Sharp ways to stay healthy

While many in the West consider acupuncture to be an "alternative" medical treatment, it has been practised for up to 5,000 years in China. It’s perhaps ironic then, that Samitivej hospital physiatrist Dr Chirapan Vinaikulpong finds that it’s her western patients who request acupuncture rather than her Thai patients. "This might be changing, but most of my Thai patients are afraid of needles. Europeans are afraid of chemicals."

Acupuncture is the insertion of very fine needles about one to two centimetres into the skin of the body to influence its health. It is first mentioned in the world’s oldest medical text, the Huang Di Nei Jing, which theorises that the body has an energy force, called qi (pronounced "chee"), running along twenty "meridians" or pathways. There are up to 2,000 spots where these meridians reach the surface of the skin; placing a needle on them will affect the qi that runs through them. Qi itself is influenced by the opposing forces of yin and yang, which represent positive and negative energy. Acupuncture is believed to keep the balance between yin and yang, so it allows the normal flow of qi throughout the body.

There is no scientific explanation of how acupuncture works, but a number of theories have been offered. One popular theory suggests that pain impulses are blocked via acupuncture from reaching the spinal cord or brain. Others variously suggest acupuncture releases narcotic-like chemicals, endorphins or neurotransmitting chemicals, such as seratonin and noradrenaline.

Since the 1970s, the World Health Organisation has recognised that acupuncture can help treat many ailments. These include neuromusculoskeletal conditions, such as arthritis, neuralgia, and neck/shoulder pain; psychological disorders such as depression; circulatory disorders such as hypertension; addictions; respiratory disorders, such as allergies and bronchitis; and gastrointestinal conditions. Since then it has been formally recognised in the US that acupuncture can help with even more afflictions, including carpal tunnel syndrome, asthma, migraines and menstrual cramps.

As a physiatrist, Dr Chiraporn treats mostly patients with neuromusculoskeletal problems. In her experience, she says acupuncture definitely has an anti-pain effect and that her patients usually request acupuncture when their medication starts to lose its effect. "But I have observed that acupuncture also regulates the recovery of musculo-skeletal problems. It works best when the problem is simple and acute, and there are no underlying mental problems."

However, Dr Chiraporn says that the effect of a treatment session does not last long. "It depends on the patient – in some, it lasts for two to three hours, in others up to a week." This is why traditionally, for chronic problems, patients were treated every day in China. "But this is difficult to achieve in Bangkok, so I usually recommend two to three sessions per week," she says. The length of a session depends upon the treatment, but usually involves the use of six to 10 needles.

There is no regulation of practitioners of acupuncture in Thailand, but the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine has run a three-month course in Thailand since 1998, which some 120 to 150 Thai physicians have completed. Patients who want to ensure their practitioner has a qualification could check to see if they hold a certificate from that course as a minimum requirement.

"The entire concept of traditional Chinese medicine is that when you look at a local problem, you look at the whole too," Dr Chiraporn says. As such, acupuncture is not the complete solution to health problems. "Meditation, exercise and diet are also important. Acupuncture can combat some very painful symptoms, but it is also the duty of the patient to work to fix their problems."

Samitivej Hospital:381 6807
From Bt500
Department of Medical Services: 590 6127
From Bt200
Sirindhorn National Medical Rehabilitation Centre: 591 3569
Price depends on doctor
Bangkok General Hospital: 310 3011
Bt700 for first visit, Bt560 for second and further visits
Huay Chiaw Hospital: 223 1351
From Bt200
Bumrungrad Hospital: 667 1000
Bt100/pack of ten needles, then fee depends on doctor
Yan Hee General Hospital: 879-0300
Bt400 to 500

The wedding yawner

The Wedding Planner

A friend of mine once accidentally took her conservative and frail grandmother to see Pulp Fiction; she was so psychologically scarred by the experience that she still always rates movies based on the "grandma-watchability" factor. The Wedding Planner, a highly-formulaic, painfully predictable and clean romantic comedy, pulls in very big on the grandma factor. There is a stray concrete penis that falls off a statue, but for the most part, this is a safe film that shamelessly attempts to pay homage to good-old fashioned romance and the institution that makes a lot of money out of it: marriage.

Mary Fiore (Jennifer Lopez) has a highly succesful career as a wedding planner. In the opening scene, she effortlessly keeps a wedding from falling to bits by giving a heartwarming pep talk to a nervous bride, sobering up the drunken father-of-the-bride, relocating a big-haired guest out of the video camera’s angle and talking the priest into not dashing off to the bathroom. She’s sophisticated, she’s cool, and she has no love life to speak of. Gasp! She has to eat her meals alone! She likes to be in control! Horrors! Her social life consists of Scrabble tournaments! Could a woman’s life possibly get any worse?

Well, she could always lose a pair of her Gucci shoes. Luckily, Mary just manages to save hers from a street grate as a dumpster accelerates its way towards her down one of those San Franciscan hills. The doughty Steve (Matthew McConaughey, sporting the most annoying accent since Kevin Costner in Thirteen Days) thinks she’s about to be hit and dashes across the street to save her. She’s literally swept off her feet. Audiences, however, won’t be.

