Renegade deminer alerts world to legacy of Cambodia’s mines

SIEM REAP, Cambodia – Cambodia’s ubiquitous rice paddies and lush green jungles provided a stage for three decades of war, genocide and civil conflict until peace finally took hold in 1998 and tourism began to sprout. But the legacy of those years of bloodshed stubbornly lurks under the surface of the picturesque scenery in the deadly form of landmines and unexploded ordnance. Aki Ra, a Cambodian in his early 30s, was conscripted into the brutal Khmer Rouge regime as a child soldier and helped lay innumerable mines himself. Today he works to clear those same timebombs and to remind the world that Cambodians still suffer. He recently showed Phnom Penh correspondent Samantha Brown around his homespun museum that showcases the weapons and highlights the carnage they cause, much to the chagrin of national authorities.

In an open-air shack situated down an unpaved street that snakes its way from a strip jammed with luxury hotels in Cambodia’s most popular tourist destination, Aki Ra swings in a hammock, waiting for foreigners bored with temple-hopping to drop by his museum.

While the architecture of Angkor Wat’s glorious past seduces with its ancient mysteries, Aki Ra’s museum draws startling attention to the present: here, thousands of landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) pulled from Cambodia’s mine-strewn earth are on show.

It’s a humble affair. Tourists wander through a series of shacks packed with a vast array of weapons. Before, the former Khmer Rouge child soldier blithely helped lay the deadly contraptions, but these days he defuses them with his bare hands, hauling them here to warn others of their lethality.

Red danger signs bearing skull and crossbones — seen everywhere across Cambodia — are nailed to a mock minefield set up to show visitors what many Cambodians contend with in daily life. Dogs wearied by the tropical heat thump their tails nearby; ducks waddle up from the adjacent river to preen in the shade.

Cambodia has been busily chasing the tourism dollar as visitor numbers have swelled each year since peace triumphed in this war-weary nation, but authorities have not been impressed with Aki Ra’s efforts. They’ve once closed him down, allegedly extorted money from him and refused him a demining licence. But he pushes on, determined to remind people of the horror lurking beneath Cambodia’s rice fields and wild jungles — and to add to the 20,000-plus collection of defused weapons he has already amassed.

"I want to help. I’ve changed my ideas. Before it wasn’t good and I didn’t understand. Now I know I have to do good things," Aki Ra says, sitting cross-legged in an open-air hut with his belongings hanging in plastic bags on the wall.

Nobody is sure how many mines and unexploded ordnance might still pepper Cambodian territory but nearly 30 years of vicious bloodshed, which only ended in 1998, was enough to give it the dubious honour of being one of the most mined and bombed countries in the world.

In 2004, 171 people were killed and 727 others injured in mine and UXO accidents, nearly all of whom were ordinary people trying to eke out a livelihood in the poverty-wracked kingdom. One in every 240 Cambodians is estimated to be disabled, many simply by taking one wrong step.

Since organised demining began in 1992, about 252 square kilometres (97 square miles) have been cleared. Roughly 2,900 square kilometres (1,120 square miles) of mine-infested land remains. At the current rate, the country will not be cleared of mines for another 150 years.

The first landmines were laid in the mid-1960s as Cambodia was drawn into the war in Indochina. Vietnamese communists opened supply routes through the country to help troops battle the US-supported Ngo Dinh Diem regime, and then US and South Vietnamese troops made incursions into Cambodia to retaliate.

After the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime headed by Pol Pot seized power in 1975, they used landmines extensively for military purposes and to seal off their Maoist-inspired agricultural collectives as they oversaw the deaths of up to two million people through starvation, torture and overwork.

Aki Ra — he dropped his birth name Oun Yak when a Japanese UN worker later gave him the nickname Akira — was born around 1973, and his parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge a few years later. He was conscripted as a child soldier and spent his childhood learning how to lay mines, fire guns and rocket launchers and make explosives.

"Sometimes I was so hungry that I would eat the earth. I ate coal. I ate insects, any kind, and many times I was sick," he recalls matter-of-factly, a quick smile frequently breaking across his face. "We would drink any kind of water we could get, even water with the blood of the people in it."

In 1979, Vietnamese troops ousted the ultra-Maoist rulers, who had sought to turn the country into their version of an agrarian utopia, but Khmer Rouge remnants retained control in some areas and waged a devastating guerrilla war.

Aki Ra’s village was eventually captured by the Vietnamese and, at gunpoint, he was conscripted to work for them.

"It was still similar — dangerous — but a little bit better because there was more food. We could kill anything — cows, chickens, dogs, and we could eat them. But still, many people died," he says.

He started defusing mines to use the TNT they contained for fishing, or to sell to soldiers from neighbouring Thailand.

"We cleared a lot and when we had one pickup truck full of TNT, they would give us 2,000 or 3,000 baht," which was then about 80 to 120 dollars, he recalls.

Afterwards he was sent to work on "K5", a mammoth plan involving at least 150,000 workers trying to seal Cambodia’s 700-kilometre long, malaria-infested border with Thailand, using probably millions of mines.

"I taught them how to lay mines and booby traps. I was only 13 or 14 but I was a teacher, training older people," Aki Ra says.

Soon after the arrival of UN peacekeeping troops in 1992, the young soldier entered Siem Reap town for the first time.

"I had only known a life in the jungle and we lived without electricity, toilets and roads. Even transport was a whole new world to me," he writes in a short photocopied memoir sold at the museum.

"For a while I thought I was either dreaming or had been transported to another planet."

Aki Ra, who left the Vietnamese army when they pulled out in 1989, later found work with the influx of UN workers, and with his extensive knowledge of mines naturally gravitated to demining.

"I knew more than the UN knew," he says in a manner more matter-of-fact than boastful. Their techniques, however, were completely different.

"The UN taught demining with a metal detector. They taught not to touch the mines. They destroyed them using a lot of protection. I cleared with my feet, with sticks, with knives. I touched them to take the detonator out. Easy."

Using Japanese, English and French language skills learned while with working the UN, Aki Ra became a tour guide at Angkor Wat, but the mines had got under his skin. He hit on the idea of opening a museum to educate tourists, and in 1997 bought a small parcel of land that was, of course, embedded with mines. He cleared the land himself.

"I opened it to teach people. Please don’t play with them, don’t touch, and don’t use landmines. Don’t make war in the future, it’s bad," he says.

But the authorities were not happy and in 2000 shut him down, saying he would scare people away from Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s top tourist attraction.

Aki Ra was thrown into jail for possessing dangerous weapons and his collection was confiscated. He says he avoided 10 years in jail by paying 3,000 dollars, which he cobbled together by selling off a small plot of land and borrowing.

"One year later they opened their own museum and showed everything taken from here. I asked: Why are we dangerous and bad, but you good? I’m not rich and powerful, but I’ve done this myself."

He says he now pays police — who are accused of rampant corruption in Cambodia — around 50 to 100 dollars a month to let him stay open and welcome the 50 or so tourists who drop by daily.

"They don’t talk about being wrong, or bad, or good, they just talk about money. They don’t want me to explain to tourists, to talk to journalists."

The police chief of Siem Reap district, Phing Chendarith, says he was never aware the museum had reopened and scoffs at Aki Ra’s claim to have collected the mines there himself.

"He’s telling people lies. He’s telling this to tourists in order to make a business … Maybe he just collects the equipment from scavengers," the police chief says, while conceding that the surrounding countryside is still strewn with mines.

"Maybe even in the next 10 years we won’t be able to collect them all."

