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.

Choosing a kindergarten for your child

Although many Thai families hire nannies to care for their children, more parents are putting their children into daycare in the hope that they will start learning more effectively from a younger age. There are a multitude of kindergartens to choose from in Bangkok, so finding the right kindergarten for your child might take some time – but it’s a worthwhile effort.

What a child learns can set them on a path towards success for life. "From the moment of conception to age seven years, these are the golden years of childhood," says pioneering child educator Mom Dusdi, who introduced nurseries into Thailand and now advises kindergartens on how to better educate children (such as Jinjao, listed below). "Just because a child isn’t giving you verbal feedback, doesn’t mean they aren’t incubating things for later on."

Parents need to feel comfortable

Choosing a kindergarten is therefore a big decision. Canadian child educator Jackie Alexander, a developmental psychologist who has run kindergartens in Thailand for 16 years (including the Early Learning Centre and the Purple Elephant), advises that parents should feel comfortable with the school. "Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and raise any concerns about your child. You should be able to discuss anything with the school – we’re here as a team, and the school’s relationship with parents is very important."

Alexander says choosing a small, warm and intimate environment for a child will help contribute to the development of an adult who will be a lifetime learner. "In a small school, it’s not as easy to slip through the cracks, and some kids simply don’t do well at big schools." She recommends visiting more than one school for comparison – then parents will feel like they’ve made the right decision.

Good resources and small class sizes are other features to look for, as is a strong art and music programme – the latter will lead to better development of academic skills later on. "Parents should be happy with the type of overall programme the school offers, and make sure that their child’s particular needs fit into that programme."

Parents should also enquire about the qualifications of the teachers – but they shouldn’t be overly concerned about this. "It depends on the person more so than the degree, except when it comes to teaching reading," says Alexander.

Don’t choose a programme that overloads your child

Mom Dusdi adds that a good balance between teacher-directed activities and free choice, and between passive and active activities, is important. She cautions that many kindergartens are geared towards learning too much, too early. "Children are competing to get into well-known schools, and this is a big problem. It’s a real limitation, as the children have to be taught to read early."

To get children into the hands of professionals as soon as possible, Mom Dusdi is encouraging kindergartens to attach nurseries to their schools. "So instead of starting at age three, children can start at age two or one. The younger, the better, especially if you get the parents involved."

It all starts at home

But good practice at home is still the lynchpin of it all, so the education of both parents and the child’s nanny is crucial. "Select someone you like, and train them yourself," advises Mom Dusdi when it comes to choosing a nanny. Unfortunately, however, Mom Dusdi adds that there’s not a lot of information out there to help educate parents. "The focus tends to be on hygiene – there’s not enough focus on the brain. But we can reach parents through kindergartens."

In a nutshell, Mom Dusdi’s advice is to stimulate the child as much as possible from birth. ‘The child needs to be exposed to their various senses," she says. She recommends talking to the child continuously, using body and eye contact, providing colourful surroundings, encouraging dancing and other body movement, and listening to music such as Mozart. "There’s no research yet on the benefits of Thai music, but I suspect that there must be something good in it."

Children’s activity centres in Bangkok

Sitting in front of the TV isn’t going to keep young children happy for too long, nor is it going to help their development. But playing outdoors in Bangkok isn’t an option for many children either, with a severe lack of wide open space. What’s the solution?

Taking your child to one of the many activity centres spreading across Bangkok could be one way of speeding up your child’s development, and letting them have fun at the same time. Here’s a rundown of what two of them offer.


"We just let them have fun," says Pichet Sithi-Amnuai, director of Thailand’s first Gymboree Play & Music, a centre for children aged just a few weeks to four years old.

Gymboree centres first began in the US in 1976 – there are now more than 420 around the globe – and Bangkok’s first opened last August. The Gymboree philosophy is based on the notion that children "learn" more during the first year of their life than any other, and that 50 per cent of a child’s learning foundation is established by the age of four. Learning here means understanding themselves and the world around them, rather than anything academic – and it’s non-competitive.

