Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Thai Diva

Soontaree Vechamont
Chiang Mai, Thailand

During a recent visit to Chiang Ma, Thailand my friend and I ventured out to Huan Soontaree, a fabulous restaurant owned by Thai pop diva Soontaree Vechamont. If you don’t know who she is, don’t feel bad. It just means you haven’t been living in Thailand for the last 30 years.

A bona fide icon, Vechamont is revered by Thais, perhaps like a western star such as Shirley Bassey or Dionne Warwicke - though in a more restrained Thai manner. Living out her autumn years in this wonderful setting, Soontaree entertains her old fans with a nightly performance of her hits.

Huan Soontaree is a decent taxi ride from the city centre and rests on terraces by the River Ping. It’s decorated on a spectacular scale and has an exotic, romantic feel. The huge open space is dominated by a magnificent lantern featuring Chinese zodiac characters. Unlike downtown Chiang Mai, not much English is spoken here, adding to its out of the way, authentic feel.

The menu is decorated with photos of Soontaree Vechamont during her musical heyday, including studio and live shots as well as pictures of those who contributed to her successful career.

The food is excellent Lanna (northern Thai) cuisine, thus with a Burmese influence and featuring river fish, fiery curries and chili sauces

Before Vechamont takes the stage, her backing guitarist offers some insipid renderings of western easy listening classics, including Jim Croce’s I’ll Have To Say I Love You In A Song, The Beatles I Will and some Carpenters fluff. Thai pop tends toward the mellow so his selection is somewhat predictable. Even though I’m on vacation and chilled to the max, I’m ready to strangle someone by the time he‘s slogged through a weary rendition of Yesterday.

A special pot of tea is reverentially placed on the podium to indicate that zero hour is approaching. The so-called ‘Songbird of the North’ is about to make her grand entrance.

Vechamont has one of those classic showbiz stories - country girl sings old folk songs, moves to big smoke (Chiang Mai), works in shop next to recording studio. Studio owner connects her with Thai star Jaran Manopetch, who takes her under his wing. Hey Presto! A star is born, enjoying a distinguished career before slowly fading into the shadows. Finally returns to her roots and opens nitespot - Huan Soontaree Vechanont - where she relives her glory days. And why the hell not?

I've now demolished more than my share of Thai beers, and the tension is almost unbearable as Soontaree, looking elegant and diva-like, takes to her private stage, bestowing her regal smile upon us all. The pop diva delivers pleasingly off-kilter pop, a cooler version of Japanese enka, which is heartfelt and characterized by weird 1/2 note modulations which have a kind of Chinese inflexion. Like most Thai pop it’s naïve yet charmingly emotive.

As we leave, Ms. Vechamont returns our traditional gesture - hands clasped in prayer - and her assistant treats us to a tour of the wonderful garden. With Soontaree cooing beguilingly in the background, we feel we’ve experienced something exquisitely, uniquely Thai.

Huan Soontaree Vechanont is located at 46/1 Wang Singkhum Road in Chiang Mai.

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