Samantha Brown – Southeast Asian-based journalist and editor

Employees’ market for good web programmers

28.05.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Finance ::

Not only is the Internet changing the way we live, it’s opening up a whole range of new careers to consider. One career that’s recently evolved into an option for web lovers is that of the web programmer: the person who actually writes the languages behind the pages you look at on the web.

Demand for web programmers is strong in Thailand. "It’s a hot market at the moment, an employees market, " says internet production manager at eThailand.com, Chana Chantanaprayoon.

So what equips you to become a web programmer? Chana says he prefers programmers to have a bachelors degree with a computer science major, but what’s more important is to have some experience in the real world under your belt. "It’s easier to talk to people, to explain what we need done, if they’ve had some kind of experience."

He also looks for forward-thinking people. "You need to be able to take responsibility, to be pro-active, and to see the future effects of your work. You’re not programming just for now – you need to create programmes that will be flexible in the future."

Roy Chapin IV, managing director of Thai movie portal movieseer.com, emphasises the importance of good communication skills. "If you’re socially inept, if you can’t talk to people, you’ll run into conflicts with the graphic designers. You need to work as part of a team."

He also looks for people who are highly focused. "You can’t be scatterbrained. You have to be diligent to a fine point. You need high concentration levels."

As for specific applications and languages, Simon Matthews, country manager for recruitment agency Manpower, says people with a good knowledge of PhotoShop, Macromedia Dreamweaverand Macromedia Flash are currently sought after by employers, along with programmers who are competent in JavaScript, HTML, PHP, Delphi, Visual Basic, C and C++. "Networking skills are also important, such as for Unix, LAN and Windows. This is because the trend right now is towards e-commerce."

Peter Fischbach, president of Thailand’s largest specialist IT recruitment agency ISM Technology Recruitment, emphasises the importance of English language skills. He says it’s not unusual to find great programmers who can’t be placed easily because employers – including Thai companies – now demand good English language skills from their programming staff. "It’s the de facto language of IT, it’s the way it is. You can’t kid yourself otherwise."

To become highly employable, he recommends seeking formal certification from companies such as Cisco and Microsoft. ‘They’re difficult courses, they’re expensive, they’re hard to get. But they’re a really valuable thing to do because being certified will allow your employers to breathe more easily."

In fact, Fischback notes that web programming is a field where professionals need to be prepared to continually educate themselves. "You have to like learning. Things change very quickly."

Twenty-five year old Jirawat Kitarthorn, an ASP programmer for web design company WebStudio-1 Solutions, agrees. "To be a good programmer, you have to love learning, and thinking." He first obtained a diploma in computer science from the Rajamangala Institute of Technology, and chased it up with a bachelors in Information Technology from King Mongkut’s University of Technology. "I like to find solutions to problems – and in my work, I’m always coming across problems. I like the challenge."

Programmers can expect to see their salaries rise as they accumulate experience in the field. New graduates with no experience can expect to earn in the vicinity of Bt12,000 to 20,000, rising to Bt25,000 to 30,000 after two years experience. More experienced programmers can command Bt40,000, while those who are also managing staff look at earning a maximum of Bt60,000.

Chile stakes its claim to variety in value-for-money wines

28.05.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Food ::

Chilean wines are readily available on the Thai market – they really boomed here about four years ago – and many still represent excellent value for money in a market where the total overall tax is now nearly 400 per cent. Bangkok Fine Wine’s Jonathan Glonek says, "For about 400 baht or under in Bangkok I always advise the following: If you like Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc buy Chilean; if you like rich Shiraz and buttery Chardonnay buy Australian."

Specifically, Glonek recommends trying the Luis Felipe Edwards Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 , which comes from Chile’s Cholchagua Valley, priced at Bt370 (excluding VAT) and Echeverria’s Sauvignon Blanc 1998 from Curico Valley, also well-priced at Bt385 (excluding VAT).

Despite belonging to the so-called New World group of wine producing countries, Chilean wines date back to the sixteenth century, when the Spanish brought and planted vines from Europe. Today the country produces some of the most reasonably priced, consistently good varietals in the world. In particular, the country is known for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

If you drank Chilean wine in the 80s and were disappointed, Glonek says that now’s the time to give it another go. "There’s definitely been a large improvement over the old rustic style. Chileans have always made big dark numbers but there were some real shockers and consistency problems in the early 80s. Diligence and modern technology can fix a lot of that – and in Chile’s case it has really helped enormously in bringing their quality up."

For something at the premium end, Glonek suggests Montes Alpha. Their Cabernet Sauvignon 1997 is available at Villa for Bt1285.

As the quality of Chilean wines has improved, so too has the Thai market’s attitude towards wine broadened. Nuree Yupensuk, managing director of new wine importer and distributor Oenocave Ltd, says that Thais have only recently started learning about Chilean wines. "Importers are bringing in new wines, people are starting to try more wines, and they’re often finding they prefer them to French."

She describes Chilean wine as being heavy and full-bodied. "So for drinking in hot countries like Thailand, they’re very good. " Her company carries the Cuatro Vientas 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon from Maule Valley for Bt625 (including tax), the Cuatro Vientas 2000 Chardonnay for Bt595, and a range of Dona Consuelo wines. "Their Merlot has a special character," she says. "It’s soft and gentlemanly." The Merlot 1999 goes for Bt695.

Vichai Kanchanasevee, assistant managing director of importer Vanichwathana, says Chilean wines should be drunk young. "Some wines can be cellared for a few years but most producers do not intend to make wine for long ageing."

Exceptions are the "super Chilean" red wines such as Almaviva from Mouton Rothschild and Sena from Robert Mondavi – joint ventures with local Chilean wineries – that can be aged similar to great Bordeaux wines "but their reputation doesn’t yet compare with long established French grand cru wines." They are currently unavailable in Thailand, but are usually priced at around FF220-250 in other countries.

