A prize-winning job

The Olympics are all about bringing sportslovers from different nations together: and not just as adversaries on the field.

New Zealander Gay Horan has been coaching Thailand’s Olympic gold-medal rowing hopeful, Phuttharaksa Nikri, since 1996. “I read a newspaper article in The Nation about a girl called Phuttharaksa who wanted to row and had no one in Thailand to coach her, or anyone else for that matter.”

Horan swung into action, and the following year took the Thai rowing team to the Southeast Asian Games held in Jakarta. “There were 45 rowers and only me who knew anything about the sport!” she says. Nevertheless, Thailand won one gold – snared by Phuttharaksa – plus two silvers and a bronze.

Horan came to Thailand in 1996 with her husband, Geoff, a former Olympic rower himself who now works for McConnell Dowell, and their two sons, aged six and eight.

Australian-born Horan started rowing in 1974 when she was aged 14, and went on to win over 22 state and New Zealand provincial titles. She represented Australia in 1981 and 1982 at the (then unrecognised) world lightweight championships, and won both years.

She moved to New Zealand in 1983, where she married Geoff, and changed her citizenship in order to represent New Zealand in the women’s open coxed fours in 1983. “This is my 26th year in the sport,” she says. “Pack [Phuttharaksa’s nickname] is 26 years old!”

While Horan says coaching in Thailand is challenging, she says it’s not because she is foreign. “I think I am respected for my ability and experience, although it is never said.”

Rather, it can be frustrating to work within bureaucracies that aren’t supportive of athletes. “The people supposedly running the sports organisations don’t really understand the sport at all and are not really too concerned about the athletes in general.”

Another problem is financial. “I have to spend a lot of my own money. I am later reimbursed, but sometimes the money can take 12 months to come through. Without an understanding husband, there could be no rowing coach in Thailand!”

Horan has certainly had her work cut out for her. “I have had to be not only a coach, but an English teacher, boat repairer, team manager and promoter of the sport. And, I forgot, weight trainer! That sort of experience has got to help in anything I do for the rest of my life!”

“I am also a wife and mother… don’t forget!” she adds.

But despite the hard work and the difficulties, Horan loves living in Thailand. “I don’t ever get homesick! I love to play golf to relax and I love the food and the weather.”

Horan has also had experience coaching in Papua New Guinea, where her husband was sent to work for five years. “I was in the Papua New Guinean triathlon team to the Arafura Games and was also fitness and strength coach to the South Pacific Games swim team, and the national cricket team.”

As for coaching in New Zealand, Horan describes it as “difficult. All sports are still rather male dominated, so being a woman coach there is not without some difficulties.”

Horan harbours hopes that the profile of women’s sport in general will improve. “The women train just as long and hard as the men ,with very little recognition.”

In the meantime, Horan is taking Phuttharaksa through her paces in the lead up to the Games. “She’s a lightweight and unfortunately there won’t be a lightweight single scull for women until the next Olympics. But it is marvellous that Thailand has a sculler in the Olympics for the first time.”

Thai me up, Thai me down

When I first arrived in Bangkok, I hated it. It was as if a black-and-white film of the post-industrial age was screening in front of my eyes and I wasn’t allowed to leave. I was overwhelmed by the traffic, the people, the noise. Slowly, I learned to see the colour. Unexpected beauty was everywhere if I paused to look, to listen, to smell. And now it’s home.

Songkran: Thai New Year

It’s the hottest, most oppressive month of the year. For the first two weeks of April even the traffic in Bangkok seems languid and sleepy, the horns subdued. The heat is stifling, searing and almost inescapable (there are always the air- conditioned malls!).

But on April 13 , as the sun moves into Aries, the mood changes, even if the temperature doesn’t. Thais right across the country converge on the steamy streets for the start of Songkran, Thailand’s three-day wet and wild New Year festival.

The focus of the celebration is water. In the wats (temples), Buddha images are solemnly purified with holy water. Young people honor their parents and elderly relatives by respectfully pouring water perfumed with flower-petals over their hands.

But out on the streets the mood is exuberant and boisterous. This is Thai sanuk (fun) at its very best.

In Bangkok, water pistols the size of small children are bandied about, spraying all and sundry, while pick-up trucks loaded with people roam the streets throwing buckets of icy water over pedestrians and unfortunate motorcyclists.

At bus-stops, water bandits also lie in wait: armed with the ubiquitous blue PVC water pump, not even commuters who have to work on this holiday – such as me – are safe. The bus doors open (the windows are sensibly closed) and an incomprehensible volume of water shoots in. There are huge guffaws and smiles all around.

