Author

Jocelyn Pollak

There are plenty of hidden gems in Thailand and if you are an expat like me who has been doing a lot of domestic travel this year, chances are you’ve found a few of these gems yourself. I found my gem on a trip down to Koh Tao to get my SCUBA certification back in September, his name is Anthony Griffiths and he has been a dive instructor in Thailand for 25 years. Right in our backyard, we have the instructor who has PADI certified more people to scuba dive than anyone else in the world. I have been back down to dive a few more times since getting certified and asked Anthony to sit down with me and tell me his story and why everyone should give diving a try, especially now.

What did you do before you were a dive instructor?

I was a dancer with the Royal Ballet. I trained for 16 years and I danced with them for about 4 years; I toured the world. I was in Madonna’s show when she came to England, I performed on Top of the Pops, danced in countless contemporary companies – Twyla Tharp, Pina Bausch, Sadler’s Wells – I am going back 30 years though.  

When did you first come to Thailand?

  1. I came with a girlfriend on holiday because I wasn’t doing anything, I was just hanging around in London. My dance career had kind of wound down and I was about 28 years old. I had been travelling a lot before with my career but not really holidaying, and it just seemed like a good idea. So, she was coming to Thailand and I just came with her. And it was an absolutely brilliant decision.

When did you decide to make the move and why?

I didn’t have a set day where you could say like “I moved to Thailand on…”. It was a gradual transition. I was holidaying here for just 2 weeks and we changed our round the world tickets to make it 6 months. I did my PADI Open Water (Diving) Course, Advanced Course, Rescue Diving, Divemaster and fell completely in love with it. One thing led to another and the rest is history. Since 1991 I have pretty much been diving every day, besides my trips back home to the UK of course.

I have always used Koh Tao as a base though. I would go to Australia and Fiji, but I always want to come back to Koh Tao. It is a very special island with very special people. The local people are beautiful, and they have a lovely school and community. It has just been a great place for me to bring up a family.

What was it about diving that was such a magnet for you?

It is interesting, for me, diving was like a connection to dancing. I spent years trying to defy gravity and the weightlessness in diving was like a direct link for me. That’s why today I am still totally in love with moving in three dimensional space. It is a magical unbelievable experience where you connect technology with nature, and it meshes so many things together. And then, I did not know I was a teacher, but I have a naturally outgoing personality and I have always been able to connect with people. Combined with what I had done on stage, performing etc., moving into teaching was just really natural; teaching diving connected all the dots. When I look at my life now, it’s just a blessing how it all came together.

How long have you been an instructor? And how many people have you certified?

25 years. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but since you asked, I hold the most certifications of any PADI instructor in the world. It is roughly 18,000 people by now. The dive shop I work at, Ban’s Dive Shop, is the biggest dive shop in the world by the number of people we have certified – over a quarter of a million. We were going to have a big celebration this year for our 300,000th certification but because of Covid, we had to stop the plan. I have grown my career at Ban’s and even though I have been diving all over the world, this is the place I want to come back to.

Why should someone get certified to dive?

Diving is a way for people to reconnect back to the natural world that we all belong to. I believe people have become so disconnected because of technology (of course technology is a wonderful thing too) but when it gets to the point where it disconnects people from that natural way of being, it is concerning. How do you even put into words when a 6 metre fish with a mouth like a car front swims over your head, looks down and questions you. When you have that visceral feeling inside your stomach and your soul for one moment, everything disappears, and you have a brief moment of a connection back to nature. I am just happy that I can help people make a reconnection to the natural world.

What is going on with diving in Koh Tao right now? What is the good and the bad?

Well, the good is there are a lot of great instructors here that have held on. There’s a lot of beautiful positive energy surrounding those who have stayed, and we are supporting each other during these difficult times. There is a local market that’s booming, and the government has done some good stuff to help. So, it is great that more Thai people are exploring the underwater beauty of their homeland. The conditions are fantastic. The water is clearer, and we are seeing more abundant wildlife.

The bad, economically, it is a catastrophe, not only for diving. Needless to say, so many people have lost their jobs in tourism and it has been hard for everyone. In terms of foreigners, a lot of people who came from abroad to realise their dream cannot do it now.

But as one door closes in diving, another one opens. People have had to leave and go back to their countries so in the dive shops, things have changed, people are taking on new roles and getting promotions. We are learning new ways of thinking about diving, how to promote diving, how to keep diving going. I myself have had time and gotten back into the books, back into the study. I have just had a wonderful move within our own company where I am teaching dive masters and professionals right the way through from open water to the instructor development programs. Diving will never die, but it’s definitely on a low ebb.

Why is now a great time to come get certified or dive in general?

Because we have got groups of people now who are even more focused and devoted to giving excellence and quality, they know how precious every customer is. When there was a mass of customers, you could argue that we weren’t lax, but we would take it for granted that we had the next batch of people coming through the door. So, what tends to happen now, not saying that there was bad teaching before, but now clients just get an extra bit. People who are coming down from Bangkok, who are willing to come down here to give it a try are getting more bang for their buck. There are some great bargains and great deals to find now.

I’d say to everyone reading this article, please consider coming down to Koh Tao, get in touch with me directly, you can look me up at Ban’s Diving and we will have an absolutely amazing time. Now is a great time to clean out some stuff in your mind. Get away from the city a little bit, get away from the job, the day-to-day blues of Covid and come get in the water and express yourself. Feel weightless, learn something new and fresh, learn new ways to move and think. I have just had a student do a course with me and he was good on the course but there were a few little things that were not quite right. And he’s gone away and watched loads of YouTube videos and came back and now’s he is diving like I couldn’t believe. Fantastic! Diving obviously had a positive effect on him. He learned something, went away and learned more, came back and now wants to get really good at it. Diving can be a great way to lift yourself out of a bad spot.

What do newbies need to know?

Get on a bus, get on a train, get on a plane, come down to Koh Tao and we will take care of you. You do not need any equipment or any training. There is only one credential, you need to be able to swim a little bit, but even that, we can teach you.  

What are you up to these days to stay busy during this temporary lull?

I have become a barman! Like I said, this situation is giving us all a chance to try something new and different. My son and I have built and opened up a little bar here called DNA Bar. Now, I am on YouTube learning too, I’m just learning how to make killer cocktails. But I really just want to emphasise that diving is still open and as incredible as it ever was, so please come down and visit us and maybe come have a cocktail with me after your class!

When did you decide to make the move and why?

I didn’t have a set day where you could say like “I moved to Thailand on…”. It was a gradual transition. I was holidaying here for just 2 weeks and we changed our round the world tickets to make it 6 months. I did my PADI Open Water (Diving) Course, Advanced Course, Rescue Diving, Divemaster and fell completely in love with it. One thing led to another and the rest is history. Since 1991 I have pretty much been diving every day, besides my trips back home to the UK of course.

I have always used Koh Tao as a base though. I would go to Australia and Fiji, but I always want to come back to Koh Tao. It is a very special island with very special people. The local people are beautiful, and they have a lovely school and community. It has just been a great place for me to bring up a family.

What was it about diving that was such a magnet for you?

It is interesting, for me, diving was like a connection to dancing. I spent years trying to defy gravity and the weightlessness in diving was like a direct link for me. That’s why today I am still totally in love with moving in three dimensional space. It is a magical unbelievable experience where you connect technology with nature, and it meshes so many things together. And then, I did not know I was a teacher, but I have a naturally outgoing personality and I have always been able to connect with people. Combined with what I had done on stage, performing etc., moving into teaching was just really natural; teaching diving connected all the dots. When I look at my life now, it’s just a blessing how it all came together.

How long have you been an instructor? And how many people have you certified?

25 years. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but since you asked, I hold the most certifications of any PADI instructor in the world. It is roughly 18,000 people by now. The dive shop I work at, Ban’s Dive Shop, is the biggest dive shop in the world by the number of people we have certified – over a quarter of a million. We were going to have a big celebration this year for our 300,000th certification but because of Covid, we had to stop the plan. I have grown my career at Ban’s and even though I have been diving all over the world, this is the place I want to come back to.

Why should someone get certified to dive?

