We have temporarily moved from Chiang Mai to Kho Phangan to manage the Spicy Salad Bar and Bungalows. Gig, who owns the place, is Chotika’s aunt. She went to Europe for a long vacation and needed someone to look after the place. Chotika and I had both quit our full-time jobs at the school to dedicate our time to our online businesses. So when Gig asked us if we could come here and look after the place we thought: ”why not?”
Once we got here we realized we were in a challenging situation. The people who used to work here had left without storing anything properly and the place was a mess. What a shame! Spicy Salad is such a beautiful place. It’s situated on the best corner of Salad Beach with a restaurant, a pub and seven traditional Thai bungalows located between the jungle and the beach. The only way to reach it is by walking on the beach or from a short trek in the jungle. It basically is a paradise! Gig will return at the beginning of the high season so we wanted the place to be fully operative, clean and shining by then.
To be clear, I am a “farang” (that’s what Thais call westerners) and without a work permit, so I am not allowed to work here. Chotika is Thai and she can legally manage the place. We both have plenty of experience in hospitality and management. I can’t work but I can share ideas. So we rolled up our sleeves, brain-stormed and made a plan. We could see the light at the end of the tunnel.The first thing to do was to clean up all the rubbish and trim the bushes, the jungle was taking over the place. We spread the word on the island that Spicy Salad was looking for new staff members and we started cleaning a little on our own until a MONOCLED COBRA came out of the bar. Yes, one of the most deadly snakes you can find in Thailand. With the help of the staff of the next door resort we got rid of it and fortunately, no one got hurt. But guys … that was f*****g scary!
Two days after the snake appearance, we managed to find two workers for Spicy Salad. Joe and his wife Peew. As almost all the workers on the island, they are from Myanmar. Joe is a very resourceful man. He goes into the jungle and comes back with wild herbs and vegetables to eat or he goes to the ocean and comes back with fresh fish, clams or mussels. He is now the handyman and also the gardener of the place. Peew works in the kitchen and cleans the bungalows.
The first month went smoothly. Both workers seemed very happy and we were happy too. Usually, the staff does grocery shopping in the mornings but because of the number of things to do we divided the chores. While they were cleaning up the place, Chotika and I went to buy all we needed, from food supplies to cleaning products. The kitchen has a small fridge but the restaurant has at least 35 seats. It’s open all day, every day. Grocery shopping needs to be done on a daily basis. We have just one scooter, a Honda Click 125 cc. As I have mentioned before the Spicy salad is not very easy to reach. It is 14 km from Salad beach to the Makro (the marketplace for business owners) at Tong Salad. We have been driving that route every morning, packed like donkeys, to make sure we have everything necessary to keep Spicy Salad operational.
Between all the Spicy Salad duties, some online work, snorkeling, sunbathing and everything else related to island life, Spicy finally opened to its first customers. During the first month when we came back from shopping or when customers came, I was always in the kitchen with Peew making sure she was learning how to meet Western standards. She is an amazing cook. I taught her how to store food properly, to keep raw pork away from raw chicken, to freeze things in small portions and do not re-freeze anything. Chotika was looking after the customers while Joe was fixing pipes and completing other handyman jobs. It was all good. We believed that we could spend less time with them because we had trained them. That’s when the problems started.
Cultural barriers are way bigger than language ones. Teaching hygiene to someone coming from a third world country ain’t easy. As soon we stopped spending time looking after Peew in the kitchen, she stopped meeting our standards. Meanwhile, Joe got a little too comfortable and started disappearing to go fishing when customers were at the restaurant. I can’t take any orders or serve any food because I am a farang, Chotika can’t do everything on her own, and yet another struggle was just around the corner.
What to do? Chotika is a westernized Thai woman and I’ve lived in Asia for almost 5 years. We know what you’re thinking, you imagine how a Westerner would manage this situation. I’m picturing Gordon Ramsay right here, right now. Swearing all over the place and making the point of who is the boss and how everything needs to be done. But here things are different. If you yell at the staff the staff will stop coming to work. They will quit. This is one of the most common problems of business owners on the island. Losing your temper or shouting in Thailand is considered very bad manners. Teaching standards to Burmese staff without losing your temper or your mind is a challenge. We closed the kitchen because of a "missed standard" incident and Peew got offended. She doesn’t understand the risks involved with treating food "Burmese way". The weirdest thing is they don’t get sick like we do. Their digestive systems have adapted, but the tourists’ haven’t.
Acknowledging their cultural limitations, we realized they can’t really understand us. We know they don’t understand why the kitchen needs to be bleached and the food needs to be wrapped before being stored. They don’t understand why ants or flies don’t belong in a restaurant kitchen. We needed a different approach to making them understand how things should be. So armed with patience, less smiling and a fake grumpy face, we started training them again.
Here comes our understanding of the meaning of being not capitalists. Once a friend told me:
“the dream of a western person is to not have to worry about cash, to be able to live an amazing life and be less stressed about money. But once we live next to someone who has that attitude, we can’t understand it”
The staff members are simply not born as capitalists. They know how to survive in the wild, they can get food from mother nature and they can live in the jungle. They can’t be bothered to try and understand our reasoning. But they need the job. They have an 8 years old daughter living in Myanmar with her grandparents. They need the money to pay for her food, her education and to send money to their respective families. So we’re sure we will find a compromise and they will learn our standards.
This experience reminds us, once again, how privileged we are. How lucky we are to be born in a developed country and how important education is. These people are lucky to be able to know how to survive in nature, something that westernized world is losing every day more. So the best things to do is to learn how to live together by learning and sharing the positive things from each of our cultures, in fact, they finally met our standards. At the same time, they taught us how to fish clams and crabs. We have learned how to recognize and cook wild herbs. When Gig came back from England everything was perfect.
If you are thinking about moving to a tropical island to start a new life make sure that you are open to learning and respecting the local culture and adapt to the environment.
Written by: Marta Sailis
THE SAD REALITY OF LIVING AT THE BEACH