Today Aki Ra and his wife, Hourt, are focusing on bringing up 20 mine-affected children along with their own sons, Amatak, aged three, and Mine, aged eight months. Some are orphans, others have chosen to stay with him with their parents’ consent.

"I want them to read and write, to have good knowledge in the future. Some of them want to be deminers, some farmers or teachers."

This year he also opened a small "gallery" near Siem Reap’s bustling old market, where tourists browse mine-awareness posters and can buy souvenirs. The children, aged nine to 16, perform songs there every other evening.

One of them is Poiy Yin, 15, who lost his left leg to a landmine as he walked in a field with his mother. He says he came to stay with Aki Ra when a nearby non-government organisation (NGO) that had promised him a prosthesis failed to deliver.

"I’d like to follow my teacher to be a deminer too. Mr Aki Ra taught me that to be a deminer, first you have to be strong, to not be afraid. Second, you have to know how to recognise the mines and then to defuse them."

Aki Ra now spends about five days a month out in the fields and jungles of the most heavily mined provinces along the border with Thailand, steadily clearing whatever he can, despite being denied a formal license to do so.

"My life was always jungle and mines. I can’t stop," he shrugs. "Now it’s safe, it’s peaceful. I never feel worried. During the war, we had to keep an eye out for the enemy, we had guns. Now we can just focus on the mines," he says, adding that he’d be happy to work for a demining NGO.

"They don’t need people anymore. They don’t have enough money to do more."

The world gave Cambodia 17 million dollars to help clear mines in 2003, down on the 27 million dollars it gave a year earlier as donor attention apparently shifted elsewhere.

Aki Ra also teaches desperate villagers how to clear their own land, with the NGOs unable to keep up with demand as Cambodia’s 13 million people clamour for space to grow crops.

The mines "blow up their friends, their cows get blown up, so they want the land cleared fast, today or this year. When they tell the NGOs, the NGOs come and put signs up", says Aki Ra.

"They wait for many years. The people don’t want to wait anymore."

Woman with wow

You can’t not recognise Kathaleeya McIntosh’s face. She co-hosts a popular talkshow, stars in a soap opera, emcees at all the right parties and squeezes in some modelling in between. Even if you’re the type who sticks to reading newspapers, you’ve probably seen her there too, in her role as an envoy for Unicef.

And that’s just the visible side of 29-year-old Kathaleeya’s work. Behind the scenes, she helps out her elder brother by nearly three years, Willie, at his production company. "It’s good to be using my degree," she says, referring to her bachelors in business and arts from ABAC. "It’s very different from everything else I’m doing now – it’s a job you get because of brains, not beauty. "

It’s true that Kathaleeya – Mam to her friends – got her start in modelling thanks to her beauty. But for longevity in such a fickle business, brains have to be part of the package. And in conversation with her, it’s clear she’s got both.

Kathaleeya, born of a Scottish father and Thai mother, was spotted one day when picking her brother up from a modelling job, but was still wearing braces. By the time she was 16 they were off and she made her magazine modelling debut. A year later she started appearing in advertisements.

Acting was a natural progression, although she first balked at the thought. With two months of acting lessons to give her a basic grounding, she hit the screen, and was soon enjoying her new job. Today she appears on soap La Korn – and preparing and shooting for it can take up to four days a week of her time.

Her emceeing career took off next. She was approached by the owner of talkshow programme Samakom Chomdao, who asked if she would be interested in being an emcee, hosting with another woman. "We’d be the first TV program in Thailand hosted by two women," she recalls.

Kathaleeya was interested – and the show has now just entered its fifth year. It’s one of her more challenging jobs. "It’s challenging, yes, and it’s also a lot of fun. In other roles I act, but for the talkshow, as a host, I’m myself," she says in her slightly-American accent. "The challenge is that every time you meet someone different, you find yourself in a different situation – everyone has a different way of thinking, a different attitude to life."

Another recent challenge has been her role as a Unicef envoy, working with former prime minister Anand Panyarachun to raise awareness and funds for Unicef projects. She took on a year-long contract in November 2000, and has just renewed it.

In mid-2001, her work took her to visit HIV/AIDS patients, as well as children orphaned by AIDS, in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai . "It was very sad… There was one woman who was a mother in her 30s who looked 50. The neighbours told me that she had been very sick, and had been lying on her chair for two weeks without going anywhere. So I went to talk to her. I told her ‘We’ve come to visit you, we want to try and cheer you up a little bit.’ "

The neighbours asked her if she recognised Kathaleeya. "She said yes. I told her I’d come back and visit her again, to please be here when I came back. From the car I waved to her as we left, and she stood up and held on to the fence to wave back. The neighbours were amazed because she had just been sitting there for weeks without getting up."

Her experience has affected the way she thinks about some things. "As a girl, you know, I like to shop. I like to spend money on clothes, shoes, bags… But now I realise that it’s not really necessary to buy all these things. You can save some of your money and give it to people who need it much more than you. Why not spare some, give some extra to them?"

As we talk, we’re occasionally interrupted by a stylist who’ll dab on some extra lip gloss, move Kathleeya’s hair behind her shoulder or readjust the way her dress is sitting. She’s too focused to even notice, let alone lose her train of thought.

Kathaleeya’s long-term goal might not be what you’d expect. In ten years, she says she can see herself owning a kindergarten for maybe fifty children. "I love being with kids. And in terms of work, a kindergarten’s an innocent thing to be involved with – it’s not like working for a very big company, trying to get to the top. I’d much prefer to be with kids."

In the meantime, one place you probably won’t see Kathaleeya is on the nightclub social circuit. "I don’t go out often at night. I love sleeping more! I’d prefer to spend, say, five days diving in Malaysia, Indonesia, or the Similans – anywhere. I’d prefer that to going out at night. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke."

Scuba diving is a hobby Kathaleeya has recently taken up, although she enjoys any sport. "I’m not like a champion – I’m not very good at sports, I’m just average, but I love playing golf, swimming…"

There’s no man in her life at the moment. "Work takes up all my time. But of course, at the age of 29 –there are people coming into my life all the time… I just haven’t decided yet!"

What does she think of Thai men in general? "Oh, that’s a very difficult question! Generally I think they’re very nice – but the one thing I don’t understand is why so many of them have to have second, third, fourth houses…"

"You mean with wives in them?" I prompt.

"Yes! I really don’t understand that."

As for Thai women in Thai society, Kathaleeya thinks the best way forward is for them to work together with men. "Nowadays more women are working, they’re more independent. Thai men are still a little bit old-fashioned and prefer a woman to be behind them. But women can be cleverer than men — which can make it difficult for couples.

"Women don’t need to be in front or behind, but together with men. Sometimes a man needs a woman; sometimes a woman needs a man. We need to help each other get ahead, be better people."

So far in life, Kathaleeya says what she enjoys most about being a woman is dressing up, making up, being given permission to look good. "But my mother and some of my friends who’ve had babies say that there’s nothing like being pregnant for nine months, and delivering a child… They think every woman should have that experience."

Kathaleeya might be happy to load on the makeup for work, but she doesn’t wear a skerrick of it when she’s on her own time. "Sometimes people will say to me ‘Hey! Is this you? No, no, no! You look like her but you’re not!"

For a woman with such a ubiquitous face, a natural disguise is perhaps only a good thing.

Yuki Srikarnchana: Marking time

Some people know what they want in life, and they chase their ambition relentlessly. Others, it’s reassuring to know, take their time when it comes to finding their passion.

For Yuki Srikarnchana, taking her time has had something of a literal meaning. Since 1992, she’s beenthe managing director of exclusive watch retailers Pendulum. Locals with a taste for the luxurious frequent Pendulum’s three outlets, which stock more than ten international renowned brands, and the company also represent Bvlgari in Thailand.