For everyday drinking, Vichai recommends Santa Carolina and Tarapaca. Villa stocks Santa Carolina’s Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 from Lontue for Bt633, while the Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 1998 from San Fernando retails at Bt759. The supermarket also has a range of Tarapaca wines, such as the Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 for Bt599, the Merlot 1998 for Bt857 and the Chardonnay 1998 for Bt599.

Foodland stocks an excellent range of Chilean wines under Bt600. The Santa Alicia Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1997, the Reserve Merlot 1998 and the Reserve Chardonnay 1998 are all priced at Bt425, while Sunrise Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 and Sunrise Chardonnay 1999 from Concha y Toro (Chile’s largest winery) are a step up at Bt569. Other popular Chilean wines include the Casa Donoso Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 and the Casa Donoso Reserve Merlot 1998, each priced at Bt575.

Discount packages bring Australia closer

21.05.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Travel ::

According to the Australian Tourist Commission, increasing numbers of Thais are heading to Australia for holidays – in 2000, 74,000 made a trip there, a nearly 20 per cent increase on the year before. The reasons? Thongchai Wibulsaksakul, country manager of the ATC in Thailand, says Australia is proving popular because it’s the closest Western destination to Thailand. "It also offers a good combination of cities and nature, and has unique flora and animals."

A weakening Australian dollar against the US dollar can’t hurt either – and there are plenty of packages around from which to choose. "Sydney remains the most popular place to go," says Thongchai, "followed by Melbourne and the Gold Coast."

If you’d like a taste of Australia from the moment you leave Don Muang, you might like to fly with the country’s national carrier, Qantas (however note they do have code share flights with British Airways). Holiday Tours and Travel has a special package – "Australian Surprise" – on offer from May 16. Bt25,900 gets you return flights to Sydney, coach transfers to and from the airport, three nights’ twin-share accommodation at the Sydney Boulevard Hotel, and a one-day Sydney Aquarium Pass. Extra nights in Sydney cost Bt3,000 per night.

The bonus with this deal is that it also includes your choice of a free extension flight to Cairns or flights to one of the following combinations: Adelaide/Melbourne, Canberra/Melbourne, Hobart/Melbourne, Brisbane/Melbourne, Gold Coast Melbourne, or Launceston/Melbourne – a great low-budget way to see some bonus Australian sights.

If you’d rather stay patriotic by sticking with THAI, try a Royal Orchid Tour. Give them a call directly or try an agent such as Best Buy Tickets – the prices are the same. The Sydney package is priced at Bt24,440 for three days and two nights. Price includes return ticket with THAI, transfers, accommodation in a three-star hotel (twin share basis), breakfasts and a half-day tour of Sydney and the southern beaches.

Their deal for Melbourne gives you more bang for your baht, starting at Bt25,160 for a four-days and three-night deal. It includes the same as for Sydney, with a full day tour of Melbourne sights instead.

Their Brisbane two-day three-night trip starts at Bt23,850 – and includes two full day tours to Movieworld and Seaworld. If you’d like to check out Brisbane in more detail, it will cost from Bt1265 extra per night.

If you’re a more independent kind of traveller, you can plan your trip yourself – much of it online. First you’ll want to book a well-priced flight from Bangkok to the destination of your choice. Natbusara Tour currently offer flights to Perth with Royal Brunei Air for Bt15,900 return, Perth or Darwin with Malaysian Air for Bt14,000 and Sydney or Brisbane for Bt17,000.

UTC offer more than 30 accommodation/tour packages that kick off when you arrive in Australia. Their five-day four-night Sydney/Melbourne deal starts at AUD591 per person, standard twin share. It includes transfers, breakfasts and two and half day’s worth of tours. Their five-day four-night Gold Coast and farmstay package starts at AUD415 per person, standard twin share, and includes the same except for tours – instead you’ll head to a farm for an overnight stay, and Movieworld for a day-tour.

If you’d rather do it all yourself, head to http://www.australia.com to browse through the suggested itineraries. Next checkout http://www.travelmate.com.au or http://www.australiahotels.net to organise your accommodation at Internet rates.

Australiahotels.net features mid to upper range accommodation, such as a double harbour view room at the Sydney Inter-continental Hotel until September 31 for AUD290 per night; a superior double at Melbourne’s Mercure Hotel until April 2002 for AUD170; or a deluxe waterfront room at the Gold Coast’s Couran Cove Resort until Christmas for AUD204. You need to register at travelmate.com in order to find out current specials.

Want to hire a car and get around yourself? UTC can arrange that before you go; a Holden Barina for one to six days is AUD66 per day, while an eight-seat Mitsubishi Starwagon is AUD123. Or checkout http://www.campervansaust.com.au if a campervan trip’s more your style. They start at AUD68 per day for a two-and-a-half berth van (for a couple and baby).

Holiday Tours and Travel: 236 2800, 234 0031-4
Natbusara Tour: 287 4263
Best Buy Tickets: 652 1734-5, 255 4279
Australian Tourist Commission: 670 0644
Royal Orchid Holidays: 628 2456-7
UTC Siam: 873 9450-3

Small country, ambitious wines

20.05.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Food ::

The New Zealand wine industry took its first steps back in 1819, but has grown most dramatically over the past decade. Last year the New World country’s wine-makers sold NZ$168.8 million worth of wine to the world, a nearly tenfold increase on the 1990 figure of $18.4 million. And although not much of it is coming to Thailand, internationally-acclaimed New Zealand wine is definitely worth seeking out here for that special occasion.