The programme involves parents coming with their child for two 45-minute sessions per week for the "Play" programme. One session is planned, and the other is simply an opportunity to use the equipment. Parents and children can also come for the weekly 45-minute "Music" programme.

"The programmes are also something that parents and children can take home with them," says Pichet. "We want the parents to come so they can see the learning curve that their child is on. It’s about children learning to trust their parents, and about parents seeing their children laugh and have fun."

Pichet and his wife Jib hit on Gymboree when looking for some suitable activities for their first child, Prim, who’s now aged three and a half – and liked it so much they bought a franchise.

Now there are over 300 children attending classes – maximum of 15 children are allowed per class – that are conducted in English, from 9 to 4 each day. Teachers don’t have to have an academic background in education, but they do need a background involving children, and a lot of energy, says Pichet. "The first line of our advertisements for teachers says ‘energetic’ rather than ‘degree’."

The Little Gym

Five years ago Patcharapa Suthimai and Kitinan Nisalak Choy, both THAI employees at the time, began searching for an appropriate place for their children to play and learn. Patcharapa has two girls, now aged 7 and 11, while Kitinan has two boys, aged 6 and 8.

"At that time, there weren’t many places where children could exercise in a safe, clean – and airconditioned – environment. We fell in love with the Little Gym program when we saw the video from the US about it," says Patcharapa, who is now co-director with Kitinan. The Little Gym also began in the US in 1976, and now has around 100 centres operating around the world, mostly in the US."Plus, a lot of the programs we looked at were only for children aged up to six – we wanted something that went to an older age."

So they set up their first Little Gym, and last year opened their second. Classes are tailored for children aged from four months to 12 years old, seven days a week, with a maximum number of 14 children per class. English is the lingua franca, with some Thai and Japanese spoken too. Parents come to class with children aged up to three years old.

Like Gymboree, The Little Gym stresses non-competitiveness in its programs. "We have a motto – you don’t have to be the best, you just have to try your best," says Patcharapa. "Gymnastics is the basis for all activities – through gym children learn coordination, flexibility and balance. And if we can instill a love of sports into a child and they enjoy exercise, they’ll also learn how to take a chance. They’ll develop self-confidence in doing things."

Staff at The Little Gym must have a degree in physical education. "That was the thing that we were scared about at first – finding teachers. Gymnastics is not something that anyone can teach. You also need to have a love of children, and patience," says Patcharapa.

Gymboree Play and Music
Citi Resort 39 Annex
181/9 Soi Promsri 1
Sukhumvit 49
Tel: 662 7662
Cost: Annual fee Bt2,500 for both music and play, or Bt1,000 for music only. Then Bt1,500 per month (8 sessions) for play, and Bt1,000 per month (4 sessions) for music.

The Little Gym
147/2-3 Baan Prompong Condominium
Sukhumvit 39
Tel: 260 4083-4

622 Floor 8/4 Emporium Tower
Sukhumvit Rd
Tel: 664 8994-5

Cost: Annual fee Bt2,500, then Bt1,300 to 1,620 per month (4 sessions) depending on age.

Getting your child in tune

Every parent wants to give their child an edge in life – the question is, of course, how? Attending music appreciation classes from a young age, and learning an instrument from the right age, can be one way of helping your child’s development and also enhancing their enjoyment of music right throughout their lives.

Many benefits flow from a child studying music appreciation or an instrument: cognitive, social, emotional and physical development may be enhanced. "Since language, math, reading and music all have rhythm and pattern, experiencing music also helps children to improve their learning in these areas," says Pichet Sithi-Amnui, director of Gymboree Play & Music. "Emotionally, music can express emotions that children cannot yet verbalise, and physically, moving to music builds young children’s coordination and strengthens motor skills."

Susama Pongpladisai, a teacher with Bmas, says that learning an instrument help’s a child learn about self discipline. "They need to make a schedule for practice, and develop patience."

"Even if they don’t continue to play they will at least have an appreciation of music," says John Garzoli, an independent music instructor and classical guitarist – and that’s something a person can carry with them through life.

