Saving the endangered

In the dead of night, the turtle makes its way up the sand slowly, leaving a trail like a tyre-track in its wake. Nobody has laid eyes on this reptile since she left this very beach between ten and thirty years ago – but probably nobody saw her even then. She’s spent her entire life swimming to a feeding ground that only she and her fellow turtles know about, but now she’s back to propagate her species. She’ll lay and conceal around 100 eggs in a shallow nest before slipping back into the ocean as surreptiously as she came. And she’ll do this three times a season every three years or so during her breeding life. She’ll live to sixty if she doesn’t get caught in a fishing net before then.

After 50 days incubation, her eggs will hatch – assuming they haven’t been poached – and the baby turtles will make their way immediately into the sea. Somehow, the location of their birth will be etched into their makeup, and the females will be back here in a few decades, if not to this very beach, then to one in the surrounding areas, to take their turn nesting. A mere one in one thousand eggs will become a mature adult turtle.

There are seven marine turtle species living in the Earth’s warmer oceans. All of them are endangered. Four species come to nest on the 15 kilometres of pristine beach on Ko Phra Thorng (Golden Buddha Island) in Thailand’s southern Pha Nga province.

But they don’t come in the great numbers that they would have just decades ago. Their numbers have dropped largely due to humans disturbing nesting sites: for a long time, turtle eggs have been a delicacy and fetched prices large enough to make poaching them a worthwhile endeavour for the inhabitants of the island or passing fishermen.

Many turtles also lose their lives by being accidentally caught in fishing nets. In other areas in Thailand such as Phuket, turtles have lost their nesting grounds due to unbridled development – when a turtle senses bright lights on a beach, she won’t lay there. It’s not known whether she’ll try another beach or whether her eggs will be lost.

But now these secretive creatures might have a better chance of survival, at least in the Andaman’s tropical waters. Italian marine biologist Monica Aureggi has worked on Ko Phra Thorng protecting the turtle nests and educating the locals about the ecological importance of the turtles for the past four nesting seasons, which run from December to May.

Monica, who holds a masters degree in biological conservation, was sent to the island, located about halfway between Phuket and Ranong, by Chelon, an Italian non-government organisation dedicated to the worldwide conservation of marine turtles. A partner in the island’s only resort, Golden Buddha Beach, contacted Chelon to inform them about the turtle nests and to see what they could do to protect them. Chelon organised to work in collaboration with the Phuket Marine Biological Centre, and sent Monica to Ko Phra Thorng where she set up a research and protection station at the resort.

At the start, Monica worked alone and without Thai, yet she still managed to communicate with some of the local people. "We became friends very slowly. For the first two years, I don’t think the people here trusted me. During the third season, a researcher from the Marine Biological Centre came to visit, and I think he realised then that I was a serious researcher. Now we have a much more active collaboration programme."

The Oliver Ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) is the most common species that comes to Ko Phra Thorng, with nests being found every year by Monica and her ever-changing team of volunteer assistants on their daily patrols along the beaches. The huge Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) also comes to nest, but less predictably, while the Green turtle (Chelonia mydas) nests rarely. "We had some in 1996 and some late this season, too," Monica says. "The harksbill, the species with the most beautiful carapace, has been reported in the area, but we have never found any nests."

Monica collects painstakingly precise data about the baby turtles, or hatchlings, which are kept in captivity until they are old enough to safely be released into the ocean. When I visit Monica, she is looking after nearly 30 turtles aged from a few weeks to one year old. Two one-year olds have been kept due to illness, while most of the others will be released in a few weeks time. Twelve will be kept as part of a "head start" program, a conservation technique popular in Thailand and other parts of the world, where animals are kept until they are older and sturdier before being released back to their natural habitat.

But there are problems with keeping the turtles in captivity: they become vulnerable to skin lesions and can behave aggressively towards each other. Indeed, one of the one-year-old turtles being kept currently has completely lost a flipper due to another turtle’s aggression. "Ideally they should be kept in separate tanks," Monica explains. "But we simply don’t have the facilities here to do that."

Monica emphasises that she is not a veterinarian. "I don’t really like to keep them for a long time. Plenty of things can go wrong. I check regularly for viruses and bacteria, I change their water daily. I carefully monitor their food intake. If you overfeed them, algae can grow on their carapace, attracting bacteria." Two turtles have died under her care due to lung problems.

