Let them have fun

"We just let them have fun," says Pichet Sithi-Amnuai.

During our interview at his colourful office, fun is a word that’s going to be used several times by the director of Thailand’s first Gymboree Play & Music, a centre of – well, play and music – for children aged just a few weeks to four years old. And with a background in engineering, export and finance, perhaps it’s no wonder that Pichet is so enthusiastic about getting people to have fun – it’s obvious he’s finally having some real fun himself.

Although Gymboree centres have been slowly spreading across the US and other countries since first opening in 1976 – there are now more than 420 around the globe – parents in Thailand had to wait until August of this year for a chance to visit one in Bangkok.

The programme at the centre involves parents coming with their child for two 45-minute sessions per week for the "Play" programme. One session is planned, and the other is simply an opportunity to use the equipment. ("And have some fun," adds Pichet.) In addition, or alternatively, parents and children can come for the weekly 45-minute "Music" programme. It’s all non-competitive, and there’s no right and wrong. If a child wants to do something on their own while others are participating in a group activity, that’s fine.

"The programmes are also something that parents and children can take home with them," says Pichet. "We want the parents to come so they can see the learning curve that their child is on. There’s also a safety factor, but it’s much more than that. It’s about children learning to trust their parents, and about parents seeing their children laugh and have fun."

And so unlike some businesses where taking photographs on the premises is considered taboo, Pichet says making videotapes and taking pictures is actually encouraged. "We’re in the business of selling happiness. Please take photos and videos!" Pichet tells parents.

The programme is based on the notion that children "learn" more during the first year of their life than any other, and that 50 per cent of a child’s learning foundation is established by the age of four. Learning here means understanding themselves and the world around them, rather than anything academic. Classes, which are divided by age and activity levels, are designed to enhance the process of this learning, and help develop motor skills, socialisation and physical fitness, among other things.

There are even lesson plans for birthday and theme parties. "Parents just have to bring the cake so they can have fun too," says Pichet.

So how did Gymboree come to open here? Like many parents, Pichet only came to hear of Gymboree after the birth of his first child, Prim, who’s now aged three and a half.

"It’s become common that when you have a child, you want the child to become involved in some sort of activities," he says. With the birth of Prim, he and his wife Jib, who has a background in economics and banking, searched around for "something for her to do". They couldn’t possibly have foreseen that doing so would change their careerpaths at the same time.

"We tried a few different activities. We thought Prim should have an opportunity to have fun and benefit herself at the same time," he explains. A friend of Jib recommended Gymboree – famous in the US, but little known in Thailand. "So we talked to some parents in the US."

The timing was good. Last year Gymboree started selling franchises internationally. "We applied for a franchise, along with I think five or 10 other people." One trip to each of Singapore and the US later, and Pichet and Jib found themselves owners of the first Thai franchise.

Now there are over 300 children attending classes, conducted in English, from 9 to 4 each day. There are five teaching staff, who hail from Ireland, the Philippines and Thailand. A maximum of 15 children are allowed per class compared to the 20 allowed in the US. Teachers don’t have to have an academic background in education, but they do need a background involving children, and a lot of energy, says Pichet. "The first line of our advertisements for teachers says ‘energetic’ rather than ‘degree’."

So what does the future hold for Pichet, Jib and Prim? Eventually they’d like to open a second centre, or sub-franchise to people who are as serious about putting fun into children’s learning as they are. "This is not a hobby for us," Pichet says. "It’s a serious business." When he’s not having fun, that is.

An equal partnership

He’s the youngest son of Chokchai Bulakul – Thailand’s best-known cowboy – so it’s not surprising that he looks perfectly comfortable in a cowboy hat, white T-shirt, blue jeans, and well-worn leather boots. Neither is it surprising that his fiance – and by the time you’re reading this, his wife – looks utterly chic wearing something very similar.

He’s the youngest son of Chokchai Bulakul – Thailand’s best-known cowboy – so it’s not surprising that he looks perfectly comfortable in a cowboy hat, white T-shirt, blue jeans, and well-worn leather boots. Neither is it surprising that his fiance – and by the time you’re reading this, his wife – looks utterly chic wearing something very similar.

Meet Chai Bulakul, executive director of the Chokchai Ranch Group, 30, and Prim, former national tennis champion and model, 23.

We meet at the Chokchai Ranch at Pak Chong, Nakhon Ratchasima, where Chai spent the first four or five years of his life and much of his later childhood. It’s Thailand’s largest dairy farm, with around 5,000 cows kept on 20,000 rai. Around 70 racehorses and numerous other animals call the ranch home too.

But although Chai looks a natural – he even started to ride before he could walk – he’s not caught up in a cowboy dream. "Being a cowboy is not a big thing to me. It was a fun thing when I was younger, but I never thought ‘I want to grow up to be a cowboy!’