I can’t even suppress a smile when this happens to me on my way to work for the third day running.

Thai Massage

Lazy yoga, some call it, and at first Thai massage seemed to be nothing more than a gentle, rather ineffectual rub down. It was an acquired taste, after years of expecting a massage to involve oils and aromatic essences. Now I’m hooked on this ancient science of opening up the body’s natural energy paths.

Three years after my arrival in Thailand, I have been massaged under swaying palm trees on white-sand beaches. I’ve had the herbal massage under the creaking fans at Wat Po, the country’s famed Thai massage teaching center. The soggy hot poultice packed with herbs – kaffir lime smelt the most distinctive – left bright yellow traces of turmeric all over my body. I’ve been to flash places where the air-conditioned rooms are private and the staff speak excellent English.

But my favorite place to have a massage is in a modest shop- front on a dusty main road of Bangkok. Many of the masseurs are blind. The two treatment rooms are tatty and run down, with threadbare curtains separating the plastic benches that ‘patients’ lie on. The masseurs speak just a word or two of English. If I can’t tell them where I’m particularly sore in Thai – for here they will treat you for particular ailments – I hold the masseur’s hand and press it to the stiff, unyielding muscle I’d like them to relax.

The hands here seem to impart a healing energy that the masseur conjures up with their silent, almost holy concentration. It’s far more than massage; it’s a spiritual experience.

And when I face the world outside again, I’m rejuvenated and invigorated.

Public Buses in Bangkok

They belch black smoke as they brake and accelerate, brake and accelerate, swinging the standing passengers inside around like rag dolls.

The drivers of these non-airconditioned public buses will often be married to the conductors, so the buses in effect become a second home. Sometimes a young child will be asleep on the bench at the front; babysitters don’t come cheap.

There’ll be a garland of red, yellow and white flowers hanging around a rear view mirror – sometimes the scent of them cuts through the fumes to reach the noses of sweaty passengers. If there’s not, the driver will be accosted by a vendor selling them at every second set of traffic lights.

Some drivers have thriving potplants sitting on the sill at the base of their vast windscreens. There’ll be photos of their family stuck around them; perhaps also a picture of a revered monk, some Thai album covers from the sixties, or banners from an English premier league soccer team.

There’s always a cooler full of water stored at the front, but when the traffic’s bad the conductor might jump off and run into a shop to buy something sweeter to sip, along with a snack of banana fritters or some sliced pineapple from a roadside vendor.

The grime is unavoidable; after an hour-long ride to work, I’d love another shower. But I wouldn’t miss this piece of life for the world.

The Thai Character

It’s always dangerous to stereotype national characters. But a friend warned me once before I went travelling that one of the very pleasures of travelling is discovering how these stereotypes originate.

In Thailand, the people are known for their laid-back, smiling approach to life – as well as their enthusiasm for having a good time.

‘Mai pen rai’, the standard response to any problem, means ‘Never mind’, and it’s always said with a generous smile. This is a great attitude when you’re a backpacker spending your days on the beach. The plumbing in your bungalow is stuffed? Mai pen rai. You learn to say it yourself.

However, when you’re living and working in Thailand and you have a deadline to meet, this relaxed, easy-going attitude can be quite frustrating. If someone doesn’t turn up to work: mai pen rai! If your computer has crashed and you need someone to fix it: main pen rai! You’ve just got to learn to acknowledge the frustration and let it go!

Thais are also known for their honesty when it comes to assessing your looks. If you’re not sure whether that skirt makes you look fat, don’t worry – someone will tell you if it does. A woman in my apartment building whom I had never spoken to once told me how much weight I had recently gained.

I smiled. ‘Mai pen rai!’

I’d learned well.

The traffic

The average percentage of land allocated to roads in cities when they are planned today is 20 to 25 percent: in Bangkok by the late 80s, just 2.5 percent of land area was devoted to roads.

In the 90s, Bangkok had the most vehicle registrations per kilometer of all Asian cities: 502. You can get stuck in a jam at any time of day. There won’t be any accident up ahead, so don’t bother to crane your neck and look. Chat to your cab driver and ask where they’re from; grab a book if you’re on a bus and be prepared to finish it.

Or look out the window at the life going on around you: the stalls on the side of the road selling barbecued squid, red pork soup, banana fritters, sliced papaya and guava, iced coffee, roses, tiny pancakes stuffed with sweet cream and carrot. Spot the shoe-mender, the woman with the ancient sewing machine, the key-cutter, the watch repairer, the barber in his open air salon.

