Think of Finland and mention what comes to your mind. Sauna? Tick. Finlandia Vodka? Tick. Santa Claus? Tick. Finnish cuisine? Eeeh…
In Chalong Bay on southern Phuket Finns are pretty common thanks to Raya Group Asia, run by Finns and hiring dozens of diving instructors from their home country not to mention the steady stream of fellow countrymen who are among their core customers.
But aside the admiration for marine life, what else are those exotic Finns from the Land of the Thousand Lakes and Santa Claus up to in Chalong these days?
Well, last high season they became reality TV-show stars when no less than 48 episodes about the life of the Raya divers were portrayed on prime time TV in Finland! And actually being sailing enthusiasts from the beginning they launched in 2010 their new Raya Sailing cruise division and bought their own catamaran to offer something more price-friendly to both five-star guests as well as charter tourists.
Sauna and restaurant combination
As for Finnish restaurants, this is a rare species in the area, just as in Thailand as a whole. So why not opening one! This was however not what the diversifying Raya Group Asia first thought of, as Janne Miikkulainen, COB, explains how Restaurant Skiffer came to life.
“We didn’t plan to open a restaurant from the start – but starting a kitchen that could prepare meals for all our diving and snorkelling trips.”
Regarding Finnish saunas these are just as scarce, while the chance to jumping into a hole in the ice (another habit of those strange Finns!) is certainly non-existent. And yet, remedy for the lack of these things now exist on Phuket – within a spa situated next door to Restaurant Skiffer in Chalong.
It features a steam sauna combined with a substitute for the Finns habit to take dips in frozen lakes after their sauna sessions – Janne calls it “a specialty brought in for the crazy Finns”. On weekends a large tub with room for three people is filled with large ice blocks and, as a result, freezing water. That combination is, so to speak, the Finns’ cup of tea – and now also some Thais’!
“It’s really freezing and you can dip in after the sauna and feel really cool and fresh for the rest of the evening. First the Thais looked at us like: ‘These guys are absolutely mad!’ And we were prompting them to try and they were watching it for six months. Eventually one tried it and then many others followed suit.”
After the sauna they usually head for the spa neighbour; the since on year ago opened Restaurant Skifffer, which is just slightly tucked away from the main street, enough to give it a much more laidback and unrestrained atmosphere. Guests chill on comfy sofas lining the walls around the open-air but roofed, and slightly rustic, dining room. And, suitable when close to the beach and like its sister restaurant in Helsinki, it has a maritime feel – even though it still awaits some more decorations relating to boats and the sea.
Laidback ambiance and gourmet pizzas
Restaurant Manager Janne Moilanen explains what is their ‘unique’ offering aside the ambience which does not all resemble those ubiquitous, kind of year-round Christmas-decorated bars found all over the island.
“You can see when guests are coming over here from the sauna,” he smiles. “It’s really laidback and from my point of view you can come here just as you are and always be welcome. And our service is unconditional; whatever you want we try to deliver.”
“We try to be different in our own unique way with the atmosphere, really good service and our food,” he adds.
Most of all they are known for their ‘Flatties’ (or ‘liuska’ in Finnish), a sort of a gourmet pizza with distinctive fillings (such as one with goat cheese, strawberries and cashew nuts, or the one with a special little tasty fish from Finland) and an uneven, oblong shape. The Flatties concept, just as the restaurant actually comes from the original Skiffer restaurants in Finland.
Once Raya Group hade decided to open a restaurant they turned to their friends in Finland for help.
“We started thinking it would be nice after all to have our own restaurant that would be a kind of expat place where you go to hide away from tourism and all this,” Janne Miikkulainen explains.
Previously they only had a handful of restaurants, all a bit cosy and hidden, that they kept on going to again and again, which becomes too repetitive after a long time. And the Raya Divers team have lived on Phuket for many years now.
“Together we came up with the idea to open Skiffer in Thailand and the chef who designs the menu there came and it was really hard at the start: ‘cause if you look at it quickly you think: ‘It’s just another pizza place’. But the thing with our pizzas is that they are these Flatties!”
“The main chef from Finland had to spend a lot of time here to get it right; again and again, shape, size, sauces… it took us a couple of months.”
Real Thai cuisine taste
Then they have also added Thai cuisine to the menu and cook it properly: making sure that Thai guests think the dishes are genuine, and thus, as for most Thai dishes, doing it relatively to very spicy.
“I put really big effort in having our Thai menu tasting like real Thai food. Last season it was considered only O.K.; Thais are very critical about Thai food. We made changes to do the genuine – like for Thais and not like cross-kitchen, which we do with the Flatties.”
And, after all, the client base of Raya Group are tourists so they also offers an activity where one can taste and get an introduction to Thai food, aside the ordinary menu; held by the restaurant manager who has studied the background of each dish and the traditions within Thai cuisine carefully. One sits down at a long table where different kinds of Thai food are served while Janne Moilanen explains each dish and its origin.
Then there is also something for the Scandinavians: Every Thursday evening one surprise dish in the form of a Scandinavian specialty, cooked by Janne himself, is served – it could be Potato Hash, Creamy salmon soup, Mama’s meat balls with mashed potato etc. He picks from the local expat community’s favourite menu and anyone can place a request.
“Scandinavian food is my responsibility. And of course I try to teach the Thais how to do it, but if you try to teach something to Thai people they always like to put chilli in it – always” he laughs.
As for the vodka – yes they have it.
“Of course, every bar with a Finnish owner has to have it. However guests come here mainly for the food.”