Saturday, July 28, 2007

Amorous males beware


IN NOVEMBER last year, during a food festival in Chiang Mai, a drunken Thai man approached Miss Universe 2005 Natalie Glebova. The youth shook her hand and tried to kiss it.

Enter the bodyguard. Instantly, Noppawan Pookkesorn, who was standing behind Glebova, delivered a karate chop to disengage the amorous man’s grip on her client.

“The man froze and realised that what he did was not good,” recalled Noppawan.

Later, Glebova thanked her bodyguard.

It was all in a day’s work for the 34-year-old Thai woman who has been responsible for Glebova’s personal safety since the 26-year-old Canadian made Thailand her home in August 2006.

It is rare for the bodyguard to karate chop overzealous fans of the beauty queen, who won the hearts of Thais during the Miss Universe 2005 pageant in Bangkok when she greeted the audience with a wai (a respectful Thai greeting). Most of the time, Noppawan’s task is to politely tell Glebova’s fans not to be too obtrusive.

Occasionally, Noppawan has to protect her client from fans – mostly male who, in the words of the bodyguard, “probably want to boast that they’ve touched Miss Universe” – trying to grope Glebova while taking a photograph with her.

But the bodyguard does the fending off gently as she does not want to give the public the impression that the beauty queen employed a minder who is tough and rough.

Early last year, Thai beer brewer, Singha Corp, headhunted Noppawan to be the 24-hour bodyguard of Glebova, who is the brewing company’s corporate brand ambassador.

The former policewoman’s resume is impressive.

Four years ago, Noppawan, a policewoman with the rank of captain, who worked as a nurse at the Police General Hospital in Bangkok, was selected to undergo three months' training to guard foreign dignitaries attending the Apec 2003 meeting in Thailand.

Her assignment was to guard Janette, the wife of Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

And in 2005, she was selected to protect another Australian, Miss Universe 2004 Jennifer Hawkins, who was in Bangkok to crown the next Miss Universe.

Comparing her experience with the two Australians, Noppawan says guarding the beauty queen was more relaxing as she only had to protect Hawkins from fans.

“It was more formal with Janette, as the wife of a Prime Minister could face potential physical threats,” she said.

When Glebova arrived in Bangkok in August, 2006 to make Thailand her home, Noppawan lived with her. And within two months, they became more like housemates.

“After my official duty protecting Natalie, we would talk like friends,” she says. “It was mostly girl talk, such as falling in love during high school.

“Natalie is very nice. She is like a Thai as she has a very soft heart and she is so gentle.”

Any secrets to share about Natalie?

“Yes, but it is top secret!” says the bodyguard, who is also Glebova’s executive assistant. She’s also responsible for the beauty queen’s appointments. “I was trained to keep secret what I learn about the VIPs I keep watch over.”

What about Paradorn Srichaphan, Thailand’s famous tennis player?

Noppawan recalled the first time Glebova met the 28-year-old tennis ace nicknamed Super Ball.

It was when the two Singha brand ambassadors visited children affected by HIV at Wat Prabatr Nampu in Saraburi, Thailand, late last year.

“When we returned from the function, I could see in Natalie’s eyes that she had a good impression of him,” says the bodyguard, who only revealed such intimate information as the celebrity couple had announced their engagement in April.

The glamour of guarding a celebrity has rubbed off on Noppawan. She has been featured in Thai newspapers, magazines and television shows, as the public is curious about the story of a nurse who became the bodyguard of Miss Universe 2005.

The woman, who has travelled to Hong Kong, Australia and Russia to guard Glebova, is in midst of writing a pocketbook in Thai on her life.

“Are you famous?” I asked. With a disarming smile, the bodyguard says, “I don’t think so.”

(Published in The Star on July 28, 2007. Photography courtesy of The Nation)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

A less direct route in store from Bangkok to KK


AT ABOUT 100m above ground, the battle for domination for the armrest between seat 12b and 12c in the Thai AirAsia flight from Bangkok to Kota Kinabalu began just after take off.

The man who unceasingly picked his nose seized control when he plunked his left elbow on the armrest that separated us. I felt constricted sitting on the leather seat of 12b, as my right hand did not have enough elbowroom. As much as I wanted to elbow that man out of Boeing 737, I needed him, however.

And I was happy to learn that the flight was 98% full. On Aug 22, last year, my heart plummeted when I read in The Nation that Thai AirAsia planned to drop its three-times-a-week flight between Bangkok and Kota Kinabalu due to low demand.

The route has a soft spot in my heart because AirAsia is the only airline that has a direct flight between the two destinations. And if the budget carrier cancelled the 170-minute flight, it would cost me more money and time to fly from Bangkok, where I am based, to the arms of my loved ones in Sabah, which is my home state.