New Zealand is most famous for its Sauvignon Blanc, widely regarded as the benchmark for the varietal across the world. It also produces world class Chardonnays, and its Pinot Noir, M?thode Traditionelle sparkling wines, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends are also gaining increased recognition. Over 350 wineries grow grapes in regions between the latitudes of 36 to 45 degrees, covering a length of 1,600km – the equivalent area in the northern hemisphere would be from Bordeaux and to southern Spain.

The country’s wines fall into the mid to premium price range in Thailand, and indeed the rest of the world. As Vichai Kanchanasevee, assistant managing director of local distributor Vanich Wathana, says, "The production of New Zealand wine is still very small when compared to worldwide demand. You will not be able to find cheap New Zealand wines on the market."

Vanich Wathana distribute wines from three wineries: Villa Maria, Nobilo and Nautilus Estate. "Villa Maria, in particular, a big family winery, has a good reputation and has won many awards in many competitions worldwide," he says. However, his company presently distributes only to hotels and restaurants, not retail outlets – so keep an eye out for these wines on your wine list when you next dine out.

Tom Westbury of PTK Management and Marketing says that the Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region is particularly worth seeking out. "When people talk about wines from New Zealand, they’ll ask for Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough or Nelson; reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot – Bordeaux style wines – from Hawkes Bay; and Pinot Noir from Canterbury. New Zealand wines are very expensive but they produce very good quality wines.They don’t produce table wines."

Again, however, Westbury says New Zealand wines tend to go directly to hotels and restaurants. "CJ Pask wines are bought by the Central Group of hotels – these are one of the best-selling New Zealand wines," he says, adding that their Cabernet Merlot Reserve and Cavernet Sauvignon Reserve have received many awards.

Also worth keeping an eye out according to Westbury are wines from Lincoln Vineyards and Babich Wines. "The latter is an old winery that produces some very nice young wines."

Villa management were unable to provide a list, but a look at their shelves suggests they only stock wines from winery Matua Valley. Their Hawkes Bay 2000 Sauvignon Blanc, Settler Series 1999 Pinotage Cabernet Sauvignon and 1999 Chardonnay Semillon/Pinot Blanc are all priced at Bt710. Matua’s Shingle Peak 1999 Chardonnay, which uses grapes from the Marlborough region, is priced at Bt805.

Villa used to stock Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc but have sold out; Uthorn Budhijalananda from The Wine Cellar says that three to four years ago this wine represented excellent value, but its price has since doubled. He no longer stocks any New Zealand wines.

Foodland stocks a single Kiwi wine: a Montana Cabernet Sauvignon 1996, priced at Bt797.

The worsening tax situation – the overall rate is now just below 400 per cent – isn’t helping lovers of boutique style wines, such as those from New Zealand, either. Bangkok Fine Wine’s Jonathan Glonek says his company currently doesn’t import from that part of the world. "We hope to expand to New Zealand in 2002 but it would probably be best to wait until the tax situation resolves itself."

Vanichwattana: 221 5354
Bangkok Liquorland: 285 4850-1
Foodland Supermarkets: 530 0220

Honeymoons in Thailand

20.05.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Travel ::

With a weakening baht, newlyweds watching their cash would do well to recover from their wedding – and celebrate their new life together – by choosing a honeymoon destination in Thailand. There are plenty of great choices, so whether you’re a sunny beach lover or are fond of forested mountains, you don’t need to spend a fortune travelling to have a wonderful honeymoon.

Those wanting a special seaside getaway could try Ko Samui’s Laem Set Inn, which bills itself as being an "eco-friendly" resort, comprised of recycled timber houses in tune with Zen philosophies. The honeymoon or "Lipa-Noi" suite is the most remotely located bungalow on the premises, and was renovated in 2000. The interior is open-plan, and the bungalow features a balcony with a tub to cool down in while watching the sunset.

The suite is priced at US$250 per night, and must be booked well in advance. While breakfast isn’t included, activities such as mountain biking, snorkelling, sea kayaking and sailing are. Some of the profits from the resort are put towards an orphanage for 200 children being built near the resort. Bangkok Airways flies every day to Ko Samui, with one return ticket priced at Bt6300.

For a more remote beach getaway, try Golden Buddha Resort, on Ko Phra Thorng (Golden Buddha Island), two hours north of Phuket in the Andaman sea. The resort is the only one on the island, which is reached by longtail boat from Kuraburi Pier. It’s set on a narrow peninsula, on one side of which is a seven-kilometre beach, and the other a quiet cove. This is a place for nature-lovers, with birdwatching, snorkelling, canoeing and hiking the most popular activities.

They have a package, suitable for honeymooners, at US$310 per person for five days and four nights. It includes transfers, accommodation and all meals. Best time to visit is November to April for water-based activities, but the resort is open year round. Thai Airways flies to Phuket daily, from where transfers can be arranged. Return tickets are priced at Bt4540.

Couples who prefer romance in the mountains might be tempted by a package on offer by The Regent Chiang Mai Resort and Spa, located in Mae Rim Valley, a 20 minute drive from downtown Chiang Mai. The three night/four day honeymoon package, available until September 30, costs US$1,090 (plus 18.5% service charge and applicable government tax) per couple. The deal includes airport transfers, accommodation in a mountain view pavilion suite, daily American breakfasts, a bottle of wine, a three-course candlelit dinner for two, one herbal aromatic steam treatment for two and use of the health club. The resort’s style and design is reminiscent of a traditional northern village from the Kingdom’s Lanna Period, and is set among 20 acres of lush green landscape. Thai Airways flies to Chiang Mai daily, with one return ticket priced at Bt3,740.

A more budget-conscious choice for mountain-lovers is the 37-rai Phu Chaisai (Mountain of Clear Hearts) Resort, designed by ML Sudavdee Kriangkrai and situated on a gardened hill among the mountains of Chiang Rai. Visitors to the newly-opened resort can take walks, go horseriding, take a treatment at the spa, or laze in the common room. Doi Tung, golf courses, the Golden Triangle, Mae Sai, and Chiang Rai airport are all a 20-minute drive away.