Lopez can act. The scene where she realises her hair’s not perfect and her lippy requires reapplication demonstrates her watchability (I’m serious!); ditto for when she announces to her assistant (Judy Greer) that she’s a professional. McConaughey’s well cast as the hunk who’s basically a nice guy but, despite being a paediatrician, isn’t too intellectually demanding when it comes to choosing a life partner. But there’s little real chemistry between these two, beyond the stars we’re supposed to see sparkling in their eyes as they first dance together under the stars. Who care’s if they don’t get together?

There’s a twist, alas, as Mary (a name very close to the word marry, it’s pointed out in one pathetic moment) discovers that Steve is actually the fiance of her most important client ever, businesswoman extraordinaire, Fran Donolly (Brigette Wilson). Would Mary scheme and plot to win the heart of the man she’s fallen for? If your grandmother’s watching, certainly not.

Mary in fact eventually gives what we now see is a tired old pep talk to Fran when she has second thoughts about marrying Steve. Mary’s personal ethics may be noble, but she unwittingly reveals the emptiness and vacuity of her chosen profession with this speech that inevitably brings the bride-to-be to tears. "Not only is your marriage going to work, it’s going to last forever!" she gushes. Muriel’s Wedding this ain’t. You don’t need to be told the ending.

One distraction on-route to the inevitable sugary climax is worth mentioning. Mary’s father introduces an Italian stereotype – I mean immigrant – to Mary, in the hope she’ll marry him. He idiotically assumes somehow that Mary has agreed to be his wife; not knowing how to speak English well is one thing (even with an excruciatingly inauthentic Italian accent) but being scripted as an idiot just because you’re from another country is another. This part of the film stands out as being simply quite strange.

At least strange is interesting; such kind words can’t be said about the rest of the film. Save this up for when you have to take grandma out. Or better still, have grandma round in a few weeks and watch it on video.

Alpha hydroxy acids: Good for the skin?

Alpha hydroxy acids, or AHAs, have been used in low quantites for cosmetic purposes for centuries – Cleopatra bathing in milk is one legendary instance of the use of lactic acid – but they only reached the mass Thai market in the mid-90s, where they’re still going strong.

What are they?
Alpha hydroxy acids are a group of simple, structurally related organic acids that are derived from fruit and milk sugars. Glycolic acid, from sugar cane, and lactic acid, from soured milk, are two of the most common ones used and recommended by doctors to improve the skin. Others AHAs include mandelic acid from apples, tartaric acid from grapes and citric acid from citrus fruits.

How do they work?
As one’s skin ages, it becomes less able to shed unnecessary dead skin cells; the build up of these cells can leave the skin’s surface looking dull. Alpha hydroxy acids, when applied to the skin, stimulate and increase the epidermal cell turnover, a process known as exfoliation. There is some scientific evidence that professional treatments, which can contain up to seventy per cent of an AHA, leave the skin feeling more elastic and smooth, while reducing the visibility of wrinkles and fine lines.

"It makes the skin look fresher, brighter and younger," confirms Bumrungrad Hospital dermatologist Dr Niyom Tantikun. He recommends having one treatment per week for four weeks for the best results. Patients with more sensitive skin – such as those with fair skin – should instead have treatments just once a month.

Once the initial series of treatments is over, the results can be maintained by using weaker over the counter creams once or twice a week. "These creams for home use usually contain a concentration under ten per cent," says Dr Niyom, adding that you should check the product label for information.

The most common side effect, whether AHAs are used at home or under a doctor’s supervision, is reddening of the skin. Complaints in the US have, however, also included swelling, burning, blistering, bleeding, rashes, itching, and skin discoloration. "Doctors should start with a low concentration and increase the strength only when there is no adverse reaction," says Dr Niyom.

DIY vs seeing a doctor
Due to the uncertainty involved in an individual’s reaction to a treatment, it’s advisable to head to a qualified dermatlogist for treatment, rather than a beauty clinic. Samitivej Hospital dermatologist Dr Nalinee Sutthipisal says, "Doctors can better manage the side effects that may occur. They also know about the many different concentrations of products, the pH levels and so on, and are more likely to know what the effect on an individual’s skin will be," Dr Nalinee says.

The extent of exfoliation that occurs will depends on the concentration of the AHA, the other ingredients in the produc, its pH level and, of course, the particular AHA used. "It’s the size of the AHA molecule itself matters," Dr Nalinee explains. "Glycolic acid, for instance, is a smaller molecule, so it has a stronger effect. It’s more difficult to control."

For this reason, she personally prefers to use a mixed fruit acid (which has larger molecules) on her patients, as she believes this maximises the benefits of the treatment, while reducing any long term side effects.

Long-term effects are unknown
Since AHAs have been used for such a short length of time, the jury is still out on their longer term effects. Studies have found that since AHAs strip away the skin’s outer layer, a patient will be more sensitive to the sun. This can lead to an increased risk of photoageing (the ageing of the skin caused by the sun) and skin cancer. For this reason, doctors strongly advise that patients undergoing AHA treatments, or using AHA over-the-counter creams, always wear a sunscreen.

Rajtevee Polyclinic
Mahatun Plaza, Ploenchit Rd
Tel: 252 9251
First time free, then five treatments for Bt1500.

