Saturday, March 11, we docked in Laem Chabang Port, where we met our driver and our guide, who took us (my wife, me and two other couples) to Bangkok in a very “modded” luxury van, with so many buttons, levers, lights and switches that it was fun to imagine what each of them could be for: smoke screen? projectiles? disco ball? retractable wings? 😛

There are many visual elements that spring to mind when one thinks of Bangkok: Tuk Tuks, bubble gum pink taxis, crowded streets, trucks with all kinds of colored lights decorating inside and out… and we saw them all, all over.

Our first stop of the day was at the Golden Buddha (yes, they say it’s all gold… or almost) Pagoda and Temple. An interesting tidbit was that amongst the several street vendors outside the temple was one with many bird cages and a sign that read “Freedom (sic) the birds for your happiness and your good luck – One box 100 Bhats”. I saw a tourist pay and be all happy because she “freed the bird”, and I could not stop thinking that she just paid a “bird kidnapper” that held its victims in plain sight. Or that the bird was in it too, and flew back to the cage at night, only to repeat the same trick the next day for the next tourist. Whatever works for you.

After the temple we drove by Chinatown stopping to get delicious banana fried in coconut milk, and headed straight to the Grand Palace.

The Grand Palace is the royal residence and a major tourist attraction. When you visit make sure to wear sunscreen and a hat, as there are not many places to hide from the scorching sun.

Although the much beloved Thai King died a few months ago (which is why a more strict dress code was enforced at the door, about which we were informed on the ship before arrival), there were endless lines of mourners, dressed in black, standing in line for hours in order to pay their respect. The mourning period will last until next October, when the next king will be crowned. But unfortunately the Thai Prince is not nearly revered, respected and admired as his father was. He’s seen as a “playboy” who lives in Europe and does not care about Thailand. Which, added to China’s growing inference in the region, means next year there will be a lot of instability in the region.

Amongst the many buildings (their odd roof shape is due to animal symbology in Buddhism: on the edges of roofs you can see the bird and the snake), temples and sculptures, the most visited one was Wat (temple) Phra Kaew with its Emerald Buddha (actually made of jade, not emerald), so revered that Thailand’s beloved king used to personally change the Buddha’s cloaks three times a year.

We had lunch at a nearby restaurant that seemed like a “tourist trap” but ended up having delicious typical Thai food (lots of seafood, coconut, rice, etc). And it felt good to sit down with a little air conditioning to escape the heat and humidity for a while.

Right after lunch we took a boat tour through Bangkok’s canals (klongs) of the Chao Phraya river. Of course every city with canals describes itself as “the Venice of”. So Bangkok is “the Venice of Asia”. It was a very colorful ride. We saw up and close many houses by the canals, from luxury villas to worn down shacks (with satellite TV dish). We also saw a water lizard, fed catfish, and were approached by several market-boats.

The day was fun and I took many pictures of typical landmarks. But the one image that captures the “inside” of current Thailand is the one of the high-level monk, at the entrance of the Naval Officers’ Club, blessing and chatting with high ranking Navy officers, next to a SWAT van, as a Bentley picks up an elderly woman.

Ko Samui

Friday, March 10, we arrived in Ko Samui, Thailand.
After taking a tender ashore, my wife and I we were picked and driven to the Belmond Napasai resort.

We had an absolute blast inspecting that property, and having a lot of fun on that most wonderful beach: kayak, snorkeling, paddle board, swimming, amazing local cuisine…

Back onboard, we attended a lecture by Denise Heywood on Cambodia’s history, traditional dance, and Angkor Wat.

After the lecture, my wife organized a cocktail party, where we talked and mingled with very interesting people.

Day at sea

Day at sea (Thursday, March 9):

The Crystal Symphony is a 781 feet (238 m) long by 100 feet (30 meter) wide cruise ship that weights over 51,000 tons, cruises at 20 knots, and has a guest capacity of 922, with a per guest staff ratio of 0.59 (crew of 545, from 45 different countries).

On this particular cruise, there were passengers from 49 different nationalities, but the large majority of them (over 600) were from the USA.

That first morning at sea we slept so well (and long) that we missed breakfast, and were literally two minutes away from missing lunch! The worse part is that we missed the two lectures we were most looking forward to attending (one by a criminologist, the other one by a South East Asia art expert).

In the afternoon we worked with our laptops from the Palm Court, with some tea, scones, and strawberries with cream. Quite a civilized way to work, if you ask me!

After that went back to the stateroom to get ready for the Captain’s Reception, and then dinner. Of all the luxury and enjoyable features onboard, one thing that was consistently excellent on this cruise was the level of food preparation. Exquisite!