The honeymoon suite is priced at Bt7,500 per night, but packages can be negotiated – call in advance to have something tailored to your needs. Thai Airways flies daily, with one return ticket priced at Bt4,400.

For those who simply can’t spare much time, a retreat to Bangkok’s luxurious Oriental Hotel might instead be an appropriate, once-in-a-lifetime indulgence. Honeymoon couples staying at the hotel receive a complimentary bottle of wine, a pair of souvenir silver napkin rings featuring the Oriental logo, and heart-shaped chocolates and fruit carvings.

A special 125th anniversary package that honeymooners can take advantage of until September includes one night’s accommodation in a deluxe room superior room, limousine transfer (one-way only), one 90-minute spa treatment, American breakfast, high tea with management in the Author’s Lounge, a guided tour of the hotel, and a special 125th anniversary gift. The package per couple is US$490++ per night.

Laem Set Inn: 077 233300 or 077 233 299
www.laemset.com
Golden Buddha Resort: 02 863 3180 or 01 464 4338
www.losthorizonsasia.com/gbtxt.html
The Regent Chiang Mai: 053 298 181
www.regenthotels.com
Phu Chaisai: 01 602 8635
www.phu-chaisai.com
The Oriental: 659 9000
www.mandarin-oriental.com/bangkok/

Read a good book lately?

07.05.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Books ::

In an age where getting things done quickly is important and being entertained at the touch of a button is de rigeuer, it’s far too easy to forget the simple pleasure of reading a good book. Can’t afford the latest releases? Try a library. There are plenty of well-stocked libraries in Bangkok, and most aren’t expensive to join. When you think of the hours of enjoyment reading can bring – and the knowledge you’ll acquire as part of the process – joining a library is a wise investment.

Neilson Hays Library: This library first opened its doors in 1869 to provide reading materials to English speakers in Bangkok. In 1922 Dr Hayward Hays gave the current library building to the non-profit organisation – now the oldest in the Kingdom – in memory of his wife, who had worked at the library for more than 25 years. In 1999 the library – a sanctuary among the hustle of the Surawongse area – became fully air-conditioned, and it now contains a collection of over 20,000 English-language volumes, which are added to monthly. There’s a wide range of literary and commercial fiction, non-fiction, and an excellent range of children’s books. Books can be borrowed for two to four weeks.

Central Library, Chulalongkorn University: Although it’s an academic library aimed at students and lecturers, the library of Thailand’s oldest university is also open to the public. With almost one million volumes lining its shelves, plus a huge collection of journals, CD-ROMs and audio-visual materials, it’s a phenomenal resource for all things academic in both Thai and English. There is some fiction, but the emphasis is definitely on the academic. Much of the catalogue is online (http://library.car.chula.ac.th/search/) making it easy to check for the types of books you like to read prior to heading there. Most books can be borrowed for three weeks.

AUA Library: The American University Alumni association began in 1924 when Thai students returning from abroad wanted to start a social club, but it wasn’t until 1952 that the non-profit AUA Language Centre was established, with the objective of promoting mutual understanding between Thais and Americans. The public library opened just over thirty years ago and contains mostly English-language fiction and non-fiction books, with an emphasis on university texts. The public is welcome to browse on their own for free. General information about the US is also available, as is a video library. Two books or videos can be borrowed for two weeks at a time. The library also contains a self-access centre, aimed at English-language learners, for which there is an extra charge.

Siam Society Library: The Siam Society’s library recently reopened for browsing only after a period of inventory-taking, but a date has yet to be set for borrowing to resume. The Society itself was established under Royal Patronage in 1904, as an organization devoted to those interested in the artistic, scientific, and cultural affairs of Thailand and her neighboring countries. The Society’s library, which opened in 1962, is located on the second and third floors of the Society’s new Chalerm Phrakiat Building, and it reflects this commitment to the region’s culture. It contains more than 20,000 volumes of books, around half of which are in Thai, and half in English. The public can browse, but membership of the Society is required for borrowing privileges, which allow four books to be taken home for one month.

British Council’s Information UK: The British Council’s Information UK section features a Resource Centre, which holds books, tapes and CD-ROMs on English language learning, contemporary British fiction and poetry, reference works on Britain and a collection of classical literature. There are also more than 60 British magazine and journal titles to browse through – or borrow for a week, if you’re a member – and a video library with more than 900 tapes, including BBC series and documentaries, and British films. You need to be a member to access the audio-visual equipment, or you can take the videos home for a week. Books can be borrowed for four weeks.

Neilson Hays Library
195 Surawongse Rd
Tel: 233 1731
Tues to Sat, 9.30 am to 4 pm
Sun, 9.30 am to 2 pm
Family: Bt2,300
Adults: Bt1,800
Children/students: Bt1,300 baht
Senior citizens (over 65): Bt1,000
Half-year membership is also available.

Chulalongkorn Central Library
Phya Thai Road
Tel : 215-0871-3
Mon to Fri, 8 am to 9 pm
Sat, 9 am to 4 pm
Non-members: Bt20 per day for access only.
For membership: Bt2,000 refundable deposit, then Bt1,500 per year to borrow books.
Other university students: Bt2,000 deposit, then Bt800 to borrow books per year.

AUA
179 Rachadamri Rd
Tel: 252 8170 ext 4005
Mon to Fri, 9.30 am to 6 pm
Sat, 9.30 am to 4.30 pm
Closed Sun
Self access centre is open Mon-Fri, 9,30am to 6 pm only
Non-students: Bt300
Students: Bt100
The self access centre costs Bt800 for non-students per six-week term, or Bt400 for students per six-week term.

