Samantha Brown – Southeast Asian-based journalist and editor

Getting a foot in the door

20.06.2000 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Current Affairs ::

While soccer fans in Thailand have their eyes glued to their televisions watching Euro2000, former professional soccer player Darren Jackson is focusing on soccer a little closer to home. If he has his way, 15 potential soccer stars from Thailand will be heading to the UK for youth matches to be played against local teams by the end of 2001.

“The teenagers from here – whether they are Thai or another nationality, but living here – will play in front of scouts from clubs around the UK, and could be signed on the spot,” Jackson, who is from England, says. “Scouts are out in force at the moment with the Premier League being so huge. Boys are picked at age 14, and as transfer fees become more expensive, clubs are look to select up and coming players to keep under their wing.”

But there is a lot of work to be done yet. Twenty boys aged around eleven or twelve need to be selected and trained intensively by Jackson and his assistant, Andrew Jeffries, for eight months. Fifteen boys will then be selected for a further four months’ training before taking off to the land where the best soccer players can earn up to 50,000 pounds a week.

Many things are still in the pipeline, such as arranging for a match to take place prior to a Manchester United Premier League game, but with Jackson’s contacts – he formerly played professionally for England Under 21s, Oxford United, Reading, Hong Kong and Finland – he is confident of pulling it off.

Jackson is also searching for sponsors for the trip, to make the costs lower for those picked to go. “I’m looking for an airline and other companies that would be willing to sponsor the boys. I want to keep the price as low as possible so that the kids I do want to take can all go. But whatever happens, the trip is going ahead.”

Jackson, who has an FA coaching badge from England, has been training schoolchildren in Thailand since the end of 1998.

“I’ve always been interested in coaching children. I met Andrew and he said why don’t you start something up? Go to sports manufacturers and ask if they want to sponsor you for equipment, T-shirts and so on.”

Jackson went to Nike, who loved the idea. “They were behind me one hundred per cent. I also needed a drinks manufacturer to supply drinks. I went to Gatorade who also loved the idea, so now they provide our drinks.”

And so the Darren Jackson Soccer Clinic was born. Boys aged six to 12 who sign up for the clinic are trained by Jackson and Jeffries once a week for five weeks after school, and on weekends they play against other schools. Then they play in a tournament arranged by local sponsors – such as Ecco and Nike – at the end of the five weeks where they get to show-off the skills they have learned.

“During the training sessions I teach them ball skills, pattern plays, game rules and most of all team morale,” Jackson says. “It’s not until the weekend that I can actually get them to play good football.”

The most recent tournament was held at NIST school on May 28. While the competition was sponsored by Global Silverhawks, the main prize was donated by Nike – one of ten soccer balls in Thailand signed by the Brazilian soccer team when they were here last, which went to the best player, Varin Narula. The prize for top goal scorer was sponsored by Gatorade, and went to ‘Rambo’, while the player of the tournament was awarded to Colin Vaghn.

“The children play in English premier league colours, with each international school having its own kit,” Jackson explains. “There’s also a Nike and Gatorade kit, and two other sponsors have sponsored tournaments. “

As at any Saturday soccer match anywhere in the world, the Mums and Dads are out in droves, egging their sons’ teams on. Uthaivan Karatkul, whose 9-year-old son Lee plays for ISB, is there lending her support. She says that while the ISB tournaments her son has played in the past kept him interested, the children really just went out and played. “They didn’t really do any practise – maybe 15 minutes before a match. But Darren has been teaching them ball-handling and other skills,” she says.

Uthaivan says her son’s skills are improving – and all the papers he writes in English are now about soccer. “And going to England is a great idea! I hope my son will make it. It’s good for the kids to have this goal – it will make training fun.”

Vizes Nakornchai’s son Tagore will turn 9 in July. He’s hesitant to attribute all of the boys’ improvement to Jackson, as he says their coordination improves naturally with age anyway. “But he does enjoy it more. And he wants to study at Imperial College so he can attend Arsenal games on the weekend!”

Nakornchai believes that it’s important for children to develop team skills. “To work and play in a team is equally as important as developing individual skills,” he says.

Jackson is now planning on expanding his clinic to teach older children as well. “I can concentrate on training the younger children and Darren can progress with the older kids,” says Jeffries, who started playing soccer at schoolboy level in England, and played several trials for Chelsea.