At night, back in the stateroom, we watched a great movie I truly recommend: “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” from the Library’s DVD collection.

Singapore day 4

On Wednesday, March 8, after having breakfast onboard the ship, we ventured into Singapore for one last afternoon. We had two things in our list:
Singapore Botanic Gardens (SGB)

Established in 1859, SGB is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the leading botanic gardens in the world (with over 4 million visitors every year). We only had time to throughly visit the National Orchid Garden (with 1000 species and 2000 hybrids, the largest display of orchids in the world), which is the only part of the SBG that charges a small cover charge fee, but the Botanic Gardens have many interesting areas to enjoy, like the Rain Forest, Swan and Symphony and Eco lakes, Herbs & Spices, Bougainvilleas & Bamboo Collection, Healing Garden, Fragrant Garden, Evolution Garden, Foliage Garden, etc.

Unbeknownst to most visitors, the SBG was responsible for the introduction of Hevea brasiliensis (Pará Rubber) in the East, therefore transforming the economy of the region, and even influencing historical events like WWII. They also introduced in the 1920’s new techniques for raising orchids, which lead to a new industry.

After SBG we went on a “site inspection” of the Shangri-La Hotel.

We had lunch at Shangri-La’s incredibly extensive buffet, with a super nice sales rep. After that copious lunch, we boarded Crystal Symphony cruise ship at Harbor Front Cruise Terminal, leaving Singapore having left many things to see and do, like Sentosa Island, the Biennale at Singapore Art Museum, Clarke Quay…

But the fun was just starting. That night we had dinner at the oddly renamed Silk Road Restaurant (formerly known as Nobu at Sea), whose executive chef is none other than famous Japanese chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa, where sushi chef Toshiaki-san delighted us with an impeccable 7-course Japanese dinner.

Back in the stateroom, we watched “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, which we borrowed from the Library DVD collection (it also has over 2000 books).

Singapore day 3

Tuesday, March 7 in the morning, after breakfast, we checked out of the hotel. But before we boarded the cruise ship, we left the luggage with the hotel’s concierge, and went across the bridge to visit the National Gallery Singapore, which is the only main museum in Singapore I had not yet visited, since it opened in 2015.

It has an interesting Asian art collection, with artist from the late XIX Century like Raden Saleh, to the XX Century like Liu Kang, Nguyen Gia Tri, and contemporaries like Tang Da Wu or Montien Boonma (whose “The Pleasure of Being, Crying, Dying and Eating” was being restored, and it looked better in the glass temporary encaging than when originally created in 1993, and reconstructed in 2015).

After an art-filled afternoon, we boarded our cruise ship, the Crystal Symphony: check-in, unpack, quick and delicious lunch, and left again for a night in town. This time we decided to have the iconic Sling cocktail (mine a virgin one, thanks) at The Raffles Hotel, probably the only place in Singapore where you can throw your peanut shells onto the floor. Tradition is tradition.

To end another wonderful day, we had dinner at Michelin-star dim sum place TimHoWan.

Singapore day 2

Monday, March 6 we started the day with a wonderful breakfast buffet and then proceeded to tour the Fullerton hotel:

After that, we walked into the city to visit Chinatown, the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, and had an amazing “street-hawk” lunch at Lau Pa Sat food center:

In the evening we went to the Gardens by the Bay, visiting the Flower Dome, Cloud Forest, and exiting just as the Supertrees were doing their mesmerizing solar-powered light and music show:

To end a magical day, we went to the Cé La Vie rooftop bar (56th floor at Marina Sands by the Bay Hotel) to have a cocktail and enjoy the views:

And just as they were closing the doors, we managed a table to have dinner (the amazing 21-fold dumplings) at Din Tai Fung.

Singapore day 1

Sunday, March 5, we flew from London to Changi airport, in Singapore. Flying to Asia from London is a lot easier and shorter than from New York; I guess living in London had to have some advantage over our beloved NYC!

When we arrived we received the VIP treatment at the iconic, and absolutely perfectly situated, Fullerton Hotel: we were greeted by our names curbside right off the taxi by a lovely lady that walked us directly into our room, without the need to stop at a reception desk or fill out any paperwork! In the room, we had a handwritten (who does that anymore?) welcome letter from the hotel’s general manager, a fruit plate and a bottle of wine. Nice.

Although we were tired from the long flight and it was already evening time, we left our luggage in the room, had a gourmet snack in the executive club, and went to take a walk around the bay.

Since it was Sunday, the Marina Bay waterfront promenade was busy as everybody wanted to see the daily sight show. But there were also some children activities set up (like the Art Zoo Inflatable Park), so the atmosphere was definitely very family-oriented.

