A little piece of Thai island in Stockholm

Here comes the rain again. And so it does every night, right after the electricity goes and it gets pitch dark. The crickets continue their concert, the waves roll behind Star Hut and the ‘Tom Ka Gai’ is spicy.
      This is an ordinary evening in Skånegatan in the southern part of Stockholm. Inside the restaurant called Koh Phangan, there is always a warm and familiar part of Thailand no matter if it is snowy, rainy or sunny in the rest of the Swedish capital. The extremely popular spot in Stockholm is truly a success story.
      The Koh Phangan empire of today consists of a restaurant, a travel agency and a small shop. The restaurant opened ten years ago, and at that time all together three people were working there. Currently there are fifty five.
      The managing director, who is also one of the founders and the owners of this successful business, works almost around the clock, has long blond hair in a ponytail, tattooed ankles, and is soulfully committed to what he is doing. His name is Thomas Emblad.
      It all started in the early nineties when he went to Thailand for the first time. In those days Thailand was neither the fanciest nor the trendiest country to visit. But for a bunch of backpackers from Sweden it sounded like a moderate challenge.
      “The only thing we knew in Bangkok was Khao San Road, so that was where we went from the airport,” Thomas recalls.
      “Everything was so different to our daily life. Patpong was like a total culture shock – we did almost not believe what we saw. Then we took a bus to Krabi. It looked like a dump down there, and not at all like in the pictures. Quite disappointed, we decided to take a long tail to Railey beach. When we saw the white beach, the palm trees and the huts, it was like we had found paradise!”
      Lasse, Thomas’ brother and a well educated chef, liked it so much that he spent the winter there. He worked for room and board, and that way he learned Thai cooking properly.
      Thomas stayed in Sweden where he had a prosperous business that made radio commercials. Mostly his customers came from the Swedish market of course, but his advertising agency actually started out making spots for Spanish radio channels.
      “So when the commercial radio came to Sweden, I already knew what it was all about, which was of course an advantage,” Thomas says.
      The two brothers had briefly talked about opening a bar decorated with bamboo in Spain. However the vague plans changed dramatically when Lasse came home from Thailand in the spring of 1994 and had spent some evenings in his hut making a detailed plan for a Thai restaurant. He had taken pictures to show in what style he wanted it to be. He had chosen the materials. He had thought of the sounds. And he had, of course, made the menu.
      It took some hesitation, after all Thomas already had a business that went really well, but then he decided to go along. He found a small place in the dark and pretty dodgy Skånegatan. It was situated close to a popular restaurant and he thought that maybe that could help attract people to the area. He had no idea how right he was. Skånegatan is today one of the bright and trendy streets of Stockholm.
      To start up a restaurant on one’s own is hard work from dusk till dawn. The guys went to Thailand to buy furniture, bamboo, wood, lights, cushions, ingredients and this and that. Everything was then sent in a container to Sweden.
      “Our idea was that people who had been to Thailand and liked it as much as we did should have a place to go to where they could have tasty Thai food, discuss diving, talk about Thailand and take it easy.”
      And so the transformation of the small shop started. Thomas and Lasse in all ways put themselves in to the project. It costed blood, sweat and maybe also some tears, but finally the day came when they could open the tiny restaurant that really looked like they have moved a small piece from a Thai island to an average Swedish block where people live and work. It was all there. Almost, the sand was missing but nobody noticed since everything else felt so totally authentic. From day one the place was jam packed.
      “We really did it the Thai way to manage. My wife came and waited tables. My best friend helped out as well. To start with, everything was done really simple and basic. That was the way we learned the restaurant business. But in our wildest dreams we had never ever imagined the response that we got. To be a bit optimistic we had calculated with a daily turnover of 4,500 crowns. It turned out to be 10,000. And it has not gone down since,” Thomas tells proudly.
      Thomas was there every morning and cleaned the place, then worked all day and night. And late he went home with the money in a paper bag. They thought that the overwhelming interest would slow down a bit after a few days. But it didn’t.
      After a couple of weeks of working constantly they could not make it anymore, so they put a piece of paper on the door saying “we are exhausted and we don’t know when we are going to open again”.
      “I was not sure I really wanted to go on. But my wife convinced me that we had to open again promptly. So for two days we went around to our favourite hangouts on a recruit tour. Soon we reopened and then we were better prepared for the huge crowd. It was something like a pop concert when we first opened the door and people arrived. Also a lot was written in the papers. A restaurant decorated like a jungle with trees, wood and bamboo – nobody had ever done that before.”
      Everybody liked it except for the fire department, so they had to change some materials to more fireproof ones.
      Even though the interior design was important, the food was (and still is of course) vital.
      “My brother is an excellent cook, but Thai spices and vegetables were hard to get in Sweden at that time. So a lot of the ingredients and also Singha, Chang and Sang-Tip were flown in with Thai Airways. Nowadays you can get just about anything Thai in Sweden which makes it both cheaper and easier.”
      The food and the environment were not the only unique features at Koh Phangan. At most restaurants around the world you can book a table, but not at Koh Phangan. Instead, there is a small blackboard and a crayon so you can write your name. That way the waiters can easily see who is in turn. To start with the reason they had it like that was simply that it was the easiest way to do it. Then it became like a trademark and a very democratic way to table booking.
      So the system was kept. No one ever has any privileges and passes the queue written on the blackboard. EVERYBODY waits on their turn. All kinds of people are waiting for hours to sit on the sometimes not so comfortable but cosy wooden benches to have dinner. Even the Swedish king and queen have been seen waiting two hours in the bar together with their security guards and some friends. The former managing director for Thai Airways in Stockholm used to be a regular.
      One other unique quality is that the restaurant has a full time artist on the staff.
      “He designs the menu, paints decorations on the walls and so on. We constantly make small changes.”
      Not very surprisingly Koh Phangan got to small. So a bigger extra part opened in conjunction to restaurant. The new part was named “Same same but different” and was designed the same way and completed with a ‘tuk tuk’ in which you can sit and have dinner.
      Since Lasse has stopped working in the kitchen, currently two Thai chefs assure the quality of the food. Among the Thai community in Stockholm it is well sought to work at Koh Phangan. It is prestigious and Thomas is eager to take care of his staff.
      Consequently Koh Phangan became a meeting point for people interested in Thailand. When customers traveled, they sent postcards, and the ones who should visit the country of smiles for the first time called or came by to ask questions. After a while the advices became so frequent that Thomas asked Marina on his staff if she wanted to manage a travel agency.      She said yes and the travel agency, which is also called Koh Phangan, is situated just around the corner on Östgötagatan. And, yes, it is furnished the same way as the restaurant with the desks and the computers in a wooden hut. Up until now Marina has according to Thomas explored every Thai island and is a true expert on travelling in Thailand.
      Many people have over the years asked Thomas Emblad if he is not going to open another restaurant since the concept is so popular.
      “I don’t like franchise and I don’t want what we have created here to maybe become a cliché. Also I might risk my trustworthiness if I can’t check in my restaurant daily. It is very important to me to run this place totally clean. Once a Buddhist monk in a Thai temple told me, ‘as long as you have a clean conscious you will be prosperous’. I am living after that rule. Always.”
      So after what it sounds like there will be no more Koh Phangan restaurants. But since Thomas is a creative and also restless person, there will most definitely be more activities within his little empire. A new initiative can turn out as anything from a newspaper to a resort on a Thai island.
      Still Thomas likes Thai food and still he likes to sit in his very own restaurant and contemplate.
      “Sometimes I can sit down at a table and then sit there for two hours and look at the details and just enjoy.

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