“But nothing ever came of it, so I became a teacher,” he says. He worked at St Johns International School,teaching swimming and physical education to primary kids, but has now left to assist Jackson. “He’s got to the stage where he needs more help. You can see the difference with the ones Darren has been training – the change, it’s fantastic.”

Jackson estimates he is currently training around 80 children, from schools such as Harrow International, ISB and NIST. The split is about 50-50 between Thais and children from other countries. “I’ve just started a Saturday clinic so I can reach other kids [who don’t go to these schools] as well.”

And playing soccer isn’t just about playing soccer. “The children are learning social skills,” Jackson emphasises. “I’ve had quite a few children who have been really shy, but once they’ve started playing they’ve seemed to come out of their shell and they’ve started to talk more to other children. It’s helping their schoolwork as well – teachers have come and told me that they’ve seen a big difference in such-and-such just because he’s joined the football clinic.”

Jackson and Jeffries both say the main challenge coaching here compared to England is simply the children’s ability. “Because they don’t play enough football,” says Jackson. “They go home, play on their computer, watch TV. There aren’t many parks around for children to play in. That’s the big difference between English and Asian children – a lack of space and lack of practice. The only time they get to practise is at school during the week or if they join a club.”

“English kids tend to play at breaktime, lunchtime, after school, after dinner, weekends, so they improve more quickly,” Jeffries adds.

And Jackson is sincerely confident there are more Zicos among the children he is training. “With the kids I have at the moment, there are around three or four boys who I would like to train and take to England. If I do take 15 boys to England, I think maybe 2 or 3 boys would be spotted. But there’s still a long way to go.”

“Some of them are excellent,” enthuses Jeffries.

“They’re so young, as well,” Jackson points out. “In England, they don’t get serious coaching until they’re 13 or 14 years old. My children at seven or eight are taught the basics. They can all kick a ball. The hard part now is getting them to play as a team.”

But for those who are chosen, it will be a tough road ahead. “Very tough,” Jackson says. “I want them to do well when they’re in England. It will be a lot harder than what they are doing now during the week. I’d expect more. They’d be playing at least three or four times a week with me. By the end of the year they might be in with a good chance. At the least, they’ll have a trip they’ll never forget.”

Teeing off for success

19.06.2000 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Lifestyle ::

They’re quirky bronze sculptures, they’re artistically creative and they have a distinctly golf theme – but golfers hardly ever buy them.

"Dedicated golfers don’t like to spend the money," says Charoen Ngoenchan, the sculptor who designs the limited-edition creations with titles such as "I Am The Winner", "There Goes The Ball" and "It Has Been A Long Round".

"Golfers like our products, but our market is not the golfer. It’s relatives and friends of the golfer. A lot of collectors buy too but golfers – never. They prefer to buy a new driver or putter."

Charoen works for his own art business, called Art Fun, along with business partner Chalitpan Niyomyam, another artist, and Charoen’s younger brother, Seksan, who looks after Internet aspects of the business.

The two artists met around five years ago while they worked for an interior design company, developing concepts and creating ideas for artworks in hotels. "We worked on over 20 hotels across the Asean region," Charoen says. These included the Radisson, Imperial Queen’s Park and Le Meridien President in Bangkok, the Pan Pacific in Kota Kinabalu and the Intercontinental in Phnom Penh.

Charoen studied visual arts at Chulalongkorn’s Faculty of Fine Arts and graduated around seven years ago. He then worked as an art dealer in a gallery on Silom before moving into interior design.

Chalitpan studied at Silpakorn University, and majored in graphic arts. He ran a shop at MBK selling souvenir and designer items he made himself, but found he had to create ten or so designs just to sell two or three. He, too, moved into interior design.

"But after the economy slowed, the company was affected," says Charoen. The company started letting some of its employees go. We started talking among ourselves about what we could do. I knew I wanted to be an artist again – I had stopped for seven years. So I started doing some sketching."

Fate was at work. Charoen was working in Malaysia, and had some spare time. "A friend who was a golfer started talking to me about golf. There was so much to talk about, and plenty of jokes," he says. "So I then had the idea of doing sculptures related to golf. I sketched over 500 designs in six months. After that, I started to actually make the sculptures, with another friend."

Perhaps fate had been at work even earlier: a group of Charoen’s friends had nicknamed him Tiger because he reminded them of the golf star, a long time before this plan hit the sketching board.

