Thai designers ditch copies and kitsch for substance and style

When it comes to design, Thailand is probably best known as the world capital for pirated goods. But a new breed of homeware designers has ditched copies and kitsch to take international markets by storm with their stylish, useful products.

"Thailand is a real design hub at the moment, and if you go out around the region it’s not as groovy as Thailand," says Carole Stevens, director of Asian Motifs, a design house producing modern Asian-inspired homeware.

"You used to be stuck for buying things here that didn’t have an elephant on it or wasn’t rattan. And now there are just great things to buy, beautiful things."

Eric Booth, marketing director for Thai silk house Jim Thompson, says homegrown designers are more innovative than ever before.

"Ten to fifteen years ago, the designs here were imported. Thai designers were copying foreign designers — there was no local talent, no local inspiration," he says.

"But in the last five years, I’ve travelled to all the international fairs, and now there are some very, very talented Thai designers."

Utilising Thailand’s natural resources, they are turning out sleek candleholders and silver-tipped chopsticks in hardwood, stunning silk cushions and table runners, as well as ultra-modern furniture among countless other items.

For small-scale production, designers can utilise Thailand’s highly-skilled artisans, Booth says.

"The manual worker is excellent — that’s why we copy things so well," he says, referring to Thailand’s famed counterfeiters who routinely knock off designer handbags the day they debut on Parisian runways.

The increasing appeal of Thai homewares is reflected in rising export figures, with gifts and decorative items earning the country’s coffers 3.7 billion dollars last year, a rise of 76 percent on 1998.

Over the same period, exports of household textiles rose by 31 percent, earning 149.5 million dollars last year.

The designers’ success represents a silver lining to the cloud of the devastating 1997 Asian economic crisis which forces many businesses to change tack.

"Many people I know turned to home decorating instead of interior design (during the crisis). It had a big impact of things," says Masiri Tamsakul, a designer working for retailer Muang Doo, which took the downturn head-on by opening in 1997.

"During the last four years, so many interior designers and architects have lost their jobs," says architect Duangrit Bunnag, who went another route and began importing homeware to satisfy a niche demand for international products.

"They have tried to find alternative ways of using their expertise as designers."

A key driver in the boom has been the twice-yearly Bangkok International Gift Fair, which draws buyers from around the world to browse everything from turquoise celadon vases and coconut wood lamps to water hyacinth chairs and Thai-silk cushions.

"Some trade fairs don’t work because the buyers don’t come, but this fair has been getting bigger and bigger each year," says Duangrit.

More than 700 Thai companies exhibited this year with 15,000 potential buyers booking orders worth 1.7 billion baht (40.5 million dollars), says Department of Export Promotion trade officer Praneen Suangarom.

"Most of the (buying) companies who talked to me said… the quality is good, but the uniqueness is in the design," he says.

A focus on both design and quality is vital now that China has emerged as a tough price competitor, exporters say.

"China is a very strong competitor. What we see from big customers who need big quantities is that they come here, collect samples and go to China," says Carlo Hostettler, managing director of Cocoon, an upscale retailer and exporter of contemporary Thai-style homewares.

With China impossible to beat on a price basis, some are concerned that the government is still pushing Thailand’s virtue of being a cost-effective producer, rather than an innovative one.

"They’re going in the wrong direction," says architect Duangrit. "Nobody can produce anything cheaper than China."

And while designers are cutting-edge and manual workers are top notch, growth in the market is being held back by a lack of quality-conscious manufacturers.

"There are few manufacturers who can work for us — it’s hard to produce a large quantity at the same or consistent quality," says Muang Doo’s Masiri. "We have to QC (quality control) the products so much."

Jim Thompson’s Booth says the famed company has faced the same problem.

"Every time we’ve tried to outsource something, the prototype was nice. But when we ordered 10, 20 or a 100 they came out in different shapes, different sizes, different qualities, different colours."

Chet R-nont, chairman of the Thai Housewares Trade Association, says there are quality manufacturers in Thailand, and he hopes they’ll connect with designers through the 65-member association.

"If you come to the association, then we can direct you to the right (manufacturer). All of our members are screened for quality and reliability," he says.

The association was founded last year to focus on accessing overseas markets for manufacturers, and signals a maturity in the industry, he says.

Thailand’s vibrant art scene struggles for recognition

With hordes of skilled young artists emerging from its colleges, Thailand should be home to a thriving contemporary art scene. But experts in the industry say government neglect has ensured the kingdom is the Asian art world’s best-kept secret.

"Thailand produces about 2,000 artists every year from art institutions. Where are those artists’ works? The government isn’t recognising their work," fumes art activist Chumpon Apisuk.

Chumpon is spearheading a popular campaign to push for the construction of the nation’s only contemporary art centre. Slated to be built in a prime location in downtown Bangkok, city authorities have now controversially altered the plans.