Diving is a way for people to reconnect back to the natural world that we all belong to. I believe people have become so disconnected because of technology (of course technology is a wonderful thing too) but when it gets to the point where it disconnects people from that natural way of being, it is concerning. How do you even put into words when a 6 metre fish with a mouth like a car front swims over your head, looks down and questions you. When you have that visceral feeling inside your stomach and your soul for one moment, everything disappears, and you have a brief moment of a connection back to nature. I am just happy that I can help people make a reconnection to the natural world.

What is going on with diving in Koh Tao right now? What is the good and the bad?

Well, the good is there are a lot of great instructors here that have held on. There’s a lot of beautiful positive energy surrounding those who have stayed, and we are supporting each other during these difficult times. There is a local market that’s booming, and the government has done some good stuff to help. So, it is great that more Thai people are exploring the underwater beauty of their homeland. The conditions are fantastic. The water is clearer, and we are seeing more abundant wildlife.

The bad, economically, it is a catastrophe, not only for diving. Needless to say, so many people have lost their jobs in tourism and it has been hard for everyone. In terms of foreigners, a lot of people who came from abroad to realise their dream cannot do it now.

But as one door closes in diving, another one opens. People have had to leave and go back to their countries so in the dive shops, things have changed, people are taking on new roles and getting promotions. We are learning new ways of thinking about diving, how to promote diving, how to keep diving going. I myself have had time and gotten back into the books, back into the study. I have just had a wonderful move within our own company where I am teaching dive masters and professionals right the way through from open water to the instructor development programs. Diving will never die, but it’s definitely on a low ebb.

Why is now a great time to come get certified or dive in general?

Because we have got groups of people now who are even more focused and devoted to giving excellence and quality, they know how precious every customer is. When there was a mass of customers, you could argue that we weren’t lax, but we would take it for granted that we had the next batch of people coming through the door. So, what tends to happen now, not saying that there was bad teaching before, but now clients just get an extra bit. People who are coming down from Bangkok, who are willing to come down here to give it a try are getting more bang for their buck. There are some great bargains and great deals to find now.

I’d say to everyone reading this article, please consider coming down to Koh Tao, get in touch with me directly, you can look me up at Ban’s Diving and we will have an absolutely amazing time. Now is a great time to clean out some stuff in your mind. Get away from the city a little bit, get away from the job, the day-to-day blues of Covid and come get in the water and express yourself. Feel weightless, learn something new and fresh, learn new ways to move and think. I have just had a student do a course with me and he was good on the course but there were a few little things that were not quite right. And he’s gone away and watched loads of YouTube videos and came back and now’s he is diving like I couldn’t believe. Fantastic! Diving obviously had a positive effect on him. He learned something, went away and learned more, came back and now wants to get really good at it. Diving can be a great way to lift yourself out of a bad spot.

What do newbies need to know?

Get on a bus, get on a train, get on a plane, come down to Koh Tao and we will take care of you. You do not need any equipment or any training. There is only one credential, you need to be able to swim a little bit, but even that, we can teach you.  

What are you up to these days to stay busy during this temporary lull?

I have become a barman! Like I said, this situation is giving us all a chance to try something new and different. My son and I have built and opened up a little bar here called DNA Bar. Now, I am on YouTube learning too, I’m just learning how to make killer cocktails. But I really just want to emphasise that diving is still open and as incredible as it ever was, so please come down and visit us and maybe come have a cocktail with me after your class!

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There are no better words to describe my afternoon at the Queen’s Cup Pink Polo match at Thai Polo and Equestrian Club than simply ‘lovely’. I have lived in Thailand for over 7 years and I would go so far as to say this was probably the loveliest afternoon I’ve ever had here. A bold statement to be sure, but after reflecting on my time there, I’m not shy to say it. On top of that, the whole thing was a fundraiser for the Queen Sirikit Breast Cancer Research Foundation. I would like to recount my experience in a hopefully entertaining article, but before getting to it, I’d like to let everyone know that the next major Polo Event is April 18 in Hua Hin, so mark your calendars as it’s open to the public. 

I was graciously invited to the tournament by the Thai Polo and Equestrian Club’s co-owner, Mrs. Nunthinee Tanner who is widely regarded as Thailand’s first female polo player. Now retired from the sport, she has redirected her efforts towards putting Thailand on the map as a major player in the equestrian world. Pink Polo is a women’s only tournament which, under Khun Nunthinee’s leadership, has grown to be one of the most prestigious women’s Polo events in the world. Before going, I knew that I was in for something special, but since I have never been to a polo match, I really didn’t know what to expect. Having attended this event, I’m pretty confident that I will be hard pressed to find another polo event with such a wonderful atmosphere; that is, unless Khun Nunthinee is in charge. 

I am not a fashionista by any stretch of the imagination. Two solid colours, one of which is neutral, and some earrings is about as crazy as I get. When I think of polo spectators, I think of fancy hats, beautiful dresses and sharp linen suits. There was certainly no shortage of any of these, but I managed to find, what I considered to be a beautifully patterned floral dress to fit in with the pink theme. The $6 market dress flowed beautifully all the way down to my feet and I felt like some kind of ethereal being… for a moment, until the gentle breeze that blew across the polo field all day nearly turned me into something X-rated. Limitation of the dress, noted. On the plus side, the weather was spectacular. The crystal-clear blue sky against the pink shades of the guests, white sponsor tent village and the vibrant green of the field was a visual treat.

Upon arrival, there were two McLaren cars parked near the path draped with women, in much more fashionable dresses than mine, taking photos. Just across the entry path from the cars were all the horses waiting for their time to shine. Something about the juxtaposition of the supercars against the graceful yet powerful creatures appealed to me. I contributed my donation at the registration booth in order to enter the grounds and I got a couple of Pink Polo souvenirs right off the bat. 

The first event of the day was a buffet lunch served from 12-2. When I think of buffet lunch for a large event, I don’t expect much but as soon as I smelled the aromas wafting from the food tent, I knew I was wrong. My first stop was to the Thammachart Seafood table. I had the pleasure of interviewing the CEO of the company a few months back for Expat Life so it was nice to see a familiar face. The attention to detail of his display made me want to eat everything, but I knew I had to save room to try a little bit of all the delicacies on offer. I felt like a bee hopping around all the stations taking a little of this and a little of that. I finally made it to my table and on top of the mouthwatering food I had collected, I had fantastic company. I can’t say I added much to the conversation at first because I had so many foods to try, but my table mates were quite interesting: a British UK representative to the UN and his writer wife, the Editor at Large for Expat Life, a Thai professor at Chula and her restauranteur husband and me, a teacher cum writer cum business owner cum risky dress wearer. We certainly came from a diverse background.

After lunch I did some exploring of the club grounds and wandered around the sponsorship tent village. The grounds at Thai Polo and Equestrian Club are immaculately kept. The sponsorship tents were all welcoming and offered all sorts of free samples and enthusiastic explanations of what they had to offer. I didn’t buy a yacht that day, but I did sign up for a great money transfer app called DeeMoney, drank some wine and got a magnet made at the photo booth. 

It seemed as though the event had reached critical mass just in time for the entertainment festivities to start. First was a local bagpipe marching band. Who knew there was a Thai youth bagpiping band? It was a nice treat and reminded me of home (no I’m not Scottish but we Americans do enjoy a good bagpipe band). Next was possibly the most comical event of the day. The Thai Yorkshire Terrier Club parade. I got a real kick out of this, something about those little dogs makes me laugh every time. I hope I’m not offending any Yorkie fans, but I just think they are the funniest looking little mops. Everyone had a great time watching these glossy pups strut their stuff down the grass runway with their owners. Even the other co-owner of the Club, Mr. Harald Link, joined in on the fun. Next was the fashion show on horseback. I think I’ve been to maybe one fashion show in my life and it was certainly not on horseback. Khun Nunthinee joined in on this one and led the parade of beautiful women and beautiful horses. 