So far no money had been earned, but Charoen says he was having a lot of fun and new ideas kept coming to him. "I ended up actually sculpting nearly 100 designs," he says. The sculptor works in wax before casting a mould from which the bronze scuptures can be produced. "Then we decided to make a collection. We selected 28 to cast into bronze."

The small business’s first exhibition was held in October last year, at the luxury golf club Par 3 Master at Hua Hin, and they opened the doors to their new office at around the same time. "It’s easier to work with just a few people," says Charoen. "If there are many people, there are many ideas."

"Although getting the exhibition was not too difficult, selling the sculptures themselves has been a challenge due to the economic downturn," Chalitpan says.

There was, however, a lot interest from golfing magazines, TV shows and newspapers. "People called us, but the one problem is that bronze is expensive," says Charoen. "And our collections are made in limited quantities – we could sell a lot more for a lower price, but that’s not what we’re about."

They’re starting to sell their work over the web. "Our market is not really in Thailand – it’s exporting overseas," says Charoen.

At the moment the artistic entrepreneurs have distributors in Germany, Austria, Holland and Belgium. "In America, Australia and Japan we’re just talking, talking, talking," Charoen says. "Again, the problem is the price – when people compare our sculptures to other products they can import from Thailand, then we’re relatively expensive."

Charoen is currently working on his wax sculptures for their second collection, due to be ready by around March next year. "I also want to create some life-size sculptures, but I really need to find a sponsor to support me," Charoen says. "If there is no sponsor to be found, we will eventually have to sponsor ourselves! I want to make these life-size pieces in very small quantities, maybe ten pieces from one design." He hopes to target them to museums or golf courses.

For the Thai market, they are creating resin trophy collections, which they’ve been selling successfully to various golfing clubs across the country since January. And Chalitpan is concentrating on producing artworks with an Asian theme to export. These are hand-painted pieces with silkscreened outlines done on coffee-stained paper to produce an antique-like effect. "So far, these are bringing in more money than the sculptures," Chalitpan says.

And their business skills are developing along a steep learning curve. "We are not really businessmen," says Charoen. "Our background is that of artists."

"Actually we often lose money when we’re negotiating with customers," admits Chalitpan. " ‘Okay,’I say, ‘We can discount,’ when really I shouldn’t."

The two are happy with their current situation, and defend the commercialisation of their art. "We have nobody controlling us. We lead the artist’s life. We are relaxed, and we use our own ideas," Charoen says. "We try to make our art commercial – most artists cannot do business. Artists have to know the market. It’s very important beccause our future depends on it."

Charoen explains his philosophy behind making his art more accessible to people. "I think that people can start to learn about art through buying cheap art. If we were to sell only expensive pieces, very few people could afford to buy them. But if we try to make our works cheaper, then maybe in a few years the people who bought our work will start to buy more expensive pieces of art."

Charoen cites Ittiphol Tangchaloke, a professor at Silpakorn Univeristy who specialises in painting and mixed media as his favourite artist, while Chalitpan names Sutee Kunavichayanont, a masters graduate from Sydney University who creates installation works, as his.

And have they tried selling any pieces to Tiger Woods? "Not yet!" answers Charoen. "About three months ago one American dealer wanted to contact Tiger Woods for me, so I made lots of drawings for him. The dealer also ordered some of our products, but he hasn’t yet collected them, even though he’s paid for some of them."

The determined entrepreneurs are optimistic about their futures. "The world is a very big place!" says Chalitpan. "Just waiting for our products! Hey, maybe you can sell them for us in Australia…"

Art Fun are located at 30 Soi Chamchan, Ekamai Rd, Klongton Nua. Ph. 391 2508 or email manager@golfartfun.com for further information.

Scaling new heights

10.06.2000 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Travel ::

When we were kids, we believed there was a guest book hidden at the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge to sign your name in if you managed to make the illegal climb up.

Also known as the Coathanger, the world’s largest single span bridge was there in the background as we kids threw up on the rollercoaster at Luna Park, the famous fun park nestled beneath its northern pylon. We passed beneath it on the compulsory high school harbour cruise – a rite of passage for any self-respecting teenager – and it cast an appropriate shadow for romantic rendezvous later on in life.

But now some of the mystery has dissipated. Over the past 18 months, the top of the bridge has been accessible to anyone with a sense of adventure – and without a serious fear of heights. Some 250,000 people have clamoured up and back to date.