The Bangkok Metropolitan Art Centre was a pet project of the capital’s previous governor, the progressive Bhichit Rattakul, who envisioned a publicly funded but independent centre for modern art.

His conservative successor, Samak Sundaravej, says the 300 million baht (7.4 million dollar) price-tag is too high, and without consultation is pushing ahead with an alternative plan to build a shopping mall on the site.

The art museum will be a mere attachment — a prospect that appalls art lovers who want the matter settled by the country’s administrative court.

"We’re suing the government, including the prime minister, the minister of the interior and the governor of Bangkok for neglecting the voice of the arts and the arts community," says Chumpon.

Numthong Sea-Tang, who runs the respected Numthong gallery, says a multi-faceted centre is a vital part of educating people about art — which is necessary if artists are to build an audience in Thailand.

"We have the National Gallery but nothing for modern art," he says, rattling off a slew of Thai historical periods whose art is represented at the dusty institution.

"But this century, everything has changed. When you talk about Thai contemporary art from 10 years ago — there’s nothing there. The government hasn’t supported it. How are people going to be educated?"

Numthong says artists currently have to wait up to two years to show their work in temporary exhibitions at the National Gallery or at Silpakorn University, which boasts the country’s most prestigious fine arts faculty.

"In terms of support, Thailand is not a good place to be. Singapore and Malaysia are better than here because they have foundations for artists and government support," says performance and installation artist Jakraphun Thanateeranon.

"The people who work in the government are traditionalists, conservative."

Industry insiders accuse the government of shying away from promoting Thailand as a centre for contemporary art preferring to peddle an image of a traditional land where the arts and crafts of yesteryear are still obediently churned out.

"The TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand) always promotes Thailand as a land of handicrafts, traditional sculptures and antiques, but they have never promoted Thailand as a country of contemporary art," says Jorn Middelborg, the Norwegian managing director of Thavibu gallery which represents Thai, Vietnamese and Myanmar artists.

Despite the difficulties, Thailand does have a vibrant and diverse artistic scene, thanks to its abundance of homegrown talent, he says.

"There are a lot of things going on and there is a variety and diversity among Thai contemporary paintings that I find exciting."

American gallery manager Ernest Lee, who represents some 25 young Thai artists, agrees.

"What I’ve seen here in Bangkok is fascinating and rather diverse. I think that from my experiences, and what I’ve seen … I find Bangkok and Thailand to be the best-kept secret in Southeast Asia for art," he says.

"But (the art scene) has always been stuck in its own little compartment. It’s always been here, it’s been here for the last 50 years but it’s been hidden, more hidden than it should be."

Yaovanee Nirandara, Thailand’s representative for Christie’s auction house, says the international market for Thai contemporary paintings is relatively static, but the auction house is doing its bit to promote them.

"We like to promote them because old (artworks) are more and more difficult to find. We like to promote new artists, the good ones, and we’ve had quite a good response."

While artists complain that a lack of commercial support is hindering their careers, gallery owners say the artists must help themselves by becoming more business-minded.

"Artists here are in a dreamworld. It’s very nice, but they don’t recognise the gallery system," says Chatvichai Promadhattavedi, who was director of the groundbreaking but now defunct Bhirasri Institute of Modern Art for 12 years.

"If I were someone in power I would see to it that the gallery system develops. There have been serious galleries but they have not been able to survive," he says.

Chatvichai is also critical of the lack of infrastructure in place to promote contemporary art and culture in Thailand more generally.

"There is no infrastructure, no genuine art circle, no audience," he says.

"Society is losing quite a lot by not focusing on culture. Here business and government people have not realised that culture, design and art can be part of industry."

Wordsmiths of the world find their own paradise in Thailand

In a downtown Bangkok shopping mall complete with blaring muzak and baffled onlookers, 72 of the world’s best Scrabble players take their positions for the first match in a gruelling four-day tournament.

They might be in one of the world’s premier tropical holiday spots, but these global wordsmiths are happy to eschew palm trees and pina coladas for their own version of paradise: the 17th King’s Cup.

Far away from Thailand’s white sands and turquoise waters, they are focused on the task of composing words from seven randomly selected letters and placing them on the board to win maximum points.

Despite his status as world number 14, star Thai player Jakkrit Klaphajone confesses to jitters.

"I’m nervous, but it’s usual for me. I always get nervous before tournaments," he says.

The young medical researcher usually hits the books — the list of 200,000-plus admissable words — three weeks before tournaments.

"I cram the words," he says. "And I usually play against my computer two or three times a week."

Jakkrit has lined his letter tiles up against Australia’s unranked Dianne Ward, a nurse thrilled to be playing someone of Jakkrit’s fame.

Unsurprisingly, he opens the game with a "bingo" — a seven-letter word that earns bonus points. His "berimes" is then chased with "reframes".

"Magic fingers you have, Jakkrit," mutters an admiring Dianne.

But when he answers his mobile phone during his next turn — as the clock’s ticking — she looks astonished.

