Friday, 22 November 2013

Tom-Tom where you go last night? Thai Noon for cowboy junkies

From the Vaults: A little yarn I knocked out for Time a few years back. The Cowboy Way, Thailand's way - same same but different

They descend in droves in buses from Bangkok, in their freshly-pressed checked shirts, shiny boots and Stetson knock-offs. Rawhide chokers abound, as do gleaming belt buckles bigger than fists, emblazoned with screaming eagles, US flags and broncs rampant. Some affect spurs and fringed, flapping chaps.

Legs bowed in homage to John Wayne, or perhaps from three hours stuffed in a bus, they clink and swagger their way to concrete teepees and log cabins, past paddocks full of  horseflesh and a main street straight out of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. Strategically-placed speakers echo with Ennio Morricone’s haunting twangs and whistles.

Welcome to Pensuk Great Western resort, the closest thing to the Wild West in the Far East and paradise found for city slickers with a hankering to play cowboys and indians.

"I love this place,'' says Somsak Sukphisit, 38, an accountant from Bangkok with gold-rimmed spectacles, a sheriff’s star and a white 10 gallon hat. “You can forget about your problems here and make believe you’re a real cowboy. This has always been a dream of mine.’’

Sprawled over 40 acres in Nakhon Ratchasima province, about 250km north-east of Bangkok, Pensuk Great Western is the brainchild of Yuttana Pensuk, a cowboy junkie who made his fortune peddling karaoke to rich Japanese tourists in Bangkok.

 "I've always been crazy about the Wild West,'' says Yuttana, who as a boy would gorge on the celluloid exploits of John Wayne and Gary Cooper, as well as Thailand’s homegrown cowboy heroes in the so-called “pad thai Westerns’’. His dream began to take shape eight years ago, when he bought a cornfield within driving distance of Bangkok.

"Originally it was just for friends - a couple of houses and some horses to ride,'' he says, squinting proudly over his spread from under a voluminous black hat. "Then I took a trip to California to look at some old ghost towns and get some ideas.'' Now, 200 million baht later, he presides over a full-fledged Westworld. You almost expect Yul Brynner, as the gun-slinging robot-run-amok, to loom around a corner and call you out.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Street Smarts: 'Cool' Soi 22 doubles down, Soi 11 jumps shark

Sukhumvit Soi 22 is Bangkok's up-and-coming buzzworthy nightlife destination with cultured clubs, a members-only cinema, a home for the musical underground that's Overground, New Zealand culinary whiz Dave Hallam's gastropub No Idea, a name as cheeky as his Guiness Braised Beef Cheeks or signature Lamb Shank Redemption, one of Asia's best all-girl heavy metal bands playing in Titanium, and a new bar and diner from Bangkok's King of All Nightlife, Ashley Sutton, that is quite simply the bomb. This piece ran in Hong Kong's Sunday Morning Post as the lead Review story this week. 

Thailand's iconic nightlife precincts require little introduction: the neon-bathed netherworlds of Nana, Soi Cowboy and Patpong, the Hi-So hotspots, indie kids' clubs and too-cool-for-school bars of Thonglor and Ekkamai, Japanese-only Soi Thaniya, the mega-clubs and rave dives of Royal City Avenue (RCA), and the bastion of Bangkok clubland, Sukhumvit Soi 11, home to iconic establishments such as Q Bar and, until recently, Bed Supperclub.


photo: William Vaughan, Saffron Asia
Twice the value of fading hotspot Soi 11, in the monetary and mathematical senses, Soi 22 is a contender for the title of the city's most interesting and buzzworthy nightlife and culture destination. A creeping creative zeitgeist clings to the likes of the Friese-Greene Club, a secret-door cinema with nine seats, RMA Institute, an experimental art space and gastro-cafe, where you can have your gravlax and chorizo ciabatta and throw it at a canvas as art too, the recently opened Overground, with bands including Kamp Krusty who do hip hop on ukelele with an American who can sing in perfect Thai), Panic Station, Aerolips (a Thai Eurythmics) and Wasabi Bytes, a two-man electro band headed by Overground's owner, Australian journalist Grahame Lynch.

The street will rachet up the buzz a notch or two this week as the cogs and gears of Bangkok Betty grind into life on the ground floor of the new Holiday Inn. At the base of this black obelisk, a short stroll from the sclerotic chaos of Asoke junction, the latest chapter in the fairytale rise to fame of antipodean ex-miner Ashley Sutton, Bangkok's "it boy" of bar and restaurant design, is being written. Bangkok Betty is a high-concept flight of fancy from the rich imagination of Sutton, preceded by the baroque steampunk decadence of Iron Fairies, fish and chips saloon Fat Gut'z, milk bar Mr Jones' Orphanage, black magic-inspired Five and the hipster-approved, smoke-shrouded, rammed-to-the-rafters orientalist fantasy that is Maggie Choo's.


photo: William Vaughan, Saffron Asia
Sutton, who reimagines the bar and diner as a bomb factory churning out high explosives for B17 bombers, did in-depth research on the planes and their place in the second world war. Ancient pulleys and levers descend from the high ceiling, racks of shiny stainless steel bombs are everywhere, and the bombshell that is Bangkok Betty is painted on the brown brick wall in B17 "nose art" style, above an artistic interpretation of a bomb assembly line.

The room is dominated by its centrepiece, a life-sized 90-kilogram bomb straight out of Dr Strangelove, polished to a sheen and mounted on a plinth: death mirroring art, pregnant with menace, more Fat Man than Little Boy.

A week out from opening, Sutton is pacing and muttering in the bar while mixologist Joseph Boroski, global adviser on cocktail culture to W Hotels, consultant to Hong Kong restaurant Sevva and Bangkok institution Eat Me, and on point for cocktails at all of Sutton's best bars, surveys the scene through hooded Buddha eyes and sips his water.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Naked Smoking Guns: Inside Big Tobacco's 'Operation Whitecoat'

From the Vaults: this was the biggest investigative story I worked on in Hong Kong, and full credit goes to my former colleague and good friend Hedley Thomas for spotting the huge yarn lurking in the briefs column. It's this ability to sense a story that has made Hedley Australia's most awarded, respected and feared investigative ace. When a massive tranche of court documents were made public via the internet following a class action suit against 'Big Tobacco' in the US in the late 90s, we began sifting through the mountain of virtual papers looking for anything that might pertain to Hong Kong. Did we ever hit paydirt. This was the first piece in a series that dominated the front page and features section of the South China Morning Post for three days in a row.

