M.R. Narisa Chakrabongse is a true Renaissance woman. Publisher, philanthropist, owner of a boutique hotel, mother, grandmother, and educator, the kind-hearted dignitary chats with Bangkok 101 about what makes her tick.
When did you first fall in love with the written word?
I learnt to read quite early, on a longboat trip back from Thailand, which was how we travelled when my father was alive. When my mother died and I was away at boarding school and unhappy, reading was a good escape from my sadness and a school I disliked. Reading is a wonderful way to retreat from difficulties. And writing can change the world for good or evil, so it is an extremely powerful tool.
What inspired you to start your own publishing business?
My first husband had started a small publishing business and I joined him, publishing books on antique toys and trains. Then I decided to do my own thing and started River Books to publish books on Thai art and culture. Soon, we expanded to Cambodia, and later, Burma. Although it is hard work being a small publisher, it is very satisfying as each book is a new project and one meets so many interesting people.
What did you do when you moved back to Thailand from the UK?
When I moved back in my late 20s, I did various things, such as teach English and Western Art History at Chitralada School. I did some research into the Affected Thai Village Programme for the Ford Foundation and then worked as an interpreter and translator at Supreme Command.
How did you get you into philanthropy, and what drives the Green World Foundation?
Every year when I came back to Thailand, I could see that environmental degradation was increasing all the time and wanted to do something, albeit in a small way, to increase people’s awareness of the problems and perhaps inspire them to do something to help solve them. Green World Foundation is all about education and awareness. We have been closely involved with making nature more accessible and relevant to young people today.
How do you ensure Chakrabongse Villas stay unique?
Chakrabongse Villas is fortunate in being on the river with one of the best views in Bangkok. It also is low density with only seven rooms. That means that guests can have a lot of privacy and relax. In addition, we have a private launch and a long-tail boat for trips on the khlong. Because it is not part of a chain, we can make the hotel more individualistic, which is something people enjoy these days. But one has to keep doing new things. Early next year, we are collaborating with Museum Siam to organize a festival of art, literature, performance, music, and food called Bangkok edge. It’s a lot of work, but we think we are well-placed to do something like that. We’ll be launching it in September.
What challenges do you face being royal Thai and English?
I think the main challenge is not fitting in anywhere that well. In England, if I don’t say anything, I pass for English perfectly well, although my name still invites enquiry. Then in Thailand, I get asked every day, all day, why I speak such good Thai and no one will accept it when I just say I am Thai. I do find that very boring. I think it would be easier to be an expat.
How did you support your sons when they were getting started with their artistic endeavours?
My elder son, Hugo, started earning his own money as soon as he left school through his acting. Then he started in a band and got signed by two record labels, one after the other, so was generally self-sufficient. Dominic is quite a bit younger and just starting out on his career. I am very pleased that he is very concerned about the environment and that that is the field in which he is working.
How have you influenced their careers?
I give encouragement and moral support and to both my sons, but try not to interfere too much. The main thing is to be there [to give] advice. I love having them around for dinner and going away on holiday together. Now Hugo has two sons of his own, so it is lovely to see my grandchildren and hang out with Hugo and Hana.
What do you do to unwind?
I have a very busy schedule, but I find being in my house and pottering about very relaxing. I also like going on the river and walking around the streets near my house. I have a two hour[route] I do, going by Wat Po into Suan Saranrom, through Wat Ratchabophit, to Wat Suthat and back.
Where are your favourite places for a good meal in Bangkok?
I eat at home [Chakrabongse Villas] a lot as the food is delicious. I am fond of Eat Me and also like the buffet at the Oriental. There is a good street food vendor on the corner of Pak KhlongTalad and I always eat Som Tum Kai Yang when I go to Chatuchak market.