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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