguan-Sri, I was intrigued by a dish called Kao Chae – boiled rice soaked in a bowl of ice-cubes and smelt of fragrant jasmine. It certainly looked exotic but the taste was unimaginable.

In Vientiane, Laos, the appetizer I ordered came in the form of fried grasshoppers and silkworms. In Taipei, I had a piece of smelly tofu which spoilt my appetite the whole evening.

Oh! And I remember one other thing. Throughout my Turkey trip, the menu for breakfast was always composed of “olives, tomatoes, cucumber, toast, cheese and butter, honey, and a boiled egg”.

Perhaps this is not the kind of memory one expects to bring home from Turkey. But it’s certainly among the best of mine.

Watermelon seller balancing her act, Mandalay.

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What do you look at when you walk through a strange place?

Do you walk to explore the endless possibilities of hidden beauty? Or do you just walk to forget yourself and the many trivial things that come attached with you? Do you look up at the sky. Or do you look down at the cobbled pavement. Or at nothing in particular?

When you stand at the corner of Harbour bridge in Sydney waiting for a traffic light to change, do your eyes wander to see while you wait, or do you just stare at the sign that reads “DON’T WALK”?

In Istanbul, Avignon, Florence, Hoi An, and many other cities, I enjoy walking through the old quarters that have remained the same for hundreds of years.

In Cairo, my favourite place is Khan Al-Khalili, where I like to get lost in the crisscrossed lanes, or sip a cup of mint tea at Fishawi café which Naguib Mahfouz used to frequent.

In Chicago I like to immerse myself in the jazzy atmosphere of its many sidewalk pubs.

In Seoul’s Myong-dong, it’s a great place to watch some of the most fashionable people in the city.

In Paris, there are the familiar streets leading up to all the museums I love to visit – the Lourve, the Musee d’Orsay, the Musee Picasso and the Pompidou.

Is the time you spend walking in the city a meaningful experience, or is it just a period empty of meaning – distracted from distraction by distraction, as T.S. Eliot once described our apathetic moments in this twittering world?

Sometimes it’s the part of the city in which you stay that seems exciting.

The Hotel Number Sixteen in London, close to South Kensington, is within the vicinity of many elegant book stores and galleries.

The Marriot Garden Resort in Bangkok, by the river bank of Chao Phraya, has a glorious view of Wat Arun in the far distance and bustling traffic of river taxis.

In Singapore the Westin is just a short walk to many lovely spots including the Esplanade and the Art Museum.

These hotels are all in the heart of their cities, and great starting places for exhilarating walks.

Wherever I am, I could follow those long, straight, flat monotonous roads for miles and miles, north, south, east and west, and never get sick of it. For in those walks I find far more than I seek.

Road signs by the Thames river near Big Ben, London.

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In his autobiography, Nobel Prize Laureate Sinclair Lewis talked about revisiting the same place: He who has seen one cathedral ten times has seen something; he who has seen ten cathedrals once has seen but little; and he who has spent half an hour in each of the hundred cathedrals has seen nothing at all.” I couldn’t agree more.

Even if you visit the same place over and over again, you will always find something new to explore. You have to see what you missed the first time, see again what you already saw, see in springtime what you saw in summer, in daylight what you saw at night, see the sun shining where you saw the rain falling. You have to go back to the footsteps already taken, to go over them again or add fresh ones beside them.

Returning to old haunts revives memories and stirs new thoughts. Every other year or so, my friends and I have spent at least a week in Kathmandu, Nepal. It’s a city we love to visit, and its treasures are endless.

Coming back to Kathmandu is a way of taking a measure of our lives. When I walk in Durbar Square and look at the Kumari Chowk and Taleju temple during the morning or evening, or walk around the circular square full of praying wheels and see the details of the Boudhanath stupa with which I am so impressed, or enter the magnificent Bhaktapur old city across which I see the statue of King Bhupatindra Malla rising majestically into the air, I feel a sense of renewal. What follows is a reappraisal of what my life has come to mean since my last visit.