It’s a multimillion baht business, but Yuki emphasises the sedate nature of the industry. “Watches are not very exciting business! It’s not fast-moving in the way that soething like IT is,” she says. Nevertheless, it’s a business she has grown to love, despire the road there taking some sharp diversions.

Yuki was born in Japan and grew up living around the world: Indonesia, Germany and the UK, where she received a bachelor of arts in drama and film studies. It was a childhood that taught Yuki and her siblings a lot. “We were exposed to different cultures, and therefore growing up we learned to interact with people from other cultures,” she says. “We learned not to feel shy or nervous when meeting foreigners.”

Armed with her degree, Yuki came back to Thailand when she was 21, but her Thai language skills had suffered while living as a global nomad, so she gave up hopes of teaching drama, and instead followed in her father’s footsteps into the banking world.

The experiment lasted two years. “I just knew that it wasn’t for me. So I moved on. I went to the Shangri La hotel when it first opened, which was a big change. It was faster, and more sales oriented.”

After a year there, however, Yuki found she was still not feeling fulfilled. She answered an advertisement for account executives at advertising agency Leo Burnett, and despite a lack of experience, was offered a position. “It was more of what’s me. It was very challenging, very fast-moving and more action- oriented.”

She stayed there happily for more than two years, then married and started a family. She worked part time after the birth of her first daughter, now aged 12, but following the birth of her second daughter, now aged 11, she left permanently.

“Pendulum came along after I’d been at home for around three years,” Yuki says. “I got a call froma friend whose husband was opening a watch retail shop, and they needed someone to take care of the business. The rest is history!”

In fact, the birth of Pendulum began when ML Chaiyotid Kridakorn (brother of Suriyothai actress ML Piyapas Bhirombakdi) was buying a Patek Phillipe watch in Singapore. He ended up falling into conversation with the shop owner and confided his dream of opening a niche-market retail shop in Bangkok, where the market had not yet been cornered.

Pendulum opened its first outlet two years later in the Peninsula Plaza. “It was very, very well-received. Our product mix was very strong, so people were very interested – especially men who enjoyed watches.”

Originally the mix was about 80% men’s watches, and 20% jewellery, but that’s now changed to be a 60/40 split as the female market has matured. Nevertheless, serious collectors remain largely male. “Each brand brings out something new every year, so there is always something to tempt collectors,” says Yuki, adding that spending upwards of Bt500,000 is not unusual for those making a serious investment.

There were less than a handful of staff back in 1992; now there are more than 60 employees.

Yuki describes being responsible for Pendulum as the biggest challenge of her career. There were plenty of sleepless nights, she says, worrying about everything from personnel to to operations to money matters. “If something goes wrong, even though you’re not directly responsible for it, it’s still your responsibility. You do get used to it, and better at it. I’m still learning, and you learn from your mistakes.”

At a personal level, the hardest thing at the start for Yuki was leaving her children behind. “I had been there for 24 hours a day, so it was difficult for them … I really didn’t think I’d survive. But after the shop had been open for around six months, everything started falling into place.”

Around that time, Yuki fell pregnant with her third daughter, now eight, but this time she didn’t give up work. “She was a very easy baby. I think you feel more relaxed by then as well – but to get to that stage, that was very difficult.”

Yuki wants her daughters to choose careers with passion. “Then you’ll do your job well. If you don’t have passion, you won’t feel fulfilled.”

It’s advice that Yuki takes to hear when it comes to managing Pendulum. She has surrounded herself with staff she describes as passionate and dedicated, and she emphasises the importance of teamwork and respect in her office.

In a word, Yuki’s management style is casual. “I encourage people to walk around, to talk to each other. I don’t have meetings. If people don’t come in to sit and talk to me, I’ll go out and talk to them. I believe if your colleagues interact well, if they’re happy, if there are good vibes, then the company will progress.”

To be a good manager, Yuki thinks, you need to know how to be a subordinate. Other important qualities are good judgement, and good listening skills. “And as a manager, you should project a very positive attitude, no matter what your mood. You might have family problems, or the company might be in trouble, but you have to be very strong. If you give up, your staff will lose their motivation.”

Indeed, the business has had its ups and downs – the same as any luxury import business in Thailand. Difficulties have included fluctuating taxes and currencies, and the vagaries of the business cycle. “People don’t really need watches, so sales ride with the economy. When the economy is bullish, people of course spend more,” Yuki explains.

So of course, as for many Thai businesses, the crash period of 1997 onwards was the worst. “We lost a lot of customers, and for qutie a long time. It was horrible. We were really having thoughts about whether we would survive.”

But survive they did. How?

Yuki believes it was the company’s style of operations. “We were always very conservative, and we didn’t dream too big. We didn’t have any big offices. We didn’t have an oversupply of staff.” In fact, despite concerns of survival, not a single staff member was laid off, and staff turnover remains very low.

Now that the business is “very much in place now”, Yuki salvages some time to relax when she can. “I have a very simple life these days. I don’t really have a night life. I go home, see my children. My relaxation is really just watching TV.”

Yuki also finds solace in spending her weekends cooking. Or you might spot her with her family at their favourite Japanese restaurant (it’s Gengi at the Hilton) or less frequently somewhere French or Italian.

On the subject of a favourite watch, Yuki shows her diplomacy by declining to answer. “I have lots of favourite watches! It depends on my mood, on my dress. If I’m wanting something dressy, I’ll go for something with diamonds, if sporty, something casual.”

Regardless of what she does choose, it’s clear that Yuki’s enjoying having the time of her life.

Speaking his mind

Chanin Donavanik might be impressed with the Thaksin administration’s vision for improving Thailand’s tourism industry, but he’s not happy with the way things have gone so far. "They have a good vision but they have not implemented the vision well. Instead of trying to solve problems, they’ve made them worse."

So what has the executive director of Dusit Thani PCL and president of the Thai Hotels Association done? "I have complained to the government already," he says.

Going on Chanin’s past experience, they would do well to listen. A willingness to constructively criticise — and get positive results – has been a leitmotif of the 45-year-old’s life. "A lot of my problems are created because I don’t try to please people," he confesses.

At first it seems difficult to imagine this softly-spoken, unassuming man breaking with entrenched Thai traditions. But Chanin thinks deliberately and chooses his words carefully before speaking; it’s easy to deduce that he?s been a persistent voice of reason in business rather than a young and loud upstart.

And his persistence has pulled the company through hard times.

Chanin had originally embarked on an academic career at Chulalongkorn University’s faculty of commerce and accounting, after spending ten years studying in the UK and the US, where he completed an MBA. He returned to Bangkok in 1979, aged just 22. Soon the recession of the early 80s hit, and the business founded by his mother, faced with the competition of new international hotels, began to flounder. Filial duty called.

Was it a difficult transition from academia to the business world? "A little bit," he says. "I had been teaching a lot of theory about what to do and what not to do in business but the real world is different — especially in Thailand."

The biggest challenge he faced, however, was overcoming prejudice about his age. "It was difficult to make older people — not just my mother and the board, but anyone who had twenty, thirty years experience – realise that someone young can still contribute."

Chanin took control of business development, and with the help of hotelier friends in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Japan, he began to see the Dusit’s future taking shape. "[These friends] saw me as someone young and when they travelled to places sometimes they’d invite me along. I learned that the Dusit would have to change if we wanted to improve ourselves."

The company focused on improving its food and beverage services, and increased the size of guests’ rooms. By 1985 the hotel had opened a branch in Chiang Mai, and Pattaya, Phuket and Chiang Rai soon followed. In 1992 the company bought into its first overseas hotel, in Texas; Indonesia, the Philippines and Europe came next.

