Saturday, April 26, 2008

Wedded to her village


TOADS in the toilet, ants’ egg for breakfast and frog farming. These tales unfold in Andrew Hicks’ latest book, My Thai Girl and I, which tells how a 61-year-old Englishman set up home in a Thai village with his wife Cat, a rice farmer’s daughter half his age.

According to the author, living these past five years in a village in Thailand’s arid north-eastern region has been a great experience.

“Something different, something special. I am able to observe the rhythms of the seasons and life in a rice growing village,” notes the former London corporate lawyer and law lecturer in Hong Kong and Singapore, who also authored law books such as The Company Law of Malaysia and the best selling novel Thai Girl.

Hicks, however, is quick to add that “it is not a place that I choose, as it is my wife who wants to live in her parents’ village.”

“Many, many disadvantages (living in a remote village which is about eight hours by bus from Bangkok). It is uncomfortable. Quiet. In some ways lacking in stimulation. There’s the problem of connecting with the wider world (he can’t get a decent English newspaper),” he relates.

The only farang (Thai for westerner) living in the village of 132 houses, he also has to come to grips with the exotic Isaan delicacies such as fried insects and fermented fish spiced up with volcanic chilli.

Still, he enjoys village life, as his energetic wife is stimulating. “Cat is always organising something. Right now she is building a chicken coop,” he says, adding that a significant part of his day it taken up by writing. Hicks admits that his typical day is atypical of village life – waking up to the crowing of cockerels, taking the cows to graze, and planting padi. “I live an urban life in the village,” he says.

On the impact of his existence in the village, the farang says he has changed the villagers’ aspirations.

“I have a (concrete) house which is 10 times better than anybody else’s. And they realise that their houses are not as big as they think they are,” he explains.

“Raising their aspirations is in a way disturbing and may not necessarily be a good thing, as in Thailand there is a mad rush for materialism, which is very contrary to the principle of Buddhism.”

Inevitably, Hicks says, some young women in the village are inspired to marry a farang – even if there is a compromise in marrying an older man – when they observe the changes (a nice house and travel to England and France) in Cat’s life.

“Very often Cat is jokingly asked, ‘will you find me a farang?’ and everybody laughs. But the questioner is serious. However, it is not easy, as I don’t have many single friends. So it does not actually happen,” relates the blogger, who writes about his life in

“The women’s motivation is materialism. When you are poor, you want to come out of poverty. From the point of view of a woman, marrying a foreigner will give her resources that can lift her and her family out of poverty,” he explains.

Poverty is evident in Isaan (Thailand’s northeast) where the farmers only plant one crop of rice a year because of the persistent dry season and sandy soil.

“The villagers literally do not have money. But the poverty is not glaring, as people are adequately fed, and they are happy,” he says.

He adds that the idea that the villagers are poor is somewhat a misnomer as “they are rich because they have achieved harmony with nature and satisfaction in life without all the urban trinkets.”

The Hicks contribute to the welfare of the village. They teach English to schoolchildren and provide – together with some Japanese friends – free lunch and books to about 95 students.

Living in rural Thailand, Hicks discovers, means he is not only married to his wife but also to her family, her village, and their collective way of life.

“That’s a stark contrast to the individuality of the West,” says the farang.

(Published in The Star on April 26, 2008)

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Devil everybody loves to ‘kill’


WHENEVER the Muay Thai fighter nicknamed Akuma (Japanese for the Devil) fights in Thailand’s remote north-eastern provinces, his local opponents are motivated to literally “kill” him in the ring.

This is because Akuma, the nickname of Zidov Dominik, is a farang (Thai for westerner).

“In Isaan (Thailand’s north-east) there are not many Muay Thai fighters who are foreigners. The fight is always like a war because the Thai fighters want to show that Muay Thai comes from Thailand,” says the 26-year-old Croat-Swiss.

Normally, Zidov says, in round one the two fighters will go easy as they size each other up. The pace quickens in round two and three, and in rounds four and five the power is turned on.

“But when they fight me, the Thais will unleash all their power from round one. I’ve never had so much pain after a fight as when I fight in Isaan,” he laments.

But Zidov endures the pain for the winner's purse – which in Isaan ranges from 2,000 baht to 3,000 baht (RM200 to RM300).

“Sometimes I fight three times a month (which is too many) and my trainers said I am crazy. But I started late so I need much fighting experience to become a world champion,” he explains.

Five years ago, Zidov – then in Zurich, Switzerland – was a street fighter who “makes s**t all the time for no reason.” He was jailed a few times for theft and fighting.

Unable to bear seeing his mother cry when she visits him in jail, he decided to channel his aggression and energy into Muay Thai, training at Samui Thai, a fight club in Zurich.