"We are here to do something radical. To look at a problem. To achieve a solution. Nothing should be withheld." Thus begins a sprawling account of a high-powered brainstorming session organised by cigarette colossus Philip Morris and dubbed Project Down Under, for the June 1987 think-tank's antipodean provenance.

Details of the meeting are revealed in a once-confidential Philip Morris document, a minuted note of a top-level strategy, and among more than 30 million pages - some of which reveal the tobacco industry's darkest secrets - prised from the companies' own files and posted on the Internet as a result of litigation in the United States during the past 12 months.

The memo points to the genesis of an international scheme that has now blown up in the face of the tobacco industry like an exploding cigar. A scheme that involved the channelling of millions of dollars from the industry's war chest through a range of innocuous-sounding organisations in an attempt to procure helpful science, then merchandise the findings to ease fears over the effects of second-hand smoke and win major concessions from the public and private sector over bans.

The stakes were huge: this was the 1980s, when objections by non-smokers to other people's smoke were becoming increasingly strident. By drawing pie-charts showing when and where the average smoker lit up, the tobacco industry calculated bans in work places, aircraft, restaurants and other venues would result in a dramatic plunge in the number of cigarettes smoked. People would have less time to puff. And that would lead to billions of dollars in lost revenue.

Several key documents tell the story of how a coterie of tobacco big-wigs and American lawyers drew up a pan-industry plan to target scientists throughout Asia, the US and Europe in an effort to wrest back control of an issue on which they had decided to make a last-ditch stand. That issue was passive smoking, or, to use the industry-preferred euphemism, Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS).

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ETS is a mixture of the smoke given off by the burning end of a cigarette, pipe or cigar and the smoke exhaled from the lungs of smokers. It cites the possible health effects as eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, lung cancer, and heart disease. It says children exposed to ETS face increased risk of lower respiratory tract infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia, ear infections, build-up of fluid in the middle ear, increased severity and frequency of asthma episodes, and decreased lung function.

In January 1993, the EPA published a controversial report designating ETS as a human carcinogen more dangerous than asbestos, benzene or radon, and estimated passive smoking was responsible for about 3,000 American lung cancer deaths each year. The tobacco industry hit back hard, accusing the EPA of putting its own spin on statistics to justify a political vendetta against tobacco.

However, the battle lines in this international slugging match were drawn much earlier. In the early 80s, the big tobacco companies could see which way the winds of scientific and public opinion on ETS were blowing. By the mid-80s, they believed their position was becoming critical. By 1987's Project Down Under meeting, they had girded their loins for a multi-million dollar battle.

Drugs, thugs and bugs: Stranded on the Proud Highway with Dr Gonzo

From the Vaults: It is a surreal moment in any scribe's life when you are asked to review the work of one of your heroes. It was with trepidation, awe, fear and, yes, a modicum of loathing, that I prised open the weighty tome comprising Hunter S Thompson's first volume of collected letters, and it was with shaking hands and abject humility that I pecked out my unworthy review for the books section of South China Morning Post. Here's my road trip up The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, but I suggest you take the journey for yourself. Buy the ticket and take the ride. RIP Hunter S. 

The very name Hunter S. Thompson conjures up a bizarre mixture of images: a drug-fuelled booze-monster sitting naked on an Aspen porch, firing at small animals with an unfeasibly large firearm; a rangy frame and a shiny cranium, bashing away at a typewriter, making a strange kind of sense from crazed sojourns on the wilder shores of politics; a redneck tempting fate on a massive hog, howling like a werewolf through the twists and turns of California's switchback coast roads; an iconoclast; a sage; an irascible court jester; purveyor of bitingly eloquent hyperbole; and undeniably, inescapably, the eye of Typhoon Cool.

Anyone who has hung on for the crazy ride that has been Thompson's literary life - from his Hell's Angels stomping, to being out near Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs kicked in, to his fear and loathing-laden forays into the dark heart of the American dream - is in for a treat with the publication of this work.

It is the first volume (two more are promised) of his collected correspondence. These twisted epistles span his formative years as a writer: from a talented if wayward student in Louisville, Kentucky, to his 1967 breakthrough publication, Hell's Angels.

Perhaps the most striking thing that emerges from this collection, compiled by Douglas Brinkley, director of the University of New Orleans' Eisenhower Centre for American Studies, is Thompson's unswerving sense of destiny. Even as an 18-year-old, he was keeping carbons of his prolific correspondence, confident of his emergence as the next F Scott Fitzgerald.

Not the Messiah: the careless unmaking of Elvis the man

From the Vaults: This is a book review I did for the South China Morning Post of Peter Guralnick's Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Aaron Presley. Along with Greil Marcus, Guralnick is one of the more thoughtful and prescient writers among the pack of hacks contributing to the ever-swelling annals of Elvis literature. Watch this space for my own excellent Elvis adventure, when I followed the Hong Kong Elvis Presley Fan Club to Graceland and beyond for the candlelight vigil and assorted other bizarre rituals and commemorations of the King's death.

Much has been made of the elevation of Elvis Aaron Presley from mortal to royalty and, eventually, deity. Many a writer has found a rich furrow to plough, comparing the King and his sad fall from grace (and from Graceland's toilet) to a Christ-like sacrifice; describing the antebellum mansion and its surreal surrounds as the Stations of the Cross for the ever-swelling army of acolytes. The Candlelight Vigil as Midnight Mass. The jump-suited, fuzzy-chopped impersonators as a weird, wobbly bottomed priesthood.

How refreshing, then, to witness this rare and tender resurrection performed over more than 700 pages by Peter Guralnick - the resurrection of Elvis the man. No easy task, this, reclaiming Presley's life from under the crushing weight of supermarket tabloid history. Guralnick acknowledges the challenge in an author's note: 'Elvis Presley may well be the most written-about figure of our time. He is also in many ways the most misunderstood, both because of our ever-increasing rush to judgment and, perhaps more to the point, simply because he appears to be so well-known. It has become almost impossible to imagine Elvis amid all our assumptions, amid all the false intimacy that attaches to a tabloid personality . . .' Impossible for a lesser writer, perhaps, but in Guralnick's patient and capable hands Elvis lives and dies anew. This is the second part of his painstaking project, the first being Last Train To Memphis: The Rise Of Elvis Presley.

One rock under a groove ... Hong Kong Handover hijinks

From the Vaults: my wrap up of The Big Hong Kong Story, the reason many of us upped stumps and decamped for Hong Kong, the big 'H' ... the Handover. Upon rereading this, I see right at the end the scatological infatuation that gave this blog its name was already rearing its head. 

