He arrived before the crowds, he stayed longer than most and after almost 30 years, he still is charmed by Thailand and its people. Meet Michael Dietvorst, the man behind Phuket’s favourite furniture store - Oriental Living.
Maciek Klimowicz: When did you first arrive in Phuket?
Michael Dietvorst: The first time I came to Thailand was three years before I moved here, in 1989, from Holland. It was the first ever “Visit Thailand” year as the country was just getting serious about tourism so, I arrived here and backpacked from north to south.
You must have been quite adventurous.
Well, I feel very lucky to have been here at that time. Before coming to Thailand, I had never been to South East Asia and I instantly felt a connection with this place. So, I went back home with the intention to move here. When I told my friends and family about my idea they looked at me as if I was crazy, but I spent the next three years saving all my money. I sold all I had and moved here at the age of 25.
Thailand charmed you, has that changed since then?
Well, it’s been over 30 years now but Thailand has been very kind to me and I never doubted it. Of course, you have good days and bad days like anywhere else, but I do feel I belong here.
What did you first do when you arrived in Thailand?
At first, I lived in Bangkok and learned the language. It’s difficult but Thais were very encouraging. Also, in the beginning, I ran two restaurants and it helped immensely, this business being very much dependent on communication skills. At that time, few of the kitchen staff in Samui spoke any English, so it helped a lot.
So, from Bangkok, you went to Samui?
Yes, it was a completely different time, there were no telephones, no convenience stores, all beaches had bungalows on them, but there were only a few hotels. The pace of life was completely different so, I could take time to think what I wanted to do and that’s when someone suggested I should open a souvenir store. I went to Chiang Mai, found many beautiful crafts there and soon I started the Oriental Gallery company.
And then Oriental Living.
In the beginning, it was more of an Asian art gallery, very small, but it has been growing steadily and over the years we changed the name to Oriental Leaving - when the real estate markets in both islands started to emerge and the demand for furniture grew. It was the way I responded to changes and it is still changing. For example, two years ago we opened a new store in Samui, under a different brand and with a different concept. It’s called Loft by Oriental Living and it is a younger concept, a little bit less antique, more colourful art. And we are now going to bring this concept to Phuket - in July this shop will change into Loft by Oriental Living. You always have to go with the times, you have to reinvent yourself once in a while to keep the creative part alive.
I suppose that you’ve seen many such changes over all those years living in Thailand?
It changes constantly. If you look at the demographics, for example, the people who come here now are completely different. The numbers are changing as well as the way people travel and communicate. We have many nationalities coming to our stores, people of different cultural backgrounds - it never ends and I think this is interesting for us.
Let’s talk design. How do you select the ones you want to feature?
Today, four of our team members from Samui are coming to Phuket and tomorrow we are going to Singapore for an international furniture fair. After that, we go to Bali. We are always looking for interesting pieces. For furniture, we work mostly with five companies, because it's important to have a good relationship with the supplier - If you have a container coming and there's a problem, when you have been working with a supplier for 10-20 years, you can trust that they will sort it out. And then, of course, if we find something new that we like, we have to make a decision. We really need to be "wowed" by something to go for it.
What is the key factor in making your selection?
In Samui, for example, what we do mostly are full furniture packages for villas and small hotels. So, we need to be able to look at the whole house and then fill it up with beds, sofas etc. Our customers pay great attention to detail, they want individuality, so every house is different. We don't really have a “package A” or “package B”, we need to see what people like and what they don't like. It's all personalized.
Last question, what did you learn about running a business in Thailand over the years?
It's very helpful to learn the language, obviously, and then, of course, every book about how to behave in Thailand has already been written, but if you have a connection with the people and the place, you're probably going to be alright, but if you are someone who’s always trying to bring something from home here, then it can be tough. Not everything that works at home will necessarily work here, and the other way around as well.
Ok, this really is the last one – Samui or Phuket?
Luckily, I don't have to choose.
Learn more at oriental-living.net