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Soi Saiyuan

  • Written by Kloth
  • December 13th, 2018
  • 10 min read

It was a dusty, dirty soi off Wiset Road, Phuket that I discovered 30 years ago on my rented motorbike. After 2 or 3 km the soi forks off to the viewpoint above Kata and Karon to the right and Rawai beach to the left. Much has changed since those days and dozens or more stories to tell. Here are some plus a short introduction or prequel to the narrative that follows.

Toward the end of the last millennium a charismatic and friendly American came to retire and settle in Phuket. But spending his golden years in a beach chair was never on his mind. Retirement for him was but a step to a new career. He opened a modest restaurant with an adjoining Delicatessen on a busy road bend on Saiyuan Road in the southern part of Phuket. In no time the restaurant became well-known for good and reasonably priced food and an ideal meeting place for the many foreigners that came to live in great numbers to that still fairly quiet part of the island. Soon all of Rawai’s expats and later many of the island’s foreigners got to know Don’s place. More so when it became known that Don was a former NASA engineer having worked on and contributed to the Apollo and space shuttle missions.

When the restaurant became too crowded and after some quarrels with neighbors who resented the noise produced by cars and bikes around Don’s busy place, he had to act upon it. Don being Don and a true American it had to be big. He rented land further up the road and created Don’s Mall. And big it was. It had its own meat processing and bakery units incorporated. An easily accessible convenience store and Delicatessen on the front side. A large outside seating restaurant partly covered for the rainy days, a smaller air-conditioned lounge for chic or elegant dining. A large carpark in the back. It wasn’t far from where I lived then, an alley of Saiyuan appropriately named Soi Nana-Chat for it was mostly inhabited by foreigners.

While I was not a regular at Don’s Mall I particularly remember eating a fairly authentic Bayrische Schweinshaxe wondering how a retired American NASA guy got to produce such excellent German fare. One year I also invited my staff to Don’s Xmas dinner but when one of the girls declared it was not spicy enough and ordered a large portion of spicy herbs or nam-plik I decided next year a modestly increased new-years bonus was probably more welcome than turkey with stuffing, roast pork, mashed potatoes, Brussel sprouts and Cranberry sauce.

Don’s Mall has now disappeared given way to a condo or apartment building. Don himself moved to the north of Thailand and his adventure stories continue. See “Merchant of the Orient”, an entrepreneur’s Journey in life by Don Battles. The book is available on Amazon Kindle or in book form.

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It was at that original modest but homely place of Don’s I first met George. Being a fellow American it was probably him that introduced us. Soon I learned that he had just moved into the Nana-Chat sub-soi of Saiyuan recently. We became neighbors and friends. In the beginning it was just the occasional drink we shared but soon found that we had common interests. A joint weekly breakfast developed either in his or my house. Two or three pleasant morning hours over coffee watching the news. The 12-hour time difference between New York or Atlanta being the ideal time to get into the prime time TV slots and see the latest news on CNN. By now a firmly established network on the news channel map since the 1990/91 Gilf War reporting live during the height of the conflict from Baghdad. At the time an independent and fairly neutral news channel and still Ted Turner’s baby. The news was followed by Larry King Live. King had the knack for inviting interesting people and letting them talk about their lives or current world affairs, interrupting his guests only occasionally and with polite manners.

In contrast the same time slot these days features an angry-looking journalist by the name of Cuomo also in the company of invitees but doing most of the talking himself and an agenda which is best summed up as get President Trump out of office by any means and ASAP. I usually switch over to the more old-fashioned BBC for more uncommitted or neutral news coverage.

But sorry, I digress. After a while George and I were sometimes joined by an Italian also living nearby at Nana-Chat. He was a retired restaurateur from Milano and had the unpronounceable name of Giuliano-Francesco. Soon he became known as the Eytalian as George named him in his Texan slang. Both of them seemed to be well-off, devoid of financial problems or major troubles. The Eytalian was a talkative guy and we often had to listen to interminable narratives about the merits of Italian cuisine or the trials and tribulations of his running two of the most sought after eateries in Milano. By contrast George was much more discreet about his past. Little or no information was forthcoming when asked or sometimes pestered about his former occupation, how and where he had made his fortune, be it modest or large. He occasionally added almost as a byline that he had been “an oilman”. Once a year he had to return to attend to his business. Are you a Mafioso or something?, the Eytalian asked. George leaned back in his chair making himself comfortable and finally told us about his business.