Monica and her volunteers have an arduous job. From December they rise daily at 4:30 am to patrol the beaches, looking for the tell-tale trails which will lead to a nest. Ideally, the nests are not moved, but marked so everybody can be aware that the area shouldn’t be disturbed. During the day they work on looking after the turtles which have already hatched. Monica says the work is physically very difficult during the peak of the season from December to February. "I almost physically collapse by February," she says.

Volunteers who visit the island from overseas pay for their own flights, accommodation (provided at Golden Buddha Beach Resort) and food, and make a payment to Chelon to assist in the funding of their projects. The volunteers stay for a minimum of two weeks, and some have stayed for up to two months.

No Thai volunteers have as yet been to Ko Phra Thorng, which is something Monica would like to see changed. "Thai volunteers will still need to pay for their accommodation and expenses, but they don’t need to make any payment to Chelon. Ideally, this whole project should be taken over by locals," she says.

This season, only one Green and seven Olive Ridley nests have been found – in the previous two seasons 12 to 15 were found. She says the numbers were also low during her first season, four years ago, and that this could be a natural cycle – but nothing can be deduced with certainty. The long life span of the turtles makes studying their habits a long term commitment.

Keeping the turtles in captivity gives Monica an opportunity to practically teach the local children about them. She instigated an education project with the help of the Marine Biological Centre in three schools, one in each of the island’s villages, soon after arriving. "You can’t just tell people to stop doing things. You have to explain why it is a good idea not to poach the eggs. Once people understand, they are usually helpful."

This year, the programme involved giving three lessons in each school on the turtles, with the fourth lesson falling on Children’s Day in January. A special turtle release day was organised, where the children released the turtles that had been saved into the ocean. "I think everyone enjoyed that part of the program very much," Monica says.

The efforts of everyone involved are finally showing signs of success. "People now keep the nests safe when they find them, and they call me if they see any poaching taking place. There has been no evidence of poaching this year."

But the deaths of turtles caught in fishing nets is continuing. Monica hopes to get funding, perhaps from the United Nations Environment Programme or another environmental organisation, for Turtle Exclusionary Devices to be fitted to the nets of fishemen who fish the area, which would effectively allow the turtles to escape. "I would like to start going to the pier to talk to the fishermen and encourage them to bring any turtles they catch to me. People say I’m crazy but I think they would be reasonable when they understand the animals are so endangered."

Currently Monica is studying the effects of sand temperature on the determination of an embryo’s sex – a study that will need to continue for at least three years before yielding any results. Furthermore, she plans to start tagging and tracking the turtles. Following the end of this season, she will also work on articles to be translated into Thai and published in local scientific journals. "I want more Thai scientists to be aware of what’s happening to turtle populations here."

And Monica will be here for seasons to come. "I will keep doing this job indefinitely. I have such a strong passion for the job!"

You can contact Chelon for further information on how you can help financially to save the turtles by emailing [email protected] If you’re interested in being a volunteer, email [email protected]

Finding balance

Petcharapan Sangsawang used to suffer from allergies. Nearly every morning, her nose ran, she would sneeze and her head would be uncomfortably congested.

“Now I know how to breathe,” she says. “My lungs are healthier and stronger, so they can cope with the allergies.”

What did she do to alleviate her problems? She studied Iyengar yoga – it took around two years of regular practise before she overcame her ailment, but overcome it she has.

“I wanted to make myself fit and healthy,” explains Petcharapan, who also suffers from low blood pressure. “I don’t want to have to take medicines. I know that as I get older, I will need to take more medicine, so I want to take as little as possible now.”

Michon Semon, a professional photographer who has had two exhibitions of her work in Bangkok, also practises Iyengar yoga. “I felt my body was in need. I am not an active athlete – I have never been an athletic person, but yoga felt right,” she says. “I took some yoga classes about thirty years ago and enjoyed it very much – I wish now I had kept it up.”

Michon will be 60 this July. “Practising yoga makes me feel like my body is still capable of doing something new,” she says. “Whatever age you are, you can still do it.”

In fact BKS Iyengar – the guru who pioneered the style of yoga named after him and is recognised by many as the foremost living teacher and authority in the world on hatha yoga – taught the Queen of Belgium to do a headstand when she was 83 years of age.

Furthermore, your writer is not biased. After just ten days of daily Iyengar yoga classes at a spa on Koh Samui, I regained movement in a stiff wrist which I had not had since it was fractured fifteen years ago. Suddenly activities like playing the piano and tennis were things I could consider doing again.