There were three major transport projects underway in Bangkok prior to the crash of ’97: the Skytrain, which opened in December 1999 and has not improved traffic but does get you around town very quickly; the underground metro, which is not due to be finished for a few years and right now is doing an admirable job of making the traffic worse; and the Hopewell project, an ambitious rail scheme currently shelved. At one stage in planning, these three projects crossed at more than twenty points with not a single interchange.

Which, come to think of it, would have made business improve for the vendors.

The Erawan shrine

Under spirals of scented smoke, devotees leave delicate yellow garlands, along with wooden images of the three-headed elephant god Erawan, whom the Hindu god Brahma traditionally rode.

The Erawan Shrine, possibly the most famous non-Buddhist shrine in Bangkok, lies incongruously at Bangkok’s consumerist heart.

Lying adjacent to the Grand Hyatt Erawan hotel, and almost in the shadow of the various shopping malls surrounding it, the sparkling golden statue of Brahma attracts hundreds of visitors a day.

If you arrive at the right time, you might catch a performance of classical Thai dance, paid for by supplicants who have had their prayers answered after visiting the shrine.

The story behind its construction is unusual: when the Erawan hotel was being built in the 50s, accident after accident occurred, including the deaths of workers and cost overruns. When a ship transporting Italian marble for the construction of the lobby sank, the workers decided something had to be done to placate whatever upset spirit was at work.

Spirit doctors were consulted, and a shrine to Brahma was deemed necessary. In 1955 after the shrine was built, the mishaps ceased and the fame of the shrine spread.

Somehow the blend of devotion and shopping is not an unhappy one; rather, it’s a magical symbol of how Bangkokians have successfully held on to their spiritual beliefs while also embracing the global culture of consumerism.

A breath of fresh air: Yoga for expatriate women

The air might usually be filled with thick traffic fumes in Bangkok, but that doesn’t mean you should hold your breath. In fact, you’d be doing your body and your mind a great service if you were to learn to breathe properly in Bangkok – or anywhere else.

Practising the ancient art of yoga can help with the various health problems – and the stress – that can come with changing countries. And even if you’re healthy, it can be a good way to boost your immune system and energy levels.

“Yoga is a natural extension of the way Indians think anyway,” says Anuradha Kumar, a 28-year-old Indian expatriate who moved to Bangkok two years ago to take a job as a subeditor on a daily newspaper. “My father actually taught me to practise yoga at home when I was a child. Then I was taught it at school. It’s really a part of my life.”

Anuradha, however, had not practised for some time before she came to Bangkok. “And when I was here, I realised that yoga really is the best way to maintain your health comprehensively. I tried going to the gym, doing weights, but it’s just not the same. I don’t get the same energy lift.”

Leslie Hogya, a Canadian yoga instructor, came to Bangkok several months ago with her husband, who is here on a teacher exchange program. She looked up the Iyengar Yoga Studio (http://www.iyengar-yoga-bangkok.com/) and says she felt lucky as it made her feel like part of a community immediately. “But on my own, practising yoga allows me to focus my mind inwards. This time in Bangkok is a time for reflection and growth for me, an inward journey.”

American Justin Herold, who runs the Iyengar studio, notes that women outnumber men substantially in his classes. “Most women are more flexible than men, “ he says. “Men tend to be stronger, but they have a lot less flexibility.” He finds some men come to class just a few times as they feel overwhelmed by the number of women practising who appear “better” than they are.

But yoga is not just about being flexible. “The moment you stretch your legs and you feel the stretch – already you’re opening up energy pathways,” says Hilary Fedderson, who teaches her own blend of hatha yoga several times a week in Bangkok.

She also points out that the objective of yoga was never merely to exercise. “It was to have a healthy body so that you could go higher spiritually,” she explains. “It’s like you’re joining the individual soul to the universe. At a lower level, it’s the joining of the mind to the body.”

American Colleen Duggan, who works in finance and is now Bangkok-based, found that yoga particularly helped her when she was working very intensively in Hong Kong. “It was a good transition after work – it really relaxed me after being hyped up all day,” she says. “Yoga is good for anyone who has a stressful life. And it’s really good for expat women because it gets you out meeting people, but in a natural way. ”

Duggan has worked and practised yoga in Hong Kong, Barcelona and Bangkok over the past six years, so her advice is certainly based on extensive experience.

“Yoga is also something you can take with you wherever you go,” she adds. “You can do it in a small place, and you don’t need any special equipment. You don’t have to do it in a class, and you don’t need other people to make up a team.”

Toward quality fiction

Like the Gaze of Statues: Selected Short Stories
By Karen Schur

What a refreshing book to find published in this city crying out to be captured by a competent fiction writer’s pen. But Karen Schur’s Like the Gaze of Statues ventures much further than Bangkok: this collection of twenty quietly-spoken short stories takes the world as its setting, and Schur manages to flit with ease from a Bangkok soi to a German pub, from a village in Laos to a first-world nursing home.