His father was the real oilman. Back in the ’50s with the oil drilling boom at its peak in Texas he bought leases on land parcels from sometimes impoverished farmers or simply those in need of cash. Then he started drilling for oil. Most of the time the wells came up dry. Then one day one that did not look promising and therefore overlooked by the rich pros, spurted out tons of oil. George’s senior was a clever man that always carried plenty of cash in his pocket as was customary in the oil business and knew how to proceed. He installed a temporary plug and attached locks to the well-head. Then he went to see the farmer to extend the time limited lease for another 5 years. Suspicious at first, the farmer went to the field but saw nothing suspicious or untoward. When George Senior produced the many bundles of $100 bills the farmer acquiesced. Next George Senior went to one of the big oil production and refinery co. and negotiated a lucrative 25/75 deal. In clear that meant the big boys would take care of all exploration; extraction, transport, refining, marketing and taxation. Leaving a clear 25% bénéfice to George’s father of all the oil extracted in the next 5 years or until the well dried up. When he died a few years back George became a rich man without ever lifting his little finger.

As for me, I was still very much active in my tour operating venture. But by this time out of the struggling lean cow years and doing nicely. Looking back today, we were a fairly unconventional trio and not just in origin, background or vocational interests but many other respects too. But even so or perhaps because of it, we bonded and did so over many years.

George’s birthday was coming up. Not a small affair for a guy of his caliber. In the large garden and around the pool tables were set up for around 40 invitees. Friends and neighbors started to wander in after sundown. Aperitifs were served and all was set for a pleasant evening among friends and acquaintances. A three-man Thai band George had hired provided musical background. His girlfriend Poo had labored all day to prepare Thai dishes for the girlfriends of the farang guests. It had been George’s idea of asking the Eytalien to produce a few of his much vaunted Italian creations but he hadn’t been feeling well all week so Don’s traiteur service did the honors.

All went well until shortly before midnight when Giuliano started to complain about dizziness and a severe headache. He went to lie down at the nearest settee. We knew Giuliano had had some health problem recently but he did not elaborate on the nature thereof. When he put his hand over the chest breathing heavy and seemingly lost consciousness our host shouted on the top of his voice call 911. The emergency number was different but George’s girlfriend knew. Still, there was no answer at first and when she did reach emergency services she was told it would take time as the car was out currently on another emergency case. Not good enough for George who was a take-charge person by nature. Put him in my SUV we’ll get him to the hospital in no time. I and another of the guests helped to stabilize him on the bumpy road. Once there, George’s booming voice continued to resonate through the silence of the hospital at well past midnight. Get him in the ER, put him on a defibrillator, he needs oxygen. Eventually the nurses managed to calm him down and the three of us were put in a waiting room, told to be quiet and wait. The patient, she said, was in good hands.

At that time of the night the hospital was certainly staffed with a competent emergency physician and night nurses. A tentative diagnostic was made and 20 minutes later a senior doctor arrived. For us an apprehensive few hours followed. Eventually in the early morning hours we were all called in to the treating physician’s office. In layman’s terms and as best as he could, he said, he would explain to us what happened to Khun Giuliano-Francesco. He did not suffer a heart attack. A blood clot had formed in his brain and needed to be removed through a small incision in his skull. The intervention came just in time and was seemingly successful. With luck, Giuliano should not suffer any long-term consequences and would recover within a few weeks. He was now in the intensive care unit and we could visit in 2 days, all going well. We all left for home sitting quietly and in pensive mood in George’s vehicle. For once, the first and only time I experienced George in a much subdued and morose state of mind.

6 months later: We had resumed our weekly breakfast gatherings. Giuliano recovered and was now a regular participant. He was doing well and was once again himself. The Eytalian to George. The two often arguing over all and nothing in a most friendly manner. If anything reminded us of that unfortunate birthday party incident it was the plethora of pills and bottles of medication displayed on the breakfast table and that he took in religious order in between coffee, croissants, poached eggs and toast. An occasional dinner at Don’s was also allowed with the “no beer” proviso for Giuliano. However a glass of red wine was not only allowed but recommended by his very own physician. No complaints there from Giuliano who originated from one of the worlds celebrated wine regions.

For many weeks we never mentioned the unfortunate incident. Then one day George alluded to it, perhaps involuntary saying: It was a classic case of Murphy’s Law. We both looked up at him perplexed. He explained; too many mixed drinks against explicit doctor’s orders for Giuliano, no ambulance available, a bumpy and unassisted ride to the hospital, and a time-consuming wait for the neurosurgeon to arrive.

That’s enough, Giuliano cut him off. Followed by another of his exposé about Lasagna, Cannelloni, Tagliatelle, pollo al vino rosso, Pizza etc. His taste for food and good wine entirely intact again. Not now, interrupted George, we’re having coffee / croissant, not greasy Italian fare, save it for later. Besides, he said, I need to go back to Houston next week to check on a newly developing invention that permits lateral digging from the bottom of the existing oil pit thus exploring nearby territory for more oil field reserves. OK, Giuliano had his answer ready, you’re rich enough so no need for more oil digging. I pitched in, as often the conciliator in these quarreling situations by the two; let’s talk about George’s next year’s birthday party.

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