The culture of playing in Thailand is quite different to any other country, competitors say.

The dull roar of a bustling mall, constantly trilling mobiles and the fact that the final two days are played in a stadium in front of thousands of screaming schoolchildren can be off-putting to those used to the pin-drop quiet of other international tournaments.

Australian player Bob Jackman recalls last year’s King’s Cup, when organiser Amnuay Ploysangngam addressed the children, who were competing in their own tournament, by microphone between turns.

"I played Amnuay while he was addressing a crowd of 5,000 schoolchildren in the stadium by microphone, which sat on our table when he wasn’t using it," he says.

"Scrabble might be more popular with the youth in other countries if it was played in a noisy, fun environment, as it is in Thailand."

The popularity of the game here among young people is phenomenal, and reflected in the fact that three of the top 20 players in the world are Thai — an amazing feat in a field vastly dominated by native English speakers.

"We promote it like a sport, and as a way to learn English. And we honour the people who are international players, just like tennis, football or any other sport," says organiser Amnuay.

"We try to promote our tournaments by telling people that if you win you can be a star in Bangkok or in Thailand — and you win a lot of money."

It’s not as lucrative as the biannual world championships in the US, where 25,000 dollars is up for grabs, but the 6,000-dollar prize money is enough to attract world number two, New Zealander Nigel Richards, who’s won the Cup three years running.

Words such as zowie, arvo, enroot, qat, axion and kraft criss-cross his debut game in this tournament, but he’s not compelled to use fancy words to explain why he plays.

"I enjoy it. It’s fun," says the electrical engineer.

Waiyapot Suttawassuntorn, a Thai-born engineering research associate and Britain’s number 165, divulges his all-time top-scoring word: "melanics" — then sheepishly confesses to not knowing its meaning.

But the point is to learn admissable words rather than their definitions, as the Philippines’ Jodi Gonzalez demonstrates when explaining his winning Scrabble technique.

He whips out his personal organiser to demonstrate how it’s programmed to give him all the anagrams of a particular combination of letters, so he can practice memorising them as he trains in Singapore, where he works as a technical writer and is ranked at number 13.

The Philippines, with 14 players, represents the largest overseas contigent at the Bangkok tournament.

"We’re the fourth largest English-speaking country in the world. Scrabble improves our word power, and a lot of us like puzzles, especially word puzzles," Gonzalez explains.

Back at Jakkrit and Dianne’s table, the final score is tallied.

Jakkrit has trumped Dianne, but she’s happy with her respectable performance against the Thai star.

"I’m out of his class — just getting this game is fantastic."

A home away from home

What do expatriates do when they want to live in a house in Thailand that reflects their own style? Designer Kristina Zanic and her husband Brian found the answer: find a house that has potential, and negotiate for reduced rent in return for you footing the renovation bill.

Nearly three years ago they found a four-bedroom, two-storey home in the Sukhumvit area that fitted the bill. "They call it tropical architecture. It’s basically a Bauhaus modernist style, with lots of concrete and brick work," says Kristina. "What’s good about this style is that it’s spacious."

From the start, Kristina, who took charge of the project, knew she’d be in for some serious work. "Everyone said ‘Oh my god! You’re not going to tackle this!’ The house was in disrepair. There were fluorescent lights, snail trails of wiring across the ceiling. There was really no kitchen, and the bathrooms were pink with blue, brown, green tiles."

Their budget kept in mind that they didn’t own the house, but nevertheless they wanted to create something comfortable and homey to live in.

First step was to replace the asbestos ceilings. Next walls were altered around the kitchen, before putting in white ribbed cupboards, black granite benches and a functional island holding recipe books. A ceiling to floor cupboard on one side couldn’t be built as Kristina wished, so instead, an alcove area was created to display a pottery collection. Wooden blinds and a few rugs keep the atmosphere warm.

"I love my kitchen. We like to entertain western-style, so when people come over for dinner, they like to hang around the kitchen. Creating the island in particular keeps that in mind."

In the spacious living area, everything was painted white. Downlights replaced the fluorescent lights, and fans were put in.

Kristina says the bathrooms are not necessarily something she’d have chosen for her own house. "But for whoever moves in here next – isn’t it best to have a white bathroom? I’v just put black granite on the floors and vanities. You can accessorise to make them really nice."

Upstairs they knocked out the walls to the bedroom closest to the stairs, only to find that the old balustrade was still in the wall. In this space they’ve created a cosy TV-room, lined with a huge collection of Brian’s books.

The guest room has a Thai-theme. It features a magnificent wooden bedhead, carved in Chiang Mai to Kristina’s specifications. The deep red curtains came from material bought at Chatuchak.

The main bedroom has yet to be tackled, but the next plans are to paint the corridor wall upstairs. "I love colour, but we’ve kept it quite neutral here. I’d like to paint the corridor wall a burnt orange red, just to give it new life, add some depth." There are also plans to paint the study a deep green.