Siam Society Library
131 Soi Asoke
Sukhumvit 21
Tel: 661 6470
Tues to Sat, 9 am to 5pm
Non-members: free access only.
Membership of the Siam Society costs Bt2,500 per year, and allows books to be borrowed.
Student membership is Bt500 per year.

British Council Library
254 Chulalongkorn 64
Siam Square, Phyathai Road
Pathumwan
Tel : 652 5480 ext 507
Tues to Fri, 10 am to 7 pm
Sat to Mon, 10 am to 5 pm
Librarian available from Tues to Sat after midday only
Non-students: Bt1,100 for first year, then Bt1,000 per year
Students: Bt700 for first year, then Bt650 per year
British Council students: free

The grass is always greener

03.05.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Expat tales ::

Until landing at swish, efficient Changi airport last weekend, I never realised that Don Muang was such a dump. Sure, I’ve gone to other flash spots from Don Muang before, but usually they’ve been further away – there’s been a few drinks and a nap between my hazy memory of the Thai immigration officials taking half an hour to stamp my overstay receipt (in between watching death wrestling), and the sudden reality of whatever gleaming transportation hub I’m ejected into. The glow of the present tends to rub off on the past.

But not this time. If Changi is a hunky spunky brainy guy wearing a tux waiting to take you to town in a limo, Don Muang is but a festy old bloke with a really big beer belly who might take you to Patpong for a drink if you’re lucky. Changi’s a winner.

A great introduction to Singapore, at least. I enjoy heading overseas because I know I’ll appreciate the many things I’ve started to take for granted about living in Thailand when I return. But during the initial honeymoon period with a new city, there’s excitement and passion with everything fresh and unusual about the place. It’s plain old infatuation.

This time, I fell in love with Singapore’s fresh air, quietness and greenness. I don’t really notice, breath by breath, that Bangkok’s air isn’t good; beyond keeping the grime off my book collection, it physically doesn’t present problems for me. The sudden contrast with Singapore, however, left me, well, breathless. The air actually tastes cleaner.

The busy yet quiet roads are another enigma. The cars are well-oiled, well-washed, and well-behaved for the most part. Drivers do have to pay in the vicinity of S$30,000 for the privilege of having a car in the first place, but oh the efficiency! Let them catch buses! Motorbikes are few and far between, but rickshaws still squeak around in parts. There’s just not enough pollution to kill off their drivers.

And the trees were elegant and shady. I had thought the gardens under the skytrain were starting to come along, but now I see them for what they are – a feeble, pathetic attempt to make it more difficult to jump over those anti-jaywalking wires.

We took a shared taxi from the airport, swept along the shaded boulevards past the colourful high-density housing. ("Well, sure, there’s eighteen buildings in my block, but you can pick mine, it’s purple, and has a yellow stripe across the 12th floor") and smoothly arrived at our hotel.

I dashed to the loo and was shocked – but, yes, rather pleased – when the toilet automatically flushed. Then I dashed off for a meeting, asking the concierge to call me a cab. "Take the MRT, it will be much quicker," he advised in perfect English. "Down the block, cross the road, it’s under that building over there."

So I headed there, lined up for my ticket, was told to re-line up to get change, re-lined up to get change, then re-lined up for my ticket again, and sped down the escalator to the suicide-proof MRT. There was a method to all those queues, which were far longer than those at Bangkok Bank at lunchtime but moved faster than a senator with a vested interest.

It was then reality started to hit. I had to pay Bt150 for a coffee far worse than what you’d get at any big chain here – or at least, the editor I met with did. Later I really did need to catch a cab, but couldn’t just hail one – I had to walk out of my way to get to a rank. A taxi rank!

Bangkok began to take on a slight nostalgic glow, but the honeymoon was not quite over; I marveled at the orderly queue moving steadily and without any cheats into taxis that automatically turned on their meters. I’ve been stung in queues before – always by very old and unapologetic ladies with khunying hairdos in banks – and I liked this idea of respecting whoever arrived first.

Then there was the essential Singaporean cultural experience: shopping. I hate most shopping, particularly clothes shopping in Bangkok, because being six-foot tall I can’t fit into anything here, period. And it’s physically dangerous: I once nearly lost a hand in an overhead fan in a dressing room that had no grill covering it. The sales assistant just didn’t understand when I smiled and said that hey, maybe that could hurt someone (like me!).

In Singapore I had to ask for a smaller size at one stage, nobody laughed in my face when I asked if they had size ten shoes (nevertheless, they didn’t have them) and there weren’t three sales assistants hanging around outside the dressing room door waiting for me to come out. I almost had fun.

Things even got exciting at one stage when we were involved in a crime. My Man stepped in some gum on the footpath, a victim, clearly, of civil disobedience. The equivalent in Bangkok might be stepping on a tab of Ecstasy. We’d clearly just been part of something big.

As is well known, Singapore’s economic success and sanitised streets have come at the cost of reduced social and political freedoms. But some, it seems by reading between the lines, don’t even get a taste of the money.

As we sat on our couches at Changi late Sunday afternoon – even the humblest of economy travellers are supplied with couch space to curl up on at Changi – we read the local paper (which, sure, we could have done anywhere) which put things into better perspective.

One feature reported on how much employers lose financially if their (usually Filipino) maid runs away; yet there was no matching story explaining just why it is maids run away, and where perhaps they could go for help if they needed it.

Then there was the hysterical-if-it-wasn’t-true story of the biscuit tin thrower, an in-brief titled "Man who hurled killer litter jailed". A man who had thrown an empty biscuit tin out of his second-storey apartment had confessed to acting rashly and endangering other people by doing so. He was jailed for eight weeks. How did the police manage to catch such a menace? Luckily, a vigilant citizen had seen what he did and telephoned them. This guy was lucky – he could have been jailed for up to three months and fined S$250. A lesson to biscuit tin throwers everywhere.