On a recent trip back to Australia we noticed groups of moving specks along the arches on the way home from the airport. They were the groups of twelve or so people who leave to make the climb every ten minutes – traipsing over our precious bridge as if it were a mere tourist attraction!

After the initial indignation wore off, we decided we had to do it too.

A week later we are going through the comprehensive preparations that BridgeClimb, the company which runs the climbs, have designed. We’re breathtested, briefed, clothed, and taken through a practise run with our harnesses on a replica of a portion of the bridge before being let loose with our guide, Michael, who asks us if today is our first climb.

“That’s good,” he jokes as we chorus a yes. “It’s mine too.”

The clothing is an exercise in entanglement. Nothing can be dropped from the bridge onto the traffic below for fear of scaring – or killing – a driver. Glasses are roped in, two-way radios are buckled on, hankies on elastic are stuffed up sleeves and even jackets are folded safely into little custom-made bags attached to belts. My partner asks the guide if he needs a tether for his false teeth.

It’s time to do it. Walking single file along the narrow walkway heading to the pylon, I suddenly feel like we’re going way too fast as I look the twenty or so metres through the holey metal grille below me. Norma, a Scottish woman in her fifties trailing me, starts chatting about her husband and a hospice they volunteer for back in Scotland. They’re trying to raise money by doing this.

“Just tell me if I’m talking too much,” she sings out cheerfully. “I always talk when I’m nervous!”

“Shut up! Shup up!” I scream inside my head. I discover I prefer silence when I’m nervous.

Paul Cave, who opened BridgeClimb Sydney in October 1998, says about 30 per cent of climbers suffer from acrophobia, an abnormal dread of being in high places, but remarkably few are unable to “conquer the bridge and overcome their fear”.

“We put a lot of effort into safety,” he says. “I thought we’d be confronted with people freezing when they get up there, but we only get probably one or two people per month who pay but can’t commence the climb.”

I’m probably not quite one of those 30 per cent but am rather proud of myself when my knees stop shaking, the sweat on my brow evaporates and I can push on.

A series of ladders are climbed to reach the base of the bridge span itself, and at the top of this, the walkway becomes wider – and opaque, thankfully – and it’s plainsailing along the gentle slope to the summit.

Michael regales us with stories and statistics via the radio as we stroll in the late afternoon sun. Over 52,800 tonnes of steel covered in 272,000 litres of paint were used to build the arch and approach spans; 1,400 people were employed on the project during the eight years of its construction; the length of bridge, including approaches, is 1,149 metres; the water when we get to the top will be 134 metres below us; and approximately 6 million rivets hold everything together.

One of the folk tales my partner has heard is that the construction workers would hold the red-hot rivets in their pliers on boats on the water, and toss them up to workers on the bridge – who would catch them in their pliers before driving them in.

As the slope flattens out, the breeze is surprisingly soft and warm, and the colours of the harbour become cinematically intense as the sun slides towards the blurry Blue Mountains on the horizon.

The Olympic Stadium at Homebush Bay can just be seen to the west, while to the east, the harbour ebbs around dozens of bays and coves and flows into the deep blue of the Pacific.

Closer at hand of course are the white sails of the Opera House – now there’s an idea for an abseiling entrepreneur – and the harbour ferries, ploughing their way from Circular Quay to Manly, Balmain and other spots.

No cameras are allowed up but Michael takes digital snaps of individuals and the group at the summit.

It’s exhilirating and romantic as well. Cave says more than 100 marriage proposals have so far been made at the summit.

“I think people just get so emotional … they’re moved by the view and the euphoria. You get people frequently moved to tears, or quoting poetry, because they’re romantically moved.”

Then the helicopters start arriving, and we feel like we’re in an Australian Tourist Commission advertisement or at least promoting some sort of Australian breakfast cereal or margarine.

“When there’s a good sunset, photographers come out in force to get their shots,” Michael explains.

Then the Blackhawk arrives.

“They’re practising their anti-terrorist exercises prior to the Olympics,” Michael almost screams into his radio. I doubt any bridge climber is going to be a terrorist, but I almost start to feel terrorised as it seems like all these choppers are coming straight for us.

As we cross to the western frame, the traffic below is as thick as Sukhumvit on a Monday morning but moving somewhat faster. In 1995, the average daily traffic crossing the bridge was over 150,000 vehicles.

Cave spent seven years and millions of dollars refining the BridgeClimb concept, meeting stringent safety guidelines and gaining government approvals. An Act of Parliament was required to change a law dictating how close the public could get to a moving Sydney train.