Samitivej Hospital
133 Sukhumvit 49
Tel: 381 6807
Bt600 per treatment

Bumrungrad Hospital
33 Sukhumvit 3
Tel: 667 1000
Usually Bt700, but can vary according to doctor

Bangkok Nursing Home Hospital
9/1 Convent Rd, Silom
Tel: 632 0550
Bt600 to 1000

Bangkok General Hospital
2 Soi 7, New Petchaburi Rd
Tel: 318 0066

The bettering of Bangkok

Think of Bangkok and you’ll probably think of sex tourism: the neon of Nana Plaza, the pingpong shows of Patpong, and the sleaziness of Soi Cowboy. But these are merely three modest strips in a massive city maturing as the most cosmopolitan centre of Southeast Asia, a megalopolis that’s gradually donning more of an intellectual mantle. Bangkok is evolving into a destination worthy of the adoration of more than just the tourist seeking tacky souvenirs and a cheap package holiday. I live here, and I’m watching the transformation with glee.

Let’s start with Bangkok’s second claim to fame: its traffic. The stories prior to the economic collapse were legendary, and although those sort of epic days might be over with many cars now repossessed, the city still suffers more than its fair share of jams. Things changed for the better, however, with the December 1999 opening of the Skytrain – a monstrous elevated train line that makes normal monorails look like children’s toys. Now travellers have a quick, airconditioned and cheap way of getting around many parts of town.

The Skytrain doesn’t quite make it to Rattanakosin, the old city of Bangkok where many of the city’s best cultural attractions lie – but this area is accessible by boat along the Chao Phraya, the coffee-coloured river that divides the city in two. Hordes head to the glittering Grand Palace – the spires will catch your eye from the river – but head to the more peaceful Vimanmek Mansion, the world’s largest teak building, constructed without a nail.

More attention is being paid to old Thai architecture these days. Check out the teak house of former prime minister MR Kukrit Pramol, incongruously situated in the heart of the financial district’s sleek glass and steel towers; stroll through the teak houses of Suan Pakkard Palace and admire the fine antiquities on display; or visit the treasure-filled home of Jim Thompson, the former American CIA agent who saved Thailand’s silk industry – before disappearing in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands in the 60s.

Of course, shopping for Thai silk must be on your list of things to do. Any Thai will unhesitatingly tell you to head straight to one of the several Jim Thompson outlets – except for the tuk-tuk drivers who insist on taking you for a ride to their brother’s shop for free. Jim Thompson is certainly a better, albeit more expensive bet.

You can mix a love of architecture, shopping and food if you head to Caf? Siam, the beautifully-renovated house built by the first governor of the Thai Railways in the 1920s – and another fish out of water in the financial district. French and Thai food are served downstairs, desserts and coffee in the lounge area upstairs – and everything down to your teaspoon is for sale.

It’s possible to eat out satisfactorily for years in Bangkok without ever having to go to the same place twice – but chances are you’d want to return to some of the best. For Thai food, there’s elegant Baan Khanita – a stone’s throw from Soi Cowboy, but a mile away in class – or understated Lemongrass, located across the road from the city’s newest gleaming department store, Emporium. Italian food is hugely popular at the moment, with the Regent’s breezy Biscotti a favourite among the Thai hi-so (high society) set. Home-style Middle Eastern food is booming around the Nana area, while upmarket "trans-ethnic" cuisine is the go at the newish Merchant Court Hotel’s Doc Chengs, in the outer-lying Huay Khwang district.

The arts are finally coming into their own in Bangkok, with the town’s first ever opera staged in March; film festivals come and go, leaving film-lovers too short of any holiday leave to go elsewhere in the country. Regular open-mike poetry readings began last year at the hip About Caf? and Gallery, near Hualamphong railway station. Check out the installation art upstairs while you’re there, and sip a traditional cool Thai drink while you finesse your sonnet.

The bar and club scene gets more sophisticated by the month. The Silom 4 area is popular among teens and the gay scene, but New York-style Q Bar, the younger sibling of the famed Saigon branch, shows that the Sukhumvit area can be classy too. One club worth checking out for its sheer opulence is Narcissus, where the classical Greek-style interior, disco balls and red velvet lounges scream "Bangkok boom years" but still attracts the masses.

World music is on the ascendancy, with several clubs changing their focus now the Latin craze has dulled. Hit the downmarket but seriously music-centred La Havana on Sukhumvit 22 late on a Friday or Saturday and you’ll find anything from a blend of electronic and live instrumentation, to acoustic Cuban trova. The owner claims to have the best Latin CD collection in Asia, so head there any other night and put in a request. On the same lane you’ll find world-renowned jazz pianist Randy Cannon tinkling the ivories at the Imperial Queens Park Hotel, while back down on the river the Oriental Hotel’s Bamboo Bar frequently features top jazz musicians passing through town.

Of course, the Oriental is still the place to stay – with prices reflecting this. Built on the Chao Phraya by the same Armenian brothers responsible for Singapore’s Raffles Hotel, it retains an old-world charm that no other hotel comes close to matching. But there are plenty of other five-star hotels in the area. The Peninsula, on the "wrong" side of the river, would be my second choice for its fantastic views and tasteful decor.

The spa scene, too, has come of age. Even if you’re not staying at the Oriental, head to their spa across the river for some of their exceptional Thai or foreign treatments (splash out and book in for the day), or further downriver try the Mandara Spa at the Marriott Royal Garden Riverside for tropical treats at their best.