THIS WAS supposed to be a story about how they botched the handover. A searing, fang-bared expose of greed, disaster and incompetence on a truly grand scale; a harsh spotlight trained upon Hong Kong's pratfall on the world stage. Oh, the scope for disaster was enormous. Looming typhoons. Feuding sovereigns. Last-minute decisions. Missed deadlines. Recalcitrant tradesmen. Profiteering fly-by-nighters. Goose-stepping soldiers swarming over the border. Hot-headed demonstrators itching to be the martyr du jour. Very Important Egos to be stroked and coddled. A diplomatic chamber of horrors and a terrorist's fun-fair, jam-packed into the big top of a genuine three-ring media circus.

The only problem is, it was all right on the night. Against incalculable odds, Britain managed to hand back the last glittering jewel in its tarnished colonial crown with nary a major mishap. Somehow - and who knows how? - Hong Kong pulled it off. Thousands of blood-hungry, battle-hardened scribes were left scratching their heads and wandering the cavernous press centre, glassy-eyed with boredom and bemusement. It all seemed to go so smoothly that it's hard to believe it happened at all.

But under the bonnet of the shiny, purring handover machine, there was no little grinding of gears. Somewhere beneath the seamless facade of pomp and circumstance, of stirring speeches, coruscating pyrotechnics and perfectly timed telegenic tears lurks a litany of glitches, hitches, bloopers and blunders. More 'Hong Kong's Funniest Handover Videos' than sombre Dan Rather fodder; not so much a dignified dissembling of the three-legged stool as the stuff of the Three Stooges. So let us take a trawl through the lighter side of the handover - the scenes you didn't see on CNN.

THE ONE factor out of anyone's control during Hong Kong's big week was the weather and, as the territory's sodden populace knows, there was the odd spot of precipitation during the handover period. The heavens opened to dump half the average yearly rainfall in just over a week - and most of that seemed to be during the British farewell ceremony at East Tamar.

It might have been a sign that even God is sick of the British Royal Family. The best thing about the rain was that no one could hear a word of what Prince Charles had to say. Between the pounding of the deluge on the canopy of umbrellas and the fact that water had shorted out the Prince's microphone, he might as well have been mute, or could have been holding forth on Camilla and his tampon fantasies for all the audience knew. Of course, no one at home watching on television would have noticed, because they probably would have killed the volume the minute His Royal Dampness stood up to speak. The other advantage of the downpour was that you couldn't tell if Chris Patten was still crying. After trotting around from one goodbye to the next, his tear-ducts were working overtime and he was beginning to look like a graduate from the Bob Hawke Academy of Public Weeping.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Bangkok's Golden boy brings fairy dust to Hong Kong

This piece ran as the lead in the Sunday Morning Post's Review section recently, below right: 

All my life I've been searching for something, 
Something never comes, never leads to nothing
Nothing satisfies but I'm getting close, 
Closer to the prize at the end of the rope...

And I'm done, done and I'm on to the next one.
All My Life, Foo Fighters

For Ashley Sutton, Bangkok's golden-haired boy of bar design, art is long, life is short, and so is his attention span. The feted creator of Iron Fairies, Clouds, fish and chips saloon Fat Gut'z, Mr Jones' Orphanage, Five and Maggie Choo's is a restless, questing soul, never satisfied, always searching.

Sutton professes scant regard for his creations, says he couldn't care less about running bars anymore - “sh*tholes” is how he refers to them. As soon as the paint is dry on the latest talk-of-the-town Sutton special, the heavily-inked Freemantle native with the Australian Rules footballer's physique, matinee idol looks, fierce vodka thirst, raging insomnia and potty mouth is done, done and on to the next one.

Fortunately for Hong Kong's more discerning barflies, the 'next one' but one (he first has to open Bangkok Betty, a new military themed diner in the Holiday Inn on the corner of Sukhumvit Soi 22) is a bigger, better incarnation of Iron Fairies to open mid-2014 in a yet-to-be-revealed Soho location. The original Iron Fairies in Bangkok's trendy Thong Lor district was a jazz-soaked, absinthe-drizzled, hard-boiled steampunk wonderland of a bar, which made Sutton an overnight sensation in Bangkok and saw the great and good begin queuing up to secure his services.

Sutton conceived the Iron Fairies mythology while driving cranes and digging mine shafts in Western Australia's rugged Pilbara region. “You’d be underground for so long you’d just about lose your mind,” he recalls. “I started thinking about fairies, and then I started doing some sketches.’’ Then he lost part of his left hand in an accident (not his drawing hand).

He visited China, set up a foundry in Dalian, and cleaned up selling wrought iron ware to Australian yuppies. His sales manager saw his fairy sketches, urged Sutton to turn them into a book, and the rest is history.

Now a three-volume set which has sold over 200,000 copies in four languages, part journal, part poetry and part mystery, Iron Fairies the book revolves around the adventures of a group of miners who live in tunnels in the rich red ore of the Pilbara.

One day, the miners begin making fairies, which exist in a state of suspended animation until they are touched by the first rays of the morning sun. Each fairy has a name, wings of a real insect, and a poem that details its provenance. the wings of a certain insect, and a poem that tells you what kind of fairy she is.

Sutton briefly opened prototype Iron Fairies bars in Perth and New York, before settling on Bangkok to perfect the concept. Entering Iron Fairies in full swing is always a trip; workers bustle about with files and moulds, leather aprons flapping. The beguiling titular fairies fairies are everywhere, coarse yet delicate, dense yet ethereal, dusted in a delicious patina of rust and verdigris. A wrought iron staircase spirals to nowhere and a New Orleans jazz band swings. Hand-tooled leather books spin fairy legends. Patrons dine on the kind of hamburgers you find in classic Australian milk bars and sip absinthe.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Divine secrets of the Bootylicious Sisterz

Greatest hits from the vault dept: Some years back, I dashed down to Phuket to interview Destiny's Child - well, let's be honest, to interview Beyonce. Imagine my surprise at finding her incapacitated by a respiratory bug ... 


She's a survivor, sure. A diva, definitely. But Beyonce Knowles is also a super-trouper. While the merest tickle in the back of the throat is enough to send most pop stars swooning off in search of a health farm, leaving a trail of cancelled gigs and shattered fans, the brains behind this year's biggest female act on the planet, Destiny's Child, has proved she's made of sterner stuff.

