Samantha Brown – Southeast Asian-based journalist and editor

Music: Completing the magic of Karma

01.09.2010 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Lifestyle ::

As an orange orb dips and melts into the horizon across a vast Indian Ocean, a DJ plays a set to an adoring, happy crowd alive on life, energy and music. At Karma Kandara’s Nammos Beach Club, this kind of special evening isn’t a rarity any more; it’s fast becoming a norm as the focus on music at Karma resorts ramps up with the spectacular Nammos in Bali the focal point.

Ever eaten a meal at a restaurant, vaguely aware that something is wrong, and then suddenly realised that it’s the lack of music making everyone slightly uncomfortable amid the clinking of cutlery? Or worse still, ever been driven out of a bar because you just can’t bear the music they’re playing?

more »

Karma healers

01.09.2010 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Lifestyle ::

Karma Kandara Bali

BALI, Indonesia, 1 September 2010 (Karma Chronicles) — Ellie Sand, practising shaman, channel medium and alchemical astrologer, visited Karma Jimbaran a few years ago in a bid to re-harmonise the beautiful Balinese coastal land it was built on.

“There was then a very large open quarry next to the resort. The energy of the resort was draining into the quarry and not staying in the resort, so I stopped the drainage and put the energy back into the resort,” Ellie tells me during an interview from the Canary Islands. “I also released some trapped souls that were there.”

The results? From a business perspective, they were an immediate increase in hotel bookings. more »

Kids’ clothes designers in Bali

01.05.2010 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Lifestyle ::

Take Bali’s fledgling textiles industry, stir in a smattering of creative expatriates and skilled local artisans, sprinkle with oodles of beaches-to-smouldering-volcano inspiration: You’ve got yourself a one-stop island shop for beautiful children’s designer clothes.

And while it might be hard work traipsing the tropical streets of Bali to unearth finds from the following labels, the sweetener is you’ll often snare the very same piece for a fraction of the price it will sell on international shelves once it’s exported.

more »

Cigarette museum proves unlikely Indonesian tourism attraction

05.01.2006 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Lifestyle ::

SURABAYA, Indonesia – The sweet, pungent scent of cloves and tobacco hangs heavy in the air as women paste, roll and snip cigarettes, their fingers flying faster than the eye can follow as tourists observe the public face of one of Indonesia’s most successful companies.

Staring down the global trend towards demonising tobacco, Sampoerna, which was snapped up by US giant Philip Morris in March for 5.2 billion dollars, proudly showcases itself at this gleaming museum in Indonesia’s second city, Surabaya.

Pegged on the rags-to-riches tale of its founder, Chinese immigrant Liem Seeng Tee, House of Sampoerna claims it is highlighting a great Indonesian story rather than glorifying smoking to the 5,000 visitors coming here each month.

"We got so many requests from university students and others to visit our factory that we could not accommodate all of them, so we built this museum," says marketing manager Hengki Setiawan.

Using the former premises of a Dutch-era orphanage that the company bought in 1932, it opened two years ago.

"We want to share with the public the history of Sampoerna, the struggle of the owner and family to make Sampoerna a success," Hengki says.

Students crouch to earnestly scrawl notes at a replica of the first handcart opened by Liem, and stroll by the framed black-and-white photographs of the business in its early years, speaking in library-hushed tones.

A fountain gurgles in the foyer, muffled by heavy red ceiling-to-floor drapes and surrounded by tasteful Chinese furniture.

Four generations on from Liem, the company has diversified into numerous industries — but the focus here is firmly on the cigarettes.

Cabinets display everything from old printing plates for cigarette packs to a book titled "Smoking is Good For You": a title perhaps meant to provide solace to the millions of smokers in the world’s fifth largest tobacco market.

According to a 2004 Ministry of Health report, 62.2 percent of Indonesian men smoked in 2001, compared to 1.3 percent of women. More than two-thirds started before they turned 19.

Most popular are kretek, produced from a blend of tobacco and cloves and named for the sound they make when a smoker inhales on them. Liem started pre-rolling them in 1934 to produce Dji Sam Soe, still one of the country’s leading brands.