But if you can’t make it here soon, don’t fret; things are getting better by the day.

So long and thanks for the mojitos

"It’s over," says Rico, owner/manager of down-to-earth Cuban bar and restaurant, La Havana. He’s talking about Bangkok’s obsession with all things Latin. "The height has certainly already come and gone."

Sexy, colorful, and most of all fun, Latin dancing rode into town on the coattails of Ricky Martin and 1997’s World Cup. As the baht dived and the SET plunged, it wasn’t only business going into the red; if they had to be miserable by day, Bangkokians staunchly refused to be grim by night. They slipped into clothes – if not red than at least bright – and slunk out to salsa the night away at a myriad of pumping clubs: El Nino, La Havana, Baila Baila, the Salsa Club, Que Pasa, Coco Loco, Bar Latino, Senor Pico’s, and most recently, Cubanos. Bangkok was the salsa-holic’s taco.

It was a timely antidote to descending gloom – and still it lingers. "Latin is fun. It’s lively. And these facts appeal to the Thai sense of how life should be lived," says Vararom Pachimsawat, artistic director of the Dance Centre, one of many places offering Latin dance classes. "Certainly there is a trend of Latin dance at present in Bangkok. I think that it will last for some time to come."

But dancing venues are dwindling: Coco Loco, Bar Latino and Que Pasa have cha cha-ed off into the sunset. Baila Baila has shifted its focus towards the mainstream; Cubanos changed owners shortly after opening at the end of last year, yet still clings to the formula that worked earlier for so many others.

So is it all commiserations and tears in the mojitos for those punters still wanting to party?

Not for a second. Now that Bangkok’s fickle crowd has warmed enthusiastically to the idea of something beyond disco, pop and techno, some clubs are taking a step further into the unknown: world music. That catchall phrase for – well, anything not western – is the Next Big Thing.

Both La Havana and the Salsa Club are in the process of shifting their focus in this direction. "We will always have the Latin vibe because I’m from Puerto Rico," says La Havana’s Rico, who claims to have the best Latin CD collection in all of Asia. "But now we’ll also have north African, Lebanese, gypsy, flamenco, blues, whatever I can get my hands on." Given Rico’s background in LA music management this could mean a great deal of things.

The bar’s anniversary next month will also be its relaunch, as La Havana World Music Bar. The objective: as much different music as possible. The lineup so far includes Scottish experimental outfit, the Chemical Sisters, who play live accompaniment, including flute, guitar, saxophone and further down the track percussion,to programmed electronic music. "Nobody’s ever seen or heard this sort of music in Bangkok," Rico enthuses. The two experienced musos, aged in their 50s, play an ambient set late on Saturday nights followed by a dance set into the wee hours. "It’s been incredible. They’re going to way outgrow this place. For their style, they need a huge room, huge system, tremendous bass."

Between their set and on Fridays, a Cuban balladeer plays trova, a traditional kind of sung Cuban poetry. Sunday is blues; and a north African band will be auditioning shortly. "I don’t think Bangkok can support an exclusively Latin club," says Rico, adding that he was amazed when he visited in 1999 to find there wasn’t a single Latin venue here. "It blew my mind. All the main cities elsewhere had Latin clubs, and Bangkok is supposed to be the hub of mainland Southeast Asia. Trends here just seem to come later."

So could Bangkok possibly be ready for the likes of the Chemical Sisters and company? "Bangkok may not be ready, but the expats are. Everyone else will grow into it," says a confident Rico.

In such a small market, having a few venues featuring varied live performances is definitely a good rather than bad thing ; musicians have more than one place to play, hipsters have more than one place to kick back and have a good time in. So it’s unsurprising that Rico says approvingly of the Salsa Club, who have also shifted towards a more eclectic selection of bands throughout the week: "They’re giving music and musicians a chance."

Stanley Pao, general manager of Salsa Club home the Pathumwan Princess, speaks with a combined business/music head, being a great fan of jazz himself. He says that Latin was never more than a niche market. "Everybody was playing some kind of Latin [when the Salsa Club opened in 1999], but it wasn’t a mass market – the music was a trend. But the dancing and music will always be a part of the scene now."

The businessman in Stanley Pao wants to reach that mass market, and believes world music will be the carrot. "We’ll have rock ‘n roll nights, jazz nights, reggae, to broaden the market for the Salsa Club. Latin represents a lifestyle; it’s exciting, sexy. But we need to appreciate that it’s going to be a niche market anywhere – unless there is a large Latino community."

Which isn’t to say there isn’t still room for a little Latin lovin’ in town. "It won’t die," says Stanley. "It’s sanuk, so Thai people like it. They’ll like any kind of music that signifies fun. With world music, what we want is a touch of a few styles." The club is certainly on the way there, now being home to three house bands: on each from Trinidad, Philippines-Thailand and Chile.

Stanley concurs with Rico on the ability of Bangkok to support a solely Latin venue. "Bangkok’s not big enough – there aren’t enough people. There might be 10,000 salsaholics in town, but there won’t be 10,000 going to dance every day. We need to have a variety, to open the door to other promotions." Still, 15 to 20 are turning up for their daily Latin dance classes. "Some come back, some never come back. But they’re still interested enough to get the exposure to it."