Despite a severe upper respiratory tract infection which had literally left her speechless, Knowles refused to stay home in Houston and flew instead to Thailand with bandmates Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams.

The trio had been set to wow Asia's media and record company bigwigs with a showcase of their bootylicious ditties and hip-hop confections after a sell-out concert in Japan. Then the bug bit Beyonce (pronounced Beyon-say) and their gigs bit the dust.

Defying doctor's orders and unable to sing a note, Knowles hopped on the plane for the southern Thailand resort island of Phuket anyway. She's been told she can't say a word for three weeks, Rowland explains, as Knowles - usually the undisputed Child-in-charge - can only waggle her eyebrows, nod, frown, toss her hair and hold her thumbs aloft in agreement.

'It's been very hard for her. She did not want to miss the Asian trip, she was so excited about it. We were all ready to go, our crew was on the plane, we were about to get on board, but we had to get her to a doctor fast, because she couldn't say a word. It was right after we'd finished a very important concert and the doctor just said be quiet if you still want your voice.'

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Arctic Anna: In the ice queen's court


Here's one from the vaults, dating back to 1998 or thereabouts. My 15 minutes with Anna Kournikova's fame. Originally ran in the South China Morning Post.

ANNA KOURNIKOVA IS SASHAYING down the hallway to a Harbour Plaza Hotel suite, tight black pants arc-welded to those million-dollar legs, blonde tresses bouncing back and forth in perfect shampoo-commercial slow-motion, a crescent of tanned brown skin peeking cheekily from under her cropped black top. And for reasons best left unexplained, Sisqo's chart-topping Thong Song is looping about in my head.

The minders are polite but firm as we enter the room. 'You have 15 minutes.' It seems apposite, almost Warholian. Fame is a commodity parcelled out in slick little packets these days, and they don't come much more famous than Anna Kournikova: 19-year-old calendar queen, Internet goddess, sports bra endorser, and, oh yes, tennis player.

Her face registers instant disapproval as a blast of arctic air greets us and there is a stampede to render the temperature acceptable. Thunderheads bearing portents of chills and strained muscles roll ominously across her brow. 'Turn it to warm air,' she orders. 'Turn it to high,' agrees her father, a short and taciturn former Russian wrestler named Sergei. As a warm sigh flutters from the vents, the storm clouds recede and she settles with a coiled grace by the window.

There are probably several million males who would give their right arm to be sitting where I am now, close enough to smell her garden-fresh scent, watching the afternoon sun slanting off the harbour and turning her big blue eyes opalescent. She is truly as beautiful in the flesh as she is in the countless photographs on some 5,000 Web sites by her army of devotees; as luminous as the ubiquitous images used to boost circulation by publications as diverse as The Sun and Forbes.

Anna mania is as inescapable as it is rampant. Pity the seven other contestants in this week's Watson's Water Challenge tennis tournament at Victoria Park from tomorrow to Saturday. They were presumably cooling their heels in their rooms while, at a special 'Meet Anna Kournikova' press conference, hacks drooled obsequious inanities and panted panegyrics that would make a North Korean leader writer blush. Neither was I immune. Indeed, I had spent the best part of a week boasting to anyone who would listen that I was the chosen one, the anointed, the blessed recipient of an exclusive, one-on-one audience with Anna Kournikova.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Prophet and loss: In the hall of the White Dragon King


It's amazing what a bit of self-belief and snappy patter can do for your prospects. Chau Yum-nam started out as a jobbing electrician in Pattaya before plugging in to a different power source which would see him become the unofficial prophet of Cantopop and the high priest of Hong Kong show business as the self-styled White Dragon King.

When Chau popped his white dragon clogs earlier this month, more than 5,000 fans and disciples gathered for the funeral. This who's who of Hong Kong showbiz royalty included businessman Albert Yeung, movie director Meng Yao, Cantopop king Andy Lau, movie stars  Shu Qi and Tony Leung Chiu Wai. Thailand's King Bhumibol even sent some 'holy mud' for the burial. 

The White Dragon King was still at the height of his powers when I visited his lair  seven years ago for a brief and deeply weird audience. 

Hours before dawn they begin to assemble. Buses and cars form an orderly queue, disgorging white-clad figures who drift about like ghosts in the gloom. As dawn's fingers clutch at the bruised sky, a spark of excitement jumps from vehicle to vehicle. A small, bent figure has emerged from behind the spike-topped red gates and silently passes from group to group, handing out numbers.

At exactly 6am, the gates will be thrown open and this pale cavalcade will proceed along a winding driveway, stopping in the shadows of an impressive Chinese temple topped by two huge, bejewelled dragons rampant. The true believers will be ushered into an anteroom, where they will trade the number assigned their vehicle for individual numbers for each of their group. They will shake incense sticks at grotesquely rendered deities and purchase amulets and charms. They will quaff coffee and greasy, fried cakes. Then they will sit patiently and wait for their allotted minute or two with Thailand's most eccentric sage, an illiterate former electrician who has a growing portion of Hong Kong in his thrall, including Cantonese pop and movie royalty. Enter, if you will, the lair of the White Dragon King.

I had stood before the same red gates two days earlier, oozing sweat under a violent Pattaya sun. 'I'm sorry,' said the voice that answered a telephone number emblazoned on a sign by the fence. 'The master doesn't give interviews.'

I pleaded, stammered and grovelled, explaining I'd driven all the way from Bangkok and my editor wouldn't take no for an answer. 'I'm sorry,' said the voice again. 'No interviews. Ever. But you can come back on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday and wait in line with everybody else. The master might decide to speak with you.' And you would be? 'I,' said the voice, 'am Mr Lo.'

And so it is that at 4.30am one Friday I find myself waiting with the rest of the devout in the White Dragon King's driveway, dressed in my least-stained white T-shirt, whey-faced from lack of sleep. The mysterious Mr Lo, I had learned, is no faceless lackey: he is the master's right-hand man and translator, the chap who decodes the Dragon King's pronouncements for his Cantonese, Putonghua and English-speaking supplicants.

Indeed, it was Lo whom the Dragon King sent to the fatal shores of Hong Kong during the height of the Sars scare to bestow a blessing on the 'camera-cranking ceremony' to mark the commencement of filming Infernal Affairs 2, the $40 million prequel to the smash hit starring Andy Lau Tak-wah and Tony Leung Chiu-wai. 'The master wanted to come, but he was worried about catching Sars,' revealed a spokesman from production company Media Asia at the time.

The White Dragon King had blessed the first instalment of the planned trilogy, and it went on to become the year's top-grosser, collected countless awards and is soon to be remade by Hollywood hunk Brad Pitt.