"We made a few mistakes," says Chanin. "Here in Thailand we know the mentality of the people. Overseas, when we went to these new places, we were blind: we didn’t know the local customs, what kind of service was expected, what kind of restaurants local people liked. There were always new things to learn. But that made life fun, also."

The 1997 crash saw various partners pull out of deals and the company’s operations were substantially curtailed. Chanin doesn’t think the crisis period is over yet; in fact, he sees business as being one ongoing crisis period. "There’s always some crisis in a business. The crisis of 1997 was financial; today the issue facing the Dusit is working out which way we are going. Would we like to be a small but international-standard operator based in Thailand, or would we like to be a regional player? Should we be competing at the Marriott level or the Hyatt level or the Mandarin Oriental level?"

At the moment, the Dusit faces a few specific difficulties. One is a well-publicised court case over land ownership problems with their Pattaya resort. "We are one hundred per cent — or at least 99 per cent — confident that we should win," says Chanin. Another is negotiating with the Crown Property Bureau to extend the lease on the land underneath the flagship Dusit Thani. "We are having some difficulties talking to them because what they want is very high. We need to negotiate."

But Chanin brushes everything off as manageable. "With any company, there are always problems. The issue is how to make sure that you are working well together, moving forward together."

Chanin warms to a discussion of how Thai organisations can improve themselves. "The trouble with Thai organisations is that a lot of decisions are in the hands of the boss — the top one or two people. We don’t allow our young people to make mistakes; once they don’t know how to make mistakes, they are afraid of making decisions."

As well, Chanin says that senior people are too sensitive of criticism. "That’s why I always fought with a lot of people much more senior than I am: they could never take even a constructive criticism of what they did. It’s always a one-way communication, and it’s wrong. This is what’s destroying Thailand."

Chanin is equally candid when discussing the tourism industry’s problems today, criticising both hoteliers and the government. "Those who want to do well must travel quite a lot, but Thai hoteliers don’t like to travel. And when they do travel, a lot of them stay in hotels that aren’t expensive, and they usually go for Thai or Chinese food when they go to restaurants."

Chanin argues that this is a false economy; instead they should experience top hotels and a variety of restaurants, so they can come back and make improvements themselves. "A lot of people think that I spend too much money when I travel – but it?s the cheapest learning experience there is."

He also believes hoteliers have failed to target themselves to their customers. "The owners have built hotels for themselves – so you see a lot of funny looking hotels everywhere! If they had asked customers what they wanted, they would have told them, something Thai."

As head of the Thai Hotels Association, Chanin has been trying to talk to the government for the last four years. "But the government has not been a very good listener," he laments. "A lot of people think that hotel industry is doing well, but in fact hotels are doing well in seven destinations only: Phuket, Chiang Mai, Samui, Bangkok to a extent, Pattaya, Hua Hin and Krabi. Only 30 per cent of hotels are doing well. Seventy per cent are bleeding very badly."

Chanin believes a major objective of the government should be to solve the internal problems of Thai International, the Tourist Authority of Thailand, and the various aviation authorities. "Unless these tourism-related organisations are working together well, then nothing else will work."

When he’s not thinking up constructive ways of improving his industry, Chanin says he likes to read. "I like to read about what people have done. And philosophy – not business anymore." He’s also been learning golf.

Would the father of three — he has two daughters, aged 12 and 14, and a 16 year old son – recommend this industry to his children? "I like the industry because you meet a lot of people, and you have the opportunity to travel a lot. But if they prefer something else – I’ll leave it up to them. For me the most important thing is that they are happy and really enjoy what they do."

As for his own future, Chanin believes that turning fifty will mark an important step in his life. "In five years, I would like to see us being a good regional hotel company. Then I would like to step back a little bit and hopefully there will be other people who could take care of day-to-day affairs. I would like to work more on policy and strategy; a coaching role."

He would also like to teach more. "But, you know," he confides, a little weary perhaps of the battles he has been fighting for so long, "my dream one day is really to become a monk."

Helen’s newest role

She?s a supermodel, VJ, businesswoman, spokesperson, celebrity, but there?s one role that one of Thailand?s favourite faces isn?t quite used to yet: that of mother.

Helen Berger gave birth to daughter Haley D?iana Berger in May this year. ?Everyone?s asking me, ?How does it feel to be a mother?? I don?t know how to answer that,? she confesses. ?I just don?t feel like a mother yet ? right now she just sleeps and takes my breastmilk. When I hear her say ?mum? then I?ll think, okay, this is the real deal!?

Helen?s a bundle of emotions: happy, excited, tired, worried, angry. Articulate as ever though, she?s keen to recount the birth of Haley, which in a word she describes as ?traumatising?.

?The birth?s story is awful,? she says. ?It was like the worst experience of my life.?

Helen had spent her pregnancy giving interviews promoting natural childbirth and emphasising the importance of a healthy outlook and body throughout pregnancy. But Helen?s visions for the birth of her own child were not to be realised. ?All of a sudden we were in there, going through labour. It had been like six hundred years and the doctor came in and said, ?We recommend a Caesarian.? "

Helen was against the idea and asked for a second opinion, which confirmed the first doctor?s diagnosis. She and husband James consented, and she was then given a choice between having a general anaesthetic or an epidural. Wanting desperately to be awake for the birth, she chose an epidural. ?For nine months I had been planning to hear the baby?s cry and to see my husband?s face at the birth.?

But the last thing she remembers of being pregnant is a desperate feeling of not being able to breathe. ?The next thing I knew I was waking up hours later, flat on my back throwing up. They said ?Here?s your baby.? "

She later found out that the epidural needle had been inserted too far, causing her to pass out. ?I was druggy, wasted ? like your worst, worst, worst hangover. I was not welcoming to the baby ? I was just really annoyed.?

Helen isn?t sure how things managed to go so wrong. ?I?ve been trying to look at it from all angles. It?s only been six weeks since I gave birth; I?m still very sensitive about it. I get very depressed some days because I had planned for so long, really wanting to be pregnant and to be there when she arrived. The whole thing, I missed it.?

Luckily, she says, James had a video camera that recorded the nurses putting the baby on her breast after the birth. ?If I hadn?t seen that connection I don?t know how I?d be feeling. Just seeing that on the video made me think ?OK, at least she knows I?m her mum!? "

Her pregnancy had been normal, although she struggled with morning sickness day and night for the first five months. The biggest change was her weight, which rose steadily during the nine months. ?I gained 40 kilograms,? she says with healthy nonchalance. ?I lost 17 kilograms within the first two weeks after the birth. The rest is kind of steady and will probably stay that way until after I stop breastfeeding.?

As her body changed, so too came the realisation that her life had truly changed. ?I was not out partying, not staying out till the early hours of the morning anymore!?

Changes continued, of course, with the birth. ?It?s true what they say: you do NOT sleep. She sleeps through the night soundly now, but you?re still on alert, still on standby, like your pager will go off any second.?

And the first time she went out for lunch at a restaurant with girlfriends she didn?t make it through. ?The first thing I noticed was people smoking. It had never bothered me before because I used to smoke. But all of a sudden it bothered me a lot – a lot. I had to go home. That mother instinct kicked in.?

Helen and James have eschewed the help of a nanny for at least the first four or five months of Haley?s life. But with James working hard on his fledgling business, Helen has found the load heavy. ?For the first three weeks I was really on my own. I felt depressed and lonely, even though my girlfriends would stop by and see me. You?re confined and you feel like no one knows what you?re going through,? she says. ?But it?s beautiful, the whole thing, as you watch her each day.?