Then it was finally time for the main event! The ladies had been competing for a couple days prior in order to seed them for Saturday’s final event. The first game was Thai Polo against Ethiopian Airlines for third and fourth place. I have never seen any kind of equestrian event so I was really clueless about what would ensue. I could surmise that the teams have to hit the ball into the goal to score points but that’s about as far as I could guess. Luckily for me, Daryl Yeap from Malaysia (playing for Ethiopian Airlines) cheerfully explained the basics to me. I must admit, even for not knowing what was going on, it’s an exciting sport to watch. When the players really get on a breakaway, it’s pretty exciting. One thing I found particularly interesting is that every 3.5 minutes (which is actually drawn out to be longer than that), they switched their horses. This is unique in Thailand because of the hot weather; the horses need more rest. It was a really close game with Thai Polo emerging victorious and taking third place overall. Ethiopian Airlines put up a good fight to make for a nail-biter of a match and finished fourth overall. 

While waiting for the championship match, more food! Afternoon tea was served as the finals kicked off. All sorts of pink treats and mini sandwiches were up for grabs. Strawberries, red velvet cupcakes, pink Thai desserts, pink cakes and cookies were what kids dream of. Oh, who am I kidding, it’s also what I dream of. They were small, it’s ok, I can have 6. The competition for the Queen’s Cup was between La Familia and Marengo. The competition was heated with lots of exciting breakaways and even a fall but in the end, La Familia took home the cup. The ladies were all smiles at the prizegiving and the biggest success of all was the record-breaking sum of money that was raised for women’s health. 

I left the event just thinking to myself, wow what a truly lovely afternoon. There’s just no better way to describe it. And the good news is, as I mentioned, the next event will be the Thai polo season championships, Beach Polo, held April 18 in Hua Hin. It’s open to the public and supports another worthy cause, education. I can’t wait, but I’ll be sure to do some more strategic dress shopping in preparation for the season closer. 

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For months, families across the world have been coping with a new normal when it comes to education. Thailand, and particularly Bangkok, as a major Asian hub for international education, will have some unique challenges pressing forward during these Covid-19 times. Dr. Teerakiat Jareonsettasin, former Minister of Education and current Headmaster of Newton Sixth Form

was kind enough to take some time to share his opinions, predictions and advice in regard to the education landscape in Thailand given our current and likely future circumstances. The overarching theme of our discussion was the recurring thought from Dr. T that, “No one really knows how this will pan out. There will not be an aftermath of Covid-19… the virus will be with us for a long time, possibly forever. So, we should not think of this as a ‘back to normal situation’. We need to think of what the new normal is going to be”. 

Dr. T outlined five pieces of advice for how to approach this new normal in a cautious, responsible way.

(1) Each international school should appoint a Covid-19 coordinator. Unless somebody is keeping up with what is going on and is capable of moving fast, schools could endanger people very quickly. There is so much information changing so rapidly that we cannot just leave it to the head of the school to monitor. This coordinator should report directly to the headmaster, the board of governors and the school owners.

(2) We are going to live with this, simply put. When the schools re-open, we already know the public health measures and best practices; schools should get all of their personnel tested. Thailand has the capacity to test. The staff should be tested to reassure both the parents/students but also the other teachers/staff. Not only that, but it’s good practice because teachers are front liners. 

(3) Schools should have safety procedures on entrance and exit. It seems like upon entrance, the kids have lots of precautions but on exit, there are very few. We need to think about kids going home, especially since many of the Thai kids will be going home to large families that include grandparents and possibly other vulnerable people.

(4) Schools should have a system that triggers an alarm very quickly. If we have learned anything from this, time between identifying a case or symptoms and taking action is absolutely critical. With a Covid-19 coordinator in place, schools they will not waste valuable time in protecting the student body and staff from any further spread.

(5) While privacy is of course important, the school needs to know the living conditions at home so they can especially protect the kids who have higher risk families. If one of the children has someone who is immunocompromised or lives with many elderly people, it’s not a bad idea to keep extra tabs on those kids. Schools are a community and taking extra care to protect the most vulnerable among us is an important community action.

Dr. T also shared some of his thoughts on an activity that has become familiar and valuable in recent weeks: online education. Whether parents have taken the reins and are homeschooling their kids, or relying on their children’s international schoolteachers, or even taking this time as a special once in a lifetime break from the grind, doing new things online has become much more common. Dr. T pointed out, “This is probably the first time that the strengths of online teaching have been highlighted. However, I have not heard a single parent say they want online teaching to replace in-person, especially at the younger age group.” Dr. T believes that online teaching is important as a supplement or a temporary replacement when necessary. At his own school, Newton Sixth Form, they incorporate online teaching into their curriculum as the norm, so he is familiar with striking the balance. “In education there are a few things that we can disrupt; we can disrupt the input. But the output, that means the things kids produce and the teachers’ feedback, is almost impossible to disrupt. A lot of older students are not sending their outputs (homework etc.). Teachers cannot look at them in the face and assess motivation to learn. They cannot sense their affects change or their body language; they cannot gauge if the kids fully understand. So online learning has clear limitations.”

The risk that Dr. T sees to the international school system if online learning persists for an extended period is that, “parents see online teaching as inferior to face-to-face. Parents default and do not want to pay higher tuition fees for this. The dilemma is that teachers do not want to make up for the time unless they are paid, which is absolutely fair, teachers are not a charity. Then the school heads say they do not have the money to pay the teachers. That begs the deeper question of, what are international schools for?” It is a question that he did not offer an answer to, but more as something for parents and educators to consider as they move forward and create new expectations.

In terms of the business side of international schools and the soaring tuition fees, there are clearly some major concerns. On the plus side, Dr. T believes that schools in Thailand can learn from similar economic crises of the past to create a more realistic reopening business plan even if they will be taking some financial hits. “If you look at the lessons from Tom Yum Kung in 1997, and again 10 years ago, a lot of Thai people suddenly became poor. At the moment, the wealthy Thais are also being hit hard. They will not be able to afford the fees for international schools. I think one likely possibility is there will be an attrition and students will go back to government schools.” However, he does see a light in the tunnel when it comes to enrolment. “It is likely there will also be a repatriation of students who had been abroad or were considering going abroad for school. Now, physical travel is going to become very difficult so these Thai international students will have a tough time going abroad. Now we cannot send our own students abroad so maybe they will be going to our domestic international schools. It is quite possible that students who would have gone abroad will replace some of the demand of departed students, at least in the short term, which may keep schools afloat.”

This restriction of travel leads into his next thoughts on staffing and how it will likely result in some major changes not only to the instruction but also to the businesses. While some classes at international schools are taught by Thais, the majority are taught by native English speakers, which are quickly becoming in short supply. “Recruiting staff from abroad was already challenging and will become basically impossible if the travel bans hold. Will the parents pay the same tuition for non-native English speakers to teach these classes?” Assuming non-native speakers will fill these roles, Dr. T sees a solution to the problem in how the curriculum is delivered. “The thing we need to do creatively is improve the delivery of the curriculum. We have to ask the question, is a native speaker necessary? International schools need to look at the businesses and their fees. This is going to reorient the international schools’ businesses in a big way.” 

As this is all still fresh, it is going to require some juggling for the schools because “not all international schools can hire Thai nationals to do some of these jobs. The law for international schools has been set to protect consumers. There are teachers’ unions, associations, teaching licenses etc. that need to be abided by.” Dr. T does not anticipate the Ministry of Education relaxing these rules either. They are typically quite rigid when it comes to protecting the consumers which means schools will be faced with the challenge of some creative curriculum delivery. 

Dr. T concluded our conversation by saying that “These are not my definitive thoughts, but this is what I can see right now. And I think everyone else can see this too. In time, we will know so much more.” The 2020/2021 school year will certainly be like nothing we have ever seen before but he is optimistic that the changes it will spur, however uncomfortable they may be at first, necessary alterations to the system to make it better for all involved.

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Expat Life sat down with the ex-Minister for Education to find out what he is up to after being the longest serving Minister of Education for the last 30 years now that he has moved back to Thailand from the UK.

What is your background?

I was a good student, let’s put it that way, I worked very hard and got into medical school at Chulalongkorn University here in Bangkok. After graduating from Chulalongkorn, I then got a Thai government scholarship to study psychiatry and child psychiatry in the UK. I came back and worked at the Faculty of Medicine, Khon Kaen University and then became Vice Dean for the Faculty of Medicine. Later, I was invited back to the UK to be a consultant. A consultant is a top medical position in the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK where I brought up my two sons who then went on to study Medicine at Cambridge University of Medicine.