For example, I would have to travel 125 minutes from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur and then take a 150-minute flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu. And that does not even include transit time in the Low Cost Carrier Terminal at KL International Airport.

But thanks to passengers such as the one seated on 12c, my direct route home was not dropped.

“We continued the flight because of large demand for the route,” explained Thai AirAsia CEO Tassapon Bijleveld in a quick interview in Bangkok during the Thai budget airline’s third anniversary celebration in November last year.

On Oct 21, 2004, Thai AirAsia launched the route. One of the reasons for introducing the route was because the airline wanted to tap into the 35 million tourists who visited Thailand.

“After visiting Bangkok, Chiang Mai or Phuket, tourists want to visit an alternative place and we think that Sabah, with its mountain-high to ocean-deep attractions, is one of the places they would want to go,” said Tassapon.

One of the challenges, he said, of getting his countrymen to fly to Kota Kinabalu was that “Sabah was unknown to most Thais.”

Then, in May, Thai AirAsia dropped the route. And the Malaysian-owned budget airline, AirAsia, took over. Although AirAsia’s scheduling was not convenient (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday compared with Thai AirAsia’s Tuesday, Friday and Sunday which allowed a quick weekend break to Sabah for me), I was relived that there was still a direct flight between my workplace and my hometown.

A loyal passenger who was equally relieved was Wiphawee Baosathorn, a 25-year-old Thai who is married to a Sabahan. She flies between the two cities once in three months.

Previously, returning to her hometown in Songkla, Thailand was an expensive and once-in-two-years journey. Now she pays about RM400 to RM500 for a return ticket compared with about RM1,400. The direct flight has also allowed Wiphawee to afford a business buying clothes and shoes in Bangkok and selling them in Labuan.

At Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport, Carol Raymond, who was clutching several shopping bags, was in jovial mood although her return flight to her hometown, Kota Kinabalu, was delayed for two hours.

The 24-year-old make up artist did not mind the delay as the flight connected her with her two passions – “shopping in cheap Bangkok and Thai food.”

“If not for this flight, I can’t afford to visit Bangkok so often,” she told me last year.

Whenever I boarded the flight that was usually 60% full, I wished for more loyal passengers like Carol and Wiphawee as I was fearful AirAsia would cancel the route.

Unofficially, an AirAsia personnel told me the cancellation was due to unfavourable load factor. After July 31, the route from Bangkok to Kota Kinabalu will be less direct.

(Published in The Star on July 21, 2007)

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Will he run for election?


WILL he extend his power through the ballot boxes?

That’s the explosive question in Thailand for the general who came out of the barracks to seize power and oust Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on the night of Sept 19, 2006.

This week, General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, the chairman of the Council of National Security (or CNS as the military junta calls itself), blazed the front pages of Thai newspapers with headlines such as “Sonthi flayed over poll rumour”, “Sonthi has the right to be a politician” and “CNS chief set to run in election”.

On Wednesday, in a television interview, when asked whether he would enter politics, the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Sonthi said, “there are many elements involving security of the country – the military, economy, social issues and others.”

“So I have to wait and see before making the decision. I insist that I have not thought about my political future yet. I have two months before my retirement (Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Army).” Sonthi’s vague answer is interpreted by certain quarters as proof that the professional soldier harbours intentions to lead a new military-backed political party.

The general’s indecisiveness is a sharp contrast to his announcement on the night of the coup that he did not lead it to pave the way for him to govern the country. And in the past 10 months, Sonthi has consistently insisted that he had no interest in politics.

His recent indecision is giving way to suspicion that Sonthi will do a Suchinda.

In February 1991, General Suchinda Kraprayoon, who was the army chief, led a coup to topple Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan.

And 13 months later, after the general election, the un-elected Suchinda was appointed prime minister.

His appointment sparked large protests that ended in a tragedy called Black May where soldiers gunned down hundreds of protesters. On May 24, 1992, Suchinda resigned as prime minister.

Recently, to persuade 61-year-old Sonthi not to replace his military uniform with a political suit after retiring as army chief in the end of September, The Nation published an editorial.

“It is not necessary for Sonthi to enter politics and seek to hold onto power in an attempt to guard himself against possible retaliation from the politicians he toppled,” the newspaper stated.

“As long as his claim to have done everything to save the country is honest and his record as the head of the CNS is free from corruption, he is legally protected from attempts at vengeance. Members of the general public, justice bodies and the armed forces would be on his side if there were any attempts to get back at him.”

During Wednesday’s television interview, Sonthi, when asked whether he was afraid of being the target of revenge, said, “I have no concern. Goodness is my protection.”

