Published on August 20, 2007
People know Poonpirom Liptapanlop as the wife of seasoned politician Suwat. Lots of people also know she's a multimillionaire and a retired Army lieutenant general (thanks to her service at King Mongkut Hospital). But few are aware that she's a dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist as well.
Concern for the way the world is treated has been one of her noblest traits since she was young, when her mother and kindergarten teacher fostered in her a respect for nature.
"I don't want to hurt nature because it's of such great benefit to mankind," says the 51-year-old, recalling a childhood assignment to craft something from recycled material. She's been a keen recycler ever since, and once won an award for her innovation.
"I cut an old silk skirt into pieces and made bags and covers," says Poonpirom, whose nickname is "Madame Ting". Her personal assets are valued at more than Bt500 million, but she habitually collects used foam boxes, plastic bags, chopsticks and plastic cups and spoons for recycling.
"We have to be aware. Many manmade products are non-biodegradable," she points out, and there is always a second use for everything.
"A lot of these things I collect come in handy when my daughter needs material for her school projects, or when we go on a picnic."
Her two children are proud of her, recalling the time she gave them used yoghurt cups to paint in art class. That's when they realised what she was up to - and why.
When Poonpirom shops, she always asks retailers to skip the bags, or at least use as few as possible. Food she buys from vendors usually goes straight into her cloth tote bag.
Sometimes, though, retailers put up a fight.
"I suggested to a leading shopping mall that they use cloth bags instead of plastic bags and they refused. They said sales would drop because shoppers don't like paying for cloth bags."
Poonpirom doesn't try to force her environmental policies on anyone, though, including the family, of whom she says, "I just do it and they gradually pick up my habits". But she admits that she originally had to nag them to turn off the lights and air-conditioning.
When her kids first went to study in England, she bought them second-hand uniforms there, reasoning that "it was 50-per-cent cheaper" and, besides, "What I do benefits my kids - they've learned how to spend carefully."
Poonpirom uses natural and local medicines, toiletries and beauty products.
"I have my own 'crystal'! Actually it's alum, which I use instead of deodorant," she says. "When I get a cough I eat garlic or have a drop of honey."
None of this, she stresses, is about being a penny-pincher - it's just a matter of being concerned about a product's future.
"I buy expensive dresses because the quality is good and they're durable. Cheap dresses have to be discarded too quickly. That's the sort of thing that's left us with an ocean of garbage."
She does admit to one extravagance: shoes. She refuses to reveal how many pairs she has, but says, "You can't compare me to Imelda", meaning former Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos, who was infamous for her vast collection of footwear.
"I feel happy about what I buy and do, as long as I don't create a burden for anyone," she says.
"Some people might think I'm ridiculous in my insistence on conservation, or call me Madame Frugal," she jokes, "but I think I'm a genuine champion of the sufficiency economy."
At the end of our three-hour interview we're perspiring. The air-conditioner has stayed unplugged, and we've had our own instant lesson in global warming.