To really sustain the Latin trend, Stanley says he’d like to see more Latin artists actually coming to Thailand. "The majority do not even consider stopping here – they just go to Japan. But if they came here, more people would be exposed and would become interested. They’d keep the fires going. But for a forest fire, we need a lot more work."

El Nino is certainly stoking those fires, being one of the few clubs still believing in the longevity of Latin. Bar and restaurant manager Patrick Ng concurs that the craze is over, but says the market is still steadily opening up. "We simply offer another option. La Havana has its own niche, ours is more upscale. The ambience is different. We offer a good ambience, a bright environment, and the most important thing, a good band [the house band is Colombian outfit]. Ten per cent of people in a city of 8 or 9 million can afford to come here; we offer them that option."

So we’ve had plenty of tacos; could it be at last we’re on the way to having the whole enchilada?

Thailand, the Italy of Asia

A little piece of Italy lived in our home every Thursday night when I was growing up in Australia. Dinners were Mum’s spaghetti bolognaise (spag bol in Australian); it was our one night’s respite from meat and three veg, except for Sundays when we’d eat McDonalds, tinned soup or cheese on toast (whatever Dad could handle).

Spag bol was exotic and eagerly anticipated; garlic was the pungent and unusual ingredient that made it so. There’d be one clove on a normal night, or maybe two if Mum was feeling adventurous. And we could all certainly taste the difference.

This was my first exposure to "foreign" food, and I recalled it when I finally got to travel to Italy a few years ago. It was immediately apparent that the key to Italy was Italian food, and I then easily comprehended how, despite the fact that there were Greek-, Indian-, Lebanese-, Chinese- and Polish-Australians in the neighbourhood, it was Italian food that first penetrated all the way into the heart of our Anglo-Australian kitchen. How could such fervent passion for a cuisine not drive it there?

Later I came to Thailand. The comparisons between countries were immediate. Most obviously there was the utter disregard for traffic rules and regulations. I was contemplating the Castel dell’Ovo in Naples when I was first surprised by a Vespa intent on getting home quick via the ancient stone footpath; I was observing an Emporium window display in Bangkok when a Honda first did the same over a crumbling asphalt one. Then there are the frequent changes of governments and the fickleness of MPs. Governments change with the seasons in Italy; they change with the monsoons in Thailand. And fashion? Italians are slaves to labels just as devotedly as their (rich) Thai counterparts.

It was clear from the start that Thailand was the Italy of Asia. Or Italy the Thailand of Europe.

What really clinched the comparison, however, was the food. Just as in Italy, eating is at the forefront of every Thai’s mind, all the time. Vendors line the streets seemingly wherever a group of twenty or more people might be around. They fill the air with the aroma of barbecued chicken and fish, the sound of pok-pok as papaya is transformed into som tam, and the sting of frying chilli as a wok sizzles on a bright blue gas flame. In every office, people share their food and comment critically on whether or not it’s delicious; in every home, ingredients lie in wait, ready to be whipped up into a feast. "I’m Thai, Sam," a friend admonished once when I asked if bringing an extra person to dinner was all right. "You don’t have to ask that."

Stomachs rule. I’ve been thirty minutes away from a 10-hour bus trip’s destination, but I’ve stopped and eaten a meal because the driver’s stomach demanded it. Recently I left an office over an hour late to go on a photo shoot and interview. As we desperately pulled into traffic to begin our two-hour journey, the organiser clapped her hands gleefully. "Right! Let’s go eat!" And she didn’t mean takeaway. We had a proper meal in a restaurant that was out of the way but very good, and she didn’t even have an expense account to slap it onto.

Call me over eager, but even the ingredients in Thai and Italian cuisines are comparable. Pasta equals noodles. Risotto equals fried rice. Fresh herbs reign supreme in both. Sundried capsicums equal sundried chillies. Bread dipped in salsa equals fresh vegetables dipped in a nam prik. (Italian La Cadolora wine equals Chateau de Loei? Yes, over eager.) Grappa equals lao cao. Seriously. A friend of My Man’s father ran a jeep on home-made grappa for two weeks during World War II, and I’m sure that most lao cao could power a Honda for at least that long.

I learned before going to Italy that one or two cloves of garlic in real Italian food was conservative. Add half a dozen to flavour a memorable sauce; crush a few more to mix through your olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing; slowly oven-roast a cluster to eat alongside thinly sliced roast beef. But it wasn’t until I came to Thailand that I realised it was the done thing to just toss a dozen raw cloves over your khaa muu khao, or to eat a few bittersweet cloves along with your Chiang Mai sausage. We might have Thai restaurants in Australia, but they’re not that authentic yet.

A chef I interviewed once confided that top chefs fear staying in Bangkok for longer than a few months. "If we ate Thai food every day, we’d ruin our taste buds. We’d go back to France and people would laugh at our new version of cromesquis." But it wasn’t the garlic he was concerned about; Thai chilli, his theory went, would obliterate a good chef’s ability to detect fine French nuances of flavour.

Italians wouldn’t be quite as fussed. Fine Italian chefs may disagree, but to me there has always been something more homespun and hearty, more honest and exuberant about Italian food than French; sure, there are French restaurants around town, but perhaps this is why Italian has really taken over here. Italian food demands that you enjoy it loudly, that you ask for more; French food wants you to be humbled by its excellence, startled by its innovation. Which do you think a Thai would prefer?

