Subtle, not profound


It’s ambitious and daring by Hollywood standards, but Castaway doesn’t push itself too far beyond what you would expect from a film featuring mainstream stars Tom Hanks and Helen Hunt.

Chuck Noland (Hanks) is a troubleshooter for FedEx, and his life is run almost desperately by the clock. It’s high-pressure, day-in, day-out, as he flits from city to city, improving the speed of moving parcels from A to B. Even his Christmas is ruined by a call leading him to the airport, with his girlfriend, Kelly Frears (Hunt) in tow. They exchange presents in the car; she gives him her grandfather’s pocket watch, while she doesn’t have time to open his before he’s off to the next drama. It turns out that he’s been so wrapped up in his own busy life that he hasn’t even found out that his good friend’s wife is dying.

Chuck’s freight plane hits trouble somewhere over the Pacific, and is spectacularly brought down. It’s a graphic depiction of a plane crash, and be warned: you may have flashbacks next time you’re handing a flight attendant your boarding pass.

Chuck manages to escape the broken plane, and holding on to a rubber dinghy he floats off in the storm, luckily hitting land before morning. But it’s a deserted and reasonably inhospitable tropical island. Besides a small beach with sufficient numbers of coconuts and a single cave for shelter, harsh rock restricts any hope of serious exploration.

And so Chuck’s personal odyssey begins, as he works out a way to collect water, catch food, find shelter and make fire.

So if you could choose any 12 FedEx parcels to take with you on a deserted island, what would they be? Chuck doesn’t get to choose, but almost that many are washed to his feet over the next few days. While at first the items seem laughably superfluous – a designer netted dress, a pair of ice skates, a volleyball – they all soon find their uses. Another lesson, perhaps: things aren’t always what they seem if you can manage to think laterally, and you’re in desperate circumstances. The netted dress turns into a fishing net, the ice skates manage to assist in the extraction of an abscessed tooth, and the volleyball is given a face and turns into Dr Wilson, a companion for Chuck to conveniently chat with.

The trailer gave the ending pretty much away; so if you haven’t seen the trailer, you may not want to read on any further.

But if you have, you’d be correct in presuming that eventually, Chuck makes it back to the real world. What the trailer doesn’t reveal is how he adjusts to real life again.

Problematically, neither does the film. The question of whether Kelly has waited or not for him is quickly answered, but beyond that Chuck doesn’t have anything eloquent to say about what four years alone – struggling, man against nature! – has done to him.

While there’s a newfound appreciation for items Chuck once took for granted, such as cooked crab and fire available at the click of a gas gun, there’s nothing sophisticated in Chuck’s analysis of what has happened to him. So much for time alone being a catalyst for philosophizing. On the other hand, perhaps that would have been too predictable and heavy-handed.

The messages of the film are subtler than a few reflective lines, but they’re not profound, nor do they push any boundaries. Although there is a disappointing lack of complexity in Hank’s character, he puts in a typically solid performance. His weight loss and transformation into a blonde-dreadlocked athlete is quite remarkable (although he does seems to grow more sinewy over the last few months of his stay on the island than the first four years). Hunt, too, is pleasing to watch and enigmatic during the climax.

Castaway is enjoyable and entertaining, but it fails to offer any challenges. It may prompt some thought about how you live your life, and if for that reason only, makes it worth spending two hour of your precious time watching.

The horror of sequels

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2

Of course it’s going to be difficult to follow up with something as good as the original $30,000 Blair Witch Project, but it must have been even harder to consciously make it this bad. Were other forces at work?

The $10 million sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, at least opens with some gusto. Various interviews with the citizens of Burkittsville about the havoc Blair Witch has caused their town are as unsettling as the first film. Are these real citizens? Has the town really been inundated with badly-dressed Marilyn Manson fans?

Cut to the camouflaged Blair Witch Hunt van, where Jeff (Jeffrey Donovan – so is this like, really Jeff?!) is taking his first tourist group on a camping tripout to the site where the original Blair Witch tapes were found. Flashbacks reveal Jeff thrashing about in a padded cell during a stint at a psychiatric hospital. There’s Stephen (Stephen Barker Turner) and his pregnant girlfriend Tristen (Tristen Skyler), who are researching a book called Blair Witch Project: Hysteria or History?, Erica (Erica Leerhsen), who practises Wicca, and intuitive goth Kim (Kim Director) who "just thought the original movie was cool".