Now I attend classes around three times a week, and after four months I feel what can perhaps best be described as a more complete awareness of my body. Things connect. I feel lighter. I’m not as grouchy (relatively, I mean) or as stressed out as I used to be, and practising creates a clarity and calmness of mind – yoga’s more than just a physical thing.

Bangkok’s first Iyengar yoga studio has opened only recently. Justin Herold, an American who has been teaching yoga at various health clubs here for the past seven years, opened his own studio on Soi Thong Lor in October. This is where Petcharapan, Michon and I attend classes.

Petcharapan has been studying with Herold for four years, having previously been his student at the Regent – he has also taught at the Sukhothai, Phillip Wain, the Capitol Club, and the JW Marriott Hotel, among other places. (Another of Herold’s students has been with him for the full seven years.)

“Since I started learning yoga with Justin, I understand more about the balances and structures within my body,” says Petcharapan, who runs her own successful advertising business. Her job can be unpredictable and the pressure she faces is sometimes large. “But the yoga can help make my mind quiet and peaceful, and breathing calmly helps reduce the pressure.”

She has had various other teachers who have subsituted for Herold over the years, but prefers his method of teaching. “He is a very practical instructor. ” she says. “He can find props to help us do the poses, so we don’t feel like they’re too difficult to do. Some of the other teachers I’ve had don’t explain much – they just want the class to follow what they’re doing. But Justin explains why we have to do poses, and how to master the poses.” Petch has managed to get one of her best friends and her brother and sister to also come to classes.

Justin himself has been practicing yoga since 1979. His objective at first was simply to overcome injuries sustained during his long distance running – he was running around 140 kilometres a week. Eventually, however, Justin decided that it was yoga that provided the most complete and safest system for keeping healthy.

“With running, there’s a price or a penalty that you pay – because of the abuse you do to your body, you’re going to get injured. So what you try to do is minimise that. You try to run efficiently, intelligently, and do things that reduce your injuries,” Herold says.

And he thought for a long time that the benefits of running were greater than the price his body was paying. “But then I looked at yoga, and I thought, well, there’s really no penalty with this one. You get injured sometimes – I’ve had neck injuries – but nothing that can’t be corrected.”

There are numerous styles of yoga, but Justin chose the Iyengar method. The style is a very precise method of yoga – some might even say strict – but its flexible in the sense that it adapts to each individual’s level of ability by it’s use of various props such as belts, blocks, blankets and bolsters. As Michon pointed out, you can really start practising at any age.

“I tried other schools of yoga,” Herold says. “But I found that the Iyengar system was the one that best suited me and my background, which was in construction.” In fact, he thinks it’s a good idea for students to try different schools until they find both the style that appeals most to them, and a teacher who they get along with. “The main thing is finding a teacher that you like. The end results are pretty much the same.”

Eventually Justin got to a point in his practice where he wanted to learn how to teach. “Teaching is a way to educate yourself,” he says. “So I took a teacher training program, and was certified in 1989. I taught at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of Los Angeles for three years, and then wound up here.”

Herold’s ninety-minute classes here are relaxed, but he encourages students to push themselves in order to get the most out of their classes. He’s a thoughtful instructor who injects a sense of humour into things when they get too serious. “He takes care of his students,” Petcharapan says. “You can ask him any questions and most of the time he has a sensible answer!”

The numbers at his studio are steadily increasing. “People come because they’ve tried other things which haven’t worked for them – like they’ve had a problem with their back, and they haven’t gotten any results. And then they read about yoga. They come for a lot of reasons.”

At the moment, women outnumber men substantially in his classes. “Most women are more flexible – men tend to be stronger, but they have a lot less flexibility.”

But you certainly don’t need to be flexible to do yoga – doing the poses to the best of your individual ability means you’re getting just as much benefit from doing them as people who can seemingly wrap their ankles around their neck.

And if you’re persistent you’ll find your flexibility will naturally improve anyway. Along with your overall health, your muscle tone, your clarity of mind, your immunity to disease, your ability to deal with physical ailments independently…

Classes are run daily except Fridays at the Iyengar Yoga Studio, third floor, Fifty-Fifth Plaza Building, 90 Sukhumvit Soi 55 (Thong Lor) – within walking distance of Thong Lor BTS station. Bt 330 for a drop in class, Bt 2700 for ten lessons to be used within two months, Bt 2700 for unlimited classes for a month, or Bt 27,000 for a yearly membership. For more information, phone 714 9924.

Slurp up the cultural soup

Whether you’re a farang needing to kill a couple of days waiting for a visa or just a tourist wanting to immerse yourself in another culture for a few days, Georgetown is a gem of a destination.

