Words by Ron Gluckman. Photography by David Paul Morris. Silk Road, May 1999.

The eyes of the whole world seemed to focus upon Phuket earlier this year, when international heart-throb Leonardo DiCaprio landed here to film “The Beach,” his first new movie since soaring to mega-stardom with “Titanic”.

As Leo headed for a remote island in southern Thailand, the media juggernaut gathered on nearby Phuket. Paparazzi zipped around in speedboats and buzzed by in helicopters. Reporters disguised as tourists stalked Leo’s hotel. Tabloids detailed Leo’s dining habits, his phone calls, his every move. Internet lines pulsed with frenzy as millions of frantic fans searched for the latest word on Leo.

But all of them – TV shows, magazines and webcasters alike, were scooped on a daily basis by a bunch of Thai school kids – some barely a third the age of the boyish movie idol. This was no mean feat, considering that Leo is the subject millions of constant media attention, the face upon millions of magazine covers. Scores of web sites are devoted to DiCaprio whose image is among the most downloaded on the internet.

Yet, for months, Leo fans flocked to a free Thai site that offered plenty of pictures and information, as well as an unusual bonus. It used the Leo infatuation to introduce fans to the real Thailand. Meanwhile, the students working on the site honed their computer skills and tested their English-language abilities, furiously updating the site under tight deadlines. Best of all, this was a learning exercise that the children loved.

“This isn’t really a computer program,” says Richard Barrow, the British teacher who oversees the creation of impressive web sites at Sriwittayapaknam School in Samutprakarn. “For me and my students, this has really always been an English lesson.

“It started off as an experiment,” he explains. “It just seemed like a good idea.”

And how! Sriwittayapaknam is a virtual reality far removed from the scholastic prison you may remember. None of the 1,700 students cut class. Many beg to stay after school.

The attraction is found in three huge computer laboratories, where kids use 150 spanking new computers, both IBM-standard and Macs, for English lessons, art work and, of course, web design projects.

Already, the project has produced over 800 web pages, as well as scores of separate but wonderfully interlinked sites. Starting at the main page (http://www.sriwittayapaknam.ac.th/) visitors can take an cyber tour of a typical Thai town or temple, review other films made in Thailand (including two James Bond thrillers), peruse Thai stamp collections or read about the country’s first railroad in the country, a century-old line from Bangkok to Samutprakarn, where Sriwittayapaknam School is located.

Many of the web pages were born as Leo links. When the film star visited a temple, for example, the next day students added information on Thai temples, including side features about etiquette for visiting holy sites and one student’s personal journal about being a novice monk.

Such creativity has been rewarded with what the web loves most: attention. Before Leo arrived, the school site counted “hits” (visits to the site) per day by the dozens. After he landed, the blizzard of daily hits soared into the thousands.

But Leo is only the glitzy side of the site, which is full of nooks and crannies, Some as simple as a listing of students at each class level. Click on any student’s name, and you arrive at a personal home page. Most tell about family, hobbies and the like – the product of a classroom assignment requiring students to produce a page about themselves. Taken together, it’s an intriguing interactive scrapbook of the school, with links enabling you to contact each student by e-mail. Many have become penpals with schoolchildren around the world.

Gifted students produce more sophisticated pages, with scanned photos, sound files and links to things they like. Nattawud Daoruang, 13, a recent Student of The Month, has created a diverse site (http://thaistudents.com/nattawud/) with pages on everything from the local crocodile farm, his friends and family, and festivals in Thailand, to favourite comic books and football players. His classmate Sakdipat Krishanachinda, also 13, details his home life and hobbies. With the click of a mouse, you can see Sakdipat with his stamp collection. With another click, meet his rabbits, Blacky and Brown.

“The students do whatever they want,” says Barrow. “That’s part of the beauty of this. It allows them to use their imagination and creativity in constructive ways.

“The best thing about the internet is that anyone can publish anything,” he adds. “In some ways, we’re like a publishing company on Thailand.”

The school acquired its first 10 computers three years ago, but the internet project took off only last year, when Barrow embarked on the road to becoming a webmaster.

“I don’t really have any experience,” he recalls. “I just try what seems like fun and interesting and go from there.”

Success is easy to gauge. In the computer rooms are scores of children, smiling at the screens and playing what seem to be games. In reality, they are acquiring valuable skills.

“It’s the future,” Barrow observes. “It’s learning, but exciting to them. The feedback encourages them. They love it.”

Lessons start early. Kindergarten and pre-school children have one computer class per week. Older children receive twice-weekly instruction, but many choose to augment this with lunchtime and after-school sessions.

“They really pick things up fast,” says Barrow. “The kids like the instantaneous nature of the programs, where they click and something happens.” Like interactive English lessons, where the beginners click on a picture of an object to see and hear it English name. Next are art lessons, not using coloring books and crayons, but creating on-screen drawings. The best of these are displayed on the school site’s Amazing Paknam Art Gallery, a badge of honor that provides additional incentive.

The computer center is a tribute to the vision of three sisters who run the private school, which was founded by their mother in 1955. The sisters, principal Seesagoon Krishanachinda, administrator Sirisook Rongruang and business manager Ua Aree Sooksri, all emulated their mother, Sawaiwong Sooksri, by obtaining education degrees – writing homework in longhand and endlessly retyping essays. They say they had no doubts about their giant leap into the computer age.

“Yes, this was an enormous investment,” confirms the principal, nicknamed Nui. “But you really cannot live without computers these days. The way we see it, the children need to learn about computers, and the earlier the better.”

“Money is really not the most important thing when you are talking about education,” adds sister Tui, the administrator. “Things are different nowadays. Computers are essential if these children want to get ahead in a changing world.”