Getting onto the plane, we picked up a copy of this paper, which carried a front page report on a pro-democracy rally held the day before in – Singapore. The government had given permission for the rally, but there hadn’t been a word in The Sunday Times about it.

Emerging from Don Muang we took a breath of thick, fume-filled air, elbowed our way through seemingly every passenger who had arrived since midday, got grunted at by one of the grouchy public taxi assistants, argued with our driver to get him to put the meter on, explained to him – all in Thai – that it’s not necesssary to cross the Chao Phraya to reach Sukhumvit Road, got to our street, jumped out and over the potholes, swum up the driveway leading to our block while beating off the barking dogs and let ourselves into our apartment. Home sweet home.

Singapore might be a hunky spunk, but I like my men with a beer belly.

A mad time for Mamee

01.05.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: People ::

It’s a hectic time for Naphakpapha "Mamee" Nakprasit. Still reeling from the recognition that her role in Mae Bia has brought, the 20 year-old actress has just finished her second film, Butterfly Man, and is about to head to the US to shoot her second TV drama. In fact, Mamee needs to call several times on the day of the interview to change the time we’re going to meet. She’s been trying to sort out her visa to the US. "I’m very nervous about going," she confides through an interpreter. "I’m worried that my English is not going to be good enough to get by!"

Given the dramatic changes Mamee has managed to live through the past few years, however, she shouldn’t have any problems battling a new language for a few weeks. She’s come a long way from nowhere; and she still sounds like she doesn’t quite believe how things started.

"I was walking along Silom Road when a talent scout from Traffic Jam spotted me and encouraged me to enter the Elite Model Look Thailand competition," she says. With her large, unusual almond eyes, fine bones and tumbling long hair, it’s hardly surprising that she caught a scout’s eye. She was 17 at the time; she entered the competition and came third. Elite agency’s staff, however, told her that she was a little on the short side for modelling, and that acting would probably be a more promising long-term vocation for her.

"So it all began on Silom Road!" Mamee says a little incredulously.

Although she had never harboured any desires to be an actress – "I always wanted to be up on the catwalk" – Mamee was interested in the agency’s suggestion. She headed upcountry for a meditation retreat, where a Buddhist nun recommended that she change her name if she really wanted to achieve success as an actress. She heeded the advice, and on the day of a lunar eclipse, adopted the name Naphakpapha while relinquishing her old name, Prapa. "And I believe that’s led to my success so far."

Indeed, soon after the name-change she was cast in her first role, as the conservative Islamic girl Panjai in Silk Knot, the TV series dramatising Jim Thompson’s life. Hot on the heels of that role came her second – as the sensual seductress Mekhla in Mae Bia. "My character in Mae Bia was very erotic and sexy," Mamee explains, as if there was some chance anyone living in Thailand could have avoided that knowledge over the past few months. "She wasn’t like me at all. It was very difficult."

It was also awkward for the actress, who comes from a large family of seven children in total, to watch the film with her professional body-building father. "My father couldn’t believe that it was his daughter actually on the screen," she says. "It was quite embarrassing!"

The film took a year to make. It’s said that the hardest things in showbiz to work with are children and animals; Mamee confirms that the three-metre cobra sharing star billing along with her and her co-star Puthichai Amatayakul, was an absolute handful. "The cobra was very unpredictable – we didn’t know when it would be happy or upset," she says. "We just had to wait for the cobra to show its hood and sometimes it simply wouldn’t. I would wai it, to show it respect and try to encourage it to interact with me."

It was not only a difficult co-star – it was a dangerous one too. "But I didn’t worry too much. I respected the handler we had on the set. He had 30 years experience working in Pattaya, and claimed he had never been bitten, so I trusted him. Plus we had medical staff, an ambulance and serum on standby."

There was only one incident where the serum came close to being used. "In one scene, I had to talk to the snake so I was very close to it. I had to move, too, and knew that could have upset the snake. In that shot, the handler was actually holding the snake off-camera – but it still took a strike. Luckily, cobras tend to strike low and at the same time, the handler pulled the cobra away, so it missed. I was quite frightened."

It so unnerved her that she had to take a break – for five minutes.

Despite the renown that Mae Bia has brought, Mamee doesn’t think the film indicates anything special about her acting ability. "I need to perform in many more roles, and in many different kinds of characters, before I can say that I’m a successful actress."

But it has made her face instantly recognisable. "I need to smile all the time when I’m out – I now belong to this society of actors who people recognise."

Butterfly Man, in which an Englishman falls in love with a masseuse (Mamee) on Ko Samui, will soon hit the screens, but it was more fun than a challenge to Mamee. "It fitted me really well. I didn’t need to do much acting; the role and my natural character matched well."

Offers for other films are now flowing in – Mamee reads the scripts herself – but few of them are for what she calls ordinary roles. "They tend to be a bit extreme, leaning towards the erotic after Mae Bia."

She’d like most to appear in an action film next – something like the Chinese movie The Professionals – would be right up her alley. While she’s yet to take up any martial arts, she has been studying yoga for nearly a year. The casting agent for Mae Bia originally encouraged her to take it up after passing a critical eye over her body. "I have a teacher who has been teaching me specific positions to help me improve my muscle tone in particular areas," she says. "I have lost weight, plus I like it. I do it every night before going to bed." Meditation is on the agenda, but at the moment Mamee just doesn’t have time. "I’m working from 7 in the morning through to midnight. There’s no time for anything else!"

And that includes a boyfriend. She cites The Professional’s Lee Ong and Tom Hanks as men she finds interesting, but adds that looks aren’t important to her. "A sense of humour is the one thing I look for in a man."

But Mamee does have time to offer some words of encouragement to young aspiring thespians. "To those individuals who are interested in entering this industry, I would like to say: I started from the bottom and made it. You could too. So don’t give up!" And, perhaps, consider changing your name.