What age is a good age to start?

Experts agree that listening to music cannot begin too early. "This thing in here is like a sponge," says Andrew Healey, head of the early childhood department at MIFA, pointing to his head. "Music should be learned like a second language, informally, from day one. If you start young, it becomes a part of your life."

Garzoli says that Bach and Vivaldi are good starts, and that while there is some truth that listening to Mozart is good for you, it won’t necessarily make you smart.

Learning an instrument can come a little later. "It depends upon the concentration of the child," says Garzoli. They should only begin when they are mentally able to concentrate on learning.

Getting started on an instrument

"Piano and violin are the instruments to start younger children on," says Garzoli. Violins make children learn to tune by ear, plus special smaller-sized violins are made for children. Piano, on the other hand, is a pitch instrument and allows the child to consistenly hear perfect pitch.

Bmas’s Susama says that a child can start the piano at age four, violin aged four to five, and other instruments like guitar and wind from around seven to eight.

Finding a school or a teacher

There is no shortage of music schools in Bangkok, teaching both appreciation and instruments. Styles of instruction vary, so it’s best to visit a few and see which suits your child best. Size of the class is also something to consider, and some classes require a parent to accompany the child, depending on its age.

Specialist music schools also offer instrument classes for when the child reaches an appropriate age. When choosing an individual teacher, Healey suggests asking the candidate how often they perform themselves. "You don’t have to be a brilliant performer, but that’s the end result," he says. It’s also important to note whether the teacher makes an effort to connect with the child, by for example, getting down on their hands and knees to talk to them.

Let your child find their own pace

It’s important for parents to remember not to pressure their child. "I’ve taught children who are physically as tight as a rock because their mother is standing there. But becoming technically advanced – that’s not what music is about for me," says Healey.

Susama agrees. "Don’t put too much pressure on your child, and don’t expect too much from them. Let them go at their own pace and have some fun."

Wedding centres in Bangkok

Organising a wedding can be as smooth as silk, or as messy as a mudbath. For the reception, there are two main groups of people you should get on your side as soon as possible: those at your reception venue, and those at a wedding studio of your choice. While choosing a venue will largely depend on your personal style (see Wedding Receptions), wedding studios are less differentiated but can be just as vital in ensuring your wedding is memorable.

What do wedding studios do?

First made popular in Taiwan, wedding studios kicked off in Bangkok seven years ago and their focus remains on the wedding photos themselves – which are taken three to four months before the wedding day. "The process of manually retouching the photographs does take some time," says Jittima Manachaiyarak, assistant manager at Surrealist Studio.

The busiest months for weddings are May, November and December, so as with venues, it’s advisable to book well in advance.

Prior to the day wedding studios can arrange invitation cards, thank you cards and personalised giveaway gifts for your guests. On the day itself, they will hire the bride and groom the same outfits they wore for the photographs, and provide a make-up and hair service. A photographer can also attend the wedding.

Most recently, studios have started to provide CD-ROM or video packages about the couple and how they met and fell in love, which are shown to the guests at the wedding. "These are very popular among the hi-so," says Piccha Prakalylerdluk, marketing manager at the Marriage Studio.

What do you pay?

Three main categories of studios have developed in Bangkok: low-priced, mid-range and high-end studios. The low-priced are mostly located in the Banglamphu area, where attention to touching up photos is minimal. Although the quality is lower, the pricer is lower as well.

Then there are the mid-range and high-end studios, both of which are mostly in the Thong Lor and Ekamai areas, were much more expensive when the market first developed in Bangkok. "Now there is a high supply, so we have to compete," says Jittima. "People are getting better value than they did in the past – most studios are willing to give the customer as much as they can."

Couples at the Surrealist Studio spend on average around Bt20,000 on a basic package. However, Jittima says, once they see the photographs, they will often order more and end up spending a total of Bt40,000.