History lives in the colonial streets of this town, the capital of Malaysia’s Penang Island. What immediately strikes the first-timer is the seemingly endless number of Anglo-Indian and Chinese shopfronts rolling across town, some freshly painted, some solidly time-worn and others simply succumbing to time.

Take a deep breath and depending on which part of town you’re in and what the time of day is, you’ll scent a thick waft of incense, perhaps followed by a wave of eye-stinging fried chilli, and then the sweet aroma of an Indian hand-rolled cigarette.

There’s the drift of the call to prayer heard at various times in the day, and you’ll hear the slow creak of trishaws ridden by wizened men with sinewy muscles and hopeful faces as they brake to slow down while cruising past a pedestrian. These men look like they could be from one of any number of countries across the globe; but ask them where they’re from and they’ll all answer “Penang”.

Georgetown is indeed almost a microcosm of world cultures: migrants have settled here from as far afield as Europe, China, India, Indonesia, Burma, the Middle East and even Thailand.

The isle was ‘founded’ in 1786 when Francis Light established a British trading post there for the East India Company. Light negotiated a treaty with the Sultan of Kedah, even though there were already people from Kedah living on the island. The British offered the Sultan military protection from those marauding Thais and Burmese in return for the island, but confusion over the precise terms of the treaty lingered and caused occasional tension. The island gained independence in 1957, and joined Malaysia in 1963.

Today Georgetown has the largest number of old houses standing in Southeast Asia: something like 12,000 pre-war houses remain in use. The British passed legislation banning the eviction of original tenants and controlling rents, and this is cited as the main reason behind the streets today being a virtual living museum. The legislation has recently been repealed, and I heard conflicting opinions as to whether this was a good or a bad thing.

Some said it was about time, as the owners of the shophouses had been unable to make a cent out of their properties for more than half a century, while the original tenants had often sublet at market rates. Others said many tenants, particularly in Little India, had put a lot of money into maintaining their buildings, and were now being turned out without any compensation. Regardless, it will be interesting to see what happens to the buildings with this statute change taking effect.

Two days is a good amount of time to browse the historical sites and sample some of Penang’s fabulous cuisine. If you’re on a visa run from Thailand, you’ll want to be heading to the Royal Thai Consulate first thing in the morning. When you’re done with the form-filling, head to the nearby Botanical Gardens for a peek. Opened in 1884, the 29-hectare gardens have suffered fluctuating standards of care, but today they are a popular spot for fitness freaks and picnickers alike.

Bus number 7 takes you back to town. Hop off at Komtar (Kompleks Tun Abdul Razak), the piece de resistance of Georgetown’s 20th century architecture. The 58-floor tower has a shopping centre at its base. Unfortunately the beige tiled walls lend the atmosphere of a railway-station toilet to the entire centre, and when wandering around the labrynth of corridors you might be forgiven for thinking you haven’t actually arrived at the main centre yet. Welcome to Komtar.

The saving grace of the building is its height. For 5 ringgit take a lift to the viewing gallery where a 360 degree vista of Georgetown and some of Penang is yours to savour. You can see the 13.5 kilometre Penang Bridge, one of the longest in the world, linking the island to the mainland – along with the nearby distinctly-coloured sewage outfall. Observe the layout of the streets below: you’re about to pound the pavement.

But first start your culinary tour. There could never be enough time to sample all the delectable delights in town and in fact you’d be lucky to even cover the main groups of Penang’s diverse cuisine in just two days. But you can try.

I started with one of the island’s favourite Nyonya dishes, laksa. “Nyonya” is the word used to describe both the Chinese women who have adopted the Malaysian way of life while maintaining their Chinese heritage, and the unique cuisine that these women developed. While the style of cooking exists among the Chinese in Penang, Malacca and Singapore, in Penang Nyonya cuisine has been influenced to an extent by Thai cooking, with chillies, fresh herbs and shrimp paste being popular ingredients.

Laksa is hawker fare. Mine set me back a whole 2 ringgit at a shopfront restaurant on Jalan Penang, and was divine. It’s base is rice noodles and these swim in a sour-based fish soup topped with onions, chilli, cucumber, pineapple and a pungent fish paste. It’s a refreshing variation of Thai noodle soup.

I didn’t get my bottom pinched (see accompanying story) at all during my stay, but while slurping my laksa I did witness a mobile phone theft. A motorcycle-helmeted man lurked for a while between tables in the restaurant before making a leap for the phone and dashing out into the street. The victim rushed out after him ; his friends looked at each other and shook their heads. Then they kept slurping their laksa. It’s that good.