Saving a precious resource

01.05.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Current Affairs ::

"It’s an emergency. There’s a real crisis with our watersheds," Mr Marlo D Mendoza warned the press after accepting an Asian Water Management Excellence Award on behalf of Bantay Kalikasan, the environmental arm of the Philippines’ ABS-CBN Foundation. "In a few more years, those provinces now developing quickly will want to use the water supplies that are going to Manila. We don’t want to wait until people start fighting over access to water. We need to be forward-looking, to try to inform the public, including decision-makers, about the necessary steps to be taken [to avoid this]."

Bantay Kalikasan, a media-based group supported by a multi-sectoral network of government agencies, private organisations and NGOs, is responding to the crisis with action. Rather than continuing to open up new watersheds, Bantay Kalikasan argues that old watersheds should be rehabilitated. So in 1999 they launched the "Save the La Mesa Watershed Project", which aims to rehabilitate, develop and protect the 2,700 hectare La Mesa watershed. The watershed contains a 600-hectare reservoir supplying some 10 million Manila residents, and is the last forest left within the metropolitan Manila area. Around 45 per cent of it is denuded.

How are they going to undertake such a massive project?

"Our strength is to be able to capitalise and facilitate environmental initiatives by leveraging our media resources," explained Mr Mendoza. ABS-CBN, a broadcasting foundation, gives Bantay Kalikasan three minutes of prime TV airtime, worth US$15,000, every day. Bantay Kalikasan links with advertising and other companies and organisations, which sponsor environmental messages, which are then broadcast. "Because we’re an environmental program, companies known to be pollutants are automatically screened out," he added. The Asian Development Bank has also provided grants for particular outputs.

Using the airtime, the group has brought the watershed issue into the homes of thousands of viewers. "Our challenge is to teach the Filipino public that forest care – or the non-care of it – affects the water supply, the air they breathe and therefore their very own lives."

Dr Philippe Bergeron, director of award-sponsors RIET, was clearly very impressed by the NGO’s strategy. "It’s very, very clever. It’s the first and only arrangement in the region, and in my view, it’s the sort of thing that should be duplicated everywhere," he said. "They have been very innovative."

The publicity campaigns are matched by projects on the ground. For the La Mesa, this involves planting trees in the degraded area. It costs approximately US$80 to reforest a single hectare – or about US$2.50 per tree. More than 6,000 volunteer tree planters have participated since May 1999, and hundreds of individuals, schools and companies have adopted hectares or trees. The survival rate of trees is over 90 per cent. "We have more than 300 hectares planted already, and our target is 1,200 hectares to be planted in four years. And we put up a guarantee – whatever happens to that hectare for the next three years, we are obliged to replant it."

Of course, forests are not only important in terms of water resource management, and this is another message the group is attempting to publicise. Trees help control soil erosion and flooding by controlling the siltation of reservoirs and river systems, they provide sanctuary for wildlife, and help clean the air. According to Mr Mendoza, it takes ten mature trees to deal with the carbon dioxide from a single car. "So if you have a car, you should contribute ten trees," he said.

Forests also provide recreation areas. Once reforestation is complete, the group plans to turn 30 to 50 hectares of the area into a park. "There are no parks in metro Manila. We want to create a pristine environment where people can spend their leisure time," said Mr Mendoza. Furthermore, the park will be a way for the project to become self-funding – and to expand to the other 400-plus critical watersheds across the country. An entry fee will be charged, and visitors will be able to access an information and nature centre, and exhibition area.

Essentially, Bantay Kalikasan, which employs 25 full-time staff, sees itself as being a coordinating body overseeing loose coalitions formed for various issues. "The groups are already there in the Philippines," said Mr Mendoza. "Our job is to tap them, harness them, and like a puzzle get the different groups together. Once we’re able to analyse the problem, we’re able to come up with a very good plan and strategy."

Bantay Kalikasan was born in 1998 as a result of the deteriorating environment in the Philippines generally, but in particular due to mounting frustration over a ten-year campaign to get the government to pass a clean air act. "We found out that there needs to be a facilitator, or a leader, to direct the actions to be taken," said Mr Mendoza. "As a media organisation, you can do that." The new group’s efforts led to the act being passed within six months. Following that success, the group has taken up other environmental issues, including watershed conservation.

According to Mr Mendoza, problems with watershed conservation stem from the fact that watershed management, development and protection have been isolated from water distribution – that is, water utility companies are not responsible for the care of watersheds. "Whoever sells the water should be charged a watershed management fee, to be put in a fund to put back into conserving the forests." Water companies are in fact among Bantay Kalikasan’s biggest donors – but institutionalising payment is their ultimate goal. "If it’s institutionalised, they’re forced to do it."

Mr Mendoza is both a licensed forester and an environmentalist. After being involved in various other foundation programs, he was called on to assist with Bantay Kalikasan due to his environmental background. The major challenge for the group so far has been learning skills for dealing with the media and advertisers, and carrying out marketing and awareness building. "But we have had many experts to help us," he said.

For Bantay Kalikasan, winning this particular award is very important in assisting it establish credibility. "We have to show that we are a leader," said Mr Mendoza. "Winning will help us to raise funds, and partner with equally credible institutions. It will also help build our morale, and motivate staff."

Looking to the future: Aquatech Asia 2001

01.05.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Current Affairs ::

The ability to supply water to people in the future is intricately linked to the health of the environment, so it wasn’t surprising that both environmental issues and looking to the future were underlying themes of Aquatech Asia 2001. The event was held for the first time in Thailand, at the Bangkok International Trade and Exhibition Centre from March 6 to 8.