Things get a little eerie when Jeff is convinced an old tree has materialized where previously there was nothing. The others think he’s just trying to scare them, and set up camp for a night of drinking and smoking things they shouldn’t be. Another tourist group arrives, but the original gang pretend they’ve seen something scary at Coffin Rock, so the new group heads off there instead.

Next thing it’s morning, the cameras are gone, and all of Stephen and Tristan’s notes are strewn across the campsite – but the tapes are mysteriously buried, intact. Tristan miscarries her baby during the shock of finding things in such a mess – or is there another force at work? – and they all trundle off to hospital while she gets treated.

Then they head back to Jeff’s place, an old factory that is only reached by an unstable bridge that spans a deep gorge below, to watch the tapes. They discover there’s a missing five hours on the tapes, and in the mean time, things are getting strange. Hallucinations and strange dreams keep everyone on edge, and the flash forwards to the group being interviewed by a really annoying sheriff (Lany Flaherty) prompt the question: What is it that they’ve done? They’ve had an orgy, for a start, but to see that the tapes have to be played in reverse…

The motif of cameras and film, kicked off in the original in a much simpler and classier way by the use of hand-held cameras, is sustained in the sequel, but it’s all a bit forced. Hey, everyone’s got a handycam! Hey, Jeff’s set up a stack of cameras so they can see if anything is really going to happen while they’re not looking! Hey, Jeff’s got cameras in his house! Hey, "video tells the truth but film lies"! The film’s ending makes the utterer want to eat those words, but was that all the film was about? Apparently yes.

Director Joe Berlinger, the brains behind a much nobler effort, the documentary My Brother’s Keeper, should have known better. He also should have said "Cut!" a lot more frequently and demanded that his cast actually try to act. There are some really bad lines in this film; so bad, in fact, that it’s worth seeing just to see how horrifically Hollywood can stuff up in making sequels. That’s where the real horror of this film lies.

Chan puts the moves into movies

The Accidental Spy

There’s just something about Jackie Chan’s graceful moves that make any movie of his worth watching. The balletic kicks, the perfectly-executed somersaults and the inventive use of the most mundane of things – from medical equipment to doorways to straw brooms – are simply breathtaking. These are action scenes worth watching. Jackie Chan action scenes are the only ones I don’t use as an opportunity to dash to the loo.

In The Accidental Spy, Chan has excelled again at both choreographing and performing his own scenes and stunts. In interviews, Chan has explained that although many of the stunts in Hong Kong’s most expensive film ever could have been done using special effects, it was cheaper just to do them properly.

And much, much more effective. There’s no digital gauze between the audience and what’s happening on the screen, making the crane that smashes into a skyscraper look devastating, the collapse of a wharf frightening, and even the car chases interesting. (Did I just say I enjoyed a car chase scene?!!) This is real action by real actors. It’s the strong point of the film.

The plot, however, is far-fetched and fanciful. Chan plays Hong Konger Buck, an exercise equipment salesman who’s very good at somersaults and dreams of a more exciting life. He has his chance one day when he’s caught up in a bank robbery that he helps to foil, and gets his name in the papers. This leads him to Liu (Eric Tsang), a private investigator who is searching for an orphan born in 1958 – Buck fits the criteria.

Liu convinces Buck that he’s the son of a Korean bad-guy, one Mr Park, who’s been involved in the development of a powerful chemical weapon known as (don’t laugh) Anthrax II but is now dying of cancer in Seoul. Buck heads to Seoul to see Park, who on his death bed challenges him to a little game of hide and seek.

Buck follows Park’s trail and finds a stash of cash in an Istanbul bank – but it’s not game over yet. Someone thinks Buck has found more ("the thing" everyone keeps calling it, "the thing"), and they’re out to get either it or him. This leads to the film’s most hilarious scene: Buck running down a crowded Turkish market in the nude. It’s a complicated procedure to protect one’s modesty while also knocking out oh, around a dozen or so Bad Guys, but Buck pulls through with masterful aplomb.

It turns out that another Korean big man, Mr Zen (Wu Hsing Kuo), had negotiated with Park to get the Anthrax II for some French buyers, and now he thinks Buck has it. There’s also CIA interest, and if you can follow the plot any further, good on you.