Her mother rang when Haley was three weeks old to tell her she was making a surprise visit. ?I was in tears. I was like, I really need you mum! You should have come yesterday!?

It was a special time for Helen and her mother. During previous visits, Helen says she had always been busy and hadn?t bothered to spend quality time with her. This time was different. ?Talking is all we did. We were inseparable. I felt like we really bonded – it took 30 years for us to really get along. For the past nearly 13 years now [since Helen came to Thailand] we got along, but it was always me looking for my own identity, trying to get away, starting my own life.?

Career plans are on hold now, but Helen will eventually go back to work. At the moment it?s a struggle for Helen to settle on a new image for herself in her own mind. ?I still have this image of myself as a model, personality, VJ. I didn?t want to let go of that; I still don?t want to let go of that. I?m finding it hard.?

Helen says she wonders how people will cope with the fact she?s now a mother. ?You can?t always be that fun, carefree person, pushing people?s buttons and pushing the limits of what people are going to accept in society in their pictures. You have to start taking responsibilities for your actions, for society.?

At least on one front she?s still making a stand. ?I won?t let breastfeeding stop me from going out. It feels so natural. I don?t care what anyone else is thinking and I?m not going to deprive Haley of that.?

In the meantime, Helen?s watching her daughter develop a personality just like her own. ?What goes around comes around,? she laughs. ?She already shows a stubborn streak. I can see that she?s going to be tough. She?s going to be a go-getter. She?s not going to be sit back and be weak.?

The most important qualities she?d like to teach Haley are compassion, kindness and fairness. ?That?s what I want to show her. Not so much teach her but show her, and she?ll learn from that.?

As for her relationship with her husband, Helen says the change a child made to their lives was at first a shock in terms of how little time they get to spend together. ?It?s been tiring, but very rewarding. We look at her and we say ?Oh my gosh we did this!? And we high five each other!?

So will Baby Berger Number Two be on its way some time soon? ?The first week after Haley was born, I was absolutely not going to have anymore children. But now I can see that I would. I think I?ll continue until I?m 35; then I can stop and enjoy it all.?

Relaxing with Rika

Rika Dila doesn’t look like the busy businesswoman and mother of two young sons she is. "I tell people I’m 28," jokes the half Filipino, half-Japanese representative of Sotheby’s in Thailand. "And after a while I start believing it!"

The white lie wouldn’t be difficult for anyone to believe. Rika wears no makeup, but there’s hardly a fine line on her face. Her hair is swept elegantly into a simple pony tail, and she looks relaxed in a crisp lemon shirt, long khaki shorts and flat tan sandals. She sips a ginger tea as she recalls the events in her life that have made her who she is today.

"My parents migrated here together, and I was born here, so I’m Thai," she explains. She attended an international school in Bangkok before heading off to college in the Philippines and then university in Japan, where she majored in economics.

She nearly became a professional golfer along the way, playing on the winning team in the national competition in Japan, and winning the all-Japan collegiate. "I then played one year with the pro tour, but as an amateur. I was really fit, and I was big!" she laughs. "I was 53 or 54 kilos. I’m 42 now. Can you imagine?"

The weight was actually muscle. "During that year, we played almost two rounds a day, and we had to carry out own bags – it’s only in Thailand you have caddies everywhere. I went to the gym at least three or four times a week for serious workouts."

Despite having played competition golf from the age of nine, Rika decided this wasn’t the life she wanted. "I didn’t enjoy it, so I quit when I graduated."

Next came a stint in a Bangkok bank and at a real estate company; then she started working for jewellery company Bulgari. "I opened and managed the shop. I was there for almost eight years," she says. She got married, and fell pregnant with her first child. "I quit a week before I gave birth."

When her second child was about a year old, she was approached to be the Sotheby’s representative in Thailand. "I worked out of my house until we became more known here. I loved it because I could just wear my jammies and come downstairs and work at my computer," she recalls. Now the prestigious auction house has an office at the Sukhothai Hotel. "And I wear proper clothes to work!"

Her days usually end in the early afternoon, when she goes to pick up her children. "But we get really busy four times a year when we look for goods going for auction. Then I work a full day, until 8 or 9pm, looking for clients or going to clients’ homes."

In between work and caring for her children, Rika maintains a fitness regime. "I used to do yoga, but it took a full two hours to go through the whole routine," she says, adding that eventually she couldn’t spare the time. "I tried to go to the gym, and alternated between running and lifting weights, but I found that just lifting weights was boring."

The solution arrived in the form of a personal trainer. "Now I do boxing and kicking. I’m not doing it for self-defense purposes, I just do it for exercise. I enjoy it a lot, and practise two to three times a week."

Rika says she’s usually a very happy-go-lucky person, but she does occasionally get stressed out when she comes across a problem she can’t solve. Writing can be a release for her. "I take the kids to the park and I try to write. Or I write when I have things to think about at night, or I can’t sleep but I don’t want to read. But lately when I’m really stressed out I notice that I’ve just been falling asleep!"

Otherwise to relax she listens to music, or reads. She confesses to keeping to books that entertain rather than educate. "I read junk! I love reading about serial killers and I love ghost stories. I’m reading Thai novels now."

When it comes to skincare, Rika’s dedicated. Her daily routine involves washing with a soap-free cleanser and applying lotion in the morning, and cleansing in the evening too. "On alternate days I use a soft sponge to sponge down my face."

She also goes for a vitamin A and C treatment about twice a month. "It feels good while they’re doing it – but I don’t really see any visible difference."

To maintain her body’s skin, she scrubs regularly. "I love to scrub! Once or twice a week I scrub." On top of that, she tries to get to a salon every fortnight for a scrub, sauna, milk bath and oil massage.

Rika’s makeup style is dependent on her mood. "Usually I skip foundation and just put on some blush – I use a lot of blush now. When I was younger I didn’t, but now I feel like my face doesn’t have enough colour."

She generally doesn’t bother with mascara, but adds some lip gloss or lipstick and a little eyeliner. "My lip colour really depends on my mood too. Now I’m in more of a pink mood, but usually I stick with brick reds and purplish reds."

"I spend more time and more money on products for my hair than my face," says Rika. She colours her own hair – "I have a lot of grey" – and gets occasional trims from her stylist.

At home she uses a weekly oil mask before washing. "I leave it on for three minutes, then I wash it and condition it. Sometimes I leave in the conditioner after I wash – I just wrap my hair up in a towel for twenty to thirty minutes, and put a mask on my face too."

Rika doesn’t smoke, but she does drink. "A lot!" she laughs, adding that she usually sticks to white spirits and the occasional red wine. "I went to the Regent the other day and tried vodka and cranberry juice. It’s my new drink now!"

A mad time for Mamee

It’s a hectic time for Naphakpapha "Mamee" Nakprasit. Still reeling from the recognition that her role in Mae Bia has brought, the 20 year-old actress has just finished her second film, Butterfly Man, and is about to head to the US to shoot her second TV drama. In fact, Mamee needs to call several times on the day of the interview to change the time we’re going to meet. She’s been trying to sort out her visa to the US. "I’m very nervous about going," she confides through an interpreter. "I’m worried that my English is not going to be good enough to get by!"

Given the dramatic changes Mamee has managed to live through the past few years, however, she shouldn’t have any problems battling a new language for a few weeks. She’s come a long way from nowhere; and she still sounds like she doesn’t quite believe how things started.