Thus fortified, you’re ready to hit the streets. There are plenty of options, but I took a wander down Lebuh Chulia, named after the chulias, or South Indian Muslims, who settled here in the early days. The street is probably as close as one gets to Khao San Rd in Georgetown, with cheap hotels, travel agents and foreigner-friendly restaurants lining the street, but there the comparison ends: the street has retained most of its original architecture and is far from a tourist ghetto.

From here you could head to Fort Cornwallis on the water, the island’s original feeble attempt at defence (if I was the Sultan and had seen this attempt at the British side of the bargain, I would have been upset too), via the Victoria Memorial Clocktower. The tower was given to the island by a local Chinese millionaire to commemorate the diamond jubilee of Britain’s Queen Victoria; by the time it was completed she had died, and today it has a slight lilt caused by bombing during World War II.

Or you could stroll around the quay area with its more majestic examples of architecture, or perhaps just browse in the shops. You should definitely make an effort to get to the Penang Museum, housed in the former Penang Free School – the first English-language school in all of Southeast Asia. It’s well set up and gives an excellent potted history of the island for the beginner.

What you must do the following morning – early, while the light still paints the buildings with gold, the traffic is thin and the heat is yet to escalate – is hire a trishaw for a tour of the sites you missed the previous day (30 ringgit per hour, negotiable). The trishaw first appeared on the island in 1941, and by 1947, 2,000 of them were plying the streets for fares.

Today they are outsped by pretty much anything else, but there’s no better way of taking in the charms of the town. Tell your driver how long you have and he’ll know where he can manage to peddle you – two hours will allow you to visit plenty of sites, as well as Wat Chayamangkalaram, a Thai temple whose grounds were given to Penang’s Thai community by Queen Victoria in 1845. A 32-metre reclining Buddha lies inside.

Regretfully, your visa will be ready in the afternoon, or if it’s a weekend getaway you’ve managed to slip away for, it will be time to head back. You can always try squeezing in an excursion to Penang Hill, a favourite expat retreat in colonial days, or a visit to Kek Lok Si temple, which took Thai, Burmese and Chinese artisans around twenty years to build. But if I were you, I might just settle for another laksa.

Travel Details
Getting there: Thai International Airways has daily flights.
Accommodation: There is something to suit all budgets, with low to mid-range hotels concentrated around Chulia and Penang Sts. The Federal Hotel on Jalan Penang offers a basic room with fan and bathroom for 40 ringgit, while the Oriental a few doors up offers aircon as well for 69 ringgit. For something more upmarket, the newish Cititel across the road has rooms for 125 ringgit a night. There’s also a Sheraton in town.

Recommended reading:
Old Penang by Sarnia Hayes Hoyt, Oxford University Press, 1996.
Food Guide, by the Penang Development Corporation, available from the Penang Tourist Centre on Lebuh Pantai.
The latest copy of the Penang Tourist Newspaper, also available from the Penang Tourist Centre, will provide information on the latest accommodation specials and restaurant recommendations.

Further information: Check out the Penang Museum’s website at

Yoga bare

Want to learn how to stand on your head? Maybe your shoulders? No, not for a party trick, but to improve both your physical health and that of your mind as well?

American Justin Herold has been teaching Iyengar yoga around the traps in Bangok since 1992, but last October became more accessible to everyone when he opened his own Iyengar studio on Sukhumvit Soi 55.

Iyengar yoga was pioneered by BKS Iyengar whose work is a reflection of the Yoga Sutras, written by Sage Patanjali around two and a half thousand years ago. It’s different from generic hatha yoga in a number of ways, but most obviously to the beginner by its use of props such as walls, ropes, blocks, belts, bolsters, blankets and chairs.

Justin himself came to yoga when he was in college running around 60 miles a week. “The warm-up for running at that time was to run the first mile slow,” he recalls. He sustained minor injuries, so when the benefits of stretching were made known he tried a yoga class. “I figured the yogis were the ones who knew the most about stretching. The more classes I took, the more I just kind of got drawn into it. And eventually I realised that it offered to me what I was looking for in my running: it was a way to maintain my health.”

Eventually he took a teacher training course in Los Angeles and taught at the Iyengar yoga school there for three years before finding himself in Bangkok. He’s also studied at the Iyengar Institute in Pune, India. “I have the blessings of Iyengar for teaching here. He likes the fact that I’m here, putting out his message in this region.”