As permanent secretary of Thailand’s Ministry of Interior, Mr Chanasak Yuvapurna, noted during his opening address, "Water supply is one of the key issues in the new millennium, not only for cities and governments, but also for the entire population. Whatever decisions we make today will have effects on the water quality and supply of the future." With 76 companies and organisations exhibiting at Aquatech Asia 2001, attendees were in a good position to improve their knowledge of the latest advances in the water industry, and so make better decisions for their – and everybody’s – future.

The opening ceremony was followed by a presentation by Mr Chanasak to the winners of the second Asia Water Management Excellence Awards, sponsored by the Regional Institute of Environmental Technology (RIET) under the patronage of Aquatech Asia 2001 [and support of Asian Water?]. In 2000, eight nominees vied for the four awards; this year, 25 nominees put forward their names, an indication of the increasing seriousness with which the awards are viewed.

His Royal Highness Sri Sultan Hamengku Buwono X, Sultan of Yogyakarta, Indonesia, won the individual award, STMicroelectronics from Singapore won the industry award, and the ABS-CBN Foundation of the Philippines won the NGO award. In the government category, no award was given due to a lack of sufficient documentation submitted by nominees. "This is certainly not to say that government organisations are not good enough to receive an award," said Dr Philippe Bergeron, director of RIET. "We are convinced there are plenty of government organisations across the region which certainly deserved the award."

With the formalities dispensed with, visitors were free to browse the exhibition, which included a spread of both private and government organisations, and suppliers of industrial, municipal and residential equipment and services. Marcel Ewals, general manager of organisers Bangkok Rai, said that many companies were very interested in Thailand. "Privatisation is on the agenda here, so many international companies are knocking on Thailand’s door."

In fact 70 per cent of organisations present were international, including German giant Bayer AG, Dutch companies Eijkelkamp Agrisearch Equipment, Iwaco (Asia) Ltd and Siemens, and others from Asia, Europe and America. The USA Pavilion featured 19 American companies, while the Netherlands country stand showcased the products of ten Dutch organisations. Local branches of Osmonic Asia Pacific, BWT Permo and Thames Water International also exhibited.

Several companies used the exhibition as a launching point for their move into Asia, such as American water-filter company Aquaspace and Italy’s Maddalena, a manufacturer of measuring instruments, while larger companies believed attending such an exhibition was important in terms of maintaining a presence. Thames’ Gary Wyeth said that the company wanted to let people know they were working on large projects in Thailand. "Being here doesn’t really help business, as there are only two organisations here we do business with [the Provincial Water Authority and Municipal Water Authority]. We’re quite happy to just let people know we’re here."

Bayer’s Roland Ragozzini said their booth was also about getting their name out among people. "We’re here to make our presence felt and want to make as many people as possible aware of the features of our products. We might get some additional business, but it’s more to do with prestige."

While the exhibition demonstrated that meeting people is still an intergral part of business, several exhibitors showcased the potential for the Internet to help. Thaienvironment.net, a year-old website featuring 5,000 Thai environmental product producers, was there to make itself known to foreign distributors hoping to penetrate the Thai market, while the non-commercial Netherlands Water Partnership demonstrated their website, www.nwp.nl, which helps the organisation be a single contact point for people seeking information on the Dutch water sector.

Both exhibitors and visitors were largely pleased with the exhibition, although some were disappointed with its size and numbers. Satit Sanongphan, deputy director of exhibitor US Asia Environmental Partnership in Thailand, said the exhibition had assisted American companies looking for joint ventures or partnerships with local firms. However, he added that the American exhibitors had hoped to meet with more end-users. "It may be because of the timing of the show – some visitors have commented that the show closed too early, and was not open on Saturday or Sunday, so it makes it difficult for engineers, managers, and maintenance specialists to come."

BWT Permo export manager Fabrice Lombardo said it was important to be at this exhibition. "You can’t say you are an international company today without also being in Asia," he said, adding that this exhibition was about business, while Aquatech Amsterdam was more about prestige. "We’ve made very good new contacts. We are a bit disappointed with the other exhibitors – it’s too small. And the organisers could have done more advertising to educate people about the exhibition."

Richard Rosen from Summit Research Labs, manufacturers of wastewater treatment chemicals, thought that attendance had been excellent. "There has been a good mix of end-users, water authorities and distributors. It’s been very well-organised. Normally you can find something wrong with a trade show, but this one has been very, very good."

Delegate Frank Evans, a consultant with the South Australian Water Industry Alliance, described the exhibition as excellent. "It’s the people that you meet, the networks that you make that are extremely important. I’ve seen some similar exhibits before, but there’s always some new technologies and approaches that you’re not aware of." However, visitors Laura Sirvent and Dr Juan Salas, from Baynard JR International, came from Spain for the event and were disappointed with its size. "One day is enough to visit – Aquatech in Amsterdam is ten times bigger. We also thought there would be a lot more Asian companies exhibiting," Ms Sirvent said.

The conference running in conjunction with the exhibition, "Focus on Asia", attracted more than 250 delegates. The first day focused on technology developments, day two saw a focus on management practices, while the final day – which attracted an extra 66 delegates – featured a range of technical papers on water treatments.

Suwat Wissurak from Thailand’s Provincial Water Authority attended the conference to learn about the latest in water technology and found it quite educative. "Mostly it’s been very good, although some of the technology being discussed is too high [to be relevant for us]." Siemens manager Jan Mahn said he listened to several useful papers, but had hoped to hear more about visions for the future. "The relevant papers covered integrated processes, and focused on implementing these into the market. I would have liked to hear more about strategies and solutions to improve business, especially in Asia."

Improving business in Asia was indeed what most exhibitors and visitors hoped to achieve from attending Aquatech Asia 2001. While most agreed it would take some time to gauge the financial success of the event, there’s little doubt that it gave people a valuable opportunity to meet and exchange ideas – and those are priceless.