May, restaurateur, chef & instructor | Bangkok, Thailand
December 6, 2009
May Kaidee owns several popular vegetarian and vegan restaurants and cooking schools catered to foreign tourists near Khao San Road and Chiang Mai. She has been in the restaurant business since 1988 and is passionate about educating and promoting a healthy vegetarian diet.
About Khao San Road
Khao San Road in Bangkok has been the hub for shoestring independent travelers or backpackers since the early 1980s. It has a plethora of travel services, accommodations, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and vendors all catered to this travel demographic.
LPT: So you’ve been in business for a very long time.
May: Yeah, since 1988. I worked for my aunt for 5 years and after that, I started my own business.
LPT: And do you work with a lot of tourists?
May: Yes, especially at the restaurant, it’s only tourists. There were no Thai people at all at the restaurant when I started working for my aunt. The first restaurant was in the Lonely Planet so I had many customers and they kept coming back, sometimes they came back 10, 15 or 20 years later.
LPT: Why do you think they keep coming back?
May: One thing is that people need healthy food and I was the first restaurant in this area to offer customers brown rice.
May: Yeah, at the time no one was eating brown rice at all. Not Thai people. But the tourists really wanted something more healthy like brown rice so I offered brown rice and healthy vegetarian and some organic food.
LPT: And are organic food and brown rice that difficult to buy in Thailand?
May: Somewhat difficult but I get them from the farms in my village. Sometimes local people will bring them from my village. My village is very close to Laos and Cambodia where it’s mostly countryside and has more farms. The rice is from my family farm.
LPT: Why did you become vegetarian then vegan?
May: Oh, because I was unhealthy, weighed 65kg and the problem was the food because I really enjoyed eating and ate things like dessert. Sometimes my mind will decide on eating McDonalds or pizza or European food. It’s the same as when Europeans want to eat Thai food, Thais like to eat European food. It means there’s an exchange in culture, right? I’ve been vegetarian for 16, 17 years now.
LPT: And more Thai people are changing the way they eat?
May: Yeah, they’ve changed a lot the way they eat. People also eat what’s trendy like McDonalds, pizzas or anything else.
LPT: Are there more health problems in Thailand because of the change in diet?
May: Yeah, it’s because of the food. That’s why you see more fat people now.
Also when families have money people tend to go for just taste and eat the wrong foods. Some who have money will say, “Oh, enjoy life”. When you have money you want to buy things for your family to enjoy like McDonalds or pizza or something else that’s not good for your health. That means the way people are living is wrong, thinking that it’s fun and the good life. It means it’s a happy good life when you’re drinking or partying and more often when people have money.
But for my lifestyle, it’s more the easy life, it’s more important to eat good food – good food and good health, like that. When you eat food be mindful of nature as well and don’t smoke a lot.
There are many Buddhists in this country but people aren’t learning from Buddhism, you understand what I mean? People know about Buddhism and karma but people don’t change the way they do things. It’s the same for many people. They think if you want a good life or if something bad is in your life, you go and spend money wrongly, drink, smoke, party or have sex with anyone. It means people are enjoying themselves.
That is one thing I really like about my life because I don’t smoke, drink or kill. The food I eat is from what I have, my farm. Good things are not just about having fun and drinking.
LPT: Since you started working with tourists in 1988, what sort of changes have you seen in tourism in Thailand?
May: Yeah, from the first year (1988), I didn’t see that many tourists because there wasn’t much on Khao San Road, you know? There were a few travel agencies and shops but it was very quiet. There weren’t a lot of buildings, only 1 floored ones, not very tall nor were there a lot of guesthouses. After about 5, 6 years later, things changed with more tourists coming every year.
With more tourists coming to Thailand, everything changed – local people were thinking about how to make money from customers and tourists. That’s one thing that’s made people more selfish because they charge (foreigners) more money thinking, “Oh, you’re a foreigner, you must have a lot of money”. Some shops want to charge (foreign) customers more by saying it’s a certain price but it’s over the actual price and too much for the customer.
That’s one thing that’s making some foreigners not come (to Thailand). When you’re traveling, prices can by scary because something can be 50Baht for locals but 300 Baht for tourists. You know, 50 and 300 Baht is a big price difference.
LPT: How do you feel about that with more and more tourists coming to Thailand? Is that a good thing or bad thing?
May: One thing I like is technology and everything changes because of it. It makes people want to see what’s new in this country. But it’s good that we change customs and change ideas somewhat. Tourists coming to do business in Thailand or traveling is a good thing; it means things are well for customers and Thai people also have more jobs.
But one thing not so good, because there’s always something good and something not so good in everything, is when Thais want to act like foreigners: customs, t-shirts, jeans. It’s not easy to find someone dressed in traditional Thai style like me now.
When people say, “Oh, you’re international” or “you like to be international”, it means you like to smoke, drink, wear t-shirts, or party. It’s from the Europeans or technology and children and teenagers want to copy it.
LPT: What are some difficulties in working with tourists?
May: Tourists are not so difficult but the difficulty is that I had never spoke English before. Yes, the first time I started working with tourists, I felt a little bit shy and not confident with my English. I liked to cook, not talk. I liked a little bit of cooking, working in the kitchen or cleaning, that’s it. But when some foreigners ask me questions, I’d say, “It’s better not to talk.” Even though I didn’t understand, I learned because I had to speak English to the customers.
When people had questions about the food like how spicy something was, or if they’re allergic to something, I wanted to learn about them. That was work for me because I learned it on my own and the restaurant had only tourists as customers.
LPT: With the changes that come to the country because of tourism, how do you think Thai people feel about that?
May: Yeah, for now, some people think it’s good. Foreigners bring money and that means good business for Thailand. Some foreigners spend a lot of money so everyone selling things can make a good profit. Thailand is a good place to travel and it’s good for customers to come to Thailand. Promotions to invite tourists to come to Thailand are a good thing.
When foreigners come to Thailand, they’re happy and want to come back and they’ll tell their friends to visit Thailand. The first time they come things are okay, the second time, it’s okay. But on the 3rd or 5th or more trips, people start thinking that, “Oh, Bangkok really changed”. Businesses become geared only for tourists and people (tourists) feel it’s all about money. When people first started coming to Thailand, they feel very safe but now sometimes they don’t. Things were cheap here so people had a good life, good job and business was okay but I don’t think people like to come to Thailand anymore.
LPT: Why do you think that?
May: Yeah, because even though it’s high season now, the number of visitors is still low. I don’t know why, maybe it’s the global economic problem for all countries, not only Thailand. Tourists are saving money by not staying in hotels but in cheaper rooms.