Narisa Chakrabongse, hotelier, publisher, environmental activist has long been at the heart of Bangkok’s cultural life.
Born in the UK, the 64 year old granddaughter of Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanath, a son of King Rama V, recently founded the Bangkok Edge Festival and shows no signs of slowing down.
“I’m a quarter Thai, a quarter Russian, a quarter Scottish and a quarter English. My father was half Thai and half Russian because my grandfather married a Russian woman in 1905. My grandfather was a protégé of the tsar and a Hussar while my grandmother Ekaterina Desnitskaya was a decorated nurse in the Russian-Japanese war. They left Russia and married secretly in Constantinople. My grandfather married without permission and when he returned to Bangkok with his wife, it was a huge scandal. They had one son, my father, Chula Chakrabongse who was sent off to school in the UK where he lived for 20 years. And they built the house I live in to this day.”
History appeared to repeat itself as Chula Chakrabongse also married a foreigner, an English woman named Elizabeth Hunter
“My parents married in 1938, after having been told not to marry. I grew up bilingual, between Britain and Thailand. When I was young it was decided that I should study one out of every three semesters in Thailand, which was very stressful. One term here, two terms there. But it meant that I learned to write well in Thai, which has served me well. I now translate books from Thai to English. My parents had me late and my father died when I seven. My mother passed away when I was fifteen and I was packed off to boarding school in the UK, which I didn’t like. I then went to university in London and studied history of art. I got married, started the London Toy Museum. My husband owned New Cavendish Books which published books on things people collect. But I missed Thailand and came back here in the mid 80s to renovate the house I had inherited.”
I really think that to get anything done in life you have to be a bit crazy.
The house is a handsome Italianate villa, built in 1908 by her grandfather, on the banks of the Chao Phraya river. Today, the building, complete with turret and flag bearing the family crest, stands in the heart of a luscious garden with an oval-shaped pool subsumed by foliage. Several elegant buildings serve as one of Bangkok’s most serene Boutique resorts, Chakrabongse Villas.
“I settled in quickly. I taught English at a palace school and western history of art at Silpakorn University. I did some translation work for the Thai army and started the Greenworld Foundation as I was interested in environmental education. My younger son is the foundation’s vice chair today.
In 1985, Narisa Chakrabongse founded River Books, a publishing house specializing in titles on Thai history.
“I had a background in publishing and I decided to publish books on Thailand. I reprinted my father’s book about his childhood. I published a book about my grandparents, called Katya and the Prince of Siam along with an account of my grandfather’s life at the court of Russia’s last tsar.”
River Books remains a boutique publisher with a clear mission.
“Over the past thirty years, we’ve published books on many aspects of Southeast Asian art, history and culture. Most of our title are in English but in recent years I have also published Thai language editions of some of our titles.”
Several River Books titles have proved to be hugely popular with visitors to Thailand and have gone through many reprints.
“Very Thai, by Philip Cornwell Smith, has been and still is one of our best-sellers. We reprint every couple of years. He was really unlucky with publishing his follow-up Very Bangkok just as Covid started and the country closed. We have started publishing fiction, for the most part novels on Thailand in English as well as translations of Thai novels, including the recent The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth, which won the prestigious South East Asian Writers Award in its original Thai edition.”
In 1997 the global financial crisis hit Thailand hard and few people had money to buy books.
“I needed an income, so I opened the hotel, Chakrabongse Villas. There were hardly any intimate boutique hotels in Bangkok at the time. We had some traditional Thai houses in storage, so we put these in the garden. We insulated them well, so we could add A.C. and reduce the noise from the river. At the time I thought, running a hotel will be much easier than running a publishing house. It’s good to be naïve and just go for it.”
Chakrabongse Villas currently has nine rooms. The riverfront villas and wide patios leading to the water’s edge, almost directly opposite Wat Arun, offer some of the city’s best sunset views.
“We realized that tourists love to stay in traditional Thai houses. Many of our guests, especially those from the US but also from Germany and France, come again and again. I get quite anxious when they aren’t happy. I want people to be able to relax here.”
In 2016, Narisa Chakrabongse came up with another fantastic project she founded the bi-annual River Edge Festival, the premier cultural event in the heart of old Bangkok.
“I really think that to get anything done in life you have to be a bit crazy. I grew up going to festivals in the UK. I especially loved those events that mixed music and literature and that’s what I wanted to do in Bangkok – an ideas festival with workshops and creative things for young people.”
The River Edge Festival 2020, held in conjunction with Museum Siam, proved to be a major success. Narisa Chakrabongse is confident that the event will be back in 2022.
“I hope to bring it back, perhaps in partnership with the Neilson Hayes Library. Covid will not be able to stop the event. Bangkok needs a festival that addresses contemporary issues like human rights, the environment and LGBT issues.”