Conventional with a very occasional touch of magic realism, Schur’s writing style is skilfully restrained and her love for Asia clearly demonstrated. The subject matter she chooses to write about as a Westerner, however, is certainly not conventional. While expatriate Asian writers’ are deservedly the flavour of the month in the West – think, for instance, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies – skilled writers from the West hardly ever choose to live in Asia, let alone write about it.

Schur pens her characters with empathy, allowing readers to judge them for themselves. In ‘Driving Her Crazy’, for instance, an expatriate wife finds herself sexually attracted to her Thai driver. In this piece Schur paints a politely sarcastic picture of the plethora of clubs for expatriate women in Bangkok. “Of course,” she writes, “most women did not confine themselves to one particular group, but enjoyed membership in two or more. (This was especially noticeable when one glanced at the names of those on the executive committees of the clubs – so many repetitions, so few carrying the weight of so many.)”

Louise, the wife, finds herself drawn to the hands of her driver Nop, who “did not clutch the wheel as did some drivers… He seemed rather to coax the direction of the car through easy gliding of the wheel… Almost like a caress. Louise felt a frisson of alarm and closed her eyes to avoid looking any further.” Is Louise ridiculous? Or is the reader demonstrating their own prejudices for thinking that she is?

Schur has mastered the art of the short story, composing a balanced collection of stories here that range from being poignant snapshots of life to tales with clever twists.

In the former category is the short but moving ‘Please Don’t East the Napkin, Mum”, where a pregnant woman and her father go to visit her grandmother at a nursing home for her birthday. “You can smell the disinfectant everywhere; it’s hovering on the air like the white fluff of hair on Granny’s head. But still it doesn’t take away the underlying odour which comes from too many aged mouths hanging open, too many sodden diapers, too many forgotten dreams.”

In the latter is ‘Stammtisch’, a tale of a German man who has written to his mates that he’s bringing back a Siamese sweetie with him from his sojourn to Thailand. “Who knows – one of those sexy Siamese kittens might even fall for you!” one of the man’s friends tells him before he leaves. “Now Max was on his way home with one. He chuckled with pleasure and allowed himself to imagine the looks on his friends faces when they saw her. He hadn’t come across her until three days ago but had known immediately that she was the one for him.” You’re thinking, balding, fat, sweaty typical sex tourist, right? You’ll have to read on.

‘Filial Obedience’ is also noteable: a Bangkok-born Punjabi man returns from his studies in America to Bangkok appalled to find his parents have arranged a marriage for him. Although the plot twist might be predictable, Schur nicely captures the dilemma of being a Western-educated man with family commitments in Thailand:

“It wouldn’t be for another two or three generations that the descendants of those who had come in the wake of Partition would feel comfortable enough in Thailand to make their own ways. They would be able to marry for love – not position in society, wealth or the configuration of the stars. Anand cursed inwardly. He had been born too early.”

In ‘Signs of a Living Past’, an investment portfolio manager, attends the National Museum Volunteers’ Annual Dinner in Bangkok. Here she sights the lover she should perhaps never have fled; the story recounts their glorious days on an isle in Greece, when Althea was so in love that “Everything was sharply outlined, filled with tremendous colours, hallucigenically detailed. She walked alone but the glances of the islanders and the tourists, too, followed her. Althea could feel the stardust trailing off her fingers.”

Unlike other expatriate authors writing in Bangkok, the explicit details of the author’s life don’t form the basis of these stories, although her experiences must surely have shaped them as she writes with the intimate knowledge of a first-hand observer or at least avid listener.

Instead, the details of this writer’s life are brief: under a blurry black and white picture the reader is told merely that Schur was born in South America, has lived in North America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the South Pacific, and she now lives on a lake outside Bangkok. She’s also written Voyage of the Emerald Buddha, published by Oxford University Press, and various feature stories.

And it’s kind of nice to only know that for a change. The strength of this book rests on her finely-crafted tales and those alone.

But publicity for this writer seems to have been undeservedly limited. Someone with the unlikely but fantastic name of Stirling Silliphant Jr provides a review for the backcover, aptly warning readers to “Expect not a hint of cultural cliché in these colourful tales.” The president of the Writers’ Association of Thailand, Pensri Kiengsiri, also blesses the book, describing the stories as being “thought-provoking, creative and captivating”.