At Thailand’s first Thai-owned operation, Marriage Studio, the most popular package is Bt39,500. "Some people are price sensitive, but most couples don’t care about the price because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing – quality is much more important to them," says Piccha. "And you do get what you pay for."

Shop around

Studios will offer promotions at different times of the year, so Jittima advises shopping around. "Some couple cover three studios a day. It’s very competitive, so do ask if there are promotions, and try to negotiate."

You may also wish to consider where the photographs themselves will be taken. "We have our own garden out the back, so photos can be taken there," says Usamas Aiemlaor, account executive at Viva Forever Studio, where package prices range from Bt16,000 to Bt88,000.

Jittima also suggests that couples sit down early on and plan their time carefully. "There will be so many tasks to do. Write a To Do list, and then ask your friends and family to help."

You want more?

Or perhaps your wedding studio can help if something extra needs doing. "We had a couple come in last week asking if we could decorate the restaurant cowboy-style for her reception. We have an art department, so they’ll do it," Jittima says.

Feeding the wedding guests

Choosing the menu style for your wedding reception is important as it will largely dictate the overall ambience of your special day. Want something breezy and informal? Go for the increasingly popular cocktail menu. Is paying homage to your family’s traditions important? Perhaps you’ll hold an authentic Chinese banquet instead.

JW Marriott Hotel account manager Narumol Thamrongsat says most couples already have a good idea about the style of menu they want before they approach a hotel. "Thai-Chinese will mostly go for the set menu or buffet-style, while Thais tend to go for the cocktail receptions," she says.

There are three basic options: a cocktail reception; a buffet or a banquet. The cheapest is a cocktail reception, which can cost as little as 360 baht per person. Buffets cost between 400 and 800 baht a head and Chinese banquets can set you back as much as 9,000 baht for 10 people.

Cocktail receptions came of age during the economic downturn, but are now embraced by many younger couples for more than just financial reasons. The Peninsula’s banquet sales manager Khanitta Wantanapreeda says that they’re popular because they’re relatively uncomplicated. "Couples feel more comfortable with their style. They’re more informal, and people can walk around and talk to each other. Also, the event doesn’t take as long as others – they usually only last for around two hours."

Khun Pharanya from the Century Park Hotel puts it simply. "If most of the guests are your friends, choose a cocktail reception. But if most of them are your parents’ guests, choose the buffet."

The food on offer at cocktail receptions tends to be light: hot and cold canapes, a carvery and sweets are usually offered. Current menus in Bangkok include imaginative dishes like parma ham with rockmelon, cheese mousse with green olives on rye bread, beef kebab with grilled pita bread, scallop dumplings with chilli and roasted pork loin with mustard sauce. "Food stations" featuring heavier food can be additionally provided at extra cost.

Narumol adds that cocktail receptions are more flexible when it comes to numbers. "If, for example, you expect 400 people but 430 turn up, you won’t have to pay any extra because the hotel doesn’t have to provide any extra food." If, however, even more people turn up, the hotel would discuss with the couple on the day as to whether more food is required, and would charge extra for soft drinks.

This is in contrast to buffets and banquets, where heads are counted and must usually be confirmed at least 72 hours before the event. If less than the expected number turn up, the confirmed number of heads must still be paid for.

Buffets are the middle ground between cocktails and Chinese-banquets. "If you have older people in the group, you may prefer to have a buffet rather than cocktail reception so they can sit down," Regent wedding consultant Rakklaw Thankunpanit says. "But there are some chairs provided at cocktail receptions."

Buffets are declining in popularity and are being replaced by cocktail receptions. At face value, they are not as cheap as cocktail menus, although if food stations are included, the price may be comparable. Most hotels offer both Thai and international style buffets, the latter of which tends to be more popular.

Chinese banquets are popular among more traditionally-minded Thai-Chinese, who want to be more generous towards their guests. "Younger couples might prefer to have a cocktail reception, but their parents want to have the set menu instead," says Khanitta.

