Saturday, February 24, 2007

Advice from a broken heart

Thai Takes

ROONG possessed all the tell-tale signs of innocence. The 19-year-old Thai girl didn’t smoke, didn’t have any tattoos on her body and didn’t work in a bar.

For 37-year-old American Vern Kovic who recently arrived in Thailand, Roong was very sweet, nice, accommodating and helpful.

Weeks after they established a romantic relationship, she told him she had to return to a bar to play games such as Connect Four and Pound the Nail with a Hammer with the patrons.

The American became confused, as his Thai girlfriend had earlier assured him she never worked in a bar. Her explanation was that she was just doing a favour to the bar owner who was a friend.

Later, an American friend asserted that Kovic’s girlfriend was actually a bargirl. Doubtful, Kovic challenged him to prove it.

His friend contacted Roong, slept with her, photographed her in his room and showed the photographs to Kovic.

Furious, Kovic bailed out of the relationship.

That was in December 2004. Since then Kovic, now 40, has stayed far away from bargirls.

Last December, the farang (Thai for westerner) started “to create a non-boring blog about life in Thailand, without suffusing it with sexual conquests like most forums and sites devoted to Thailand”.

Last week, the Pennsylvania-born man, who lives in Surat Thani in Thailand, posted an article called Farang and Bargirl Relationship in his blog.

“You can’t possibly think that a girl who has lied to everyone she knows for a period of months or years will ever come around and start telling you the truth about everything she is doing, the friends she has and the guys she knows abroad who are sending her money years after you’ve married her,” he explained.

Nonetheless, the temptation is overwhelming to some guys, especially to those who have not had a girlfriend their entire lives.

“They come here and suddenly they have three girls fawning over them and making promises to love them,” he wrote in his blog. “A guy like that is going to be duped into believing unbelievable (lies) and worse, can be led down the path to marriage very easily.”

In reality, a farang equals an ATM (automated teller machine) to a bargirl. She knows how to milk every baht out of a farang and ditch him when the money stops flowing or slows down to a level that isn’t worth her time.

Bargirls are so good at milking a farang cash cow, Kovice said in an e-mail interview.

The girls are masters of a farang’s emotion, he noted. They know that older men love to have a young girl in their arms, and in their phone list.

One trick a bargirl employs is to send out a blanket SMS to all the farang guys she knows.

Her SMS would be along these lines: she had some bad luck recently as the buffalo fell sick, or her father was ill, or her brother was in a motorbike accident; or she herself fell sick and was in the hospital; or the family car broke down, or someone stole her mother’s gold.

Her SMS appeals to the guy to send “just this one time” any amount of money as a loan.

Over the course of a year a bargirl, can amass a fortune if she is good at the game. Some earn 100,000 baht (RM10,463) a month from different farang boyfriends.

“A girl typically receives 10,000 to 40,000 baht (RM1,046 to RM4,169) or more per boyfriend living overseas who wants to keep his Thai love away from the bar to keep her chaste until he returns to Thailand,” Kovic explained.

Don’t date bargirls for more than a night, he warned.

If not, you would end up with a cigarette-smoking wife covered with tattoos and wearing clothes that reveal underwear and bra the public – except her father, brother and pimp – would laugh at.

(Published in The Star on Feb 24, 2007. Graphic courtesy of Vern Kovic)

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Closer, Getting closer

Thai Takes

Malaysia's relations with its northern neighbour is warming to a new level, paving the way for Kuala Lumpur to play a role in helping Thailand solve the Muslim insurgency in its southern provinces.

MALAYSIAN armoured vehicles rumbling into Thai soil to raid communist insurgent camps is one of 48-year-old Panitan Wattanayagorn's memories of growing up in the Thai border town of Betong in the 1970s.

“We knew the Malaysian troops were in Thailand to fight the communist insurgency which was also a threat to us,” recalled Panitan, who is now foreign affairs adviser to the Thai government.

Those were the days when Thailand and Malaysia cooperated successfully to combat an insurgency which was a threat to both sides.

In the last five years, Panitan noted that the two countries have not been able to work as closely as they should on cross-border threats.

One factor was the leadership change in Thailand and Malaysia.

“Almost at the same time, both countries had new leaders and the closeness between their top leaders was not like it used to be,” said the Chulalongkorn University international relations department associate professor.

Ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his Malaysian counterpart Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi were as different as chalk and cheese.

Thaksin preferred to talk openly through the media about sensitive issues such as Malaysia providing sanctuary for Thai Muslim separatists, which in the discreet world of diplomacy, touched a raw nerve as far as Malaysia was concerned.

Abdullah, on the other hand, preferred to be low key and diplomatic.

“He did not want to respond directly to any of Thaksin's comments in the media,” Panitan said.

But this was perceived by the Thai leadership as not being open and created an atmosphere of uncertainty on the (southern Thailand) issue.