I may stop at the Patan museum and study those ancient Buddhist statues, wondering about its meticulous craftsmanship, or think about the wind chime on the inner interior of the museum and try to figure out how it could produce such beautiful melody. It’s almost as if I can at such moments come to grips with some profound knowledge that I have never quite grasped before.

When one visits a place often, one becomes more of an explorer than a traveller.

Twin sisters visiting a Jain temple, Jaisalmer.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Winter retreat

Seven days of solitude
High up on a hill surrounded by mighty mountains, and almost right in the centre of kathmandu valley, nestled the kopan monastery where i gracefully found my asylum for seven days and nights.

The guest room is minimally furnitured, with a small bed and a table next to a wall cabinet where a picture of the Dalai Lama was placed on a mini thangka. the attached bathroom provides hot water facilities though on a night colder than minus 2 degrees, the only place you want to be is deep in the thick blankets.

Meals are vegetarian and provided three times a day. the kopan cafe opens from 7am till 8pm. after eight most foreign guests will retreat to their rooms, except the monks who are still in their studies and will finish at 10pm.

Turning in early almost promises me an early rise every day. at 6.30am i will join the puja ceremony performed by the residential monks. the sonorous chants of those monks pacifies my mind and cleanses my thoughts. it is good to just sit there and meditate.

I have breakfast at 7.30am, which to be followed by a dharma teaching at 10.30am by the Ven Ani Karin, who is kind to give 4 lessons on meditation.

Most of the time I spend reading dharma books in the library or cafe. occasionally i will chat with monks and take pictures of them at their own leisure.

life is so mindful and peaceful here.

A friendly monk on the rooftop of the Kopan library, Kathmandu.

On the road

The Kindness of strangers
If you are travelling in a strange land, during some parts of your journey you are bound to meet someone who, without acquiantance or obligation, goes out of his or her ways to help. In Dalai Lama's definition, these kind-hearted souls are called "bodhisattvas".

I was in a jeep travelling from Mandalay to Bagan, the city of thousand buddhist ruins. Passing by many remote villages and rice fields, my driver drove at accelerating speed as the sun was setting sooner than we thought.

Out of a sudden the whole jeep came to a halt, stopping in the middle of the country road. I observed out of the window and saw one of the car wheels was stuck in a huge pothole which my driver didn't notice. My driver tried to accelerate the speed in order to get out of the hole but failed several times.

Within a blink of an eye, 4 or 5 men in their worn-out clothes came rushing to us. I thought to myself, it must be robbery!

But to my surprise, they actually came to our rescue. They held the car firmly up, trying to push the wheel out of the hole. They were strong enough to move the jeep and I was thankful for their heroic act. They responded as if it was something natural to act in a situation like this.

I was really impressed. Where else on earth can you find helping hands so readily available without even having to ask for it?

The journey to Bagan has till today remained one of the most memorable.

Monastery school along the way from Mandalay to Bagan.

Ideas to share

Reincarnate your ideas!
I had this idea when I was on bed one midnight tossing around, not being able to fall asleep.

I scribbled it down on my pad quickly, a habit I have been practising since I worked. The concept of reincarnation somehow seemed to work well with the product. The next morning I played around with the idea a bit before deciding which execution I would pursue.

Personally I like Can-Pot-Car the best, followed by Glass-Lamp-Stained Glass and Toilet Paper-Encyclopedia-Money.

To be able to apply buddhism into advertising is something I have tried hard to.

The power of advertising is great. So a positive message really matters.

Print and Poster campaign for Recycle.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Middle path

Travelling with the Buddha
In Bodhgaya, I cried upon entering the Mahabodhi temple out of compassion.

In Sarnath, I could hear buddha's teaching from the trees and breezes.

In Lumbini, I was amazed to see the pond bathed in rays of twinkling light.

In Namobuddha, I was touched to learn his sacrifice for the hungry tiger cubs.

In Bagan, I lost myself in the ruins of thousands pagodas and stupas.

In Mandalay, I bought a wooden buddha statue in the posture of comtemplation.