Outdoors, the carport was closed in to become Kristina’s studio. She has views from three sides: a stone carving mounted on the wall outside can be seen while she works at her desk, a huge wooden carving faces the glass doors, and the garden can be seen out the third side.

The concrete areas in the garden were repaved, a jungle-like garden planted, and wind bricks were covered with plaited bamboo. The living area looks out onto this, creating a green environment perfect for entertaining. A few uplights make this a dramatic area at night, and a great place for barbecues and lounging during the day. "We love entertaining, and this house lends itself to that," says Kristina. "I bring a lot of clients here. It’s the sort of place you can relax – it’s not a show place."

The house is decorated with an eclectic mix of things. The couple have travelled extensively, and their collection of beautiful objects – including Indian silver bangles, Burmese lacquerware and Thai furniture reflect this.

The work certainly bears the mark of a professional – but in fact Kristina’s main design work is focused in the corporate world. Australian-born Kristina arrived in Thailand from London nine years ago, with the design company she worked with then. She first worked on designing both houses and corporate offices.

"I’d never worked so much in my life," she says. "The industry was very primitive – there wasn’t very much to source and there was a lot to find out. We had to do everything from scratch, so it was very challenging."

Eventually a fellow designer suggested they go into business together; they started Cityspace, and their first job was Citibank. "We had to design a space for 1,500 people. It was great, a really large project." The work took two years, and once other tenants saw their work, they queued up for their services. They ended up nearly fitting out the entire building.

Recent jobs for the company of 30 have included Hong Kong Shanghai Bank, Lowe Lintas, L’Oreal, the Air France lounge at Don Muang, BMW, the New Zealand embassy and Reuters. "We do a lot of banks – they’re more conservative, but one of my fortes is designing spaces for large groups of people. It’s about creating an environment that’s fantastic for people to work in. And every project has the potential to have a really great feature. "

The company is a partner in Design Worldwide Partnership, currently setting up in Singapore. "We’ll have different independent partners from around the region in that office, allowing us to become a regional player."

She says she’s only designed a few people’s homes. "Everyone has their own opinions about what they like. Some people have money, but they don’t have taste and they’re not willing to change. You need a lot more patience for it."

Instead, she’s ventured into the home market by creating another company, Asian Motifs. When the economy crashed, she and a friend decided to design homeware products just for fun. "My friend, a Scotish artist, likes pottery and wanted to work with celadon; I wanted to dabble in fabrics."

Someone suggested having an exhibtion at an art gallery, so they did; next they showed their collection at the Sheraton Hotel; suddenly they found themselves expanding their product line. Their most lavish request came from a buyer for the Sultan of Jedah, who came across their website and commissioned a dinner service for a party they were having in their Sardinian palace. Plans are now afoot to expand to London and Singapore.

But wherever Kristina goes now, she can be sure she’ll have a comfortable home to return to.

Tips
You can create a home that’s fantastic without spending a lot of money, Kristina says. Here are some tips:
* Do as much research as possible.
* To learn what you like and to develop your tastes, browse through decorating magazines.
* If you are going to use an interior designer, keep pictures of the styles you like to show them.
* Buying accessories can be an inexpensive way to make sure your home reflects your personality.
* Ask people where they bought things they have that you like.
* When you’re taking taxis or driving around small side streets, keep a sharp eye out for small places selling interesting things.
* Look out for people working out the fronts of shops, too. They can usually make things for you.
* Make sure your house is a place you want to live in – it’s got to be comfortable. If you have too many show rooms, you’ll end up living in a corner.
* Take advantage of the low price of flowers here and use them to brighten your home.
* Enjoy any renovations and design work that you do. Don’t rush things.
* On the other hand, don’t procrastinate either.

Hope diamonds: Beyond sparkle

A branded diamond: It’s a new concept in the world of diamond retailing. And Thailand was chosen as the first country in which to launch the first-ever branded diamond targetted towards consumers.

The name of the diamond is Hope. Launched in August, it will hit shelves at six selected jewellery retailers later this month.

So what makes this "brand" of diamond distinct from all those other non-branded diamonds?

It’s the emphasis on the quality of the diamond’s classic round cut, according to Hope’s Monakan Kiatikajornthada. While colour, clarity and carat are all-important determinants of a diamond’s ultimate value, Monakan says that it’s the cut of a diamond that contributes the most towards making it sparkle.

"Some diamonds are cut in a way to preserve their carat value (that is, their weight), rather than to bring out the diamond’s brilliance," she says. "But the Hope diamond is cut to make it as brilliant and sparkling as possible. It’s the sparkle, after all, that makes a diamond truly beautiful. And a diamond is the only thing that will sparkle forever."

The South African company responsible for cutting and polishing the diamonds is the renowned Krochmal and Cohen. "Each stage of the cutting is done by a specialist," says Monakan. "For instance those who specialise in cutting the table of a diamond will only cut that part on a Hope diamond, before it goes to somebody else, who specialises in cutting the next part."

