It’s hard to keep up with Sii. One day she’s launching a new book in Phuket; next, she’s visiting luxury hotels in Paris and Rome or exploring Bangkok and Singapore. Always on the move, she’s an entrepreneur, a traveler, a social figure and a Phuketian; or in her own words: “Just a girl who’s been lucky.” In our exclusive interview, we reveal who Sii Eawsakul really is.
Who are you, who is Sii Eawsakul?
Because of my career, people perceive me as a successful, well connected person who travels the world. But I’m also just a girl who’s been lucky, grabbed an opportunity early in life and then worked hard and got to where she is today. Knowing people and staying connected is part of the process. Many people think that I’m a social person, and it’s almost impossible for them to see beyond that. But the truth is, I never really had any personal time because I started work at the age of 19 and everywhere I go, people know me because of my job. And now many people get me completely wrong.
And why do you think you belong on the cover of a magazine?
(laughs) I don’t know and I don’t know why I put myself in that position.
Well, I know why! It’s because you’re connected to Phuket, and we are a magazine about people, whose life is affected by Phuket and who, in turn, affect Phuket.
You know, this word “connected”, I used to enjoy it. Both in real life and, for example, on social media. But now, I’m trying hard to use it less and care less about how people may perceive me, as there is only one version of me. You can call it confusion or maybe it’s just a part of growing up, but I just feel it’s sometimes overwhelming. It’s offline, it’s online and there is no more space left, no difference between personal and social life anymore.
Especially here, on the tiny, tiny Phuket
Which is why, about two months ago, I decided to move out to Bangkok. And there… I remember the feeling I got the first time I left my house in Bangkok. The relief, nobody knowing who I am and what I do and nobody caring! I really love that feeling and I really needed this, to feel normal. Phuket had become far too small for me, which is partly why I chose to live in Bangkok. It’s not just that it’s more open and vibrant and that there’s lots of things happening there, most importantly it offers me anonymity.
But you still call Phuket home, were you born here?
Phuket is always going to be my home. I still have my house here; my parents are here and I became who I am today because of Phuket. But actually, I was born in Phang Nga. My mother’s house was not far from Laguna Phuket so I spent my childhood between Phuket and Phang Nga. I grew up here, at a time when there were no hotels here, there was nothing and we would spend time doing normal kid stuff. And to be honest, as I travel to other places, I like the change that happened here less and less. I liked growing up here, but I don’t like the way Phuket grew up. It didn’t become what I think it should have.
And what do you think it should have become?
I prefer places that change with time but never forget what they are, especially the culture side. Like Bali, for instance, where the local culture is very strong, the local identity. In Phuket, if you remove the beach and nature, it becomes a city. I just spend one and a half hours getting from the south to the north of the island. And the cultural side of it, can you see any of the original Phuket left? We have groups like the Thai Peranakan Association working to keep the island’s heritage alive, and some resorts such as Trisara and the new Rosewood Phuket are doing what they can to offer authentic experiences to guests, but I would say they are the exceptions to the norm.
I wasn’t here to see the original Phuket.
For me, it’s Phuket Town, some corners of it, local markets, some places where my mom used to take me, where people still wore traditional clothing. You hardly see that anymore. And we lost it in 20 years or so. It became a city, it’s more cosmopolitan but it also lost its identity. Sure, we still have the beach and natural attractions, but we are losing out on the wave of increasingly sophisticated travelers seeking cultural and authentic experiences.
And you could observe that transformation with your own eyes.
When we started Phuket.com in 1994, there wasn’t even internet here, we had to run our service through the US. At that time, I was working as a PA to the Operational Director of a yachting company called Phuket Yacht Service, the first one in Phuket. I just graduated and was in transition of going to the Uni, but I saw a job ad in a newspaper and decided to give it a try…and got it. I remember I went back to talk to one of my high school teachers and told her about the job and how much I got offered and she told me that it was almost as much as she was earning. And she also said I should give it a go. And so, I did. It was 1992.
When I joined Phuket Computer Services (later rebranded as Asia Web Direct), I didn’t even know how to turn the computer on, but the founder Neil Cumming, who later became my business partner until now, said not to worry and he gave me a Fujitsu computer, which for a person who only used a typewriter before, was like getting a BMW. I spend six months learning how to use it and the more I learned the more to learn I discovered. And then customers started showing up – Amanpuri, Sheraton Grande Laguna Phuket, Boathouse, Boat Lagoon and Phuket Gazette… everyone wanted to go digital and nobody could help them but us. It’s also where I made my first connections on the island.
Which over time turned out to be with some of the most prominent names in Phuket.
But at that time everyone was nobody! They were just newcomers to the island, trying to make something of themselves. And these relationships grew over the years. I could spend all day telling you about them. And we still stay in touch, we see each other and these are the people who know the real version of me. They are not the ones who follow me on Facebook, these are the people who know I haven’t changed over the years.
Some people see me and think that I know everyone, but what they don’t see is how those relationships were built over the years. How it was a part of my life’s journey. Today, you can find some much information about a person or the version they want you to perceive with this never ending social media, without even meeting them, but you only think you know them. This is just a version, not the truth.
So, who is the true Sii?
I am a person who will help someone because they need help and not because I expect something in return, need to make a new connection or another such thing. Connections are the most powerful thing possible but if they are backed by a real friendship, they are even more powerful. And I’m lucky to be a real friend of many people here.
You mentioned that social media changed the way connect with each other. But I wanted to ask if Phuket, with the way it has changed, does it attract different kind of people than it used to?
It’s becoming more mass and less intellectual. People look for authenticity, for real culture, and there isn’t much of this left in Phuket. The intellectual part, the authenticity is slowly fading away but we are lucky that at least organizations like The Phuket Hotels Association, Phuket International Women’s Club and Rotary Club of Patong Beach, who I have privilege to be involved with for many years, do good work giving back to the communities here, and I hope it’s not a case of too little too late. Whether we come or we go, we should give back, no matter how small, it should be part of how we live here.
What struck me in what you were saying, is that the people you’ve met here 20 years ago, are still in Phuket. It doesn’t seem to be the case anymore, fewer people stay here long term.
I’ve noticed that too, people just come here, do their thing, make their money and leave. Business people love it here, it’s accessible, cosmopolitan and full of opportunities. But there’s less to keep them here permanently. For tourists though, the island is still a great place to visit. We have some of the best resorts in the world, including the flagship Aman, The Surin Phuket, Andara Resort & Villas and Paresa Phuket, to name a few. Thailand is still one of the biggest collections in LuxuryHunt.com, and Phuket and Bali are the destinations with most featured properties.
Is there something that people get wrong about Phuket?
I think most people get it right. For example, many of my friends in Bangkok never come here, because they say it’s very expensive. And that’s true. I don’t want to sound negative, but it is what it is. That said, even with prices comparable in some aspects with the west, my western friends will tell you that the welcoming warmth delivered by the Thais make it worthwhile. Us locals know that there are still pockets of tranquility up and down the island, such as Ao Yon, Ya Nui, Naithon and some of the small lovely coastal roads.
Sii Eawsakul is a Co-founder of Asia Web Direct (AWD) the company behind Thailand’s high-profile travel sites Phuket.com and Bangkok.com, two of the most visited destinations in the country, websites now acquired by Expedia. She is also the founder of LuxuryHunt.com and the brains behind leading hotel digital marketing agency WebConnection.Asia