In Yangoon, I learnt that friday was the day of my birth.

In Chiangmai, I donated 20% of my salary to wat conservations projects.

In Ayuthaya, I saw a buddha's head and its strong will to survive.

In Luang Prabang, I offered morning alms to hundreds of orange-saffroned monks.

In Siam reap, I witnessed the towering height of buddhism in the midst of jungle.

In Ho Chi Minh, I had lunch among monks in a vegetarian restaurant inside a real temple.

In Penang, I learnt the meaning of western paradise after climbing hundreds of steps up.

In Lhasa, I cried while doing walking meditation around Barkor street near Jokhang temple.

In Boudha, I could see his wisdom eyes wherever i walked around the stupa.

In Polonaruwa, I knew history will always repeat itself.

In Borobuddur, I saw a lone shadow in a strange land.

In Seoul, I picked a fallen maple leaf and it reminded me of impermanence.

In Kyoto, I couldn't believe that nature and buddhism could blend in so well.

In Kamakura, I felt so tiny in front of the sitting buddha and the whole universe.

In Nara, I saw buddhas in those benign deers.

In Beijing, I hope buddhism will take its root and change the whole nation.

A buddhist park called Muang Boran in Bangkok, Thailand.

Give a hand

Tibetan Blessing in Hua Hin
I was helping out at the 1000 stars foundation based in Bangkok. Its founder, Ajarn Kris, is a kind and soft spoken woman who used to teach at Chulalongkorn university.

Her wish to build the first tibetan stupa in Thailand was often questioned by the Thevada buddhists. But her strong will is never shaken. I sincerely hope any of you who is keen on buddhism help support this precious charity project.

On my part, I have been helping on the design part of related foundation items such as tee shirts, cards, bags, books etc. 

For more information on how to help, kindly log on to or her personal blog at

Blueprint of the stupa to be built in Hua Hin.

Award talks

The Ego Game
I flew to London to pick up my second Gold statue at the London International Advertising Festival held at Sketch in downtown Picadilly Circus.

The winning work was conceived for Chanmi's eye studio as they needed a trade ad to run in the coming advertising directory then. They have been asking me to develop ideas for them since years ago so I helped out on this project in order not to disappoint them.

The crowds were cheering when I arrived at the venue. Every winner was in high spirit. Out of 18,000 entries, only 3% was selected as winners from across 60 countries around the world. A pretty tough show to win as there is only one gold for each category.

The moment came when my name was announced and i went up the stage to pick up mine. It probably lasted no more than 1 minute. And I was back to where I sat, among the crowds again.

Back to the hotel that night, i stared at the gold winged statue on my bedside table, thinking if I had changed to a different person with this award. The answer was of course no. I wasn't even getting smarter or greater, but my ego, i believed, must have grown a bit bigger.

Awards are strange things. The more you won, the more you want. For the past 7 years I have won no less than 180 awards locally and internationally. From Cannes, One Show, Clio to London fest, New York Fest and Asia Pacific Adfest plus many others. You might say I have won more than enough to be ranked Top 5o most awarded creative people in Asia. But the truth remains the same: It's never enough!

That night in London I had actually began to see the ugly truth hidden behind those glittering awards. So many young creatives nowadays are crazy about winning awards. Many of them become creative heads without even mastering their basic advertising skills. And the ad people who hire them are also blinded by their creative ranking without questioning first their true capability. Needless to say, the whole industry is swarmed with big creative ego heads.

If this vicious cycle continues, the whole ad industry will no doubt be in trouble. Do I still want to work in an adland full of pretentious people? Maybe not.

For me I would rather win a finalist certificate for a piece of work for real clients than to win a gold for doing "ghost ads" for invisible clients. The furthest I would go is to develop initiatives for existing clients, but if they are rejected I would not even resort to doing scam stuff.

I do not want to win in a game which in actual fact I am losing to my own egoistic pride.

Trade ad for Chanmi's eye photography studio. 

On stage to receive the gold statue from Bob Garfield.