Each stage of the cutting process – and there are 57 facets of the diamond that need to be cut – is computer checked for perfection, with the final stone having to be graded at a top level before earning the name Hope.

The Hope diamond comes with a certificate issued by the Jewellery Council of South Africa, which describes the history of the diamond: where it came from, what the original rough diamond size was, and how the stone’s size changed during each stage of cutting and polishing.

Furthermore, each diamond is laser-inscribed on its girdle with an identification number – so tiny that it’s not discernible by the naked eye – which matches that printed on the certificate. While individuals have in the past inscribed personal messages on diamonds ("I love you" and so on) this is the first time it’s been done to uniquely identify a diamond.

"No two diamonds are alike, but with the naked eye you can’t tell this. With an identification number, however, women can be confident that they can always identify a stone as their own," Monakan says.

And why is it that only now a branded diamond is being launched on the retail market?

It’s a result of some profound changes that have occurred over the past few years in the diamond industry. Kannikar Svetasreni, manager of the marketing arm of De Beers, which is known as the Diamond Trading Company, explains that De Beers used to control some 90 per cent of the world’s rough diamond market. "So it was clearly in their interests to promote the sale of diamonds to consumers generally."

However, non-De Beers mines in Canada and Australia have opened over the past few years, leading to a drop in De Beers’ overall market share. This has lessened the motivation for De Beers to promote diamonds generically, so instead they are shifting responsibility for the marketing of diamonds back to their siteholders – that is, the approximately 120 companies who buy rough diamonds from their mines. "In 2000 some siteholders did their own branding – in the US, Japan and Europe – but not all the way to the retailer," explains Kannikar. "This is the first time it’s being done at the retail level."

Given the current economic climate, Thailand might seem an odd choice as the first market to be tested. Not so, says Kannikar. "In the development stage, Sadifco [the De Beers siteholder who makes the Hope diamond] asked their head office in Antwerp where most of their diamonds went. The answer was Thailand."

Until around 1996, Thailand was the number six diamond consuming country in the world, and it had the world’s fifth largest diamond-cutting industry. "Consumption has reduced substantially since the crisis, but there is still a very large group of Thai ladies – real diamond lovers – who know what they want, and will buy it."

As the economy recovers, the Hope diamond should be well enough recognised as a brand to take advantage of the improved market. "We’re aiming to build a high-end, exclusive brand. Image is a very important," says Kannikar, adding that the diamond is being pitched towards high income women with sophisticated tastes. "That is, brand-oriented women who want to feel complete confidence in the quality of the diamonds they buy."

And is it a good investment?

"Yes," says Kannikar. "We aren’t promoting this diamond by emphasising that particular aspect of it, but it is. If a husband had invested all his shares in the Thai stockmarket before 1997, and his wife had put hers into diamonds, who do you think would have the most valuable assets now?"

That might, however, convince anyone needing a further rational reason to buy a beautiful, sparkling diamond.

Getting started with golf in Bangkok

It’s been said that if you want to get ahead in Asian business – or politics – you can’t afford not to play golf. We can’t estimate the amount of money you won’t make if you fail to get swinging on a course, but we can give you an idea of what it costs to get started playing.

Before committing to one club as a member, you’ll want to try out a few courses. There are scores across Bangkok and surrounding areas, so these are an arbitrary selection of some of the more popular. Greg Norman-designed Thana City charges walk-ins Bt1,620 on weekdays and Bt2,100 on weekends; a cart costs Bt400, caddy fees are Bt200, shoes are Bt150 and clubs are Bt600. Bangkok Golf Club charges walk-in weekday visitors Bt1,050, and Bt2,100 on weekends. A caddy costs Bt210, club hire is Bt500, shoehire is Bt100, and a cart costs Bt500 on weekdays or Bt600 on weekends.

Subhapruek is one of several courses offering discounts to afternoon golfers. Guests’ fees on weekdays are Bt750 before midday and Bt700 afterwards; weekend fees are Bt1,700 before midday and Bt950 afterwards, including caddy. Hiring shoes costs Bt200, while clubs are Bt500. Nick Faldo-designed Krung Kavee charges Bt800 weekdays and Bt1,500 weekends. Caddy fee is Bt200, a cart costs Bt600, shoehire is Bt200 and club hire is Bt600. Muang Ake Golf Course is good choice during the week, charging Bt610 to visitors, while weekend fees are Bt1,030. Caddy fee is Bt200, shoehire is Bt80 and clubs are Bt300.

For practice you’ll need to head to a driving range. Each forty balls at driving range Aree will set you back Bt50; hire an iron for Bt70 or a wood for Bt100 per session. At Sukhumvit Soi 18, forty balls also costs Bt50, but hiring a wood or an iron is Bt50. Bangplee charges Bt100 for 120 balls, with an iron or a wood costing Bt50.