How did you get involved in education?

As a child psychiatrist by training I taught at the University of London in the UK. Because of the nature of my work, naturally I was involved in education and worked closely with schools. I attended regular school meetings and advised schools on mental health in young people and so on. Then in 2014 I came back to Thailand to set up an educational foundation with the Crown Property Bureau of Thailand. 

A few months into the project, I was asked to be a Vice Minister of Education and was promoted to be the Deputy Minister of Education in 2015. On December 6th, 2016, I became the Minister of Education and held the position until 2019, so nearly 5 years’ service, including my Vice Minister position. 

As Minister, I brought Carnegie Mellon University (a private research university based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1900 by Andrew Carnegie) to Thailand, McKinsey (McKinsey & Company is an American management consulting firm) and Cambridge (University of Cambridge, dating to 1209. University colleges include King’s, famed for its choir and towering Gothic chapel, as well as Trinity, founded by Henry VIII, and St John’s, with its 16th century Great Gate) in to work with us on various projects, and oversaw Thailand joining PISA. (PISA is the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment. PISA measures 15-year-olds’ ability to use their reading, mathematics and science knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges). Basically, I learnt a great deal about education with a blend between local context and international knowledge. 

What attracted you toward education?

Because this is where the future lies. The more I work on it with people, the more important I realise it is. Put it this way, as a child psychiatrist, I am fixing somebody who has been wronged by the system and I do that with one child at a time. The people who need my help the most, benefit the least from this system. Preventive measures are always better. As a psychiatrist, you can only treat a small number of people. 

Working in education, you can actually influence a lot of young people at one time. So, if we get it right, the difference can be enormous. Many of the policies I introduced have finally started to bear some fruit. I’m not talking about it romantically or idealistically, but you can really make an impact on education. A lot of politicians come and go, they don’t ever learn about what education means. Just because you become Minister, doesn’t mean you know about education. I think I learned about education from associating myself with educators around the world, at almost every level, who I then learned from. At least I can claim that I know a little bit about what good education is.

What are the roots of Newton Prep?

There are a collection of very clever people called Enconcept. They have been in private education tutorials
for 20 years and helped the Thai government produce various education apps for English and vocational skills.
They came to me a year before I stepped down as Minister and asked if I had any ideas about uplifting Thai education and exposing Thais to an international curriculum.

I told them in Thailand if we need to have an international curriculum to be taught biligually, i.e.
teaching maths and science in our mother tongue alongside developing English to the best level.

So, I conceptualised that if we have a sixth form, we also need to prepare the students in their character
building in order to go to top universities. They need to work on clarifying themselves, developing their purpose and
aspirations, their interests and that’s what we call the Newton Leadership programme. We teach our students to develop
character and their academic skills.

What is the Newton’s vision?

Newton Sixth Form is a personalised pioneering maths and science specialist sixth form with emphasis on character building for top universities – the first in Thailand.

Newton School’s vision is to produce the best human capital by preparing students aspiring to go to top universities, either nationally or internationally, to realise their dreams. It aims to provide personalised solutions with high-level teaching in academic subjects, character building and English language, all required to enter top universities of
their choice. Newton’s philosophy is that of high expectation of students and staff in academics, character and English.
The curriculum and methodology is under the guidance of a team of experts in education from Enconcept and Edukare
(UK). Our campus is located right in the city centre of Bangkok.

At Newton we have a motto, “In Newton, we CARE”, which is an acronym for Character, Academics, Resources, English. At Newton we “Build character or top universities and put excellence at the heart of learning and teaching.”

Who can study at Newton?

Newton admits students who have completed IGCSEs or secondary students of the Thai curriculum, wishing to pursue A level.

Pre-Sixth Form

For those who have not had GCSEs or IGCSEs, they can enrol themselves at Newton to study pre-sixth form programmes to help them obtain good IGCSEs results and to be A level ready.

A level qualifications are generally respected and accepted globally including American, Australian, Canadian and European universities. Students may be required to sit SAT and/or AP exams for which Newton can provide extra-tuition.

Why study at Newton?

Number one is our location, we are a city campus in Siam Square. Number two, there are no uniforms as per sixth form tradition, so they can wear what they are comfortable with. Number three, we are probably the only sixth form open on weekends so we have flexible schedules. Number four, each student has a personalised plan and supervisor to work with them. That means, if they need resources anywhere, we can get them and bring them onsite. The main resources in any school are the teachers. We bring the best teachers in Thailand to Newton.

Other tests preparation such as IELTS, TOEFL, BMAT, etc can also be provided. We also offer a special Newton English course for those who seek to improve their English to a high level speedily. Harvard based computer science programme is also provided to those with interest in pursuing computer science or engineering.

I would like the community to see this as an opportunity for Thailand that can provide world- class quality education with reasonable tuition fees so that more Thai students can reach their academic potential. I want people to know that we integrated the best practices in education. I have done my best with this group of people who really want to upgrade Thai education. Now we are admitting students, and we begin in earnest in September.

Please come and talk to us and look at us as a better alternative to the traditional sixth form options. www.thenewtonschool or call 065 998 6528

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As someone who doesn’t drink coffee, I find it a bit amusing that Coffee Club has become one of my favorite spots in the city. I have lived in Bangkok for about seven years and until recently, I never went to Coffee Club because I thought it was just about coffee. I was so wrong. At this point, I have become a bit of a Coffee Club connoisseur and have racked up a ton of points on their app from ordering basically everything on the menu (besides coffee). 

After having tried at least ten different locations all over Thailand, my favourite one is the Siam Paragon branch. I’m actually sitting here sipping some mango mojito iced tea as I write this. Most of the work I do is freelance and I’m often orbiting around Siam. Location wise, this branch is great for me. It took me a little while to find it because it’s not where you would expect to find a restaurant – it’s on the furniture floor. All Coffee Clubs have good Wi-Fi, this one is no exception, making it a great place to get some quality food/drinks and knock out some midday work. Since it’s away from the hustle of the food court, I don’t hear the constant din from the crowds outside which adds to the relaxing atmosphere.

I’m not exactly sure of the details, but this branch is a bit different from the others because it is in partnership with the luxury property company, Sansiri. The design and furniture are clean and bright with the overall look and feel of a hybrid between a comfy modern living room and a restaurant. Oversized off-white pillows in all sorts of different textures make the plush benches welcoming places to find respite from the bustle of the city. There are tastefully done plants everywhere (some fake, some real) which makes for quite a tranquil environment. The soft jazz background music ties it all together.  

The one thing that keeps me coming back to Coffee Clubs all around Thailand is the menu. I can always count on them to have a diverse offering of reasonably priced, high quality food. The menu has a few staples (which I hope the sun never sets on!) plus a selection of new dishes that rotate every 3-6 months or so. The drink menu is equally enticing. I prefer their tea selections but there are all sorts of creative coffee and smoothie options as well as some indulgent sweet treats. 

For a refreshingly different Coffee Club vibe that keeps true to its roots of wonderful service and a delicious menu, give this branch at Paragon a try!

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The first in our series of articles in Thailand on Unsung heroes…


I left the Khlong Toei slum with two things that are connected in a surprising way:

  1. A sack of fresh mushrooms grown by senior citizens
  2. Having witnessed the closest thing to a saint that I think I will ever see, Khun Prateep
    Ungsongtham Hata.

As I write this, it will be impossible to put into words what I felt walking around on that Tuesday morning with Prateep. I experienced the full range of emotions; I was brought to tears while simultaneously feeling a sense of hope from her gentle touch on my shoulder that I have never experienced in my life. 

In the 1960s there was a tiny girl who lived in the slums near the port, the same slums that still exist today, nearly 60 years later. Her name was Prateep. She had 4 years of primary school education and she worked at the port earning 12B per day, and a whopping 36B at night. Her main task, along with many other children, was scraping the rust off of the enormous ships that came to dock in the ports of Bangkok and then exposing themselves to noxious fumes while repainting them. One day, the unthinkable happened. Scaffolding that the children were working from collapsed and threw them to the ground with the pipes crashing down on top of them. Prateep watched as blood poured from the fractured skull of one of her friends. “He was twisting and shaking in agony like a fish that had been hit on the head. He was paralysed”. There was no justice, no welfare. No one stood up for the boy for fear of losing their own pittance of a salary. In speaking with her, this memory is clearly as fresh in Prateep’s mind as if it were yesterday. 