His current following consists of both Thais and expats, but about 95 per cent of his students are women. “Some men probably look at it as more of a woman’s thing, because a lot of women like it,” he says. “But some come and they find out how difficult it can be, and they’re threatened by the competition.”

But convincing you to try yoga in words is not really possible. As Iyengar himself once said: “Words fail to convey the total value of yoga. It has to be experienced.”

The Iyengar Yoga studio has classes every day except Fridays. Call Justin on 714 9924 for further details.


Need to hire a motorcycle assassin? If you pay attention to the press, Phetburi is the place to go for some of the best. We didn’t notice any hanging around advertising their wares, but that’s not what we went to Phetburi for…

Just three hours by bus or train from Bangkok, Phetburi was founded in the eleventh century, but flourished during Ayutthaya’s glorious years, when it served as a trading post between there and Burma. It became something of a cultural centre, as is evidenced by the Phetburi of today being a great place for wat freaks.

You can easily spend half a day on foot exploring the town’s thirty or so wats, which are in various states of disrepair, ranging from Wat Kamphaeng Laeng, with its tumbledown prangs, to Wat Mahathat, which has been restored to something close to magnificence. Stop off somewhere – anywhere – it’s everywhere – for some egg-yolk sweets, another of Phetburi’s famed exports (besides the assassins, that is).

Rama IV saw the beauty of the area, and Phetburi became his country retreat. In the 1850s he had a hilltop palace built here, now a museum and known as Khao Wang. You can walk up the hill where there is also an eclectic collection of religious monuments, but for lucky lazybones there is a cable car operating.

Another must-see is the cave wat of Khao Luang, five kilometres out of town. A number of golden buddhas are kept inside, and in the late afternoon (precisely when depends on the time of year) direct sunlight streams through a natural hole in the roof, providing a great opportunity for photos.

For accommodation, the best backpacking option (around Bt200) is Rabieng Guesthouse, set in an old teak building overlooking the Phetburi river. It’s a little noisy, but retains its charm and the restaurant is a good spot to relax at sundown. The owners run trips to Kaeng Krachan national park. An upper end option (Bt800) is the Royal Diamond, on Phetkasem Rd on the other side of Khao Wang (032 428272-3).

Interestingly, my partner and I didn’t argue about anything while we were there. Perhaps we were too wary of the ease with which we could have sought revenge by waving down a passing motorcycle…

First They Killed My Father

By Loung Ung
This powerful narrative describes the true experiences of a child who suffers at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. When Loung is five-years-old the regime takes Phnom Penh, and she and her family are forced to flee into the countryside where they are vigilant in keeping their middle-class past secret. Eventually her father is taken away by soldiers, ostensibly to help fix an ox cart: he never returns. Other members of Loung’s family suffer similar fates, while, under incredible circumstances, some of them manage to survive near-starvation until the Vietnamese arrive to liberate them. Loung, her brother and sister-in-law risk death yet again to escape to Vietnam and then Thailand, where they are given passage to the US. This book is shocking in its very simple, even dispassionate descriptions of horrific events, particularly realising that they are the memories of a child. What this book makes very clear is that the genocide of up to two million Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge is not the surprising fact: given their utter brutality, the amazing fact is that anybody managed to survive at all.

The latin connection

I have a theory about why the Latino craze originally kicked off in Thailand: it was the Ricky Martin-World Cup connection. With literally millions of Thais glued to their screens for the biggest soccer event on earth way back in 1998, it was perhaps inevitable that they would be seduced by the Puerto Rican’s rhythmic rumblings.

Two years later, the seed that Ricky planted in many a-mind has grown into a Thai love affair with all things Latino. Rainbow-coloured clubs and restaurants with bands pumping out sambas, cha chas and boleros have sprung up like cacti after a desert storm; dancing classes are de rigueur among the mobile-phone set and now there are even Latino food and cocktail-making classes for the truly dedicated Latinophile.

I have a second theory that although the craze may be here for a while, it will eventually fade. But it will have had an important effect on the Bangkok culinary scene via its introduction of Latino food to the discerning Thai palette. And it is the food, perhaps, that will be here to stay.

The Salsa Club and Restaurant, underneath the Pathumwan Princess, is currently one of the most sophisticated spots to practise those Ricky or Jennifer moves. Vividly-painted and decorated with some stylish artworks designed by Silpakorn University students, the space sets the appropriate mood although it doesn’t quite manage to shake off the feeling of being part of a large hotel.