Classes are offered at most driving ranges, as well as at some golf clubs. At Aree, classes are Bt500 an hour, or buy a set of ten for Bt4,000. At Bangplee, an hour’s lesson with a pro will set you back Bt800. British PGA golf professional Daniel Wyborn offers private classes at the Thai Country Club and Sukhumvit Soi 18 driving range for Bt1,500 an hour.

Eventually you’ll want to join a club. Bangkok Golf Club charges Bt35,000 for a year’s membership, with only a caddy fee of Bt210 then applicable. Subhapruek charges Bt40,000 for one year’s membership, after which green fees are Bt50, and caddy fees are Bt200. Krung Kavee Golf Course sells 30-year memberships for Bt550,000, after which there are no green fees.

The cost of a new set of golf clubs varies dramatically based on what brand you buy. According to Transview, a new Titlist set including 3-9 irons, pitching wedge, sand iron, three woods and a putter sells for Bt70,000 to 100,000. A similarly composed set from Mizuno can cost from Bt20,000 to Bt100,000. Pan West sells Callaway iron sets from Bt42,500; a Daiwa set costs Bt29,500. Extra Callaway woods range from Bt11,500 to 19,500, while a Ping putter costs around Bt6,000.

For beginners, second hand sets are a good idea. Honma Center says their Titlist secondhand iron sets (when in stock) start from Bt15,000; Callaway starts at Bt18,000 to 25,000; Mizuno starts from Bt23,000 to 25,000 and Bridgestone costs upwards of Bt22,000.

Golf balls start at around Bt280 for a dozen from brands such as X-cess and Maxfli, and range up to around Bt2,000 for brands like Tour Special and Nike. Golf bags range from Bt4,000 for local brands to around Bt40,000 for some Japanese brands. Golf shoes made in Thailand start at around Bt1,000, while imported brands such as Nike can cost up to Bt9,000. Expect to pay around Bt350 for a golf glove; Bt700 for a golf umbrella; and Bt100 for a large container of tees.

Finally, after a hard day on the course, head to Being Spa for a special "After Golf Release Package". The two-and-a-half hour session includes a sport massage, fitness facial for men or aromatherapy facial for women, and an ocean mud foot treatment. It costs Bt3,500.

And while relaxing, catch up on the latest developments in the golf world by browsing through the English-language Golf Magazine (Bt295), Golf International (Bt295), Golf for Women (Bt225) or Asian Golf (Bt195), Thai-language Golf Digest Thailand (Bt150) or English and Thai-language On Green Golf (Bt90).

Thana City Golf and Country Club
100-100/1 Moo 4
Bangna-Trad Rd. Km 14
Bangplee, Samutprakarn
Tel: 336 1968-78

Bangkok Golf Club
99 Moo 2 Tiwanon Rd. Bangkadi, Muang,
Pathumthani 12120
Tel : 501 2828

Subhapruek Country Club
102 Moo 7, Bangna-Trad Km.26
Bangplee, Samutprakarn
Tel: 317 0801-4

Krung Kavee Golf Club and Country Club
115/2 Rangsit – Nakhornnayok Rd
Thanyaburi, Pathumthani
Tel: 557 2891, 577 4147-9

Muang Ake Golf Club
52 Moo 7 Pathumthani
Tel: 997 7315-6

Aree Driving Range
Sukhumvit Soi 26
Tel: 259 8425-7

Sukhumvit Soi 18 Driving Range
End soi
Tel: 258-0985-6

Bangplee Driving Range
12/4 Moo 7, Bang Na Trad
Tel: 316 1547

Daniel Wyborn
01 889 0061

Transview
1st fl Thaniya Plaza
52 Thaniya Rd Bang Rak
Tel: 231 2113

Pan West International
43/1001 Moo 3 Ramintra Rd
Bang Khen
Tel: 552 8812, 970 5832

1st fl Thaniya Plaza
52 Thaniya Rd Bang Rak
Tel: 231 2179

3rd Fl Emporium
622 Sukhumvit 24
Tel: 664 8564

Honma Center
841/12 Sukhumvit Rd Soi 47
Tel: 258 7401, 258 7249

Being Spa
88 Soi Sukhumvit 51
Klongton Neua
Tel: 662 6171

Volunteering in Bangkok

It’s easy to get caught up in your career, working insane hours so you can buy that new car or save to head away on that exotic holiday. But sometimes it’s worth stepping back and considering whether you might gain satisfaction in other ways – by giving your time to help people in a way that means something to you, for instance.

Feel good, enhance your employment prospects too
Besides making you and others feel good, if you’re out of work, volunteering can help you back into the workforce, says experienced Bangkok-based volunteer Yvonne Ziegler. "Just getting out there on a regular basis helps you when you’re unemployed. Plus you’ll meet people, develop skills such as answering the phone and writing, and learn to relate to co-workers."