Flash and blood: the unbearable lightness of being tattooed

This piece first appeared in the South China Morning Post's Sunday 'Review', when in fact it is a preview of the 1st Hong Kong China International Tattoo Convention, which roars, dragon-like, into life this Friday, October 4.  

I got my first tattoo in Hong Kong at Ricky and Pinky's in 1994. In the heady pre-handover years, it was a rite of passage, as tattoos often are. That hidden dragon or crouching tiger carved into flesh in the dark heart of Wan Chai was a note to your future self, a permanent reminder that all the craziness did happen.

The parlour lurked in Lockhart Road, an anonymous door in a blinking forest of neon. I turned up there one morning around 3am with two sozzled fellow reporters. We had made the fateful decision an hour before in a pub. There was no turning back.

We rang the bell until a frowning Chinese fellow appeared and we followed him into a lift that creaked and moaned like some superannuated Suzie Wong. Eventually it rattled us up to the parlour, which was a room lined with mirrors, cheap furniture

and rusted steel flooring glazed with tiny ink spatters. Shades of Blade Runner. The walls were festooned with the dragon scales of yellowing tattoo flash and glistening snapshots of the freshly inked.

The implicit reminder: tattoos hurt. There will be blood.

It did hurt. There was blood. And my tattoo, a tiger, wasn't quite right. It looked like … a lizard. A soft reptilian thing slouching up my left shoulder, shorn of any hint of sex or menace, meaningless, absurd.

Jay FC, co-organiser of the 1st International Hong Kong China Tattoo Convention 2013 taking place over the coming weekend, also got his first tattoo at Ricky and Pinky's in 1994. The founder and creative director of ChinaStylus creative studio, pioneer of 2008 Hong Kong tattoo event SKIN:INKS and the ST/ART street art collective, and a member of the Clockenflap festival organising team, arrived better prepared than my posse.

Jay FC says he had his first tattoo all figured out. "It was a Maori hei matau, which had personal significance for me." The fishhook-shaped hei matau is usually worn as an amulet to denote power and authority, conferring protection on those travelling over water. "My friends all thought it was the Ocean Park logo."

It took Jay FC almost a year to return to Ricky and Pinky's, this time acquiring a spectacular dragon coiled around his arm and shoulder. "It was fantastic. Ricky sat down and did the whole thing freehand. I realised great tattoo artists have to understand what they are doing and do what they are best at. You just have to let them get on with it."

Pinky Yun died two years ago and Ricky Yan is in his dotage. The new Hong Kong tattoo king is Gabe Shum Long-wai of Freedom Tattoo, the driving force behind the convention. His empire sprawls over the 11th floor of a To Kwa Wan warehouse, but the industrial chic ends there. Inside, it's more like a smart new bar or an advertising agency. Only the finest American inks are used, rigorous American health standards are followed. And it closes at 10pm.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Not Fade Away: Bangkok Retro rules

Does Bangkok Retro rule? It seemed to when I wrote this piece five minutes ago, OK, a year ago, for N, the new Norwegian Airlines magazine. Trends are always old news anyway. By definition. It was a fun story to write and hopefully to read, whether the fad is fuelled or fading.  This was my first very exuberant version, which I toned down for the magazine, and its subeditors toned down once more. I rather like the original better though. 

WASHINGTON, DC - At a press conference Monday, U.S. Retro Secretary Anson Williams issued a strongly worded warning of an imminent “national retro crisis,” cautioning that “if current levels of U.S. retro consumption are allowed to continue unchecked, we may run entirely out of past by as soon as 2005.” 
The Onion, November 5, 1997 

"The best time is always yesterday." 
Tatyana Tolstaya, poet 

Retro comes and goes; great waves of nostalgia that wash over cities, sometimes entire nations, leaving in their wake a cloying tide wrack of ersatz nostalgia and sucking sinkholes of junk that some of us find irresistible.

In Bangkok, the retro craze has never been, well, crazier; citizens seized by a sudden passion for an idealised past they never really knew, or perhaps glimpsed on some reruns of American TV shows. Retro nuts, once they've caught the bug, are more crazed than the Bakelite bits on a vintage Mixmaster. Vast markets have appeared to satisfy them, straining and bulging with bric-a-brac, gimcracks, knick-knacks and old stuff that was crap then and crap now. High-rent emporia in the trendiest lanes of Thong Lor and secluded loft spaces in Siam Square overflow with tin toys and antique telephones, vintage duds and do-dads, fifties and sixties furniture and assorted other 'spurniture'.

All of a sudden, five minutes ago is NOW. The best time is always yesterday. Bangkok may not yet be in danger of running out of past, but entire city blocks seem to have been whammied with a real-life Instagram filter. 'Retro' and 'vintage' are the mantras on hipsters' lips, as an eclectic mix of true believers, collectors, entrepreneurs and dabblers have jumped on the wood-panelled bandwagon or trotted off to their time machines, hoping to get kitsch quick.

Among them is Waleeya Phanomphan, the twentysomething proprietor of CinderallasRoom, a true believer, a collector and an entrepreneur; her virtual vintage clothing store found on Facebook from Monday to Friday briefly materialises weekends around dusk at Bangkok Retro’s ground zero, Talad Rod Fai.

Talad Rod Fai, or ‘the train market’, is located on Kampaengphet Road, a short hop from the more famous Chatuchak Weekend Market (which also has a vast vintage offering in Sections 5 and 6) and easily accessible from the Mass Rapid Transit subway. It consists of several old railway department storage buildings crammed with vintage shops, antique stores and pubs, some ancient-looking trains that long since ran off the rails, and hundreds of brightly coloured temporary stalls which multiply as the sun sets.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

A letter to my other Grandma

Champagne Grandma …

There is no fizz as I write this note to you. I had hoped to get back to Brisbane to see you one last time after hearing the diagnosis was grim. In the event, there wasn't time.

I'm sorry I can't be at your funeral. Work pressures. Deadlines. Clients. There are plenty of excuses. There are always excuses. There is no excuse.

I was your eldest grandson. You were my last surviving grandparent.

My own mortality comes into sharper focus. And life will go on, as it does.

Indulge me a memory or two. My most vivid ones are of the old Station Master's house at Michelton. The dirt beneath the high-set worker's cottage mined with ant lion nests, funnels of slippery sand where ants would lose traction and end up in the maw of a monster.

The green conifer of some description festooned with spiked blue plastic-like pods, which resembled shipping mines from early wars, or perhaps a medieval mace.