At 12 years old, she started saving her meagre wages to pay for night school so that she could give herself more education. After surviving the docks and completing her secondary education, she was awarded a place at a teachers college. She continued to work and take classes at night and 10 years later, she graduated with a teaching license. She recognised, at a very early age, that education could transform lives. “If poor people have no education, they can’t protect themselves. They have no voice.” After making sure to get herself a proper education and escaping the slum, she could have easily walked away and never looked back, but instead, she decided to do exactly the opposite.  

Prateep knew that there were no schools for slum children as many of them have no identity cards so with Mae Kru Mingporn, she decided to open one by herself, at her home in 1968. It was a 1B a day school that aimed to simply teach children to read and write. Some families couldn’t even afford that but Prateep didn’t turn them away. Many of the students who attended her school lacked the paperwork to prove their citizenship which made it impossible for them to enrol in Thai government school. This left the children and families in limbo and almost ensured their tether to poverty. 

It soon became very apparent that rather than focusing on formal education, most of her time was spent helping families and children simply cope with the abysmal day-to-day conditions of living in the slum. Prateep was a trusted voice for many of the destitute families so her role transitioned from a passionate educator into a community leader. The school became a gathering place for people in the community to voice their concerns in desperate hope that someone would listen and help them. Naturally, this assembly of the poor attracted the government who then shut down the 1B a day school citing lack of permits and subsequently demolished that section of the slum in order for the port to expand.

That didn’t stop the Khun Prateep “We are always afraid. If we are all afraid then who amongst us will be brave?” Prateep based her funding plan on the simple idea that the more we give, the more we receive. The mantra has served the Duang Prateep Foundation for nearly 40 years. In 1978, when Prateep was 26 years old she achieved a major milestone. She won a financial prize from the Magsaysay awards in the Philippines. It amounted to roughly 20,000USD, all of which she donated to start the Foundation. When she announced that it would all go to the children directly rather than investing it and using the interest to fund projects (as was common for similar ventures at the time), people from all walks of life started pouring money into her efforts, more than tripling her initial donation. 

Around the same time, her re-established 1B school was recognised by the Bangkok Metropolitan Association (BMA) as a proper school. Prateep became the principal of her officially established school. After becoming principal, she determined that anyone with an understanding of how a BMA school runs could do the job but the job of working directly with poor families was much more complicated and required someone with intimate knowledge of the situation. She stepped down as principal and became Secretary General of the Duang Prateep Foundation. 

In the first 5 years they:

  • Opened 15 slum child development centres
  • Worked with the Central Registration Department to get proper documents for the nationless children
  • Established scholarship programmes
  • Lunch programmes
  • Helping evicted communities (the port owns the slum land and can act at will to demolish sections)
  • Dealt with drug problems
  • Requested water and electricity

For the past 40 years, they have continued doing all of these activities and more. Much, much more.

On a cool Tuesday morning in January, Prateep generously picked me up and took me to her school. I have lived in Bangkok for 7 years but like many expats and Thais included, I have never ventured into the slums. When we were dropped off at the doorstep of her elementary school, I could hardly believe a school so welcoming, organised and simply happy could exist at the heart of a place that is plagued with desperation and hardship. Prateep held my hand as she escorted me into the English class where volunteers were teaching a kindergarten class. The smiles, there were so, so many smiles. My eyes started to tear up. Prateep gracefully floated away from me and straight to the kids, especially the naughty boys who she soothed with a soft hand on their backs and a smiling ‘sawatdee ka’. 

The kids lined up and marched their way out of English class and Prateep guided me around to some of the general classes. The thing that struck me most about the school was how open it was. The classrooms were essentially three walled with the fourth ‘wall’ facing a courtyard and a playground that would be a dream for any child. I commented on the layout and Prateep explained that it was designed like that on purpose. In the slum, everything is so dark and enclosed. At the school the kids can breathe. They can see the sky and look more than 10 feet without seeing a wall. 

The school uses a Montessori method so as we ambled through the halls, the kids were doing all sorts of different tasks. But one thing was consistent, their affection for Ajarn Prateep. The kids were drawn to her like a magnet and she gave each and every one of them genuine and tender attention as if they were the only person in the world. It was hard to imagine that some of these kids who were in their little uniforms singing, dancing, doing puzzles, matching shapes, drawing and smiling with the purest happiness in the world would, at the end of the day, go back to a home where they may not have dinner, or someone would be passed out from drugs on their floor, or perhaps no one would be there at all. I couldn’t help but be overcome with emotion as I placed my hands on the railing facing the courtyard and dried my eyes before turning back around to a little tyke missing a couple front teeth tugging on my shirt and wanting to show me her class photo.

After touring the school, which is all I thought we were doing that day, Prateep took me into the housing area nearby the school. 5 steps in, I could immediately understand why she designed her school the way she did; it was an utterly claustrophobic maze. We strolled down the tight pathways with each passerby greeting Prateep and her taking a minute to check on them and see how they were doing. She truly knew everyone. She showed me the houses her foundation had built (another one of her ventures) and took a solid 10 minutes to hear the grievances of a woman with a pushcart talking about how there is a house on the verge of collapse and they desperately need help. 

Our final stop was for lunch at the senior/community centre, also run and financed by the Duang Prateep Foundation. Here’s where the mushrooms finally enter the story. The staff had prepared a delicious lunch for us which included stir-fried mushrooms grown by the senior citizens. It’s a project that helps to give them purpose and a reason to stay involved with the community as well as provide a healthy, inexpensive protein source for their families. I am not a mushroom fan, but as a sign of politeness and because of what I felt like after what I had seen that day, I should never be picky about food placed in front of me, I ate them. They were absolutely delicious. I had seconds. As we said our farewells, Prateep handed me a huge bag of mushrooms and a book and thanked me. I was speechless. 

So, what is in store for the future of the Duang Prateep Foundation? Prateep once said, “Once there are no more poor people, the job of the foundation will end.” We can only hope that the foundation will shut its doors someday for the right reasons. For now, just like its namesake angel, the foundation is a beacon of hope, a calming voice in a time of chaos and a gentle touch on your arm that makes you realise what is actually important. 

Khun Prateep is currently in yet another David and Goliath battle with the Port Authority of Bangkok who are pressing to remove the ’squatters’ as they call them that have made a home over the years in and around the Klong Toei area.

Technically of course these poor disadvantaged people are squatters on private land, but does Thailand really need yet another luxury shopping mall on the banks of the Chao Phraya River?

The following article is reprinted from Khun Prateep is currently in yet another David and Goliath battle with the Port Authority of Bangkok who are pressing to remove the ’squatters’ as they call them that have made a home over the years in and around the Klongtoey area.

Technically of course these poor disadvantaged people are squatters on private land but does Thailand really need yet another luxury shopping mall on the banks of the Chao Phraya River?

The following article is reprinted from Coconuts Thailand.

One of Bangkok’s 50 districts, Khlong Toei, or “pandan canal,” was named for the plant that grew along its banks.

The Port Authority owns the land where the community is located, and many consider that fact the end of discussion when it comes to evicting upward of 150,000 people living there. But that concept of land ownership is a relatively modern development established after the community was settled.

When the Siamese capital moved from Ayutthaya to Bangkok over two centuries ago, all land was owned by the King, who could lend, grant or gift it for use. Many of today’s neighbourhoods and streets began as such royal gifts.

Up through the mid 20th century, Thailand had abundant land and scarce labour, and people were allowed to take possession of unused land by cultivating it, wrote David Feeny, professor emeritus of economics at Canada’s McMaster University.

Ownership rights based on use and exploitation were left intact when modern property laws involving titles and deeds were written in 1954, just as families were encouraged to settle around the Bangkok Port, which had opened a few years prior between two sharp bends of the Chao Phraya River.

Thailand’s rice boom led to the port’s construction being funded by the World Bank, and nearly all trade passed through it for decades. But even a large expansion couldn’t keep pace with demand, and the opening of a deep-sea port Southeast of the capital at Laem Chabang heralded its decline.

