Born in Thailand but educated in Singapore, Malaysia, the USA, and Switzerland, Naphalai Areesorn began her professional media career back in 1974 with stints at the Bangkok Post and the now-defunct Business Times. However, her career path also straddled the field of hospitality, and she’s been involved with both the Dusit Thani and Siam Inter-Continental hotels. In 1991 she started the Chiva-Som Health Resort and managed that award-winning Hua Hin health spa until 2001. Currently, she is Editor-in-Chief at Thailand Tatler Group and head of the editorial team of Blue Mango Publishing. It’s certainly an impressive resume, but this demure dynamo points out that she didn’t have to “act like a man” in order to make it.
You began your media career in the mid-1970s. Was it hard to make it as a woman back then?
You know, mainly because of the kinds of jobs I’ve taken on, I’ve never felt that was an issue. I was always writing for English language publications, and my qualification was that I was able to speak, read, and write English very well. It was a “man’s world” back then, but I think I would have seen that even more if I’d gone into the corporate world.
How are things different now that you’re the one in charge of a mini media empire?
I tell my team they’re so lucky to have me as the editor because I’m the opposite of the old cigar chomping editor stereotype. I would like to say that I am a very caring manager but I know, from being overseas, that my style is not very Thai—meaning that if I feel something needs to be said I say it right away. But for me that’s the end of it. I don’t harbour grudges. And I’ve never been known to throw things at people (laughs). I may be small-sized physically, but I have a loud voice and I hate people walking over me. I never put up with that.
Was it more, or less, of a man’s world when you were involved in the spa and hospitality industry?
My jobs in hospitality were mainly in PR, traditionally areas where women excel more than men. But where it was more of a man’s thing, and more of a corporate thing, was when I put together the whole Chiva-Som project. I actually set up the company, I was the managerial director, I hired the staff, and did everything else. A lot of people think that it was Khun Boonchu [Rojanastien]. He was the deputy Prime Minister at the time, and the land owner, and he was the main shareholder. But I put together just about everything… from scratch!
Is Thailand aggressive enough when it comes to gender equality in the workplace?
Has Thailand been aggressive enough? No, of course not. You don’t have women taking to the streets demanding their rights and so on. And yet, if you look at women in the working world, especially in the corporate world, many have gotten very far. A recent survey showed some 30-odd percent of women [in Thailand] were in senior managerial roles, which is a high percentage even compared stop some countries in the west. I don’t think there’s too much discrimination, especially in Bangkok. Women are accepted as leaders, presidents, and CEOs.
Is the Thai mindset patriarchal overall?
It’s not really that patriarchal. There’s a saying that “the women are the hind legs of the elephant” meaning women are the ones who are driving everything. But Thai women don’t really feel they have to take the credit for it all. They do it quietly, behind the scenes, and the man takes the credit as the figurehead. In the working world women can go far, but in society, and in the family—especially lower down the economic scale—you will still find women who are considered sort of “property” of men. On one hand women can go really far, but there are still a lot of families where it is the sons who are expected to be the leaders and take over the family business.
Is feminism alive in Thailand?
It’s not an overt feminism. You don’t see women burning their bras and things like that. Maybe Thai women feel it’s not necessary to go out and shout about it. But I do think that Thai women have grown bolder. They feel now they can be the leader of an organization, or start their own business, and they’re no longer “pretending” it belongs to the husband, son, or brother. As long as they are able to keep things in control that’s fine, and in the family it’s the women that keep things in control.
What are some of the values and traits in the women you look up to?
The values that I look up to are embodied in a woman who is a leader but she doesn’t do it in such a way where she feels she’s got to be more “manly” than a man. Women have got a lot of their own characteristics which make them special and help them in their work—compassion, being meticulous, checking out the fine details, and so on. These are things that you should be using to forge your way ahead, and not be trying to dress like a man, shout like a man, and be aggressive like a man.
Do you have children of your own?
Yes, two boys. It’s a pity that I don’t have a daughter because I really feel that in the future it’s going to be the women who will be leading the world. And it’s going to be a much better place for it.