Once the style itself is chosen, the precise dishes chosen become important. According to Narumol, people can be particularly concerned about the Chinese set menus. "It’s not unusual for special menu requests to be made, such as extra shark fin in the shark fin soup – and people will check that the food is coming from the hotel’s Chinese restaurant."

Choosing a wedding reception venue in Bangkok

So you’ve each decided to commit for life; besides organising the ceremony, it’s time to plan for the party. What should you consider when choosing a venue to have your wedding reception at?

Most Bangkok receptions are held in hotels, says Dalin Snidvongs, director of catering at the Regent. "All the guests will know where the hotel is, parking is easy, and it’s usually cheaper than elsewhere – choosing a venue where you need to provide your own caterers is going to be more expensive."

Sumalee Panumphan, catering sales manager at the Marriott Royal Garden, notes that most hotels offer very similar types of packages: invitation cards, food for the reception, a guest book, garlands for the bride and groom, ice carvings, a wedding cake, flower decorations and accommodation for the bride and groom – give or take a VIP room for the wedding party, and a first anniversary dinner.

So what else is crucial in helping to make that final decision?

The Date

Dalin advises that the most important thing to consider as soon as possible is setting a date. "You should book a venue four to six months in advance. November is the most auspicious month, so you need to get in early if you’d like to book then."

If you leave things too late, the date you’ve set can determine where you’re able to have your reception. Plus, some areas are only by hotels during particular seasons of the year. The Regent, for instance, only uses its terrace area after the rainy season has ended.

Sumalee says that the Marriott organised over 200 weddings throughout 2000. "The most auspicious dates were September 8 and November 4. If you choose a popular date, you have to get in early."

The Food

The next question is what kind of food you’d like served, and whether the venue you’ve selected can provide this. "There are three standard types of receptions: cocktails, Chinese and buffet," says Rakklaw Thankunpanit, the Regent’s dedicated wedding consultant. Sit down meals with set menus can also be provided at some venues, but standard prices aren’t usually quoted. "If there are elderly people attending, you might prefer a buffet, but even with cocktail receptions some chairs are provided."

Most venues will offer these choices, but you might wish to choose somewhere with a menu that particularly appeals.

The Guest List

Hotels may require a minimum number of guests for some rooms or areas to be used for a reception. "You don’t need to confirm numbers until three or four weeks before the reception," says Dalin. "And sometimes the numbers can change a lot between then and the day." But a ballpark figure to work with at the start is a good idea.

The Budget

"People usually don’t want to tell us their budget – they prefer to tell us the number of people they’d like to have, and see what the price will be," says Rakklaw. "However, it is better if you let us know your budget, then we can let you know what we can do for that price."

She also notes that hotels in a particular bracket will usually offer packages that differ only very slightly in price. "Most people will have three hotels or so in mind, and it won’t come down to the price. It will come down to first impressions about the hotel."

Sumalee says that most clients spend around Bt200,000 on their receptions; Rakklaw and Dalin estimate that 180,000 to 250,000 is the norm.

The Music

Can the venue hold the type of musicians you’d like to have at your reception? "Trios, quartets or quintets are the most popular," says Dalin. "Some people like to arrange to have a normal band, or a jazz band instead."

The Theme

Sumalee says that one of the most enjoyable weddings she has attended was one where there was an ocean theme. "All the guests wore Hawaiian shirts, the women wore Hawaiian skirts. The venue decorations were blue and white, and there were flowers set up in the sand next to the pool. The bride and groom also wore Hawaiian-style clothes," she says. Another one she attended featured fireworks on the river. So if you have a theme in mind, or something special you’d like to happen at your reception, you’ll need to consider this as well when choosing a venue.

It may seem a little daunting at first, but sitting down and thinking about how you’d like to organise your reception should save you a lot of trouble later on. "Make a timeline," advises Dalin. "List what you would like to have, and by what date it should be completed."

Putting a gym through its paces

So you’ve finally gotten around to sticking to that New Year’s resolution to lose weight or just get fit – it’s time to pound that pavement and find a health club to suit your needs. This is a serious commitment you’re about to make – just think of the number of hours you and your new club are going to be spending together – so take a few moments to find out what you should check out before laying your money on the table.