Upstairs in a display room, with a view over a factory floor where hundreds of women churn out hand-rolled cigarettes, a half-dozen workers show up close how it is done. One picks up 50 sticks in her hand without needing to count.

If a worker rolls 4,000 cigarettes per day, she earns 60,000 rupiah (about 60 dollars) per week. Sampoerna has a workforce of more than 37,000 and the company booked revenue of almost 1.0 billion dollars in 2004.

"We are here to look around and learn about the management of Sampoerna, its history," says Ayu Setiarimi, one of four tourism students from Airlangga University.

"Indirectly it’s promoting Sampoerna, but in another way our knowledge is now wider about cigarettes and how Sampoerna has grown."

None of the four women smoke.

"In Indonesia, if men see women smoke they will think that maybe that’s not a good woman smoking," Setiarini says. "The perception among Indonesians, especially guys, is like that."

Indonesia and Nepal are the only two countries in Asia that have not signed on to the UN’s 2003 Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which among a slew of other measures, requires signatories to impose restrictions on tobacco advertising, sponsorship and promotion when it comes into force.

"If they put their logo there, it means promotion," Hakim Sorimuda Pohan, an MP working on tobacco control, says of the museum, which he has not visited.

He tells AFP he believes it would not be allowed if Indonesia signed on to the convention — but fears are rife that employment would drop off as a result, so he says it is unlikely to be signed anytime soon.

Museum general manager Ina Silas says that no complaints from anti-smokers or health authorities have so far been received.

"We have to prevent this, so that’s why we have policies about people being of a certain age," she says. Visitors aged under 18 must be accompanied by their parents.

A swish cafe where company logos are prominently displayed and an art gallery with changing exhibitions are other drawcards the company hopes will lure visitors, who do not pay for admission.

Sampoerna bought the premises in 1932, turning it first of all into a theatre visited by Charlie Chaplin the same year. Founding Indonesian president Sukarno also used it to make a series of speeches in 1938.

"This has really become one of the tourist destinations — in Surabaya, there are not so many places to visit," marketing manager Hengki concedes.

"We want House of Sampoerna to become the new icon of Surabaya … The kretek is very Indonesian."

Dutchman Willem Van Schendel is among the 1,000 foreigners streaming through the door each month, and he sees it as something akin to wine company museums in France.

"Of course there’s a trend in the world now to focus on the health issues, the health hazards of smoking, but for alcohol it’s the same thing and for me it’s not very different — and I’m a non-smoker," he says.

"I think it’s very well done."

Representatives from new owners Philip Morris agreed, Hengki says, so no changes are planned for now.

Amid emerald rice fields, Cambodia’s first winery startles but pleases

18.08.2005 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Lifestyle ::

PHUM BOT SALA, Cambodia – The fresh grape juice ferments in plastic water containers, bottles are labelled in a loungeroom and cheese has never passed the lips of the producer. But Cambodia’s first home-grown wine is proving a hit, startling foreign tourists and winning over domestic tipplers in the tropical country.

Despite being a former colony of wine-loving France, most Cambodians only drink rice wine, a cheap and dangerously potent concoction many farmers make themselves in the predominantly agricultural country.

The twisting, gnarled grapevines at Chan Thai Chhoeung’s farm are an anomaly amid northwestern Battambang province’s lush green rice fields and orange groves, set near a river swollen with tropical monsoon rains.

A thatched open-air hut by the bougainvillea-clad roadside welcomes passersby and offers generous tastings.

"At first I wasn’t thinking about starting a winery. I was only thinking about growing grapes because some neighbouring countries produce them," says orange farmer-turned-oenophile Chan Thai Chhoeung.

Both Vietnam and Thailand, which border Cambodia, have begun producing grape wines with varying degrees of success in recent years despite wine-making traditions which dictate that grapes be grown in cooler climes.

Chan Thai Chhoeung planted his first vines sourced from Thailand in 2000, followed by some sent to him by a brother in France.

When the grapes failed to fetch a decent price at the local market, the unassuming 39-year-old sought to find out whether the extra effort of turning the fruit into wine might be a better money-spinner to support his family of six.

Although he rarely drinks wine himself he decided to try, and completed his first harvest of five tonnes (tons) of grapes at the end of 2004.