Critics warned that if Sonthi, who is the first Muslim in the Buddhist-majority country to take the powerful post of army chief, contested in the polls due late this year, it would invariably taint Thailand’s purported return to democracy.

“Even though he will have retired from the military by then, his candidacy will surely sow seeds of doubts and the Thai public will ask this very serious question of whether military and national security resources will be exploited to help him win the election,” said Suriyasai Katasila, secretary-general of the People’s Alliance for Democracy.

“The Thai public didn’t want the coup to happen last year but most people understood why it had to occur,” said Suriyasai, as reported in The Nation on Monday.

However, Defence Minister Boonrawd Somtas, who is an ally of Sonthi, said the general had every right to run for office in elections.

Boonrawd said the objectives of the coup had yet to be fully achieved and the old power clique (a euphemism for Thaksin’s political group) was moving full steam to win the next election.

“It will pour everything into winning the election so that it can come back. Nobody currently has the resources that it has,” he argued.

If indeed Sonthi enters politics, the question on the minds of the electorate will be: Shall I allow a man who undemocratically grabbed power through the bullet extend it through the ballot?

(Published in The Star on July 14, 2007. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Thailand’s Mr Sandwich happier 10 years on

Thai Takes

IS IT a happy anniversary? I had directed the question at the most recognisable face of Thailand’s 1997 economic meltdown on July 2, which a decade ago was the day his country devalued the baht, triggering the Asian financial crisis.

The pocky face of Sirivat Voravetvuthikun turned animated as he recalled the crisis that turned him from a multi-millionaire property developer and stock market investor to a sandwich hawker.

“Yes, today I am happy,” declares Mr Sandwich, as Sirivat is known. “Because of the crisis I found a new business – although it is selling sandwiches for 40 baht (RM4.30) apiece versus selling a condominium for 5 million baht (RM546,000) a unit – I am happier,” he said.

“I’ve learnt that the size of the business is not important, as long as it is long lasting and in a real sector like food and beverage.”

In early 1997, Sirivat was in the “bubble business”, borrowing heavily from finance companies to bankroll his property projects including a one billion baht (RM109mil) condominium development and to dabble in the stock market.

It was a “big business” which, on hindsight, the US-educated Chinese Thai businessman says, was beyond his financial capacity.

“I borrowed heavily at an interest rate of 17% a year,” he recalls. “But I was not scared of my borrowings considering my capabilities and experience. I never thought I would go bust in a couple of months.”

However, around February 1997 Sirivat had to inform his staff of 40 that he was going bust as he was unable to service his loans. His cash flow had dried up when he could not sell any condominium unit. Even after the banks seized his properties, he still owed them about 400 million baht (RM43mil).

Depression hit Sirivat but he did not commit suicide, which was the option of many who lost their fortune during the Asian financial crisis.

“If I killed myself the problem would not be solved, and the burden would be on my wife and children,” said the man whose motto is “I’d rather be bankrupt than dead”.

In those dark, sleepless days, Sirivat blamed himself for losing his fortune. “I was too greedy. Why wasn’t a couple of million baht enough? Why did I want to make a billion baht?” he asks.

To eke out a living, Sirivat strung a 12kg yellow foam box around his neck and began peddling sandwiches on the streets of Bangkok.

On his first day, Sirivat had to put on a brave face as many people asked him: “You are a multi-millionaire, why are you selling sandwiches?”

He sold about 40 sandwiches on that day.

He sold more when local and international media zoomed in on the compelling story of an insolvent multi-millionaire peddling sandwiches.

“It is you, the media, who helped me to sell my sandwiches. When my story became known to the public, they supported me by buying my sandwiches,” he says, adding that Sirivat Sandwich now sells about 800 sandwiches a day.

What happened to your 400 million baht debt, I asked the 58-year-old man who is so famous in Bangkok that the public frequently interrupted my interview, greeting him in Thai and saying “I’m glad to meet the real person I saw on television.”

In 2003, he was declared a bankrupt. And according to Thai law, he was free of bankruptcy after three years. Now he owes about 11 million baht (RM1.2mil), to several friends.

“I’m not worth anything today except for my brand,” he declares, stabbing at his company logo (a symbol of a baht inside a hot air balloon that is held back by the initials IMF, the International Monetary Fund) on his T-shirt.

“How much is my brand worth now? You will be surprised, a hundred million baht.”

In 2009, the Sandwich Man plans to list his food and beverage business on the Thai stock market.

At present, Sirivat is not optimistic about the Thai economy, saying Thais have not learnt the lesson of 1997. “Thai people forget easily. They are over borrowing again,” he notes. “It is not a Happy 10th anniversary for Thailand.”

(Published in The Star on July 7, 2007. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)