"The first thing you should notice is whether or not you’re taken care of," says Debbie Jackson, who has worked in the luxury club industry for fifteen years in places as diverse as Italy, the UK and Hong Kong. She now manages the Sukhothai’s health club. "You should get a full tour of the facilities, see a list of classes, notice what level they’re offered at. Ensure that you are given a fitness test, otherwise the club can’t give you a personal programme."

According to Jackson it’s also important to find out whether the instructors are qualified. "I would certainly ask. And check to see whether the club offers personal trainers. These are a good asset for clubs, as they’ll give you individual attention and keep you motivated."

Furthermore, Jackson suggests talking directly with the staff. "A lot of the time a manager will show you around, but what you want to make sure is that you like the staff – they’re the ones who will be answering your questions once you join. So go up to the staff, and check their ability to communicate."

Piyapong Limpipipat, managing director at Body System, says that an individual’s choice of a health club really depends on what that particular person is looking for. "You need to consider both the value for money offered, and what the gym offers to suit your needs. Both factors are equally important. For instance, some people really like to work out using weights, but other people find that boring. Those people need to look for a gym that offers other facilities."

Jackson agrees. "The club needs to suit your individual needs. If you’re happy to go into a gym and just do your own thing, then go somewhere no frills, without the luxury locker rooms. Low budget gyms can be good value. The luxury gyms offer a more personalised service – you don’t need to bring your own towels, shampoo, and so on. Some people can be put off by the price, but they don’t take into account the services being offered."

Piyapong suggests looking at your budget first up. "Clients need to consider how much they are willing to spend. If they want to spend less, they might need to go to a small establishment. Larger establishments might need to charge more because of the services they provide."

Checking out the overall staff-to-client ratio can be a reasonable indicator of service levels, but Jackson says that it’s even more important to actually check out the club at the times you would normally expect to be working out there. "You don’t want to be disillusioned when you do start going and find that you have to wait to use the machines you like."

Finally, Jackson suggests that you make sure the club you’re checking out takes an interest in the latest fitness trends and ideas. "Many gyms are a bit stale and don’t offer newer classes, such as cycling classes, power yoga, cardio-combat, Pilates and so on. Salsa classes are becoming popular in gyms now too. You want more than the standard step and hi-lo impact classes – these are still good, but look for more than that." Classes should also be on at convenient times.

Joining a health club that manages to satisfy all of these criteria will mean you’ll have absolutely no excuses for not being on your way to that new you.

Let them have fun

"We just let them have fun," says Pichet Sithi-Amnuai.

During our interview at his colourful office, fun is a word that’s going to be used several times by the director of Thailand’s first Gymboree Play & Music, a centre of – well, play and music – for children aged just a few weeks to four years old. And with a background in engineering, export and finance, perhaps it’s no wonder that Pichet is so enthusiastic about getting people to have fun – it’s obvious he’s finally having some real fun himself.

Although Gymboree centres have been slowly spreading across the US and other countries since first opening in 1976 – there are now more than 420 around the globe – parents in Thailand had to wait until August of this year for a chance to visit one in Bangkok.

The programme at the centre involves parents coming with their child for two 45-minute sessions per week for the "Play" programme. One session is planned, and the other is simply an opportunity to use the equipment. ("And have some fun," adds Pichet.) In addition, or alternatively, parents and children can come for the weekly 45-minute "Music" programme. It’s all non-competitive, and there’s no right and wrong. If a child wants to do something on their own while others are participating in a group activity, that’s fine.

"The programmes are also something that parents and children can take home with them," says Pichet. "We want the parents to come so they can see the learning curve that their child is on. There’s also a safety factor, but it’s much more than that. It’s about children learning to trust their parents, and about parents seeing their children laugh and have fun."

And so unlike some businesses where taking photographs on the premises is considered taboo, Pichet says making videotapes and taking pictures is actually encouraged. "We’re in the business of selling happiness. Please take photos and videos!" Pichet tells parents.