Chan Thai Chhoeung now has more than 4,500 plants growing across about two hectares (five acres) divided between three separate farms. Varietals plunged into the fertile dark soil include Black Queen, Shiraz and Kyoho.

"While growing them, I met with many difficulties. This type of plant is not easy to grow," Chan Thai Chhoeung says, describing the mysterious demise of 50 Chenin Blanc vines which irretrievably withered.

"In Cambodia, there is a lot of rain and this kind of plant needs not so much water — and winter," he says, describing the battle wine producers must endure in the tropics.

After its first soak in the plastic water containers, the wine is transferred to large silver vats where it is infused with French oak chips — a typical budgetary shortcut among wine-makers unable to afford oak barrels.

At this stage, the wine is kept below 30 degrees Celsius (86 F) for the best results, although 20 C is usually preferred, Chan Thai Chhoeung says.

"It’s hard to get a stable electricity supply," he complains. Cambodia is beset with a generally poor electricity infrastructure.

Tasting his product five months into the fermentation process, he decided it was flavoursome enough to bottle, eschewing guidelines that suggested a year-long soak.

"Plus I don’t have much money, so I tried to produce the wine earlier."

The wine-maker and his wife, Leny Chan Thol, spent 10,000 dollars setting up the business, including a 5,000-dollar loan from a microcredit institution. The largest expense was a 1,500-dollar imported Canadian filter.

The amount is significant in post-conflict Cambodia, where decades of war which ended only in 1998 and included the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime have decimated the economy. Average annual income is about 290 dollars per year.

"According to the ministry of industry, it’s Cambodia’s first wine," Chan Thai Chhoeung says.

He recommends sipping his 12.5 percent alcohol volume rose or red wine — he has given up on white — with a nibble on cashew nuts or a meal of beef steak.

"I’ve never tried cheese, only prahok," he says when asked whether cheese might accompany it. Prahok, a pungent salted and fermented fish paste, is a Cambodian staple sometimes dubbed fish cheese.

The wine is distributed to the capital Phnom Penh, the tourist town of Siem Reap — gateway to Cambodia’s Angkor temple complex — and nearby Battambang, the kingdom’s second largest city. It sells for six dollars a bottle at the cellar door and a little higher elsewhere.

"I dream about being able to produce more and sell to other countries. My main problem now is getting the money together to buy more equipment," he says, adding that he’d also like to snap up more land for his vines.

The provincial governor has stepped in to lodge a request for Chan Thai Chhoeung’s businesses to be granted tax-free status for the next three to five years, in an effort to help them grow.

Another market are the 20 or so people who stop by the vineyard every day. Among them are French tourists Elizabeth Heitz, 55, and Alain Hummel, 53, whose motorbike taxi drivers suggested a visit.

"This is an event for us," Heitz says of discovering the winery. The couple live above a wine shop in Strasbourg and are pleased to put the knowledge they gained at a wine course last year to the test.

"For us, it’s a sweet wine, not a rose… It’s a wine to drink before a meal in the summer or with an appetiser," Heitz assesses after a swirl and sip of the apricot-hued rose wine.

Hummel points out that the rose should be served chilled, not poured at the steamy temperature in the hut.

"But in the south of France, we have the same wine as this. It’s drinkable," he concludes. Both prefer it over the "red" wine which they say is really a dark rose and "empty".

Hummel is concerned about the size of the vines, too, saying they look up to 20 years old despite their youth. "They have developed quickly, maybe too quickly," he says.

Regardless, the couple is taken aback by the vineyard and the obvious effort Chan Thai Chhoeung has expended in an attempt to put Cambodia on the world’s wine-making map.

"All the people who make wine are a little bit crazy," Heitz laughs.

Technology trumps Cambodia’s royal portrait artist

29.10.2004 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Lifestyle ::

The dozens of identical photographic portraits of Cambodia’s new King Norodom Sihamoni looming over the capital’s boulevards to mark his coronation have left royal artist Kimsong Narykun wringing his hands.

Technology has trumped 40-year-old Narykun, who works daily in a fan-cooled studio equipped with just one small easel set on a rattan mat, a stone’s throw from the spire-topped palace and a park ringed by six of the portraits alone.