"I was walking along Silom Road when a talent scout from Traffic Jam spotted me and encouraged me to enter the Elite Model Look Thailand competition," she says. With her large, unusual almond eyes, fine bones and tumbling long hair, it’s hardly surprising that she caught a scout’s eye. She was 17 at the time; she entered the competition and came third. Elite agency’s staff, however, told her that she was a little on the short side for modelling, and that acting would probably be a more promising long-term vocation for her.

"So it all began on Silom Road!" Mamee says a little incredulously.

Although she had never harboured any desires to be an actress – "I always wanted to be up on the catwalk" – Mamee was interested in the agency’s suggestion. She headed upcountry for a meditation retreat, where a Buddhist nun recommended that she change her name if she really wanted to achieve success as an actress. She heeded the advice, and on the day of a lunar eclipse, adopted the name Naphakpapha while relinquishing her old name, Prapa. "And I believe that’s led to my success so far."

Indeed, soon after the name-change she was cast in her first role, as the conservative Islamic girl Panjai in Silk Knot, the TV series dramatising Jim Thompson’s life. Hot on the heels of that role came her second – as the sensual seductress Mekhla in Mae Bia. "My character in Mae Bia was very erotic and sexy," Mamee explains, as if there was some chance anyone living in Thailand could have avoided that knowledge over the past few months. "She wasn’t like me at all. It was very difficult."

It was also awkward for the actress, who comes from a large family of seven children in total, to watch the film with her professional body-building father. "My father couldn’t believe that it was his daughter actually on the screen," she says. "It was quite embarrassing!"

The film took a year to make. It’s said that the hardest things in showbiz to work with are children and animals; Mamee confirms that the three-metre cobra sharing star billing along with her and her co-star Puthichai Amatayakul, was an absolute handful. "The cobra was very unpredictable – we didn’t know when it would be happy or upset," she says. "We just had to wait for the cobra to show its hood and sometimes it simply wouldn’t. I would wai it, to show it respect and try to encourage it to interact with me."

It was not only a difficult co-star – it was a dangerous one too. "But I didn’t worry too much. I respected the handler we had on the set. He had 30 years experience working in Pattaya, and claimed he had never been bitten, so I trusted him. Plus we had medical staff, an ambulance and serum on standby."

There was only one incident where the serum came close to being used. "In one scene, I had to talk to the snake so I was very close to it. I had to move, too, and knew that could have upset the snake. In that shot, the handler was actually holding the snake off-camera – but it still took a strike. Luckily, cobras tend to strike low and at the same time, the handler pulled the cobra away, so it missed. I was quite frightened."

It so unnerved her that she had to take a break – for five minutes.

Despite the renown that Mae Bia has brought, Mamee doesn’t think the film indicates anything special about her acting ability. "I need to perform in many more roles, and in many different kinds of characters, before I can say that I’m a successful actress."

But it has made her face instantly recognisable. "I need to smile all the time when I’m out – I now belong to this society of actors who people recognise."

Butterfly Man, in which an Englishman falls in love with a masseuse (Mamee) on Ko Samui, will soon hit the screens, but it was more fun than a challenge to Mamee. "It fitted me really well. I didn’t need to do much acting; the role and my natural character matched well."

Offers for other films are now flowing in – Mamee reads the scripts herself – but few of them are for what she calls ordinary roles. "They tend to be a bit extreme, leaning towards the erotic after Mae Bia."

She’d like most to appear in an action film next – something like the Chinese movie The Professionals – would be right up her alley. While she’s yet to take up any martial arts, she has been studying yoga for nearly a year. The casting agent for Mae Bia originally encouraged her to take it up after passing a critical eye over her body. "I have a teacher who has been teaching me specific positions to help me improve my muscle tone in particular areas," she says. "I have lost weight, plus I like it. I do it every night before going to bed." Meditation is on the agenda, but at the moment Mamee just doesn’t have time. "I’m working from 7 in the morning through to midnight. There’s no time for anything else!"

And that includes a boyfriend. She cites The Professional’s Lee Ong and Tom Hanks as men she finds interesting, but adds that looks aren’t important to her. "A sense of humour is the one thing I look for in a man."

But Mamee does have time to offer some words of encouragement to young aspiring thespians. "To those individuals who are interested in entering this industry, I would like to say: I started from the bottom and made it. You could too. So don’t give up!" And, perhaps, consider changing your name.

Candid with Kara

Don’t bother asking Kara Polasit about what elegance means to her; she’s the human embodiment of it. The height, posture and understated dress of the popular model, MC, TV host and actress, reflect a person who’s got style but who doesn’t need to flaunt it. If you do ask her what makes an elegant woman, however, she’ll try to answer: "She’s someone who dresses well, but that doesn’t mean she has to wear the most expensive stuff – she just looks nice from head to toe. She walks well, sits well. It’s just something that comes from inside, something that other people can see, without her having to do too much."

As if to confirm Kara’s elegance, Longines recently announced that they have signed her to be their ambassador for the next year. With their slogan "Elegance is an attitude," Kara seems like an obvious choice. "I’m very honoured that they chose me to represent their meaning of elegance," she says. "Overseas they use images of Audrey Hepburn, so for them to use my image in Thailand, it makes me feel rather special."

This month, after seeing Kara on their TV screens and in magazines for years, fans will finally have an opportunity to see Kara’s elegance on the big screen. She’ll be playing the role of Kiratee in Behind the Painting, the cinematic adaptation of the classic Thai novel. It’s her first-ever acting role. "A few movie and TV series-people have contacted me over the years, but I never felt confident. I always thought that I couldn’t act, and I’m the type where if I’m not confident in something, I don’t want to do it – so I always said no."

That changed in October 1999 when an employee of Khun Chern, the director of Behind the Painting, contacted her to tell her that he wanted her to play that role. "I was going to say no, as usual, " she says. But the person just asked her to read the original novel to see what she thought – there was no script at that stage. She agreed to that much.

In the novel, Kiratee is from a "semi-royal" family, and by age 35 she’s still not married. An elderly man asks for her hand in marriage, and she accepts to make her father happy. The newlyweds honeymoon in Japan, and there Kiratee falls in love with Noporn , a Thai student 12 years her junior. She returns to Thailand, and several years later Noporn comes back too. The ending won’t be ruined here, but needless to say, it’s a sad story – and Kara loved it. "It’s an emotional type of story – she’s so much in love with him, but she can’t show it," she says. "Any woman who reads this will think it’s so romantic and tragic, but it’s written in a really nice way. It’s not a soap opera-type thing."

Kara decided she wanted the role. During the five month wait between accepting the role and the beginning of filming, she didn’t take acting lessons on the instructions of Khun Chern, who believes they can hinder a person’s natural ability to act. When she finally saw the script, she says she started to panic. "The words were so long! Kiratee speaks in such a beautiful way – I mean no one these days would talk like that, but I was going to have to talk like that! I thought, my god, how am I going to remember all this?"

The first part of the filming occurred in Japan over twelve days, where mostly shooting scenery occurred. The hard work started when the cast and crew got back to Thailand – and Kara discovered how difficult it was to make herself cry on demand. "With lighting, the heat, nothing seems sad anymore!" And there were the long hours. "We would work sometimes from 5am to 5 am the next day, have a few hours sleep, and then work again until 3am the next day. I just felt so exhausted, but it’s strange – if you’re enjoying something, you get a second wind and can go further, even if you haven’t slept at all."

Despite the satisfaction of filming, Kara says she would be reluctant to do it again. "I don’t think I enjoyed it that much! I think if the right script comes along, maybe, but it’s so hard at my age. I’m 35. I don’t think in Thailand you can get good leading roles at this age."

