By Luc Citrinot
The man leading Thailand’s tourist industry to a brighter, more prosperous future is surprisingly nostalgic about the past.
He is probably the best known public figure in Thai tourism, his job to preach the good word about the Kingdom on international TV channels or at travel exhibitions. He started his career with the Tourist Authority of Thailand, or TAT, over 33 years ago before finally becoming its governor in January 2011. Since taking up the position, Suraphon Svetasreni has not only helped steer the organisation through rocky political waters, he’s also brought a human dimension to the function, not hesitating to take positions when he thinks that a product or direction does not fit into its ideals.
We met him recently, not to hear the cover the same old tourist-industry ground, but to speak about his relationship with his homeland. Over the course of the interview we found that Suraphon likes animals, water, Isaan people and… of course, Bangkok!
“I was blessed to be born in Thonburi, on the other side of the Chao Praya River,” he says with a tone that suggests a hint of regret at the winds of change that have transformed the city over the years. “In my childhood days Thonburi was very different. We felt closer to nature, life being centred on the khlongs (canals) and community life. I guess it was what we now describe as ‘Thainess’ – or the ‘unbearable lightness of being Thai.’ For example, to me Thainess was swimming in the canal and grabbing the back of a motorboat to show how courageous I was to my friend, or taking care of pla kat, Siamese fighting fish. It was also going to the temples for local festivals rich with the smells of incense, flowers and food.”
Suraphon’s first encounters with tourism started here in the city, no more than a few kilometres from his home. “It was when I visited the Grand Palace for the first time as a child,” he says. “Its colours and structures adorned with gold amazed me.” Back in those days, a trip to a bungalow at nearby Baeng Saen beach was as exotic as holidays got. “Just packing up our swimming trunks or gathering together the food ingredients was an adventure,” he says.
“Just to go from one district to another in Bangkok brought an entirely different experience,” Suraphon goes on to say. “Outside Bangkok there were still windmills and local food and dress was often totally different. And I remember the first time I went to Chiang Mai was like going to another country. Those girls with their hair adorned with orchids biking in the streets and speaking with this slow, singing accent – it was so charming and different.”
It’s hard to imagine now, given that he’s one of Bangkok’s most vociferous champions, but Suraphon hasn’t always been a big fan. “I only started to appreciate Bangkok after being posted overseas,” he says. “Today, this city is incredible. All modern facilities are available to the visitors’ and anyone, tourists or locals, can find anything at anytime. Without being immaculate, it is also safe in comparison to many other cities around the world. And this is the place where you can find food at any corner… that is so unique. Above all, I love that this is a place where you can travel not just on roads but also water.”
Is there a side to Bangkok that he dislikes? “I hate to see locals trying to con visitors,” he says. “I especially dislike the gem factory businesses which hassle tourists. If people want to buy some, I advise them to go to a proper shop in a shopping centre. That’s where they will get the best quality and value.”
Suraphon’s City Picks
For sightseeing: “For first timers, the Grand Palace and the temples around remain a must-see. Otherwise, try a walking tour around the Wang Burapha and Yaowarat (Chinatown) areas. In the old days, the Old Siam shopping centre here was the poshest place to shop in Bangkok, the equivalent of Siam Paragon today.”
For shopping: “I love Chatuchak Market and I go very often there. The plants, the animals, the handicraft, the design… it is all there and it is a wonderful tribute to Thais’ sense of creativity.”
For food: “Chi Jong Who noodle and wonton shop in Wang Burapha District still has the same landlord and distinctive taste as in my childhood. Also, On Lok Yun on Charoen Krung Road: this shophouse still serves ice tea, chocolate or hot tea to people sat on wood benches, exactly like 80 years ago!”
For nightlife: “Sky bars such as the one at Lebua Hotel are classy places from which to admire Bangkok’s skyline, but for something more intimate with a great view of the river and the illuminated spires of the Grand Palace, try the Supatra River House restaurant on the Thonburi side.”