On a trip back to Sydney recently my brother took me to a suburban pizzeria run by an Italian-Australian with a broad Italian-Australian accent. He asked what we were having, and I asked for the Napoli.

"The what?" he said.

"The Napoli," I said. "Olives, anchovies and cheese."

"The Napoli?" he repeated, incredulous, crooking his head to one side. "You gotta be kidding me!"

I shook my head.

"You mean to tell me, you wanna order a Napoli pizza?"

I nodded. He slapped down the teatowel that had been thrown over his shoulder.

"I don’t believe this. For twenny years, I been running this pizzeria, and I have sold maybe one Napoli pizza, and then today, this woman," he said, gesturing to me and speaking to my brother as if I couldn’t hear him, "she just comes in, and she orders like that, a Napoli. I don’t believe this. Why you wanna Napoli?"

"I just like them."

His belly grew rounder and his smile widened into a slow chuckle as he shook his finger at me. "Alright! I make you the best Napoli pizza you ever had."

I felt smugly like that spag bol I grew up had given me a pretty good pedigree.

He started assembling the pizza in front of us. "You see this?" he asked, twirling a big silver spoon around a bowl full of mellifluous golden oil before drizzling it across the pastry. "This is my secret. Every year my wife and daughter, they go have a vaccination for the flu. But me? I just eat pizza with lots of this. And, well, I drink a little. But this, you take some olive oil, you crush the garlic, put in some fresh parsley – beautiful! "

Italian restaurants really hit Australia in the 1970s while Thai restaurants didn’t mushroom until the 1990s. We might have motorcycles that stay on the road, stable government and people who dress really badly in Australia, but at least now we have a fantastic array of cuisine. And if I ever have children they’ll grow up with a little piece of Thailand or Italy for most nights of the week.

Plastic surgery for the face

If you’re not happy with the face and body that nature has given you, plastic surgery might make improvements that are more to your taste. As with all surgery, there’s a risk involved, but for some people the outcome can mean greater confidence and a changed outlook on life. According to plastic surgeon Dr Amorn Poomee, more people are opting for surgery these days. "Many people already look good, but they want to be happier with the way they look, and more self-confident."

The most popular procedures in Thailand done on the face depends on the age group. For younger people, the two most popular categories of procedures are blepharoplasty – a reshaping of the eyelids – and rhinoplasty, a reshaping of the nose. For older people, rhytidectomies (facelifts) are the most requested procedure.

Blepharoplasty on younger people most commonly involves changing a single to a double eyelid – occasionally called an "Asian eyelidplasty". Most Asians have upper eyelids that are taut from eyebrow to lashes, rather than being interrupted by a crease. The approximately one-hour procedure uncovers a portion of the eye’s natural contours, and increases the size and roundness of the eyes. Makeup can be applied more easily, and more of the eyelashes are exposed. During the procedure, the surgeon makes a single incision along the upper eyelid and cuts away a crescent-shaped piece of skin. A portion of the underlying fat is removed, and then the incision is closed. Dr Amorn says that complications are very rare. "It’s not a serious operation," he says, adding that the usual risks involved with any surgery should be considered. "Excess bleeding is the most common complication, but it’s not much of a problem."

There are two types of rhinoplasty: reduction and augmentation. Thai patients generally request augmentation. The patient is given either a local or general anaesthetic for this hour-long procedure, and then incisions are made inside the nose to avoid visible scarring. A dissection along the nose is done to make room for an "I" or "L" shaped silicone implant, which will make the profile of the nose higher. A splint may be worn for a few days after the operation. Complications are infrequent, but there is a possibility of the implant moving, the skin thinning if the implant is too big, or infection.

The second group of people are those aged over forty who are trying to recapture their youthful looks. People in this group most commonly request a rhytidectomy. As people get older, the skin on the face and neck loosens, crow’s feet appear, forehead creases get deeper, the jawline droops and the skin around the neck sags; by having a facelift, patients can on average turn the clock back by ten years. And those wanting to turn back time are getting younger. "Ten years ago, most patients were aged 50 to 55. Nowadays their age is lower – from their late thirties, but on average they’re aged 45 to 50," says Dr Amorn.

A full facelift takes around four hours and begins with an incision being made in the area just above the ear, which follows the natural curve around the ear, and then goes about an inch or two into the hairline, making scarring less visible. The skin is raised while the surgeon repositions and tightens the underlying muscle and connective tissue, removes any excess fat and trims excess skin. The incisions are then closed. Swelling and bruising will follow, but only mild painkillers are usually required. A general anaesthetic may be used, or just a local with sedation. The operation can be done on an outpatient basis, but admission may be preferred by some surgeons.

Complications are infrequent, but nevertheless, do occur. Hematoma, a collection of blood under the skin that must be removed by another surgical procedure, is one possible risk, as is an injury to the nerves that control facial muscles. These muscles are located close to where the incisions are made, but if a problem develops, it’s usually temporary. Infection is another possibility.

Plastic surgery for the body

Plastic surgery is not limited to the face. Two of the most popular procedures carried out on the body are liposuction, a procedure which removes fat from certain locations on the body, and augmentation mammoplasty, the surgical insertion of either saline or silicone implants to increase the size of the breasts.