"I haven’t yet painted any pictures of King Norodom Sihamoni — all the portraits of him have been printed using computers," he told AFP, pausing from his work on a likeness of a young Cambodian soldier.

The portrait painter’s style caught the eye of royal palace officials in 1995 and over the next six years they commissioned 10 huge oil portraits of former king Norodom Sihanouk and other top royal figures, he said.

The oil canvases, stretching as high as six metres (20 feet) and created by working from photographs, adorned the royal palace exterior and numerous official buildings, and inspired the national assembly to order a further 40 portraits.

While there is no official royal artist, Narykun believes he is the only artist to have worked on palace portraits recently — although his commissions dried up after his last national assembly order was completed last year.

"The pictures generated by computer are good," he conceded. "But if we compare them with portraits painted by hand, using an artist’s power, energy and intelligence, than these others have more expression and depth."

Narykun earned under 1,000 dollars for each of the palace orders. He typically earns around 40 dollars for an ordinary commission, which takes around three days to complete.

"I want the leaders of our national institutions to think more about art created by artists," he said, adding he was hopeful that King Sihamoni may be sympathetic to artists’ plight.

The new monarch, who is in the midst of a three-day coronation, was Cambodia’s ambassador to the UN’s cultural agency in Paris for 11 years. He quit his post just weeks before his appointment as king earlier this month.

"King Sihamoni likes art, so he will think about the painted versus printed paintings," he said.

Cambodia’s top artists were among those wiped out by the murderous 1970s Khmer Rouge regime, which oversaw the deaths of up to two million people, and their community is struggling to recover in the destitute Southeast Asian nation.

"In Cambodia, they don’t think painting is useful for the country. They believe painting portraits is just for fun, or entertainment. But pictures are priceless," Narykun said.

A royal palace official charged with erecting the photographs of the king around the city told AFP Friday’s coronation was announced too soon for any paintings to be ordered — and photos were cheaper and a better likeness anyway.

He hinted that the days of royal portraiture could be over in Cambodia.

"Now there is new equipment available to make printed portraits in Phnom Penh," he said when asked whether any orders would be placed with Narykun.

But Narykun still harbours a glimmer of hope: a government client asked him for a quote on a two-by-three metre portrait of the new king last week.

But the client hasn’t yet given the green light for the 400-dollar job.

"Maybe they’ll just use printed ones, they’re cheaper," he sighed.

Cambodian children get cyberspace savvy with free Internet kiosks

12.09.2004 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Lifestyle ::

It may be holiday time, but students still hang out at a handful of schools in impoverished Cambodia, lured by free Internet kiosks aimed at getting more people here au fait with cyberspace.

At a high school outside the capital Phnom Penh, some students research Asian architecture, others check football results, and a few, like 12-year-old Keo Nimol, just silently watch.

"I don’t know how to use the Internet," he confesses, peering over the shoulder of another student checking e-mail. But Keo Nimol has still been dropping by since the project opened here in April.

The four kiosks funded by the Indian government and dotted around this war-scarred, mostly agricultural country, are designed to allow the poor to see the wonders of the internet.

"The aim is to arouse students’ curiosity, encourage them to learn. It’s a self-learning process," Indian diplomat V. K. Sharma says.

Students clamour for turns to log on.

"I saw other people using it, and I just learned. It wasn’t very difficult," says 16-year-old Hak Yoty, perched on a railing as he surfs one of the two terminals.

Some 49 similar kiosks are open in India, while 30 have been installed in Egypt, and talks are under way to see them launched in Laos and the Philippines, says Ashoo Dubey, systems executive with NIIT, the company providing them.

On average, the kiosks cost around 8,000 to 10,000 dollars. Access is monitored remotely from New Delhi, with porn sites blocked but otherwise no restrictions.

"It’s a new frontier for Cambodian children, accessing the internet, email, and seeing what’s online," says Phu Leewood, secretary-general of the government’s top IT authority, which is overseeing the project.

Internet cafes are spreading in Cambodia, but with up to half the population living on a dollar a day or less, the typical one-dollar an hour charge at urban areas outside Phnom Penh — more in remote areas — is formidable.

Another kiosk is slated to open soon in Cambodia, but overwhelming demand from students means the government is poised to ask for funding to erect kiosks at schools across the kingdom, Leewood says.