After years of successfully taking chances on her career, it’s not surprising that Kara has chosen to star in a film. Kara began modelling 15 years ago when a friend of her mother’s suggested she give it a go. She had been studying agriculture at the University of Sydney, but was bored. "My mother said, ‘I don’t think Kara would want that, because she’s a very shy person’ … when she told me, I thought, well, maybe I could try."

It wasn’t long before she left academia behind and was doing fashion shows in Sydney. Then she visited her father, who was living in Bangkok, and ended up on the cover of Lalinah magazine – an easy job compared to life treading the boards as a model in Sydney. She decided to move here. "At that time, models in Thailand weren’t tall – I was the only tall one – and Eurasian was just about to be the hot thing," says the Thai-New Zealander.

She hit the circuit and did very well. "But after a few years, I thought: I’ve done every magazine, every show, I want to try something else." She tried Italy, but didn’t like it. Then came three successful years working in Singapore, followed by a few months in Japan, with stints in Bangkok in between. Next came TV work, which a friend talked her into. "It was so funny, the first few times, whatever I said was very short, very brief. when my co-host said something I would say ‘Yes!’ and then my co-host would say something else and I would say ‘Yes!’ " Now the seasoned host has some twenty-odd programs under her belt, and is in continuing demand both for television and MC work.

But unlike many other prominent names in the industry, Kara has had a scandal-free existence. She’s a home-centred person – she keeps four cats and five dogs – although she hastens to emphasise that she does get out and about. "When I’m at home, I feel like I can relax. When I see my cats and dogs, I feel as if all my worries have disappeared. But I like to go outside – just not at night. I go to the movies, shopping, go for a facial, body massage."

And, incredibly, she’s single. "I don’t want to be single, but that’s the way it is. I’ve been involved with other people at times, but each time it didn’t work out. I was with one boyfriend for four and a half years – it was quite nice and wonderful, but I was younger then, and actually I’m a hot-tempered person, and I have to have my way! He let me have my way for four and a half years, but then he met someone else." They remained on good terms.

"After that I was involved with two other people, but briefly and it didn’t work out – and everytime I break up with someone it’s such a big thing for me. Also, as I get older, I’ve just become more fussy." But it’s not looks Kara is fussy about. "When I was younger, he’d have to be tall, handsome – now I don’t think that looks have anything to do with it. It’s just a feeling you get when talking to someone. But I don’t often get that feeling anymore it seems!"

So while both Kara and the character of Kiratee are single at 35, it seems the differences end there. Kara is getting on with her independent life. With elegance.

An equal partnership

He’s the youngest son of Chokchai Bulakul – Thailand’s best-known cowboy – so it’s not surprising that he looks perfectly comfortable in a cowboy hat, white T-shirt, blue jeans, and well-worn leather boots. Neither is it surprising that his fiance – and by the time you’re reading this, his wife – looks utterly chic wearing something very similar.

He’s the youngest son of Chokchai Bulakul – Thailand’s best-known cowboy – so it’s not surprising that he looks perfectly comfortable in a cowboy hat, white T-shirt, blue jeans, and well-worn leather boots. Neither is it surprising that his fiance – and by the time you’re reading this, his wife – looks utterly chic wearing something very similar.

Meet Chai Bulakul, executive director of the Chokchai Ranch Group, 30, and Prim, former national tennis champion and model, 23.

We meet at the Chokchai Ranch at Pak Chong, Nakhon Ratchasima, where Chai spent the first four or five years of his life and much of his later childhood. It’s Thailand’s largest dairy farm, with around 5,000 cows kept on 20,000 rai. Around 70 racehorses and numerous other animals call the ranch home too.

But although Chai looks a natural – he even started to ride before he could walk – he’s not caught up in a cowboy dream. "Being a cowboy is not a big thing to me. It was a fun thing when I was younger, but I never thought ‘I want to grow up to be a cowboy!’

"I don’t have a background in cows!" he adds. "My brother went to university in Vermont to study animals, herd management and so on. I took a different route. I’m a butcher man. I spend most of my time cutting steaks." In fact, Chai spends most of his time working with the people who look after the Chokchai steakhouses.

Educated in Australia and the US, Chai speaks with an American accent softened by an Australian clip. The road to the family business took some time, with Chai first concentrating on film. "Right after I graduated in advertising, I worked for the family business for six or seven months. Then I worked for a company called P& C, a production house. From there I became really interested in film-making. So I got a job in casting, then in the grip department, and then I was an assistant director for maybe two years. Then I decided to go to film school."

Chai went to UCLA for three and a half years, studying directing, acting and cinematography. He has made several short films, and still shoots, but on video now rather than film. "Thailand has such a small industry. To shoot on 16 mm means you’ll have almost have no chance of editing it. Digital film is a lot easier and cheaper, and the kind of thing I can do and back edit on computer… Hopefully one day I’ll make a movie about steaks and being a butcher!"

But when we meet, Chai is being kept busy with the opening of the Ranch to the public, which was due to take place on December 21.

"We’ll have tours," Chai explains. "We’ll have like a trailer pulling each group of around 50 or 60 people around. We’ll start with a video presentation about how my dad started off, and some history of beef cattle." Guests will also be treated to a lecture on how cows breed, and they’ll be able to see firsthand how cows are milked, and how the milk gets from the cow to the table.

As well, he’s being kept busy with preparations for his and Prim’s wedding, also scheduled for December.

Prim appears at first to be the quieter of the two, but it doesn’t take long to realise she’s chatty and even a little bit mischievous.

She first became a well-known face at age 16 when she became a national tennis champion. When did she stop playing? "Right after that!!" she laughs.

She had reluctantly started playing when she was eight years old. "I didn’t really like it, but my mother really wanted me to play. So I kept playing until I was about 14 or 15 years old, when I told her I didn’t want to play anymore. She said fine, but you’ll have to give something back to me in return. Around that time I changed coaches, and started to enjoy playing a lot. And then I won! So I quit after that!"

Prim then concentrated on her studies so she could get into university. And she started modelling just before she stopped playing tennis; she was in the right place at the right time. "An agency needed a model who could play tennis to advertise a cream for sports injuries," she explains.

"So finally, tennis paid off!!" Chai jokes.

After studying communications and advertising as ABAC, Prim is now modelling full-time. She was thinking about studying for her masters, but Chai’s proposal changed all that. How did he propose?

"Oh I wouldn’t want that published!!" Chai says with a laugh.

So how did they meet three years ago?

"Through tennis," says Chai. "I used to go to the Polo Club to jog and do things like that, but I started to get bored. I wanted to start playing with other people. So I played tennis with some girl friends at the Polo Club because playing with guys…" he says, shaking his head, admitting he wasn’t up to scratch to play against them. "Then I happened to play with Prim, and she was the first girl to beat me. I was quite impressed."

Was he hard to beat? "No!" she says. "But he is improving. I think he’s better than me now." But, Chai confesses, she still beats him – around three times a week.

Prim also had the edge over Chai when it came to dressage. "I was surprised when I met her, because I asked if she could ride and she said yes… We went to dressage classes, which I had never learned before. When I was a kid we just picked a horse, trained it and rode it. When we joined the class, I thought it wouldn’t be too hard. But it was hard! Really hard!"

They speak respectfully of each other when asked what it is that keeps them happy together.

"Prim’s very much herself the whole time. From day one until now. She hasn’t changed a bit," Chai says. "She seems to take care of me very well. I can be quite busy, doing this and that, and she’ll remind me of little things to do… She’s always very supportive."

"I’m so happy with everything that we do together," says Prim. "I think we’re quite different. I’m always relaxed, he tends to be more tense. When we’re together – I don’t know – we just go together! He is also much older than me, and all of the advice that he has given me is correct. I feel that he is my best friend too."