Cave says he’s stopped trying to find comparisons between climbing the Harbour Bridge and reaching the top of the world’s other architectural wonders.

“Climbing the Bridge is unique – there is no reference point,” he says. “More than six million people have climbed the Eiffel Tower, but you basically go up most of the way in a lift. Fundamentally, you can’t climb structures like this anywhere else in the world. This is totally unprecedented.”

As we return to the ground down the western frame, we feel a little how we felt when we discovered Santa Claus wasn’t real: there was no guest book at the top in which to leave our mark after all.

And er, no marriage proposal.

Website: www.bridgeclimb.com
Prices: From AUD108 to 130, or AUD89 for children aged 12-16

Secluded rendezvous

09.06.2000 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Food ::

You can choose the restaurant, but you can’t choose who sits at the table next to you. We were squeezed between a table with a blonde Australian woman in pink, who announced to the restaurant – and her subdued companions – her reasons for becoming a vegetarian, and a table of Americans who were screeching less loudly but no less obtrusively about shows in New York. A few Thais chatted in hushed tones in a corner, hopefully unaware of their dining cohorts’ bad manners.

The great art beaming down at us from the walls – it’s a mixed-media exhibition entitled ‘The World According to Kongpat’ by Thai artist Kongpat Sakdapitak – took on another quality: silence.

This was my second visit to Eat Me. The first was made late last year, when candles were dotted up the wooden staircase leading to the second floor restaurant which looks out into a small green courtyard.

The intimacy of the small restaurant was then a positive attribute; there were just a few tables of softly-spoken people enjoying the ambience enhanced by the great jazz playing over the soundsystem. I had a duck dish that was so fabulous I did something I had never done before: I asked for a doggie bag to take the portion I couldn’t finish home.

This time, the candles are gone, but the jazz is still creating an urbane mood which is further extended by the chatty staff who seat us. The tables are a little high, making us feel a bit like kids in kindergarten: the butcher paper covering the tables and accompanied by a glass of well-sharpened colour pencils only further made us want to indulge in being demanding kids once again.

The drinks menu isn’t extensive but covers good ground: try the tangerine juice (Bt 60) for a change, or the iced lemon and cinnamon tea (Bt 60) which comes with free refills if you’re off the hard stuff, or maybe a frozen blue daiquiry if you’re not. The wine list offers a reasonable choice, with house wine at 95 baht a glass.

I was actually most impressed by the presentation of the water, which is served in translucent glass bottles with a sprig of vibrant green mint inside.

While waiting for our second round of drinks we got an inkling of the standard of service to come. There was confusion over what we asked for, wine glasses were unnecessarily brought to the table and a bottle of beer arrived without a glass.

The service was not so much poor as confused; the staff were very obliging but there actually seemed to be too many waiters dealing with us. If this is not already done, assigning waiters to particular tables might be a good way to improve things on busier evenings.

Drinks in hand again, we perused the menu, which changes weekly. When we visited it offered a great international selection, leaning towards but not dominated by Italian-influenced dishes.

Eat Me wins big points for its complementary bread, brought to the table warm and doughy (twice) with accompaniments. The whole cloves in the bulb of roasted garlic are sweet and creamy and extinguish all thoughts about the scent of one’s breath tomorrow. I would seriously return for more of this garlic alone, and it’s not even on the menu. Olive oil with a dollop of balsamic vinegar, tangy horseradish and a capsicum mixture are also good offerings.

Our gang ordered each of the three soups on offer (Bt 70 each), bypassing the five other starter choices which included a bocconcini, basil and tomato salad (Bt 180) and a warm spicy chicken salad with almond flakes and champagne vinegar dressing (Bt 180).

The tomato and basil soup was delicate and struck a good acidity. The potato and leek was smooth and satisfying while the sturdy minestrone also drew favourable comments. I confess that I was intrigued by the side order of fat potato chips (Bt 80) and tried these too. They were, indeed, chunky and fat.

A dozen choices were carefully weighed up for mains. Vegetarians could try the pumpkin ravioli with tomato sauce (Bt 180) or the grilled eggplant bocconcini stack (Bt 250), while seafood lovers could go for the fried fish with chips and tartar sauce (Bt 230) or the grilled trevally filet with spinach and seafood sauce (Bt 250).

One of our party tried the smoked salmon and vegetable lasagna (Bt 220). A bit heavy with the cream, this diner was furthermore disappointed by the size of his side five-lettuce salad (Bt 50) which arrived towards the end of the meal.