Volunteering can also help those near completion of school or university work out what sort of work they’re suited for. "Volunteering often makes people waiting to work really examine how they can use their job skills in ways other than which they’ve been taught," Yvonne said. "For instance, ordinary teachers take up ESL teaching, social workers take up jobs in slums, and computer programmers teach computer skills to street kids."

Where to volunteer in Bangkok
There are a wide array of places to offer your time and skills in Bangkok. Those interested in helping children could assist the Friends For All Children Foundation, which runs an orphanage currently home to 23 children aged from 3 months to two years. They require volunteers to visit and play with the children from 9 to 11am and 2 to 4pm daily. "Just having some time and being willing to volunteer is enough to help our children," said director Saovanee Nilavongse.

The Bangkok School for the Blind always requires volunteers, particularly to teach English conversation to their students, who range from kindergarten to secondary school age. Volunteer coordinator Panna Narintorn says both English and Thai speakers are also required to record books from Mondays to Fridays. "If people can teach any special activities, such as swimming or music classes – which they can also do on Saturday mornings – that is very useful," she said. They also need helpers to type documents in English which are then translated to braille.

If you have an interest in handicrafts, you could assist in the running of Sop Moei Arts, a handicrafts shop selling products made by ethnic Karen from 15 villages in Mae Hong Son province. The project started with a shop in Chiang Mai, which is now run by the Karen themselves, and the Bangkok shop opened in 1998. "We need volunteers to work any time Monday to Friday. Only two skills are required: being able to interact with people, and introduce them to the beauty of handicrafts," said lead volunteer Masako Isomura.

Language teachers could consider giving their services to Empower, a non-profit organisation helping women in the sex industry through health and vocational education. They also have an ongoing requirement for helpers to distribute condoms and sex education information, run art projects and give legal, sexual, and financial informational workshops. "Volunteers must stay in Bangkok longer than three months – otherwise it’s too disruptive to students," a representative emphasised.

Rejoice Urban Development Project, a Chiang Mai-based charity providing assistance to people living with or affected by HIV/AIDS, needs volunteers with a wide variety of skills. Volunteers onsite can assist with medical, administrative, translating and marketing tasks, among others. Interestingly, Rejoice now also accepts online volunteers from around the world who can assist with such tasks such as writing, research, marketing and graphic design. "Our online volunteers work three to four hours a week," said Rejoice’s assistant director Gareth Lavell. The group is affiliated with websites www.netaid.org and www.idealist.org, from where they recruit online volunteers.

With sites such as these, volunteering has truly gone global. These sites seek help from volunteers who can work at home to assist with projects around the world – so if there’s no requirement for your particular skills in Thailand, the world’s now your oyster.

Friends For All Children Foundation
25 Soi Ruamrudee 1
Ploenchit Rd Patumwan
Tel: 252 6560
http://www.homestead.com/Wijodo/FFAC.html

Bangkok School for the Blind
420 Ratchawithi Rd
Tel: 246 0070

Sop Moei Arts
Soi Klang (in Racket Club compound)
Sukhumvit Soi 49
Tel: 712 8039 or Masuko on 01 639 4869

Empower
P.O. Box 1065
Silom Post Office
Tel: 236 9272
http://www.empowerwomen.org/volunteer.html

Rejoice Urban Development Project
70/1 Amarin Court, Klong
Cholarpratan
Moo 6, Suthep Muang
Chiang Mai 50200
Tel: 053 806 227
http://www.rejoicecharity.com

Online sites
www.netaid.org
www.idealist.org

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?

Clubs in Bangkok

Networking became big in the 90s as a way of improving your chances at doing well in business, and things haven’t changed. Wouldn’t you prefer to do business with someone you see occasionally at your club bar, or someone whose kids swim with yours in the club pool? One way of getting to know people is to join a club, and Bangkok has plenty to choose from at prices that compare well to other capital cities in the region. Whether they’re called city, dining, recreational or family clubs, their ultimate objective is to allow people to socialise in a comfortable environment. Check membership requirements – most clubs require sponsorship by current members.

City/dining clubs

The Heritage Club’s concept is one of an international private club, but general manager Andrew Christon says there is an emphasis on dining, with a French, Chinese and Japanese restaurant on the premises, along with various function and meeting rooms, a bar and library. The fifteen-year old club is the only one in Bangkok owned and managed by professional club operators. "The idea was to create traditional English-style clubs in Asia offering more amenities," Christon says. "Joining gives people status, and it’s a great place for high-profile people to do business in without being bothered." This includes prime minister Thaksin, whom the club counts among its members.

Thais make up 70 per cent of the 1,700-strong membership, and members are predominantly managing directors and CEOs in their late 40s to early 50s, with female membership on the rise. Christon says that due to the degree of competition in Bangkok, membership prices are cheap compared to elsewhere. A US$2,500 corporate membership in Bangkok, for example, would cost US$50,000 in Tokyo.