Teacher Kruy Kroeun says people from outside the community also flock here.

"All classes of people come — the poorest of people in our society, people wearing rags, they are coming and learning," he says.

"At break time, students race each other to get here. Others come, they park their motorbikes and their bicycles, and they wait for a turn…. They just need to be patient."

Access isn’t perfect: One problem, says 15-year-old Khen Hasda, here to scour international and sports news, is that girls are in a minority.

"There are too many boys and most girls dare not come," he says.

Kruy Kroeun says students are thrilled to benefit from the billions of dollars in aid that has poured into the kingdom, which suffered from nearly three decades of armed conflict that ended only in 1998.

"Students hear that a lot of money comes into Cambodia, but they don’t see any of it. To have these, it really motivates them."

Cambodia’s fashion designers create tropical chic

07.05.2004 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Lifestyle ::

Fashion designers in Cambodia are tapping into the kingdom’s stunning fabrics, affordable workmanship and tropical inspiration, making for a vibrant although still-tiny industry.

While the impoverished country is better known for its garment exports fuelled by more than 200 mass-producing factories, a handful of designers are focusing on the domestic market of moneyed Khmers, expatriates and tourists.

Romyda Keth, a Cambodian-born designer who left her homeland in 1973, two years before the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime swept to power and devastated the country, blazed a path for her cohorts with her return here a decade ago.

Already an established name in Paris where she studied design, she first set up a workshop and exported her work back there but a few years later opened her own boutique in a colonial-era house to cater to rising local demand.

"It would have been difficult to make the new start in any country, but in 1994 here, there were coup d’etats every six months — it was quite fragile," she says of the war-torn kingdom which established peace just six years ago.

Now she says she would not dream of relocating back to Paris, although she travels back four times a year to showcase her vibrantly-coloured, feminine collections, which sell there for up to three times their local price.

"It’s much easier here. In Paris, everything is difficult. You run everywhere, you spend half of your day in the car because of the traffic, it’s very frustrating — and of course, it’s very expensive," she says.

Sylvain Lim, a Cambodian who also studied fashion in Paris in the 1970s, returned home in 2000 after three decades abroad as a successful designer to contribute to his country’s gradual rebuilding.

With his son, he opened a showroom in February, and his androgynous and sophisticated pieces are being snapped up by a clientele of young high-society Cambodians and expatriates.

"I had everything in France — success, wealth. So I thought I would go back home, keep my profession and try to do something in a new way, get inspiration from Cambodian traditions," he says.

Lim enjoys working with Cambodian silk but finds the variable quality of the fabric he obtains from manufacturers one of his toughest challenges, a common refrain among the designers.

But he revels in the exquisite handiwork he can now include in his designs.

"Look at this, it’s handmade," he exclaims, pointing to detailed stitching on a dress made of Italian wool. "In France, you could not do this."

A combination of passion for Cambodia and its affordable labour led Frenchwoman Nathalie Parize, a former office worker, to move here last year and open a casual clothing boutique with her business partner last month.

Parize has no design background and says she would not have attempted such a bold undertaking in Paris.

"This is something I wanted to do but with no previous experience, I would not have dared to invest. There it’s so complicated, here it’s very easy," she says, adding that in particular contract work is simpler to commission here.

Cambodia offers great opportunities for expatriate designers willing to commit a substantial period of time here, argues Australian Cassie McMillan, a resident for nine years who designs clothes and homewares for her own boutique.

"I do recommend it, because I think it’s possible to set up a business without having to stake your whole life savings or making yourself bankrupt for the next 20 years," she says, noting that a sample costing around 15 dollars here could cost up to 200 dollars in Australia.

Significant challenges have to be tackled, however, such as a war-time legacy of a largly unskilled pool of workers, meaning entrepreneurs need to be prepared to invest in training employees themselves, she says.

McMillan, who had her own lingerie and sleepwear label in Australia, is creatively inspired by her travels in Asia but in particular by Cambodia.

"The majority of everything I do has a Cambodian element in it. Even if it’s a jewellery roll, there’ll be a little bit of Cambodian silk in there," she says, adding that she’s also a fan of Cambodian organza, which has become widely available in recent years.