The programme is based on the notion that children "learn" more during the first year of their life than any other, and that 50 per cent of a child’s learning foundation is established by the age of four. Learning here means understanding themselves and the world around them, rather than anything academic. Classes, which are divided by age and activity levels, are designed to enhance the process of this learning, and help develop motor skills, socialisation and physical fitness, among other things.

There are even lesson plans for birthday and theme parties. "Parents just have to bring the cake so they can have fun too," says Pichet.

So how did Gymboree come to open here? Like many parents, Pichet only came to hear of Gymboree after the birth of his first child, Prim, who’s now aged three and a half.

"It’s become common that when you have a child, you want the child to become involved in some sort of activities," he says. With the birth of Prim, he and his wife Jib, who has a background in economics and banking, searched around for "something for her to do". They couldn’t possibly have foreseen that doing so would change their careerpaths at the same time.

"We tried a few different activities. We thought Prim should have an opportunity to have fun and benefit herself at the same time," he explains. A friend of Jib recommended Gymboree – famous in the US, but little known in Thailand. "So we talked to some parents in the US."

The timing was good. Last year Gymboree started selling franchises internationally. "We applied for a franchise, along with I think five or 10 other people." One trip to each of Singapore and the US later, and Pichet and Jib found themselves owners of the first Thai franchise.

Now there are over 300 children attending classes, conducted in English, from 9 to 4 each day. There are five teaching staff, who hail from Ireland, the Philippines and Thailand. A maximum of 15 children are allowed per class compared to the 20 allowed in the US. Teachers don’t have to have an academic background in education, but they do need a background involving children, and a lot of energy, says Pichet. "The first line of our advertisements for teachers says ‘energetic’ rather than ‘degree’."

So what does the future hold for Pichet, Jib and Prim? Eventually they’d like to open a second centre, or sub-franchise to people who are as serious about putting fun into children’s learning as they are. "This is not a hobby for us," Pichet says. "It’s a serious business." When he’s not having fun, that is.

Winning wordplayers

"Bahuvrihi" Jakkrit Klaphajone answers without hesitation when asked what his best ever word playing Thai Crossword has been. "I don’t know the meaning – I think it’s Islamic. It was just a word I had memorised. But the best words and the highest scoring words are not necessarily the same."

Good positioning of a word nets a player more points, so a ‘boring’ word can score highly. But an unusual word remembered when the opportunity to play it arises can stick in a player’s memory just as vividly.

Jakkrit, a doctor doing research at Chiang Mai University’s Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, is currently the highest ranking Thai player on the unofficial international Scrabble ranking list. He believes that he is ranked atnumber 18 in the world, although he modestly says that it could be a bit lower now.

But back to his most memorable words : This year, the highest scoring has been "outdoorsy" for which he landed 141 points.

And his highest-scoring word ever was "quatorze", which netted him 232. "And my highest ever game score was about 680," he adds.

Amnuay Ploysangngam, president of the Thailand Crossword Club ( Thailand’s version of the international game of Scrabble is known as Crossword), is also quick to recall his highest scoring word. "Knowledge,for 212."

Jakkrit and Amnuay are among thousands of avid Crossword players in Thailand. And Amnuay is in no small way responsible for the phenomenal success of the game.

When he started playing Crossword 16 years ago with one of his teachers at high school, he couldn’t have foreseen that he would one day start Thailand’s Crossword Club and be organising national and international tournaments for the game. But he knew he was onto a good thing.

"I love this game!" he enthuses. "Playing it makes me happy. It’s fun."

He went on to study business administration at Assumption University, and during his second year started a logic club. "We played Crossword and other games like chess."

He started organising gaming tournaments. "At first I got by just asking my friends to come along and play in the tournaments, but by the third year we had members of the public coming along and it became much bigger."

In his fourth year at university, he set up the Thailand Crossword Club – so there’s no prize for guessing what his favourite game in the tournaments still is.