"I don’t have a background in cows!" he adds. "My brother went to university in Vermont to study animals, herd management and so on. I took a different route. I’m a butcher man. I spend most of my time cutting steaks." In fact, Chai spends most of his time working with the people who look after the Chokchai steakhouses.

Educated in Australia and the US, Chai speaks with an American accent softened by an Australian clip. The road to the family business took some time, with Chai first concentrating on film. "Right after I graduated in advertising, I worked for the family business for six or seven months. Then I worked for a company called P& C, a production house. From there I became really interested in film-making. So I got a job in casting, then in the grip department, and then I was an assistant director for maybe two years. Then I decided to go to film school."

Chai went to UCLA for three and a half years, studying directing, acting and cinematography. He has made several short films, and still shoots, but on video now rather than film. "Thailand has such a small industry. To shoot on 16 mm means you’ll have almost have no chance of editing it. Digital film is a lot easier and cheaper, and the kind of thing I can do and back edit on computer… Hopefully one day I’ll make a movie about steaks and being a butcher!"

But when we meet, Chai is being kept busy with the opening of the Ranch to the public, which was due to take place on December 21.

"We’ll have tours," Chai explains. "We’ll have like a trailer pulling each group of around 50 or 60 people around. We’ll start with a video presentation about how my dad started off, and some history of beef cattle." Guests will also be treated to a lecture on how cows breed, and they’ll be able to see firsthand how cows are milked, and how the milk gets from the cow to the table.

As well, he’s being kept busy with preparations for his and Prim’s wedding, also scheduled for December.

Prim appears at first to be the quieter of the two, but it doesn’t take long to realise she’s chatty and even a little bit mischievous.

She first became a well-known face at age 16 when she became a national tennis champion. When did she stop playing? "Right after that!!" she laughs.

She had reluctantly started playing when she was eight years old. "I didn’t really like it, but my mother really wanted me to play. So I kept playing until I was about 14 or 15 years old, when I told her I didn’t want to play anymore. She said fine, but you’ll have to give something back to me in return. Around that time I changed coaches, and started to enjoy playing a lot. And then I won! So I quit after that!"

Prim then concentrated on her studies so she could get into university. And she started modelling just before she stopped playing tennis; she was in the right place at the right time. "An agency needed a model who could play tennis to advertise a cream for sports injuries," she explains.

"So finally, tennis paid off!!" Chai jokes.

After studying communications and advertising as ABAC, Prim is now modelling full-time. She was thinking about studying for her masters, but Chai’s proposal changed all that. How did he propose?

"Oh I wouldn’t want that published!!" Chai says with a laugh.

So how did they meet three years ago?

"Through tennis," says Chai. "I used to go to the Polo Club to jog and do things like that, but I started to get bored. I wanted to start playing with other people. So I played tennis with some girl friends at the Polo Club because playing with guys…" he says, shaking his head, admitting he wasn’t up to scratch to play against them. "Then I happened to play with Prim, and she was the first girl to beat me. I was quite impressed."

Was he hard to beat? "No!" she says. "But he is improving. I think he’s better than me now." But, Chai confesses, she still beats him – around three times a week.

Prim also had the edge over Chai when it came to dressage. "I was surprised when I met her, because I asked if she could ride and she said yes… We went to dressage classes, which I had never learned before. When I was a kid we just picked a horse, trained it and rode it. When we joined the class, I thought it wouldn’t be too hard. But it was hard! Really hard!"

They speak respectfully of each other when asked what it is that keeps them happy together.

"Prim’s very much herself the whole time. From day one until now. She hasn’t changed a bit," Chai says. "She seems to take care of me very well. I can be quite busy, doing this and that, and she’ll remind me of little things to do… She’s always very supportive."

"I’m so happy with everything that we do together," says Prim. "I think we’re quite different. I’m always relaxed, he tends to be more tense. When we’re together – I don’t know – we just go together! He is also much older than me, and all of the advice that he has given me is correct. I feel that he is my best friend too."

In ten years time, Chai envisages perhaps living on the ranch. "I love this place."

As for Prim, "Well, if he’s around here, I’ll have to be around here too! With several kids, I hope. And because I’ve studied communications, if there’s anything I can do to help the business in that area, then that would be good too."

There’s some time to kill after the interview while we wait for the light to mellow for the photographs, so we’re offered an impromptu tour through the small open zoo that’s just about ready for tourists. There are several chimpanzees and orangutans, small and glistening hippopotami, emus, ostriches, calves, and various colourful birds – plenty to keep people not that interested in fully grown cows entertained.

And when Chai and Prim finally mount their horses to head to a paddock for some shots, they’re so rapt up in each other’s company it’s as if we’re not really there.