Uncle Roger's room. Referred to with whispers and glances. The mysterious Uncle Roger. Larger than life. Elusive. An Elvis. Once or twice we glimpsed a sighting.

Grandad Crawford, with his fist-like calves, big knots of gnarled muscle rippling beneath his crisp white gartered socks. Taking me up to see the train levers, switching trains to different tracks, staying on the rails.

And Grandma Crawford, Violet, Vi, with her neat perm and twinkling eyes, fragile, almost birdlike to hug as the years went by and grandchildren grew bigger.

Later, Keperra. A comfortable brick home, comfortable retirement. Less mythical, sharper focus. The beer coaster collection. Jamaica. Why do I remember Jamaica? A coaster, or a poster perhaps. Some impossibly exotic rum juxtaposed with the ordinariness of the Brisbane suburbs. Long lazy stuffed Christmas afternoons that crept by with a torpor all of their own.

In later years, I enjoyed seeing the two Grandmas as partners in crime, mending fences, enjoying each other's company.

What memory will I hang on to as I sign off here? I'm sitting at Carmel, fondly remembered family gathering spot, coffee in hand, sea breeze whipping up and rattling the windows. Just me and Grandma Gags and Grandma Crawford.

Doing a cryptic crossword, or at least trying. And Champagne Grandma's razor mind slicing open anagrams and puns and scrambled words without any of the mind-twisting effort I required to solve them.

Life. Death. The big cryptic crossword. I never did know why we called her Champagne Grandma.

I still don't have a clue.

Bereavement completists, family members and other interested readers can find my piece read at the funeral of Ann Tree, my 'other, other' Grandma, and my dad's mother, here: here:

Friday, 12 July 2013

Fine dining's crisis: too many pairings, no full house

Sshh: That sound you can hear, that faint wooden rattle under an Evinrude's rudeboy roar, is the sound of The Fonz putting on The Skis so he can carry another fallen hero or epic failure on the now immortal waterski jump over The Shark. 

The latest fad du jour to jump the shark is wine pairing, which went from champagne supernova of cool to self-sucking sharknado of stale faster than you could say 'degustation menu'. Second raters and bandwagon jumpers cannibalised  the concept, and almost daily it descends to a new nadir.

You know the drill: Would-be or fading hotspot announces wine pairing menu, celebrity chef or sommelier is summoned to make the culinary couplings. If it's a hit, some quick PR buzz and celeb cachet rubs off. If it misses the mark ... see 'sharknado'. 

Done first, it was genius. Done well and with style, it had staying power. But the concept now is overcooked, burned and due to be scraped into the skip, and each breathlessly trumpeted new instance of this culinary charade is now haunted by the shadow of The Fonz as he soars overhead, legs akimbo, outsized wine balloon in one hand, huge rack of ribs in the other, and the towrope between his teeth.

It's clear things have gone too far when in certain Californian establishments, sommeliers spend their days investigating which fine wines work best with Pringles, Cool Ranch Doritos, KFC cole slaw, California rolls and pumpkin pie.

The entire industry is pretentious, drunk on self regard, bloated with hubris, and ripe for a reality check, if not a good stomping.

Some of the most celebrated wine tasters can't tell their eiswein from their elbow. The evidence is in: in a recent study, blindfolded wine experts given the same wine three times in a row delivered wildly fluctuating ratings on the same wines.

And pair that with this: A 2006 study, published by the American Association of Wine Economists, found that most people can't distinguish between paté and dog food.

For dessert, consider this critic's crash landing on the outer banks of wank: His 'principle flavour profile' for one bottle listed "red roses, lavender, geranium, dried hibiscus flowers, cranberry raisins, currant jelly, mango with skins, red plums, cobbler, cinnamon, star anise, blackberry bramble, and whole black peppercorn'', among others.

A king tide of pomposity and pretension is running, but this oenophilic onanism must have just about reached its high water mark. Soon, the ebb tide will begin its sucking scour. When grown men want to make a study of which Chilean chardonnays go best with what colour of M&M, it's time for change.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Bondage with Versace: luxury brands' dirty little secrets

Brand extension is a wonderful thing, broadening a brand's audience, reinforcing brand awareness, carving open the fat fresh breasts of new worlds of consumers. Brand extension is also a risible thing when branding boffins bungle or drop the ball, heading up some dry gully that is off message, off brand, off piste and simply reeking of wrong. 

That's when you get Harley Davidson for Kids fashion, Bic Disposable Underwear, Zippo For Her perfume, Dr Pepper Marinade and Eva Longoria's SHe Steakhouse For Women. (Yes, SHe). That's also when you hear Fonzie revving up the speedboat and strapping on his waterskis. 

Luxury brands jump the shark higher, further and with more gold leaf when they get it wrong. Which brings me to the point of this recent piece dashed off for South China Morning Post's glossy new Style magazine style - incontrovertible proof, incidentally, that I am a writer with Style. 

Just who exactly does "The Man Who Has Everything" think he is? And does he know how much he has to answer for?

It must surely be this most consummate of consumer who haunts the minds of the designers du jour as they toil in the ivory towers of the luxury brand houses - especially when their fancies take flight to the farthest shores of brand extension and all manner of oddities, objets d'art and arcane artefacts are emblazoned with luxury's sacred seals.

What do you get The Man Who Has Everything? Why, the Versace Bondage Bench, of course, as unveiled to a coterie of cognoscenti by Donatella Versace at Salone del Mobile, part of Milan Design Week 2013, recently. It is the work of the Haas Brothers, the prodigies who also gave us the Stud Club Chair, Honeycomb Side Table, and - cue chorus of cherubim and seraphim, god rays and gratuitous lens flare - the Donatella Chair.

The Brethren Haas are very much in the House. Very now. Their stuff is name-checked in Mario Testino shoots and devoured by Peter Marino, the uber-interiors architect and ur-leather queen whose rubbery touch can be felt in the Big Apple's swankiest luxury flagship stores.

Your Honour, might we approach the Bench? It looks too frail to unleash any seriously kinky stuff upon, and its oiled black leather, vestigial studs and taut straps look far too expensive to risk staining.

Perhaps its sole purpose is simply to invite contemplation, comment and the occasional choked double entendre from the green-faced unfortunates who don't have one. An opiate of the bosses. To paraphrase Morrissey, another redundant luxury item: "Why ponder life's complexities when the leather runs smooth on the Bondage Bench?''

