Well-Heeled Foodies Get Taste of Thai Ooverty

BAN TATIT VILLAGE, Thailand ~ Despite a moral snub from several star French chefs, a Thai luxury hotel group ploughed ahead with a meal it claimed would help bridge the divide between the rich and poor.

About 120 guests clad in black-tie finery worked their way late on Saturday through 10 gourmet courses, prepared by five chefs flown in from Europe and served in the glittering ballroom of Bangkok’s Lebua Hotel.

Some guests were flushed – perhaps from the wine, but also after a day in the sun in a rural Thai village. The visit was the first course of a scheme Lebua dubs “emotional tourism,” but derided by some as “poverty tourism.”

Lebua flew about 30 of its top guests to an elephant camp in northern Thailand, with the idea that seeing the beasts and their handlers in miserable conditions would spark an altruistic streak in the food-loving high-rollers.

But the trip was almost derailed when the three French chefs slated to cook the evening feast found out that Lebua was not intending to give any money to charity and pulled out, saying the idea was “morally objectionable.”

“There was never a moment when we said we would rethink – we were determined,” said Deepak Ohri, managing director of Thai-owned chain Lebua.

“We had some initial trouble getting chefs from France, because I think in France it became a huge issue, but then we said OK, if that is the case, then we will change our direction and move on to Europe.”

Five chefs with a combined six Michelin stars were eventually jetted in from Belgium, Britain, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands to cook the feast, which included roast lamb, pork and asparagus – a bit less showy than first planned.

Lebua announced that it would indeed give some money to charity, with 4.5 million baht (US$142,000) in donations from the hotel and some guests to provide water sanitation for Ban Tatit village and books for its school.

Ahead of the meal, the guests – most of them golfing buddies, suppliers and friends of Deepak – trailed by 20 reporters wandered through the village, admiring the elephants as they frolicked with their handlers in a lake.

In the dry season, a lack of food and water for the elephants forces their handlers to ride them down to Bangkok to beg on the streets.

The gap between rich and poor was as visible as ever.

A handful of Thai society ladies, their faces covered with huge designer sunglasses, teetered on high heels in the shade of umbrellas. Sun-beaten villagers squatted nearby, giving them a curious glance.

But all were united in their confusion about the aim of the trip.

Paluk Sak Homhuan, a 28-year-old villager, thought the gaggle of Asian and European visitors were simply tourists.

“They have come here because it is a beautiful area and there is nice scenery,” he said.

As for the guests, some said they did not feel properly briefed on how the funds for the village would be administered.

“I was invited at short notice so I just got some key words like ’emotional tourism,'” said German diplomat Raphael L’Hoest.

Scott Whittaker, executive director of Bangkok’s DWP architecture firm, said: “I guess what this is saying is that yes, you can come to Thailand and have a great time, but there’s also another side.”

After nosing around Ban Tatit for a few hours, the hot and tired guests headed back to a private jet and back to Bangkok for a meal which cost Lebua about $300,000.

Former elephant handler Kosol Homhuan, 63, who survives on about 1,500 baht ($47) a month, watched them prepare to leave.

“It’s very expensive,” he said with a simple shrug.

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