Chan’s performance is undoubtedly what holds this movie together, and Tsang plays a close second. The two female stars, undercover CIA agent Carmen (Kim Ming Cheong) and the heroin-addicted but sweet-faced Yong (Vivian Hsu) are stilted and unnatural actors, but even their mediocre attempts pale in comparison to the male CIA agent who – in just a few lines – manages to steal the prize for the film’s most truly appalling acting.

The thrill of this movie is not the climax of the overall story, but in the individual scenes and snatches of humor. A burning petrol tanker driving at full speed through the streets of Istanbul for a good ten or fifteen minutes without slowing down might be a bit unbelievable and utterly tangential to the plot, but it makes for a gripping ten or fifteen minutes. And it culminates in one of the most impressive on-screen explosions for quite some time. Just sit back and let it wash over you.

Don’t dash out before the end, either. Even though the lights in the cinema will probably be blazing – when will the light turners-on in Bangkok learn? – the series of bloopers from the film at the end are stomach-painfully funny, and demonstrate that sometimes, even the master stuffs up.

Limited entertainment

Vertical Limit

Goddammit, it takes a long time to die on a snowy mountain. And this movie reflects that rather well.

Despite an opening that’s very clearly set in a studio, there are some later scenes of the Himalayas that just might make audiences understand what it is that makes westerners repeatedly spend the GDPs of small countries – and risk their and others’ lives – to get to the tops of those mountains. It’s got to be this: the spectacular scenery, that frontier feeling, and the crisp quietness of being pretty much on top of the world. But there aren’t quite enough of these scenes to be sure … Could it be (gasp!) an egotistical endeavor as well?

The film begins three years earlier, when a climb goes tragically wrong, leaving Annie (Robin Tunney), Peter (Chris O’Donnell) and their father dangling on a single rope against a cliff face – in that order. Their father demands that Peter cut him off, so he does, thereby probably saving their lives.

Cut to the present, where the two siblings hardly speak because Annie thinks Peter made the wrong decision. Peter, now a National Geographic photographer, hasn’t climbed since the accident, but (good girl) Annie has become one of the world’s top climbers. She’s been employed to make a documentary about entrepreneur (bad boy) Elliot Vaughn (Bill Paxton) scaling to the top of K2, the tallest mountain in the world after Everest, but considered by many to be a more technically difficult climb. Circumstances just happen to lead to Peter being around for the beginning of the ascent.

Vaughn’s climb is part of a marketing campaign, with the launch of his new airline company to culminate with the climbers waving to the company’s plane as it makes its inaugural flight over the summit. (Never mind those warring Pakistanis and Indians shooting rockets below.) So, of course, the weather closes in, experienced leader Tom McLaren (Nicholas Lea) wants to turn back, but Vaughn insists on continuing. ("Fuck you!" he screams eloquently at the mountain.) And a few people get killed, while Vaughn, Annie and McClaren get trapped.

Peter is determined to rescue Annie, assembling a rescue crew of six, plus Montgomery Wick (Scott Glenn), a wise old mountaineer who’s seen it all before and lost his wife up there (on Vaughn’s previous attempt to get to the top of K2, it turns out). It’s a race against the clock, as the three will soon succumb to pulmonary edema (but like I said, this takes a while – a long while).

At this stage, director Martin Campbell (The Mask of Zorro, Goldeneye) must have wondered how to get some explosions happening. How, indeed? Nitroglycerin, of course, courtesy of the obliging Pakistanis. Not only will it help blow up wherever it is Annie and gang are trapped, it will let the climbers have one more thing to worry about on their way up. For nitroglycerin is very explosive, and unstable when in the sun, to boot.

While some of the action scenes are breathtaking – the avalanches in particular are wonderful – many of the scenes showing things going wrong are jumbled and unclear. Call me bloodthirsty, but I want to know how it is these climbers actually fall to their premature deaths.

Vertical Limit’s main downfall, however, is its weak script, along with its cliched characters who get very little chance to say anything much. Wick is nothing but a caricature, and when he tells Peter that "You were right to cut the rope" you know the script can’t possibly stoop any lower.

There are a couple of good one-liners, mostly by the Australian characters (Steve Le Marquand and Ben Mendelsohn) and the Pakistanis, who are busy blowing up the nearby Indians but are still drinking their tea – "We might be at war with them, but there’s no point in going too far," says one. But one-liners don’t sustain an action film.