Two ordered the slow pan-fried duck breast with dijon sauce (gruyere cheese is a second sauce option) (Bt 290). Both complained that the generous serving of duck was slightly dry; but the two who demanded a taste declared it to be rather delicious.

I was very pleased with my choice: the lamb chops with rosemary, vegetable stew and a red wine sauce. It was full-flavoured and perfect comfort food after being soaked by Songkran revellers on the way to the restaurant. The three chops were meaty and streaked with a nice amount of fat.

We placed a dessert order for two sticky date puddings with hot butterscotch sauce and vanilla ice cream (Bt 110) which we spent some time waiting for. When we tried to cancel, one pudding quickly appeared with the complements of the restaurant. We enjoyed it, finally, in the calm that descended on the restaurant as the loudest table left.

There’s a good range of coffee and tea if you choose to linger: good to see decafe and soy milk on the menu.

Eat Me was a great restaurant when I last visited, and this visit indicated that it still has the makings of a classy contemporary restaurant. It was unfortunate that our dining cohorts didn’t enjoy the atmosphere as much as we were trying to, and a shame that the service wasn’t up to scratch, but a third visit will certainly be due in another few months.

Eat Me, Soi Phipat 2. Prices quoted above do not include a 10 per cent service charge. Reservations can be made by phoning 238 0931. Open 6 pm to 1 am daily.

A star is born: ML Piyapas Bhirom Bhakdi

01.06.2000 (12:00 am) – Filed under: People ::

ML Piyapas Bhirom Bhakdi never dreamed about becoming an actress. She did not harbour any ambitions, ever, to be a star of the big screen. And it certainly never crossed her mind, not even for a fleeting instant, that she might one day take the leading role in the most expensive film in the history of Thai film-making.

Yet here she is today in precisely that role. She’s more than halfway through filming Suriyothai, the historical epic based on the 500-year-old story of Thai heroine Queen Suriyothai, the wife of King Mahachakkraphat, who died in order that her husband might be saved during a Burmese attack on Ayutthaya.

Piyapas, of course, plays Queen Suriyothai.

When we meet in her oasis-like home she is quick to point out that she is not at all confident in her ability to act. “I’m still not sure if I’m good enough,“ she says. “It was really Her Majesty’s wish, this movie. She’s always been proud of Queen Suriyothai, a woman who sacrificed herself for her nation.” Piyapas’ mother, the late Thanpuying Viyada Kridakon na Ayudhya, was Her Majesty’s personal dresser, so the Queen has long known Piyapas.

Her Majesty encouraged Prince Chatrichalerm Yugala, otherwise known as Than Mui, to capture the legend on film around six years ago. And she wanted Piyapas to take the title role.

“My first thought was that I would ruin the movie. That’s what I am afraid of the most. It’s an honour that Her Majesty picked me, and Than Mui thinks that I’m okay. But at the same time I’m afraid that I might ruin everything. The other actors and actresses are top stars in Thailand, and the crew are the top people in the business.”

Her modesty is very real; there is a nervousness in her voice which suggests she might fear a quiz on the finer points of the trade. But while she may appear petite and even fragile dressed in her beige three- quarter length pants and white zip-up top, her physical movements suggest a certain vitality and strength. She excuses herself several times to answer the phone; her days are hectic and filled with numerous commitments.

After the initial shock of being cast was over, Piyapas says she didn’t hear anything further for some time, and thought the project had perhaps been postponed. Little did she know that those five years were being spent in painstaking research about the Ayutthaya period to make the film as authentic as possible.

When she got the news that it was going ahead, she spoke to Than Mui . “I said I don’t think I can do it. You had better make sure that I’m okay with a camera and I’m okay with acting.”

She had some basic training in the fundamentals just prior to filming getting underway last year. Since then, 15 to 20 days per month have been spent on the set, and there’s still around 30 per cent of the film left to shoot. “The big scenes haven’t been done yet – like the battle scene, which I’m afraid of!”

When I ask her if she’s been having fun, she answers thoughtfully. “It’s my character to have fun. Whatever I do, whether I like it or not, I try to get along with it. I try to feel that I like it, and that helps – it makes your work come out well while giving you peace of mind.”