As for Cambodia’s notoriously difficult political climate — the country is without a government more than nine months after elections — McMillan, who once shut up shop for months during a period of unrest, is sanguine.

"Everyone is just over it. They just want to get on with it and eventually hope that the government will sort itself out."

Cambodia’s traditional music fuses with the West in bold album project

11.04.2004 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Lifestyle ::

In a tiny Phnom Penh studio, US teenagers with musical backgrounds ranging from jazz to punk are collaborating with traditionally trained Cambodian musicians on a unique project.

The four Americans, after studying traditional Khmer instruments for several months here, hatched a plan to record an album with their teachers and friends, blending Western and Khmer instruments, styles and compositions.

"I do think that we are actually for once doing something that no one has done before," says guitarist Eli Carlton-Pearson, 18, who is laying down final tracks before returning to the United States to mix the album.

The trailblazing musical experimentation has yielded some impressive and mature sounds — sultry chords, prowling and sophisticated melodies, an occasional haunting voice and jazzy improvisation.

The record features some 25 instruments, such as the flute-like pipoh and the tse diu, a one-stringed Khmer instrument played over the chest and featured on the bas reliefs of the famed Angkor Wat temples.

"There’s everything from soul instruments playing heartbreaking monophonic melodies, to dozens of instruments playing cacophony," Carlton-Pearson says of the recordings.

Yun Theara, the key Cambodian musician on the album, says he is thrilled by the idea and calls their collaboration "a delicious food that two different nations can eat together."

Yun, 46, was taught to play a range of traditional instruments by his father from the age of eight, including the tror ou, a low-pitched string fiddle.

He had a promising musical career ahead of him until the sweep to power by the Khmer Rouge in 1975 saw him evacuated from Phnom Penh to the countryside.

"I tried to play one time for them to listen, but they said they didn’t need musicians, only workers," he says of the regime held responsible for the deaths of up to two million people during their pursuit of an agrarian utopia.

The Khmer Rouge’s 1975-1979 genocide decimated Cambodian society, including its rich traditional musical heritage, with many musicians killed and others such as Yun losing crucial sections of their artistic knowledge.

By the time peace finally came to Cambodia in 1998, tinny pop and karaoke music imported from Thailand and China had easily usurped traditional music’s place of reverence, with few young people now interested in the older genres.

"They don’t like it, and I’m very sorry about this but I don’t blame them," says Yun, who would nevertheless like to see the new album open up Cambodia’s youth to the potential of their own music.

"We can mix our scales with the foreign scale. We can keep our traditional music and we can change it, too, to use Western ideas," says the musician, a vice dean at Phnom Penh’s Royal University of Fine Arts.

Carlton-Pearson describes the state of traditional music here as "threatened, but still strong".

"You don’t have to look too hard to find amazing Cambodian musicians playing remarkable music," he says.

In particular, the American heaps praise on the accomplished Yun, claiming he "has enough musical knowledge for four minds" and can slide between the two musical spheres with ease.

But even for Yun, the process of collaboration has been trying.

"Foreign music and Khmer music are completely different," he says, explaining that the scales are distinct, which accounts for the dissonance Westerners hear — and sometimes find unpalatable — in Cambodian music.

"We have a different language, different music and even the style of playing is different. It took a long time, we had to try hard before we could just mix it together," Yun says.

"And technically, that room… ," he says, shaking his head as he refers to the recently converted studio covered in ceramic tiles, which proved an acoustic nightmare and was one of an array of challenges the musicians faced.

Parker Barnes, a 19-year-old double bass player, has been instrumental in the cross-cultural fusion project, having studied traditional Khmer music last year in Phnom Penh with some of the aging masters.

Now he’s back, and hoping that the album might help towards getting Cambodia’s under-appreciated master musicians, who have few opportunities to perform, back into work.

"Many musicians who were once the best at what they are doing are now sitting at home and can’t get a job. This is partly an attempt to maybe inspire some Cambodian musicians who have such expertise to keep playing."

But above all, the guitarist Carlton-Pearson says, it’s about the music.

"If people think we’ve made good music, just flat out good music, not in spite of anything … but something that can be appreciated on a purely musical level, that would be cool."

