Ajarn: (Thai: อาจารย์, ) – teacher, master

Under a bank of fluorescent lights, Ajarn Neng taps a long sharp needle onto the hand of a young man in his early twenties. Nearby, a Thailand Post jacket is strewn on the floor. As blood and ink mix together, two assistants firmly stretch out the skin while the young man grimaces and holds back tears. With a warm smile, Ajarn Neng whispers soothing words of encouragement, reassuring him, it will all be over soon.

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Along with tuk-tuks, tiger temples and floating markets, a custom made suit, done at speed, is on the must-do list for many tourists to Bangkok. From Sukhumvit to Silom and everywhere in between, the Bangkok tailor shop is ubiquitous.

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“I don’t go to too much effort. I’m only going to prison after all”.

Monika Dettman, 66, chuckles as she briskly swipes a comb through her short practically styled hair. Though small in stature, Monika’s smile is generous and broad, her manner candid, direct and quintessentially German.

“The women’s groups, they just didn’t fit with me. “I simply like to do my own thing.”

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Deep in the heart of Klong Toey slum, a group of senior citizens are being put through their paces.…“Neung, sawng, saam, sii,, haa, hock, jet ….” Up front, a bubbly student nurse clutches a microphone and calls out instructions… “just a little bit higher, come on”. Across the room, wrinkled faces giggle and smile as they lift their legs in a series of simple exercises. “That’s it, you’ve got it, good work!”

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Renowned for its complexity of flavours and tastes, Thai cuisine is also often noted for the time it takes to prepare and the sheer stamina required to create a single dish. Indeed, in his famous book, Thai Food, Michelin star chef and author, David Thompson notes, “Thai cooking is at odds with the modern world, where speed and simplicity are paramount. Thai is not an instant cuisine, prepared with the flick of a knife and finished with the toss of a pan. It needs the cook’s attention, it expects time and effort to be spent and it requires honed skills, but it rewards with sensational tastes”.

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“How am I feeling? Well it all depends on if I’m going to take home the crown.”

As an experienced catwalk model, MiMi Tao is no stranger to strutting across a stage in six -inch heels. Today, however, she’s a bundle of both nerves and excitement.

“How am I feeling? Well it all depends on if I’m going to take home the crown.” she tells me quietly, before striding off into the spotlight and flashing an ultra watt smile towards an empty auditorium.

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Day and night, the Petkasen Highway thunders with traffic, connecting the manic hub that is Bangkok to the southern provinces and lush national forests of Kanchanaburi. Although technically we are out of town, Bangkok is a city that feels like it never really ends and along this major thoroughfare, in the province of Nakhon Pathom there is little to distinguish it from the sprawling urban jungle that sits just 53 kilometres away. Yet it’s in this unlikely setting, behind a pair of large gold gates, that a small group of women gather in a quest for inner tranquility, peace and most importantly profound and lasting spiritual guidance from one of Thailand’s most eminent Buddhist teachers – the Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni. (The name Bhikkhuni being the title given to describe a female monk).

Whizzing around the compound on her motorised scooter, in bright orange monastic robes, Dhammananda is a commanding and compelling presence. At 70 years of age, her body might be prone to aches and pains, but her mind is taut and agile, her face open and clear, and her smile broad and infectious. In Thai circles, Dhammananda is something of a celebrity – “they all come and want their photograph with me”, Dhammananda sighs before graciously taking a seat under a tree to be interviewed by a local TV crew.

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Tucked on the edge of Chinatown and just a stones throw from the Chao Praya River, Hua Lampong Station – Bangkok’s Central State Railway stop – is a heady mix of contradictions. Outside the din of tuk-tuks. taxis. bikes and cars all vying for an inch of road space is deafening, while inside, underneath the ornate glass domed ceilings, the feeling is no less chaotic. Across 12 platforms, trains lurch in and out, passengers rush to and fro as announcements blare incessantly from overhead loud speakers. Yet amongst this, if you stop for a moment to look, there are scenes of almost poetic tranquility. Dishevelled young lovers, slumped across luggage, taking a nap, a young mother, seated on a sheet of plastic, breastfeeding her baby, an elderly man, his shoes tied together with string, quietly smoking. Everywhere, an infinite number of stories.

I meet Nui, 54, at the far end of the station, at Platform No.12. A hairdresser by trade and an established hairdressing teacher, she is here every Thursday and Friday with her students from a local training college offering free haircuts to travellers, locals and railway workers.

“The best part of working down here is the diversity of people you meet. Nui tells me. “Every day is different. You rarely see the same person twice. It’s so much more interesting than just working in a salon”.

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I’m due to first meet Jack at a cafe in Dusit – an area of Bangkok I’ve never been before and one I’m not familiar with. I’ve come prepared, with the address printed, some instructions and google maps in hand (albeit in Thai), but as the taxi sails past gated army headquarters and austere government buildings, I’m not confident – and it seems the driver isn’t either. So, with no common language between us, I phone Jack’s friend, Lek, to translate and give directions.

From talking to the driver, Lek knows exactly where we are and clarifies  – turn left ahead, then a right, then straight on. “It’s no problem”, she tells me confidently. As I check the street signs and map again, it’s not my lame sense of direction that has me bemused and embarrassed, it’s the fact that Jack and Lek are both blind and can navigate this taxi better than I can.

When I reach Jack and Lek they greet me with warm smiles. Jack has the look of a classic rock and roll dude – dressed in double denim and replica Dior sunglasses. With his sleek dark hair, he’s a little bit Roy Orbison, a little bit Nick Cave, yet his voice is soft, his manner shy, and his laughter frequent and gentle.

On the short walk to the cafe we link arms – with me guiding them past the hot woks and steaming trolleys of street vendors and over broken bits of pavement. I’m tentative and cautious, but for Jack and Lek this is nothing special – just part of life as a blind person in a big, heaving city like Bangkok.

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“Tendue (tahn-dew) 5th to the plie (plee-ay)- to the plie,to the plie. Tendue 5th to the plie, slide 1st, front passé, back passé, fast 5th, in-out-1st-out. And if you want to use an arm, feel free.”

It’s Monday morning in mid-Sukhumvit and some of Thailand’s best contemporary dancers are being put through their paces by Stephen Beagley, a Brit, and current Artistic Director of the Bangkok City Ballet (BCB).

 “Don’t go through the motions, give it a little push!”

Across the room, lithe athletic bodies bend and kick, hands gripping the barre, their highly honed muscles bristling under various shades and shapes of lycra.

“Keep lifting. We’ve got a long way to go!” Stephen jibes as he moves around the room – correcting an arm here and stretching out a leg there. The dancers giggle as he passes. 

“Don’t go through the motions, give it a little push!”

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