While there is certainly a place for the style of expatriate writing currently popular here, there’s a dearth of quality fiction written by expatriates. After all, Bangkok is hardly a hub of intellectual activity in the global scheme of things. Books like Schur’s Like the Gaze of Statues, however, lets Bangkok hold its head up a little higher.

Only the murder was missing

It was swish, smart and sumptuous. The Eastern and Oriental Express’ inaugural dinner journey from Bangkok’s Hualampong Station and back – the destination was hardly the point – was an extravagant, ostentatious affair.

There was one disappointment to be had in the five hours of snaking our way through the Thai night in style: there was no blood-curdling cry from any of the plush compartments. A good old-fashioned murder would have topped off the evening’s whodunnit atmosphere nicely.

But alas, this was an occasion for Bangkok’s refined set, a mixture of expatriates and Thais whose crimes – if any – were more likely to be in the white-collar department.

And was the gleaming green and beige train deliberately placed at the platform furthest from the waiting room? I suspect so, for how else were the 100-plus guests supposed to show off their gear to anyone besides themselves that night?

It was a colourful parade to the waiting train, and although there was a touch of confusion over where exactly to board, the impeccably-mannered staff steered people safely in. Some headed straight to the Bar Car, where cocktails were soon shaking and champagne bottles being popped; the pianist tinkled the ivories as the volume of laughing voices rose and the soft-light from the French lamps made everyone look gorgeous.

And we hadn’t even left.

A group of American backpackers stared open-mouthed at the – let’s face it – incongruous train and its glamorous visitors. The cameras and the flashes went off, but hardly anyone on board noticed. This is a train where what’s going on indoors matters far more than what’s flashing by – or standing still and gaping – outside.

And when the engine car started its pull, the romance really began. It didn’t matter where we were going (to Ban Pachi, actually), so long as the carriages were gently, lovingly rocking slightly from side to side and making that ‘ka-ra-ka-da- khom’ – Thai for July – comforting background noise.

We waved goodbye to that fantastic frangipani tree on the right as you leave the station, and settled back to sip some more wine – charged for in US dollars, as were all on-board purchases, but very reasonably priced.

We were off. And we were in an Agatha Christie movie. Or the boardgame Cluedo had sprung to life. We were, at the very least, back in that era when every other country in Southeast Asia was being colonised – except Thailand, as many an inconvenienced historian and travel writer has noted.

It was time to prowl through the rest of the train, exploring the three choices of sleeping compartments, either made up or pulled down ready for bed. Although an announcement at the beginning of the trip made clear that these rooms were not for personal use – to the squeals of naughty disappointment from many – the occasional group retired to these carriages for some extra space and quietness (leaving the doors open, as proper British etiquette required).

This display will no doubt eventually tempt some of the diners back for a longer journey. The Eastern and Oriental regularly runs the 2,030 km trip from Singapore through Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok and back, carrying up to 132 passengers on each trip, and is now also running trips from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Journeys to Angkor Wat will get underway in January 2001.

Since it started its Bangkok-Singapore run in 1993, the half- a-kilometre train has carried over 40,000 passengers. The carriages were Japanese-built in 1972, and the train first operated as the Silver Star in New Zealand. The carriages were later shipped to Singapore, where they were refurbished and made compatible with the Thai and Malaysian railway systems.

Wooden marquetry with an Asian theme sets the moods throughout the train: various cars feature Chinese and Thai lacquer, Malaysian motifs, and Thai wall carvings. Behind the marquetry lies a fire-proof lining, to help keep the interior cool and muffle the engine noise. It also seems to create a nice acoustic effect when silverware hits plates and crystal glasses clink.

Back in the Bar Car, a passenger had been berated for using a mobile phone. A voice making an announcement banning their use had struggled to be heard over the excitement as we departed the station. Perhaps this ban should be printed on the discreet piece of paper handed to passengers with their boarding passes warning them about other things (such smoking not being permitted except on the open-deck Observation Car).

As the two restaurant cars can serve 70 people in one setting, two were scheduled for this evening. We slunk down the softly-lit passageways towards the Singapura restaurant at 9.15pm for the second setting, already warm and cheerful from our pre-dinner drinks.

We passed the in-train astrologer, providing guests with further entertainment in the Reading Room. (I’m sure she envisioned more rail travel for everyone…)

When the surroundings are so gorgeous, one can begin to suspect that the food might be relegated to second place. But this was not to be so: the unfaultable food could be the very reason many of the original guests return to board again.

A tiny, delicate cup of amuse bouche – all the rage in New York at the moment – whetted guests’ appetites as some considered looking out the train window for the first time that evening, and others marvelled at the fine porcelain, sparkling crystalware and French silverware.