In ten years time, Chai envisages perhaps living on the ranch. "I love this place."

As for Prim, "Well, if he’s around here, I’ll have to be around here too! With several kids, I hope. And because I’ve studied communications, if there’s anything I can do to help the business in that area, then that would be good too."

There’s some time to kill after the interview while we wait for the light to mellow for the photographs, so we’re offered an impromptu tour through the small open zoo that’s just about ready for tourists. There are several chimpanzees and orangutans, small and glistening hippopotami, emus, ostriches, calves, and various colourful birds – plenty to keep people not that interested in fully grown cows entertained.

And when Chai and Prim finally mount their horses to head to a paddock for some shots, they’re so rapt up in each other’s company it’s as if we’re not really there.

Beauty and brains: Areeya ‘Pop’ Chumsai

Areeya ‘Pop’ Chumsai might be best known as a former Miss- Thailand-turned-military-officer, but she’s a journalist by trade and it certainly shows. “I guess you’ll want background information first,” she says thoughtfully when the interview starts. “I’m thinking, how many column inches do we have here? What should be the focal point of the story? I guess we should do this in chronological order, so it’s easier for you…”

This is Pop’s first interview in English for several years. “I haven’t done any interviews lately because there’s been no news really, and I’m usually very busy.”

But the former has changed very recently, with L’Oreal announcing last month that Pop is to be their new ‘ambassador’. Other ambassadors across the globe have included Claudia Schiffer, Andy McDowell and Gong Li. “I’m still in shock over it! I grew up with L’Oreal and the slogan ‘Because I’m worth it!’” she says.

Her first commercial for them, advertising their Plenitude UV Perfect sunblock, will hit televisions this month. The shoot took place outdoors in Malaysia from noon to 6pm for four days, so Pop says she needed the sunblock just to avoid getting a tan during that time: “So I know it’s a high quality product. I wish I’d had UV protection when I was training in the army.”

Such a prestigious appointment has come at the end of a very long road for the Thai woman who grew up in the US state of Michigan – she was the only Asian in her graduating high school class – and was never interested in modelling.

Her family had originally planned to stay just for a few years – they moved there when she was four years old – but ended up settling. “I would come back every two or three years for a visit. When I was about twelve, with braces and all, I came and stayed with my great aunt. She decided that I should start modelling. I was like, ‘Oh, god!’ I was as ugly duckling as could be. I had braces, really thick glasses.”

It wasn’t until she was 17 that the idea of modelling was raised again. Pop had come back to Thailand for several months over summer and Pop’s great aunt arranged for some modelling jobs. “I was a little kid, you know, and the money for modelling was good – better than my allowance. So it just sort of happened.”

Agencies approached her, but she returned to the US and finished high school. “I was always an observer. I spent my time in the library, I read a lot, I started writing, kept a diary.” Unsurprisingly, perhaps, she then won a scholarship to study journalism at the University of Michigan.

By the time she completed her degree at age 21, she had spent several summers completing internships at various publications such USA Today and the LA Times. “As a journalist, every day is an adventure. You meet new people, you’re out of the office, it’s a challenge. You talk to people and you learn something from them. You have to have discipline to take all this information and write it down. It’s like meditation in a way.”

She decided to take a six-month vacation, coming to Thailand and then travelling through Australia, New Zealand, Bali, Singapore and Hong Kong. She came back to Thailand with three months to go and little money left. Her lack of experience prevented her from landing a job in journalism, so she returned to modelling.

Then her great aunt noticed that the Miss Thailand pageant was happening. “I don’t like pageants, to tell you the truth. I’d never entered a pageant in my life. I just don’t like the idea of coming out, answering questions… Maybe it’s the feminist side of me that just thinks it’s really silly.”

But her aunt asked her to do it for her – she’d harboured hopes for her own two daughters to at least enter the pageant, but one was too short and the other refused to wear a dress. “My aunt said to me, ‘Do this for me, please!’ "

She remained reluctant. Then she auditioned for a facial cream commercial, and it got down to three models, the other two of whom were luk khreung. “The studio told me that if you’re ‘pure’ Thai, it’s very difficult to be a model. I was like, ‘Why? What’s wrong with Thai people?’ ”

Pop thought this was even more ridiculous. Her aunt suggested that she enter the pageant, win, and then snub them if they asked her to work for them!

“What turned me around was my aunt found me a sponsor. They offered me $16,000 just to enter the pageant. If you won, you got $20,000. I was almost getting as much as the winner. I was like, ‘I guess I can do it! I can put away my dislike of pageants!’ Lo and behold, I won the thing.”

After the exhausting one-year reign was over in 1995, she decided to do something completely different – “something more productive, more relaxing”. A friend of hers asked her to teach writing and editing at Bangkok University. Then she taught at Chulalongkorn University.

“I never went to school or university in Thailand, so I wanted to see what it was like. I’d wondered what my life would have been like if my parents hadn’t moved,” she says. “It was fun. In a way, being a teacher is actually a way to be a student. They kept me on my toes!”

Then her life took another unexpected twist. She was invited to become an officer at Chulachomklao Military Academy. “I’m a free spirit. I’m not very good with authority,” she admits. “But I thought to myself, this is a chance for me to understand the military and what it’s like inside.”

She could have simply volunteered as a teacher, but instead decided to do the six-month basic training and become an officer. “The cadets were wonderful. I enjoyed the discipline… I’d never done anything that crazy before. People who are journalists are very curious by nature.”

Now Pop’s a second lieutenant – she’ll become a lieutenant next February – and teaches English as required. At the moment, she’s averaging around three days per week. “It’s not too much of my time. I can do other things.”

Such as write. She has three books out – PopSpeak, Bootcamp and Thinking Out Loud, the latter of which she also designed and illustrated. She has plans for a fourth, a collection of columns, and then she’d like to take “a long leave of absence from writing columns which I’ve been doing for the last seven years – and that’s not counting the five years I’ve been writing since university study and internships!”

Currently she’s writing a column for women’s magazine Praew. “I’m hoping as a columnist that I’m like a little needle pricking people to think. I’m questioning authority, questioning life, but also having fun with it.” And early this month she’ll be a judge at the Bangkok Film Festival.

Essentially, Pop is having a ball. “I still feel like I’m on vacation. There’s no road map in life. If you’d told me while I was at university that I was going to become a Miss Thailand I would have laughed in your face! This was supposed to be a six- month holiday. It’s turned into a six year holiday!”

She’s single and contented with that, too. “I have too many male friends and not enough female friends – the gossip columns are having a great time because of this."

When I ask if she is interested in a husband and family eventually, she quotes the answer a woman whom she admires once gave her when she asked the same question. “ ‘I don’t want to be a wife, I want to be a lover!’ she told me. I was like, yeah, that’s it! When I asked her why, she said, ‘Well when you’re a wife, there’s no passion. But if you’re a lover, there’s that passion always there.’

“I don’t want someone’s last name. I’m not being a feminist for saying this, I’m trying to be a humanist. I would like to share my life with another person in equal terms of respect and deep passion. Who knows how long anything is going to last? One should be in a relationship out of choice and not obligation. With obligation, passion dies quickly.”

What would she like to do next? “I don’t know what life has in store for me. Whenever you find that your life is mundane or you’re not being challenged any more, you should move on. I think I’d like to study for a masters – maybe in literature or film.

“With the money I’m making from commercials I have enough to pay for my university degree. So I’m fuelled: my tank is full, I’m ready to have another adventure. I believe that every day really is a gift. I feel that every day, you wake up in the morning and it’s like birth…"