After the walk and light show, we went to the Makansutra Gluttons Bay for her to try some of the famous “street-hawk” food I could not stop talking about since my first trip to Singapore. But since we had not yet changed Singaporean currency, our options were limited to the only vendor that took credit card payment.

Amazing South East Asia cruise

For a couple of weeks in March, I have been cruising throughout South East Asia.

My wonderful wife, for my birthday, invited me to cruise with her on the Crystal Symphony to: Singapore; Koh Samui, Bangkok/Laem Chabang (Thailand), Sihanoukville (Cambodia), Ho Chi Minh City, Chan May (Vietnam), Sanya, Hong Kong SAR (China).

In a series of forthcoming blog posts I will make a quick review of activities, places, and photographs.

Very interesting insights from the UBS Forum 2017

Yesterday Giles and Magda invited me to attend the annual UBS Forum at the beautiful Rosewood Hotel, one of those hotels in a renovated palace in the heart of London, with a resident dog.

Held in major financial cities across Europe, the UBS Forum is presented under the banner “sharper opinions – smarter decisions”, where UBS specialists and external experts provide insights on key topics. This years’ speakers and topics were:

  • Jamie Broderick, CEO, UBS Wealth Management UK; and David Rowe, Managing Director, UBS Wealth Management: “Global and UK economic outlook for 2017 and beyond”
  • Paul Donovan, Chief Global Economist, UBS Wealth Management; and Caroline Simmons, Deputy-head, Investment Office, UK, UBS Wealth Management: “where the investment opportunities lie in 2017 and beyond”
  • Paul Craven, former Goldman turned behavioral economist: “the Status Quo bias and why people default to doing nothing and/or not changing” and “the loser’s game”
  • Tim Kent-Robinson, Head of Client Investment Specialists, UBS Wealth Management: “Implementing the House View”

There was also a Panel discussion and Audience Q&A, facilitated by a “clicker” with which the audience voted on several issues. Surprisingly enough the majority of the audience was in agreement with Theresa May’s handling of Brexit, even though they said it would damage the UK’s interests. Talk about Status Quo bias!! Definitely, the UK is the land of unquestioned Status Quo.

Here are some of the most interesting takeaway points and quotes I wrote down:

  • UBS has a cool simulator: “The end game? You have just been appointed as all-commanding leader of a major country. You have control over the monetary, fiscal, and foreign policy of your country.”

  • The “Risks” (last) slide in the presentations was choke full of tiny print and was displayed for 3 seconds

  • A Mexican car exported to the USA has crossed the border over 20 times before ever reaching the end-consumer

  • The 2008 financial crisis took away credit -> Without credit income inequality rises and consumption drops -> creating a shift from “economics of aspiration” to “economics of envy” (“your neighbor buys a car, you buy a car… it does not matter if your neighbor paid cash and you took a loan”, but what if you can’t get a loan?) -> leading to resentment which leads to populism

  • Domestic investors understand local politics better, therefore reacting more calmly to political uncertainty

  • “If you give money to an American, they will spend it”

  • “China will grow 6.25% to 6.5%. Why? Because President Jinping wants that”

  • The FTSE return last year was 17%, BUT if you take out the best performing 5 days, then it was only 1%

  • “Nationalism, prejudice and discrimination leads to inefficient markets and the waste of perfectly good human capital which leads to less growth and economic damage” (SIC, but wake up: that’s how they see you)

  • The Loser’s Game is an old research paper, but completely worth reading it

  • Prospect Theory: Potential gains encourage risk aversion, potential losses encourage DOUBLE risk taking

  • An amazing Status Quo bias example is the reason behind Europe’s “two levels” of organ donations

  • An amazing example of the Decoy Effect or Anchoring Effect is The Economist subscriptions options (number 6 in this list)

  • If you think you are in control (the “driver of the elephant”), check out the Jastrow Illusion

Two days in Brussels

Tuesday, March 31 and Wednesday, February 1 I went to Brussels by train. It is sad to see the permanent heavy military presence around Brussels main train station.

Microsoft had invited me to participate in the ‘Health Digital Transformation’ at the Microsoft Executive Briefing Center, because my company is a founding member of the ‘AI in Health Partner Alliance’ (along with Microsoft and 20 other tech companies) which was launched at the event. The event was attended by executives from tech companies, researchers, journalist, and policy makers.

I was also in Brussels to meet some people from the European Parliament to discuss official business.

“Fun” fact: did you know that 1/4 of the whole EU Parliament budget goes to translation services?