Thai architect hits on blueprint for sustainable living in the tropics

28.09.2003 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Lifestyle ::

PATHUM THANI, Thailand – In a gated community just outside the teeming megalopolis of Bangkok, Soontorn Boonyatikarn’s three-bedroom home appears much like any other, with the solar panelling on the roof the only hint that something out of the ordinary lies beneath.

Soontorn calls this home a blueprint for sustainable living in the tropics: the unassuming house is 15 times more energy efficient than its neighbours, produces enough surplus electricity to power a car and creates its own water-supply and cooking gas.

"This house is a dream house for the future," says the architect, who challenged himself to build a self-sufficient dwelling in Thailand three years ago and has now been living in it for six months.

To meet his goal, Soontorn needed to design a house which had energy needs that could be met by solar panels squeezed onto its roof — one fifteenth the area required to supply a typical house with solar energy.

Soontorn had spent nearly two decades teaching at the University of Michigan in the United States and researching sustainable living. The additional challenge was to make what he’d learned abroad applicable to Asia.

"When I brought what I had learned back to Thailand, everything I used to do was the opposite here, so it had to be done backwards," he says. "Only the concept is transferable to tropical areas. You cannot take the knowledge and just put it here."

The journey from drawing board to reality was a fraught process, says Soontorn, who has battled scepticism, intransigent engineers and sloppy workmanship along the way.

"I had some students helping me do research on this and that but the imagination behind it is mine. Nobody wanted to do anything like this — they think it’s crazy," he says.

"When I presented my paper (to the government), they said I was crazy. Somebody said they should take me to the hospital to check out my brain. They said a lot of nasty things."

Soontorn pushed on undeterred, only to then meet resistance from his engineer who refused to adapt designs to his needs, such as airconditioning ducts 15 times smaller than the norm.

"He said, ‘No way will I do it!’ So I had to do it myself," he sighs.

Next came the construction, which "did not live up to my expectations" and led to Soontorn supervising all the work.

But the final product has won over the professionals, with the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) presenting a regional award for energy efficiency to Soontorn last Sunday.

Kecha Thirakomen, a governor of ASHRAE’s Thai chapter and an energy efficiency expert, lavishes praise on the house.

"It is an excellent project… It’s very difficult for energy efficient projects to have good design and construction and be in practical use," says Kecha, who is not aware of any similar houses in the Asian region.

"In our culture sometimes we are too modest to express our ideas and sometimes it’s not the way to success. But Dr. Soontorn was outside for a while and when he came back he was brave enough to express his concept and ideas."

"With him, whether someone agrees with him or not, he just doesn’t care."

Soontorn built a house that even after lighting, air-conditioning and appliances produces a surplus 5.0 kilowatt hours per day that can be sold back to the grid, or power an electric car for 50 kilometres per day.

The water supply is consistent and requires only a small, cost-effective tank.

Some 30 to 40 litres are collected daily on the roof, thanks to a special surface which lowers its temperature at night. Water is then condensed out of the breeze, which is channelled across it by landscaped mounds in the garden.

Another 40 litres is sourced from the air-conditioning system, which itself operates using two-thirds the standard amount of energy.

Recycling water twice — with some sprinkling the vegetables growing in a greenhouse — provides at least 140 litres per day, with Thailand’s six-monthly monsoonal rains making up the rest.

"When you do not have to buy water, it means the house can be anywhere — on an island, the top of a mountain — anywhere in this region where the rains fall six to seven months each year," says Soontorn.

Grass clippings from the 800-square-metre block of land meanwhile are used to produce the gas typically used for traditional Thai cooking.

"You are living in a world of true sustainability with features that are equivalent to a millionaire’s," Soontorn enthuses, pointing to the 1.4-metre deep swimming pool which is filled during the rainy season.

The pool is heated slightly using the surplus energy created by the air-conditioner — after it’s used to heat the hot-water tank.

The total cost for the house, swimming pool and solar cells comes in at 5.0 million baht (124,378 dollars), a not unduly high price by Bangkok standards.

Soontorn, who is awaiting patent approval for his design, is already looking ahead: to a sustainable city.

"It would require nothing, no extra energy from outside. That’s what I dream of."