Those who settled there to work the docks included immigrants from Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and what was then Burma. They formed close-knit supportive neighbourhoods, according to research by the Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Today’s campaign to erase the slum, as one transport official put it, is the latest in a cycle almost as old as the community.

Three years after land-ownership laws were written, in 1957, the Port Authority sought to force out the dwellings to build a market and other buildings. It succeeded in relocating over 100 households from what’s called the Lock 6 area to Lock 12. The residents then organised against the expulsions, petitioning the Prime Minister and physically blocking demolition of homes.

Similar efforts were pushed back in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1983, residents departed voluntarily from some land for the port to develop under a 20-year land sharing agreement under which claims of both landowner and settlers were recognised, according to Global Perspectives on the History of Squatting.

Many living there today remember what happened when a forced relocation failed following a 1991 chemical fire that left thousands sick and homeless. Many were rehoused about 30kms away in government projects. But they couldn’t find work and most eventually returned to living in Khlong Toei.

It’s easy, he said, for those who’ve never experienced such poverty to say, “Oh they’re getting free land and they’re not happy about it?” But that betrays poor understanding of the basic realities faced by the poor, community organiser Garat “Duang” Peumrab said in August.

Today, there are nearly 30 communities living legally and illegally on the 500 rai (80 hectares) of land, according to Penwadi Sangchan, manager of the Duang Prateep Foundation, an NGO that has played a key role in negotiations.

Evictions and campaigns against “encroachment” took on renewed fervour under the military government which seized power in 2014. With that, a new appreciation for waterfront real estate brought a particular zeal for redeveloping the Chao Phraya River. Many long-time riverside residents were cleared out and an unpopular plan to build boardwalks along its banks continues to be revived.

Beginning in late 2018, the Port Authority, an agency supervised by the Transport Ministry, began flaunting splashy plans to redevelop Khlong Toei into a riverside mall similar to the newly opened IconSiam, a luxury mall frequented by tourists.

Reprinted from Coconuts Bangkok Thailand’s leading news online website.

Should you wish to assist those less fortunate than you and make a donation to the Duang Prateep Foundation you can do so by sending a donation to the following: 

Bank:  KASIKORNBANK

Branch:  Klong Toey

Address:  1262 Rama 4 Road, Klong Toey, Bangkok 10110, Thailand

SWIFT:  KASITHBK

A/c No:  017-2-06336-5

A/c Name:  Duang Prateep Foundation

(Once the bank transfer has been completed, please send a copy of the transfer documentation so that they can easily trace your donation at their bank and remit a receipt promptly). 

People wishing to volunteer in the English Programme should contact:

Ms. Susanne Joachim (English Programme Coordinator)

Email: [email protected]

Thank you again for your interest in the work of the Duang Prateep Foundation.

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Tree of Life Foundation

by Jocelyn Pollak
Tree of Life foundation

Imagine you didn’t have shoes to wear to school, or your family didn’t have enough food to give you more than one small meal per day, or you didn’t have soap to wash your hands. For many kids in small hill tribe villages in the North of Thailand, they don’t need to imagine these scenarios, it’s just what they call normal. But thanks to the Tree of Life Foundation, this is becoming less of a reality for more and more kids every year.

Darrell and Randy Lovernich first came to Thailand more than 15 years ago and absolutely fell in love with the country and the people. Rather than just touristing through for a couple days and enjoying the bubble of luxurious resorts and private beaches, they spent time getting to know people, families and communities. They decided to buy property in the Land of Smiles and make it a home away from home.

Tree of Life foundation

As they got to know more people and visit more areas in Thailand, they noticed that there were communities that lacked fundamental necessities for life: food, water, suitable shelter, basic sanitation, education… Both professionally successful and young retirees, they are not shy to the idea of taking action when action needs to be taken. They began looking into the steps to form a legal foundation so that they could spend their time doing what they could to help out in their adoptive home.

For those unfamiliar with setting up a foundation in Thailand, it’s a gruelling, two-year minimum process. There aren’t many foundations and to survive the gauntlet of paperwork, financial checks, credibility checks, etc. to just get the title of “Foundation”, only the strong survive. But Darrell and Randy were determined to do it right and set up something that would be sustainable in the long term. They credit the tireless work of their lawyer Supaporn Sara Persson and her legal team for making the Tree come to Life.

The Tree of Life Foundation has several main objectives:

  • Provide textbooks, teachers’ manuals, casual reading books and dictionaries to impoverished children in remote rural areas without sufficient funding
  • Create scholarships for impoverished students to enhance educational opportunity
  • Provide basic necessities such as toiletries, clothing, food, kitchen equipment, medical supplies
  • Build libraries in remote rural areas Improve school sanitary conditions for the children in the remote rural schools
  • Support HIV infected children.
Tree of Life Foundation

Right now, the foundation focuses on two schools in the Mae Rim/Maetaeng District about three hours North of Chiang Mai. Darrell and Randy believe strongly in sustainability and that focusing on a couple schools and really doing it properly is better than spreading themselves too thin over many schools. The foundation supports 68 students at Ban Na Gu School and Ban Mae Maem school. So far, the Tree of Life Foundation has donated 1,400 new books, classroom supplies, boots, clothing, towels, blankets, pillows, hair clippers, 300kg of rice, fish sauce, cooking oil, sugar, noodles, sardines, snacks, and even some footballs for fun! They also worked with Marriott to refit the kitchen at one of the schools so that they can prepare meals cleanly and safely for the students.

They are constantly doing creative fundraisers to raise money and awareness for their efforts. 100% of all money raised goes to the foundation; the operating expenses are a running gift from Randy and Darrell and until the fundraising is sufficient, they are self-funding everything. They are truly working out of the kindness of their hearts. You may have seen Randy dressed up as Santa at the US Ambassador’s Holiday Party or at one of the big Bangkok hotels over the holiday season. All money from the events was donated to the foundation.

Tree of Life Foundation

Moving forward, Darrell and Randy have big plans for The Tree of Life. The have already started the ball rolling on a couple major projects at each school in addition to their regular supplement of food and supplies. At Ban Na Gu, they plan to help bolster one of the school buildings to prevent it from collapse. They are also working on bringing water filtration systems to the school and doing a major renovation of the bathrooms so that the kids have a sanitary, functional space. At Ban Mae Maem, they are working specifically on bringing healthier food options to the kids. Again, partnering with Marriott, they brought boxed lunches to the kids which much to their delight, included an apple.

Randy and Darrell are no strangers at the schools, they are planning to head back up North in February to deliver the next round of supplies and to continue working on the larger infrastructure projects.

If you’d like more information about how you can help the Tree of Life Foundation or you would like to support them financially or with supplies, visit their website at www.tree-of-life-thailand.com or email them at [email protected].

Best of luck to this foundation as it continues to make real impact on the daily lives of these children.

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Rugby

About a year ago, I wrote a piece for Expat Life in Thailand titled “An American’s First Rugby Experience”. It was a somewhat tongue-in-cheek account of my trip to the Singapore 7s rugby tournament and my near complete ignorance about the sport. Here I am again to follow up that article with this creatively titled one, “An American’s Second Rugby Experience”, a marginally less ignorant account of my recent trip to the Rugby World Cup in Japan. Despite the fact that we Yanks enjoy a good sporting event, rugby has never been particularly popular in the land of the free and home of the brave. Football, the American padding-wearing, skull-smashing version of kill the carrier, eclipses both rugby and soccer in popularity. However, the USA did manage to field a team for the RWC… and that’s all I’m going to say about that.

RugbyLike the soccer World Cup (remember, I’m American, so it’s soccer), the RWC happens every four years in a different country. Japan hosted the ninth World Championship this year from September 20 to November 2. This was particularly exciting for the sport because it was the first time the event has ever been hosted in Asia and the first time it hasn’t been hosted by a traditionally tier one rugby country. Over 37 matches, twenty countries will be battling for the championship. At the time of publication, the tournament is still in full swing despite several matches being rescheduled due to the monster typhoon that hit Japan mid-October.