The Pacific City Club opened its doors just six years ago, when its Thai owner noticed on a trip to Hong Kong that most people seemed to be members of such clubs. He wanted to popularise the concept among Thais, and so the club was born. Facilities available to the more than 1,000 members include Chinese, Thai and western restaurants, bar, health and fitness club, salon, sauna and steam, library and private dining and function rooms. According to their representative, most members join with a view towards building up networks with other members.

Recreational clubs

The British Club is one of Bangkok’s oldest, opening in 1903 as "a place for captains of industry to get together and socialise", says chairman James Young. Around 20 years ago, however, the non-commercial club began to expand and changed its structure to allow "ordinary" people to join – including women. "To maintain financial viability, we couldn’t remain an exclusive club for the managing directors of British companies," Young says. These days the club is family-oriented, and attracts a wide range of members. Facilities include several restaurants and bars, swimming pools, three squash courts, four tennis courts, a fitness centre, a snooker room, function rooms, massage service, games equipment, and a video library.

"Ordinary" membership is available to citizens of Australia, Britain, New Zealand and Canada, while "Associate" membership is available to other people. No more than one third of the total membership can be assocate members, and of those, no more than one third can be made up of one nationality. Currently 37 nationalities are represented among the more than 1,000 members.

The emphasis at the 6,000 m2 Capitol Club, which is attached to the President Park complex and opened in 1994, is on health and fitness, but it’s also a leisure and social club. Amenities include a gym, salon, massage and therapy rooms, five tennis courts, two squash courts,bar, karaoke, spa, steam room, sauna, a climbing wall and a pool deck with three pools. Membership administrator Apinya Junlaklang advises that the club has around 1,000 members, aged from 23 up. "It’s quite a young group."

There are a multitude of other clubs around – the clubs above are a selection – so it’s worth spending some time visiting several places to see whether they suit your style and attract the sort of clientele you’d like to associate with. In time you’ll probably find you make good friends – and those are priceless.

Homegrown healthy veges

Smile Plants manager Raj Pundarik started his hydroponic garden when his wife challenged him to it a few years ago. The challenge turned into a hobby, and when friends started asking how they could emulate his green garden, he invested around Bt30,000 in equipment and turned his hobby into a business.

After experimenting with lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes and flowers, he now sells mainly lettuce, and also kits for people to grow their own hydroponic plants at home. "It’s not always convenient for people to get out to the farms to buy their equipment," he explains.

When imported butterhead lettuce were selling for Bt60 each from supermarkets, he was able to sell his own produce for Bt25 and make a profit; now that the imported price has fallen to Bt35 to 40, demand has fallen somewhat, but the demand for equipment has stayed steady.

So what is hydroponics?

Hydroponics is the growing of plants without soil. Instead, plants are grown in an inert medium, such as water, and are fed a nutrient solution that provides the elements necessary for plant growth. Hydroponics makes it possible to grow plants in locations where it might not normally be possible – such as on a small balcony in Bangkok. Because all the nutrients and water the plant needs are supplied directly to it, more plants can also be grown in that small space than if dirt were used.

Although with artificial lighting, it is possible to successfully garden indoors, thanks to Bangkok’s good weather – and the expense of the lights – these systems haven’t taken off the way they have in cooler climes.

Other advantages of using the hydroponic method include that you don’t need to weed your garden, plants are more resistant to pests and diseases (thus eliminating the need for pesticides), and that as the plants are grown in a more controlled environment, they will be of a higher quality and often have a better flavour.

Healthy and cheap

Home hydroponics is definitely on the rise, says Ack Hydro Farm’s assistant managing director Pannida Kiangsiri. The company, which has been selling hobby kits as well as distributing its own produce to supermarkets, hotels and restaurants in Bangkok for two years, is the busiest it has ever been. "We mostly sell to mothers who want to grow their own healthy vegetables for their families," Pannida says. Some purchase kits simply to have a green garden and others hope to save money.

Pannida does point out, however, that growing Thai vegetables hydroponically is not yet price competitive. Salad vegetables that used to have to be imported such as red oak leaf, green oak leaf, butter head, red romaine, watercress, cos, and rocket remain the most popular and are usually cheaper.

Beginners usually start with the smallest kit (Bt3,900), which has 18 holes. The kit includes the trays in which the plants sit, a pump, tank, and covering net that helps protect plants from insects and the rain, as well as the first set of seedlings, which take around six to seven weeks to mature from the day they were planted. Later on, seedlings two to three weeks cost Bt5 to 8 each. Buying seedlings rather than seeds to plant yourself increases the likelihood that your plants will grow to be healthy, as most things that can go wrong will happen when the plants are very young. After sales service is also provided.

Ongoing costs include an estimated Bt20 per month to power the pump, and around Bt100 per month for the nutrients. Enthusiasts will often progress to buying the three-metre, 48-plant set (Bt9,500). Due to its size, the six-metre set is not quite as popular.