Then a dish of tandoori of snowfish, served with a fricassee of fennel in fragrant red wine sauce was served with a silent flourish from the attentive waiters. The fish was moist and the flavours were strong enough to satisfy Thai palates without killing the scent of the fish.

Could it get any better? You bet. Nage lobster was served in a fine green curry sauce. The wine kept coming – De Bortoli’s Willowglen Shiraz Cabernet and Willowglen Semillon Chardonnay was served as part of the meal. The train kept rocking. The crystal kept glittering. And time was ticking away. We were returning to Bangkok!

Dessert was baked banana in a light, mouth-watering pastry case and a duet of sauces, then petit fours and Columbian coffee started to sober us up. Chef Kevin Cape had devised a creative menu fit for any five-star hotel. And to be able to serve such exquisite food from a train kitchen only makes his skill the more the impressive.

Also worth noting is that vegetarian meals were served, as were several other meals with special menu requirements taken into account.

The Observation Car, at the front of the train for the return journey, beckoned next with its fresh, warm breeze – even the Bangkok air seemed breathable as we pulled into Hualamphong and clamboured back onto the platform and into the real world again.

The next dinner journey will take place on October 28, and this time there’s a theme: masquerade.

But if you can’t wait until then, you can always charter the train from Bangkok to Singapore for you and 99 of your closest friends for US$119,100…

For information about the next trip, priced at US$185 per person (excluding pre-dinner drinks) phone Khun Dum on 216 8661. There are various longer trips available. For example, Singapore to Bangkok or vice versa for 3 days/2 nights costs from US$1,390 to $2,800 per person, including all meals and various extras. For further information contact [email protected] express.com, or phone (Singapore): 392 3500, fax (Singapore): 392 3600.

Just breathe

Canadian Lesley Hogya, an Iyengar yoga instructor currently teaching pre-natal classes in Bangkok, certainly makes yoga during pregnancy sound like a treat.

"It’s a special time in your life, especially if it’s your first pregnancy, so you should indulge and take care of yourself. Yoga poses can nurture the pregnant woman in a way that other forms of exercise won’t do. Lying on bolsters and having pillows and blankets all around you is very luxurious! And then being told to just lie there and breathe…"

In Bangkok, the ancient practice of yoga has been taught formally for only around 40 years – which is surprising if you consider that some scholars assert that yoga practice is central to Buddhism. "It’s not a religion per se, but it’s a spiritual practise," says Lesley. "Anyone can practise yoga. You don’t have to belong to a faith or believe in anything in particular."

Practising yoga can improve the average person’s body awareness, their clarity of mind and their immunity to disease. More specifically, it can reduce the effects of allergies, improve menstrual problems and strengthen muscles, among other things.

When pregnant, yoga classes can be particularly beneficial. Firstly, strength and stamina are developed. "When you’re doing the poses you’re strengthening muscles and building up stamina while holding the poses," Lesley says. "This will stand you in good stead when you’re delivering and also when you’re a new mother in need of stamina."

Secondly, practising breathing and relaxation can help. "These are usually the first things people think of, but they’re definitely not the only things. When I’m teaching pre- natal yoga I always make sure there’s plenty of time for breathing and relaxation at the end of class." This involves doing supported poses where the body is allowed to rest totally and be open to more complete breathing.

Flexibility also improves with the practise of yoga, but Lesley points out that the hormones secreted during pregnancy promote flexibility anyway, particularly in the hips. "This means you need to be careful not to over-stretch. It’s important to be balanced and not be too enthusiastic about stretching the hip sockets."

If you’re already practising yoga and you fall pregnant, it’s usually no problem to continue. "But if you’ve never done yoga before, I recommend waiting until the end of the third month to start," Lesley says. "Even though yoga is certainly not going to precipitate a miscarriage, that’s when most miscarriages occur. You usually have more strength, too, after that period."

Although you may wish to consult a doctor before beginning, Lesley notes that there’s not much awareness among Thai doctors of what exactly yoga entails. "It’s probably enough to ask your doctor whether you are in a condition that allows gentle stretching."

In Lesley’s experience, many women want to continue with yoga after the birth of their child. "A lot of women will ask: ‘How many weeks do I have to wait before I can come back to class?’ It’s good to wait six weeks, as with any major surgery."

Lesley, who has studied yoga since 1970, first trained as a hatha instructor, but was introduced to the Iyengar method, pioneered by Indian BKS Iyengar, within weeks of completing her training. "Then I couldn’t teach the old way because it wasn’t precise enough. And I couldn’t teach Mr Iyengar’s way because I didn’t know enough about it. So I didn’t teach for a couple of years and trained."