It's a dangerous game these brands are playing, however. No one really knows where the edge is, because those who went over it aren't around to tell us their tale. One minute you are the toast of cool hunters who look like The Village People, the next, you are jumping the Damien Hirst shark.

Louis Vuitton's wheelchair for Lady Gaga packed its valise for the outer banks of political incorrectness, while the luxury behemoth's US$8,000 skateboard case must surely let rip with an ironic cackle every time it's opened. Aston Martin went potty with a baby stroller; Harrods went one better with a line of "posh" pot noodles.

Even Hermès, the luxury fashion and leather goods titan named for the cleverest of the gods, trotted out a "magazine strip chair" cobbled from floor scraps and cast-offs, teetering on the smart side of Spinal Tap's famous "fine line between clever and stupid".

I'm prepared to give the Bondage Bench a pass, even if this from the Brothers Haas makes me want to bang my head against its buttery hide: "The process is very important to us," Nikolai and Simon tell apparently in unison. "It starts with a spark of inspiration and then becomes a tangible form. Donatella was the spark, and this furniture collection is our interpretation of the legend and the house of Versace."

Spare us the spiel, boys, stick to furniture.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Now Everyone Can Lie ... grounded and pounded by AirHeinous

Final Call.... OK time to go. Except they already went.
Viva AirHeinous .... Air Asia has stooped to new lows: My colleague and company owner David Johnson and I, who fly these air pirates about once a week on average, missed out flight from Bali to Bandung just now because after delaying the flight for nearly an hour (a short history of time compared to the usual Air Asia delay) they went and took off while 'final call' was still showing on the screens.

We were sitting within eyesight of the gate and both of us can hear. Staff at Air Asia, in between sneers and giggles, told us our names had been called three times before the plane took off. An outright lie unless they called the flight at sub audible levels in some incomprehensible accent. And this at Denpasar, global aviation hub to one of the world's most famous resort islands.

I suppose we should count ourselves lucky that there was another flight at midnight - we only have a five hour delay rather than miss a crucial new business meeting tomorrow morning. This comes just weeks after Air Asia kept four high profile Hong Kong journos and the rest of the flight's passengers captive for almost 18 hours while feeding them an escalating farrago of twisted truths, fibs, porky pies and big fat lies.

The journalists eventually mutinied and went home, outraged at the treatment and in no mood to come on the press trip our agency, Delivering Asia Communications, had put together. Meaning a loss of ink to the value of over four million baht in terms of what was have been published.

Congratulations Air Asia. If this is how they treat the people who can pen nasty things about them, imagine how they treat the common man.
Let's lie with the world's best .... is that airline's nosecone growing longer?

Well, with sneers and lies and blank stares mostly.

Monday, 24 June 2013

The World of Somchai Wong: Bangkok's great tourism takeaway

Bangkok's impending tourism boom is a bust for the bright sparks behind Hong Kong's Asia's World City campaign. Recent piece for South China Morning Post's Postmagazine ... my old stomping, and scribbling, ground. 

As it spares little expense in telling the entire planet, Hong Kong is Asia's World City. So how come Bangkok gets all the tourists?

Every year MasterCard compiles the Global Destination Cities Index forecast, based on anticipated visitor numbers and their anticipated spend. And for 2013, the Thai capital is its hot tip, beating London, Paris, New York, Hong Kong and Singapore into top spot, the first Asian city to occupy that pinnacle.

According to the credit-card giant's seers, Bangkok will clock up 15.98 million arrivals this year - representing growth of 9.8 per cent on last year's figures. London comes a close second, with 15.96 million visitors.

Hong Kong comes in at No9 - despite spending far more on branding itself than Bangkok, which also happens to be Unesco's World Book Capital for 2013 and benefits from being in "Amazing Thailand", which "Always Amazes you", as the slogan currently has it.

And to further wound Hong Kong's pride, it is listed as onLost in Thailand, was shot.
e of the top five "feeder" cities - along with Singapore, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur and Seoul - from which most visitors to Bangkok come. The mainland provides the largest number of arrivals - almost three million - with many perhaps keen to see where their nation's highest grossing film, 
Bill Barnett, a Phuket-based Asian hospitality expert and head of consultancy C9 Hotelworks, says Bangkok's rise is concurrent with the "global surge" of Asia.

"East is the new West," he says, adding that "the allure of Bangkok goes well beyond the destination; it's all about a meteoric rise in airlift.

"After the global financial crisis a dynamic travel shift changed the market. Asian travellers take short trips but travel much more frequently; unlike Europeans or Americans … people here jump on planes for a weekend or just an overnighter."

As for Hong Kong, Barnett says it has been marginalised by Shanghai and is also perceived as being too closely linked to the mainland. By contrast, Thailand offers "a little bit of everything on the menu".

But Asia's City of Angels is not for resting on its laurels, with Sansern Ngaorungsi of the Tourism Authority of Thailand leading a drive to focus on social media, youth markets and niche sectors such as golf and honeymooning. The overall strategy is referred to as DISCO: digital marketing, image building, sustainability, crystallisation and crisis management, and organisation management.

To adapt MasterCard's own advertising mantra, then …

Asia's World City destination brand campaign: HK$400 million.
Victoria Harbour Symphony of Lights: HK$44 million.

Bangkok's destination bragging rights: priceless.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Loogie Hocking with Rocky Horror and Darth Veda

This piece was recently written for the splendid new Australian glossy Heart Beauty, and its guru-like editor Rosemary Hamilton, who has both in spades. 

"You have too much phlegm,’’ opines Dr Alvin James B.A.M.S., A Class Medical Practitioner and avatar of all things Ayurvedic at Avista Hideaway Resort and Spa Phuket. The resort island’s latest luxury eyrie enjoys a panoptic perch atop the steep green hills between Patong and Karon beaches, a surfeit of the titular vistas, and a spa where then ancient Indian art of well-being is getting a modern-day makeover.

I clear my throat and fight the urge to hock a loogie. Dr Alvin is an affable chap from Kerala with soft doe eyes and a slow motion head bobble that quickly becomes hypnotic. I am slouched in an outsized chair in the consultation room, where he plans to identify my prakriti, or body type, and discern which of three doshas, or humours, is prevalent.

There is vata, pitha and kapha,’’ he explains, “vata being air, wind, kinetic energy, pitha being fire, or digestion, controlling emotions like anger, fear and bravado, and kapha being phlegm, which is potential energy, resistance to disease, immunity and keeps the joints lubricated.’’