The new international environment after Sept 11, 2001, compounded the uneasy relations between Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.

The public – infuriated by the active Muslim separatists in the southern region of the predominantly Buddhist country – was suspicions towards a Muslim majority country like Malaysia.

“Thai leaders commented publicly that Malaysia was not sincere about helping Thailand combat problems in the south. At the same time, Thaksin adopted a hardline approach towards the south and this put Malaysia in an even more difficult position to cooperate with the Thais,” Panitan said.

Retired Universiti Malaya professor and international relations expert Chandran Jeshuran, has a slightly different view.

“Malaysia-Thai relations has never sunk to the point of being described as 'not friendly' although there have been political, economic and diplomatic differences voiced publicly by both sides,” Chandran said.

The war, if one could call it that, which was largely fought through the media between Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar and the Thai authorities, did at one time look as if it would turn ugly.

Fortunately, the crisis blew over.

“That altercation was entirely caused by the differing perceptions about the troubles in the south,” Chandran added.

Panitan said a new chapter in Thai-Malaysian relations occurred when the Sept 19 coup overthrew Thaksin and Gen Surayud Chulanont was appointed Thai Prime Minister.

The new government made a 180-degree turn in its policy towards the Muslim insurgency in the south. It used a more sensible approach, starting with an apology.

“This sent a clear message to Malaysia that now, a policy turn was taking place and the gate was open to cooperate again,” Panitan said in an interview a day after Abdullah's three-day visit to Thailand.

Surayud's gentle personality also contributed to the improvement in ties. The fact that Abdullah and Surayud played golf in Phuket on Sunday before their bilateral meeting in Bangkok the next day was seen by Thais as a sign that the two leaders had good rapport.

An editorial in The Nation said that the good bond developed between Surayud and Abdullah pointed to closer cooperation on issues of mutual interest, namely the raging insurgency in Thailand.

Now, instead of armoured vehicles, Panitan said the he would be looking out for Malaysian envoys moving to southern Thailand.

(Published in The Star on Feb 17. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Steeped in a way of life

Thai Takes


ACROSS the Chao Phraya River, the sun was setting against the backdrop of Bangkok’s famed Wat Arun, or Temple of Dawn.

“Arun with a view”, I thought as I watched the fabulous sunset from a quaint boutique guesthouse called Arun Residence as E.M. Forster's novel, A Room With a View, flashed in my mind.

“That is the same view I saw two years ago,” related Dr Piyanuj Ruckpanich.

Around late 2004, Dr Piyanuj received a phone call from her 54-year-old friend, Dr Sant Chaiyodsilp, telling her to drive towards the Grand Palace, park her car at Wat Po (Emerald Temple), cross the street and walk into a soi (Thai for lane) until she reached the end.

There, Dr Piyanuj saw the sun setting above Wat Arun. She immediately called Dr Sant, telling him, “get the place”.

The place was a dilapidated 80-year-old corner shop lot on the riverfront. “The building itself is nothing,” explained the 40-year-old doctor of her decision.

“Bangkokians like me usually don't feel anything about the Chao Phraya as we have seen it our whole life. But Wat Arun was so beautiful with the sunset,” she added.

Previously, the lease owner of the neglected building refused to rent it out to others who saw its potential. However, Dr Sant, who has written travel books in Thai, “clicked” with the owner who then relented.

Dr Piyanuj and her partners were puzzled as to what to do with a property that Dr Sant described as possessing the best view in Bangkok. Initially, they planned to turn it into an organic restaurant.

But the lease owner wanted them to rent the whole building and not just the ground floor. And the partners found their building could accommodate something bigger than a restaurant.

Inspiration came from across the river. Dr Piyanuj's best friend suggested a visit to Ibrik Resort by The River, a three-room inn that pioneered Bangkok's boutique hotel scene.

At Ibrik, the partners got the brainwave to restore the building into a five-room guesthouse and a restaurant. Their concept was a place where guests were treated as if they were staying in a friend's home.

About a year later and after spending over 15 million baht (RM1.5mil), Arun Residence debuted, becoming a part of the recent emergence of fashionable boutique hotels in the Thai capital.

The trend, according to Dr Piyanuj, started when guests grew “tired of big hotels where they can expect to see the same thing”.

Using her guesthouse as an example, she explained that her clientele wanted to stay in a place where they could soak in the Thai way of life.

“Just look around this neighbourhood,” she said, as barges transporting rice, floating restaurants and river taxis plied the river. “It is not touristy. The people are living the same way as those who lived here 80 years ago.”

The old lady living close by, for example, still takes her bath outside her house, she added as laughter from the children living next door competed with the sound of the splashing waves.

It's not only the guests who take delight in the neighbourhood. The neighbours are also delighted with some of the guests, noted Dr Piyanuj.