Some of these climbers should have thought twice about what they were doing up the mountainside to begin with; and audiences watching this film, certainly, may reconsider why they are sitting in the cinema watching them.

Where to do yoga in Bangkok

Although the history of yoga stretches back some 5,000 years, in Bangkok yoga has been taught formally for only around 40 years – rather surprising if you consider that some scholars assert that yoga practice is central to Buddhism. There are many different styles of yoga, with the main differences stemming from what component is emphasised. This can include the alignment of the body, the coordination of breath and movement, or maintaining a smooth flow from one posture to the next. What’s important is finding a style and a teacher that you like.

There are now more and more classes being offered around Bangkok, so options are on the increase. Here’s a rundown of a few teachers and places to start:

Teacher’s name: Chomchuen Sidthivech

Style taught: The Sivananda school of yoga, developed by Swami Vishnu-devananda and named after his teacher,is one of the world’s most popular. It follows a set structure of asanas, pranayama and relaxation. Chomchuen emphasises that this form of yoga is very graceful, with no jerking, a trait that can sometimes be observed in other schools. "Srivananda is smooth, gentle, slow," she says.

Background: Chomchuen learned the Sivananda form of yoga from possibly the first teacher to open a school in Bangkok. "My guru studied at the Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh in north India," she says. After several years there, he returned to Bangkok to open a yoga school on Soi Wattanayothin – that was around 40 years ago. Chomchuen studied with him for three years before she too began teaching at his school. Eventually they moved the school to her current home, where they taught together for around eight years. Since her guru died she has taught alone, although she is now training her youngest sister to assist her. One group of around ten women have been coming to her for more than ten years. "A lot of my students are like my sisters or my cousins," she says.

Contact details: 310/1 Ekamai Soi 16. Phone 392 9869.

Class times: Daily except Wed and Sun, 7.30-10am, 2-5pm. Students work individually, and can thus start and finish at their chosen time. Beginners should arrive early in the sessions.

Cost: Bt150 per class.

Teacher’s name: Justin Herold

Style taught: The Iyengar style of yoga is another of the world’s most popular. Created by BKS Iyengar – who taught the Queen of Belgium to do a headstand when she was 83 years old – this style is noted for its great attention to detail and the precise alignment of its postures, as well as the use of props such as blocks, belts, ropes, bolsters and blankets to help students get into poses. Iyengar teachers must complete a rigorous two- to five-year training program before being awarded certification. "I tried other schools of yoga," says Justin. "But I found that the Iyengar system was the one that best suited me."

Background: Justin started practising yoga in 1979. He eventually took a teacher training course in Los Angeles, taught at the Los Angeles Iyengar school for three years and has visited Pune, India, to study with BKS Iyengar on several occasions. He arrived in Bangkok nine years ago, where he has since taught at the Sukhothai, Phillip Wain, the Sheraton and the JW Marriott Hotel, among other places. He opened his own studio in October 1999.

Justin points out that one of the main things with yoga is finding both a school and a teacher you like. "The end results are pretty much the same. Some people like Ashtanga yoga, where you go through a series of postures, and it gets really rigorous. It’s subjective, and that’s why I get people here – because some people like the way I teach."

Contact details: 55th Plaza Building, 90 Sukhumvit Soi 55. Phone 714 9924.

Class times: Sessions are 1.5 hours, daily except Friday. See for details.

Cost: Bt330 for drop-in, Bt2,700 for ten lessons to be used within two months, Bt2,700 for unlimited classes for one month or 27,000 for a yearly membership.

Teacher’s name: Hilary Fedderson

Style taught: Hilary teaches her own version of yoga which she describes as being mostly Iyengar and Sivananda based.

Background: Indian-born Hilary Feddersen learned yoga on and off while she was in her twenties. She started practising more seriously when she developed some lower back problems, and found the yoga helped strengthen her back and eventually eliminated the problems.

After learning yoga with eleven teachers of various disciplines she began teaching her own combination of yoga. Besides the basic yoga asanas, Hilary believes the breathing and the meditative aspects of yoga are very important components to be included in each practice in order to receive the full benefits of yoga. "To treat yoga merely as a form of physical exercise is a mistake many people make, because well-being results from harmonising both mind and body," she says.