But still Amnuay’s vision wasn’t complete. "In 1986 I decided to organise the first Thailand Crossword championship. I was hoping that maybe we would get 25 players."

In fact, 147 players turned up to compete for the honour of being named Thailand’s first ever Crossword champion. The winner? Amnuay’s former teacher, the Reverend Brother Arun Methaset.

The second year saw more than 200 players compete, and the third more than 300. Other games were also played at the tournaments, but Crossword has always been the main attraction. The fourth year saw the first foreigner compete, and Amnuay also organised the first youth tournament (see box below).

By the fifth year Bangkok’s tournament had become truly international, with players from around the globe converging here with their word lists in hand, eager to play.

This year saw something like 4,000 players gather for the 16th tournament. Of those, more than 70 per cent played Crossword. The open division had 80 players, 50 of whom were from overseas, competing for prize money of US$6,000 (Bt200,000). And since 1998, the tournament has been honoured to accept a trophy from His Majesty the King to award to the winning player in the most prestigious division.

In between organising over the years – smaller tournaments happen around once a month – Amnuay invented a Thai-language version of the game, known as Kumkom, and a maths version, A-Math. And he still manages to squeeze in the occasional game with friends. He’s unofficially ranked at no 37 in the world.

Jakkrit, on the other hand, plays against his computer around three times a week – other players in Chiang Mai are simply too weak to give him a run for his money on the board. "I prefer to play against people, but they’re just not strong enough here. The computer lacks the psychological aspect. You can use tricks when you play with people – you can stare at a corner to make your opponent think you are going to play there. Or you can shuffle your tiles to make them think you have very good tiles when actually they are not."

Jakkrit hasn’t done too badly for someone who started playing "by accident". He was attending an indoor sports tournament at Chiang Mai university when a student, and the university had decided to introduce Crossword for the first time. "I was going to play checkers," he says, "but they asked me to play Crossword instead."

And he liked it. "At first people think that you need a good vocabulary to play. But that’s not enough," he warns. "Strategy is more important. It is like chess; you must use strategy."

The doctor started competing in the international competition in Bangkok six years ago, and finished as 1st runner up. In 1995 and 1997 he scooped the winning award. He next scored a place this year, again as first runner up.

He has also travelled to the US, Australia, Singapore and Malaysia to play. "I think I’ll play forever," he says. "I play to keep my life exciting. It’s a real boost."

Does he bother learning the meanings of the words he learns? "I like to remember the meanings, but can’t remember them all. I use link theory to learn them. I memorise the derivatives of words, and group them."

You would certainly need some sort of strategy to try to memorise the more than 200,000 two to eight letter words that are admissible in the game.

And that list changes, depending on where you play. Thailand, along with the US, Canada, Israel and Malta, follows the Merriam-Websters dictionary-derived Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (OSPD), while the UK follows the Chambers dictionary-derived Official Scrabble Words (OSW).

Other countries, such as Australia, follow a combined list called "Sowpods", an acronym composed from anagramming OSW and OSPD. This list was first used at the World Championships in London in 1991, and at subsequent world championships since. "I have to separate these lists in my brain," says Jakkrit. "It’s a problem."

The prize money on offer can make such effort worthwhile though. In August, for instance, when the US hosted a competition offering the equivalent of Bt 1 million, several Thai players attended.

With that much money up for grabs, you can imagine some people getting hot under the collar when they lose.

"Some people do get upset when they lose – this kind of game depends on both luck and skill, so they can always blame their luck, " says Jakkrit. "In Thailand, foreign players can get upset with the level of noise at competitions. School children like to come and watch, and they can get noisy with their cheering. In other countries, it’s either very quiet, or they play soft music. You just have to accept the noise if you’re going to play here."

And for those of you who have been dying to know, the word "bahuvrihi" means a class of compound words whose meanings follow the formula "[one] having a B that is A" where A stands for the first constituent of the compound and B for the second; it’s also a compound word belonging to this class (greybeard, barefoot).

Maybe those word lists look quite alright without their definitions after all.