The Iyengar style is a very precise method of yoga – some might even say strict – but it’s flexible in the sense that it adapts to each individual’s level of ability by its use of props such as belts, blocks, blankets and bolsters. During pregnancy in particular, it can offer more support than other forms of yoga and allow access to more poses.

"For example, you might be reluctant to try standing poses because you think you’ll lose your balance," says Lesley. "But in Iyengar yoga we can use the wall, or a chair, or a block. It opens up the possibility of doing more. Also using bolsters to relax is very beneficial – they open the chest, improve breathing, improve the lung position."

She emphasises that women can always control how much they are doing in class themselves. "I think women are usually more sensitive to what’s right for them and their health when they’re pregnant. And I think yoga brings an awareness that makes you feel healthy."

Bangkok’s first Iyengar yoga studio opened only recently. Justin Herold, an American who has been teaching yoga at various health clubs here in Bangkok for the past seven years, opened his own studio on Soi Thong Lor in October 1999. Lesley will be running classes at 9am on Tuesdays through to the end of September, and Justin will continue to take the classes from October. The studio is located on the 3rd floor of the Fiftyfifth Plaza Bld, 90 Sukhumvit Soi 55. Phone 714 9924 for a schedule.

East-west fusion

When the chef has tried some 600 combinations of ingredients to make the best possible Indian naan bread – with a Western twist – you know the restaurant under their charge has got to be special.
Willment Leong, chef at the lavish Merchant Court Hotel’s Doc Cheng’s, says he may have even tried 700 combinations to get his soft roll-like naan just right. Light and crispy, but with enough dough to give it some substance, it’s served with a yoghurt and dill mix on the day that we settle in for a meal at the restaurant that likes to think it has brought a new concept of dining to Bangkok.

‘Trans-ethnic’ cuisine is the label being bandied around, and Willment explains that this is Western food served with an Asian twist. “It’s about using Asian cooking techniques and very fresh produce to create Western dishes. It’s not too fancy, but colours are important. Thais like to look at beautiful things, so I think this sort of food will do well here.”

But there’s more to the naan, as Willment enthusiastically tells us that the charcoal used to cook it is hollow. “It’s not like normal charcoal, which can’t maintain its heat as well.” He even waxes lyrical about the special oven they’ve found to make it in. And explains that on other days, the naan is served flavoured with either garlic and onion, sun-dried tomatoes, mustard or chilli paste. Here’s a chef with passion.

The interior designer of Doc Cheng’s clearly has passion too. Quietly tasteful while still being bold, the emphasis is on medium-toned woods, some off-beat art, plush carpet, soft lighting and an airy high-ceiling. A good place to take clients you wish to impress, but intimate enough for a romantic occasion as well.

We start with the Asian Sampler (Bt250 for one, Bt350 for two) and the Oriental Crabmeat Soup (Bt200). The sampler consists of a selection of three dishes: Dungeoness Crab Cakes, served with a delicate papaya basil salsa featuring salmon roe; Furikake Blue Shrimps with an oriental vegetable salad; and Nori Yellow Fin Tuna, accompanied by a seaweed salad. The presentation is superb, right down to the triangular-shaped plate and the elegant elongated cutlery inspired clearly by chopsticks – indeed there are chopstick rests provided to rest knives, forks and spoons on. And, most importantly, the flavours do mesh together very well.

The crabmeat soup is billed as being “an ancient oriental remedy for everything from lumbago to a broken heart”. There’s nothing wrong with our health so we can’t test this claim, but it does appear to be a perfectly comforting proportion of crab meat, spinach, coconut milk and lime juice.

If we weren’t heading to mains, I might be tempted to try one of the most popular entrees, the Lobster Summer Roll (Bt290). It’s a mix of lobster chunks, wrapped with crispy vegetables in soft rice paper, and served with glass noodles and spicy lime chilli sauce. We may just have to go back.

While we wait for mains, Willment tells us he’s been with the Raffles Hotel group – which manages the Thai-owned Merchant Court Hotel in Bangkok – since 1991. He came to Bangkok in 1999 to prepare Doc Cheng’s for its December opening. “The menu is basically what customers will find at the other Doc Cheng’s in Singapore and Hamburg,” he explains. “But I developed three of four dishes especially for Bangkok.”

His own dishes include the Szechuan Smoked Salmon With Oscrieta Caviar (this is Raffles’ own brand of Iranian caviar) (Bt750) and the Tandoor Turkey Confit, cooked in a special sauce for four hours before being served on a bed of spiced long tong rice with baby kai lan (Bt280).