She gave her first yoga classes in Bangkok over 20 years ago where she and her family have been residents for about 30 years.

Contact details: Apt 6A2 Royal Mansion, 304 Sukhumvit 55 (between sub sois 8 and 10). Phone 390 2310 or 01 692 0081.

Class times: Tuesday and Thursday mornings between 9.30 and 11.00 a.m.

Cost: Bt 1,000 for 4 sessions.

The benefits of yoga

Do you sometimes feel like you’re operating at half-speed? Are you stressed out? Or perhaps you’re feeling like you just don’t get enough exercise, but the thought of working out at a gym utterly bores you to tears.

Practising the ancient art of yoga can not only help with various health problems, it can also boost your energy levels, strengthen your immune system and soothe a tense mind and body.

In Thailand, as in much of the western world, yoga is on the ascendancy. Bangkok-based yoga teacher Hilary Fedderson says more and more Thais, along with expats, are becoming interested in yoga. "I don’t know if it’s a fad or what," she says, "but people are certainly picking up on it now."

Complete yogic practice is made up of five essential principles, although various yoga schools may have slightly differing theories. These principles are: proper relaxation, proper exercise (physical postures, or asanas), proper breathing (the practice of pranayama), a proper vegetarian diet, and meditation.

Yoga originated in India up to 5,000 years ago, but became more widespread with the publishing of the Indian epic poem, Mahabharata, around the 6th century BC. Hatha yoga, the generic term for the practice of most forms of yoga, today is based on a later text called the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

Hilary emphasises that the objective of yoga was never merely to exercise. "The idea of yoga was to have a healthy body so that you could go higher spiritually," she explains. If the body is supple and strong, sitting meditations are easier. "It’s like you’re joining the individual soul to the universe. At a lower level, it’s the joining of the mind to the body."

But people come to yoga for different reasons, and exercise is one of them. Justin Herold, an Iyengar yoga teacher, first tried yoga back in 1979 when stretching was first deemed to be an important part of warming up for running – and Justin ran over 100km per week. "I thought if anyone knew about stretching, it would be the yogis."

Eventually, however, he decided that yoga was a better all-round system for keeping himself in shape. "With running, there’s a price or a penalty that you pay – because of the abuse you do to your body, you’re going to get injured," Herold says.

He thought for a long time that the benefits of running were greater than the price his body was paying. "But then I looked at yoga, and I thought, well, there’s really no penalty with this one. You get injured sometimes – I’ve had neck injuries – but nothing that can’t be corrected."

Petcharapan Sangsawang, who practises at Justin’s studio, came to yoga to try and solve her allergy problems. Nearly every morning, she says, her nose ran, she would sneeze and her head would be uncomfortably congested. "Now I know how to breathe," she says, after two years of regular practice. "My lungs are healthier and stronger, so they can cope with the allergies."

Petcharapan runs her own advertising business and – unsurprisingly – says this can be quite stressful. "But the yoga can help make my mind quiet and peaceful, and breathing calmly helps reduce the pressure."

Chomchuen Sidthivech, who teaches the Sivananda school of yoga, also first came to yoga to seek relief from health problems: allergies, regular colds and period pain. She heard about yoga from a magazine, where she read an interview with the man who would eventually become her guru. "After about three months of practising every day, my menstrual problems cleared up. It took one year for my body to really change. After that I improved quickly."

Contrary to some people’s expectations, you don’t need to be flexible to start doing yoga or to receive any of yoga’s benefits. "The moment you stretch your legs and you feel the stretch – already you’re opening up energy pathways," Hilary says.

So what are you waiting for?

Are skin whiteners safe?

It’s difficult to avoid seeing those advertisements for skin whiteners plastered across billboards, those images of smiling Thai women with snow-white skin shown on TV and in cinemas, in magazines and newspapers.

In western countries, there’s little demand for whiteners; but in Asian countries, they’re big business. According to the Thai Farmers Research Centre, in 1998 whitening products represented the single biggest stake in skin-care products – 49 percent of a market worth around Bt880 million. But are they safe?

The short answer according to skin specialists is that buying creams over the counter probably is. But you should always ensure the ingredients are listed – some unscrupulous salons may sell creams containing substances banned by the FDA for personal use, and these are the potentially dangerous creams.