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Full Metal Racket: When Maclean met manga

This piece ran recently in the South China Morning Post's 'Rewind' column, which looks back at a film, album and book unified by a common theme. I took on the big guns this time, taking aim at Alistair Maclean's classic WW2 epic The Guns of Navarone and its unexpected second life as the inspiration behind a cult Japanese video game.

Guns. Big shiny guns. Boys do love their lethal weapons, as anyone who ever buckled up a low-slung holster, fumbled a High Noon quick draw and shot down an imaginary Indian (or Cowboy) can attest.

Boys also love a good war story. War? What is it good for? It’s the measure of a man, the red badge of courage, the triumph of right over might. It’s the stuff of a thousand Commando comics. Gott im himmell. We can be heroes.

Therein lies the genius of The Guns of Navarone, Alistair McLean’s epic tale of infiltration, sabotage, and derring do where eagles dare. McLean conflates the ultimate test of mettle with two unfeasibly large bits of metal. It’s mental, man’s man manna from heaven, the stuff of a thousand stiff upper lips and endless war movie tropes. And it’s more or less true.

The titular guns are massive Nazi canons mounted on top of a vertiginous cliff on an Aegean island overlooking a crucial seaway, beyond which 1,200 Allied troops sit stranded. If they aren't rescued quickly, they die. Keith Mallory, a New Zealand mountain climber, must infiltrate the island, scale a 400 foot cliff, spike the guns and save the day, along with his team of mumbling, mostly moustachioed misfits, anti-heroes and freedom fighters.

The Guns of Navarone is the sine qua non of suicide missions and a page-turner non pareil; a vertical and vertigo-inducing antithesis to its only serious rival for Best-World-War-2-Book-Made-Into-Classic-Movie, Paul Brickhill’s horizontally claustrophobic The Great Escape.

The mission is implausible yet somehow believable. You suspend scepticism as McLean weaves his terse, tense prose, even as his heroes hang from the fraying threads of spinning subplots. (The excellent film starred Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn and David Niven at the peak of their powers).

“First, you've got that bloody old fortress on top of that bloody cliff. Then you've got the bloody cliff overhang. You can't even see the bloody cave, let alone the bloody guns. And anyway, we haven't got a bloody bomb big enough to smash that bloody rock. And that's the bloody truth, sir,’’ says RAAF Squadron Leader Howard Barnsby, a quote that serves as synopsis.

These impossible odds and insurmountable obstacles were what inspired now-legendary videogame designer Hideo Kojima to create the enduring, quirky and cultish Metal Gear Solid franchise for Playstation, selling over 25 million copies worldwide.

In a review of the book (and later film), Kojima names it as the main influence on Metal Gear Solid. “The sense of satisfaction after completing the mission that is supposed to fail, after overcoming the harsh environment and destroying the invincible fortress … The coolness of making the impossible possible. What influenced me the most is this element of The Guns of Navarone. It is this catharsis you feel after infiltrating a place no-one else can, and completing a mission no-one else can. It is this courage and ecstasy of overcoming
limits and making the impossible possible that I wanted to
experience in a game!’’

Friday, 4 January 2013

Snakes on a Plain: the weird life and foolish death of the 'Snakeman of Sisaket'

If you want wack-jobs wont to live in small spaces with fierce critters, then it's hard to beat amazing Thailand. In the land of the Scorpion Queen and the Centipede King, one would hardly choke on one's cornflakes to learn there is indeed a 'Snakeman', from the dry dusty plains of unlovely Sisaket province in darkest Isaan. This one from the vaults originally ran in the Sunday Telegraph magazine (UK) and South China Morning Post's Postmagazine. It was later picked up by National Geographic channel, who coaxed me back to Sisaket to be part of filming for a piece on the 'Snakeman of Sisaket' for its 'Hunter/Hunted' series (Series 1: Victims of Venom ... see it here ) While filming a segment in the Red Cross snake farm in Bangkok, the gung ho serpent wrangler dropped a fiesty cobra on the floor inches from my feet. It then slithered through my legs before he pinned it with his snake-wrangling rake and restored it to its plastic box piled upon dozens of other snakes in plastic boxes waiting to be milked of their venom. I'm all for getting deep into the story, but a cobra bite to feel what the Snakeman felt before he popped his clogs would have been going too far, even by my usual silly standards ...

PHAO BUACHAN SMILES through a web of wrinkles, spits a jet of bright red betel juice through what's left of her crimson teeth, and regards me with a rheumy eye. 'I can't speak about my son without begging his permission,' she says. 'I'm scared the snakes will come, and they'll be angry.'

She hands me a candle and a stick of smouldering incense, and we pick our way through a building site at the back of her wooden house to a white shrine dappled with shards of coloured glass and tiny mirrors. She nods. I kneel, mumble a few words and deposit the candle and incense in a jar of sand. Her prayer is longer, a rambling entreaty punctuated by slow-motion prostrations. When she's finally finished she stands, smiles again and says, 'Now we may speak.'

Her son, Boonreung Buachan, was the 'Snakeman of Sisaket'. In 1998, he had a fleeting taste of international fame when he appeared in the Guinness Book of World Records for spending seven days in an enclosure with venomous snakes.

Before and after setting the record - which still stands - Boonreung made a living by performing throughout Thailand. In his hour-long shows, he would pluck cobras from wooden boxes and drape them round his neck, stroking and kissing them as he kept up a steady patter of cobra lore. He would milk their venom, letting people get close as the deadly, viscous liquid oozed from scimitar fangs.

The sense of danger was heightened for those who knew him because Boonreung was epileptic and prone to seizures. While his friends say he never had an attack during a show, the risk weighed heavily on the snakeman's mind.

International attention was to come his way just once more. Unfortunately, he wouldn't be around to enjoy it. Three months ago, Boonreung, aged 34, was bitten by one of his pet cobras while putting on a show for three tourists. He collapsed in the dirt beneath his parents' house in Ping Pong village, a parched corner of one of Thailand's poorest provinces. By the time he was taken to hospital, his respiratory system had all but shut down. He never recovered.

'A lot of people came after he died, but since then, no one,' says Phao, in her village of Ping Pong, 640km northeast of Bangkok. 'I'm glad you've come. I don't want the world to forget about my boy.'

The Buachans, while far from wealthy, became the envy of the poor farming village because of the success of their son. Their humble house is a palace compared with some nearby. Phao says she knew her second son was special from the start. 'When he was born, he had a patch of scales on his waist,' she says. Psoriasis, perhaps? 'No, no,' she insists. 'These were real scales - like a snake.'