The members of the Thai and Luxembourg royal families have strolled through the pedestrian Soi Pratoo Nok Yoong – which is off Maharaj Road in Ratanakosin Island, the heart of Thailand’s historic and architectural heritage – to dine at Arun Residence.

So did Nicholas Cage when he was in the city to shoot the movie, Bangkok Dangerous, late last year. The management turned the private roof garden of Arun Suite, which is its best room, into a dining area for the actor and his company.

“We don't have any proof that Nicholas Cage was here, said Dr Piyanuj, laughing. “We didn't get his photograph and his autograph he signed on a shiny surface got wiped off.

The guesthouse has also become the place in Bangkok to sweep a woman off her feet. Two weeks ago, a Singaporean rented a section of the restaurant for a private dinner with his Thai girlfriend. As a violinist played, he proposed to her.

Did the woman accept?

“I don't know. She should because it was so romantic,” said Dr Piyanuj as the lit Wat Arun beamed mystically across the river.

(Published in The Star on Feb 10, 2007)

Saturday, February 03, 2007

‘Katoeys’ hit the music scene


Venus Flytrap is Thailand's first ladyboys band to sign a record deal. The five members were picked from over 200 applicants.

THE singers of Venus Flytrap, the latest Thai pop group, were pretty in white bridal corsets during their virgin public performance last November.

In the middle of performing their debut single, Cause I'm Your Lady, the 10,000 audience at the Virgin Hitz Radio concert in Bangkok started murmuring.

The audience was not sure who we were, recalled Nok. They were thinking Venus Flytrap? Ladyboys? Ladyboys band?

Oh, oooohooi, the audience screamed when they realised that the five members of Venus Flytrap were katoeys (Thai for transvestites).

Introducing Posh Venus (Yonlada “Nok” Komklong), Hot Venus (Ploipaitoon “Bobo” Moukprakaaiphed), Cool Venus (Dhanade “Taya” Ruangroongroj), Naughty Venus (Topmonthawan “Gina” Boonchalee) and Sweet Venus (Rachakorn “Amy” Jaroensuk).

Named after a sensuous planet and an alluring carnivorous plant, the group is Thailand’s first katoey band to sign a record deal. The band is backed by Sony BMG, the global music joint venture with a roster of artists such as George Michael, Beyonce and Christina Aguilera.

Venus Flytrap grew out of Sony BMG's innovative project to launch a five-man, ermm women, ermm ladyboys pop group.

About 16 months ago, the record label auditioned katoeys from all over Thailand, searching for five who had the look, the voice and the showmanship.

Out of more than 200 katoeys, five coming from diverse backgrounds were picked to characterise Posh, Cool, Hot, Sweet and Naughty.

Posh Venus, 24, is the winner of Miss Alcazar 2005, a transvestite beauty pageant, Cool Venus, 24, is the first runner-up in the Miss Tiffany Transvestite Competition 2005, Hot Venus, 25, was a katoey pub singer in Pattaya while Naughty Venus, 21, and Sweet Venus, 22, are university students.

Sony BMG has heavily promoted Venus Flytrap on video screens at 7-Eleven outlets and BTS (Bangkok Mass Transit System) stations.

The music video has a scene of them running without any clothing while covering their upper bodies.

Thailand has welcomed the katoeys with open arms. Bobo attributes the acceptance to the tolerant nature of Thais who are mostly Buddhists.

“Anyway 50% of Thai men are gay,” noted Bobo, with a loud I-should-know cackle.

According to Taya, being a member of Venus Flytrap is her destiny. It gives her a great chance to be “a microphone to announce that katoeys can do other things besides stereotyped jobs such as hairstylists, make-up artists, cabaret dancers and go-go dancers”.

Venus Flytrap members are as womanly as any woman. More beautiful, perhaps. But can they sing like a woman?

Neung, soong, sam (Thai for one, two, three) and they crooned Cause I'm Your Lady acapella. Amazingly, they sounded like women.

Why do they sound so feminine? “We don't know,” the beauties said in unison. “Maybe it is a gift from God.”

“The Thai press asked us whether we underwent surgery to change our voices. But a ladyboy who goes for surgery can only sing in monotone,” Nok explained. “We can sing using a range of highest and lowest voices.”

“Have the five of you ...?” I asked, making a scissor-cutting gesture with my fingers. All except for Bobo. “I've not done it, that is why my voice is still deep, especially when I get angry,” she said in a very deep voice.

“Amy cut down there and at the same time she put something up here,” she added, pointing at her full chest.

Ha ha, the vivacious group laughed at Nok's gesture. The four probably were reminded of the pain they had to endure to become women.

Once Venus Flytrap makes it big in Thailand, the katoeys plan world domination. Starting with ... "Malaysia,” Nok said. And they screamed like ravenous man-eaters.

“It is close to Thailand,” explained Amy, “and I love Malaysian men.”

(Published in The Star on Feb 3, 2007. Photo by Vera Mopilin)