Dr Wilai Thanasarnaksorn, a dermatologist at Samitivej Hospital, says that if women want whiter skin they should first consult a dermatologist. "I recommend wearing an antioxidant cream, such as a vitamin C cream, and an SPF15+ sunscreen, applied 15 minutes before going out into the sun. People shouldn’t wear anything else unless they consult a dermatologist first."

Dermatologists can recommend the best over-the-counter brands for a patient’s skin type. "The FDA screens products, so buying them over-the-counter from a proper chemist, or a reputable salon, should be safe," says Dr Wilai.

Dr Dollacha Narindrankura, a skin specialist at Rajtevee Polyclinic, agrees. "The problem is, I think, that people with a poor education can buy creams from a drug store or a beauty shop that the shop has packaged itself – and this can be dangerous. People should only buy products with listed ingredients, so they can check what it is they are putting on their face."

Doctors use the strongest whitening agents to treat actual medical conditions: hyperpigmentation or melasma. Both conditions stem from an excessive production of melanin, the substance that causes the skin to darken. Certain chemicals can help improve these conditions by suppressing that melanin production.

There are two main groups of skin whitening agents, explains Dr Wilai: chemical synthetics and herbs or natural substances. "The first are chemicals with some toxicity – hydroquinone is one of these. Its action is very quick, but used over the long term, or using a cream with a high percentage of it, can lead to permanent confetti-like depigmentation [brown blotches] or ochronosis [dark greyish-blue blotches]. It can also cause redness in the skin by dillating the capillaries."

Unsurprisingly then, this is the chemical that causes the most complications. "Hydroquinone is only safe in the hands of doctors," warns Dr Dollacha. "Also, if you use it for a long time – for years – and you stop, there can be a ‘rebound’ effect, where the skin turns darker than what it was before you started using the cream."

Dr Wilai says that recent studies have suggested that hydroquinone may be mutagenic – that is, cause skin cancer. "So the FDA prohibited its sale over the counter, and now only doctors can prescribe it, because they know when to use it."

More worrying is the possibility of creams containing mercury being sold by unscrupulous vendors. "We aren’t sure if there are still some places selling products with mercury in them, especially in the northeast. Ten to twenty years ago mercury was supposed to be a very strong and effective whitening agent. However, it has renal toxicity – it can lead to kidney failure," Dr Wilai explains. "The FDA prohibited it, but we have found a few cases where the staining on patients faces has led me to think that they may have been using a product with mercury in it."

There are a plethora of other whitening agents. Azelaic acid is a naturally occurring chemical that is not banned by the FDA, but it can still burn or irritate the skin if not used under medical supervision. Then there’s kojic acid, arbutin and alphahydroxy acid, among others … it can be a bewildering list to the uninitiated.

That’s before even starting to consider the naturally occurring whiteners, such as vitamin C, hailed by some in the early 90s as being the next great thing in skin whiteners. "I do use vitamin C cream because it’s an antioxidant," says Dr Wilai. "I believe it will prevent new pigmentation, to some degree."

Plus there are plenty of other natural products that most doctors don’t believe are very effective, but are available over the counter – such as chamomile, mulberry extract, apple phenon, licorice extract and even placenta extract. Dr Dollacha says that most of these creams are really only affecting the skin at a superficial level. "In the short run, they might work, but in the long run, they don’t make any difference. They might help get rid of the dead skin on the skin’s surface, and the new skin will look whiter and brighter. But they will only affect dead skin, so they are safe."

Soothe away stress with a bath

You’re home. It’s been a long and hectic week, or just a stressful, never-ending day. The last thing you feel like doing is heading outside your sanctuary again to get a treatment. Why not treat yourself to a luxurious bath in the comfort of your own home to help you unwind?

Chrissie Davis, spa manager at the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit, suggests lighting an aromatherapy burner while you’re running your bath. "Then the whole room will be filled with a beautiful fragrance when you come in to get undressed," she says. If you don’t have a burner, simply place a few drops of an essential oil onto a burning candle – and add that same oil, or blend of oils, to your bath.

"My recommendation is chamomile blended with lavender and geranium," says Chrissie. "This is a calming, soothing mix. Geranium is grounding and promotes healing; it’s very relaxing. German chamomile is calming and sedating. It can sooth hayfever and be good for dermatitis. And lavender – well that should be in everyone’s first aid kit."