Liposuction is a procedure in which deposits of fat are removed to recontour an area of the body. Through a tiny incision, a cannula (internal suction probe) is inserted and used to suck out the fatty layer that lies under the skin. The cannula is pushed and pulled through the layer to make tunnels like those in Swiss cheese; fat cells are broken up and then suctioned out. While not a substitute for dieting and exercise, liposuction can remove areas of fat that won’t respond to traditional weight-loss methods. According to plastic surgeon Dr Amorn Poomee, women request liposuction most commonly on their hips, thighs and abdomen, while men ask for the procedure to be done on their abdomen, love handles, and breasts. ("Men hate having breasts!" says Dr Amorn.)

During the past few years, liposuction has benefited from the development of several new techniques, the most popular of which is the tumescent technique. This technique uses saline containing a local anesthetic, which is injected into the fatty tissue. The injected area is therefore anesthetised, so no general anaesthetic is required. The liquid causes the compartments of fat to become swollen or "tumesced", and these larger compartments allow the cannula to move more smoothly under the skin. This technique allows for the use of much smaller cannulae – an important benefit, because when the tunnels mentioned above eventually collapse, ridges remain; and the bigger the cannula, the bigger and more noticeable the ridges. "It take a longer time to do the operation, but the results are much better than five years ago," says Dr Amorn.

Although they are rare, complications can occur. Risks increase when several areas are treated in one session and a large volume of fat is being removed, as the operation time is lengthened. Fat or blood clots can develop and block the lungs, leading to death; excesss fluid loss can lead to shock; and infection can occur. Surgeons will usually reduce the risk of complications by dividing surgery on multiple sites into several sessions.

Augmentation mammoplasty, a surgical procedure to enhance the size and shape of a woman’s breasts, is another popular procedure. The surgery is performed on women who believe their breasts are too small; to increase the size of the smaller breasts that follow pregnancy; to balance a difference in breast size; or to reconstruct a breast following surgical removal.

The two-hour procedure beings with an incision being made under the breast, around the areola, or in the armpit. The surgeon then lifts the breast tissue and skin to create space behind the breast tissue or under the pectoral muscle – placing them under the latter is believed by some to reduce the likelihood of the breasts hardening later on. The implants are then inserted. The surgery can be done using a general anaesthetic, or a local in conjunction with sedatives. Patients can head home immediately, or stay in hospital for one to two days if they prefer. Swelling can take up to five weeks to disappear.

Complications can occur. The most common problem is called capsular contracture. This occurs if the area around the implant tightens, and leads to the breast hardening. It can usually be rectified by further surgery. Excessive bleeding may occur; if it is severe, another operation may be required. Infection can also develop around an implant – most frequently within a week of surgery – requiring its removal (it can be reinserted later on). There may also be a change in nipple sensitivity, and occasionally implants break or leak. With saline implants, the salt water will be absorbed by the body with no side effects. With silicone, however, there may be further complications, with reports of silicone leading to "connective-tissue" disorders. However, no definitive link has been found. In the US, silicone implants are banned except on a case-by-case basis, but in Thailand, both types are available.

Give your baby a healthy start

You may not be planning on falling pregnant soon, but if you’re of child-bearing age it’s still worth knowing about folate, one of the B vitamins. In the US, over half of all pregnancies are unplanned, and as folate is needed both before and during the first weeks of pregnancy to help prevent birth defects, women planning pregnancy should ensure they are taking enough.

Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, found naturally in foods such as citrus fruits, tomatoes, whole grain products, dried beans and peas, leafy dark green vegetables such as broccoli, brussels sprouts, and spinach, berries, liver and asparagus. Folate is important for the formation of red and white blood cells. A mild deficiency, which according to Samitivej Hospital nutritionist Dr Kumpol Sriwattanakul is quite common, can lead to anaemia, while in more severe cases it may lead to megaloblastic anaemia, a condition affecting the red blood cells.

Folate is required for DNA synthesis, and DNA itself allows cells to develop properly, including those in a foetus . If a woman is deficient in folate during the first 28 days of pregnancy, there is an increased likelihood that her baby will have a so-called neural tube birth defect, such as anencephaly or spina bifida. A baby with the former does not develop a brain, and will be stillborn or die soon after birth, while a baby with spina bifida will be born with a defect of the spinal column. Spina bifida manifests as a mild case of scoliosis, or more severely as paralysis and bladder or bowel incontinence. Around one third of spina bifida sufferers also have slight to severe mental retardation.

Bangkok Nursing Home Hospital obstetrician Dr Boonlert Triam-amornwooth says that it was debated for a long time whether or not folate deficiency could lead to neural tube defects, but the World Health Organsiation concluded four years ago that it could. "It now recommends that women preparing for pregnancy take about 400 microgrammes to one 1 mg of folate a day at least one month before pregnancy." Doctors usually recommend a 400 mcg daily intake to most people anyway.

Dr Boonlert says that taking a folate supplement with multivitamins before getting pregnant will also help reduce the risks of foetal abnormalities of other organ systems. "And it helps increase the chance of pregnancy too, by about six or seven per cent."