“After that, I did not have any trouble in the streets,” he recalls, adding he fought in Muay Thai competitions in Switzerland.

In 2003, Zidov flew to the country where Muay Thai originated because “if I wanted to be a Muay Thai fighter I had to train in Thailand”.

Staying in a Bangkok slum, he trained with a Thai whom he befriended in a fight club in Zurich.

Two weeks later, Zidov hopped on to a bus for a 10-hour journey to Ubon Ratchatani, which is about 30 minutes from the Laos border.

“When I arrived at the bus stop the boy who came to pick me up was this famous Filipino/ Danish fighter Ole Baguio Laursen,” he recalls.

At Ole’s Legacy Gym, he learnt that a good Muay Thai fighter does not necessarily have to be a Thai.

“Although Thais learn it at an early age (about 10 years old), their boxing technique is not good. The Europeans who came to Thailand to learn kicking can knock out a Thai in the ring because they are good boxers,” he explains.

“Now the Thais are improving on their boxing technique.”

A Thai fights more beautifully than a farang, however.

“Thais fight as if they are dancing (to the strains of Thai traditional music that is played during a bout), whereas a farang just wants to win, win, win,” he notes.

“In Isaan, at first, I could not understand why I lost even thought I beat the s**t out of my opponent.

“Then with time I understood that my opponent won because his style was more beautiful than mine. So I learnt to fight with grace and rhythm.”

In October 2007, Zidov had the opportunity to show his grace and rhythm in The Contender Asia, a reality-based television series featuring 16 aspiring Muay Thai fighters from 12 countries.

Ole was supposed to be in the show but he broke his foot in a fight in Japan. He recommended Zidov, describing him to the producers as an up and coming fighter with lots of tattoos and a bad boy reputation.

Zidov became one of its stars because of his likeable bad boy personality. In Episode 11, Zidov fought against his idol John Wayne Parr, who knocked him out of the show.

His life has changed “a little bit” after The Contender Asia.

“People now know me,” says the fighter in the touristy island of Samui where he is training in a gym that promised him fights with bigger prize money.

(Published in The Star on April 19, 2008)

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Troubling predictions


LAST week, famous Thai soothsayer Varin Buaviratlert predicted that if the 2007 Constitution was amended, there would be bloodshed in Thailand next month. Immediately, the pro-constitution amendment faction struck back.

Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej lashed out at Varin who reportedly forecasted that Samak’s 10-week-old government would collapse in the coming months, resulting in political chaos and bloodshed which would see new army chief General Anupong Paojinda becoming the next premier.

“This fortune teller has no shame about making a wrong prediction and I wonder what he is doing to the country by invoking my name and that of the army chief to insinuate another coup,” lambasted Samak on Sunday during his weekly TV show.

The combative prime minister continued: “If you want to be a fortune teller of the coup makers, it’s your business. But why have you made wrong predictions (such as predicting Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva would be prime minister)?”

Also on that Sunday, an influential soothsayer Luck Lekhanethet predicted that if the constitution was NOT amended, there would be bloodshed in August.

Why are there contrasting “bloodshed” predictions by two famous soothsayers?

“The pro amendment and the anti amendment factions are using fortune-tellers (and also academicians, civic groups and the mass media) in their political information warfare,” said Worapol Promigabutr, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Bangkok’s Thammasat University.

“The faction behind Varin knows that a majority of the Thais especially those in the rural areas believe in supernatural powers. And what they are doing is using Varin to tell the public that there would be bloodshed if the proposal to amend the constitution was approved,” Worapol explained.

“So that even if the public was pro amendment, they would withdraw from activities supporting the proposal as they feared there would be bloodshed or a coup. The other side is using Luck Lekhanethet to devalue Varin’s prediction.”

On which soothsayer the public believed, the sociologist said Luck Lekhanethet was more popular with the common people than Varin, who gained prominence after claiming he had foreseen General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin leading a successful coup on Sept 19, 2006.

In the 37 degree Celcius days leading to Songkran (Thai New Year) which falls tomorrow, the sizzling debate on the pros and cons of retaining the constitution has raised the country’s political temperature.

What's at stake is the possible shredding of the army-drafted constitution that was approved by a slim majority in a national referendum on Aug 19, last year during six months of military rule.

“It (2007 constitution) is one of the most undemocratic constitutions in Thai history. It is semi dictatorial,” said Worapol.

“For example, elected MPs such as the prime minister can be removed by un-elected senators. If the government fails to amend this constitution it will be constantly threatened by the oligarchic power which appoints these senators.”

A controversial clause in the 2007 constitution insulates the coup makers for staging the 2006 coup whereas the 1997 constitution that it replaced stated that it was illegal to stage a coup.

On Tuesday, the Samak-led People Power Party (PPP) voted to amend almost all of the 2007 constitution, using as a model the 1997 charter that is seen by many as Thailand’s most democratic constitution.