Add around eight to ten drops to a normal sized bath and don’t forget to agitate it. "Remember, oil and water don’t mix," she says.

The oil of choice for Narisa Akaracharanya, operations manager for Mandara Spas, is lavender. "It’s the most relaxing oil, and it’s known as being an evening oil. When absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream, it affects the nervous system and helps to unwind and relax the body and mind. Lavender is also suitable for most people – I don’t think many people would be allergic to it. Ylang ylang can be another choice, but it’s quite strong. Chamomile is another good choice too."

Pregnant women should be careful of which oils they use, particularly during the first trimester, cautions Davis.

Both women emphasise that the overall setting in which you take your bath is very important. Chrissie recommends turning the lights out and relying on candles to create a calming ambience, and Narisa strongly suggests avoiding all fluorescent lights. "Dim the lights, or light some candles if you only have neon," she says.

Soft music can also help create the right mood. "Don’t play ‘every day’ music, or even love songs," Chrissie warns. "You need to play something that will take you right away from the every day. Something like Ken Davis is very good and totally relaxing."

And if you want to go all out, sprinkle some flower petals onto the surface of the bath. "Rose petals are beautiful," says Chrissie.

As for the water’s temperature, it needs to be warm, but not too hot. "If the water is too hot, it will leave the skin dry," explains Narisa.

Narisa also recommends wearing an eye mask. "You can wear a mask if you don’t like to see any light – there are some made of natural materials that contain scented seeds. Or try using cotton pads placed over eye gel applied around the eyes- that can be relaxing. I like to use Biotherm eye gel after it’s been in the fridge. Sometimes I use tea bags – I prefer Earl Grey – but I read that jasmine is good too. Simply squeeze out the water, cool the bags, and place them over your eyes."

Then sink down and surrender yourself to the environment you’ve created. What’s the ideal length of time to soak your worries away? "It depends on the person," says Chrissie. "Some people can spend hours on end in there, topping up the water. Ten to twenty minutes can be ideal. Ten to fifteen minutes is good enough for me, but I tend to prefer jacuzzis to baths because I can sit in them for longer, and I find the bubbles relaxing."

It’s a very personal thing. With a few tries you should discover the environment that perfectly recharges your batteries – without needing to leave home.

Tended talons

It can be a marvellous spectacle to watch a woman with very long painted nails at work, using a telephone, taking notes. But for the ordinary woman, it can be troublesome enough just trying to keep her nails healthy and respectable looking. The key?

Regular basic manicures, according to Pimonrat Trirattanakittikul, owner and general manager of nail salon Nail Intensive Care (NIC). "Nails complete a person’s total look, and a basic manicure is the foundation for all other nail services," she says. "Every nail salon needs to be good at a basic manicure."

But getting a manicure isn’t just about beautiful nails. Yupin Macleod, manager of The Best salons, points out that more than just beauty is at stake. "Over time, cuticles can become hard, and nails can start to become ingrown. This can lead to a lot of bacteria getting caught in the nails, or to fungi developing – remember, we use our hands for everything, all day. A manicure can help prevent this build up."

The relaxation aspect is important too, says Pimonrat. "Having a manicure allows you to enjoy some personal attention by a professional." And if you tend to bite your nails, having such a treatment can also encourage you to stop.

According to Pimonrat, the typical salon manicure will involve these steps:
· Removal of old polish;
· Nail cleaning with a soft brush and soap;
· Soaking hands in warm water for around ten minutes;
· Pushing back cuticles with an orangewood stick;
· Filing nails into shape. Filing should happen in one direction only, from the edge to the centre;
· Trimming of excess skin from the cuticles and getting rid of hangnails; and
· Cleaning with alcohol again.

If no nail polish is being applied, the next-to-final step is to massage cuticle oil into the fingertips, followed by an application of hand lotion. But if colour is being added, a base coat should first be applied, and after being left properly to dry, two coats of nail polish should be added, followed by a top coat. Next up comes a cuticle oil massage around the cuticle area, and finally, a massage with hand lotion.

A one-hour manicure at NIC costs Bt250; the Best also charged Bt250 and their manicures are usually done in conjunction with other salon services, such as a shampoo and blowdry.

As for the latest in nail fashion, Pimonrat says that gold has been the most popular colour over the past year, while bright purple and pink is hot this month. "And in America, filing nails into an oval shape is most popular, while Thai people love square nails," she adds.