While it’s vital during the first days of pregnancy, the need for it continues for nine months, so obstetricians usually prescribe a folic acid supplement of around 800mcg per day. "Pregnant women definitely need extra folate because the total amount they get from food will not be adequate – no matter how good their appetite is."

Recent research has also shown that folic acid may help prevent heart disease by lowering the body’s levels of homocysteine, an amino acid thought to increase clot formation in the blood. High levels of homocysteine may also be linked to osteoporosis, strokes, and Alzheimer’s disease. But until clinical trials are completed, the jury is still out both on whether the amino acid is damaging and whether folate can truly help.

"Taking a folate supplement can have benefits in many ways and almost without toxicity at all," says Dr Boonlert. In fact, in January 1998 a US law was passed requiring foods such as flour, bread, rolls, corn grits, cornmeal, rice and noodle products to be fortified with 0.43 mg to 1.4 mg of folic acid per pound of product.

Nevertheless, once out of those childbearing years do not unnecessarily overdo your folate intake. A high intake might complicate the diagnosis of pernicious anaemia, which occurs commonly in older people due to a vitamin B12 deficiency. Extra folic acid can mask the symptoms of the condition, which may lead to permanent nerve damage if untreated.

Bangkok cooking schools

Whether you’re an accomplished chef or you admit that you’re a failure in the kitchen, taking a cooking class is a good way to learn how to whip up something new and delicious in the kitchen. And once you enjoy cooking instead of finding it a chore, chances are you’ll save money by dining in more frequently.

Bangkok features loads of cooking schools, most of which are focused on Thai cuisine. If you’d like to start this close to home, you could check out the Thai House Cooking School, which offers one, two or three day courses. Located on 12 rai of land in Nonthaburi, the location of the teakwood Thai House lets you take a break and learn at the same time – homestays are offered for those participating in the two or three day course.

Courses include an introduction to the kitchen and utensils (both modern and traditional), Thai cooking techniques and a rundown on selecting ingredients. Lessons are conducted in English, with a maximum class size of 10. Dishes taught include larb moo (spicy thai pork salad), kaeng ka-ri kai (yellow chicken curry), paneang neua (coconut beef curry), tom khaa kai (coconut and galangal soup) and kaeng kai sai normai (chicken in red curry with bamboo shoots).

Still in the region, brush up on your Chinese cooking skills by heading to the UFM Food Centre for one of their regular Chinese cooking classes. The next one kicks off on April 23 and runs for ten three-hour afternoon sessions. Two dishes are taught per session, and will include deep-fried pomfret fish in red wine, simmered chicken legs in Chinese herbs and bean curd soup. The English-language course will have a maximum of 20 participants, cooking together in groups of four.

The Peninsula also holds Chinese cooking classes via its in-house Chinese restaurant Mei Jiang twice a year, but its next upcoming class is through its Pacific Rim restaurant Jesters, which also runs classes twice a year. The half-day class on this cutting-edge cuisine will run on May 24, 25 and 26, and be conducted by Chef de Cuisine, Dan Ivarie. The half-day begins with breakfast served in the kitchen, continues with the three-hour demonstration and discussion, and will be followed by a lunch incorporating some of the dishes cooked. The menu to be taught is sesame duck pancakes with mustard vinaigrette and bitter greens; steamed sea bass on mashed potatoes with seared pea shoots; shiitake mushroom broth topped with goats cheese cream and black truffle essence; and wasabi ice cream. The class will cover product knowledge, tips on purchasing, preparation and cooking.

If you’d like to hone your Western cooking skills, the Dusit Thani College offers two types of Western programmes in Thai. Try their one-day "You Can Do It in 360 Minutes" Western food cooking programme, offered once a month. The next course is on May 19, and on the menu is corn cream soup, Italian-style pork piccata, and blueberry muffins. The longer two-month course is half Thai-food and half Western, with the latter composed of an introduction to cooking and basic cooking methods (basic cuts, stocks, sauces, soups and egg dishes). A sample menu for a day is salad Ni?oise, pork tenderloin medallions with pepper sauce, bouquetiere of vegetables and creme caramel.

The Modern Woman Cooking School also runs a Western cuisine class called the "Coffee Shop Course". Their three half-day course is conducted in Thai and has a maximum of ten participants. The course features lessons in soups, salads, steaks, stews, and pastas among other Western standards. The next course starts on April 18, but it’s run every month.

Thai House
32/4 Moo 8
Bangmaung, Bangyai
Nontaburi 11140
Tel: 9039611, 9975161
One-day course: Bt3,500
Two-day course, including accommodation: Bt8,950 (Bt600 single supplement)
Three-day course, including accommodation: Bt16,650 (Bt1,800 single supplement)

UFM Food Centre
593/29-39 Soi Sukhumvit 33/1
North Klongton
Tel: 259 0620
Ten half-day course: Bt7,800

The Peninsula
333 Charoennakorn Rd
Tel: 861 2888 ext. 6402
Half-day course: Bt2,900

Dusit Thani College
Training and Development Centre
902 Srinakharin Rd, Nongbon
Tel: 361 7805
One-day course: Bt1,100
Two-month course: Bt23,640

Modern Woman Cooking School
45/6-7 Setsiri Rd
Samsennai, Phaya Thai
Tel: 279 2831
Three half-day course: Bt3,900