I arrived in Fukuoka on the morning of October 2 and was immediately made aware that the RWC was happening. There were banners and signs everywhere. Cheerful volunteer information guides offered help to all of the bleary eyed travellers, like myself, who had just come off the red-eye flight. Brochures and pamphlets galore! These guys were ready. Despite flying into Fukuoka (for just 5,200B! thanks typhoon season), it was not my final destination. I had to get to Oita, which is a small city on the North East coast of Kyushu about 2 hours from Fukuoka, to see the New Zealand All Blacks play Canada that night. Because there were so many people with the same plan as me, all the seats on the JR trains were booked so I had to gamble on being able to get a seat in the free seating zone. Luckily, I was able to get one and almost immediately passed out. Red-eyes on budget airlines, as cheap as they are, are a little tougher when you’re in your mid-thirties.

Oita station was buzzing with RWC activity. Just like with any good sports game, you could feel the anticipation for the 7pm game already building at noon. Because of the massive influx of people for the All Blacks/Canada game, it was tough to find a reasonably priced hotel so I ended up staying outside Oita in a decidedly non-tourist, very suburban area. I dropped my bags at the hotel where they literally could not speak a word of English besides rug-uh-bee and went to the local ramen guy. Even his little shop in a random Oita suburb was completely decked out in RWC swag. These guys were into it.

JapanThe tail end of a typhoon made for a wet afternoon/evening but it didn’t stop the rugby fans. Please take my judgement of the stadium with an understanding that the bulk of my sporting event venue experience has been at Wrigley Field in Chicago (built in 1914), Soldier Field in Chicago (built in 1924) and old Yankee Stadium in New York (built in 1923). The Showa Denko Dome was like an ultra-modern spaceship in comparison. The scene was also quite different from any American sporting event I have experienced in person or on TV. The whole experience was much more sterile. There was one kind of beer, but barely any drunk people, and about 5 food options. That’s it. They also had a couple of merchandise tents that were completely sold out of almost everything and had waiting lines of well over an hour. At the whole event, the only thing that they seemed to drop the ball on, no pun intended, was the gear sales. Note for anyone who wants to make some money at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, get a bunch of T-shirts made and sell them on the street.

lawnBy the start of the game, the stands were packed solid. I had no idea that the Japanese were such huge rugby fans. I was sitting in the cheap end-zone seats next to a Canadian guy who used to play on the national team until he got injured. It was my lucky night; he explained everything that was going on to me and cheered loudly enough for both of us. I was pretty conflicted as to who to root for as I didn’t have an allegiance towards either team. I had an All Blacks shirt so I wore that, but really, I was hoping my upstairs Canadian neighbours would be able to put up a fight. Unfortunately, the game was an absolute killing, 63-0. Apparently, the All Blacks don’t have a mercy point. Despite the rain, upon exiting the stadium there were about 150 Japanese volunteers all lined up at the exit gate waving goodbye and giving high fives to everyone as we left the stadium. A nice way to end the evening.

I had a few days gap between games, so I had the opportunity to explore Kyushu a bit. I ate sushi delivered to me by a remote-controlled car, got a fish foot massage and had a near hallucinogenic experience after being buried in hot, wet volcanic sand at an onsen (which I highly recommend by the way). The part of Japan that I was in is known for onsens, or in English, hot spring spas. Particularly in a small town called Beppu, there are 100+ small establishments with hot pools and other thermal related treatments. I went to Takegawara onsen in downtown Beppu which I came to find out is one of the oldest. For an extra 1000 yen, they take you to a side room for the sand treatment. I don’t know how else to describe it, but I could feel my heartbeat in my entire body because of the weight of the sand. Totally worth it.

roomAfter checking out Fukuoka, Beppu and Yufuin, I headed back to Oita on Saturday for the Australia/Uruguay game. It was a beautiful afternoon compared to the rainy evening of the All Blacks game, so I was already off to a good start. Before the game, I spent some time in the Fan Zone that they had set up outside the station. I stumbled through an obstacle course, had some fun in the photo booths and let some high school kids do the thing where they pick you up by the legs and you catch the ball. I admit, I screamed. The crowd for this game was considerably less crazy. I think the star power of the All Blacks must have drawn in a lot more people. This was also a marginally more exciting game to watch. Uruguay put up a pretty good fight but, in the end, lost to the Wallabies 45-10. With another 160 minutes of rugby under my belt (see, I now know that games are 80 minutes long), I am starting to feel a little more confident about knowing what’s going on. While I have zero authority beyond that of an average spectator, what I am very confident of is Japan’s ability to manage a major international sporting event. They did an absolutely incredible job. Their attention to detail (minus the lack of merchandise) made for a truly memorable experience. So, well done Japan. For anyone considering a trip to the Olympics in 2020, I’d say go for it!

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Thammachart Seafood

When I was a kid, my Dad used to offer me $5 to eat one clam; I refused. I am not a seafood lover, but after sitting down and talking with Julian and Yeeran Davies, CEO and CMO of Thammachart Seafood, the tide has started to turn for me. Thammachart Seafood, meaning ‘natural’ in Thai, has been changing people’s perspectives on seafood for nearly 15 years. The story of Thammachart and how they have revolutionised one of Thailand’s largest industries with the simple aim of bringing responsibly sourced, better quality seafood, not only to their own family’s dinner table, but to the tables of everyone in Thailand, is quite inspiring. As Yeeran said, “whatever we serve to our customers, we give to our own family.” Originally from Kenya but educated in the UK, Julian came to Thailand around 25 years ago as part of a PhD programme in biotechnology and aquaculture. He was based in the east of Thailand and had planned to collect data and do research on a shrimp farm for several months as part of his studies. Rather than finishing his PhD, he ended up taking a job as operations manager for the company he was doing research for. After several years at the company, there was a management buyout and Julian took over the company as the managing director. Yeeran entered the scene around the same time as an experienced and visionary marketing manager.

Yeeran Thammachart Seafood

Yeeran grew up with 4 older brothers and her family had a successful textile business so it’s no surprise that she was instrumental in cultivating the family business atmosphere of Thammachart. She spent some time studying in Minnesota in the US and completed her studies at Chulalongkorn University in Communication Arts. She was working in advertising when she saw an ad for a shrimp farm looking for a marketing manager. It was attractive to her because she saw a chance to branch out from her own family business and use what she had learned to create her own path. She also liked the idea of working with a company that focused on the full lifecycle of the product. The melding of Julian and Yeeran’s unique skill-sets led not only to the establishment of Thammachart but also to a marriage and two effervescent children. This family approach to the business is something that makes the company special in the industry. Julian and Yeeran have built the company while raising two lovely children. They personally visit many of their suppliers in Norway, Australia, New Zealand, Europe and across Asia and when possible take the children with them to the farms and fisheries and have great family fun on the trips. They also aim to treat their nearly 900 employees like family; I certainly saw lots of smiles in the short time I spent in the office.

Yeeran and baby

For those unfamiliar with the normal operations of the seafood industry, as I was, here’s basically how it works (or in the case of business who now partner with Thammachart, worked). I’ll use shrimp as an example because Thailand is a massive producer of shrimp (in fact, 90% of Thai shrimp are for export) and shrimp farms are the origin of Thammachart. Farmers grow shrimp over the course of 4-6 months. Weather can majorly affect their harvests and lead to crop failures and disease. In the past, there was widespread unregulated use of antibiotics and chemicals which has put a bit of a black mark on the industry. Luckily, this has been massively regulated for the last 15 years, both domestically and internationally so it’s shouldn’t be a concern for consumers. After farmers harvest the shrimp, they sell them to the highest bidder. Brokers then warehouse the shrimp for a day. The shrimp sit in water overnight and absorb it, adding to their weight. After a day, they are distributed to grocery stores and other buyers who sell them to consumers. Voila, 2-3 day old shrimp cocktail. Mmmmm….