She says she has gained a lot of experience by acting in this movie. “But, if you were to ask if I wanted to do it again, I would say no, thank you! Once is enough!” She laughs deeply – one certainly can’t imagine a director persuading her to appear in another film any time soon. “I am a movie-lover,” she says. “But before I didn’t realise that scenes that appear for two minutes in a movie can actually take three hours to make!”

Piyapas didn’t have a problem with Than Mui’s technique of giving actors the script just prior to filming, which he does to keep their acting fresh, as she wasn’t used to anything in the first place. What was difficult was the older Thai language the period-acting called for: “Nearly every day, before shooting, one of Than Mui’s colleagues would have to call a professor at Chulalongkorn to check whether what we were saying was alright.”

Queen Suriyothai’s existence is in fact disputed by some scholars. “For me, I believe in her,” Piyapas says. “I think she really is a part of the history of us. The details – I can’t say whether they are right or wrong, but Thai people have been told this story for hundreds of years. It is only some historians and critics who seriously question her. Perhaps she was created in the olden days because we needed a story to unite us – whether it’s true or not, it made us proud of ourselves. And you need to be proud of yourself, proud to be Thai.”

Comparisons with Anna and the King, given that they are both interpretations of Thai history, are bound to be made. Piyapat says the main difference between the two is that Anna and the King was made entirely by foreigners who didn’t understand Thai history. “I do understand why the committee made their decision to ban the film – they didn’t allow the film to be made here I the first place, so they couldn’t contradict themselves. I understand this. But, as I have seen the movie, I would like it to be shown here, just to show the people who disagreed with the committee – those people who believe Hollywood is God for movies – that it’s a lousy movie.”

Does she think the story could be a good film? She pauses. “It could be – but you have to understand that right from the beginning, even the book is wrong. Anna calls herself a governess – but she’s not. A governess looks after and lives with children. She was only an English tutor who came in to teach for a few hours a day. It’s wrong from the start.”

Suriyothai has taken up a lot of her time, and she does look forward to her life returning to normal. Her three children, Chitpas, who is almost 15, Nantaya, 12, and Naiyanobh, 10 have their own opinions about their mother-turned-actress. “They make fun of me, of course!” Piyapas says.

At the moment the children are studying in England at a school just outside London. They each left to study there when they turned 10. Her eldest child had suffered from allergies and digestive problems, and found that when she spent a summer there with a friend when she was nine, her health improved. The girls wanted to stay on, so the two families agreed to let them go back there to school “Because they were together, we felt better about it,” she says.

She laments that the house is so quiet without them, but believes she is giving them a big advantage in their lives by ensuring they have an international education. “When I do business with foreigners, I don’t have confidence with my English,” she explains. “If my children have the chance to study in England, they will have a good chance to know both worlds. They are Thai – and I believe that they should learn how to be real Thais. They have to learn how to wai, they have to respect older people, and learn our way of life. And I teach them our history.

“At the same time they know England, they know America and they know Europe. An education is the best thing I can give them – other things people can take away from you – what you have here,” she says, tapping her temple, “will stick with you all your life.”

Even with the children out of the house, Piyapas has a hectic existence. Married to Chutinant Bhirom Bhakdi, whose family owns the Boon Rawd Brewery enterprise, her time is spent helping to run the separate business the two of them own. She also owns an interior decorating business with a partner, although that has been scaled down compared to when they first started it.

In her quieter moments, Piyapas enjoys reading, playing a Gameboy or sleeping. She might curl up with a video – Moonstruck and The Thomas Crowne Affair are two of her favourites, while Audrey Hepburn is a favourite actress. She used to enjoy painting and drawing, and even took lessons, but these days does so more rarely. She tries to get away with her husband on weekends, when they like to go to Pattaya or Hua Hin, and a few trips abroad each year are made to England to visit the children.

The two were almost childhood sweethearts – their parents knew each other, and Piyapas was a friend of his sister. “We met when I was about ten! But nothing happened between us until I turned 19, then we became boyfriend and girlfriend.”

She turned down the opportunity to pursue her masters degree overseas when he persuaded her to marry him. Would she recommend marrying young to her children? “It really depends on the person. I knew my husband for a long time. I knew his character and his way of life well. We were boyfriend and girlfriend for almost three years before we got married.”

Her husband was worried about her acting in Suriyothai, and also about the impact it might have on their private lives – but he supported her nevertheless.

When I ask Piyapas whether she learned much about herself during the filming, her honest and straightforward answer is instructive of her strong character: “I think I had already learned about myself before the film.”