Samak downplayed speculation that the constitutional amendment would result in violence.

“What is written can be rewritten. We amend the law every day and the people who wrote the constitution also said if people did not like it, it could be amended later. Now they object to the amendment,” he said.

On Thursday, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) described PPP’s plan to amend the constitution as a “silent coup.”

And the PAD, which was behind the massive anti-Thaksin Shinwatra rallies before the 2006 coup, warned it would organise street protest against any bid to change the charter for self-interest and to begin a signature campaign against MPs backing such an attempt.

Asked what his prediction on the constitutional amendment was, Worapol said: “the attempt to block the amendment will not succeed as the general public is in favour of changing the constitution.”

He believes the government has enough support in parliament to approve the constitutional amendment.

And the sociologist quipped, “I would like to clarify that my prediction is not based on astrological theory but on sociological theory.”

(Published in The Star on April 12, 2008)

Saturday, April 05, 2008

From humble lotus to a prized bloom


WHEN hotelier Deepak Ohri told his management team that he would turn a struggling Bangkok hotel into a five-star luxury accommodation, they laughed at him.

“They thought that Khun Deepak (Mr Deepak) had gone mad,” recalls the 40-year-old CEO.

“At that time our hotel rate was cheaper than Holiday Inn Silom’s, which was charging about US$60 a room, and I was telling them that in two years we would be charging US$200 a room.”

That morning – 9.45am on Feb 1, 2006 – Deepak’s team took over a Meritus-managed hotel and rebranded it as lebua at State Tower Hotel.

And without any modification – except for changing the mattresses to Sealy Spring, the pillows and duvets to 80% goosedown, bedsheets to 330 thread count Egyptian cotton, and using Bvlgari bathroom amenities in all suites – lebua increased its rack rate from 2,400 baht to 4,200 baht (RM242 to RM423).

Immediately following the price rise, the hotel’s occupancy fell by 20%.

But lebua persevered and nine months later won its first of many awards – Business Asia Magazine/CNBC Asia Pacific’s 2006 Best Business Hotels in Asia Awards on “Best New Hotel”.

In February 2007, the hotel made international headlines when it hosted a one-million-baht (RM100,900) per head dinner that included creme brulee of foie gras washed down with a bottle of 1990 Cristal champagne.

Now, the room rate of the Thai-owned hotel – its interior refurbished – starts at 10,240 baht (RM1,033). And recently TripAdvisor ranked it number six in the Top 10 Best Luxury Hotels in Asia list and number 47 in the world’s Top 100 Luxury Hotels list.

How did lebua metamorphose from a struggling hotel to a high-end luxury accommodation?

“We created a concept where when a man intends to buy a Bvlgari necklace for his girlfriend, he and his girlfriend will think twice; whether buying it will bring them more satisfaction than staying in lebua,” explains Deepak, lebua’s chief executive officer.

How does lebua create a hotel stay that is more satisfying than a Bvlgari necklace?

One way for the hotel, which has a 45% guest return rate, is to acknowledge that the customer always comes first.

“We had a guest who checked in at 3am and he called the concierge to order Maine lobster with spaghetti. At that time our restaurants offering fresh lobsters were closed, so the concierge called a chef who had gone home,” relates the rapid-talking CEO.

“The chef returned, opened the kitchen and prepared the dish and it was ready at 4am. The guest was so delighted that he left a US$400 tip.”

The 65-storey luxury hotel’s success is also due to its non-textbook management style. In fact, Deepak proudly reveals, the creation of lebua was completely the reverse.

“Usually, a hotel’s F&B (food and beverage) business is created out of the hotel brand. What we did was create a hotel from our F&B business,” he explains.

He is referring to The Dome, located on the top floors of the State Tower (one of Thailand’s tallest buildings), which opened in 2003. Its breathtaking dining concept includes Sirocco, the world’s highest al fresco restaurant.

The success of The Dome inspired the State Tower owner to take a leap of faith and replace Meritus, which was managing its hotel, with its own brand – lebua (which means “the lotus”).

In early 2009, the hotel will implement another of its non-textbook ideas – a behavioural pattern software (similar to that used by the US armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan).

“Just say you like oranges, and when you come to our hotel we give you an orange. But what is the big deal, as at home your servant knows that you love oranges and will give you one?” Deepak asks.

“We will input your likings – such as you like oranges, your style of dressing – into the software and it will predict that you also like almond. And when you check into your room you will find almond and you will say ‘wow!’”

The hotelier believes by mid 2009, lebua will be the city’s most iconic hotel.

“People will say don’t leave Bangkok without visiting lebua,” predicts Deepak, with a grin which says that it’s not a laughing matter.

(Published in The Star on April 5, 2008)