The Dock by Thammachart Seafood

When Thammachart came on the scene, they threw a wrench in these finely oiled shrimp industry gears. Julian and Yeeran wanted to create a solution to bring the consumer and the source as close together as possible. Waterlogged, 3 day old shrimp did not seem like the best possible solution to them but it was how everyone was operating because there was no other option. Grocery stores, restaurants and especially consumers couldn’t possibly outbid the massive seafood brokers. Since Thammachart already owned shrimp farms, they were able to build out a ‘farm to table’ solution and present it as a viable business alternative to a major grocer at the time: Carrefour. Thammachart’s successful partnership with Carrefour made it possible for the grocer to buy fresher seafood at a lower price. It was a win-win for everyone – including the environment because Thammachart runs a tight ship in terms of how and where they farm their shrimp. They have been used as an example for the Department of Fisheries as a sustainable, clean seafood model and are audited weekly for antibiotic and chemical usage. The overwhelming Carrefour success got Thammachart noticed by The Mall Group in 2005. They were asked to take over the seafood counter at Emporium. Consumers noticed the difference in quality and presentation but weren’t lightening their wallets any less.

Thammachart Seafood

This turn-key solution to seafood counter management led to the formation of Thammachart Seafood Retail in 2007. They had 4 counters to start. Now, they manage 195 counters in leading supermarkets all over Thailand. The quality of the product speaks for itself but Yeeran used her marketing savvy to develop the brand so that consumers know that if they are buying from a Thammachart staffed and run concession, they are getting good quality. Shrimp is obviously still one of the product lines, but 40% of their turnover is from salmon and trout. In fact, they import the largest volume of these two fish to Thailand which means they have the volume to have the best quality possible. Despite the enormous variety of seafood, most people stick to what they know. When I asked Julian why people aren’t more adventurous when it comes to seafood, he explained that there is a “fear of the unknown”. For this reason, Thammachart makes sure to serve all the ‘fan favourites’ but they also make an effort to always stock some of the more obscure options so that people have the opportunity to learn about and try more seafood.

Oysters

Thammachart works with 6-8 origins around the world for their imports and doesn’t work with consolidators because they don’t want their product to sit for a day or more. They get as close as possible to the suppliers and actually visit them so they can see exactly who they are dealing with. Controlling the quality of what they offer is very important to them. To get the more unknown seafood while keeping the price reasonable, they will tack small shipments of monkfish, for example, on to a one of their regular large shipments of say, oysters from France or salmon from Norway so that they can get the freshest fish without paying for a special shipment. This strategy allows them to bring smaller volume items direct to the consumer without an astronomical price tag. Julian and Yeeran have also added restaurant outlets to Thammachart’s structure and at three different levels. They first established The Dock at Siam Paragon which proved a rapid success so they opened branches in-house at The Mall Group’s Emporium, EmQuartier, Bluport Hua Hin, Bangkae and a stand alone restaurant in Thong Lor. This is an upmarket fish restaurant concept serving a wide variety of quality dishes to tempt the palate and to expand your horizons. Next came Lobster Lab with the same high quality and varied menu but in a less formal restaurant setting. The latest addition is Seafood Mahanakorn which offers contemporary dishes based on Thai street food with fusions from around the world.

What do Julian and Yeeran see as the future for Thammachart? They are constantly innovating and know that consumers want to have fresh options to pick up and go. The future is convenience and quality for the right price. They have an innovation kitchen in Thong Lor where they are constantly trying new things to better serve the changing market. They also believe that the convenience and price of ready-to-eat meals will turn more non-believers (like me) on to fresh seafood. They also plan to continue developing their offers for online shopping. Their e commerce platform is designed to be an online fishmonger that can tailor make orders, just like in a physical store. The customer can select the fish and preparation style (skin on/off, headless, fillet etc.). Then the fresh fish will be delivered directly to your home. This customer centric approach is what continues to drive Thammachart forward. They strive to make life for the customer as easy as possible and what’s easier than having fresh fish delivered right to your door? For all of us living in Thailand, a country whose cuisine is so heavily seafood based, we have a fantastic opportunity to sample the bounty of the ocean. Thammachart gives us all a safe clean and, most importantly, healthy, delicious option for seafood. I challenge everyone, including myself, to check out a counter and try something new at your dinner table.

Check out their website,  www.thammachartseafood.com, for an education on seafood. You can order it delivered direct from the company or even cooked to order through the restaurant delivery companies.

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Thailand makes history

Thailand is known on the world stage for many things – incredible food, stunning beaches, smiling people – but horseback riding is not one of them, until now.

Nunthinee Tanner
Nunthinee Tanner

After nearly a decade of building momentum in equestrian pursuits, 2019 marks a historical and exciting year for the sport of horseback riding in Thailand. From December 1-8 of this year, Thailand will be hosting the first ever FEI Asian Championship at the impressive Thai Polo and Equestrian Club in Pattaya, the largest multi-functional facility in SE Asia, just 150km outside of Bangkok. Riders from all over Asia will descend on the Kingdom. This competition is sanctioned for Asians only and will combine three disciplines: jumping, dressage and eventing. It is expected that more than 10 countries will be joining in the championships and over 80 horses are expected to participate. HRH Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana, who is an avid national rider, will represent Thailand. Challenging her and the other accomplished Thai riders are the number-one riders from China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea and other Asian nations. “With the Princess competing on the national team for Thailand in this historic event, her vision to secure Thailand as a world-class equestrian destination will be realised,” said Harald Link, president of the Thailand Equestrian Federation, CEO of B.Grimm Group (the primary sponsor of the event), and co-owner of Thai Polo and Equestrian Club.

Harald Link
Harald Link

Link assured that all of the preparations will be attended to with the utmost care. Nunthinee Tanner, co-owner of Thai Polo and Equestrian Club and an accomplished rider herself, is the mastermind behind a massive facilities overhaul of the club. At her direction, a number of investments have been made to ensure world-class facilities and practice areas. The club boasts an on-site horse hospital with round-the-clock veterinary care, stabling for more than 250 horses and three full size polo fields. Her attention to detail, air of professionalism and lifetime of equestrian experience manifests itself at the Thai Polo and Equestrian Club. The venue previously hosted the 2007 SEA Games and the FEI Asia Eventing Championships in 2013 and 2017. With specific regards to this event, over 100 million baht will be spent to organise the championships, plus one million dollars to charter a plane that will transport horses from all over the world to Thailand. The jumping event tests the riders’ ability to clear a series of jumps. At this two-star event, the jumps will measure 1.4 metres. The riders’ scores are based on time and penalties, losing 4 points for every knocked down rail or jump. At this level, quite a few riders will have clean rounds and move to a jump-off where penalties are still assessed but riders are competing against the clock. The fastest/cleanest round is the winner and the height and spread of the jumps combined with the twists and turns of the course make for an exciting event.

Dressage is the ultimate test of training. Points are awarded based on execution of movements. Judges base those scores on quality of the movement, expression (does the horse do these movements with ease and grace), responsiveness to the rider and the aids that the rider gives, and overall obedience of the horse.

Mint Arinattha

The goal is for a horse to be really round and “supple” and light movements should look effortless. The highest score wins. 10 points are possible for each movement yet 10s are rarely awarded. 8 is really a great score, and what most riders aim for; if you score an 80% overall on a dressage test, you are typically the best in class. Eventing is a combination of 3 things: dressage, cross country, and jumping. The dressage and jumping are the same as above, except that the degree of difficulty as compared to above isn’t quite as difficult. The format would be day 1 and day 2 of every horse/rider performing the same dressage test, day 3 is cross country, and day 4 is jumping. There are horse inspections before day 1 and 2 and before day 4 to ensure the horses are fit for competition. This is especially important before day 4 after a horse competes in cross country. This discipline takes a lot out of the horse, and ultimately that is the purpose of eventing: is your horse fit enough, well trained enough, and courageous enough to do all 3 things well. These horses are the true marathoners.

Horse hospital

The Pan-American Games began in 1951 and the FEI European Championship in 1957 so it has been over 50 years since an equestrian event of this magnitude has been launched but the Thailand Equestrian Federation and the Thai Polo and Equestrian Club are prepared. This two-star event will draw the most skilled riders from all over Asia to compete to be the first ever Asian Champions; riders from 15 countries are planning to attend. 7 medals will be awarded across the 3 disciplines.

Bom Verapat
This entire event will be free and open to the public to enjoy. November 30th is the opening ceremony and the competition will commence the following day. It’s certain to be a groundbreaking event, worthy of global recognition and certainly a spectacle that will be enjoyed by all that visit.

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