However, as is so often the case with Bangkok hotels, the food is exceptional, and popular consensus seems to place American chef Bryant Oxman at the forefront of the current Latino culinary assault.

We checked out the Club on a Wednesday night when the crowd was relatively thin but the resident Columbian seven-piece band, Kalamary, was still delivering crowd-pleasing tunes.

There’s really only one appropriate cocktail to kick off a Latino-themed evening with, and that’s the Mojito (Bt200), a blend of Havana Club rum, fresh mint, lemonade and lime juice over ice. Here they come in a massive saxophone-shaped ceramic mug that almost seems bottomless – a generous if ostentatious cousin to the humbler style served at places like The Havana Club (on Sukhumvit Soi 22).

A sturdy snack of Guacamole de Sergio (Bt140) accompanied the cocktails while we pondered the enticing menu, best characterised by the term “nouvelle Latino”. Chef Oxman, who we chatted with later in the evening, says he shys away from the “fusion” label that is being popularised, saying emphatically that the food he cooks “resembles food in the southern part of America, and of Mexico. It’s not in the process of changing.”

We settled on entrees of Nopales Ensalada (Bt110), a “fiery salad of cactus, white corns and shredded pork with Tequila Habenero vinaigrette”, along with the Latino Caesar Salad (Bt140) and Seafood Empanadas (Bt130) which were an interesting twist on everyday Thai curry puffs. The cactus salad had me completely entranced, and Oxman expressed surprise that I had never tried cactus before.

“Cactus flowers? Never eaten them? I grew up in Colorado, in the southwestern part of the United States and we eat them there. In Mexico they eat them, too,” he explains. “The young cactus buds are tender, real tender. You just take the spines off them, then most people would grill them, then make a salad.”

He imports them from Mexico already pickled, but says that they are familiar to Thai cooking. “So I’m trying to get fresh ones here. I know what they’re called, but I can’t find them in any market.”

For mains my partner settled on a good ol’ hearty paella, which came with shellfish, Chorizo, pork and chicken, while I made a superb choice: Barbados Rum & Pepper Painted Grouper, which came with a black bean fennel stew, grilled banana and a vanilla-scented mango-haberero mojo. It could not be faulted and I wondered how anybody could ever make it to the dessert menu – which features such tempters as Flan de Coco y Ron (coconut rum flan, Bt 100) and Triple Chocolate Torta (Bt120).

Oxman began cooking in South Florida about 15 years ago. “That’s where a lot of the Caribbean, the Cuban and the South American influence came. It was kind of second nature from there,” he says, adding that he prefers to work with spicy food.

He came to Thailand nearly a year ago for a holiday and hasn’t left since. It’s possible that he was seduced to stay by som tam. “You know that’s the first thing I ate when I got here. I ate it out on the street, and that’s when I really, you know…,” he said, smiling the smile of a som tam lover. “The fermented fish they put in – the stink – it was beautiful! The heat wasn’t masking anything, but it was an impressive heat. It was heat like I had never experienced.” It certainly would be if you added 15 chillis the way Oxman does.

Despite his love of Thai cuisine there’s not a heavy Thai influence in Oxman’s dishes, although he points out that the dishes are created using very similar ingredients. He does, however, create dishes aimed more to the Thai palette. “I bring the heat up a little bit, make it a little more acidic,” he says.

As to whether the fad will transform into a permanent feature on the Bangkok scene, Oxman’s not sure: “I ask myself that everyday: what’s going to happen in Bangkok? We have to educate people (about Latino cuisine).” But Oxman is hopeful that Thais will come around to savour Latino food. “The Thais have very good palettes. They’re accustomed to eating strong food and aren’t into the real fancy frilly food that lacks flavour. They appreciate taste.”

As my partner and I settle back into our chairs and rethink dessert, we watch people take to the floor to show off the latest steps they’ve mastered, while others enthusiastically shake the maracas the band’s passed around to get things happening. And we agree that it would be a very good thing if this Latino craze was to last for a while to come.

The Salsa Club Restaurant is located underneath the Pathumwan Princess Hotel, MBK Centre, 444 Phayathai Rd, Pathumwan, Bangkok 10330. Open nightly 6 pm to 11 pm, with snacks and drinks served until 2 am. Phone 216 3700 for reservations. Prices quoted above do not include VAT or 10% service charge. Latino food classes are now running at The Salsa Club on Saturdays.

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Guard’s story fires blanks

The Bodyguard’s Story
By Trevor Rees-Jones

Who would bother to read this review?