If you can’t get to a salon, Pimonrat recommends treating yourself at home. It’s a good opportunity to relax a little; play some music, grab some magazines to browse through while waiting for your nails to dry.

These are Pimonrat’s recommended steps for a home manicure:
· Wash your nails using a soft brush and soap;
· Soak your hands in plain warm water for ten minutes;
· Use a cotton bud to gently push back your nail base;
· Use a cuticle cutter to trim away excess skin from your cuticles and hangnails, but don’t cut too much off or they will grow out hard;
· Massage cuticle oil around the cuticles and over the nail’s surface;
· To strengthen the nails, add a top coat.

"Don’t use a nail buffer, as this can dehydrate and weaken nails," Pimonrat warns. "Professionals can use a buffer in the salon, but you shouldn’t use one yourself at home."

Heading to a salon or pulling out your own equipment to give yourself a manicure once every two weeks should be enough to keep your nails looking healthy. "I sometimes do my nails myself," says Pimonrat, waving her elegant talons around. "But it’s more difficult. Plus it’s more relaxing when a nail technician does them."

Getting a good cut from your stylist

It’s happened to nearly everyone: a haircut that’s failed to live up to your expectations or even had you in tears by the time you’ve arrived home.

But there are steps you can take to ensure you get the cut you want. "Talk to your hairdresser before you get your hair wet. That way your hairdresser can see your hair’s texture, condition, the way it falls," says Panipa Pavanarit, manager of Panipa Hair and Beauty, and president of the Hairdressers’ Club of Thailand.

Stephane, owner of the French salon that bears his name, advises that you should speak openly with your stylist during this initial consultation. "Dialogue is the most important thing. You need to make sure the stylist understands what you want. I can’t do a good job if I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing. "

Bringing a photograph can sometimes help. "But it must be clear. If you cannot see the style, it’s no use. And don’t bring me a picture of Jennifer Aniston if you look like Whitney Houston."

[Stephane says Jennifer Aniston and Meg Ryan are the two most popular stars whose cuts people want themselves. As for men: "Men never bring in photos," he says. "They don’t want to look like another good-looking man. They want to be the best looking man themselves!"]

Pattanapong Yanasit, a stylist with The Best, agrees that a photograph can be useful because it allows him to see what the client really wants. "But in another way, it’s not good, because sometimes it might not be possible to do that style for the client – because of the texture of the client’s hair, or their features. What I can do is take that concept and adapt it to suit them."

Panipa emphasises that the language you use when talking to your stylist is important. "Talk in inches or centimetres when you’re saying how much you want cut off. A ‘little bit’ in your mind might not be a ‘little bit’ in your stylist’s mind. If you want your hair cut to a certain length, try to say where: to the shoulders, chin, ear, half way down the ear. These are the terms hairdressers understand."

Once the stylist starts work, you can help by paying attention. "With your first cut, don’t read a book," says Panipa. "The stylist wants to talk to you as she styles your hair, so she can adapt what she’s doing as she works. If you don’t like what she’s doing she can change it as she goes."

On the other hand, Stephane points out that hairdressers can be moody. "Don’t say: ‘Don’t cut there!’ after they have started. Try to be diplomatic. Try not to affect the mood of the hairdresser. Also, try to relax. Your hairdresser will know you’re tense because your shoulders will be tight and higher – and they might think you’re doubting their capacity to do the style. As a stylist, if you feel like you’re in a cage, you will not do a good job."

But what if, despite following all of the above, you’re unhappy with the result? "Be friendly to your stylist and tell them," advises Pattanapong. "Maybe we talked but our understanding was different. I might think the cut is beautiful and trendy, but the client might cry – this has happened before. We can change it, make sure it’s something that suits the client."

"You have to tell the stylist," Panipa agrees. "If you think it doesn’t suit you, say so, don’t just go home. All stylists want a good result – if your client is happy, you’re happy too. Don’t think that you’re taking up too much of your stylist’s time."

If the cut is too heavy, the stylist can texturise it; if it’s too long, it can be cut shorter, she says. And if it’s too short? "Well, I would tell the client that hair grows at half an inch per month," Panipa says. "And sometimes it can take a week to grow to like a new look. Styling products can also make hair appear longer."