Although Willment concedes that dishes need to be tweaked slightly to cater to local tastes, he expresses some exasperation over customers who request fish sauce and chillis to go with their meal. “I’ll actually come out onto the restaurant floor and try to explain the nature of the food we’re serving. There’s a delicate balance of flavours that fish sauce and chillis will upset. In eighty per cent of the cases, the customer will change their mind when I’ve spoken to them.”

We have Willment already on the floor with us as our mains are delivered. I tuck into the Crisp Sea Bass Fillet (Bt320). Two fillets of moist sea bass flesh lie tantalisingly beneath a lightly-seasoned crisp shell. While the fish is more than passable, it’s really the superb sweet pepper compote and the soy ginger beurre blanc that make this dish special.

My partner has opted for the Tamarind Charcoal Beef Short Ribs (Bt 420), which are marinated and braised for up to six hours, then served on a bed of abalone mushrooms and a peppered pinot noir sauce. The dish is apparently so delicious that we have to wait for the entire plate to be finished before extracting any analysis from the diner. And even then it’s a shell- shocked “Mmmm. Mmmmm.”

There’s a good range of wines to choose from, with a New World emphasis. A 1998 Jacob’s Creek chardonnay (Australia) goes for Bt1,900, as does a 1997 Sutter Home cabernet sauvignon. But better still, there’s an exceptional choice of wines by the glass, and very reasonably priced at Bt180 to Bt260 (up to Bt1,000 for sparkling). There’s even a dessert wine by the glass (Bt550).

Dessert is of course a must. The Composition of Crème Brulees (Bt170), Willment explains, is challenging to present as the tops of the five different flavoured brulees are caramelised after they are removed from their ramekins, meaning it’s tricky to get them to keep their shape. He’s done a fine job with making the sago, coconut, banana, red bean and pandan custards distinctly flavoured, too.

The Banana Strudel (Bt150) is as popular with customers as the crème brulees, and goes well with the coffee to end the meal.

As we envision a long future involving return visits, Willment expresses some fear about staying in Bangkok for too many years. “I don’t want to catch Bangkok Disease,” he says seriously. This, he asserts with authority, is a well-recognised disease among chefs across the world. It involves falling in love with the strong flavours of Thai cuisine so drastically that a chef’s tastebuds are distorted.

“Then if you go back to making, for example, fine French food in Europe, people will think the flavours you use are very strange.”

But there’s nothing strange – quirky perhaps, and innovative to the point of being surpising – about Willment’s current creations. So go ahead and battle the traffic and the dauntingly huge Merchant Court Hotel lobby to get to Doc Cheng’s. If it were somewhere more central, it would already be one of Bangkok’s favourites. It may take a little longer to catch on out in Huay Khwang, but Doc Cheng’s is destined to become a Bangkok dining institution.

Doc Cheng’s at the Merchant Court Hotel, Le Concorde
12-2.30pm, 6-10.30pm, daily
202 Ratchadapisek Rd, Huay Khwang
Bangkok 10320
Ph. 694 2222

Girl, Interrupted

By Susanna Kaysen

When Susanna Kaysen is 18 years old she makes a feeble attempt to take her own life. After a single session with a psychiatrist she is diagnosed as having a ‘borderline personality’ and is sent away to McLean Hospital, the private psychiatric centre that treated Sylvia Plath and Ray Charles, among other famous names. While Susanna’s descriptions of life on the ward are intriguing and compelling, we’re certainly not talking One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest here. More provocative by far are her lucid thoughts – once she is declared ‘sane’ – on precisely what it is that deems some people ‘mad’ and others ‘sane’. The ‘mad’ Susanna may seem more like yourself than you are comfortable with, and that’s really her point. Society, rather than the cushy, expensive, drug-pushing hospital, is at fault, and Susanna’s poignant reflections are just as pertinent to the 21st century. This is an elegant read which is subtle in its challenges. And, perhaps it’s worth noting, it’s nothing at all like the film.

When We Were Orphans

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Christopher Banks was born in Shanghai to British parents in the early 20th century while opium was all the rage. His father’s apparent kidnapping is followed shortly afterwards by his mother’s disappearance, and thereafter he is sent back to England. He becomes a successful detective, and eventually returns to Shanghai just prior to the onset of World War II to uncover exactly what happened to his parents. There are revelations, but reaching them takes a long time. Although there is a grace to Ishiguro’s writing, he can also be long-winded, tedious and simply boring. The absurdity he employs may appeal to some readers, but to others it may feel simply like they are trapped in a very literary nightmare. Shanghai lacks the colour it must have had during such a period, and the horrors endured by its citizens are too understated to be shocking. The themes of innocence, family love and the re-writing of one’s history are explored, but may leave readers feeling like they’ve missed something somewhere along the way.