Let’s face it: if you’re into the British Royals, you’ll be into Princess Diana and you’ll remember precisely where you were when you heard about her death and burst into tears. And you’ll definitely buy The Bodyguard’s Story because it’s the tale told by the sole survivor of the car crash that killed the Princess way back in August 1997. There might be details in it you haven’t already read in the British tabloids or Who Weekly.

On the other hand, if you’re not into the Royals, you may still remember where you were when you heard about the Princess’ death, but chances are you didn’t burst into tears. You probably didn’t read about the tacky speculations concerning her alleged impending marriage to Dodi Al Fayed, also killed in the crash, and you definitely wouldn’t have followed the conspiracy theories that inevitably flourished after the funerals. You won’t be interested in this book. I’m surprised you’ve read the review this far.

And then I suppose there are those who could take a purely academic interest in the way the Western world has grieved and dealt with the death of one of its most popular twentieth century icons. If this is your pigeon-hole, you may find some snippets in the book useful for theorising about further aspects of Diana-ism.

While I wouldn’t cast myself entirely in either the iconoclastic or academic camps, I should at least confess to being an Australian republican. I was glad hardly anyone turned up to see our irrelevant Queen and hubby when they recently toured Australia. There is, therefore, no way I would have read this book by choice. “You’re not going to take that out in public are you?” my concerned partner asked when I opened it to start reading one evening. My allegiances are thus declared.

So of course there are plenty of issues I had with this book. One of the first was the title, and the cover of the edition released in Thailand. ‘The Bodyguard’s Story’ is printed above a picture of Trevor Rees-Jones hovering over the shoulder of Princess Diana. So he was her bodyguard, right? Actually, not really. Only because she was in the company of Dodi Al Fayed, son of British wannabe Mohamed Al Fayed, who actually employed Trevor. Trevor was one of Dodi’s bodyguards.

Also worth noting is that Trevor hasn’t written the book. It’s another minor point, there being plenty of ghost writers or co-authors helping people with stories to tell out there. Trevor’s chosen Moira Johnston, whose name might ring a bell to someone from the UK (but certainly not from Australia), to order his thoughts for him, and interview Trevor’s family, friends and colleagues about pre- and post-crash events with his blessing. And Johnston does do a passable job in the third person rendering of a story with seemingly endless players.

Trevor does make a statement in the first person – ‘Trevor’s Statement’ – as a sort of prologue to the book. In it, he reveals, “I can’t remember the crash itself, or the three minutes before it. My memory’s gone for everything that happened after the car pulled away from the Ritz until I woke up in hospital ten days later.” Right. No compelling new information will be revealed in the next 318 pages. At least we’re not going to be kept in suspense.

But this book is an opportunity for Trevor, who is painted as a very normal British bloke who likes a beer and his rugby, to tell his side of the crash story, and also “an honourable way to let me pay my large legal bills”. The importance of the former can be understood when you get an idea of the how abominably the British and American press behaved after the crash. Indeed, the persistence and downright bad manners of the paparrazzi that Trevor describes as they pursued Diana and Dodi in the months leading up to their deaths were bad enough. It was his turn to have complete untruths published about his life when he became the survivor.

Trevor gave only one disastrous interview – for which he was not paid – after the crash, despite being offered loads of cash for another. And good on the principled lad for hanging out to put it all in a book. As it turns out, if it wasn’t for the Diana connection and the wranglings that went on with Al Fayed after the crash, the tale would be a merely pedestrian story about a person surviving a horrific car crash.

In fact, even with the Diana connection and Al Fayed’s wranglings, it’s really just a story about a person surviving a horrific car crash. The descriptions of the surgery performed to rebuild Trevor’s face, which was flattened akin to a pancake in the crash, were intriguing, if a bit brief.

Another interesting point that could have been developed if this was ever going to turn into a Pulitzer for Johnston was the issue of memory-loss. This is quite central to the story, as Al Fayed placed enormous pressure on Trevor to remember the three minutes prior to the crash, and got rather upset and vindictive when he couldn’t. One expert gives a brief explanation about the mechanics behind memory, but this could have been expanded somewhat and even replaced having to hear more about Ernie the stepdad’s trip to the pub to have two pints or Jill, Trev’s long-suffering Mum, not being able to concentrate on her work.

I do wish Trevor well with his rugby. I hope he has already made enough money to cover his legal bills with the book. Truly. Because that would mean I needn’t feel bad about suggesting you don’t even think about buying this book by a very normal English lad.